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Dharmic prayer space opens in SCC after years of controversy

By Emily Sorkin Smith and Hannah Schuster

Section: News

October 2, 2015

A Dharmic prayer space opened in the Shapiro Campus Center on Monday, Sept. 21, following several years of controversy over the appropriate location of this space. Located in the former art gallery, the room will serve as a prayer space for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. The space will also be open for all students to use, unless any of the four religious communities considered to be “hosts” of the space have the room reserved for their purposes.

The Dharmic community hosted an inauguration for the space at which Senior Vice President of Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel, Dean of Students Jamele Adams, multiple Chaplains and students spoke.

In the spring of 2014, The Brandeis Hoot reported that the Hindu community was supposed to install several deities in the Protestant Chapel. According to Vaishali Gupta, the Hindu Chaplain, in an interview with The Hoot, both the Protestant and Catholic Chaplains offered to share their space. After several members of the Protestant community voiced their concerns, it was decided that the dharmic prayer space would not move into the Harlan Chapel.

After this first controversy, Gupta said she reached out to three other eastern religions groups, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, and “suggested that we have a space which is open to all these communities,” rather than just Hindus.

Last spring, controversy again erupted over the news that a Dharmic prayer space would replace the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) in the SCC, home to the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) and Students Talking About Relationships (STAR). This resulted from what Gupta referred to as a “huge communication gap” between the Dharmic community, FMLA and the administration.

According to Gupta, the administration told her and the Dharmic community that FMLA and STAR were moving, opening up the space. Gupta said they were not aware that FMLA did not want to move, even though she had asked the administration several times. After realizing WRC tenants did not want to move, the Dharmic community informed administration they would not take the space.

“I didn’t want to have history repeat itself,” said Gupta, comparing the situation with the WRC to the previous controversy with the Protestant chapel. “After all, it’s a prayer space. You don’t want to be stepping on somebody’s toes,” she said.

The new Dharmic prayer space is intentionally set up to be as inclusive as possible. It holds altars and religious objects for more than just Hindus, and once a month the center hosts collective prayers that draw congregants from all four communities. The space is open to all students regardless of religious tradition, provided they follow rules set by the space, including not wearing shoes, and are respectful of the rooms other users. Gupta has encouraged students to bring their friends to the space, saying “we want people to come and kind of observe, and ask questions and learn and participate.”

The Dharmic Prayer Space is the result of a collaboration between the four religious communities that use it and the administration. Sangha, a non-denominational Buddhist organization on campus, joined the cause after Gupta reached out to other eastern religious communities. Namaskar, the Hindu student organization, had been working toward a prayer space for years.

Funding for the space has come, according to Gupta, in large part from the funding she receives to support the Hindu community. This money goes to buying furniture, alters, rugs and other needed accessories for the room. They are still in talks with Adams and other administrators to secure further funding for the space.

Erik Howden ’16, president and meeting coordinator of Sangha, spoke to The Hoot about the benefits of a cross-cultural prayer space open to all students. Without a prayer space, Howden said students often prayed in their own rooms, with “no sense of unity or cohesion.” The ability to block out times to hold prayer services and other events will allow, in his opinion, a strong Buddhist community to form.

Both Gupta and Howden emphasized the coexistence between the four faiths as key to the success of the prayer space.

“[The] partnership has probably been the most important. Without these two clubs interacting with the chaplaincy this would’ve taken a lot longer,” said Howden, referring to Namaskar and Sangha.

The Dharmic community moved into the space last spring, however they did not hold their inauguration ceremony until September. Prior requests to use space were honored, such as one previously booked Board of Trustees meeting.

Shruti Vaidyanathan ’16, president of Namaskar, who was involved in securing a Dharmic prayer space, was unable to speak with The Hoot as of press time. Adams was also unable to provide comment.

Gupta confirmed the space in the SCC is technically classified as interim, however she said there are no current plans to move the space.

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