Posted by: Singh Is King | Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sikh Student Camp 2007 Remembrances

Cherdi kala is the word that best describes my experience at the London Sikh Youth Camp held from August 5th through the 11th. From literally the first moment of my arrival on Monday morning the 6th it was a non-stop immersion in the spirit of the Guru and the Dharma of the Sikhs. The young men and women who attended were very special. They came from all over the world, Malaysia, Sweden, and Norway as well as from all parts of England. The young people participating in the camp were like sponges, ready to absorb everything presented. And it was clear to me that they absorbed a great deal by the end of the week. They represented every level of the Sikh development – from sahejdhari to amritdhari. And they excelled in not judging each other, but rather helping each other along the Dharmic path. It is said that England and the United States are two countries separated by a common language, but after a brief period of “say again” and “excuse me” I began to pick up the language. A great number of them were from Birmingham, England. And when I met them I would say I’m from Birmingham also—Alabama that is! They could not even begin to pronounce it the way we Southerners do, and probably best that they didn’t. I would tell them how we pronounced it there “Birmin’ham” but to their grammatical credit, for the life of them, they couldn’t drop the “g”.

Each day began with Japji Sahib, then a Kundalini Yoga class which was attended by all 150 students. Breakfast followed and then a presentation by special guests. The presentations were one of the highlights of the camp. Each presentation was followed by lively small group discussions about issues brought up by the lecture. These were followed by six special workshops on leadership, public speaking, Darbar Sahib, art & expression, meditation and team building. And, as unaccustomed as I am to public speaking I nevertheless led that group every day. The camp was divided into six groups or teams of about 25 each that rotate daily through each of the workshops. An additional cadre of about 25 sevadars who actually run the camp rounded out the attendees.

Lunch followed, then classes in topics which students picked at registration: Kundalini Yoga (which I taught), Punjabi, kirtan, tabla, self-defense, and introduction to Sikhi. My daily Kundalini Yoga class had a steady 25 students who were incredibly enthusiastic, but then, everyone was enthusiastic.

Next came activities, such as sports, team events and competition, and RAF trust and team building taught by members of the Royal Air Force just to name a few. Reheras came next and was followed by dinner and then an incredibly beautiful evening kirtan darbar which almost always moved me to tears.

The presentations were always deeply thought provoking. They included one on the Treasury of Our Ancestors led by Amandeep Singh Madra which included showing us pictures of the beautiful and vast array of the art and heritage of the Sikhs. Then he proceeded to show us how they are being lost through neglect and actual willful and wanton destruction It was eye opening and illuminating and I believe everyone who participated in it will, in some way, work for the preservation of our past. We are the world’s youngest major religion and we have a real connection to our past, yet we are letting it slip through our fingers.

Another was on Environmental Injustice in Punjab led by Pardeep Singh Rai. A fervent environmental activist, Rai showed us the great environmental challenges facing the Punjab today. I had no idea that the Punjab, the bread basket of India, was under attack because of high level policies that are creating the potential for economic and environmental disaster in the years to come. Because of these policies the Punjab’s most precious resource, water, may run out and the Punjab become a desert by the year 2025! Rai showed many shabds from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib referring to gardens, plants, and the environment in general. Certain high-level policies create a situation that keeps the Punjab’s farmers in debt and unable to export their crops when all other states in India are able to do so. The most startling statistic presented was that in the last 5 years over 40,000 farmers have committed suicide! I was dumbstruck by this fact.

The Singh Twins, as Amrit and Rabindra are known, took us on a personal journey of their lives as artists and the discrimination and bias they had to overcome which began in school as they tried to develop their unique artistic style. They are artists of the first magnitude and their film 1984 about the massacre at the golden Temple in 1984 was amazing and will be presented at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in New York in September. Their art is thrilling, moving and gorgeous. They have used their extensive talents as activists for the Sikh cause.

A presentation by Tirath Singh Nirmala was extremely thought provoking as he discussed the Siri Guru Granth Sahib from the mystic tradition of the Nirmala Sampradai order of scholars.

There is usually a moment, a point in time, in any group environment when it all “comes together” and at this camp it was a presentation on the fifth evening. It was the most astonishing and devastating lecture about the planned and systematic abduction of Sikh young ladies for conversion by Muslim men. There is a large sum of money being paid to these men for getting young women out of their Sikh homes and converted to Islam. Vulnerable women are targeted, usually while they are at school. They are showered with affection, gifts and “romance.” These men immediately begin the systematic undermining of the women’s faith and when they have them in their thrall, they take these young women away and marry them, get them pregnant, get a Muslim child, keep the child and discard the women. The first that the families learn of anything amiss is the failure of the girl to return home from work or school and then they hear nothing from them for weeks or months. The terrible thing is that their families will not then accept them back into the home. It is a tragedy of growing proportions. Because no law has been broken, the government was not interested in getting involved until the group working on this convinced it that these young women were the government’s worst nightmare – a Muslim with no hope in this life who has nothing to lose by becoming a suicide bomber.

This presentation provoked the most incredible discussion in which almost all of the camp participated. Several young ladies spoke of how Muslim men had begun to undermine their faith and shared many personal stories about this very thing, something they had never told anyone. Eyes were opened and we all learned how to protect the innocence of our young women.

The final day’s presentation was a group panel made up of the many of the presenters, including myself, who took questions from the audience. They were very deep, thought provoking inquiries from very dedicated young people. The devotion of the questioners and the quality of the questions were matched only by the candor and inspiration of the presenters.

I had the opportunity to address the camp on several occasions and each time I tried to give them the experience of Sikh Dharma from my perspective and my personal experience as one who has seen the “other side of life” and made the conscious choice of Sikhi. It was and is my hope that by sharing my “mistakes” in life, that they will not have to make the same mistakes. As the Siri Singh Sahib said, “We can learn at the hands of time and be pounded with all of its fury or else we can learn at the hands of teacher.” It’s easier to learn that the stove is hot from a teacher than to take the scar of the burn with you throughout your life. They were so bright, inspired and devoted. I pray that they learned enough from me that they can avoid the life lessons that I was forced to learn at the hands of time.

The sevadars and leaders of the camp were an amazing group. They kept the energy quite together and spirits very high. They were able to handle everything God and Guru threw at them with dignity and grace and keep the camp in a constant state of cherdi kala. By the end of the week most were exhausted, but a spirit of fun and light heartedness prevailed amongst them which overflowed to the campers, all inspired by the Guru’s grace.

I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to serve the Guru’s mission in this manner and hope that the opportunity again presents itself to return to Sikh Student Camp.

One of the most amazing sights was the day when everyone tied a turban. The ladies and the men all looked fantastic! It was a magnificent transformation effected by the Guru. I was so happy to see that a number of them had them on the next day as well. By the last day it was very hard to leave. I made friendships which will last a lifetime and am happy to have been a part of this great event.

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