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Tustin Hindu Center Helps Spread the Light

Times Staff Writer

Inside the Hindu sanctuary perfumed by incense, four gold-plated statues wore green blindfolds and carnations around their necks. An orange-robed swami entered and lit an oil lamp to invoke the light of knowledge.

Then he removed the blindfolds, symbolically unleashing the spiritual presence of four of Hinduism’s beloved deities: Lord Rama, his wife, Sita, his brother Lakshmana and his loyal servant Hanuman.

With that, leaders of the Chinmaya Mission last week inaugurated a new center in Tustin to spread the light of one of the world’s oldest spiritual philosophies, known as Vedanta.

The center, at 655 South B St., reflects the robust Southern California growth of the mission, an international Hindu organization based in India.

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Since the mission started in private homes with 10 people in 1982, it has grown to more than 1,500 members in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

They have purchased two buildings and rent space for half a dozen other centers in Rancho Palos Verdes, San Gabriel, Simi Valley, Diamond Bar and elsewhere.

The Tustin center, a two-story former warehouse converted into a sanctuary and study, was purchased and refurbished for $1.3 million.

“People are hungry for spiritual guidance,” said Swami Ishwarananda, the bearded mission head in Southern California. “People would like to know how to become free of stress and how to prepare themselves for the uncertainties of life.”

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Many of Chinmaya’s members are immigrants from India and their children who say they also come to learn about their cultural traditions. Veena Senra, a Fullerton high school student who attended the Tustin center opening, said most of her Indian American classmates have lost ties to their heritage, but she understands and respects it.

She knows, for instance, that the bindi, or dot, between her eyebrows represents her spiritual eye, and that the Indian custom against eating beef is rooted in an agrarian society’s appreciation for the milk and labor given by cows.

“It keeps me Indian in the best sense,” Senra said of the mission. “It’s not like watching Bollywood films; that’s not what being Indian is about.”

The Chinmaya Mission, founded in India in 1951 by devotees of a journalist turned sage, Swami Chinmayananda, distinguishes itself by its focus on learning, one of Hinduism’s four paths to enlightenment. The group also practices the three other paths: meditation, devotion and service.

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The 700 children enrolled in the mission’s Sunday schools in Southern California, for instance, have participated in service projects with Orange County homeless people, Rancho Palos Verdes schools and Mexican orphans.

Ishwarananda said the new center would offer meditation sessions, weekly devotional practices and training sessions for laypeople on how to perform traditional Hindu rituals.

But the classes and presentations about Vedanta, including a monthly lecture series about to be launched, form the mission’s core.

Vedanta is one of the world’s most ancient religious philosophies, dating back more than 4,000 years. Based on the Vedas, a Sanskrit word for “knowledge,” the philosophy affirms the oneness of existence, divinity of the soul and harmony of religion. Vedanta teaches that the one God is infinite existence, consciousness and bliss, known as Brahman, and dwells in humans as the divine self, or Atman.

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Hinduism’s many deities are representations of different qualities of the one God, according to Ishwarananda.

In the new center, for instance, the statue of Lord Rama represents discernment between right and wrong; Lakshmana, dispassion; Sita, spiritual knowledge; and Hanuman, devotion.

Their story of how Rama survived an unjust exile and won back his kidnapped wife and kingdom offers lessons on how to confront challenges in life, the swami said.

In Southern California, the centers’ philosophical offerings draw a largely professional and educated group of spiritual seekers. They include people like Hemant Mistery, 51, a Yorba Linda resident and business executive.

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“What I like about the Chinmaya Mission is that it emphasizes the spiritual and philosophical basis of Hinduism, rather than the rituals and religion,” Mistery said. “I’m not a religious person, but I like to practice spirituality, and that’s what this is.”

Not that the mission is devoid of ritual. After the inauguration -- attended by more than 700 devotees in saris and suits, along with Tustin Mayor Lou Bone and the mission’s worldwide head, Pujya Swami Tejomayanandaji -- a private ritual was held to bless the center.

A Hindu priest offered flowers and invocations of peace to nine piles of grain on nine colored cloths representing the planets. The ritual also featured a fire ceremony to symbolically carry the blessings of knowledge and wisdom from the divine to the human realm.

Parameswaran Mahadev, a retired Cerritos physicist who helped start the Southern California mission in 1982, said he was drawn to the teachings more than three decades ago. That’s when he heard a Chinmaya swami give a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the connection among mind, body and intellect.

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He said he was raised with Hindu rituals he never understood. But as the swami offered ideas on how the mind survives physical death, leading to rebirth in an effort to attain enlightenment, Mahadev said, the ideas seemed logical.

“We believe godliness -- the spark of divinity -- is within you, and the only thing that prevents you from seeing that is your mind,” Mahadev said. “The whole purpose of life is to purify the mind so you can see your light.”

As Southern California’s Indian population grew, so did demand for classes. Mahadev said the group began rotating classes in homes, then in rented space until 1996, when it purchased land next to Disneyland for what is now its Anaheim center.

Today, members say the mission offers spiritual sustenance and cultural connections.

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“My heart and soul was starving for something to call the center of my life,” said Savita Datta, a Lakewood pediatrician who emigrated from India in 1969 and joined Chinmaya 18 years later.

“This place has centered me.”


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