Out of curiosity, a U.S. Congressman once asked a Hindu American, Dr. Aseem Shukla, whether he was Sunni or Shia Hindu. Shukla, a member of the Hindu American Foundation's (HAF) Board of Directors, had just introduced himself to the Congressman as a Hindu during the foundation's 2005 Annual D.C. Advocacy Day.
The truth is that common, often shocking, misunderstanding of the Hindu faith exists throughout the country and worldwide. HAF, a non-profit Hindu American advocacy and human rights group, promotes the Hindu and American ideals of understanding, tolerance and pluralism. By interacting with government, media, and academia the foundation seeks to promote awareness and greater understanding about Hinduism by educating the various outlets dominating public perception about Hinduism and issues of concern to Hindus.
On Sunday, February 21, HAF held its first Cincinnati Awareness Drive Campaign at the Hindu Temple of Greater Cincinnati. During the presentation, Nikhil Joshi, Co-Founder and member of HAF's Board of Directors, said "media representation [of Hindus/Hinduism] is not necessarily malicious; it is simply out of ignorance."
A readily apparent example of such ignorance is exemplified in a Burger King advertisement in Spain, depicting the Hindu Goddess Laxshmi seated on top of a meat sandwich. Written in Spanish under the ad was a tag line that read "A snack that's sacred." Burger King Corporation, which had to be notified by HAF that the depiction was offensive to Hindus, was forced to remove the campaign.
In a another (2006) case, HAF faced, and ultimately succeeded in a dispute with California's State Board of Education over a 6th grade textbook that falsely stated Hinduism teaches that women are inferior to men. How such a misguided statement, taught to children by an American educational institution, made it through to publication is a dismal commentary on the knowledge, or lack there of, available to writers in print media about the Hindu faith.
"The manner in which Hinduism is presented in textbooks, magazines and newspapers impacts the perception that others have of the Hindu American community," said Sheetal Shah, HAF's Director of Development. Hinduism is the world's third largest religion, yet it is largely underrepresented in the eye of the public at large.
In 2007, HAF, after obtaining 30 Congressional supporters, successfully advocated the passage of Congressional Diwali Resolutions, making official the recognition of the culturally integral festival and holiday celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. Last Diwali, President Obama delivered a speech recognizing the importance of the festival and invited all to celebrate the cultural significance it holds within the community.
In addition to further educating the general public about core Hindu concepts, HAF seeks to connect with Hindus of all ages. "HAF has largely been successful in reaching many of the first generation Hindu Americans. The foundation's next big effort will focus on reaching out to the younger generations of Hindu Americans to introduce them to and interest them in advocacy efforts on behalf of the community."
Shah said she was first attracted to HAF not only because it maintains a strategic and highly professional approach to handling issues, but also because it is run by second generation Hindu Americans with whom she can relate.
The foundation, combining advocacy and education, continues to correct blatant misunderstandings of the faith and tackle the ongoing human rights issues that face Hindu Americans today.
HAF is currently working on its Annual Hindu Human Rights Report, which it first released in 2005. To find out more about the foundation and its current projects, visit its website or check out its blog.