“Gandhi Camp is cool,” wrote a young participant, Vaibhav Sharma, in a camp newsletter.
Painting barns, cleaning park trails, trimming branches, cooking, serving – service opportunities intertwined with games, meditation, singing, yoga, garba, laughter, theatre, gazing at the stars, talent shows, no cellular signals – at a very relaxed pace, creates fun memories which pull youngsters back to California for this week-long annual Gandhi Camp.
In its 37th year, the purpose of the outdoor retreat is for youth to “appreciate values and principles including truth, honesty, love, and nonviolence, as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi and others."
"The purpose is to make campers physically, mentally, and spiritually strong, to practise community service and social responsibility, and to learn about the interconnected nature of human experience and the planet’s natural environment,” says the camp’s organiser and community leader Abhay Bhushan, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur-turned-investor.
How the Camp Came About
The idea of the camp came about in the 1980s when SN Subba Rao, an Indian freedom fighter and eminent Gandhian, expressed interest to the Vedanta Society in wanting to share values of non-violence and equality with children in the United States (US), which Swami Vivekananda’s disciples at the California ashram embraced, ushering American youth in.
Washington DC-based 9th grader Mira Hsu, a participant for three years, says, “Everyone sees each other at a human level, in a very open-hearted way - in Gandhi ji's spirit of being open. The camp leaders are very humble. We talk about how many people Gandhi ji has inspired, not only in India, but everywhere.”
The small group of 50 campers carry back influences into their daily lives.
“I find myself applying them to my school life. I am in a community service club at school where I have explained a bit about karma yoga, which is very much pulled from my camp experiences,” Mira adds.
The students identify similarities in values across cultures. She shares, “I am half Indian. My dad is Taiwanese. We grew up very immersed in both of our cultures. There are a lot of common values. Finish eating everything on your plate is a big value at the Gandhi Camp - to not waste food and be grateful for food and water - that is common between my two cultures.”
Portland, Oregon-based Vivek Shandas and his family have been associated with the Gandhi Camp for over three decades, since its inception. He attended the 1987 camp as a teenage camper and later as a counsellor.
Unlike Northern California today with its vast South Asian presence, the 1980s had very different demographics.
“Being one of the few kids in high school who had colour on my skin in a town that was 90 percent white American, thinking about equality, equamanity - Sparsh Bhavna - removing racism, has stuck with me. The love for native things - the Swadeshi principle resonates. The idea of physical labour, working with my hands is helpful for my mind," Shandas says.
"I spend a lot of time doing activities around the house – these were all seeded during the camp," he added.
Gandhi Camp has been at the Chinmaya Mission ashram in California’s Mendocino County since 2015.
What a Typical Day at the Camp Looks Like
Formerly, it was hosted at the Vedanta Society of North California’s retreat center in Olema. From Indian Community Center in Silicon Valley, a five-hour bus ride takes 50 campers to idyllic Piercy, 200 miles north of San Francisco.
Set beside the river Eel, with stunning views of mountains, surrounded by redwood trees on vast grounds of the Chinmaya Mission’s ashram, Krishnalaya, the campers wake up to mornings dedicated to Karma Yoga.
Divided into teams, they perform counsellor supervised activities along the principles of self-reliance and service. San Jose’s Priya Purohit is a parent volunteer.
Her three children attended the camp this year. She describes a typical morning, “There is a wake-up bell, after which everybody goes for warm-up stretches followed by camp songs."
"After breakfast, campers gather in the field for different tasks each day – river beach cleaning, painting and hardware replacements, cleaning grounds, prep meals, serve peers, etc."
Her 14-year-old daughter Evani enjoys the labour and the vegetarian food that follows, “There is something about making food together. We listen to songs, interact with older kids, which gives me more energy. There is a day dedicated to different countries. I am excited for Italy day every year as I love the pasta and salad there. My siblings liked Chinese day, and we all loved matar-paneer. My team made it!”
In the free time after lunch, counsellors and campers hang around, walk to the river to get into the water, play games and sports, and do arts and crafts. When it is yoga time, certified instructor volunteers lead the sessions. Meditation is an important aspect of the routine.
Activities like quiz, skits, and songs follow, subtly exploring Gandhian values. Young participants sing together from the programme’s selection of songs, including Gandhi’s favourite ‘Vashnava Jan To’ and ‘Abide with Me’.
Lessons of Religious Tolerance & Humanitarianism
On 2 October this year, the 153rd birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, also marked as the 'International Day of Non-Violence', hundreds of inspired Gandhi campers from all over the US are celebrating their beloved Bapu, by humming ‘Jai Jagat,’ which has by far remained the camp’s most popular song.
Campers recite a short prayer from each of the world’s major religions, as well as chant mantras before meals to foster the concept of religious harmony.
Principles including 'ahimsa', 'satya', 'sparsh bhavna', and 'swadeshi' are discussed in interactive small groups. Evani says, “We talk about his (Gandhi’s) life. He was struggling a lot, but he was persistent as he knew what he was doing was right. His bravery sticks to me.”
Nestled in the woods, environment is a very important theme at the retreat, evident in their adding of 'Prakriti Devo Bhava' (Honor nature as God), a Sanskrit verse from the Upanishads, in their teachings.
This became Vivek’s inspiration, “I am a professor of Urban Ecology, partly because of the camp - what it meant to be one species in the broader ecosystem - that was very impressionable for me,” shares Vivek, who is now one of the leading organisers of the Gandhi Camp.
All the 18 counsellors this year were returning campers, who attended the retreat as young children. Giving back for them is not only about the relevance of Gandhian values, but also creating community.
Evani Purohit says, “As it is a stay-away camp, we spend entire days together, sharing experiences of being Indian-American, around people we love, who are warm, respectful and appreciative, doing things we like doing, and celebrating our heritage. I have made good friends here. Counsellors are our role models. I want to be a junior counsellor when I turn 16.”
The only one of its kind, this youth retreat has brought people from across the US for the last 37 years. The core of the fully volunteer-run programme has retained, but the themes have organically evolved, says Abhay Bhushan.
“Over the years we have made it more oriented to children brought up in the US, such as introducing values from other role models such as Martin Luther King and Peace Pilgrim, as well as altered the curriculum. American Folk Singer Betsy Rose has been volunteering at camp for last 25 years and teaches them American folk songs and songs she writes. As most of our volunteers and counselors are brought up in the US, they do bring in their US experience in the programs,” he adds.
The camp’s spiritual guide SN Subba Rao was the chief of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and Founder of India’s National Youth Project. He is well recognised in India for his shramdan camps that mobilised the youth to participate in nation-building.
Wishing to be the change that he wanted to see around him, he lived the peace-loving ideals that he spent his life promoting, including bringing people from different faiths and communities closer.
Fondly referred to as ‘Bhaiji’, the agile leader visited California each year to steer the retreat, till he passed away in 2021. Its bedrock, he inspired many batches of campers to become counselors, who are now taking his work forward.
“There is a big gap created by his passing. His wish was to see this go on. He gave us more than 35 years and would want us to take over and evolve it from here,” says Vivek Shandas.
There are numerous day camps designed for Indian-American children all over US, related to Indian languages, arts, religions, and sports, many of which have been launched in the last couple of decades as the population of the immigrant community has steadily grown.
The Gandhi Camp is one of the initial Indian-American – the second – camps to be founded in North America. Thirty-seven years later, the haven remains unique in its popularity, setting, and purpose.
"Kids are learning a lot of humanitarian values. The bonds they form make enduring friendships. They are not on phones as they don’t get a signal. The focus is on being in the present. There is down time which you don’t have in your rushed daily life," Priya Purohit says.
"When you are here, it’s completely peaceful, remote - you hear the river flowing, hear the wind blowing, hear the children laughing. The kids can’t wait to come back every year,” she adds.
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel)