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A new view: Lens of Hindu culture brings students’ own into sharper focus

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For Paul Lewis, Bethel College professor of psychology, an integral part of his Social Cognition class is having students directly encounter the Hindu Indian culture, which he finds as close as Kansas City and Wichita.

Every other spring since 2002 (he teaches the class in alternate years), Lewis has been taking students to celebrate the Holi – which honors spring, fertility and new beginnings – with the congregation of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Society in Kansas City and to meet with members of the Vedanta Society, an ecumenical group of devotees who worship Shri Rama Krishna.

“As a graduate student,” Lewis says, “I had experience working on some cross-cultural projects featuring comparison and contrast of North American Caucasians with South Asian Hindu Indians.” From this experience, he became aware “of a fair amount of the scholarly cultural psychology literature pertaining to a comparison of these two cultures.”

Cassidy McFadden, sophomore from Elgin, Ill., explains that one of the goals of the Social Cognition class is “to learn a little bit about how people view themselves and others, and one of the best ways to do that is by analyzing another culture – and our own in the process.”

Many students come into the class knowing relatively little about Hindu Indians. “A fun part of the course,” Lewis says, “is introducing the students to this culture.”

Students began the semester reading about Hindu religion and culture before traveling to Kansas City for a long weekend to experience some of what they had been learning about.

“The Holi celebration was fantastic,” says Brad Celestin. “The large group of Indian people outside [the temple] welcomed us as though we were part of their collective family and immediately began slathering us with color.” Part of the Holi celebration involves participants covering each other with colorful, chalk-like powder.

“It was impossible not to be swept up in the power of this festival to tie us into the larger group of Hindu Indian people surrounding us, and to bind us more closely together as our own group,” Celestin continues. “Differences were left at the door, and we were all united in the purpose of celebration.”

McFadden found the Sunday morning service memorable. “In Kansas City, the house [the Vedanta Society meets in] is smaller than my family’s house. They’ve converted a bedroom into a meditation room and the living room into a group worship space.

“We got to meet a relatively small group of people in an intimate space and, since they were celebrating Rama Krishna’s birthday, we got to hear a few of them talk about someone who’s incredibly important to their understanding of faith.”

“The trip brought to life the Hindu Indian culture we have been studying,” adds Celestin.

Lewis explains that another reason he has chosen to focus on the Hindu culture is because it “reveals the incredible influence that cultural-based values and practices can have on how we think about ourselves and others.

“The North American cultural emphasis on individualism and a rights-based economic, social and political system is dramatically different from the Hindu Indian cultural emphasis on collectivism and a duty-based economic, social and political system.”

“This trip was a time to really delve into the differences in the way Hindus think about other people from the way our culture thinks about other people,” says Naomi Graber, Elkhart, Ind.

Celestin, Graber and McFadden all agree that the experience generated meaningful conversations within their group.

“I was surprised at how quickly our rather disparate class came together and formed a tight-knit group of friends,” says McFadden.

Celestin echoes these sentiments. “The most memorable experiences I had during the entire weekend were the amazing conversations, debates and dialogues that took place between class members with oppositional or semi-oppositional views. I was reminded of the power of direct dialogue between people who have the ability to be reasonable, regardless of … conflicting viewpoints.”

Graber adds, “All the discussions … were completely stimulating and helped my understanding of self and others grow and develop in new ways.”

In addition to visiting the Hindu Temple and the Vedanta Society, the class met with two Hindu scholars, enjoyed lunch at two Indian restaurants, had a docent-guided tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s South Asian collection and stayed at a Hindu-owned and -operated hotel.

Celestin concludes, “We are lucky to have professors at Bethel who are so thoroughly dedicated to the students, and who so generously offer their time and expertise to provide experiences like this one. “

As the semester continues, the class will continue to draw connections between the scholarly materials and trips to Wichita to meet with local Hindu immigrant communities.

In addition to Celestin, Graber and McFadden, other class members on the field trip were Sonia Barrera, Newton; Derek Benson; Tim Burns, McAlester, Okla.; Kevin Calton, Lawrence; Elizabeth Friesen, Littleton, Colo.; Jonathon Maldonado, Naples, Fla.; Ben Moore, Green; Krishna Phifer, Humble, Texas; Sierra Pryce, North Newton; Donna Schulz, Newton; Ami Schumacher, Newton; and Kelsie Wilson, Dodge City.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges profiled in Colleges of Distinction 2009-10. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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