A week ago, my mother brought up how surprised she is that I am not only part of religious life here at Georgetown, but also the president of its newest organization, the Jain Student Association. Needless to say, my grandparents are proud.
On Oct. 25, Georgetown University celebrated the first anniversary of the Dharmic Meditation Center (DMC), located in the Leavey Center. Supporters and participants in Dharmic Life gathered in the DMC to sing “happy birthday,” as well as enjoy cake and other offerings. The celebration — organized by the Hindu Chaplain and Dharmic Life leader Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan — came over 10 years after students first requested the space. In 2021, when the concept came to fruition, the space was the first of its kind at a Catholic institution.
Anjali Jha (COL ’23), the President of the Hindu Student Association (HSA), said the DMC marked a monumental moment for Dharmic life on campus, also noting the unexpected 475 attendees of the Deepavali celebration on Oct. 23.
“Getting our own space was a slow process, but it has been a success ever since,” Jha told The Hoya.
When I told my mother about the DMC, she had raised a good point: she wondered why I, along with some peers, became so “religious” at Georgetown. Alongside the desire to find a home away from home, I think the explanation comes from the “buffet-style” existence of the Campus Ministry. Students can pick and choose their level of participation in terms of religious opportunities, spirituality and fostering a sense of community.
Sharan said the presence of an inclusive space on campus is especially important and that he hopes to use his position at Georgetown to gather support from the entire student body to provide an equitable space for all.
“It is even more important to be talking about dharmas now because monocultural presumptions on Hinduism are the dominant narrative. Being inclusive and equitable means striving to provide such a space and for centuries we have been unable to do that,” Sharan told The Hoya.
Keerat Singh (MSB, SFS ’23), president of the Sikh Student Association (SSA), said religion has played a significant role in her life at Georgetown and her role in the formation of the SSA, which currently has 15 members and hosts monthly Sunday Sangat and trips to a gurdwara — a Sikh place of assembly and worship.
“I grew up resisting many of the spiritual aspects of Sikhi, but didn’t come to realize how important the community I had formed through my gurdwara was to me until I came to a PWI,” Singh wrote to The Hoya.
Similarly, my personal choice to eschew religious affiliation back home stemmed from the underlying controversial sexist norms that I supposedly “had” to follow in order to practice Jainism. I learned through participating in religious life at Georgetown that some of these notions are not even rooted in Jainism, they were just social constructs that create hierarchy within the religious community. It is the open and interpretive nature of Jain, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist identity at Georgetown that makes religious life appealing and beneficial to me.
Jha said she felt similarly about the diversity and inclusion that these beliefs promote.
“Dharmic Life is a great way to combine like-minded spiritual beliefs into one,” Jha said. “It’s like a tree, and we are little branches and leaves off of that, with distinct roles but a common appreciation.”
Dr. Sharan said that he hoped to remove the colonial influence from Dharmic traditions at Georgetown.
“There are a lot of people claiming to have Dharmic bases for their ideologies that are mainstream at the moment,” Sharan told The Hoya. “So, rather than operating from ancient, outdated, anglophone 1800s, protestant, British assumptions about the traditions, it is my hope to raise awareness about the variety of dharmas and the problem of colonized education.”
Through the Campus Ministry Student Forum, minority religions are finally finding their place amid Georgetown’s Jesuit values, gracefully marking their territory. In 2015, Darshil Shah (MSB ’20), a student who identifies as Jain, was actually the president of the Hindu Student Association.
Shah congratulated the furtherance of Dharmic Life with the formation of the Jain Student Association.
“During my time on campus, we often laughed about how there were about 2.5 Jains at Georgetown, so there was never a question of creating an organization to cater to the Jain community,” Shah wrote to The Hoya.
The chaplains from the Student Forum foster an environment where they support each other, attend interreligious events and share spaces. Students from all of South Asia, including myself, recognize the influential example set by the chaplaincies and how they differ from the more cynical realities back home.
Rania Khan (SFS ’26), a member of the Muslim Student Association, said this change was refreshing.
“The camaraderie between Imam Hendi and Dr. Sharan inspires students and sends the larger community a message of coexistence and support between Hindus and Muslims, something I didn’t see so much growing up in Pakistan,” Khan told The Hoya.
Full disclosure: Rania Khan is a features writer at The Hoya.
Georgetown’s case is a noteworthy one: a Jesuit institution where I am confidently writing about the success and foundations of the Jain Student Association, although this does fall in line with Jesuit principles of interreligious understanding. While there is room to grow and be mindful of the language we use and context in which we discuss Dharmic traditions, we have the ability to normalize interreligious dialogue across the country and to other institutions by being more actively involved in our own opportunities.
Sanaa Mehta is a sophomore in the School of Foreign of Service.