Elon University sophomore Abhinav Nitesh knows he’s immensely outnumbered.
According to the Spring 2017 Registrar’s report, he’s one of only 24 Hindus at Elon, a fraction compared to the thousands of students who practice other religions.
Still, it doesn’t stop him from trying to make an impact.
With Holi — one of the more well-known Hindu festivals — taking place at Elon Friday, Nitesh saw a prime opportunity to promote his faith while also providing a chance for members of the community to enjoy themselves. Holi, which celebrates the beginning of spring and the triumph of good over evil, rallies people together and culminates in a paint or colored powder fight. Nitesh understands Holi is intended to be a playful occasion, but his mission is to leave a lasting impact that won’t easily be removed like the color on someone’s clothes.
“The whole purpose of Holi is to have fun,” Nitesh said. “But my aim is to let people know why they celebrate this festival. If someone asks them in the future ‘What do you think about Holi?’ I don’t want them to say ‘Oh, it’s just a color run.’ My aim is to let them know what Holi is about, so if someone asks them what Holi is about, they’ll be able to give an intelligent answer.”
A different perspective
Originally from India, the birthplace of the Hindu religion, Nitesh moved to the United States last year for a better education. He chose Elon because of the smaller class sizes and the proximity to his uncle, who lives in Cary, North Carolina. Nitesh said he expected an adjustment period to assimilate to a different environment, but that process was expedited because of the hospitality of the Elon community. After he got his footing and became more comfortable, he wanted to add his voice to the conversation around Elon’s multifath initiative.
Multifaith Intern Coordinator
He applied to be an intern at the Truitt Center for Religious Life, and once accepted, he immediately began planning Elon’s 2017 Holi Festival. He was initially surprised to hear that Elon celebrates Holi and Dilwali — another Hindu festival — and hopes to bring a perspective as someone who has been immersed in the culture.
“This is one of those festivals I really love the most because back home, all of our friends would gather around and just enjoy ourselves while worshiping in our faith,” Nitesh said. “The goal for me here and now is to try and replicate it the way we do it back home.“This job opportunity at the Truitt Center provides me with a platform to make people aware about a different religion. It gave me a podium to inform people about the faith that I hold near and dear to my heart."
Since he has been at Elon, Nitesh said he has had numerous conversations about his faith, something he said he enjoys. He said students’ genuine interest in learning about other cultures is one thing about the Elon community that impressed him. Because of that, he wants to ensure everyone has a chance to learn something new.
“I would have conversations like, ‘I’m from India,’ and they would ask, ‘Oh, whats your religion?” Nitesh said. “And I would say Hinduism and some of them wouldn’t even know what it is. That would give me an opportunity to educate people.”
Carrie Seigler, the multifaith intern coordinator at the Truitt Center, said Nitesh’s perspective has brought an energy and a fervor to the logistics of Holi, more so now than previous years’ celebrations. Every detail ranging from set-up to tear-down has been accounted for, but Seigler said Nitesh’s
emphasis on the educational potential of Holi has had the most impact. While Seigler said Holi is one of the Truitt Center’s most popular events, it may be that for the wrong reasons. She said some students may attend the event simply for the colorful “Instagramable” nature. When she told Nitesh of this, he took the steps to ensure even if that is the case, people will still leave with some lessons learned.
“Holi tends to attract a lot of people because it’s happy and fun and lends itself to Instagram photos,” Seigler said. “What Abhiniv has been intentional about doing is integrating Indian-American and International student voices into the planning process, so that even if students show up just for color, we’ve structured it in a way to where they will have to wait and watch a typical Hindu performance and intentionally made it an educational piece.
“This is not a 5k where you can just throw colors. It is a deeply meaningful, but also joyful festival.”
Students throw color during 2016's Holi Festival. Photo by Diego Pineda.
Expanding the Hindu base
University Chaplain Jan Fuller said that while the aesthetics of Holi may supersede its true meaning to some, she said it is a powerful tool to promote Hindu life at Elon in an attempt to grow its numbers. She said their office is going to launch a webpage outlining Elon’s Hindu life, and hopes that within the next few years, Elon will hire a Hindu staff member in her office. Because of Holi’s reputation, Fuller said this is another building block to a greater project.
“We hope this will be one more step to help create an affinity group and we would really like a group to help us produce these things,” Fuller said. “We got lucky — we have an intern who is Hindu — but more often than not, we don’t.”
Fuller said that is her hope for not only for Elon, but also for society as a whole. Discussions held by multifaith interns and the SAGES program are steps she says can broaden students horizons. Living as an engaged citizen and recognizing the correlations between different things — including religion — is one thing people should always strive to do.
“There’s a lot of places where this work is being done, and if people come to Holi and have an experience of spiritual diversity in that moment, it will make them wonder about where else is this happening in our life or where else should I be interested in learning,” Fuller said. “How can I be on the look out for that? We hope that this will raise those questions, even if students just come for the colors and dance around.”
Truitt Center Intern
Nitesh said he doesn’t mind being outnumbered and said he appreciates Elon taking the steps to help his culture thrive.
Now, he says it’s up to the students to push it further.
“Elon is trying its best. They’re having so many events and awareness things like bringing in guest speakers,” Nitesh said. “I think it’s the students that need to be involved in it now. Elon can only do so much, it’s the students who need to be interested in it. If students are not interested, it’s not going to help out.”