It’s the middle of summer and here I am, meditating with forty other kids in a retreat house.
That was the first thought the ten year-old me had running through her head at seven o’clock that morning. Eight years later, and you can still find me in the meditation room as the sun rises for an entire week in August. I’ll be at Gandhi Camp.
Gandhi Camp is not your average summer camp. Rather, it’s a truly unique experience. Led by Dr. S.N. Subba Rao, more commonly referred to as Bhaiji, the camp teaches Gandhian principles. Kids grades 5-12 learn Gandhiji’s values such as self-discipline, religious equality, and of course non-violence, but any kid can memorize and recite a list of vows.
Gandhi Camp not only teaches the principles, but also how to live them out when we return home. For instance, removing untouchability may seem obsolete in modern-day American society, but nightly discussions bring forth marginalized individuals and simple actions we can take to dedicate our services in order to bridge the gap between us and them. Strict vegetarianism and alternating kitchen shifts teach control over the palate. Gandhi would set aside time each day to perform an act of physical labor. In a similar fashion, we work for three hours each morning to assist the caretakers of the retreat grounds, engaged in activities such as mending fences, tending to gardens, pruning and trailblazing. And every morning, without fail, we see Bhaiji working alongside us, likely raking leaves out of the road.
One of my favorite aspects of the camp is how Bhaiji teaches religious equality. I was raised in a Hindu household, educated at a Catholic High School, and had attended my fair share of various other spiritual ceremonies. In my mind, I was already well educated on the practices of different religions. But each time I return, Bhaiji shows me all that I have yet to learn. Each evening, we recite prayers from the world’s major religions. Each morning as we walk out to the tool sheds, a mural depicting each of the symbols from each religion welcomes us. The more I learn from Bhaiji’s fables and experiences, the more I realize how similar the religions are. At its core, each religion preaches the same set of principles—love, peace, mercy, faith. So why do we still see elevated levels of religious turmoil and violence in the world?
Bhaiji’s mission is to prevent this for future generations. As a member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and founder of the National Youth Project, he leads camps all over the world, often for thousands of youth at a time. Bhaiji’s activism began when he was only 13. He joined the people in the streets of India to protest Gandhi’s imprisonment, yelling out slogans of freedom from British occupancy. Like many others, he was arrested. Once again inspired by Gandhi, years later, he gave up a promising career in law to spread his message of peace—an invaluable, pertinent message for today’s youth. We are truly fortunate to be inspired by him.
Over the past eight years, I’ve also enjoyed the more typical camp activities, most of which are camper-run. The talent show is always an entertaining medley of musicians, dancers, magicians, and skits, Indian and American alike. Gandhi Camp Jeopardy never fails to elicit the competitive nature of the campers as we cram in the hours before, memorizing prayers, allegories, and biographies. The final program includes Bharat ki Santan, a tribute complete with dance, music, and costumes to celebrate to the numerous languages and cultures that populate the Indian subcontinent. The newsletter publishes works and highlights from each year and the environmental committee implements ecofriendly tactics to minimize camp waste. No matter what age, no matter what interest, any camper can find an activity to participate in.
Every year, parents ask me why I come back. There’s no simple answer—maybe it’s the service, the people, or the independence. I like to say it’s because Gandhi Camp is unique and everything I learn is applicable to life outside of camp. This year, as we head to Chinmaya Mission’s retreat center in Piercy for the first time, I look forward to all the new campers, all the returning faces, and all the memories I’ll add to my collection.
Bhaiji envisions a world with religious harmony and peace, and, as future leaders, we are his army. We’re young; we’re optimistic; and we’re often underestimated. Gandhi was just one man dedicated to his principles, yet he transformed the world through his civil disobedience. Who’s to say we can’t?
Divya Desale is a recent graduate of Archbishop Mitty High School, set to attend the University of California, San Diego this fall. She has volunteered with many other organizations besides her eight years at Gandhi camp, including the Girl Scouts. She is planning for a career in international law.