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Lokvani Talks To Jaya And Abhaya Asthana

Ranjani Saigal

For their path breaking initiatives that helped create many a "firsts" in the Boston South Asian Community, Lokvani is pleased to honor Dr. Abhaya and Jaya Asthana with the Lokvani "INSPIRE" award.  

Dr. Abhaya Asthana is a Bell Labs Fellow with Corporate CTO at Alcatel-Lucent. He directs R&D in the areas of computer and communications systems and solutions, multimedia, wireless systems, converged network systems, computer architecture, operating systems, optical networks and VLSI design.   Dr. Asthana received his Bachelor's degree in Electrical engineering from I.I.T. Kanpur in 1970, and his Doctorate degree from Tulane University in 1974. He has been active in community service at the local and national levels. His main focus has been in promoting educational and spiritual programs and projects that will help Hindus living in North America to remain Hindus, and through their lives contribute to the richness of their adopted land. He was the Conference Chair/Organizer of the recently concluded 2nd World Hindu Conference held in Chicago, IL which was attended by over 2500 delegates from all over the world.

Jaya Asthana has demonstrated exceptional dedication to public service over the past three decades and has significant experience with social issues particularly dealing with next generation children. She has seeded and shaped the VHPA Bal Vihars that have been running successfully for over 40 years in the North East. Jayaji has been a pioneer in organizing and evolving the VHPA's Youth and Family Camps for the past 24 years in NJ and MA. She is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, LICSW, Member of ACSW and Member of NASW.Currently she works with Care Alternatives, a Hospice Company, providing counseling and care for terminally ill patients across the state.

Abhaya ji , could you tell us a little about your professional work? 

I work as a Fellow at Nokia Bell Labs-CTO directing research in cognitive, self-reliable networks of the future - networks that continuously learn on their own and heal themselves. I develop solutions for critically hard problems in an era of Cloud and Internet of Things, as these technologies evolve with the digitization and connection of everything and everyone and large scale automation. I come up with technological breakthroughs in network architecture, systems, protocols, algorithms, control systems, real-time analytics, machine learning and augmented intelligence. I started my career in computer architecture and design of ultra-high performance multiprocessor computer systems. In the late 1970’s I pioneered the design of the Internet Communication Systems at Bell Labs and Distributed UNIX operating systems. In the 1980’s I built VLSI Systems-on-Chips, intelligent memory system, and high performance smart data path VLSI devices that led to the design of Gigabit routers. I was one of the first to suggest the separation of IP packet forwarding from routing and demonstrated the patented SWIM chip to perform IP packet routing at Gigabit rates. Today this "processor-in-memory" concept is recognized as an essential architectural feature in high performance search and sort engines and network processors. In the 1980’s I pioneered the design of hand-held mobile devices and location-based services, multimedia workstations, Gigabit optical networks and switching systems. Since the 2000’s I have developed and applied leading-edge technologies that have had profound implications to a broad range of communications systems and end-to-end solutions/services. For example, I have created and implemented capabilities for software, system and solution level reliability modeling, including ground breaking work on IMS reliability. Earlier, I led the design of VLSI processors at INTEL. I did my undergraduate from IIT Kanpur and earned my Doctorate from Tulane University. I was a visiting Professor at IIT Kanpur from 1983-1985.

Jaya ji could you tell us a little about your professional work? 

I have trained as a clinical social worker. I worked as a psychiatric social worker in an inpatient unit for about 20 years at Harvard Mass General Hospital, Bournewood Hospital, and Elizabeth General Hospital in NJ. Most of my work has been with people who are mentally disturbed, families in distress, people having difficulty in their personal lives, people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. For the last 10 years I have been working as a Hospice social worker. I work with people of all ages, with different diagnoses, who are at the end of their lives, when treatment options have been exhausted. I counsel them and their families, getting the families to accept that their loved one is struggling with end of life issues, to find peace and some closure for the families also. When people have had a lot of conflicts in their lives, at the end of life it is very painful for them to leave all this unresolved as they leave this world. Those that have had less conflicts find it easier. Peace is the greatest need at that time. Through my work, I seek to bring some solace to the dying person and his or her family, one person at a time.

Despite having a busy life as a Fellow at Bell Labs Nokia, what motivated you to take an active role in VHPA? 

The motivation came from the realization that while “Artha” and “Kama” are important pursuits in our lives, our sages have flanked them with two other higher aspirations: “Dharma” and “Moksha.” And it is this Dharma that compels each one of us to look beyond ourselves and serve the community that we live in. Sri Krishna refers to it as “Loksangrah” in the Bhagwat Geeta. It is my conviction that Hindu civilization (Samskriti), its life-view, philosophy, history and traditions are unique, universal, timeless and outstanding. A nation can prosper in present times only by standing on its past achievements while working towards a strong, bright future. If it loses faith in itself, it will perish and dissolve into oblivion. No one else will do it. The Hindus must realize the need to protect their unique identity and heritage in the midst of present turmoil - the clash of interests and civilizations. And to help with this our Rishis have bequeathed us the requisite knowledge (Brahma Vidya) and the tools (Yog Shastra). They have punctuated and enriched our thinking with gems such as: Ishavasyam idam sarvam (the entire universe is pervaded with only Ishwara), Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah (may all be happy), Ekam Sad Viprah Bahudah Vadanti (Truth is one but sages express it variously), Vasudhaiva Kutumbhakam (the entire universe is a family). As I work with VHPA, the motivation for me is only to share these learnings and insights to bring harmony, peace and joy in small ways.

What motivated you to start the Hindu Heritage Day? 

Any tree cut off from its roots will ultimately dry up and die. Hindus wherever they be, have their spiritual roots in Bharat and in its rich ancient culture. It is their moral duty to keep this root strong and vibrant. We must realize who we are, from where we come and the crucial, prominent role we must continue to play in the global world order. We must learn about our ancestral land, it history, its people, its literature, science, art, customs, and the deep, timeless wisdom of our Rishis. We must plan and act wisely on how we can pass our great heritage to the coming generations. All this would  be possible: Only when we, as true and honest Hindus, realize the urgent need of the hour; Only when we shed all other identities of region, language, sect, country and come together solely as 1.3 Billion Hindus; Only when we unite and organize as a people with a clear vision and purpose; Only when we look beyond our individual selves and engage in selfless service of the Hindu community and the larger American community. Hindu Heritage Day is one such effort directed towards strengthening us as a community while maintaining our links with the original source: our Dharma Bhoomi, Punya Bhoomi and Pitru Bhoomi (land of our ancestors).

Jaya ji what motivated you to start Bal Vihar? 

When our children were growing up, we saw that many of their friends had very little background in Hindu traditions. In America when children go to college and then into the workforce they are identified as Indian. It is a time when they are questioned about their identity, their traditions, their peers ask them about things they have heard about Hindus. Not knowing about their identify and traditions is very discomforting to them. In general, I have found that children with a strong sense of their identity and their heritage do very well in life. That motivated us to start Bal Vihar. VHPA was the first organization in America to start Bal Vihars way back in 1970. Our goal is to pass on the values, Samskars, and the knowledge of our glorious heritage to the next generations, so that they are proud of who they are, proud to call themselves Hindus, and are confident about their heritage. I love my work with children: Bal Vihar, Youth Camps and Youth Conferences. The challenge in America  is that many adults who grew up in India also know very little about our heritage. I would encourage the parents also to learn so they can teach their children. We need to bring Hindu traditions out of the realm of "superstition" (a gift given to us by the British) and give it its rightful place, a tradition rooted in Dharma and science. In the recent years, Hindu way of life seems more accepted by the general American public, at least on the East and West coasts. People do not question you when you wear a bindi or a saree. I feel in the coming years our children are going to be increasingly comfortable being a Hindu. Many Bal Vihar graduates are organizing Bhajans and Poojas in colleges. Diwali is being celebrated at the White House and even Rudram was chanted. All this has been a great outcome of the efforts of VHPA and similar organizations. Teaching children our history and about our ancestors early in life is very important if you want them to grow into confident adults who are proud of who they are. 

What are the three greatest accomplishments of VHPA?

VHPA, established in 1970, has been a pioneering organization working to keep Hindu as Hindus. In the last 48 years it has undertaken over 50 different initiatives and programs towards fulfilment of its objectives. The four major areas of accomplishments have been: 1) Cultivating Hindu Values by creating opportunities for imbibing Hindu values, Hindu spiritual texts and Hindu Heritage through Bal Vihars, youth camps, youth conferences and educational institutions. Cultivating a spirit of self-respect for our way of life, our environment, our Dharama Gurus, and institutions and respect for people of all colors, race, national origin and religions. 2) Raising Awareness and standing up for Hindu interest in America. Educating future generations about great human values envisaged by our Sages to they can learn and integrate the best from Eastern and Western cultures and become responsible contributing citizens of their adopted land as well as of the world. Minimizing misconceptions and misinformation about Hindu Dharma that exists for whatever reason, so that a meaningful, harmonious and mutually respectful co-existence is possible among people of diverse traditions and cultures. 3) Networking by establishing worldwide contacts with institutions, temples and people, through projects and programs. Building bridges across communities. Promoting unity among Hindus through a national network of VHPA Chapters and like-minded organizations. Hindu Mandir Network, Hindu Priest Network, Hindu Women Network, Coalition of Hindu Youth, Hindu American Vanaprasthi Network are examples of such initiative. 4) Serve the community by providing humanitarian and relief services in America and around the world, regardless of race, religion, color, creed, national origin or any other difference. Ekal Vidyalaya, Support a Child and Seva in America are three examples of programs started and sustained by VHPA. 

What motivated you to organize the World Hindu Congress? 

The purpose of the WHC was to provide a global platform for the World Hindu Community to come together and organize.  Here I might add, that the word Hindu refers to a civilization - a samskriti. A people who gave birth to, nurtured and sustained a way of life based on a dharmic view of life, enriched by the philosophical thoughts and traditions rooted in the soil of Bharat: Shaiva, Vaishnav, Shakta, Smarta, Jain, Baudhha and Sikh. And this inclusive all-embracing tradition continues to evolve. We sought a confluence of Hindu leadership to connect, share ideas, inspire one another, and impact the common good - Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah. To step together and express together – Samgachhadwam, Sam Vaddadwam,  with one clear purpose: project the presence and strength of the Hindus as a people, as a collective, as a change agent on the world stage. The theme envisioned for the 2nd Congress was the Hindu principle of “Think collectively, Achieve valiantly” - Sumantrite Suvikrante.  Around this guiding principle as our inspiration, we designed the Congress to have seven parallel conferences focused on: economy, education, media, politics, youth involvement, women participation, and collaboration between Hindu organizations. Why was this Congress so important? So that we graduate from individual success to collective success. Dharma is the foundation of all we do. It is a given. The WHC was about how we build upon Dharma as the root and reflect that inner strength, the self-control, the resilience and the deep capacity to work with unwavering commitment, in everything we do on the physical-societal plane. As a people we must once again encourage wealth creation, affordable quality education, promote a robust Hindu presence in mass media, cultivate future Hindu leaders, tap the unique strengths of Hindu women and encourage all Hindu organizations to work together. This is the only way to increase our sphere of influence and have a positive societal impact globally.

Could you list its outcomes? 

World Hindu Congress has become a forum for Hindus from all over the world to come together to network, connect, share  ideas and learn from each other. This cross pollination is key to our progress. The conference was successful in bringing about global awareness on Hindus issues in various parts of the world, e.g. human rights violations of innocent Hindus all over the world. It has caused us to introspect and reaffirm. To review our roots - how did we get to be where we are, the challenges we face today, and the steps we need to take to where we need to be. A few example recommendations include: Hindus worldwide should become more visible as positive change makers in their respective countries they call home, wherever they may be today. Hindus as a community should become economically more prosperous and be viewed as an economic powerhouse. Our immense soft power of Hindu teachings, Vedic knowledge and thought will be limited in its acceptance and reach without the accompanying economic power. Establish a permanent secretariat outside of Bharat. Establish a Global Mentorship Program for Women. Create a Young Hindu Business Network. Create an angel investor group with the aim to support Hindu Women Entrepreneurs. Establish a trans-continental task force to react in real time to political adversities facing Hindus globally. Develop a dynamic digital database of all Hindu organizations, networks and political leaders by country/ globally. Develop a strong international network of Hindu scholars in all areas of knowledge: Traditional as well as from academia; A strategy for developing scholarship in the area of religious studies. Educate emerging politicians and active volunteers the effective use of Social media. Educate politicians and active volunteers the effective ways of communication. WHC is not an event, it is a community movement. It is about harnessing the potential of the worldwide Hindu community into a powerful network. Our forefathers worked hard to nourish and build the Hindu society. And going into the future, Hindus must rise once again in all these multiple dimensions in a balanced way. Now is the time for the present generation of Hindus to take this legacy forward and to assume the great responsibility of shaping and nurturing Hindu unity and organization throughout the world. It is our Dharma to not let this heritage, of wisdom and unbridled exploration of life that our Rishi and Ancestors bequeathed to us, to be lost.

Any special message for our readers? 

Don’t let the daily family dinner fall by the wayside. Arrange the children’s schedule so that you can eat with them. That is the most important gift you can give to your children. Bring self-discipline “anushana”  into your life. Know who you are, who your ancestors are, know your history, the timeless values and traditions you have inherited and pass it on to your children. Make time for the important things in your life: Ishwar, your health and community. Appreciate the rainbows in your life.

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