News / USA

Hindu Lawyer, Religion Scholar Oversees Religious Life at USC

Mike O'Sullivan

As American universities become increasingly diverse, the job of supporting the spiritual life of students has become more complex.  Many universities have chaplains and faith-based clubs, often overseen by a school official called the dean of religious life.  The man who fills that post at the University of Southern California is Indian-born lawyer and religion scholar Varun Soni, who says he relishes the challenge.  

Varun Soni coordinates the USC chaplain corps of 50 clergymen and women of various faiths, who offer counseling and conduct religious services.  Yet he is not ordained himself.  He is a lawyer, religion scholar, and entrepreneur who once ran an India-based business that did legal work for American high tech firms.  He’s also Hindu.

“It is unusual for someone like me to be in a position like this.  I’m the first Hindu in American history to be the chief religious or spiritual leader of a university.  I’m the only non-Christian currently serving in this capacity," he said.

Soni admits that, like many of his friends of other faiths, he grew up in the United States somewhat disconnected from his religious heritage.  His family did celebrate Hindu holidays. “Theologically or scripturally, we didn't know much about our own tradition.  And in fact, it wasn't until I got to college that I really began to study Hinduism and Buddhism, that I really began to learn about my own [religious] traditions," he said.

He studied Buddhism in Bodhgaya, India, the place where the Buddha was said to have been enlightened.  Soni would later complete a doctorate in religious studies.

He taught law for a time, but since his appointment as USC’s primary spiritual leader three years ago, Soni says, he enjoys the chance to interact with students on a more personal level. “When I look and reflect upon my own college career, I realize that the transformative moments in my life that really shaped the trajectory of my life often happened outside the classroom.  They happened in conversations with friends, they happen for our students through their fraternity or sorority experiences, through their study abroad experiences, though athletics, through community service," he said.

He says community service projects in low-income neighborhoods bring together students from many religious backgrounds. “What we see is that our generation of students [is] less interested in traditional religious service and doctrine, and more interested in community service and religious experience and engagement and conversation," he said.

He notes that many students today say that they are spiritual, but not religious, and that college chaplains have adapted to the change. “And the way we've addressed this is that we've oriented our office not around God, but around meaning and purpose, and the ultimate questions that students and in fact all of us ask; the questions that connect us as humans: why am I here, what is my purpose, what does it all mean?”

What it means, he suggests, is that members of this so-called Millennial Generation want to find fulfilling work. “Our students aren't just interested in being physicians.  They want to be global health practitioners.  They're not just interested in being business people.  They want to be social entrepreneurs," he said.

Varun Soni says Indian Americans are branching out beyond such professions as medicine, law and engineering. “Now Indian Americans and Hindu Americans who grew up in the United States have so many prominent role models in the public sphere.  There are governors and writers and actors and innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as physicians and lawyers and engineers.  So I think for Indian Americans growing up today, they can do more things because there’s a path," he said.

He says some may even, like him, aspire to become the dean of religion on a university campus.

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid