SOUTH JORDAN, UTAH, January 19, 2013 (Deseret News): When a member of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's staff first contacted Indra Neelameggham about giving the invocation for the governor's inaugural ceremony earlier this month, one thought came quickly to her mind. "You must be looking for our priest," said Neelameggham, one of the stalwarts of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah.
She was told the governor wanted a lay person, not a pastor, to say the invocation. Staff members sent out feelers to Utah's faith community, and Neelameggham's name kept cropping up as an exemplary person of faith. A list of several possibilities was presented to Herbert, and he personally selected Neelameggham for the honor.
"I have been told that I am the first Hindu and the first woman to offer a prayer at a Utah governor's inauguration," she said, noting that President Barack Obama's second inauguration on Jan. 20 will also feature a prayer by a woman who is, like her, a lay person.
She said she took several lines from several Hindu prayers and then included some language of her own in her invocation. "It is a prayer for peace, happiness, harmony and contentment," she said. "Sen. (Orrin) Hatch and (former) Gov. (Jon M.) Huntsman both told me after the ceremony that they thought my prayer was inspiring, so I guess it went pretty well."
For Neelameggham, being asked to offer the inaugural invocation was an acknowledgement that "we are a very diverse state." "So many people believe that in Utah we are just a Mormon community," she said. "Certainly that is the predominant religion, but we are so much more than just that. And I think they wanted someone to represent that diversity." Today, Indra estimates there are about 5,000 Hindus from Brigham City to Cedar City.
"Whenever there was a Hindu festival I would make a big celebration and invite all the Hindus I knew to my home to celebrate the festival," she said. "Our home was always open to the Indian students at the university. It was always a place they could come to get a meal, or to sleep, or to just be with a family at home." The students started calling her "Indra Aunty," a name by which she continues to be known by many in the local Hindu community.