Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, November 20, 2018

‘Festival of India’ took over the quad through food and performance

While organizers promoted vegetarianism and spirituality, some students said they were “appalled” by the event

‘Festival of India’ took over the quad through food and performance

The Festival of India organization is aligned with beliefs in the Bhagavad Gita, a book that was outlined in the posters under one of the event's tents.

On Oct. 8, the AU Bhakti Yoga and Vegetarian club invited the Festival of India back to AU’s campus to celebrate spirituality, vegetarianism and musical theater with students. The Festival’s food and informational stands went up on the main quad at noon and left the area at around 3 p.m.

The Festival of India acts as a “cultural representation of spiritual energy,” and a way to teach and relieve young students, said Steve Szili, a self-described teacher who was doling out food during the event. He said they are not imposing or actively trying to convert student, but that this event is set up with the intention of granting stressed students solace with teachings of body and spirit and a free, healthy meal.

“When you cross the paths of someone whose enlightened, they can give you more information on what’s important,” Szili said.

However, several South Asian students said they felt the event was disrespectful to Indian culture and was an example of cultural appropriation. Shortly after the event, Maya Krishnan, a junior and president of AU’s South Asian Student Association, wrote an open letter to the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion about the frustration she felt after speaking with event organizers. The letter earned over 100 signatures from AU students.

“I did not find myself represented at all in any of the events that transpired and am appalled that an institution that strives towards inclusivity and diversity allowed these events to occur without any oversight or accountability with regards to the message being sent,” Krishnan wrote in the letter. “AU does not have a large South Asian population, and … with such little representation, whatever exposure there is needs to be accurate, above all else.”

Szili said that the organization comes to AU every Tuesday night for a service led by himself in the Kay Spiritual Life Center that welcomes all students to a night of singing, chanting, reading and free food, although the university’s master calendar does not list the service. This organization does not associate with a specific religion, but they do focus on the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. They usually have a turnout of about eight to 10 people per week, according to Szili.

The Festival of India brought six tents to AU: one with food, three teaching about the organization’s beliefs and its leaders, one teaching about the meat industry and vegetarianism and another with a question and answer service. They raise about $60,000 per year by selling food and books at festivals around the U.S. in order to provide this service for students, Szili said.

The Festival of India works out of Catonsville Temple in Maryland, and they identify as a science of self-realization that believes in the connection of body and spirit and concentrating on the soul’s energy, Szili said. They appear at seven colleges with their teachings and their events, including University of Maryland, George Washington University and Towson University. Only one of the colleges they journey to is outside of the DMV area.

The Festival of India’s event on the quad was coupled with a performance from Viva Kultura, an international performing arts group made up of about 40 artists from 15 countries. They put on a musical for students in the Kay Spiritual Life Center from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Their two main acts were of a portrayal of an ancient Ramayana epic and a contemporary piece called Bhagavatam, Jahnavi Sankhla said in an email to The Eagle on behalf of Viva Kultura. These acts addressed life’s most pressing questions and the complexities of human nature.

“We love to connect with community focal points and influencers wherever we go,” Sankhla said in the email. “The entire aim of our show is to make ancient wisdom accessible and enjoyable through the medium of art.”

But, in her open letter later published in The Eagle, Krishnan said the show provided a limited view of Hinduism and Indian culture.

“Having my culture represented by an almost entirely white troupe of dancers is incredibly frustrating,” Krishnan said. “The show’s intention was to represent the entirety of Hinduism, and having white people centered in the performance was not the way to go about it.”

ggeorge@theeagleonline.com


Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.