After a long spell of traffic along I-35, we pulled into a very quiet neighborhood in Bruceville, TX and arrived at the gate to Greene Family Camp, our home for the next couple of days. Slowly, attendees from all over Texas trickled in. I was very excited to see what HSA’s Gateway retreat held in store for me, but as a first-time attendee, I was not sure what to expect.
Let me provide some background: Hindu Students Association (HSA) Nationals organizes Gateway every year to bring students (and non-students) together from all over to engage in spiritual discussions, speaker lectures, and cultural activities, such as garba, bhajans, and yoga. The weekend began with basic icebreakers, included lots of free time to bond with other attendees, and then moved into the more serious activities on the second day. Our three speakers this year were Dr. Harish Chandra, a thinker/scientist who has given many workshops and talks for personal enhancement and stress control with his base of Vedic literature, Sadguru Bodhinath Velyanswamy from the Kauai Adheenam, and finally Swami Sarvapriyananda from the Hollywood Vedanta Society.
I felt that the activities and workshops planned presented a good mix of mind-stretching, application to daily life, and engagement with other attendees. For example, our Saturday morning opened with a havan led by Dr. Harish Chandra. The best part about it was that we actually got to participate in it, and Dr. Chandra provided explanations along the way about the underlying meaning of the ritual. Soon after, his opening presentation addressed the fundamental questions of “What is Hinduism?” and “How can I personally relate to it/learn from it on an individual level?” He challenged us to think about how our Dharmic tradition is unique and different from simply a “faith tradition,” and he gave thorough explanations about the evolution of Hinduism from the Vedic times to modern times along with current difficulties our culture faces. His talk was special because he had a heavy science background (with a degree in aeronautics engineering) and was able to relate Hinduism to the science of spirituality.
Our second keynote speaker was Sadguru Bodhinath Velyanswamy, leader of the massive Saiva Siddhantha Adheenam in Kauai. In preparation for his session, participants were asked to submit some questions a few weeks prior to the event, and Swamiji put together a packet with questions and a basic sketch of his answers, on which he elaborated during his talk. His Caucasian background added a very unique perspective because he was able to present Hinduism for what it really is without the prejudices with which many Indians (including myself) grew up. One of the most memorable examples was his clarification of the Rig Veda verse (that the truth is one but sages call it by different names), which is often used by Hindus (especially in India) to call other religions the “same” or variations on the same path to God. He was perfectly honest with us and explained how that was not the intended meaning of the verse. One of the other poignant discussions he led concerned engagement with the world. With basic relatable life examples, he demonstrated the crucial differencees between worldliness (believing that the world and materialism will make you truly happy) and proper engagement with the world (for example, a mother going above and beyond to make sure her children have a valuable childhood). When we still have our obligations in the world, detachment is not an option, but we can always distance ouselves from worldliness in all our actions. He ended with helpful advice about individual daily practice and reflection, paving the way for our final speaker.
Swami Sarvapriyananda’s lecture entitled “Who Am I?” was more or less purely philosophical. Since our previous sessions were more oriented around how we can better live our lives, this one was a true mind-stretcher, in a wonderful way. His gentle but firm style of speech, accented with small bits of humor, made the lecture very much engaging. He took us on a journey of self-discovery at the end of which we became aware of the role our individual consciousness plays, and our final conclusion was that the fact of our own existence becomes the proof of Advaita Vedanta’s understanding of God. Fascinating! (His lecture is publicly available on YouTube – it is worth a watch).
Nevertheless, after describing the wonderful doors that the speakers opened for us, I cannot sufficiently emphasize just how much I deeply connected with the other attendees. I cannot forget our intense mafia sessions each night (due to which we depended on adrenaline to keep us going through the day) and the highly personal conversations we had in my smaller group of friends, many new, some old. The dandiya night, a great cultural addition to the program, provided a chance for all the participants to connect with the others, at least for a click of the dandiyas, and the bhajans session brought us all together to sing in devotion. Gateway was definitely a chance to make lifelong friendships in a setting where we all could draw from somewhat similar backgrounds.
The nationals officers, Mrinalini, Saumya, and Hari, did a wonderful job organizing the retreat. Pretty much everyone, including the group of three high school students, had thoroughly worthwhile experiences. The perfect mix of events and activities made the weekend go by in a jiffy. I will very much be looking forward to Gateway 2017!