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Hindu Students Lack Prayer Space on MIT Campus

December 8, 2009: When Hindu students at MIT want to hold a religious gathering, they have to plan ahead. They must book a room somewhere on campus and move their deities there. Sometimes, no rooms are available and they have to pray in a dorm. Even when a classroom is available, students say MIT regulations prevent them from doing the rituals properly.

“We are not allowed to bring candles, for instance, and we can’t do any kind of worshipping because we can’t have fire,” a member of MIT Hindu Students’ Council, Namrata “Sony” Verma, said. “We also take off our shoes before we pray, but (when we pray in a classroom, leaving our shoes outside would) crowd the hallway, so we can’t do that.”

On those lucky occasions when they gather in the MIT nondenominational chapel, they must first push aside rows of chairs — because unlike Christian worshippers, Hindus sit on the floor when they pray.

So this year, the Hindu Students’ Council made a request for a permanent prayer space on campus. Chaplain of the university Robert Randolph, who was reportedly receptive to the idea, brought the issue up at the MIT chaplains’ meeting last month. No decision has so far been made.

One proposal is to put a chair-less prayer space in the basement of the chapel that would be shared by Hindu and Buddhist students, who also sit on the floor.

“The kind of [prayer] space Hindus and Buddhists want [is] where they can sit on the ground and meditate,” said Swami Tyagananda, who is Vedanta chaplain at MIT. “So they’re trying to find space in the chapel where similar arrangements can be done.”

Several other religious groups at MIT already have designated prayer spaces, members of the Hindu Students’ Council pointed out.

The MIT Muslim Students Association, for instance, has a prayer room with separate entrances and sections for men and women, where Muslim students can pray and read the Koran at all hours of the day and where services are held on Fridays. This room also houses a library of books on Islam, according to the group’s Web site.

The Jewish students of MIT have a Hillel on the first floor of the Religious Activities Center where they hold worship services, meetings and classes. The Hillel also has a Judaic library (that contains 3,000 books in English and Hebrew) and two kosher kitchens.

However, despite the fact that 234 students from India are attending MIT this year — ranking India third among countries with the largest number of students at MIT — Hindus on campus have no permanent place to pray.

“I think one of the problems with Hinduism in general is that we’re so lenient with what we believe in and we’re not really aggressive with practicing our religion,” Verma said.

She pointed out that having a regular place to gather is important not only for international students, but also for second-generation South Asians.

“Because we are trying to find a balance between the American culture and what our parents teach us • and in order to do that we have to learn from each other,” she said. “If we have a place to meet, then we can make a lot of our events more regular. Because right now, sometimes we’re here, sometimes we’re there.”

But Rev. Mike Olejarz, who represents Assemblies of God at MIT, a Christian group, said all religious groups at the university have insufficient space, and 15 Christian groups currently share a very small room, which is only 12 feet wide by 10 feet long.

“It’s not a matter of •the Muslims have something and Hindus don’t,'” he said. “If someone is not asking for it, I don’t think it’s fair to say they don’t have space. I don’t know if Hindu and Buddhist students have asked for space before. • It’s a crowded situation, but that’s kind of the case for the whole campus.”

But Bhargavi Chevva, the co-president of the Hindu Student Council, sees the issue differently.

Hinduism is “probably the fourth or fifth most common religion at MIT,” she said. “[The Hindus at] Harvard got their prayer space last year, and we want to do the same.”

B.U. Hindus also seek prayer space

Boston University Hindu students are also trying to get their own prayer space on campus.

“Most religious groups have prayer space, and we don’t,” said the co-president of Boston University’s Hindu Student Council Sanu Dev. “It’s quite a problem because we have such a huge population at B.U.”

Dev said Boston University has more than 250 Hindu students and that Hindu prayers only take place on Saturday mornings because that’s the only time the group can reserve the campus chapel.

“It limits how many times people can pray in a week,” Dev said.

She added that because the Hindu Student Council has no room of their own, prayer materials, including deities, have to be kept in a closet.

Meanwhile, Christian, Muslim and Jewish students all have their own designated prayer spaces on campus, she said.

The B.U. Hindu Students Council approached the university administration with their request last year, and although the university was supportive, nothing was done. Lack of funding is another obstacle, Dev said.

“We need not just the university, but also the community to help us,” she said.

At Harvard, the Hindu student group created a Hindu prayer space in 2006. The space, which contains images of the Hindu deities and a collection of books and movies relating to Hinduism, is open to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.