English Feature #7-37495 Broadcast June 2, 2003
The Indian population of metropolitan Washington, D.C. has jumped from 38 thousand to almost 80 thousand in the last ten years. Numerous stores, restaurants and places of worship catering to these new Americans from India now dot the capital and its suburbs. Today on New American Voices a pandit or minister from one of the newest Hindu temples in the Washington area talks about his work and the community he serves.
Pandit Amar Nath Ji is the chief priest of the Rajdhani Mandir Temple in Northern Virginia, but he serves a much wider community, as well. Among his other roles is that of a spiritual advisor in two local hospitals, and chaplain to inmates in a nearby prison. He works with the public school education council, and is often invited to participate in inter-faith services. Minister Amar Nath says his various activities reflect the inclusiveness of his Hindu faith.
“I’m very open to all religions, whether Christianity, Muslims, Sikhism, anybody can come and we will tell them how we are doing the work in our religion. I perform not only Hindu weddings, I perform Sikh weddings, Buddhist weddings, Christian weddings, German weddings, Chinese weddings, and any type of religion, what anybody wants, any type of wedding or any type of prayer I can do for them.”
Minister Amar Nath came to the United States from India in 1986, after working as a spiritual counselor with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in Afghanistan, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Pakistan and Nepal. In the early 1980s, while stationed in the Indian embassy in Washington, he became concerned that the Hindus arriving in ever greater numbers to the Washington area needed more spiritual guidance.
“I was always thinking that I should do something for the immigrants, they should know something about their religion. So I am doing missionary work, and telling the people what is the meaning of the Hindu religion. My motive is to promote the religion in this country and take the people in the right direction.”
Minister Amar Nath says he has never accepted a penny for any of the services and prayers he performs. Luckily, he comes from a well-to-do family in India, which was able to support him in his work in the United States.
Now his four grown children contribute to the family’s living expenses. All of them have a university education and have embarked on promising careers here in the United States. One daughter, a computer engineer, now owns a business with her husband, another daughter is a manager with the McDonald fast-food chain, a third daughter is a physician. The youngest child, a son, is a computer scientist with a major defense contractor. Minister Amar Nath believes that it is the desire to give their children the opportunity to do well – as his have done – that brings immigrants from India to the United States.
“First of all I can tell you, those persons who are coming to America, they are the cream of India. No ordinary person from India can afford to come because you know, our country is a little bit financially not stable. So it is but natural, everybody wants prosperity. In India, it is very, very difficult to get jobs, to get a proper education. All these luxuries, like refrigerator, television, car – they are not available to common man in India at all, so that is why for a better life people want to come to America.”
Many of the Indians immigrating to the Washington suburbs, particularly to Northern Virginia, are drawn by job openings in the information technology companies that have established headquarters there. Minister Amar Nath says that while earlier immigrants came mostly from the north of India, a large proportion of the newer members of his temple come from southern India and cities like Bangalore, where there is a thriving high-tech sector.
Minister Amar Nath worries that while pursuing their dreams and building careers in America, people can forget about their spiritual needs. To maintain a balance between their material and spiritual lives, Pandit Amar Nath says that he encourages people to think of prayer and meditation as a necessary part of everyday activities.
“You see, we always try to convince our devotees that they should pray every day. As it is very necessary for us to take a bath, to have food, to go for a walk, to go to work, then also it is very necessary for people to pray to God. In their own way.”
The Rajdhani Mandir temple, a quiet sanctuary of statues, flowers and barefoot worshippers, serves not only as a place for prayer and religious services, but as a community center as well. It organizes lectures, cultural and educational events. And it has special programs for children, to encourage the younger generation to hold on to the Hindu traditions of its elders even in the American environment.
“You see, the young generation is more toward the plays and picnics and other things, than to go to the temple. But after building this temple, we are having a great response from the children. They are coming and attending our functions. That’s why we are uplifting our children and immigrants and telling them they should be very comfortable about knowing about their religion.”
Amar Nath Ji, who has become an American citizen, himself comfortably combines both the religious Indian and the secular American elements of his life. A low, be-flowered Hindu altar graces a corner of the living room of his modest home in a leafy, middle-class suburb of Washington. Outside, the entrance to the home is decorated with two small American flags.