LOS ANGELES, CA - Dr. Ushakant Thakkar has pledged $1 million to set up a Chair on Vedic Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His donation will come under the aegis of the Dharma Civilization Foundation where he is a Senior Vice President and Treasurer. UCI has shown keen interest in establishing...
The UCI-Thakkar commitment marks the third significant milestone for the Southern California based DCF, an organization which aims to establish the systematic study of Dharma through campuses across the United States. Earlier this year DCF entered into an agreement with the Berkeley-based Graduate Theological Union (GTU) to establish a Center for Dharma Studies. For the last two years, the organization has also funded the Swami Vivekananda Fellowship in Dharma Studies at the University of Southern California. Thakkar, an active member of the SoCal Indian-American community, is recognized for his support of several charitable organizations. Along with his wife Irma, his other single large donation was a gift of $1 million to the Simi Valley Hospital’s ER department—now called the “Thakkar Family Emergency Pavilion”. His story—of humble beginnings in Gujarat to his rise as a multi-millionaire in California—is the kind of material that the much bandied about ‘American Dream’ is made of. Growing up as the youngest of seven in a grocer’s family that knew restrained financial conditions but laid great store by education, Thakkar went on to earn a full scholarship to study Internal Medicine. Searching for opportunity, he came to New York in 1975. After two weeks, Thakkar was unable to find a medical position, lost his entire savings to a mugger in a Bronx subway, and lost his job as a dishwasher at White Castle for being overqualified.
Ultimately, his well-known and hard-wrought perseverance paid off when he was accepted as a hospital intern. By the 1980s, he was an Assistant Professor of nephrology at UCLA. There, he met a student resident, Irma, who was to become his wife. Partners in life, they joined together to open their practice in Simi Valley.
Driven by a desire to provide high-quality care and a family history which initially motivated him to become a nephrologist—a young Thakkar witnessed the passing of his brother-in-law due to the unavailability of hemodialysis in India—he established Kidney Center Inc. The business flourished with several dialysis centers and with more expansion plans into Ventura and neighboring counties, Thakkar now heads one of the largest nephrology groups in the country.
Thakkar and Irma live today on a 17 acre home, but have not forgotten the need to give back. He spoke of his latest commitment to society:
Q: What motivated you to make the donation under the umbrella of the Dharma Civilization Foundation?
A: Well, DCF’s primary purpose is to promote education on Hinduism in American universities and, later, around the world. It must be pointed out that this idea is not new. Others have done this and Chairs and programs have been established. But I think the money used by the universities has not been used appropriately. Professors have been hired who have denigrated Hindu thought and even India. You know, generally speaking, donors have also made their endowments in the later part of their lives and follow up of the Chair and its activities have not been adequately taken care of.
DCF is ready to do critical follow up and see that the vision of the Chair and program is maintained and money is not squandered by the university.
The second reason is the organization itself. Many groups are a sham, lining the pockets of a few and entailing high administrative expenses. I got involved with DCF initially without giving a single dollar. Then, when I wanted to give funds, I wanted to meet the people involved, see the governance and books. What I saw were that people who are running it are genuine people. They keep, and will keep, admin expenses to the minimum. I am inspired by Dr.Manohar Shinde’s (Chairman, DCF) spirit. His passion and dedication are exemplary. From the first time I met him, I knew where his heart was. He is like an older brother.
Q: Your pick for the name of the chair was ‘Vedic Studies’. What was your reasoning?
A: I like the name ‘Vedic’ instead of ‘Hindu’. The latter is more geographical. ‘Veda’ simply means ‘knowledge’ and I am so inspired by this. Knowledge after all is dynamic. It’s humbling to know that this primary scripture of mine has a name that is simple, yet so profound. The Chair name will not be ‘Veda’, but ‘Vedic’ so by this, it will include Dharmic studies and learning on India and its culture including law, music, dance, math—basically, Indian heritage.
Q: Why was the University of California, Irvine the place you zeroed in on?
A: Oh, several reasons! I have seen the campus grow over the years and make its place in the academic world. My daughter got her medical education there. She graduated as a well rounded individual, so I have good regard for the institution. I am also impressed with the openness and inclusiveness on campus. It is also located in a city and area with a large Indian Diaspora.
Q: What does religious education mean to you?
A: I believe we have ignored the fundamentals of our spiritual tradition. In the end what all of us are looking for is to just wake up happy. All the upheavals of making a living do not allow this, but spiritual tradition does.
We also need to know where we come from, especially if we want to know where we are headed to. The more science you study the more you seek. The more microcosmic you get, the more we realize there is something there, more than what we will ever know. After all this distillation, the realization comes that I know many things but what I really don’t know much about, is God.
Q: Are you a practicing Hindu?
A: I went from an agnostic to a Gnostic. I was born in a Vasihnava family and was exposed to its traditions mainly through my mother. She would have me do things like reading the Bhagavad Gita. When I came to the United States, apart from the $108 in my pocket, I had what my mother gave me: a copy of the Gita, a rosary, and a picture of Krishna. Her practice was ritualistic and I was a skeptic. Then along with the medical texts I had to study, I began reading Gandhi, then Vivekananda, Eknath Eswaran and western philosophers. I realized it was necessary to have spirituality for peace. I was slowly becoming a Gnostic. I was surprised that there was no Vedic teaching in India. The more I read, the more I saw Hinduism through the prism of the Vedas. There is so much in the Vedas. The Vedas show the Universal Truth in the most rational of ways. Now, it is Advaita Vedanta I subscribe to.
Q: Which organizations of faith do you have affiliations to?
A: I am a strong supporter of the Swadhyaya movement.
Q: What was your wife Irma’s role in this decision?
A: My wife is a Catholic from Indonesia. Her father is Chinese. We both realize the value of spirituality. She has studied Vedic principles with me. She is impressed with the openness of Vedic philosophy and the understanding that there are multiple ways to the one God and that everyone has freedom to practice the way they want.
Q: Other than religion what else interests you?
A: Reading. Traveling—for history, culture and environment. Tennis. Skiing. I was in a near fatal ski accident and was disabled for over a year. This was in 1992. It proved to be a turning point in life with the realization that life is too fragile. I was forced to take a break in my career and as a result did my maximum reading then.
Q: Your role models?
A: Mahatma Gandhi. Swami Vivekananda.