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O.C. RELIGION / Local trends, personalities and perspectives

'What Are You Attached To?'

At Kasi complex in Anaheim, children and adults with an East Indian background can learn, practice Vedanta way and appreciate Hindu culture.


When Maneesh Sharma steps barefoot on the cool black granite floors of the Kasi Center, he is transported to another realm.

The 14-year-old from Simi Valley savors the fragrance of camphor, saffron and rice pudding spiced with cardamom; the sight of red, yellow and pink silk saris; and the sounds of people speaking Hindi.

"It feels like home," said the boy, born in the United States to immigrants from New Delhi. He makes the four-hour round trip to Anaheim each weekend to learn about Hindu philosophy and listen to tales of Indian mythology.

This anonymous-looking complex in the shadow of Disneyland has become a magnet for hundreds of East Indian families from across the Southland eager to preserve their religious and cultural heritage.

Enrollment in balavihar, the Kasi Center's version of Sunday school, has quadrupled since it opened in 1996 as part of a worldwide mission by religious leader Swami Chinmayananda.

The center advocates the Hindu Vedanta philosophy. While followers worship several gods, they believe are all manifestations of one supreme being, said Swami Ishwarananda, the center's resident pastor.

"Above all, we try and convince them to pursue spirituality in a world where it is easy to get caught up in materialism," he said.

Not so long ago, the property was a vacant half-acre littered with broken glass and trafficked by the homeless. Now, two plain white buildings monitored by closed-circuit television encompass 10 rooms covering 80,000 square feet. The center was built for $800,000, all donated by followers in Southern California.

Explaining the philosophy and culture is a tough job, said volunteer Uma Soni, who teaches a class of 7th and 8th graders. On a recent Sunday, Soni and her students were involved in a lively discussion about "non-attachment."

According to Vedanta philosophy, desire and attachment create an illusory world where the human being gets trapped and is unable to reach the ultimate state of salvation. When a person fails to do that, he or she is reborn and caught in a cycle of life and death.

Soni was trying to communicate a complicated idea to the teens.

"So, what are you attached to?" Soni asked.

"Hanging out with friends," one student said.

"Cars and TV programs," another said.

"Mine's chocolate," said Soni, smiling sheepishly as her class laughed. "But I'm getting better at it now. I've developed the will to give it up sometimes, though not at all times. It's hard. But you have to try."

Soni, a Hawthorne resident who has taught the class for three years, says the biggest challenge lies in dealing with a visible and obvious culture clash.

"It's there all the time," she said, "the way they walk, talk and dress. In India there's great respect for the teacher in the classroom. Here it's hard to control the class."

For her, the effort is worthwhile.

"I too learn a lot and think about issues when they question me and put me in a spot," she said. "For the kids, knowing who they are makes them better human beings."

Parents feel the same way. Bhavi Desai, who drives 30 miles each way with her three daughters from San Dimas every Sunday, says her children are more receptive to the lessons they learn here than what she or her husband may try to teach them at home.

"To me it's a less stressful way of making them into people we want them to be," said Desai, "people who take pride in their culture and tradition instead of being ashamed of it and rejecting it."

Parents like Desai are confident that their children will grow up respecting and cherishing values and beliefs despite television and peer pressure.

"You have to catch them when they are young," she said. "What you learn when you're little stands by you forever."

Viji Mahadevan, who was instrumental in started the center, says her grown daughter who is now studying law in Chicago still practices the values she learned from balavihar when she was a little girl.

"We see that these kids grow up to be strong individuals," Mahadevan said. "They never get stressed out, and they're not afraid to make decisions."

The lessons at balavihar also help young people understand complicated concepts and beliefs that seem illogical on the surface, Desai said.

"My children understand why things are the way they are, why we perform rituals, why we worship an idol and so many gods."

Deepa Rangan, a Tustin parent of 7-year-old twins, said Sunday school lessons have helped her children interact better with their friends in school.

"They're understanding now that it doesn't matter they look different or do things differently," she said. "Being in an environment where they feel they belong tells them they're not alone. There are others going through the same confused feelings and emotions."

Parents also learn with their children, said Sima Patel, a Huntington Beach resident. Patel, who attends lectures when her 9-year-old son Amish Kumar is in balavihar, says she is a simpler and calmer person now.

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