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Obama appoints woman pujari to inter-faith panel

Last updated on: April 07, 2009 11:26 IST

President Barack Obama has appointed the first Hindu community activist and one of the first Hindu women priests in New Jersey, Anju Bhargava, to the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Earlier, Obama had appointed Eboo Patel, a Muslim, who is the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based international non-profit, Interfaith Youth Corps, to the 25-member Advisory Council and Patel was among 15 of whom were named on February 5.

Bhargava, the founder and president of the first Indian American women's organisation in North America -- Asian Indian Women in America in 1981 -- is a long-time community activist and also served as a Community Builder Fellow in the Clinton Administration's White House Initiative in 1998 to 2000, where she fostered partnerships, facilitated economic , workforce and business development leading to the employment of over 100 people.

For this, she was also honoured by former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman's Office and also for her community activism in the state on behalf of minority women.

An elated Bhargava told rediff India Abroad: "I feel very, very honored -- it is such an honour to be there representing the Hindu community."

"I taught myself all these years and became the first woman pujari and I never thought I would actually be representing the Hindus at the White House. So, it's really an exhilarating feeling."

Bhargava said, "I couldn't believe it when I got the call. I actually called somebody in the White House and said, 'I got this call from Joshua DuBois (who heads the White House Inter-faith Office) -- do you think it's a joke!'"

She said she would bring a Hindu American perspective to the Council plus all of her community building experience, "essentially to bring about an understanding of Hinduism from an inter-faith perspective because I have been part of the Clergy Association in my town for 18 years."

Bhargava, to came to the US in 1979 to pursue graduate studies, said, "I feel that the seva type of work that the Hindu community does is not talked about much and the word Hindu is very often -- even among the Hindus here -- distorted. They don't understand most of the time what Hinduism really means and don't understand that identity especially in the American context. We live in America and we need to understand the American context and not the Hindutva fundamentalist context."

"We have to create our own Hindu identity in America and it's up to us how we want to create this Hindu identity because we are in a new land," she said. "I say American Hindu because I see myself as an American and a Hindu of American origin. I am born in India, and so I feel I am 100 percent Indian and 100 percent American too."

Bhargava said, "I've put together a PowerPoint presentation to explain what Hinduism is all about and so, when I do pujas for people, I carry my PowerPoint presentation and do a show and tell so that people understand how I am doing it when I do my Satya Narayan puja -- what it means and how it is."

Bhargava, well known for her many firsts, is also the founding member of the New Jersey Corporate Diversity Network, an initiative formed with Partnership for New Jersey to "maximise effectiveness of diversity initiatives to enhance business results and positively effect our communities and the economy."

She also co-founded Asian Indians in Livingston and the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Initiative in that city and is known for her volunteerism in organisations such as the St Barnabas Pastoral Care Department to Livingston's Interfaith Clergy Association.

Bhargava, before going into community activism full time as a social entrepreneur, was a longtime management consultant and erstwhile banker and held senior positions in commercial banks, financial institutions, and public multinational corporations.

These included Bear Stearns Asset Management, BB & T Bank, IBM Global Services, Fleet Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank and consulted for diverse clients such as Johnston & Johnston, Booz Allen, and also had several stints with US agencies.

Bhargava, who has published extensively, in addition to conducting workshops and seminars in many US universities and colleges in additional to television appearances in the US and India, is an alumna of Stella Maris College, Chennai, and Rutgers University in New Jersey. She also acquired management consulting experience with training at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Kellog Graduate School of Management.

In his inaugural address, Obama had spoken about how "America's patchwork heritage of Christians and Muslims, of Jews and Hindus and non-believers is not only a domestic strength but a force for peace in the world."

Joshua DuBois, who heads the Inter-Faith Office, is a 26-year-old African American Pentecostal, a former associate pastor and advisor to Obama in his US Senate office and the religious affairs outreach director in the Obama presidential campaign.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC