Finding Camp, Lost in the Woods: A Reflection on HSC’s Camp at Shanti Mandir
Parth Parihar. —
By this point, we’d been wandering dry, dirt-clod fields for nearly an hour, Surya Dev shooting down piercing rays of sunlight on backs that were already sore from morning yoga and all the fun physical activities we’d had the day before. I was with two close friends, Allegra—whom I’d known since our days at Princeton—and Ravi, who I had gotten to know really well through working closely in HSC. As we rounded the corner, we could hear voices coming from behind a seemingly infinite blackberry thicket. Each of us realized that crossing that thicket was the only forseeable way to end our wandering misery. You see, having set out on a walk to explore the vast and beautiful expanse that was Shanti Mandir—the host of this year’s HSC camp which had just ended— we sort of, er, got lost. And we were eager to get back. Very eager.
Of course, there was no way around; we would need to get through. This fact inspired heated debates on exactly where we would look for an opening. While the Princetonians opted to go through the first viable-looking path, Ravi wandered further and found his own. “Guys, come through here!” he screamed. Yet, stubborn, we continued through the thorn-strewn path we’d chosen. The seductive smugness of being right got the best of us. Later, once we realized our chosen path was unviable, we turned around and were forced to eat humble pie, which Ravi clowningly thrust into our faces.
This episode triggered some self-reflection. As we tried to cross through our chosen thorn-infested path, the realization occurred to me that we were wrong. There was no way we would make it through this narrow slit without thousands of scratches and poison ivy, to boot. Yet, the fleeting feeling of “being right” got the best of us. In life, too, we often continue to wander down dangerous, doomed-to-fail rabbit holes, despite obvious evidence that what we are doing is wrong. We tread these paths to satisfy our momentary lust for material and sensory objects. Then, when they are gone, we fall down again into sorrow.
This feeds a kind of over-dependence on the worldly in our lives; this was the primary message of Acharya Arun Gossai’s pravachans at camp. His lectures made Vedanta a real part of our lived experience, so simple to understand that they flashed across my mind just now. Like the lesson learned from this episode-in-the-woods, however, the simple can be difficult to implement. At a katha I’d recently attended, a swamiji whom I’ve known since childhood vividly illustrated this point with an analogy:
In Indian villages, when a local is bitten by a snake, in order to ascertain whether that person was bitten by a poisonous snake or not, you know what the villagers do? They feed that person a leaf from a neem plant. If he perceives the neem leaf—ordinarily bitter—to be sweet, then we know the person has poison in his system. In the same way, if we perceive worldly desires and engagements—which we know ought to be bitter—as sweet, then we too are afflicted by poison. Which one of us will say that we have not been bitten?
This makes pravachan and satsang so important, for they remind us of these quintessential, superficially “obvious” lessons of life. And if they remain in the fore of our minds, we can hope to actualize their teachings. Pravachan and satsang were some of the things HSC camp hoped to provide its attendees: an environment where these fruits of wisdom from the Hindu tradition could be passed to first-generation Hindu-Americans in an accessible way.
Yet, as my mind turned away from the blackberry thicket to the past few days at HSC camp, I realized that HSC camp provided its attendees much more than just that. Evidence the fact that while I was taking video testimonials of our camp-goers, 90% emphasized the fact that they valued having “like-minded” individuals to enjoy the experience with. Allegra later asked me whether that was a “Hindu-American thing” to say since she’d never heard the term before. To answer her question, I think it’s a Hindu-American youth thing, since we often don’t get to meet other Hindus our age with similar experiences, who are truly committed to a Hindu way of life beyond the superficial. This makes the experience so special.
The camp also gave us the chance to engage in critical discussion on the ways in which Hinduism is often misrepresented in popular culture and academia. We discussed ways in which we can answer challenging questions about Hinduism that are posed to us—be it on caste, the theistic nature of Hinduism, etc.— making the larger, diverse communities in which we live more aware of who we are and sensitive to the issues we face. The ability for Hindu-American youth to be able to explain their spiritual tradition to outsiders undergirds an important need for the future of the community.
As thoughts thus buzzed across the synapses buried inside my head, I saw a more familiar path crop up before me. Before Shanti Mandir came into view, I realized that I’d found camp.