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September 18, 1999
Teenagers Find Hindu Camp "Cool"
Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago
When the Kothari sisters Manasi, 14, and Manali, 12, were told by their parents that they would have to attend a Hindu Children's camp this summer, they were not exactly ecstatic.
Understandable, after all summers were for fun things like swimming and sailing, not for boring stuff like shlokas and satsang.
But just one week at the camp in Ganges, MI, and the sisters from Aurora, IL decided the camp was actually "quite cool."
"We thought it would be so boring but we had so much fun, we want to go next year," says Manasi. "We learned meditation, yoga and aarti and met a lot of nice people. Lot of times, American kids don't understand us. Here we were all from the same background."
For the past 25 years, the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago has been sponsoring an annual summer camp for children at a town appropriately called Ganges.
The site was intentionally chosen by one of the group's swamis, because the name coincided with that of India's most sacred river.
In Michigan, a state legislator established the Ganges township in Michigan in 1847, but no one knows why he chose the name. The camp is held at the Vivekananda monastery and though the kids and teachers have changed over the years, the essential purpose of the camp has remained unchanged.
"The Indian community is concerned about its children learning about Hinduism," Swami Varadananda, the camp director, says. "Parents take children to temples and make them perform rituals. We put things in perspective and explain the deeper meanings of a lot of things."
Most of the campers are children of Indians who have migrated to this country over the last 30 years, but a number of American children too attend this camp. They are children of Americans who are members of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society. There are an estimated 1.1 million Hindus in North America compared to the 100,000 a couple of decades ago.
Torn between two cultures, Indian-American children grow up confused and bewildered. Camps like these help the ABCDs (American-Born-Confused Desis!) to know the ABC of their religion and culture, to the extent possible in an alien environment.
The week-long camp in August drew 22 kids this year (one year there were as many as 45), who paid $ 150 each for the experience.
"We try to combine fun with teachings," Swami Varadananda says. "Parents of these kids want them to know about their traditions and background." The children were taught yoga, meditation and listened to sermons on, what the swami calls, "practical wisdom."
This year the main theme was Enemies of Man. This covered besides others, issues like arrogance and selfishness. How in the name of God, does one make Enemies of Man fun? Obviously, Swami Chidananda (he gave all the sermons) had his own mantra since the 22 kids (ranging from 7 to 14) listened without getting restless or bored.
Of course, it was not all prayer and no play. There were fun things too for the kids -- activities like golfing, hanging out at the beach, hiking, visiting a zoo, making tie and dye shirts, baking a cake and the All-American favorite -- eating pizza.
The days started early with prayer and yoga, followed by lectures, craft and group activities. Evenings were for meditation, aarti and other classes. The last day of the camp was a 'Talents Day,' when the kids exhibited their individual talents on stage.
For Vishal Bhuta 12, of Glen Ellyn, IL the camp was an enlightening experience in many ways. He had spent the whole of last year in India, studying in a school which carried Vivekananda's name. The experience kindled an interest in Swami Vivekananda.
"The camp answered a lot of my questions, especially the meanings of the prayers we say," he says. "I would like to go back next year. All the kids were from the same background. Sometimes it is difficult to fit in with American kids in school."
His mother Trupti Bhuta is very enthusiastic about the camp. "The meditation has helped Vishal. He now does the suryanamaskaram and a little bit of yoga," she says.
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