An unorthodox approach to religion

On any given day, Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni can be mentoring and counseling students, conducting a religious ceremony, teaching a class or even writing articles for CNN and the Huffington Post.

A lawyer, a radio show host, an entrepreneur, a professor and a hardcore Clippers fan, Soni has never let himself be pigeonholed into one career or way of life.

Born in India and raised in California, Soni has worked as dean of religious life at USC since 2008 and holds five degrees from institutions, including Tufts University, Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles. His responsibilities as dean encompass an array of counseling, religious, community-building and academic programs and activities to serve one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse colleges in the United States.

“On our campus, we have over 90 student religious groups,” Soni said. “That’s more than any other American university,” Soni said. “We have over 50 chaplains representing every faith tradition … the largest group of chaplains working at any American university, and we’re in Los Angeles, which is the most religiously diverse city in the world.”

While his days are often fully booked coordinating pastoral care, speaking at ceremonial events, teaching classes and conducting public programs and community service activities, Soni said that the dynamic nature of his position is exciting, keeping him on his toes.

“There’s never a dull moment, honestly, in my job,” Soni said.

In spite of Soni’s impressive academic and professional background, however, he often reflects on how unconventional his career path has been, and how unlikely it was to be selected for the position as a Hindu.

“I don’t have a similar background as most people in this role,” Soni said. “When I was hired in 2008, I was the only non-Christian in the United States to be the chief religious or spiritual leader of a secular American university, and I was the first Hindu to ever have that role. I’m still the only Hindu, and there’s just a few of us now who are not Christian.”

One of Soni’s major goals has been to create an inclusive, environment for students of all beliefs, not just students who associate with religious traditions.

“A growing number of students on our campus are not affiliated with religion,” Soni said. “Many students will say that they’re more spiritual than religious, and some are completely secular, and I want to be a resource for them too. So instead of orienting our office and work around God, we’ve oriented it around meaning, purpose and significance, and the things that make us human.”

Soni has noticed that in the past two generations, the American religious landscape has changed drastically as fewer and fewer people identify as religious.

“Even if students formally leave religion, or they weren’t raised with it, they still should have opportunities to think about the big questions in their life … to think about their morality and ethics,” Soni said. “They should still be building community and cultivating a sense of wonder, awe and gratitude … but they may have to do this in a different context.”

Soni also wants to design programming and events that are groundbreaking and innovative in an effort to position USC as a campus known for its forward-thinking religious life.

“We’re really trying to think about what religion will look like in 10 years in higher education, and be that office,” Soni said.

Soni’s grandfather, who lived in India, spent a significant amount of time with leader and activist Mahatma Gandhi, and shared these experiences with Soni when he was a young man. According to Soni, these stories played a major role in influencing his decision to study law and religion in academia.

Just as his grandfather closely interacted with a major political and religious leader, Soni has also kindled a personal relationship with a renowned spiritual figure: the Dalai Lama.

“I lived in a Buddhist monastery, and just as [my grandfather] spent a lot of time with Gandhi, I spent a lot of time with the Dalai Lama,” Soni said. “So I’ve had my experience with a transformative religious leader, as he did.”

Soni first met the Dalai Lama in college, when he was living in a Buddhist monastery.

“It was a very fortuitious meeting,” Soni said. “I was sitting under the tree where the Buddha was enlightened, at the very place he was enlightened, the sun was rising, it was Gandhi’s birthday, I was meditating. I opened my eyes, there was laughter, and the Dalai Lama was walking toward me.”

This proved to be the start of an enduring relationship. Several years ago, Soni hosted the Dalai Lama on campus and introduced him to his own students, reminding him of his first meeting with the leader during his college years and bringing the experience full circle. He now considers the Dalai Lama to be one of his gurus, seeking to internalize what he’s learned from him over the years.

“I saw in the Dalai Lama a type of wisdom and joy in his being, and I wanted to emulate that in my life,” Soni said.

Though Soni remains the only Hindu to hold the title of dean of religious life anywhere in the country, he feels that the faith’s teachings provide a unique perspective on truth that he has found essential as dean.

“As a Hindu, I was raised with the idea that … there is no exclusive “truth,” that we’re all on our own truth journeys, but that we’re all moving in the same direction and ultimately trying to achieve the same thing,” Soni said. “That idea has been really important to me as dean of religious life, where my job is not to support or endorse one tradition over another, but to support all traditions equally.”

One piece of advice Soni has to students is to not limit themselves. Though it is often easy to think of a career path as one-dimensional, he said students should strive to pursue their passions, however diverse or unrelated.

“What has served me well is not thinking about what I want to be, but what I want to do,” Soni said. “I think we do a disservice to our children when we ask them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I think the question should be ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ It’s cool to be the dean of religious life — it’s a great title, but the title isn’t enough to get me in the office every day. It’s the work I get excited about. The title is cool, but the work is inspiring.”

Soni’s path to the position was unconventional, to say the least. But now that he is able to utilize the skills he’s learned throughout his life and fulfill his academic and religious aspirations as USC’s spiritual leader, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This isn’t a job I ever thought I could get, because I’m a non-ordained Hindu attorney,” Soni said. “But when I got this job, I realized it’s the job that I always wanted. I just didn’t know it.”

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