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Engaging the Younger Generations in Temple Activities By Sri Nandanandana dasa (Stephen Knapp)

Engaging the Younger Generations in Temple Activities By Sri Nandanandana dasa (Stephen Knapp)

(Dandavats.com) – Engaging the Younger Generations in Temple Activities By Sri Nandanandana dasa (Stephen Knapp)

By Sri Nandanandana dasa

[This is an article written for the recent 2023 Hindu Mandir Executives Conference for their “Mandir Vani” magazine. I’m always invited to this conference, and I’ve attended and spoken at several, which is always informative and inspiring as temple executives talk about issues all temple managers face, and any solutions we can share. But since I no longer care much for traveling, I don’t go to as many conferences as I used to.]

Amazingly, I am just turning 73 years old, and I’ve also now been involved in the management of various Krishna temples since 1975, presently acting as the Chairman of the Board of the Detroit Iskcon Krishna temple. Some of my duties have been temple treasurer, accountant, manager, landlord, and pujari/priest. In management, I also started the idea for the need of a new temple in the suburbs, which eventually manifested as the Iskcon Farmington temple, which is doing very nicely. I also gave Deva Madhava, who was the head of our sankirtan department, instructions to start a preaching center in the Ann Arbor area, which turned into the temple we now have in Ypsilanti, and has developed into more than we expected. I am also the author of over fifty books on Vedic culture and philosophy and Indian history. This opened the doors for me to go on several busy lecture tours across India as put together by various organizations, such as Iskcon, the RSS, Vivekananda Kendra, the Kalyan Ashrama and others, and have given hundreds of lectures at various venues, conferences, universities, and corporations, including a talk in front of an audience of 25,000 at Madison Square Garden at a Swadhyaya Convention that I was invited to speak at. I have visited every state of India except Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Tripura, and now have a collection of over 18,000 slides and photos of big festivals like Kumbha Melas and Rathayatras, and numerus historical locations, and most major and many minor holy sites all over India. I was also the president of the Vedic Friends Association for 15 years, developing a membership at the time of nearly 500 scholars and students, with a monthly newsletter and its own conferences and meetings. The point is that now after all of that, I have to admit that at my age, I am slowing down. I can’t do everything I used to do. I don’t have as much energy, so I’m glad I did what I was able to when I was younger and had the necessary stamina to do so.

More specifically, at present I don’t know how much longer I will be around, and one of my greatest concerns is how to keep the temples going, and make sure all the work I and others have done does not fade away. And how do we do that? To see that the younger generations of devotees and Hindus in general will be inspired and motivated enough to pick up where the older generation left off. I know many of my fellow Hindu friends also have the same concern. Otherwise, if the youth do not get involved, many of our temples may decline into being mere museums or warehouses where nothing much is happening, or worse, the buildings are sold off to entities that have nothing to do with us.

That may sound a little more dismal than it needs to be, but the point is we are now at the juncture wherein many of our older generation will be and are leaving this world, and we need to make sure the younger generations take up the duties and responsibilities of managing the temples to keep them going forward.

I personally am always trying to get our present-day youth to take up engagements or responsibilities in the temple. Often times they humbly say that they are not qualified, but someone will have to step in to do it at some point. And, quite honestly, the best candidates are those who have been trained up to some degree in understanding and having value for the Vedic culture. They have either gone to a Gurukula, Bal Vihars, attended temple Sunday classes, or were also raised in a family who were devoted to temple activities and the Vedic tradition. With such a background, they are more enthusiastic about it. But even though they may go to college, where the connection with their Hindu/Vedic traditions may be less than we would like, they still hold on to the basic values they learned. And they often return to see the temple when they come home to visit their relatives. If after college they live in a city with a temple, they often start attending various functions, like the aratis, etc., and make friends there and begin to be regular attendees. Then they can again start to participate in temple functions or even take on various volunteer duties to help keep things at the temple going nicely. This is extremely important. But if they see their activities not only as a contribution to the temple, but also as a means for their own spiritual development, it becomes quite natural and important to them.

The future of the Vedic community, and of the temples, depends on the way the future generations get involved. But they have to understand the philosophy and the purpose and meanings of the traditions, perhaps more so than their parents. And I will explain why.

Indian youngsters of today have adopted the American or western approach to accepting their parent’s tradition, which is called “What’s in it for me?” In other words, if they do not understand something, or if they cannot relate to it, or if it makes no sense or seems to have little relevancy to their lives, they will not be interested in it. Gone are the days when sons and daughters accept something mainly because their parents or grandparents did. Now they have to be able to see the purpose of it. They need to understand the meaning and usefulness behind the tradition. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, that is the basis for being properly educated in the culture. Even parents should be properly educated in the Vedic culture in order to guide their children. But our responsibility is to make the arrangements wherein that can happen.

So it is up to the parents, teachers and gurus to find the ways in which the youth of today can understand and learn about the customs and history of the Vedic tradition in a way that makes sense to them, and how they can be proud of it. They cannot be bored with it, or worse, ashamed of it. It has to have meaning, and be relevant to their lives. They cannot see it merely as myths, but as legends and history.

Furthermore, they should not see it as mere rituals, but as ceremonies and practices that uplift and purify the consciousness. They need to recognize and understand the benefits of it. They should not see the images in the temple as mere idols, but as deities that can reciprocate with the devotee to the degree of sincerity and surrender in which the devotee approaches the deity. They need to see that Vedic culture is a dynamic and living tradition that holds eternal spiritual truths that are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. They need to see that many of the technological advancements that we take for granted today are made possible by many of the developments that had been given many years ago by the ancient Vedic tradition, whether it be in technology, mathematics, medicine, architecture, metallurgy, music, etc. They should see and experience the temple atmosphere as a means to attain peace and relief from stress. And they should see temples as education centers for higher spiritual learning, the likes of which cannot be attained in ordinary schools. Thereafter, classes that teach the more orthodox ways of the culture can also be taught in the temples, or in private homes for activities that are then engaged at the temple, such as the traditional forms of dance, art, yoga, and philosophy.

Many of these ways of teaching and numerous other techniques are already being done quite successfully, but they need to be set up and documented in a way in which they can be duplicated by others who are also in need of them. When a solution is found, when there is something that works, it should be made available through the proper channels to others who could also use it. There are some networks for this purpose already functioning, but they need to increase their exposure and cooperation with other Hindu/Dharmic/devotee organizations. Any lack of cooperation between various organizations and sects is indeed a prime issue in the global Hindu/Dharmic community. And the Hindu Mandir Executive Conference is a prime vehicle to help discuss and spread these kinds of solutions.

Therefore, Hindu/Vedic temples, being the center of cultural preservation, also need to find the ways for the youth to get involved in all age levels. Even if it is only through association with other youngsters to make friends for fun, games, and youthful activities like camping, boating, swimming, musical sing-alongs, sports, etc., that can be incorporated to bring them together. Then stories of the ancient histories can be told wherein they learn moral values and also the characters and traits of the Vedic personalities, both old and contemporary. This can be done in a way that can also explain the history of India and its development. Or they can learn songs and bhajans as played with both traditional and modern instruments like guitars and electric keyboards. The point is to use any avenue in which their interest can be aroused. It also has to be fun.

The point is that a strong connection with the temple will last for many years, which then, as they get older, provides the impetus to help the temple continue with its various activities, but may also be the inspiration for them to bring their own children to get involved with the temple.

When the parents regularly bring their young children to the temple and they join together with other families and youngsters to joyously observe the eventful holidays, or the colorful worship or special classes, it can create fond memories in the minds of the children that will last their whole lives. They remember their family taking special care and lovingly doing such things together, and devotedly going to the temple for special observances, and the uplifting feeling they would get from that. These are like samskaras or impressions which create memories that can motivate the children to continue partaking in such aspects of the Vedic traditions long after they reach adulthood. And then they partake of the same traditions and observances with their own children.

In essence, the youth of today need to know that the practice of the Vedic tradition is going to improve and enhance their life. They have to know how it is going to help them reach their higher potential in today’s world, both materially and spiritually. And how it is going to give them the fulfillment that everyone is looking for. And we have to provide those answers and insights to them in some way or other. After all, Sanatana-dharma is not only the root of the identity of children of Indian descent, but it is the foundation for the balance and guidance and character that everyone can use throughout life.

It has been said that if you ever want to destroy a generation, or create the demise of a culture, then create a distancing between the youth and their previous generations. Then in time, the previous traditions will be forgotten and will cease to exist. Therefore, it is imperative that temples need Bal Vihars, Gurukulas, or special programs to train all children in the ways and meaning of the Vedic traditions.

Then, as they get older, let them participate in helping with various temple projects. The temple should not be dominated with older people who make all the decisions, but let some of the younger people step up with ideas for various aspects of conducting festivals, or forming outreach programs, newsletters, the use of social media, or even ways to clean up after big events. When the younger people feel a part of the temple, and feel appreciated for their contributions, they will become increasingly motivated to be more active in the temple and in the traditions.

Everyone wants to be on a winning team, and when other youths see how they are assisting, encouraging, and relating to each other in a positive and exciting way, more of the youth will want to join. When they have the enthusiasm and independence to progress in this way on their own, there will be no stopping them. They will also become the inspiration for future generations.

WHAT THE YOUTH CAN START DOING

Here are a few suggestions on the ways that young Hindus and devotees can consider for getting more involved with temple activities, other than some of the suggestions that I have already mentioned:

1. Start accepting responsibilities around your favorite temple, such as help in cleaning it, help with the mailing list and inviting people to the temple for special functions, or even start a newsletter if they do not already have one. Start a Facebook page for the temple, or use social media in whatever way is most practical.

2. Start helping in management duties, such as in assisting in the planning of the events for certain holidays, festivals, or youth events. In other words, help make things happen, do not merely witness what happens or what has been arranged by others. But see and learn how things are being done and what you can do to assist or improve things. This also means that the older members of temple management should be respectful toward the youth and the ideas they may have.

3. The fact is, the older temple managers will be forced to retire one day, and you, the youth, are the managers of the future. Thus, it is best to respect the elders for their experience and what wisdom they can give you. So, you need to learn from them, just as they need to be flexible enough to listen to you and your ideas and allow you to start implementing those that are most practical. In this way, your own growth and value for your culture will increase in a most mature way.

4. Start a college club based on Vedic culture or yoga, where possible. Sometimes colleges do not appreciate the starting of religious groups but will help promote cultural exchange. I have seen other students at colleges start yoga groups, like a Bhakti-yoga club, or something like that.

5. Start asking your temple or college youth group to invite speakers that you feel can explain things in a way that best helps you understand the philosophy or its importance. This means they must use a language that you can easily grasp, and not be overly lofty or intellectual that it goes over your head, or use examples that are not relevant to you.

6. By getting involved in this way, you can learn in a philosophical and insightful basis, but also in a practical way to develop yourself into a leader for others.

7. Start studying books, if you haven’t already, like the Bhagavad-gita to get a good grasp of the philosophy and how to apply it to your life and help explain it to others.

8. Start programs in which the temple priest helps explain in simple language the meaning of the various rituals that are performed in the temple. Every aspect of any ritual has a purpose and meaning behind it, but often people do not understand them. So, by understanding what these mean will help a person keep an interest and value to what and why it is being done.

Sanatana-dharma is interactive, inter-racial and inter-generational. It can be used by anyone of any background to improve themselves. And it is our mission to preserve, protect, promote, and perpetuate it for the benefit of humanity. And our temples are a prime way in which this can be accomplished.

More about Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa) and his books, numerous articles and many photos of India can be viewed at his website at www.stephen-knapp.com

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