Hindu prayer space opens

For the 30 to 40 Hindus in each undergraduate class, the closest place to gather to pray was an hour’s drive away — until Monday night.

Now, to participate in Hindu group prayer, all students have to do is walk to room 014 in the Bingham Hall basement, where they will find a brightly-painted, incense-scented community room with small statues of Hindu gods in altar cabinets. The Hindu Students Council, with the assistance of University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, opened the room after two years of planning, and it will be used for small gatherings and study breaks as well as prayer. In addition, the Chaplain’s Office has hired the first Hindu fellow, Neil Aggarwal, a third-year resident in psychiatry, who will serve as a liaison between the Chaplain’s Office and the student body.

The brightly painted, incense-scented room in the Bingham basement has an altar cabinet filled with small statues of Hindu gods.
The brightly painted, incense-scented room in the Bingham basement has an altar cabinet filled with small statues of Hindu gods.

Ashish Bakshi ’10, the head of the Hindu Students Council, said the group did not have the resources to organize travel to the nearest Hindu temple, which is in Middletown, Conn. He added that while Christian students have prayer spaces, Jewish students have the Slifka Center, and Muslim students have a prayer room in Bingham as well as a local mosque, Hindu students were left without their own spiritual environment. Prior to the opening of the prayer room, Bakshi said, students would just pray in their rooms.

“This is a big achievement after working with the Chaplain’s Office,” said Arshia Chatterjee ’11, a Hindu Students Council board member. “It is helping us to build the Hindu community on campus. This roots us in a way we weren’t rooted before.”

Because of the limited space in the Bingham basement, the Chaplain’s Office could not open the prayer room in fall 2008, when the Hindu Students Council first proposed the idea.

“The room, Bingham 014, was formerly a classroom,” Bakshi said in an e-mail. “Even though it was almost never used (at most, a discussion section met there a couple times a week), the paucity of classroom space around campus meant that it was very difficult for Chaplain Kugler to get administrative approval to convert the room.”

Even now, Bakshi said, the room is not used exclusively for Hindu events. He said the council is sharing the room with other groups, including a Bible study group. Bakshi said he hopes in the future that the Hindu Students Council will have exclusive key access to the room and it could serve the community in other ways, such as being a practice space for the Yale Raga Society, which promotes Indian classical music on campus.

Just as the prayer room unites the Hindu population on campus, Aggarwal said as Hindu fellow he is working with the Chaplain’s Office to develop programs to share social, cultural and political aspects of Hinduism with the rest of Yale.

“Because of budgetary constraints we cannot hire a full time person,” Kugler said in an e-mail, “but Neil has already proven himself to be valuable to the growth and development of the Hindu community at Yale.”

Around 15 students from both Yale College and the graduate schools gathered on Monday to celebrate the opening of the prayer room, which will be open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 8 p.m. until 11 p.m.

“It’s nice people can come here and have some sense of the Hindu religion on campus,” said Rahul Agarwal MED ’13. “It’s peaceful. It’s a nice break from work.”

The Hindu Students Council has existed for six years and holds weekly meetings to discuss religious issues. Bakshi said its biggest event annually is the Diwali Pooja, which usually takes place in early November to honor the Hindu festival of lights.

Correction: April 7, 2010

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Hindu Students Council.

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