Hindu Students Council’s annual camp in New York addresses issue of ‘Woke Hindu’

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The winning team of a game poses for a heartwarming photograph. Photo: Hindu Students Council.

Students and young professionals from the Tristate area and as far as Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago, came to attend Hindu Students Council (HSC)’s annual camp during the Memorial Day weekend at Shanti Mandir, in Walden, NY.

Now in its 29th year, the camp helps young Hindus form a community and learn more about their heritage and culture from experts and from each other. This year’s camp was framed around the theme “How to Be a Woke Hindu,” according to a press release.

“In a nutshell, ‘Being a Woke Hindu’ means understanding both the issues that face the American Hindu community, along with the issues that face the global community, and how we, as young Hindus, can use the teachings of Hindu Dharma to help make a change for the positive,” explained HSC’s President Parth Parihar. “Part of the problem our community faces is that we lack young, confident ambassadors. HSC is changing that.”

The camp sessions kicked off with a talk by Shanti Mandir’s resident-acharya Vivek Desai on Upanishadic wisdom and its relevance to our own lives.

Accompanying this were a series of five Tedx-style “lightning talks” given by HSC leaders, each on a core topic—key scriptures, karma, dharma, Hindu symbols, and yoga—that Hindus should know about and be able to articulate to others. Thus, much of Saturday focused on conveying Hindu dharma’s core teachings and basic philosophies to attendees so that they could inspire further exploration and changes in their own lives.

“I learned more about not only Hindu faith, but about myself and others and how we implement Santana Dharma in our lives,” stated Andrew Latchman, a Guyanese-American junior from the HSC chapter at the University of Maryland.

The camp sessions also empowered attendees to communicate these fundamentals to others. When students are asked “So, what is Hinduism, anyway?” many struggle to come up with a cohesive, short and sweet response. Debopriyo Biswas, a graduating senior from Princeton University and hailing from Bangladesh said, “camp helped me understand aspects of Hindu Dharma on a deep level and how to communicate that with people who are either interested in learning or have misconceptions about my tradition.”

The focus of the camp gradually shifted to tackling issues facing humanity—environmental protection, vegetarianism and animal rights, interfaith respect, LGBTQA+ rights, and feminism. These topics delved into the unique contributions that Hindu dharma can make in resolving existing fault lines in a progressive, sustainable manner.

“The hope is that learning more about what Hindu dharma has to say about actual social issues relevant to the youth of today will inspire them to make changes for the better,” pointed out presenter and HSC Treasurer Sohini Sircar. This part of the camp helped spark “some truly meaningful discussions with people who are similarly interested in critically thinking about their approach to religion and Hindu Dharma,” shared graduating high school senior Rohan Sharma.

HSC Chairman Nikunj Trivedi delivered an eye-opening, interactive session on the jati-varna system, which is often misrepresented as the “caste system.” Trivedi’s presentation on “caste” helped attendees understand that caste-based discrimination is not a part of Hindu dharma and how the varnashrama tradition gradually became corrupted over time and rigidized further with British colonial policies. The presentation showed a history of the development of caste and was meant to get attendees to think about how the misconceived connection between Hindu dharma and caste-based discrimination actually helps to legitimize it.

Afterwards, Parihar gave an interactive presentation on Hindu dharma’s representation in the media. Parihar’s presentation gave students a six-part template to help them evaluate media bias against Hindu traditions in mainstream media. Armed with examples, attendees actively engaged in deconstructing problematic tropes used against the Hindu community and gained the requisite language to articulate this misrepresentation in a cogent, scholarly fashion. Simran Bagdiya of the HSC Rutgers chapter noted that “some wonderful, meaningful discussions” sprung up during these sessions “that challenged my perspectives and broadened my horizons.”

Apart from these sessions, HSC also strove to incorporate facets of dharma into games as a way of teaching while attendees had fun. One example was “Ultimate Rakshasa,” a variant of a traditional game in which players take on the roles and special powers of characters from the Mahabharata. Attendees also enjoyed traditional Indian games like pittu, kho-kho, and others throughout the weekend.

Each morning began with an hour of yoga and meditation to ensure that attendees were in the right frame of mind and energized for the sessions throughout the day. Physicality aside, the knowledge of attendees was tested in a very competitive Hindu Jeopardy! challenge that offered categories like “Rishis and Rakshasas” with questions from the Itihasas, Hindu history, and contemporary affairs. Finally, the fun and games culminated in a bonfire where attendees sang bhajans and ate smores and corn-on-the-cob.

Camp attendee and graduating HSC leader from City College of NY Sneha Madimi encapsulated the camp experience well by calling it “spiritually uplifting while still socially active.”

“It is truly incredible how much fun, learning, and wisdom were packed into just one weekend,” said Patrice Williams, an HSC member from Baltimore, who declared that the camp “introduced [her] to new ideas about Hindu dharma” and proved “that bringing a few young minds together will present real Dharma to all Hindu youth and those interested.”

Several of the camp attendees were already gushing about how they couldn’t wait until the opportunity to attend the next Memorial Day weekend HSC camp.

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