Sayville resident Neha Kinariwalla is so inspired by the historic hero of her parents' homeland, Mohandas Gandhi, that she recently spent five weeks volunteering in India at a residence where he lived for 12 years.
Kinariwalla, 20, a brown belt in karate and a Stony Brook University sophomore bound for medical school, taught self-defense and personal hygiene to adolescent girls who live in a slum near the Gandhi Ashram -- Gandhi's former home in Sabarmati that today is a museum.
Then, days after her return to the United States, Kinariwalla was among 225 people from a variety of religions who paid tribute to Gandhi during a ceremony in Hauppauge on the 65th anniversary of his assassination.
Gandhi led India to independence from Britain and inspired movements for nonviolence, civil rights and freedom around the world. A champion of religious diversity and tolerance, he was killed by a Hindu extremist on Jan. 30, 1948.
"He was amazing," Kinariwalla said. "He was so driven, yet at the same time he was able to be very self-aware." She said she volunteered for the project in India partly because she was inspired by one of Gandhi's sayings: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
The event in Hauppauge was organized by the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum and the Shanti Fund, a nonprofit made up mostly of Indian-Americans from Long Island. The group helped get a statue of Gandhi erected at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge in 1999.
This year, representatives of various faiths -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Baha'i -- read prayers and sang hymns at the gathering at a local hotel. Organizer Arvind Vora said the format mirrored Gandhi's practice of starting and ending each day with multifaith prayers.
Gandhi "is not just important to India and Indians," Vora said. "Our planet has been made unstable, very violent. Talking about Gandhi and his sacrifice, humanity can have hope."
He and others said Gandhi's message of peace and nonviolence resonates today more than ever, especially after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
Kinariwalla said she arrived in India days after a highly publicized gang rape of a 23-year-old student, who died after the brutal attack. Kinariwalla said she thought some of the techniques she learned at a karate center in Bayport would be useful to the girls she met in the slum.
She worked with them through Manav Sadhna, a nongovernmental organization based at the Gandhi Ashram. She paid her own way for the trip, and stayed with relatives who live nearby.
Her mother, Varsha Kinariwalla, who immigrated to the United States in 1983, grew up in Gandhi's home state of Gujarat.
"He is an example for anybody to follow," Varsha Kinariwalla said, adding that she's "truly proud" of her daughter's pilgrimage and work near Gandhi's former house.