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Om Sahana Vavatu Sahanau Bhunakt
Saha viryam Karavavahai
Tejasvinaa vadheetamastu Maa vidh vishavavahai
Om shantih shantih shantih.
On Sunday mornings, a group of adults and children gathers in the Vision Learning Center next to the offices of Neil Bhatt, an architect who also serves as education director for the Hindu Center of Virginia. The grown-ups discuss verses from the Bhagavad Gita, an important Hindu text, while children learn about Hindu religion and culture. After the Hindu Center's new temple on Springfield Road is completed, the classes will be held there.
The sessions begin with prayer and chanting in Sanskrit, with most adults and children seated cross-legged on the floor. The chanting translates as:
May He protect both of us. May He nourish both of us. May we both acquire the capacity (to study and understand the scriptures). May our study be brilliant. May we not argue with each other. Peace, peace, peace.
Bhatt describes the Gita, also known as the "Song of God," as a philosophical book that talks about how to live in relationship with God and others. He explains that Hinduism is a monotheistic religion with a polytheistic outlook — there is one God who has many forms.
He coordinates the adult class while his wife, Mina, leads the children's group. After the opening prayer and chants, the children head to their own classroom, and Bhatt summarizes the three verses that were discussed the previous week. "What propels me to do what I know is not right?" he asks. "Christianity would say Satan made me do it."
He talks about how desire and anger get in the way of acting according to one's true nature: "Unfulfilled desires become anger." Bhatt continues, "The nature of desire is like a fire. It cannot be satiated by putting more oil in it. That makes it larger." One desire leads to another. "The sin in Hinduism is that which brings me down from my evolutionary path from a man to a god," Bhatt says.
Actions performed for the betterment of society break the action-reaction chain, he says. "A wise person will act [not for his own good, but] out of a sense of duty and the enjoyment of doing it."
The Bhagavad Gita, believed to have been written 2,000 or more years ago, consists of a conversation between Lord Krishna (an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu) and the warrior prince Arjuna on the battlefield before the start of an ancient war between related clans. At this time, Arjuna is facing inner conflict about fighting his cousins on the other side. The Gita, a section of the epic poem Mahabharata, is described by various sources as both a theological work and a practical guide to life.
The study group of about 25 adults is connected with the Chinmaya Mission centers around the world that focus on teaching the message of Hinduism, Bhatt explains. Each week, one member of the local group takes a turn making a presentation on the verses to be discussed, then the rest of the members are invited to join the discussion.
After Bhatt summarizes last week's verses, 37-39 in Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita, Shilpa Damlé takes the floor. A doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University who is finishing her dissertation, she discusses the next four verses. The text states that action is the essence of life, Damlé says. But "when I do something, I have to not be connected to the fruits of that action." Actions that are motivated by desire and performed only for results create bondage, she adds.
"It's a humbling thing to think that all we have today are not entirely of our own efforts," says Damlé. "I need to step back and say I am part of this bigger world."
Verse 40, she continues, states that desire resides in the senses. Quoting a study guide, Damlé says, "Desire is a threat to knowledge and wisdom. … in its grosser manifestations, it tends to make us live and work to satisfy our lower nature." Like a hamster running around in a wheel, "we're constantly running after desires that are insatiable." Verse 41 talks about controlling the senses. "You should not be constantly concerned about what you're getting out of something you're doing."
Damlé concludes by saying that each person is capable of immense good. "Each of us has a little bit of the divine," she says. "God resides in each of us."
Bhatt then invites each member of the group, in turn, to respond with their thoughts about the day's presentation. Among their thoughts:
"Our karma should be for the benefit of the greater good; for mankind, not for us."
"The whole chapter says, ‘Do your work with dedication. Don't expect anything. Fulfill your duty on the earth.' "
"Watch out for what you want. You may get it. The mistake is, we buy into it, then it isn't what we want."
"One of the biggest takeaways is, you cannot take credit for everything good that happens. Also, don't be too harsh on yourself when things go wrong."
"I see other religions fitting into Hinduism."
After the discussion ends, the children rejoin the group.
Together, they chant again in Sanskrit. Then a child leads this pledge:
We stand as one family, bound to each other with love and respect. We serve as an army, courageous and disciplined, ever ready to fight against all low tendencies and false values, within and without us.
We live honestly the noble life of sacrifice and service, producing more than what we consume and giving more than what we take. We seek the Lord's grace to keep us on the path of virtue, courage and wisdom.
May Thy grace and blessings flow through us to the world around us.
We believe that the service of our country is the service of the Lord of lords and devotion to the people is devotion to the Supreme Self. We know our responsibilities. Give us the ability and courage to fulfill them.