The primary purpose of Bodhinatha's trip to Texas this time was to respond to an invitation from the Hindu Students Council Southern Region to be a keynote speaker at their annual retreat on February 5-7. The first speaker at the event was Anju Bhargava, who was appointed last April to President Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She spoke to the group about faith-based (not officially religious) organizations and what they can do, the opportunities Hindus have to start such organizations to provide greater service to their communities.
About 85 students showed up for the retreat. Including staff and guest speakers, they counted 91.
The retreat took place at historic Fort Parker State Park near Mexia in central Texas. Being the middle of winter, the trees were mostly barren, the sky was clear and the air just above freezing. It was beautiful and serene. The rustic dorm-style cabins were the living quarters of the students for the weekend.
Beautiful flocks of birds were seen flying in formation above the lake at Fort Parker just before sunrise.
On Saturday morning, a havan was conducted in one of the meeting halls.
Acharya Praveen of the Arya Samaj is originally from Delhi. He has been in the US for 32 years and currently resides in Houston. He is highly respected for his yajnas and for the explanations he gives of exactly what is going on to help everyone present understand and get more out of the worship. He loves to speak to students!
At the end, everyone got to come forward and offer samagri in the fire while the organizers offered ghee.
Someone finally grabbed the camera from Bodhinatha's intrepid travel companion to take a photo with Acharya Praveen. (It’s 40 degrees out. Guess how many layers we have on?)
After breakfast was Bodhinatha's first talk in the main meeting hall.
Bodhinatha spoke on how to balance college student life with being a Hindu.
Pooja, Padmaja and Mrunal Patel drove all the way to Fort Parker from Midland in West Texas to be with Bodhinatha for the weekend.
The students so enjoyed Bodhinatha's frank discussion of the issues they face, and all his practical suggestions, that after the official questions-and-answers session after the talk, they came up and continued to ask questions and seek Bodhinatha's opinion and advice on more matters close to their hearts.
After lunch it was time for a group photo. For this and other photos in a larger format, visit this Flickr set.
Bodhinatha's afternoon talk was about Hinduism, science and ethics, with a focus on medical ethics. The staff of Hinduism Today magazine helped create a visually stunning Keynote presentation based on articles we have done on these issues in the past.
A number of the students who attended the retreat are medical students, or hope to be in the coming years, so they were quite interested.
They asked a lot of great questions! In the center sitting on the floor is the main organizer of the retreat, Ramya Ravi, a biomedical engineer from Houston. Sitting behind her is another of the organizers, Atul Agrawal, a senior at University of Texas at Austin.
After Bodhinatha's afternoon session, some time outside, braving the cold, enjoying the lake and, of course, more informal Q&A with the organizers and students.
The Saturday evening program included a wonderful innovation: Hindu Kawali! (Kawali is traditionally an Islamic music style.) Sonny Mehta, looking fiercely devotional, leads the song while playing the harmonium. They are young and full of energy, and very talented!
Everyone loved the devotional music. Rather than considering it a performance, where an audience would face the musicians, they asked everyone to turn toward the shrine with Ganesha and Radha-Krishna, and proceeded to lead the group in a number of exciting Hindi bhajans, Kawali style. They even had the monks singing along! "Raghupati Raghav Raj Ram…" After the bhajans everyone got dressed up in their best Hindu punjabi and kurta outfits for some enlightening and dynamic discussions, then a night of Bollywood dancing. (Yes, the monks skipped the dancing.)
Thanks to the HSC for putting on such a great program. It was a lot of fun, and it clearly was of great benefit to all who attended.