By Bina Mahabir
“THERE IS A NEED FOR HINDU SPIRITUAL RETREATS & CAMPS IN THE NEW YORK COMMUNITY,” Says Pandit Ram Hardowar of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir
“Spiritual Retreats of this nature prepare our children … they are the future torchbearers of this great Dharma.”
NEW YORK: The Shri Surya Narayan Mandir (SSNM), under the astute and inspiring spiritual leadership of Acharyaji, Pandit Ram Hardowar, has been coordinating Hindu Spiritual Retreats and Camps for the youths in the New York Tri-State region for the past nineteen years. The mandir, which is located at 172nd Street, Jamaica in Queens, has not changed its modus operandi much since the first camp was held in 1993. All of these spiritual retreats and camps were so carefully planned and executed that they were all great success stories, where the youths benefited tremendously from camp life. Some 60-70 children ranging from ages 4 to 18 years old from different parts of the community have been attending the SSNM camps at any given time. These spiritual retreats and camps have become synonymous with SSNM annual list of activities. This year’s camp was held from July 15th – 22nd, 2012.
So, what is the recipe for success?
“We identify what the Hindu child is lacking in the New York area and we focused on those areas,” Pandit Ramji simply noted. Panditji, who is also the Camp Director, is very knowledgeable and well versed in several Hindu scriptural texts. An engineer by profession, Panditji is a great humanitarian who has dedicated much his time, energy and effort towards uplifting and educating the Hindu community, young and old alike.
The program for SSNM camps focuses on teaching simple, practical knowledge that all young Hindus should know and incorporate in their daily lives. But, because such information is not being taught at schools, nor sometimes at the homes, nor on TV nor from friends, youth camps are the only place where such knowledge can be passed on to the youths, added Pandit Ramji.
The theme for the SSNM 2012 Spiritual Retreat is Impact of Bollywood on Hindu Youths – an appropriate theme, considering how gullible and easily influenced young East Indians are towards the movie world’s fashion and trends in the New York Metro area and further afield.
THE SANKALPA OR PLEDGE
The youths attending the SSNM Spiritual Retreats have to take a sankalpa, which is basically a pledge for the entire week, stated the Acharyaij, matter-of-factly. They are asked to stay away from “non-vegetarian foods, the TV sets, phones, electronic video games, and computers.”
This policy is meant to reinforce the rich Hindu values they are taught at the camp into their personal lives. They are, however, encouraged to listen to selective radio programs and read materials that will enlighten them, added Pandit Ramji. They have to practice what could be termed as the 3 D’s, which stands for discipline, dedication and determination – qualities that all young people need to succeed in life.
DYNAMIC CHAIN OF LEADERSHIP WITHIN THE CAMP
The SSNM Annual Spiritual Retreat and Camp is a very well organized event and is efficiently managed by a group of intelligent, competent, hardworking and dedicated young Hindu leaders of the mandir. These individuals are senior campers who have attended over five camps and so are very seasoned and well-versed in the affairs of camp life. In essence, the Acharyaji set in motion such a dynamic chain of leadership within the folds of the camp that it is being supervised most efficiently sans the Camp Director.
“We’ve a group of senior campers who manage the camp,” said the Acharyaji, adding, “over the years we’ve been able to mould the senior campers into a group of efficient leaders,” who are also the teachers.
The tiers of leadership could be broken down into “the most senior campers who are the Assistant Camp Directors,” the second level below “who are involved in the presentations of religious and cultural” discourses and the third level of seniors who are “the group leaders.”
“Each group leaders are responsible for six campers each,” explained the Acharyaji, adding, “They take care of the group for the entire day.”
This process provides them the opportunity to learn important life lessons and skills in “management, parenting, public speaking and the ability to interact with children of all age group.”
Acharyaji mentioned that though he is the Camp Director, he does not have to be around for the camp to run smoothly, as the dedicated and hardworking group of people appointed to perform different tasks is very capable to manage without him. SSNM spiritual retreats are so meticulously planned that there is hardly any room for mishaps. Without a doubt, this is an example of dynamic leadership at work.
THE 12 GROUPS
It could be safely said that SSNM operated two camps simultaneously, one for the very young between the ages of 4 to 6 years old and another for the more senior campers consisting of ages 7 to 18 years old.
The campers are further divided into 12 groups with each being named after the twelve names of Shri Surya Bhagwan (Sun God). They were termed Mitraya, Ravaya, Surya, Bhanaway, Khagaya, Pushnay, Hiranyagarbhaya, Marichayay, Adityaya, Savitray, Arkaya and Bhaskaraya. Registration and orientation for the campers was held on Sunday 15th July from 1 to 4 PM.
This year, SSNM utilized a different strategy when grouping the campers. They were organized in columns and rows: the columns consisted of different age groups while the rows had the same age groups. This way, a group was made up of different ages and so the older campers assisted the younger ones when necessary. This is a great method that enhanced the learning process, particularly when dealing with different age groups in such an environment.
SSNM prepared two manuals, a Senior Manual and a Junior Manual and these were given to the appropriate campers at the orientation ceremony. It consisted of the welcoming letter by Pandit Ramji, camp rules and guidelines, remarks by some of the senior campers and the daily program, among other activities.
The Camp Director captured the real essence of camp life when he stated: “The instructions, training and discipline you will acquire will serve to make you a better, more matured individual with an increased capacity to face the challenges of the modern day society.”
Camp life began at 8:00 AM sharply with the performance of Surya Namaskar, which is salutation to Shri Surya Narayan, and then attendance is taken, followed by Sandhyaa which consisted of chanting of divine mantras and meditation. Next, breakfast was served to the campers from 9:30 AM to 10:00 AM. Soon after, the campers from 4 to 6 years were moved to their own quarter because their program was made up of activities for kids, which included religious cartoons based on stories from the Ramayan, Bhagavad Gita and other scriptural texts, arts and crafts, coloring of cartoons and Indian games, among other activities.
The older campers also resumed their packed program which comprised of both religious and cultural presentations done by the senior campers from 10:00 AM to 11:45 AM, followed by Science of Yoga (Yoga postures and Pranayam) from 11:45 AM to 12:30 PM, which was taught by the Guruma of the mandir, Mataji Radha Hardowar.
Campers ate lunch for an hour and after that, they networked with fellow campers who became their camp buddies. From 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM, the program consisted of guest lectures and Q & A sessions. Lectures were given by professionals from different fields: lawyers, doctors, correction officers, NYPD police officers, Navy officers and historian. After the intense lecture sessions, campers were given a 15 minute break. They returned to their groups to learn. Conversational Hindi, followed by Group Workshops, such as, Computer Workshops, Wood Workshops and Technical Workshops. This session also included Skit, Music, Arts & Crafts, Cooking, Dance, and what was called Improv – which meant the making of impromptu speeches, discussions, skits, etc.
Camp life was concluded with a recap of the day’s activities from 5:30 PM to 6:00 PM, which meant they were questioned on the day’s work and the group that answered the most questions correctly was named the Best Group of the Day. That was a bird eye’s view of the camp on a daily basis. Dr. Anand Hardowar, Bhaiji Amardat Persaud, President of SSNM, along with the other camp directors administered the camp quiz at the end of the day.
Parents were asked to pay a fee of $70 per camper which helped to offset expenses incurred for camp activities, such as meals, snacks, drinks, etc. Campers were given two balanced, nutritious meals and drinks, one healthy snacks, and fruits per day. The kitchen staff, made up of devotees of the mandir and parents, who were responsible for these delicious meals, was extremely well organized – the ingredients of all meals were prepared well in advance, so that meals were finished cooking on time. One person was appointed as the chief chef and he supervised the other helpers in the kitchen. Meals consisted of Indian foods, such as, kitchrie, dhol, rice and sabji (vegetables) and biryani rice, among others.
It should be noted that all meals were prepared without the two pungent seasonings of onion and garlic. These two edibles have the ability to “stir up passion” when eaten, so one is easily subjected to anger, greed, wrath and such emotions, hence, they were not conducive to strict camp life.
SSNM GUIDELINE TO CAMP LIFE
SSNM manuals set out some simple rules and regulations to help campers achieve the overall goals of this spiritual retreat, which were to nurture them to become more informed, courageous, dynamic Hindus.
To start with, punctuality and attendance played a pivotal role. Campers were asked to be on time every morning. SSNM opened its door at 7:30 AM so that parents could bring their children early and returned for them at 6:00 PM.
Campers were asked to wear uniforms to the camp, which were the SSNM T-Shirts and khaki pants and skirts or light clothing.
Discipline always played an important part in camp life at SSNM. As such, campers were encouraged to incorporate good mannerism and decent behavior at all times. Campers had to address each other respectfully; the males were called Bhai (brother) and the females were called Bahen (sister). They were not allowed to chew gum during camp, nor talk on cell phones. Should they carry electronic devices with them, they would be taken away and returned to them when their parents came for them at the end of the day.
SSNM manuals were also composed of prayers, the Havan, bhajans, the Surya Namaskar chart, Yoga Asanas, the Sanskrit alphabet and conversational Hindi and crossword puzzles of finding of Hindu Gods and other religious characters and names, among other items.
On Saturday, campers took to the stage to perform for their parents and other special guests. Whatever new things they learned during the week, be it a new mantra, a dance, skit, speech or yoga posture, they had the honor to act it out on stage.
On Sunday, after the conclusion of satsang, was their graduation ceremony where the campers received certificates of achievement – a proud moment for all of them.
A NEED FOR HINDU YOUTH CAMPS IN THE COMMUNITY
Acharyaji, who hails from Crabwood Creek on the Corentyne, Guyana, was born into a family of spiritual leaders. His grandfather who came from India was a pandit and his father, the late Dharmacharya Pandit Hardowar Pandey, was also a prominent spiritual personality in Guyana and the New York area.
After the family migrated to the USA in 1988, they continued to walk the path of Dharma by helping out Hindus in the community in several areas. They started out from humble beginning, hosting prayers and satsang for devotees in the community at a smaller mandir at 204th Street in Jamaica, guiding and teaching them the richness of Hindu dharma. Eventually with time, the need for a bigger mandir arises and so Panditji and the executive body and devotees bought the property and built the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir at its current location.
So now, Pandit Ramji focuses his time on Hindu programs that will help educate and elevate the lives of all devotees at the mandir, including the youths. He is a strong believer of the Spiritual Retreats and Hindu Camps for the spiritual enhancement of the Hindu youths.
“As I said earlier, you can’t learn this knowledge anywhere else. Therefore, a camp of this nature is of utmost importance since our children are the future torchbearers of this dharma,” asking rhetorically, “If we don’t prepare them now, how else will they be prepared?”
Panditji correctly pointed out that “this knowledge cannot be done during Sunday morning’s satsang. We need more Hindu training. This is why we’ve embark on a 4 years program for our youths.”
The Acharyaji said that there is a need for more Hindu youth camps in the community and that more mandirs should organize such camps for young Hindus. SSNM would “love to help other mandirs” who are in need of such assistance, as “we’ve over a dozen trained senior camp leaders” who would be willing to lend their expertise to other mandirs in the Queens area.
SSNM holds many more programs for interested Hindus in the community on a daily basis. On Tuesday, there is Yoga class which is taught by Mataji Radha, Wednesday has kirtan and table, Thursday, there is Vedanta class that is taught by Pandit Ramji, Friday has Surya Veer Sang class for the youths and Saturday has dance and tutorial/test prep program for children writing the SAT and CAT and Regent exams. These classes are being taught by professionals.
SSNM is now embarking on building a cultural center – Surya Sanskriti Kendra – which will be holding many more Hindu programs, including a Hindu school for children ages 4 to 6 years.
Pandit Ramji, an outstanding spiritual leader, full of humility, compassion and kindness, must be complimented for dedicating much of his time and energy to create valuable Hindu programs that educate, enhance and ultimately, enrich devotees’ lives. His family and the hard working team at the mandir must also be lauded for their invaluable contributions towards making the camps and other projects a success.
To reach him or for more info on programs at SSNM, please check out the website at: http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org