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Summer camp for Hindu kids blends fun, spiritual instruction

Summer camp for Hindu kids blends fun, spiritual instruction

Author: Barbara Karkabi
Publication: Houston Chronicle
Date: July 29, 2006
URL: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/religion/4079857.html

The American teens in shorts and jeans eagerly questioned the Hindu holy man in saffron-colored robes.

"Swami," a young man said, "in Texas people say if you don't believe in Jesus Christ you will go to hell.

In Islam they say there is only (one) God. How do you answer those people when they talk to you like that?"

And how, a young girl asked, do they explain Hinduism and its many traditions to others?

Swami Vidyadhishananda Giri's answer was swift and direct. "There are many paths to God," he said. "God is one, knowledge is one. The very basic teachings are universal. You cannot lose your inner strength, even if someone provokes you."

Stress the values you learned growing up as a Hindu, he said. It's a message of love, harmony and tolerance. "Ultimately you will make an impact."

The swami, who earned a doctorate in neurobiology in California and spent the past four years meditating in the Himalayas, has been called a bridge between East and West. His visit to the Hindu Heritage Youth Camp was a highlight for the 151 kids who turned out last week for the five-day experience.

Ranging in age from 7 to 18, all but a handful came from the Houston area. The swami, "45 in this body," divides his time between his native India and California.

"It's hard, sometimes, for the kids to find a resource who can really answer any questions they have about our religion," said camp director Alok Kanojia, 23.

Kanojia, like most of the 25 young counselors, is a former camper. He first attended at age 6 and, in his early years, viewed Hindu camp as just a fun time with friends. But as he got older, Kanojia began to understand the value of what he was learning about his religion and culture.

He and the other counselors, all volunteers, hope to pass those values on to younger campers. They want to help them feel comfortable as Hindus, a religious minority living in a predominantly Christian culture.

"As Swami Giri said, if you have a strong moral character, good things will happen for you," said Kanojia, a University of Texas graduate from Beaumont. "It's the techniques that we teach them at camp, like yoga and meditation tools to help them deal with the stress of studying and daily life."

But the camp is not just about exploring beliefs and values. It's also about fun, making new friends and, for some, suffering an occasional broken heart.

At the 112-acre Gordon Ranch, kids swim, ride on paddle boats, play American and Indian games, learn about yoga, perform skits, have talent shows and take part in arts and crafts.

Two of the most popular activities are holi, an uninhibited celebration of spring in which colored powder and water are thrown on friends and family, and garba-raas, a celebratory dance.

"It's a folk dance," explained Anjali Dhingra, 15, of Friendswood.

"We all get dressed up in our Indian clothes, and everyone looks so pretty. The younger kids have been learning the dance all week, but they are shy. When they see us dancing they all join in, and in the end, everyone is dancing away. It's so much fun."

Dhingra has gone to Hindu camp for five years. Over a vegetarian lunch with friends, she discussed the swami's talk and how well he understood their lives and the daily challenges.

"What's good about the education session is that when you are young they start with the basics," she said. "Now that we get older the talks are much deeper, and we get into things like ethics, self-empowerment and goals."

Camp begins early. Wake-up prayers begin at 6:45 a.m., and by 7:15 all campers are expected to be on the playground, standing in straight lines, organized by age and grade.

Dillon Rama, 10, a visitor from Louisville, Ky., wishes they could sleep until 10 a.m. But 7-year-old Ekta Suri from Missouri City, with long dark hair and twinkling eyes, politely disagrees.

"I like to feel the dew on the ground," she said.

The next 15 minutes are spent at the daily shakha, an Indian activity that includes prayers and songs, followed by 30 minutes of physical fitness, yoga and games. It's a way, counselors say, to encourage lifelong health habits.

Placing her hands together, counselor Sujata Amin, 19, sings several prayers in Hindi that ask Ganesh, a symbol of good fortune, for a good day.

That's followed by the camp song, Dharti ki Shaan. Every person is great, they sing, but the strong should help the weak.

Older campers place their hands together and join in; younger campers follow along from printed song sheets. "Om shanti, shanti, shanti," they chant, calling for peace.

Later, the high-school students begin their yoga session.

They are working on a position known as suyra namaskar, or the sun salutation, a yoga exercise that includes 10 positions and is considered one of the best exercises for the body.

"We are here to help them achieve their full capacity both physically and mentally," said Sharad Amin, one of the founders of the 21-year-old camp sponsored by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, part of the World Hindu Council. "And slowly, they are molded."

"The counselors rock," 10-year-old Shivam Dave said. He especially liked the skits and talent shows.

"I love learning about the Hindu heritage, the different symbols and what they mean, how Eastern and Western medicine can be combined and what the orange flag stands for."

Kavita Parekh has learned about karma this summer.

"Indian people really believe in it," the 9-year-old from Victoria said.

"Basically, if you do something bad, it will come back to you 10 times worse. But if you do something good, it will come back 10 times better."

Inside the main lodge, shoes are taken off, and a group is learning how to dance the garba. Another plays an Indian game similar to pool, and several girls giggle over Twister.

Anuj Mittal, 16, sits back and watches. He is taking a break and waiting for lunch.

"What I like is that it's so family oriented. I feel right at home." Mittal has been a camper for five years. Like many of his fellow campers, he plans to be a counselor and carry on the tradition.

That pleases Kanojia and his friend Ronak Shah, 24. Shah, a camper for 10 years, then a counselor and finally the camp co-director in 2004, laughs as he describes himself as one of the worst-behaved campers. But his dedication is clear.

"The main thing is to inspire them," Shah said, "and plant the seeds for later in life."


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