by: Vasooda Kumar
Vishwa Dharma Ki Jai! Victory to universal Dharma! These are words clamored at the end of every Sangh Prarthanaa. Although many of us have the Prarthanaa inscribed in our minds only a few of us are able to unlock the answers hidden within. As a Hindu teenager growing up in America I have faced many hurdles in my path to spirituality. Being the minority in race and religion I have questioned many Hindu practices, but have found the answers to none. Who am I? Who am I praying to? What am I praying for? What is my goal? How can I achieve that goal? Hinduism offers a vast pool of answers for all these questions, but how do you choose the right one? Luckily, I was provided the opportunity to attend the Hindu Heritage Youth Camp held between the 18th and 23rd of July at Ida Gordon Campsite in Richmond. This five day camp was for the youth in the Houston area between the ages of seven and 18. Sponsored by VHP of America, the camp explored Hindu principles, traditions and issues while providing the youth with the tools to succeed in future endeavors.
I arrived at the camp clutching my bags tight, a rush of anxiety sent a chill through my spine. Feeling insignificant and lost in a crowd of 150 kids, I questioned my presence at this camp. I had never seen such a diverse group of Hindu youth. With 25 fulltime counselors, 10 ? 15 volunteering staff, hundreds of new faces and the thought of five days in a strange place made me crave for home. Sensing a nostalgic mist of angst from when they were campers, the counselors decided to break the ice with games and conversation. Much to my surprise I soon started to feel relaxed and suddenly the atmosphere changed from intimidating to welcoming. I immediately made several new friends and spend half the night getting acquainted with them. I had officially survived my first night at camp.
After a late night, came an EARLY morning, sooner then most of us expected. At 6:45 AM the counselors would walk into our dorms shouting “RISE AND SHINE GIRLS!!! TIME TO WAKE UP!” With only two sinks 20 girls and 15 minutes to brush our teeth, wash our face and get dressed it was definitely a challenge. But somehow every morning our counselors succeeded in getting us up and ready to begin Shaka – our early morning exercise ritual. Shaka activities awakened our mind, body and soul creating a positive foundation for the rest of our day. We always began Shaka with a prayer followed by the Surya Namaskar and other Yoga practices. After Yoga we would run and do other exercises until the conclusion of Shaka with the Sangh Prarthanaa. At this time elementary would head to breakfast, middle school to the showers and high school would stay and play more games. Kho, Langhri, hututu, and Lagorya not exactly your typical tag or hide and go seek, these were the same games our parents used to play when they were kids. We were shocked to discover how fun Indian games are, not to mention surprised to learn that our parents actually used to play games and have fun once upon a time. These games not only taught us teamwork and co-operation but they also instilled Indian culture and values.
Now that we were sweaty, tired and hungry at the end of our games, we would rush to breakfast longing the fuel that kept our bodies running. While apprehensively waiting for our meals we would sing the Bhojan Mantra, this practice taught us to appreciate the food that was provided. Cereal, fruits, orange juice, muffins, croissants or toast whatever it was we would eat to our hearts content without wasting a morsel of food. After stuffing our stomachs we headed to our short but clean shower session and then immediately followed to our education.
Education was one of my most cherished activities of this camp. High school was split into three groups depending on age. Each group would go to a different education and alternate during the day. We had three educations everyday lasting an hour each. Our educations covered many topics: the future/identity of Hinduism, Vegetarianism, Nutrition, Tantra/Shakti, Geeta and several other topics. Our counselors were incredibly knowledgeable in their topics and always ensured our sessions were interactive and discussion based, this gave everyone the opportunity to participate, question and search for answers. Personally, I found the answers to several of my questions at education. All the words I had only heard of but never understood became very clear now- Dharma, Karma, Moksha, Samsara they all started to fall into place and I was able to connect them to each other. I began unlocking the Sangh Prarthanaa piece by piece. I realized that I am praying for Strength, Good Character and Knowledge. Strength is respected and worshiped, good character demands respect and knowledge is the key to all doors. Knowledge is what will determine my goal and how I can achieve it. Aside from education we also had Swami Vidyadhishananda Giri come and speak with us. He passed on many words of advice and answered several questions. I remember he stressed the importance of time management and recommended we make a ?To do list? every morning. He also said ?Be proud of our Sanskriti? and urged us to become active members of our community. Swami Vidyadhishananda Giri was really able to connect with the campers. He spoke in simple language, provides examples that our generation could connect with and always had a smile on his face. His experiences and knowledge inspired all the campers and added a unique delight to camp.
Absorbing information at education, exercises our brains and any type of exercise whether it is physical or mental always makes us real hungry. So lunch time was always happy hour. Everyone was awake, their batteries had been recharged during education and they were ready to eat! The high school kids usually served lunch to the younger students before eating themselves; this instilled the importance of seva making the high school kids aware of the joy in giving. Food at camp is first class, we had something original everyday, from Burritos and subway to pizza and Pav Bhaji we?ve had it all. When it comes to food there is no compromise! The aunties and uncles that help in the kitchen and prepare our food do an amazing job, I didn?t miss home cooked meals at all, if anything I miss camp cooked meals, now! At lunch we enumerate the Bhojan Mantra and then begin eating, upon completion we retreat straight to Arts and Crafts. Education wasn?t the only place for youth to gain their knowledge. To my astonishment arts and crafts taught me a lot about worship of god and Indian culture too. In arts and crafts we used clay to build temples. Examining the different architecture, design, and colors used in diverse Indian temples we created our own temple bringing home a sentimental present for mom. Many people enjoyed the project so much that they worked at their project well into recreation time.
You see, 4:00 PM is recreation time, the time every camper looks forward to. We are given two whole hours to choose between several activities: canoeing, swimming, playing organized games, sports or just hanging out and talking to each other. At this time the younger students and the older students are given the opportunity to spend time together and this allows the kids to build on their newfound friendships, relax and have fun! The counselors also make themselves available to approach, answer any questions or clarify any doubts. All the counselors are young college students who are extremely well rounded and successful. They are role models to the campers, always providing comfort, knowledge and friendship.
Although we looked up to the counselors we did nothing but give them a hard time. Getting us settled down for Bhajans after recreation was a Herculean task for the counselors. Many lost their voice within the first day of camp including camp director Alok Kanojia. Alok put a tremendously effort into making camp a success this year everyone looked up to Alok, even with his lost voice he was trying to maintain order at Bhajans and get the campers to sit in straight lines. Rishi Bhutada last year?s camp director was also a very active organizer of the camp this year. Rishi was always running around from one place to another making certain everything was on schedule. Even with these two men on the job Bhajans and dinner was a staggering task. As soon as the counselors managed to get everyone to settle down we would begin Bhajans. Using our Vedic colored booklets to follow along with the words, we would sing loud and proud ?Dharti Ki Shaan tu hai manu ki santaan??. Dharti Ki Shaan, the Shiva Bhajan, the Krishna Bhajan, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram are some of the Bhajans we sang everyday. These Bhajans have a great impact on the campers, when 150 voices are singing in union it sounds amazing and fills the room with a positive ?Shakti?. At that point everyone feels a strong bond and the whole camp just comes to life. After these Bhajans we do the Arti and sing Ohm Jaya Jagadish Hare at this time all the students are up on their feet, bowing and in perfect unison. These Bhajans teach us a lot in itself, Dharti Ki Shaan our camp song clarifies who we are praying for, respected by Hindus, Mother Earth is described as the fulfiller of all our needs and the refuge of all the beings. Secondly we offer our prayers to God who is known as the embodiment of truth, consciousness and bliss, he is the one that maintains universal Dharma. This also leads to my question of what is my goal and how can I achieve it? I believe that my goal is to achieve my full potential and in order to do so I need to make a commitment to ?Dharma?. The reasoning behind this goal has taken me 18 years to comprehend; having a goal without knowing why, makes the goal futile. Understanding the purpose of the goal is what aids in achieving it.
However camp wasn?t only about goals and education, we?ve come to my favorite part of camp, the evening activities. The evening activities are the most engaging activities of the day. We had a scavenger hunt, talent show, skit night, Garba and Holi. The evening activities incorporated all the kids of the camp, it was always cultural and it was entertainment at its peak! The talent show gave every camper a chance to display their talent. There was singing, dancing, skits and martial arts. The Garba gave everyone an opportunity to dress up in their Indian clothes, get on the dance floor and celebrate their roots. Holi was also a favorite with the campers this year, with giant buckets filled with water balloons and cups filled with holi powder there nothing less then a mess when Holi was over. All the campers were covered with colors from head to toe and left soaking wet and feeling cold. These activities gave the youth a taste of the social aspect of Hinduism aside from the education, Bhajans and Shaka. The campers also had an opportunity to display their dramatic skills and participate in a skit demonstrating what they had learnt at camp. Even the counselors took ten minutes every night after our snack to put up a skit for us. All the youth really enjoyed the counselors skit it had dancing, singing and humorous characters, it replaced our daily TV with live theater. These activities added a splash of fun to the camp and left lasting memories on all the youth.
The Hindu heritage camp has assisted me through my journey down the path to spirituality. It has provided me the education and tools I require to face the hurdles in my path. It has shown me the embodiment of Indian culture and the essence of Hinduism. Hinduism provides values, discipline and a lifestyle all of which help you make the right decisions and attain your full potential. I believe that religion is truly an important part of a youth?s life in America and encourage every youth to take the opportunity to learn about Hinduism.