SG votes to support Hindu students’ fight for a chaplain

Student Government unanimously passes S.R. 8, or “A Resolution in Support of Hindu Student Equity”


Aine Pierre

Student Government Senators listen as cosponsors of S.R. 8 present the bill.

Aine Pierre, Online Managing Editor

Student Government unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday, Feb. 14, that called on Wake Forest to hire a Hindu chaplain to fill a vacancy in the Chaplain’s Office.

S.R. 8, or “A Resolution in Support of Hindu Student Equity,” is part of a larger effort to convince administrators that Hindu students need a chaplain. That effort is being led by the Hindu Student Association (HSA). 

According to HSA President Aman Khemlani (‘24), the need for a chaplain became evident last year when the HSA’s membership expanded from 25 to 90. Khemlani urged senators to approve the bill in a speech to the Senate on Tuesday night — student organization presidents are entitled to speak before the Senate.

Aman Khemlani (’24), president of the Hindu Student Association, addresses the Student Government Senate. Alongside him are members of the Hindu Student Association’s executive board. (Aine Pierre)

“This isn’t a Hindu issue, this isn’t a South Asian issue, this is a Demon Deacon issue,” Khemlani said.

As of Fall 2022, the Hindu population at Wake Forest was 1.2%, slightly less than the 1.4% in Fall 2021. Advocates for a Hindu chaplain note that Muslim students, who comprise 0.7% of the student population as of Fall 2022, have access to a chaplain, and Hindu students do not. Currently, the HSA consults with Naijla Faizi, the associate chaplain for Muslim life.

“[Faizi] can help us in terms of strategy and everything, but at the end of the day, when we’re at a prayer event, she just can’t help us,” Khemlani said. “It’s up to us.”

The Chaplain’s Office, for its part, supports the initiative.

“The entire Office of the Chaplain whole-heartedly supports having a Hindu chaplain on campus for our growing Hindu population,” Associate Chaplain Gail Bretan told the Old Gold & Black by email. Her statement was approved by Tim Auman, the university’s head chaplain. 

Bretan continued: “We have and will continue to work with, support and advocate for the Hindu community and for all religious, spiritual and secular identity groups on campus. We are here for the entire WFU community.”       

According to sophomore Senator Aksh Patel, who co-sponsored the bill, there is ample student support for hiring a Hindu chaplain. He noted that a petition distributed by HSA received more than 500 signatures — Khemlani later told the Old Gold & Black that the number was 513. 

With a chaplain would likely come a lounge, Khemlani explained, and S.R. 8 calls on the administration to designate space for Hindu students to socialize and pray. A lounge would also allow the HSA to properly store Hindu idols, which it purchased with university funds last year. 

“[We have no safe space for] the idols that we purchased this year,” HSA Secretary Aashna Kumar said. “They actually have been sitting in someone’s bedroom, in [Kuntamukkala’s] trunk… that’s actually really terrible…if you’re someone who believes that these idols should be worshiped and respected.” 

Kumar continued: “That shows that there’s…such a far way to go. And these are requests that pertain specifically to Hinduism and that other people might not understand, but that are very important to us.”

A lounge space to pray would also be important because not everyone can travel off campus to pray at local Hindu temples. For some sects, the nearest temple is in Greensboro, Charlotte or Raleigh, all at least a half-hour drive from campus, Khemlani told senators.

HSA Campus Liaison Neesha Kuntamukkala said that access to a chaplain is also important because right now, it falls to the HSA — which comprises a diversity of Hindu practices — to facilitate religious events and rituals. 

“We’re actually represented by multiple different Indian ethnicities, states and origins, and we each practice Hinduism differently in our own families,” Kuntamukkala said of the HSA. “So when it comes to guiding spiritual practice and religious practice…having someone who is trained in being able to do that for a larger group would be really helpful.”

As the legislation mentions, Wake Forest’s peer institutions and aspirant institutions have taken similar steps to support Hindu students. Last weekend, HSA’s executive team attended a conference at Yale University and met with Asha Shipman, the Hindu chaplain there.

“[Shipman] told us about Yale’s story and how they experienced almost the same kind of thing where they saw exponential growth…at how at that point, the students themselves on the board [of Yale’s Hindu Association] weren’t able to do all of the work that a chaplain does,” Kumar said.

The HSA will meet with Vice President for Campus Life Shea Kidd Brown next week to discuss next steps. Khemlani seemed hopeful after the legislation passed.

“I think we’re finally getting traction, and this is going to go somewhere,” Khemlani said.