Hindus in Australia: ‘We need one voice’

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While Hinduism is one of the fastest growing religions in Australia, community leaders feel cohesion is the key to keeping the faith.

While Hinduism may still be termed a minority religion in Australia, it is also one of the fastest growing. According to the 2011 Census, 2,76,000 individuals, representing 1.3 per cent of the total population in Australia, practice the faith, up from 1,48,119 in the 2006 count.

In Australia, Hindus are mostly of Indian origin. History has it that in the 19th century, the British brought Indians, most of whom were Hindus, to Australia to work on cotton and sugar plantations. Many stayed on in the country and became small businessmen, working as camel drivers, merchants and hawkers, selling goods between rural communities.

Today, the scene has changed — Hindus are well-educated professionals, making a name for themselves in fields such as medicine, engineering, commerce and information technology, constituting a model minority.

Most of the Hindu population is concentrated along the Eastern Coast of Australia, mainly in the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. With their increasing numbers, they have established several temples and other religious centres, where members of the religious congregation gather to celebrate landmark events and festivals in the religion.

As the Hindu population is growing so are growing the needs of the community. In this regard, there are many community leaders, members, societies and associations working hard to promote Hinduism in Australia, every way they can.

Dr Jayant Bhalchandra Bapat for instance, came to Australia in 1965, did his doctorate, and in 1998, retired as a lecturer in Organic Chemistry. But organic chemistry wasn’t Dr Bapat’s only area of interest – religious ceremonies were another. And this passion – or duty, as he calls it – has been going strong for the last three decades.

“In the 80s, while the Hindu community was large, and growing, there were very few temples around, and fewer people to perform the religious ceremonies. That was the time I stepped in as a purohit or priest,” says Dr Bapat.

“I performed pujas and ceremonies in Hindu families of different ethnicities and speaking different languages. As the Hindu community was very small at that time, they were united. Now, the numbers are greater, but the community is not as close-knit as it was before,” he says.

Dr Bapat feels that as there are many associations there is a lack of unity. “The associations and the societies are not united, but are fighting with each other, which is a major concern,” he says, and adds that he believes Hindus need a single face, a united one, to flourish.

But there are Hindu organizations like BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Sanstha and ISKON that are making sustained efforts to keep the community united, especially by helping to resolve the issues of new migrants. These organizations help migrants in giving them better accommodation, finding jobs, making them familiar about the local culture, giving them English language lessons, but on the emotional level, they also give them mental support as they settle into their new homes in a country thousands of miles away from where they were born.

“Several Hindu organizations have also realized that domestic violence is a major issue that confronts Hindus here in Australia,” says Pulin Amin of BAPS, a socio-spiritual Hindu organization with its roots in the Vedas, where spiritual, moral and social challenges and issues are addressed.

“Weekly assemblies for religious preaching are held by various Hindu organizations such as BAPS, where young and old are taught the significance of controlling anger, staying away from addictions like tobacco consumption and alcohol, respecting the other gender, and non-violence,” says Pulin.

Dr Yadu Singh, cardiologist and prominent member of the Hindu community, believes that while on the one hand, social issues are being discussed and worked on, there are some important aspects to the religion and its practices that need to be looked into.

“First, is the issue involving cremation and the disposal of ashes. In India, people dispose the ashes of the dead in rivers and oceans. This is not possible in Australia due to various reasons. But some Hindu groups are working on it and are in touch with the Community Relations Commission as well as governments to figure out how this can be sorted out,” says Dr Singh.

He adds that the second issue that worries him is keeping the next generation in touch with the religion. “In this aspect too, religious groups and Hindu organisations have been working actively by organising scripture classes in schools, seminars, weekend camps and other activities. But the community, as a whole, needs to get involved in these efforts and support these activities generously,” he says.

He says that the Hindu community’s aspiration is about integrating into the broader Australian community while maintaining its distinct culture and language. “The second aspiration though needs to be a place in the political arena. There is no Hindu or Sikh MP or Senator from Indian community, but I am confident this will change in years to come,” he says.

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