Saturday, January 21, 2012
Friday, October 28, 2011
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
For three days now, the prospect of rain has been taunting us. There have been all the signs of rain – dark clouds, thunder, wind, etc. – but no rain. In addition, it is almost unbearably hot here (though it is hotter by temperature elsewhere, it is hot enough here to be nearly unbearable; perhaps elsewhere it is unbearable). Daily, in the afternoon, the sky becomes tinted gray, the wind picks up, thunder rolls, and people start to pray: Today, oh God, please make it rain; we need it, we can hardly bear the heat any longer.
It is like torture.
I had a flash of insight today as to the reason that there is so much literature dedicated to the performing of rituals concerning rain. I understand now, from the insider’s perspective, why people pray for rain and why entire societies developed rituals, customs, and festivals around praying for rain, appealing to the Rain God for his mercy, and the first rain of the season. I felt the pain, the torture associated with longing for rain in the face of its absence even when it should be here according to the signs. Today I identified with all the people looking up into the sky with such hopeful eyes that it would make any man with even a small sense of empathy cry out to the gods, “Please, please let it rain so these people may be liberated from this heat!”
There is a common perception that rain customs and rituals started because of the obvious effect it has on the growth of crops for the season. But that is too plain and arm’s-length-academic to be true. If it were only for their crops, villagers would not be as desperate as they sound in their prayers. Moreover, it is only the first rain of the monsoon season that holds real weight in their tradition; the rest of the season passes by normally. Why? I believe something a little more holistic is probably the answer. While prayers to the Rain God are valid enough for the sake of crops, consider this as well: If I, a student who stays indoors much of the time, walking to Sringeri and back only once a day (approximately 7 kilometers/1.5 hours total), with relatively good resistance to heat, can feel like the heat is killing me and that I am being tortured by the gods because of the lack of rain, then how must a farmer, who is out in the fields doing physical labor for 10 hours a day in the hot sun with no respite, feel? He looks up into the sky, sees the clouds gathering, feels the wind picking up, hears the thunder, and tears come to his eyes. He thinks to himself: Will I be saved today? Will the Lord be merciful? Is today the day of my deliverance from this suffering? He thinks: My life depends on this.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Today, for the first time, I was one with the village folk. When I woke up in the morning, I had a subtle feeling that something had changed. I noticed a slight shift in the air from being hot, sticky, and otherwise static to being hot and sticky, but along with a delicate dance, a faint stir. This was such a subtle perception – subtle, that is, to my previously dull senses. I would not have noticed this before, nor could I have, for I was never really in touch (I now realize) with my surroundings.
I had a deep-seated feeling that came to the forefront of my mind about a minute after I noticed the change in the air, and the word attached to this feeling was rain. I had an innate feeling that it would rain. And I knew it for certain; the knowledge came to me without a doubt. I just knew. It was the same knowledge that someone with perfect pitch has of middle C hit on a piano. He knows innately that it is middle C, without any need of proof or verification. To him, it simply is, the same way we know certain frequencies of light to be blue, red, etc. We can identify them just by looking at them, and we need not verify with someone else before we are sure. It was the same knowledge that the villagers here have of their environment.
When the lady who cleans my room came to my room today around 3:00 PM, she said, “It’s going to rain today.” And I replied, “I KNOW!” (I replied in English first in my excitement, so she was sort of confused, but then I told her what I experienced.) We both knew, despite the fact that it was still completely sunny outside at the time, with no hint of dark clouds anywhere on the horizon. It was the first time I could relate to her on that point – before, she would always come in and say, “It’s going to rain,” and I would never know how she knew – she always claimed that she felt it in the air. But today, I felt it too. I realized that this is what it means to be in touch with nature. I learned, for the first time, that I can sense changes in the environment. It reminded me of the way Legolas or Aragorn from Lord of the Rings sensed changes in their environments with just their own intuition.
Sure enough, as I write this very post, it is raining heavily outside. The students are jumping for joy, shouting and whistling at the auspicious coming of rain, despite the fact that the rain interrupted their precious game of cricket.
The people who live close to nature innately have the ability to sense changes in the environment, and be in touch with their intuition in that regard. They develop a respect for the forces of nature and rejoice at her tremendous power. However, we who have lost that ability fall prey to such natural phenomena like the Tsunami of ’06 or Hurricane Katrina. I don’t have a solution to this problem, as we cannot escape our lives living in big cities for long enough to develop such a capacity. We must continue to rely on the weather channel or the newscaster to tell us what will happen; we must continue to rely on predictions made by machines about changes in the environment rather than on our own innate perception and intuition. I cannot offer some sort of “reform” that we can make in our lives to become in touch with nature while living in a big city. But what I do have to say is that for those who are fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to undergo such a transformation, take it; the ability to be in touch and in harmony with nature is easily one of the most rewarding experiences one can have.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Today, I was caught off-guard in the morning by the beginning of another adventure!
I had gone for breakfast to Usha Akka’s place. As I was washing my plate and cup after eating, Nageshji called me urgently from outside, so I dropped what I was doing and ran out to where he was. He asked me if I wanted to go to a village with him (that’s all he said!). He told me that I needed to come immediately, because he was about to leave. Luckily, I had a bag with me in which I keep my camera, a small mat to sit on (sometimes, you need a place to sit, but the ground is not clean enough or is too hot to sit on), and a book to read. Usha Akka told me not to worry about washing my dishes and to just go with Nageshji if I wanted to go. I did some quick thinking and decided that the opportunity I was getting right now might not come again. I told him I would come, and immediately ran out the door with Nageshji towards the street. A jeep full of official-looking people (including two police officers) picked us up and we were off!
Nageshji explained to me that we were going to a village about an hour away, east-southeast of Sringeri. The village is called Hanchinakodige (it’s as hard to pronounce as it looks, but I’ll try: HUN-chin-uh-CODE-ee-gay). Nageshji is the general secretary of the Sringeri branch of a group called Junior Chamber International, or JCI for short, through which this trip was organized. They were going to Hanchinakodige on a medical mission to perform a routine medical checkup of all the villagers. Nageshji invited me because he wanted me to see the beauty of the village. I too wanted to see the beauty of a village, but I did not know what to expect. Nonetheless, I was already on my way there, so I decided to wait it out and see for myself. Naturally, I was in for a real adventure…
People can only go to this village by jeep, because a motorcycle cannot go all the way there. The roads are totally gravel or dirt, and therefore one needs a more heavy-duty vehicle to get there. Nageshji and I were sitting in the back of the jeep, so we experienced the bumps the most. I had a great time, but I think Nageshji started getting annoyed by the bumpiness of the road and the dust that we were kicking up behind us. We had to close our windows to keep the dust from suffocating us. I wondered how the driver behind us was able to see where he was going! Throughout the ride, I watched the scenery outside, which was full of forests and mountains. I was immersed in the scene when the car suddenly stopped, and Nageshji said, “We’re here!”
At first I watched the medical team set up their stuff and delegate tasks that needed to be done, but I was relatively confused as to what I should do. Someone handed me a notepad and said, in Kannada, “Take note of everyone’s information.” I was kind of shocked, because I don’t know how to write in Kannada! I told the man (who looked very official) that I couldn’t write, and he said, “What? You can’t write in Kannada? Then what CAN you do?” I was kind of embarrassed, but luckily Nageshji came to my rescue and took the notepad from my hand. He said, “I’ll take care of that, you can go out and take a look at the scenery if you want to.”
I was a bit skeptical about the scenery because I couldn’t tell how much more (other than mountain and forest) there was to see. I didn’t really think there was more to it. We seemed to be on a hill, but I couldn’t quite make out which way I had to go to see anything. I took a chance and started up a random path, because none of the paths really seemed to lead anywhere special. But this was the closest one (and I only really had time to explore one path anyway), so I took it.
I thought I would go deeper into the forest, because it certainly seemed that way from looking at the path. I didn’t know how much further I should go for fear of either getting lost or bitten, but I made up my mind: I would go in as far as it took to reach some sort of destination. I decided that if I didn’t find anything after 15 minutes of walking, I would stop and turn around. I saw lots of trees on either side of the path, and it seemed like the forest went in on both sides for miles and miles. After a couple of minutes, I became acutely aware of how alone I was – all the villagers were at the medical camp to get their checkups, and Nageshji and the others were leading the mission. Therefore, there was nobody where I was, nor was there going to be anybody where I was headed. Nonetheless, I kept walking, and after a few more minutes reached a roadblock in front of me, with a small opening in the trees directly to my right.
To my absolute amazement, the opening of the trees led to a massive rice plantation valley, where there were countless little paddies that looked like stairs going down a huge hill. I was literally frozen there in wonder for a few minutes, because I could not believe that this was what I was seeing.
A forest that I thought went in for miles suddenly opens up to reveal perhaps the most beautiful hill I have ever seen, with a background of mountains! There was not a single hint that this was what lay ahead. I was not sure whether I should go in or not, but I decided that in order to make the best of this opportunity, I should just go for it. (This is where the adventurer’s spirit comes in.)
I entered the opening in the trees and took in the sight. The paddies on the hill were all dry; I was able to walk in them because there were no crops growing in them (though there were other random weeds). At the bottom of the hill, there were wet paddies with rice growing in them. I did not really know
what more to do, but then at the bottom of the hill to the right I saw a bright green patch (where I guessed there was more rice than in the other areas). I decided that I would somehow make my way down the hill and get a closer look.
Rice paddies have a small wall of dirt surrounding them, for the purpose of retaining water while the crop is growing. I walked along these walls, for they were the edges that connected one level of paddies to the next. I sort of jumped my way down the levels (which was no easy task – each level was deeper than the previous level by at least my height or more). Sometimes I found makeshift “stairs” dug out of the dirt, so I would use those to get down. This was not a time to be dangerous – wherever I had the option not to be, at least – because I did not want to be getting hurt where there was nobody around! And I was not prepared for this adventure – I was only wearing jeans and a t-shirt! Not to mention I had my small backpack on my back.
As I was making my way down, I came across a few interesting creatures, like these lizards that look like wall lizards, but move more like snakes.
As I would get near them, they would dodge this way and that, but if I stood still for a few seconds, they would start creeping back. I also came across a small opening on the side of the paddies where there were two mounds of hay and a few huts near each other. I figured these were where some of the villagers (the ones who attended to the paddies) lived. Their homes were in the middle of the forest that I saw as I was walking to this place! I imagined what it would be like to live there… What if the only thing you ever had to do was work in the fields, eat, and sleep? And when it came time to take the crop to the market, take it to the market, sell it for as long as it took to finish off, and then come back? What a peaceful life that could be! Of course, taking care of the fields is no easy task, but it would be really fun to live in a forest.
Oh, wait! I do live in a forest…
I made my way further down the paddies, and came to the bottom of the hill.
There was a large fence between the dry paddies on the hill and the wet ones in this valley, and I was on the dry side. I definitely accomplished my mission to get a closer look, but the fence was in the way. I wanted to get even closer. I started to look for a way in to the wet fields. As I was tracing the fence, I came across a small stream, from where, I noticed, all the water that was used to water the fields was coming. I reflected on the brilliant irrigation systems of ancient India that I had read about. Before there was any electricity or any modern technology, the ancient Indian people applied their own technological brilliance when it came to every aspect of life – whether it was agriculture, metallurgy, medicine, architecture, or any other field. I still cannot get over the fact that people used to live so close to nature and even used nature to live. For, how can we replicate something so brilliant as the human body? And yet, we are forgoing the genius and ability within our own bodies for the sake of computers and other “modern” technology. Why focus on a computer (which we all agree is brilliant) when we can focus on the thing that built the computer? Doesn’t it make sense that the maker is more able than the made? Naturally, in order for the maker to make something, he has to fully conceive of it first. Doesn’t that mean that there is much more than a computer can do, within our own heads? And then if we take a step even further back, why don’t we try to focus on the maker who made us?
My spirit led me to the end of the fence – where, I was thrilled to find, was an opening just big enough to fit through in order to enter the wet paddies! I entered without hesitation and walked around the paddies on the edges. It was perhaps one of the most dream-like experiences I have had because I was totally alone as I explored the vastness of these idyllic fields. This made me reflect some more – the greatest journeys we make, we make alone. No matter how many people are our friends, no matter how much money we have, no matter how many things we have, we will still have ourselves even when those things leave us. We should make friends with ourselves, for we are with ourselves more than we are with anyone else. Once you can make yourself the best company you have, the currents of people and things around you in the river of life will never sway you.
As I explored the valley to my heart’s content, I realized that I was almost out of time! I had to somehow climb all the way back up the dry paddies and make it back to the medical camp and Nageshji in a few minutes. So I ran back through the wet paddies to the hill and half-jumped, half-climbed my way up through the walls of paddies like some kind of rugged adventurer and found myself rather quickly at the top of the hill. I looked back down and was amazed to find that I made it up so far in no time. And again, I took a minute to just soak in the sight that was in front of me before making my way back to the camp.
I jogged my way back to where Nageshji was, and when I got there he said, “Where were you? I was worried about you!” I told him of my adventure, and he was quite amazed – he said, “I didn’t mean for you to go that far!” It was lunchtime, so we proceeded to where lunch was being served. I was a bit nervous about trying the village’s water, but Nageshji reassured me by telling me it was the same kind of water that they drink at his house. I tried the water, and I was shocked – this water was even better than the water at Nageshji’s place! It was purer, which was amazing. I had actually never tasted such water before. I didn’t understand how this was possible, but there it was. The water that these villagers drink is purer than the water that we drink near the city! I concluded (and made a mental note) that purity of water does not depend upon the filtering process that it has gone through (or where it is served). One should understand that the purity of water is not dependent upon some standard FDA-approved process. People used to drink water before the FDA came into being, and people will continue to drink water even after it ceases to exist. So why should we always depend upon someone else to tell us when things are good or bad? We should find out for ourselves. Don’t let yourself be fooled into believing that which you are told all the time: do some research, find out for yourself what you are eating, drinking, using, discarding. Each person should be a storehouse of knowledge in him or herself; we should not become the slaves of a system that we ourselves give the power to direct us and tell us what to do, especially when we know that the system is not perfect. We blindly follow the trends of our society in food, fashion, transportation, household items, medicine, and so many other things, even if we don’t know whether or not it’s right. We should not give up our power so easily! If each person starts thinking for him or herself, we may develop our society exponentially faster than we are developing now. Does that sound like a bad deal?
We came back after lunch to Nageshji’s place, from where I walked back to my room. What an adventurous and enlightening day! I am constantly reminded how much there is left to learn about life and living, and how little time I have left here in Sringeri. I hope to take as many lessons back with me as I can when I return to the world I came from. Perhaps by attempting to live a life of awareness and righteousness in a world troubled by ignorance and corruption, I might help inspire others to try?
Friday, January 29, 2010
I must say, when the power goes out at night in a place like Sringeri, it leaves room for some of the most beautiful sights. Tonight, the moon is full, the clouds are gone, and the power is out.
Usually, the sky is full of stars. And I mean full of stars… There is hardly a spot where you cannot see a star; that is how many there are. I have never seen so many stars in my life except at a planetarium. It’s always a beautiful sky, no doubt – the sunset is amazing to look at from campus (the sun sets over the mountaintops that lie southwest of Sringeri), the clouds always come in beautiful formations, and the night always holds a certain magic as it begins. Every time I look up at the stars, I just get caught up in the sky and many times I have to stop to stare and wonder at the beauty that this place holds. It’s been about 7 months since I came here, and I am still as in awe of Sringeri’s nighttime sky as I was when I saw it for the first time. The power doesn’t always go out though, and the amount of stars you can see is inversely proportional to the amount of extraneous light coming from homes and street lamps (there is not much to begin with), but when the power does go out the sky is even more beautiful.
Tonight, to add to this beautiful scene, it is a full moon [edit: well, OK, a day before the full moon, but still pretty full]. The reason I was so inspired to write tonight is because there is so much light coming from the moon that it looks like day outside. I’m not exaggerating; the light from the moon is enough to illuminate the whole place on its own! There is literally no need for lamps, torches, lanterns, or flashlights. The combination of power outage, no clouds, and full moon is so intense in this place that one can survive completely on moonlight if need be. Of course, that’s exactly what we’re doing, as we have no choice sometimes.
Since the moon is so bright, one can hardly see any stars. This makes tonight even more awesome because when one looks at the moon, there is nothing around it – it’s total darkness except for the moon. It’s like I’ve been transported to some parallel world where their sun is in the form of what we call the moon. It’s so brilliant! And beautiful. I can understand now why so many poets have compared the face of their lover to the moon, or compared the presence/touch of their lover to the moonlight. It’s soothing in a way, just to stare at the moon and feel its rays smiling down on you. The moon holds so much value in poetry from a few hundred years ago, and I think it has to do with the fact that there were no artificial lights in cities at that time – they got clear views of the sky and the moon at night (except when there were clouds… but that makes the presence of the moon all the more rare and fantastic!).
My point is that I was amazed to walk outside and find that not only was the power out, but I could see everything perfectly without a flashlight. What an adventure! Imagine living in a time when they got to see this kind of thing every night…
Another interesting thing I enjoy about Sringeri is that the people here are very fond of using candles. Suppose the power goes out – everyone lights up a candle and they work by candlelight. I always connected candlelight with fairy tales and olden times, but the people here use candles all the time. For example, yesterday evening I was sitting in a class of about 50 people around 7:00 PM and the power went out. It was very dark, so all of a sudden one of the assistant teachers brought out 6 or 7 candles, lit them, and put them on various desks in the room.
Their method of placing candles is also brilliant. (It’s amazing how people do the little things differently around the world. I swear, some of the things that I get to witness and analyze here are beyond my imagination… and yet it is all totally matter-of-fact for the people here!) They light the candle and hold it for a few seconds in their hand while some wax melts on top, then they tilt the candle over the spot where they want to place it and let two or three drops of the liquid wax fall on that spot. As soon as the drops fall, before the liquid wax congeals, they place the candle on it. Within a second, the wax congeals fully and acts as an adhesive so that the candle sticks to the surface on which it was placed. This way, there is no need for a candleholder! I thought this was absolutely brilliant, but having come from a place where we don’t use candles anyway (or if we do, we use candleholders), I may have simply been ignorant about the method of placing a candle. Either way, I was fascinated by this process and thought it was very clever.
Overall, the nighttime experience in Sringeri is a very unique one, and I’m grateful that I get to be a part of it for this year. I have learned so much just by being in an environment where the people are so close to nature and can do things in both modern and old-fashioned ways. By being in this place and learning from the people here, I feel that I could live in almost any environment and survive well. No more taking the amenities in my life for granted, and no more dependence on technology for survival. There is much more to be discovered, I am sure, but I’m definitely happy to share bits and pieces of what I have gained so far with those of you who read this!
Saturday, January 2, 2010
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!
Saturday, December 5, 2009
I saw Nageshji (the man whose house I eat at) prying open coconuts before I went inside for breakfast today, and I asked him what he was doing... he said, “Well I'm just getting the coconuts ready to be used for food!” Right next to him I saw a rope that was lying on the ground and I asked him, what's that for? He said it was for bringing up water from the well... so I asked, where is your well? He showed me – it was just in his yard – but it's so covered up with trees and greenery that I couldn't see it from where we were. He took me over to the well and that was an interesting experience for me. It was the first time I saw a real well, from which people actually bring up water to drink (it's the water I drink too! At their house. Naturally, it's filtered before it reaches us for drinking). I then had a thought – and I asked him – “How do you find places to dig a well? I don't see spots where you tried and failed...” and he responded, “Ah, I'll show you.” So he went over, grabbed a coconut, and put it in his palm like a football (with the points facing away from and towards him, rather than side to side) at waist-level. It looked like this: _<>_ ... imagine the underscores to be his hand. Then he walked closer to the well, and as he moved right up to the well, the coconut literally stood up in his palm!!! It looked like this: _∂_ … it was ridiculous! He said, here, you try it! So I did, and sure enough, the coconut stood up in my palm too!!!!! It literally stood up. I don't know how to explain this phenomenon except that it was the most fascinating feeling, in my palm, having a coconut move of its own volition, standing up.
The man across the street called out to us, saying, hey, come over to my house and tell me if I have places to dig a well too! So we went over there, coconut in hand, and Nageshji gave me the coconut, saying, “Here, you do it.” And I did!! I walked around the yard, and as I was walking around, we found a good 3 or 4 spots where the house owner could easily dig a well. There were some spots where the coconut almost fell back over on itself because it stood up so much! I was literally in awe. Here's the interesting part about this second adventure (going over to this man’s house): I was wondering why he called us over when he could have easily done it himself; but then he said, “Well, I can't do it!” And that's when Nageshji told me something else – he said, “Not everyone can do this. It's something that only a few people can do. You have something known as the ‘jala-rekha’ [literally, ‘water-line’] on your hand. Hence, you can do it. This man here does not have it, so he cannot do it.” Then Nageshji gave the coconut to the man and he tried, but it didn't happen!! Literally, he went to the same spots Nageshji and I went to but the coconut didn't stand up in his hand. I was so intrigued. As it turns out, I have the jala-rekha... I thought, wow, I have a special power! I asked Nageshji which line on my palm the jala-rekha was, but he said he couldn't tell me which line it was. Instead, he said, “I knew you could do it just by looking at your face!”
This is just one of the many things I'm learning here about myself and about life (and the many things we miss while living in the concrete jungles of America!)... I’m still somewhat in shock about this coconut thing. If I hadn't had the direct experience of it, I wouldn't have believed it. But I literally got the experience of it on the spot! What impressed me most was that Nageshji said it so matter-of-factly, as if it was just some normal thing (and to him, it is!). He said this is the only way he knows how to find a spot to dig a well, it's just something he's always been doing, and this is something they've been doing since times immemorial. Logically, there must have been some way they found spots to dig their wells! Think about how in touch with nature these people are!!! I'm still in awe about this. They are so in touch with the natural forces around them... imagine how much more there is to know about life! Slowly, I am learning to become in tune with nature as they are, and I think this might be the biggest fruit of my adventures here in Sringeri. I know I have lots left to learn, but these small incidents are certainly encouraging landmarks along the way!