Michelle Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

Yale Hindu chaplain, Dr. Asha Shipman, Brown's chaplain, Swami Yogatmananda, and Prof. Larry McCrae speak at Practicing Hinduism at Cornell: A Conversation with Chaplains on April 18, 2019.

December 9, 2019

Hindu Student Council Fights For a Chaplain of Their Own

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For nearly 20 years, Cornell Hindu Student Council operated out of an eight-by-eight foot half-closet in Anabel Taylor Hall — a reality that underscored the difficulties it has faced since its founding in the early 2000s.

Currently, HSC is one of the only student religious organizations that shoulders the dual role of serving as both an entirely student-run organization and a provider of spiritual and religious care to Cornellians and Ithacans alike, according to Piragash Swargaloganathan ’19, who has helped spearhead HSC’s efforts to establish a chaplaincy.

For two and a half years, HSC has been enmeshed in prolonged efforts to establish a religious chaplaincy, a linchpin and key service of almost all of Cornell’s major religious organizations. A paid chaplain would serve as a life advisor, providing spiritual and religious care as a staff member.

The current problem confronting Hindu students is securing funding for a chaplain.

Cornell has never funded any of its religious chaplaincies — a marker of Cornell’s founding as a nonsectarian university. Instead, “chaplaincies grew on their own [through] independent advancement work,” Reverend Daniel T. McMullin, former associate director of Cornell United Religious Work, told The Sun in an email.

“Each [chaplaincy] was invited to have a presence on the campus with the expectation of being available to advise and counsel the entire student population even while offering their own denominational services,” McMullin said. “Each chaplaincy was expected to be funded by its own respective denomination. The university provided no financial assistance.”

HSC’s chaplaincy efforts come at the backdrop of a Student Assembly resolution in spring 2017, when the S.A. called upon Cornell to hire its first Hindu and Muslim chaplains, The Sun previously reported.

Now, two years later, HSC remains one of the only religious student organizations without a chaplain — with Cornell Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious groups boasting a total of 27 already established chaplains. Cornell Sikh and Jain students also do not have any chaplains.

The most recent addition to Chaplaincy was the addition of a Muslim chaplain in 2017. After 10 years of fundraising, the Cornell Muslim Educational and Cultural Association established a temporary Muslim chaplain — achieving what has so far eluded HSC.

Calling the process “mostly alumni-led,” former Interfaith Council President Nabiha Qudsi ’18 said that MECA succeeded in raising enough funds for a chaplaincy only by identifying past alumni through “word of mouth” and local community members who also helped pinpoint alumni.

When asked if the university foresees hiring a Hindu chaplain, Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur told The Sun that “the University has no plans to hire a Hindu chaplain at this time.”

Hindus account for a significant portion of Cornell’s student population — a 2017 New Student survey conducted by the Division of Planning and Budget showed that 3.9 percent of incoming freshmen surveyed identified as Hindu, the equivalent of approximately 500 to 600 Hindu students when extrapolated to the entire university. HSC also hosts widely attended events, with its largest, Holi, drawing almost 2,000 students every year.

In order to secure a chaplain, the University told HSC that it would have to raise over $1 million to fund the position — most of which would come in the form of alumni donations. Alumni donations are the mainstay of chaplaincy fundraising efforts, with most religious groups reliant on gifts to fund their chaplaincies.

HSC then asked the University, after meeting with additional administrators, for a list of previous alumni and possible donors. 

But the university also refused to provide the list of alumni, Vejalla, Swargaloganathan and former HSC president Kimaya Raje ’20 told The Sun.

Many groups, among them Cornell Catholic and Cornell Hilel maintain extensive lists detailing their previous alumni, whereas HSC — as a relatively nascent group — does not retain such a list. According to former Interfaith Council President Nabiha Qudsi ’18, MECA was “shut out by the Alumni Affairs Office” when it sought possible alumni donors for a Muslim chaplaincy.

Some chaplaincy funds — among them, Cornell Catholic and Cornell Hillel — boast well over millions of dollars, whereas others have only hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Qudsi.

In the eyes of the students, they have faced pushback from the University in establishing their chaplain. After the passing of the S.A. resolution in in  fall 2017, members of HSC and Cornell’s South Asian Council met with administrators including Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur in an attempt to spearhead preliminary chaplaincy efforts.

According to HSC board member Anuush Vejalla ’20, who was present at the initial meeting, Pendakur questioned the need for an HSC chaplain, asking if enough students would “even participate” in events involving a Hindu chaplain.

“He was pushing us towards the Asian and Asian American Center that already existed,” according to Vejalla and SAC board member Vegen Soopramanien ’20, who was also present at the meeting. “He was telling us that what we were coming up against was the bureaucracy, and really questioning the validity of even asking for a chaplain,” Vejalla said. 

However, historically Cornell has not always acted as a secular institution. At the inauguration of the university, A.D. White said, “We will labor to make this a Christian institution — sectarian institution may it never be,” while Ezra Cornell said, “It shall be our aim and our constant effort to make true Christian men, without dwarfing or paring them down to fit the narrow gauge of any sect,” according to Prof. Corey  Earle ’07, history.

A look at the early Board of Trustees proceedings, which include budget decisions, unveiled minor expenses to assist the student-run C.U. Christian Association, which eventually evolved into today’s CURW, Earle said. Barnes Hall was even built by the university for the purpose of supporting the CU Christian Association.

“Other chaplaincies were established at other times in history where support may have been more lax,” Raje told The Sun. “How can you expect students to advocate for ourselves if we still have to manage day to day religious life?”

“It’s the difference between equality and equity, in a sense,” Raje continued. “We need more support now than other groups might have had. I think getting involved is different than providing support or encouraging students to advocate for themselves.”

Among its peer institutions — including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, Georgetown and the University of Southern California — Cornell is the only university without any type of affiliated Hindu chaplain, according to Swargaloganathan ’19. The University of Pennsylvania is the only other Ivy League institution without a Hindu chaplain.