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VHPA Youth Conference 2010

Krupa Patel and Shaifali Verma

The VHPA Youth Conference, organized jointly with Mass Bay Community College, was held on Sunday March 7, 2010. Over 250 people thronged the halls of Mass Bay Community College in Wellesley. This was an all-day event from 9 AM to 5 PM. The conference was planned and executed by High School students from all over the state, along with students from the India Club of Mass Bay. The theme of the Conference was “Core Concepts of Hinduism.”

Hinduism is a vast, deep, ancient, inexhaustible, timeless and yet ever adapting reservoir of wisdom that is brought together in a wide variety of practices, teachings and narratives. So what are these practices, what do they signify, and why do we need to follow them? What is Hindu dharma, who is the god in Hinduism? How can we be a confident Hindu in America?  These are some of the questions that were discussed at the conference. Nayha Tandon, who led the discussion on ”Common Misconceptions,” was surprised at how much the children already knew.  ”They came up with an impressive list within minutes,” she said.  She was also very impressed at how knowledgeable the moderators were.

The day started with a plenary session at 10 AM with the Saraswati Vandana, sung by students from Bal Vidya Mandir. This was followed by a welcome speech by Ananth Akkiraju from Mass Bay, an active participant and organizer of the conference. Dr. Lisa Ganson, Provost of Mass Bay, lit the ceremonial lamp and gave an inspiring talk to all. The morning session closed with the keynote address by the Chief Guest, Dr. Kumar Nochur, Chairman of the Sri Lakshmi Temple of Ashland. He spoke to the children as well as adults, first telling the story of Ganesha, and then informing everyone of the deeper symbolism behind the story of Ganesha and his elephant headed form.

The day was divided into three parallel sessions, punctuated by lunch. Children were divided into groups according to grade. The youngest, under grade 2, enjoyed playing Indian games, arts and crafts and a puppet show. They all agreed that the puppet show was the highlight of the day, with the games coming in a close second. The Youth Committee had selected many topics for discussion. They ranged from topics like “The definition of God,” “Common Misconceptions in Hinduism,” “Conflict between American and Indian Lifestyle,” to “Apologetic Attitudes towards non-Indians.” All sessions were led by the Youth committee members, with adults helping out as facilitators for the sessions. Younger children were equally engaged by attending an interactive puppet show. The story of Hiranyakashipu taught them the value of Prahalad’s steadfast faith and the inevitable end of those who misuse their power.

Ranjani Saigal, who was the moderator of the adult Panel Discussion, said, "It was truly a pleasure to be part of this wonderful panel. I was so impressed at how smoothly run the event was. The conversations were all wonderful and it
definitely seemed that the children have gained a lot. Personally it was most interesting to meet the second generation adults. Anjaneya's comments were most insightful as were those of many in the audience. I was pleased to see so many second generation parents bring their children to these events."  Shrushti Jagtap, who attended the grade 3 to 5 session said, “We learned so many new things, and met some new people. Some of the questions were easy, but some were hard.” Karan Chopra enjoyed the debate over how to define God. Kriti Singh thought the cultural program was “cool”, and liked the songs.

After the first two sessions, everyone enjoyed a sumptuous lunch. Several area restaurants like Minerva, Bollywood Grill, Rasoi and Dosa Temple had donated delicious food for the occasion, including chole, vegetables, naan, chawal, and halwa.  Everyone sat together, and the weather was good enough that many people enjoyed the food outside, picnic-style. Some even discussed what they had learned earlier in the day.

The third discussion session of the day was from 2:00 pm to 2:45 pm.  Topics included “Ethics: Yama and Niyama” and “Dharma and Karma: Hindu Mindset.”  After the discussions, the cultural program started with a devotional prayer to Ma Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. Shreyasi, a junior at Umass Amherst, performed Tarana, a dance that portrays the many different mudras and footwork of Kathak.  This was followed by “Jai Ganesh, Tum aasha vishwas hamare,” sung beautifully by Arnav Mankad.  He is only 6 years old and is learning Hindustani classical music.  Swati Sharma and Abhinav Mishra sang two bhajans with Raghav on the tabla.

The next event was the much anticipated Acharya Satkar, or Honoring of Teachers. In the Hindu tradition, the teacher has a very special place. The teacher is the one who moulds and shapes the mind of the student once they grow out of the loving and safe embrace of their Mother. The word acharya means one whose life itself is an example for us to learn from. The acharya or the teacher not only gives us knowledge, but also demonstrates to us, through his or her example, the practice of continuous and life-long self-study.

Some of the students had nominated their teachers, who were invited to come to the ceremony. The six teachers from various parts of the state were seated on stage, and their students honored them by performing Guru Poojan, applying a Tilak on their forehead and doing their Aarti, then getting their blessings by touching their feet. The six special teachers were: Ben Kahrl of Dartmouth High School, Barbara Tsantinis of Notre Dame Academy, Brian Marks of Oak Hill Middle School, Mark Vital of the Advanced Math and Science Academy at Marlborough, Paul Castango, a Karate teacher, and Koyal Ghosal, a Sitar teacher.  “The Acharya Satkar was my favorite part of the show,” said Pratha Katti, a senior in high school.  “It was nice to see how appreciated the teachers were.  Even though we don’t say it every day, we value them a lot and it was nice to see it expressed in a ceremony.”

The highlight of the cultural program was the summaries of sessions, given by Asha Shetty, Shashak Tirunahari and Pavitra Muthu. Swami Tyaganand ji from the Vedanta Society in Boston talked to the audience about the diversity and core commonalities of Hinduism and other religions. The day concluded with closing remarks by Dr. Amit Tandon and a closing prayer sung by Heli Munshi and Priyanka Javlekar.

Udigth Mankad was delighted with the event. "It was pleasure being the facilitator. Both Riddhi and Nayha did such a  nice job. They were very well prepared and also for a few new discussion points that I added, they picked up the discussion further. The kids were very well behaved and were quite interested in listening and asking questions."

Thus ended the 2010 Youth Conference’s initiative to address relevant issues in Hindu-American lives. Many children asked when the next one would be. Both children and adults left the event feeling better prepared to answer the many questions they face about their beliefs and motivated to act on the strategies they developed at the conference.

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