The week that I just experienced deserves much more than words to describe it, but as words are my chosen medium of expression, I’d still like to write about it.
From December 24th, 2009 to January 1st, 2010 was held the second global Chinmaya Yuva Kendra (CHYK - Learn more about it here) camp, entitled “Dharma… Just Live It.” Indeed, throughout the week we campers were given opportunities and situations in which to apply our limited knowledge of Dharma in real life. We were exposed to our own mind and its tendency for deceit, we were exposed to our own lack of attention, we were exposed to our own selfishness, and by the end of the week, after undergoing a reality check several times every day, we were truly empowered with a more solid understanding of Dharma.
The camp was held at the Chinmaya International Residential School (CIRS) in beautiful Coimbatore, Tamilnadu. The CIRS campus is located in a valley surrounded by the Nilgiri Hills, full of lush greenery and a wondrous backdrop. Learn more about CIRS here. When I was nine years old, I had come to study at CIRS, based on a whim and a subtle desire that was evoked by a presentation about CIRS held in Chicago that year. So I went during the 5th grade. It was easily one of the best experiences of my life, and definitely a turning point in my life. It taught me how to live and interact in the world, it taught me to appreciate my culture, and it taught me the method of applying spirituality in daily life. Today, I am who I am in part because of CIRS. As I entered the campus again for the first time in 12 years, memories of the place came rushing back as if I had just left the school a day before. I remembered running down the main pathway from the school building to the annakshetra, or dining hall; I remembered playing sports in the sports field near the entrance to the campus; I remembered attending classes in the main school block; I remembered living in a dormitory for the first time in my life and what a wonderful experience that was; I even remembered some of the exact spots on campus where I had tripped and fallen and received many of the scars I have today. Now, I was back for a Yuva Kendra camp that was bigger in scale than I had ever been to before, with 137 CHYKs from all over the world, including Australia, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and the UK. I also got an opportunity to reconnect with friends I had made at CIRS 12 years ago, who I had lost all contact with since then. I was actually in disbelief the whole time that I was meeting these people and that I was back at CIRS, a place that I had literally missed for over a decade. It was like a long-standing desire that had finally been fulfilled and I was living it!
The main acharya (teacher) of the camp was Swami Swaroopananda, about whom I can hardly say anything, because there is so much to say! To make things easier, find out more about Swamiji here. I will say a couple of words though. I did not know Swami Swaroopanandaji before this camp. When I was coming, I had no idea what to expect, or what he looked like. But when I heard him speak on the first day of the camp about Dharma, I was left in awe of this unbelievable personality capable of delivering a message that took thousands of years to come up with in only an hour and a half. Throughout the week, we campers laughed and cried with Swamiji, learning more about ourselves than we knew was there. We were given the opportunity to explore what we had learned through activities, and thanks to Swamiji, there was always lots there to explore. His style of expression when delivering lectures is inimitable – he is so animated when he speaks that it is almost impossible not to be totally involved in the story he tells. There is never a dull moment with Swamiji, and this is exactly the kind of head personality needed to make a camp for ages 18-30 a successful one. The other acharyas were Brahmachari Rishi Chaitanya and Brahmacharini Nishita Chaitanya. Naturally, there is so much to say about both of them, but anything I say can never do them justice. Rishiji is stationed at CIRS, and is known as “Rishi Bhaiya” by the students of the school. His personality is a very fun one, taking pleasure in the simplest things like a funny face or action. His presence at camp was a very reassuring one, as if to say, “while I’m here, nothing will happen to you, don’t worry.” (You will find out why this was an important thing at the camp later on in this post.) I feel that this is the essence of his presence at CIRS in general, to reassure the students there that so long as he is present, nothing will happen to them. Nishitaji is stationed in Hong Kong, and is well known for her series of children’s books called Chinmaya Bala Katha. She was born in South Africa and worked in Australia, which makes her another interesting personality to interact with – as Indians growing up outside of India, it is easy for us to relate to her because she seems to know what we are going through. She was a psychologist, and therefore the sessions with her during the camp were all geared at allowing us to take a deep look into our own personalities so that we might be able to make a meaningful change in our lives.
Before reading on, I encourage you to read a little bit about the Mahabharata on this page.
The theme of the camp was the entire Mahabharata, which has never been done before in camp format. We learned that the Mahabharata was written in 18 volumes, of which only seven volumes are full of the stories we hear today, whereas the remaining 11 are only about war. Naturally, if this camp was going to be about the entire Mahabharata, it had to have a lot of war incorporated into it. Since the theme was “Dharma… Just Live It,” Swamiji set the stage right away by telling us all about Dharma in the first lecture. After that, we were introduced to several situations during the Mahabharata in which the application of Dharma was expounded. Along with the lectures, we were given the opportunity to practice what we learned in the format of activities.
We were split into different discussion groups, named after some of the prominent characters of the Mahabharata. I was in the group called Krishna, and of course, we of Krishna group were all excited about being placed in it! Other groups were named Abhimanyu, Arjuna, Bhima, Bhishma, Draupadi, Drona, Karna, Kunti, and Yudhishthira.
Early on in the week, we were surprised during one of our activity sessions by a group of army officers who apparently randomly ran into our gathering to whip us into shape. They were intent on the fact that this was a war, and therefore we needed to be trained properly if we were going to win. (In Singapore, it is mandatory for all high school graduates to go to army training for two years before continuing on with education or work; therefore, these army officers were actually the CHYKs who came from Singapore, who had done or were presently doing army training there.) At first, we were all skeptical. It was easy to ignore what the officers were saying, because they were our friends! Or so we thought. We as an army unit were very disorganized at first. Admittedly, probably none of us had ever had army training before (except for the Singapore kids, who were leading the activity, and therefore were not involved in “being trained”). We couldn’t stop laughing, perhaps because of their accents, or because of how seriously they were taking the activity. But every time we laughed, they made us “LOCK IT DOWN!” and do push-ups. (Just for reference, push-ups on concrete or on a road are very different from push-ups in a gym.) Some of us got it right away, but some of us just couldn’t seem to take it seriously. We realized that if any one of us made a mistake, all of us would suffer in the form of push-ups. After the initial 15 minutes of getting used to what it was we were supposed to be doing, they made us march across the campus to a big grassy field where we were sat down for a briefing. Even during the march, there were several times where they made us do push-ups because some people were not taking it seriously. I understood that this was to give us a feel for what battle might have been like in the time of the Mahabharata, and I decided to take the activity seriously (not by being serious, but by listening intently and following directions). Many people were still under the impression that this was one big joke, and that this camp could not possibly include a mini boot camp…
At this point we were still relatively disorganized, but we sat down in the field and listened to an explanation of different war tactics related to the game called “capture the flag.” For those of you who have never played, there is a big field with a flag on each end. Each of the two flags are protected by a team, whose objective is to run across the field, capture the opposing team’s flag, and return to home base with the enemy flag, which ends the game. In our case, it would be a little bit more complicated, and I will explain more about it later on.
After the briefing about war tactics, we were split into different teams, and each team was sent to a different station across the campus for training. The objective was to complete the task assigned at the station, then move on to the next station. We faced simple tasks like shooting an arrow at a pole and near-impossible tasks like walking across a single rope using hanging “vines” (ropes) to pull ourselves across and then monkey-climb (upside-down) across another rope from one tree to another tree without touching the ground. Naturally, some of us could do these tasks faster, and some of us thought we could never do the tasks at all. But the objective was clear – every single person on the team had to complete every single task, and every member of the group had to complete a task before the team could move on to the next one. Thus, we all encouraged each other and made sure each member felt like part of a family so that there was no negativity between us if someone messed up and had to start over. We used chants like “Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram!” “Sita Ram, Radhe Shyam!” and “Everywhere we go, people wanna know…” to get us from one task to another. Though there were some people who would never have even attempted some of the tasks we had to go through, we witnessed a transformation in many members of the team based on the fact that they simply had to complete the task or we could not move on. These same people who would never have attempted a task ended up being able to complete every single task, and developed a confidence in themselves that they could do much more than they thought possible. At the end of the training, we were made to army-crawl across a dirt patch to get to a drinking water station. One person was assigned to yell at us saying that we could not finish, or that the finish line was really far away. This last test, after having gone through nearly three hours of rigorous training, truly pushed our limits both mentally and physically. Although we ended with many cuts, bruises, scrapes, etc., we as a team became very disciplined by the end of the activity, and amazingly enough, started to look something like an army platoon!
We were truly living the army life, for that night we were made to live outside in the forest, pitching our own tents and cooking our own food on open fires. Each team was split into two – one half to cook and the other half to pitch the tents. I was part of the tent-pitching team, and it was not easy! But we finally finished our task and regrouped with the cooking team. We witnessed them begging for “bhiksha” (alms) in the form of raw vegetables and other cooking ingredients, so that they could complete their task. When we regrouped, we were all desperately hungry and ready to sleep. Our group’s cooking team told us that our food would be amazing, and that they had created a wonderful item for us to eat once it was dinnertime. But when it was time to eat, the coordinators announced that we were not allowed to eat the food that was made by our own group, and instead had to go beg for bhiksha at other groups’ cooking stations. This was perhaps one of the most difficult orders to obey, for we already knew that our group’s food would be amazing. Instead, we had to go beg at other stations for their food. Later, I was offered a bite of something from someone else’s plate, who said it was amazing, and he even put it in my plate; when I found out it was from my own group’s station, though, I told him to take it back because I was not allowed to eat it. Indeed, we were given several such opportunities to practice what we had learned during Swamiji’s lectures about different aspects of Dharma – in this case, honesty.
The entire camp was split into two groups – team Alpha and team Bravo. I was assigned to team Alpha. These would be our teams for capture the flag, and we were made to face each other across a massive bonfire. The chant for team Alpha was “Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram!” and the chant for team Bravo was “Hara Hara Mahadeva!” We split off into camps to discuss our strategies, and discovered that there were spies in both camps, but nobody knew who was or wasn’t a spy. To make things even more interesting, we learned that the upcoming war (capture the flag) would be fought using red-paint water bombs as ammunition. We were told to locate three ammo depots, a few tapasya (penance) spots where we could do penance (by standing on one leg and eating five neem leaves) and receive ammo, and of course the enemy base. The commanders informed their respective armies of their strategy secretly, and we were even more charged up than before! (If this seems ambiguous to you now, imagine how we felt! The entire duration of the camp, we campers were kept in the dark about what the next activity was going to be.)
Of course, the war activities only happened during activity time (except for the night out in the forest). The rest of the time we were either in early-morning vedic chanting class with Rishiji, Mahabharata lectures with Swamiji, self-discovery sessions with Nishitaji, bhajan (devotional song) jam sessions, or resting in our rooms. I learned a lot about myself through each of these sessions, and formed definite plans of action for application of these discoveries in my daily life. Dharma has been my favorite topic for a while now, whether for philosophizing or practical application, so to attend a camp that was focused only on Dharma for a whole week was a real treat!
When it was time for the actual war, we split into our teams, team Alpha wearing white bandanas and team Bravo wearing orange. We learned that if even one team member died, we were required to send two people to “save” that member. These three together would then have to come back to headquarters and start back from there. We discussed strategy and tactics, divided into platoons of attack and defense, chose a few scouts, and finally set ourselves up for implementation. I was part of an attack squad, so our job was to flank the enemy base from the left after securing whatever ammo depots we came across along the way. We set out to accomplish what we were assigned to do, but we soon realized that the campus was much bigger than what we had expected at first. Our team was split and we had no method of communication except through our scouts. Luckily, there was some sense of order based on our training, but after some time we found that each platoon had been divided. As members kept on falling, and our communication lines were cut, we lost any sense of formation. It became an all-out free-for-all with stray bands of team members coming together for a small skirmish here and there, but with almost no chance of actually capturing the flag. The defenses on both sides were too fortified for any true penetration to take place at the main bases. When our own commander fell (in a location where he was impossible to recover, no less) morale was rather low. We could not come together for a full frontal assault, which is what our strategy ultimately called for. Many times we found ourselves wanting to cheat and say we were not dead even when we were hit (and most of us did just that at times) but even with our small efforts the war could not be won. At times we may have even forgotten why we were fighting the war, when we got so involved in our small skirmishes. After probably an hour of random fighting here and there, the war was called off as a draw. When we returned to the starting point of the war at the center of campus, we were all tired and ready to head in. When the war was officially announced to be over, there was great cheering and both teams in turn did the chant of the other team. It was a very inspirational moment – we all recognized our unity and rejoiced at it, renouncing all differences and coming together as one group, the global Chinmaya Yuva Kendra.
We were given the opportunity for reflection many times after the war (the war happened only in the middle of the camp). I made a few observations. I noticed that throughout the war activities, the involvement of the leaders became less and less, but the discipline among the members of the different teams became stronger and stronger. My reflection was that perhaps this is how our minds act. We are told to control our minds, but we do not give it the initial effort required for such an endeavor. In this case, the campers were like the mind and the leaders of the war games were like the intellect. With a strong intellect, it takes some serious effort in the beginning to control the mind, but as practice disciplines the mind more and more, the effort required on behalf of the intellect is less and less, and the whole activity of controlling one’s mind culminates on its own. Eventually the mind becomes easily controllable by the intellect, and we are able to live reasonable and just lives. This concept seems as though it is at the heart of all spiritual practices, aiming at controlling the mind through some rigorous activity of the intellect such that we can eventually have perfect control in our lives. The mind rebels at first, but with a strong intellect we can learn to quiet the mind and not give in to our petty desires. In the end, our intellect can ease up on the mind and we still progress towards spiritual perfection.
I also noticed that while we tried really hard during the war to cheat a little bit here and there to make some progress for our team, no matter how hard we tried, the war could not be won by those methods. Hence I learned that in real life, with the big goals that we set, if we try to accomplish them using devious methods, we can never truly succeed. When we use honest methods to accomplish a goal, however, the victory is long-lasting. Sometimes, if we get too caught up in the small skirmishes, we forget why we are fighting them in the first place. If we simply keep our eyes on the goal at all times, we will know what to do in each little situation we come across.
The week culminated in some wonderful stories told by Swami Swaroopanandaji. I will admit to having been teary-eyed or even having cried several times during those stories, whether it was the death of a hero, the victory of a hero, or even a touching dialogue. Swamiji explained each scene so thoroughly and so well that one could not help but be emotionally involved every second of the way.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve, we campers celebrated by having a banquet outside, doing a garba around a beautiful statue of Radha and Krishna that was brought outside, and playing dandia. About ten minutes before midnight, we all gathered in the amphitheater where Swamiji led us through a guided meditation session. I have never done such a thing on New Year’s Eve, but I must acknowledge that it was one of the most peaceful experiences I have had. Swamiji informed us by saying “Happy New Year…!” in a very calm and peaceful voice that it was about five minutes past midnight. We all embraced each other, met out in the lawn where we danced some more, and finally turned in for the night, to begin a new year in this most elevated and inspired of moods.
As the camp came to a close, none of us wanted to leave the environment we had created for ourselves. But we also recognized that it was time to bring what we had learned at camp to the real world and apply it as best as we could. We said our goodbyes, exchanged contact information, and went our separate ways. I was very glad to have met the people that I met during this camp, and being the only one from the USA, I was given the responsibility of being the CHYK West (USA and Canada) contact for future correspondence. I now have countless invites to visit different parts of the world; I hope I get to visit each place I have been invited to!