By: Lavina Melwani – New York
In a new millennium the world’s oldest religions is donning shining new clothes. The age-old Hindu philosophy passed from mouth to mouth in tiny villages across India is now going high-tech, thanks to Hinduism Today, the preeminent global journal of Hindu Dharma for over 30 years. This Hawaii-based publication is a sleek, easy-to-carry, full-color magazine. Its on-line version is just as eye-catching and brings every aspect of Sanatana Dharma to millions of Internet users across the world. Hinduism, which had always been the domain of unchanging swamis in far-off ashrams, is now entering the computer age with Hinduism Today. Founded by Satguru Sivaya Subramaniyaswami (1927-2001) and published by the Himalayan Academy on the idyllic island of Kauai in Hawaii, the magazine is totally service oriented. The current publisher is Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, the spiritual head of Kauai’s Hindu Monastery.
Observed Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Gurudeva): “Hinduism Today was created to strengthen all the many diverse expressions of Hindu spirituality, to give them a single, combined voice because everywhere else their voices were individualized. There was nothing that encompassed the whole Hindu experience around the world. Every religious order has a mission and instead of starting an eye-clinic or an orphanage, we created a global publication to advance the cause of Hindu Dharma.” Hinduism Today’s rebirth as a full-color magazine is an idea whose time has come. According to Gurudeva: “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, so it’s just a natural evolution.” It was indeed the logical outcome of Gurudeva’s remarkable life and mission to give all Hindu denominations and their lineages a voice to and thus Hindus as a global community.
WHY Hinduism Today? While bookstores and newsstands are filled with countless newspapers and magazines, it was apparent there was nothing to satisfy contemporary Hindus, to articulate in modern language India’s ancient wisdom. As Paramacharya Palaniswami, chief editor of Hinduism Today, points out, “Open up many books, and they are so cluttered with technical terms, obscure references and other languages that the average seeker would go about three pages and not pursue it further.” Hinduism Today wanted to say all the important things, the profound things, but in an interesting voice which all could understand and appreciate. While Hindus living in India are surrounded by their culture and faith, this magazine’s mandate was to also reach the millions of Hindus who are trying to keep their faith alive in far-off places surrounded by different cultures. In isolated, alien townships and cities, shared words can provide courage and enthusiasm, energy to keep true to a faith. Hinduism Today is a voice for Sanatana Dharma’s all-embracing philosophy. It tells the world about India’s cultural riches: ayurveda, classical dance, literature and drama, magnificent temples and profound traditions of worship, the healing power of meditation and yoga, and the virtues of vegetarianism. To those who are Hindu and to those merely attracted by the principles of Indian spirituality, it offers a common platform, a feeling of family, setting off good vibrations.
Mark Twain Meets HT: Few know that the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn spent time in India, and fewer still that he was karmically connected to Hinduism Today. That story begins decades ago. Starting life as a black-and-white newsletter about the doings of Gurudeva’s worldwide fellowship on January 5, 1979, its founder’s 53rd birthday, Hinduism Today has evolved over the years to embrace everything of interest to a Hindu. Before the newspaper appeared, Himalayan Academy was publishing books on Hindu-related metaphysical topics as early as 1957, laying the groundwork for Hinduism Today. Recalls Palaniswami, “We’ve gone from trudging through 30-foot snowdrifts in our Nevada monastery in the 1960s to walking under rainbow skies in Hawaii in the 21st century, so that’s a good step forward.” Interestingly enough, the Academy’s earliest books on yoga and meditation were hand set by the young monks on the same wooden type Mark Twain used as editor of the Territorial Enterprise, a Nevada newspaper. There was a symbolic meaning for the editors of HT in this, and by coincidence the Hawaiian island they settled on many years later was the very one, Kauai, Mark Twain had visited on his way to India, a hundred years earlier.
Editor in Chief Palaniswami notes: “Mark Twain was the author of “Following the Equator,” which he considered his finest work, the pinnacle of his career. He had visited India for three months, on the lecture circuit, giving a one-man show called “An Evening with Mark Twain.” While in India he observed that all the world’s religions are really paupers and beggars, but India’s Hinduism is the only millionnaire, because of its pantheon of Gods compared to other religions which have to make do with just one God! Of the home of Hinduism Today, the island of Kauai, Mark Twain had this to say: “It was the most beautiful in the world.” From the hand-made wooden type sorts that Mark Twain used to set his headlines, to the computer-generated fonts called Quantum Leap and Relato customized by the mathavasis on their ubiquitous Macs, Hinduism Today has come a long way. It was an unsung pioneer in the desktop publishing revolution, embracing the microchip revolution early and with gusto, presenting the ancient wisdom of Vedic Dharma in a contemporary way. In fact, three decades ago Apple Computer was so impressed by their efforts it sent a video team for three days to the Hinduism Today ashram to capture the production of the journal by monks on Apple’s Macintosh computers. This film was later shown to Apple’s 8,000 employees to demonstrate how a small group of monks had constructed the world’s first desktop publishing network.
The editorial team is amazingly adept, working with equal facility on books, web pages, art projects, children’s texts and lessons, and more. In 2009 they launched a major new website which showcases their extensive resources, resources which give guidance and knowledge to Hindu families around the world. In India the pandits still sit on the ghats in Haridwar-nothing ever changes. But Hinduism Today has embraced change with enthusiasm in full cooperation with some of these same wisdom-laden pandits.
So, Who Reads Hinduism Today? Hinduism Today reaches Hindus in 80 countries. Besides Hindus in countries across the globe, readers include seekers of every ethnic group and religion, attracted to the sublime philosophies of Sanatana Dharma: ayurveda, yoga and the benefits of the vegetarian lifestyle. Indophiles and all who have traveled to India and been mesmerized by her magic count themselves among the readers of Hinduism Today, and, perhaps surprisingly, the clergy and theological students of other major religions form a strategic part of the HT family. A very vital contingent of Hinduism Today is the second-generation Indians growing up in foreign lands. For them, many who know the magazine only in its digital version on the Worldwide Web, Hinduism Today provides answers to perplexing questions in an intelligent and easily accessible way. These are the children who have to deal with classmates who have formed misconceptions about Hinduism from films like Indiana Jones in which Hindu sects are shown eating eyeballs and cracking monkey skulls to eat the brain. Every Indian child living abroad has had the distressing experience of peers asking “In India, do you ride elephants and tigers and live in trees?”
With its colorful graphics, comprehensive cover stories, and educational Insight Sections with detailed descriptions of Indian traditions, rites and customs, Hinduism Today makes religion contemporary, current and viable for these young Hindus by birth. The Publisher’s Desk, In My Opinion and the Letters page all conspire to set up a lively dialogue between intelligent readers, academics and believers. Columns like Global Dharma and Minister’s Message keep readers abreast of the current events affecting Hinduism. The Quotes & Quips humor page and Healing touch upon many issues of interest to even non-Hindus, such as the dangers of second-hand smoke or ways to alleviate menopause. Their goal was and is to create a true Hindu renaissance by providing readers, browsers, believers and non-believers alike a forum, a soapbox to vent their feelings and discuss every aspect of Hinduism and how it effects modern life. HT has done this, and Hindus worldwide wholeheartedly congratulate them for achieving their goal of renewing a diminished sense of Hindu pride and presence in the modern world. It looks something like Newsweek, only better, making it possible for our Hindu front to continues= to promote the world’s oldest religion.
Role Models for Today’s Hindus: Unlike most religious publications which focus narrowly on one sect or tradition, Hinduism Today uses the printed words as a magnetic net to draw in all types of readers. Its editors realize that Hindus-often stereotyped by the mass media as fundamentalists or swamis living in mountains-are ordinary, everyday people in the swim of life, and it is these millions that Hinduism Today tries to reach with stories of spirit and courage. Especially abroad, where there are so few markers for Hindus in mainstream life, the people profiles in Hinduism Today serve as encouraging role models: famous scientists, artists and doctors who contribute to the world around them and are proud Hindus. Hindus such as Kiran Bedi, Pundit Athavale, Madhu Kishwar, Ram Swarup, Lata Mangeshkar and Pankaj Udhas. The editorial team works closely with hundreds of swamis around the globe. This creative cooperation among leaders is one of HT’s unique (and not easily achieved) contributions to the varied of streams of Indian spirituality.
To young people well-versed in computerese, Hinduism Today is especially attractive. It’s on the Internet, and its colorful, exciting graphics and text provide many megabytes of hard-to-find information for seekers. In recent years the magazine team has developed a YouTube channel and produced dozens of information-rich films that anyone can access, for free. A whole generation of young people, so used to the computer, are able to read Hinduism Today on their own, even without parental encouragement. For children growing up abroad who have few role models and too many colorful distractions, HT shows the best of Hinduism in a subtle, one could say a sneaky, way. Before they know it, children and young adults are lured into the wonderful world of Sanatana Dharma through computer graphics and colorful websites. For those of them who don’t know the Hinduism’s classical languages of Sanskrit and Tamil, English translations of ancient Sanskrit classics and Tamil scriptures offered on the HT Web Site open up a whole new wonderful world for the younger generation. Hinduism Today succeeds in reaching a savvy young audience who may or may not visit the temple regularly or attend religious meetings.
Observes editor Palaniswami, “Bodhinatha and the editors get e-mail every day from Europe, India, America, Australia and Malaysia. Young Hindu kids who find us on the Internet write to us and say, ‘You know I’ve been thinking about karma. My grandmother always talked about it but I never really understood it.’ The modern kid is much smarter than most people think, asking all sorts of profound and personal questions. We answer them all.” Yes, Western technology can be used to advance the course of the Eternal Truth. In My Opinion is a forum where young Indian Americans can vent their feelings. Wrote Smita Patil, an intern for the Oregonian newspaper, “If Indian women were truly treated in accordance with Hindu belief and teachings, India would be a heaven on Earth. Instead, many Hindus have formed a convenient duality where they worship women in temples but enslave them at home.” The Letters page encourages lively debate, often by e-mail. One reader felt it was OK to eat meat as long as she lived the principles of the Vedas. Another expressed that being vegetarian is not just a random decision but a well-thought-out tradition, thousands of years old. “To give that up is like regressing thousands of years.”
A Resource for Mainstream America: Hinduism Today has landed on several lists around America as a place where people can find authentic and reliable information on Sanatana Dharma, and its editorial team is often called upon for hard-to-find answers that few other institutions seem inclined to take the time to address. Houghton Mifflin, one of America’s largest publishers for children’s textbooks in middle and high schools, asked Hinduism Today to vet its chapters on Hinduism for a civilization series for American sixth graders destined for school rooms where half a million 13-year-olds will study it in the United States. Houghton Mifflin had called Harvard to vet the chapters, and Harvard defered to the editors of HT. Recalls Paramacharya Palaniswami, “The two chapters were awful, devastatingly bad, even wrong in places. We ended up rewriting the whole thing, and also provided graphics. All the chapters on other religions had really nice graphics, but for Hinduism they had found a horrible, monster-looking Siva for these young children to study. We sent them elegant, graceful images that Hindus would be proud to see.” To the amazement of the HT team, the publishers adopted in its entirety the rewritten chapters, and as a result American kids will have a really authentic and compelling introduction to the world’s oldest religion, not some rehashed, demeaning stereotype.
Harvard University is engaged in the production of a massive Pluralism Project by which high school children will be taught about other cultures and religions on CD-ROM. Prof. Diana Eck, head of the religion department at Harvard, invited HT to participate in the Hindu expressions. Elsewhere, the United Nations is developing the very strategic Earth Charter, a parallel to the Human Rights Declaration. This official UN declaration will define for the future how nations will look upon and treat the environment. Besides scientific input, religious contributions are being called for from five religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism), and the project is being guided by Steven Rockefeller, one of the famed family, who happens to teach comparative religions. The UN committee has approached HT to help help develop the Hindu representation for a panel of spiritual experts who can give voice to environmental ethics for the Earth Charter. There is more. In early 1997 the ex-editor of Christianity Today, Terry Muck, contacted Hinduism Today to have it collaborate on one chapter of his new Doubleday book, A Guide to Religions in America. And another scholar found their FAQs on the Web, and wrote to include it as one chapter in a book on the six major faiths in the US, and…..well, you get the idea.
Time Magazine Has a Question, Swami: HT has also been getting a lot of calls from religion editors in America, and was recently lauded as a solid source of Indian spirituality in a book published by John Dart of the Los Angeles Times called Deities and Deadlines. Time Magazine called once to verify a Hinduism-related story, an as yet unpublished feature on Deepak Chopra’s phenomenal success. And the editors are frequently asked to give the Hindu view on news events that impact Hindus around the country. Indeed, Hinduism Today has gained a reputation for having credibility, access to authentic information and a commitment to objective, unexaggerated reporting.
Many religious journals walk a tightrope between propaganda and journalism, but HT has always chosen the harder path of honest reporting. Says Palaniswami: “Happily, we are not just another bhakti rag, as one reader observed. While remaining upbeat, we do try to tell readers even about the painful underbelly of one-sixth of the human race’s religion, Hinduism, to make it real and not paint an unrealistic or Polyanna picture. It’s important to express things in that way; otherwise people stop listening.”
Ancient Wisdom, Current Problems: Unlike most religious journals, HT never preaches, giving too many should do’s or to do’s, nor does it become overly moralistic in tone. The editors realize that the congregation in diaspora has changed and the magazine must change with them, keeping pace with its readers. So, one finds Hinduism Today broaching subjects such as abortion, intercultural marriages, divorce, working mothers and adoption. These are the subjects that pose problems for Hindus today, and HT is there with the answers, be it cross-cultural parenting, sex before marriage or bringing up adopted children. Not afraid to discuss tough social topics like wife battering, bride burnings, child-abuse or the fact that Indian girls have the highest suicide rate, Hinduism Today takes on all these issues and tries to find solutions, especially pointing to insights found in the Vedas.
Interviews with strong Hindu women such as Madhu Kishwar, activist editor of Manushi, animal-rights activist Maneka Gandhi and prison reformer Kirin Bedi are part of the consciousness-raising features. While the core team is composed of monks, Hinduism Today has over 100 reporters and journalists and dozens of photograpers and artists working for it worldwide. These are people who actually live in the communities being reported on and understand the problems Hindus in a modern world face. It is interesting to note that a majority of the columnists are Indian women.
The editors are always on the look out for for fresh, new contemporary voices. Over the years HT has picked up the cudgels on behalf of persecuted Hindus in countries from Fiji to Dubai to South Africa to Afghanistan. Without being highlighted in the press, these victims would have disappeared from human memory. By headlining their stories in bold letters on the front page, HT assures that the sacrifices of these people will not be in vain. There have been stories about Nepal, once the only Hindu nation, being stormed by foreign missionaries: there were only 25 baptized Nepalese Christians in 1960. The figure by 1994 had grown to 120,000. One rarely sees such stories in the mainstream press, but these are facts. Is it possible to be a good Hindu and a successful businessman? Time and again, with its countless success stories of important CEOs, artists, dancers and intellectuals who are unabashedly Hindu, HT has pinpointed role models for a whole new generation to follow. There are stories of entrepreneurs, writers and artisans who have achieved success but kept their core values of Hinduism, a beacon in the storms of life.
Through the Internet it’s reaching millions of Hindus, and millions of others who are intrigued by Hindu culture, spirituality and literature. Elastic as Hinduism is, it’s never tried to convert people, but opened its treasures from the past to whoever wants to partake.
Into the Future of Futures: There are numerous historians and intellectuals, like Arnold Toynbee, who genuinely believe that the next century is going to be the Asian Century. Observes Editor-in-Chief Palaniswami: “I think we are a harbinger of that fact, that whether it’s religious content or artistic content or even cultural or literary content, Asia is going to dominate the world scene. But in terms of means of dissemination, tools of communicating that content-those tools all belong to the West and will continue to belong to the West. What Hindus need to do is take their rich, precious and incomparable content and use the tools of dissemination that have been so masterfully crafted in the West. I think that’s where a marriage of Asian philosophy and culture and Western technology can do something very special for India in the century ahead. But if we take the Western content and the Western tools-like television has done-we are ruined. We have to be very discriminating in that regard.”
Hinduism Today reaches many homes in many countries. It lands upon the desks of physicians, scientists, artists, politicians, religious leaders and entrepreneurs. The expansion continues to many countries-expansion not of might but of mighty ideas. Hinduism Today keeps to the high writing and production standards its readers expect from it, and while providing the news in an entertaining way, it never lets the entertainment sink to triviality. As the founding publisher Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami explained to me years ago: “We want to inspire leaders who can go out and inspire others, not write to the lowest common denominator. We feel Hinduism is a religion of love. Hinduism is love of the one energy which comes from God and flows through all our bodies. Our motto in dealing with all the differences and distinctions is : ‘One world. One God.’ ” It is this enlightened concept of Sanatana Dharma that Hinduism Today–the colorful, computerized messenger of Indian paths and experiences–takes to homes on every continent. Humanity could use a lot more of this profound and tolerant view of our deepest urge–the spiritual one we all share, however quietly.
They’re based in Hawaii, so of course you can surf their great web site and catch some Big Waves!