Northwestern University’s First Hindu Chaplain Envisions a Safe Space for Hindu Students on Campus
May 24, 2021
Amar Shah’s journey into spirituality began as a pursuit of happiness. After graduating from Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, Shah felt there was something missing in his life, and he felt an unquenchable thirst for spirituality and knowledge. So, in 2016, he set out to seek answers and journeyed to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago for two years to study under the tutelage of world-renowned Swami Prakashananda at a traditional ashram abiding in formal monkhood. There, he underwent rigorous training as a Brahmachari, a Hindu Monk, studying Vedic philosophy, metaphysics, and Sanskrit, and is now reframing the ageless wisdom for the modern mind, based on his years of training and silent observation.
Earlier in April, Shah was announced as the first part-time Hindu Chaplain at Northwestern University.
“Amar’s role comes from an intersection of student advocacy, attention to student care and support, and a focus on wellness and the student experience,” says Kristen Glass Perez, University Chaplain and the Executive Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Northwestern University. “We are delighted to serve as partners with many others in the university as we support student identity development and spiritual wellness. Amar’s background, training, and personality make him the perfect person for this role at Northwestern.”
In conversation with IFYC, Shah talks about his new role, the importance of having a Hindu chaplain on campus, and how he envisions using his role to create a safe space for students to discuss religion and spirituality.
The interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
What inspired you to move to the ashram and pursue a deeper connection with your faith?
Throughout my high school and college years, I was very involved in my community, and deeply rooted in my Indian culture. I participated in celebrations of my culture, but not in my religion – as they say, I was spiritual, but not religious. I had a successful undergraduate career, I had an excellent job as a consultant, I had worked on political organizing, but I realized at some point that I wanted more from life than it was giving me, like there was something else I was seeking.
I had traveled a little bit – I went to Korea, France, Eastern Europe, and I noticed that across diverse cultures, across different socio-economic barriers, across races, we were all miserable about similar things. Like money, position, power, we felt these necessitated our happiness – like having a decent job would make me happy, or having more power would make me happy, but the thing is, they weren’t making us happy. I realized that the thing I was seeking all along was happiness, but I didn’t know where to search for it. I considered joining the army – maybe that would make me more disciplined? Perhaps I would travel the world and find peace there? But what I really asked myself was, who are the happiest people I know? Who are the most effective people I know? And both those questions mashed into my faith. I realized that some of the most brilliant, most clearheaded, the most masterful of their presence were people who came from my faith tradition – Advaita Vedanta, which is a school of Hindu philosophy that literally means “non-duality.” Chinmaya Mission hastraining courses around the world, and the one starting soonest happened to be in Trinidad and Tobago.
You said this journey began as a pursuit of happiness – did you find what you were seeking? What are some of your biggest takeaways from your journey?
I developed a true faith in this tradition. I really appreciated that they always had answers to the questions that I asked, and they answered them with logical explanations, not asking me to blindly believe in something. They didn’t have any expectations from me or requirements for me after I finish the program – they took me in how I went, without asking for any money, and clothed me, fed me, taught me. I was there completely for myself and for my self-development.
Now, have I found the answer to happiness? I will say I have been shown the indicator. Have I found that state of perfection yet? No, I am still on my way, I still have a lot of self-development goals to fulfill. But I believe that I have been given all the answers to reach that state of mind. To give you a clearer example – it’s like if you want to climb a mountain. I have been given all the tools and the backpacks and gear required for me to make the journey, but have I climbed the mountain yet? Have I reached the summit? Not necessarily, but I know I have the right tools to get there eventually.
You’re Northwestern University’s first Hindu Chaplain. What does it mean for you to be in this role?
Firstly, I deserve none of the credit for this role. It was the students at Northwestern that advocated for this role, and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life who recognized the need for it. There is a Muslim chaplain on staff, and a Christian chaplain on staff, and they are really great at what they do – but they recognized that for Hindu students on campus there wasn’t a dedicated space where they could address their specific questions and challenges within their own faith. So, when this position was offered to me, I saw it as my service, as a way to give back to my community that nurtured me and shaped my life.
Now, what does it mean for me to be the Hindu Chaplain on campus is something I am unpacking slowly every day. My first step is to understand and address the needs that exist on campus right now. What resources and information are already available, and what aren’t? And then I’ve a twofold approach to these needs. On one part, I want to improve accessibility to knowledge about Hinduism, about the Advaita Vedanta tradition, I want it to be easily translated – not like from Sanskrit to English, but translated in a modern context, so people who are interested can access knowledge that can help them flourish in their current environment and can help them focus on their self-development. I want them to have a pure space where they can come to learn, worship, and truly practice their faith.
The second part of my approach is to help eradicate misunderstandings about Hinduism that are holding our tradition back. By that I mean getting rid of cultural appropriation, understanding what authentic celebrations of our faith can look like on campus, and addressing misinformation about our faith that has passed on through time. By doing so I want to foster an environment, a steadfastness, where students can really flourish without fear of their practice, or fear of associating with their religious identity. And also, I don’t just serve Hindu students, I serve all students of Northwestern – I want this to be a space where anybody, regardless of their faith, can come to learn the depth of Hinduism and other questions they have about spirituality and religion. I want it to be an accessible safe space for all.
What needs are you witnessing already?
I think that across faiths and cultures we are witnessing the challenge of how to keep up with a drastically changing world. Pre-pandemic if you were stressed, you could go to a bar, or hangout with friends, or play golf, or whatever you needed to do to take your mind off things. But when you take those activities and spaces away from people, they’re left to confront themselves and their ability to cope on their own. And this is true for college students as well. So, there is a need for a systematic approach to living a spiritually healthy life, so when things that you depend on are taken away from you – whether that’s social media, or a physical location, or music, you still have a way to find peace, find happiness within yourself. And to do that, we need to have a space where there is trust. Today, there is such a distrust for institutionalized religion – and when there’s no trust, it’s hard to reach out and learn something new. Building a space with a dedicated person – be that a Hindu Chaplain, or a Muslim, or a Sikh, or a Christian – having access to this space, and this person, that you can trust, and discuss your faith and spirituality with is an integral step to promoting self-development for students on campus.
You can contact Amar Shah at [email protected], abd connect with him on Instagram at @therealamarshah