A brief history of Australia’s leading Hindu body, which is gearing up for its largest Diwali celebration ever, in the coming fortnight.
The early years (1998-2009)
The history of Hinduism in Australia goes back to the arrival of the First Fleet. It is understood that there were some Indians, possibly Hindus, who arrived with early European settlers. A recent study of Indigenous Australian DNA suggests there was some form of migration from India to Australia about 4,000 years ago. The White Australia Policy was officially abolished in 1973, but non-White immigrants, including Hindus, had been arriving even earlier. Non-White migrants from many different countries with quite different backgrounds who came to Australia organised themselves in many diverse religious, linguistic, cultural, and artistic groups.
The first Hindu association called the Sri Mandir Society, established the first Hindu Temple in 1977 in Auburn NSW in an old Salvation Army Hall. The first Hindu temple built in the traditional Indian architecture was the Sri Venkateswara Temple at Helensburgh NSW which opened its doors to the public in 1985. Since then many Hindu temples have been built in every state in Australia. The late Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami from Kauai Aadhenaman, Hawaii USA visited Sydney in 1989. He suggested to a group of local Hindu leaders that the leaders of all the Hindu associations should meet periodically and discuss matters of mutual interest to strengthen the Hindu group. He quoted a similar successful experience in California USA. He suggested that we should get together and celebrate Ganesha Visarjana Festival every year.
This was agreed upon and the Ganesha Festival was first celebrated in 1990 at the Sri Venkateswara Temple grounds in Helensburgh. It was a grand success with over 30 different associations taking part with many thousands attending. It continued for the next nine years as the biggest festival in Australia. The Ganesha Visarjan festival is still being conducted in a very successful fashion at Helensburgh.
In 1998 the founders of Ganesha Visarjan Committee with a number of other Hindus decided that we should formalise Hindu unity and the Hindu Council of Australia was born in June 1998. The objectives were manifold. The membership of the Hindu Council was open only to other Hindu organisations in Australia. It was meant to unite all the associations together so they could have a unified voice for all the Hindus living in this country. The initial brief was to publicise Hinduism to the non-Hindus in Australia. It was felt that the best way to do so was to celebrate Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, in a grand scale every year. This festival was inaugurated in 1999 and was held at the Fairfield Showground in Sydney’s west on 24th October 1999. It was a very successful function with many thousands attending, in spite of the fact that heavy rain greeted us that day.
The Hindu Council continued to publicise Hinduism by celebrating Deepavali at the NSW Parliament in 2003 when Bob Carr was the Premier and in 2004 at the Federal Parliament when John Howard was the Prime Minister. These functions continued to be celebrated to this day.
A very important landmark in the early history of Hindu Council came in 2004 when the then Foreign Minister of Australia, Alexander Downer and the Foreign Minister of Indonesia Dr Wirajuda decided to have a Regional Interfaith Dialogue consisting of a number of countries. Our Foreign Minister recognised Hindu Council as being the sole representative of the Australian Hindu community at a national level and appointed it as the only Hindu participant in these meetings. The Hindu Council took part in the inaugural meeting of this series at Yogyakarta, in Indonesia in 2004, and subsequently at the second meeting at Cebu in Philippines in 2006, at the third meeting at Waitangi in New Zealand in 2007, and at the fourth meeting at Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 2008. This recognition by the Australian Government have facilitated the activities of the Hindu Council ever since.
The second phase (2009-2017)
Under the leadership of its first President Dr A Balasubramaniam OAM, the first 10 years laid the foundations of the Hindu Council of Australia, the establishment of HCA Constitution and key annual projects such as Deepavali celebrations at Sydney as well as at Parliament House, Canberra and paving the way for self-sufficiency.
From 2009 to 2017, under guidance of its second President Prof. Nihal Agar AM, the Hindu Council strengthened the organisation’s structure and its membership base, established the Hindu Council as Australia’s peak Hindu organisation, made strong roadways to work with the Australian Government on issues relating to Hinduism, and worked on the recognition of Hindu Priests and Hindu Marriage Celebrants. It also built ties with other religious organisations to approach the government on issues of a religious nature and to comment on matters such as food labelling and marketing of goods that offend religious beliefs. Also, it strengthened the relationships between various Hindu organisations; took on the organising of Pad Yatra walks from temple to temple in NSW, and advised the government on Hindu religious matters.
Participation in the Environmental Movement
The Climate Institute (Australia) Ltd in 2006 invited various religious organisations in Australia to submit their views according to their faith, on the problem of climate change facing the world community. HCA made its submission on Hinduism’s view on climate change. The Climate Institute published that document entitled “Common Belief: Australia’s Faith Communities on Climate Change”.
This marked the beginning of the involvement of HCA in the climate change movement. Its representatives have attended various interfaith conferences and forums on the subject and have made their contributions.
On 2nd October 2008 (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday) HCA with the support of ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change) Inc, a multi-faith organisation committed to addressing climate change issues, launched a campaign for observing “Meat-Free Day” to tackle the problems relating to climate change, global warming, cruelty to animals and human health. HCA has continued to support ARRCC activities. It helped organise a multi-faith Eco-Forum in 2011 and prepare and launch the Hindu Climate Action Kit.
The Hindu Council was also consulted by the NSW Board of Studies in 2005 to formulate the Hinduism component of the Syllabus for the 2-Unit Course on Study of Religions at the HSC level. Subsequently the Cambridge University Press also consulted the Hindu Council on the contents about Hinduism in the textbook published by them.
The Hindu Council has now opened up chapters in all the states, and having become a truly national body, has grown from strength to strength. It speaks on behalf of the Hindus at the national level – with government, with the other associations, and with the public. It takes part in a number of multicultural activities and represents Hindus in many interfaith discussions and dialogue.
Current structure and activities
The population of Hindus in Australia has increased substantially during the last two decades. We are now over 1.9% of Australia’s population and approx. 500,000 in number, speaking over 12 of the different languages spoken in India. Our needs have changed substantially including those of our children who are born in Australia or out of India. In addition to that, issues related to women who are the back bone of the Hindu family needs to be addressed. This actually means that the Hindu Council of Australia will have to be vigilant about what our community needs are and how we can fulfil them. Considering this in November 2017, the Hindu Council established a new organisational structure with National Executive team led by National President Prakash Mehta as well as a separate state executive team in all the mainland states of Australia. Jay Raman OAM is the president of NSW Chapter.
- Working closely and putting extra effort with media, government agencies and the multi-faith community for raising awareness about Hindu values and icons to proactively manage to avoid usage of offensive and improper use of Hindu images and discrimination
- Focus on Hindu chaplaincy in hospitals, universities and other public institutions
- Education related to Hindu scriptures and values
- Women’s programs and engagement
- Youth programs in partnership with member association and in the interfaith space
- Community service and support with Hindu benevolent fund and Karma kitchen
- Celebration of major festivals with a view to raising awareness about Hindu culture
- Improve two-way communication and close working relationship with member organisations and general Hindu diaspora from all parts of the world settled in Australia
- Establishment of a Hindu Museum to present history of Hindus in Australia and display important practices, art and cultural aspects of Hindus for Australian public, as well as people of Hindu origin.
- Presentation of “Gargi Awards” to Hindu women for their outstanding contributions to the community