Contessa Gayles woke up very, very early to meditate and hang out with Columbia’s Bhakti Club. After a 7:00 AM mantra meditation session, she sat down to talk with Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, the current—and first ever— Hindu chaplain at Columbia. They spoke about a typical day in the life of a Hare Krishna monk, and what it’s like to be a monk in New York City.
Why did you decide to become a monk?
That question could take about an hour to answer! It definitely wasn’t something like, I woke up and decided; Hey, you know I want to become a monk! I always had spiritual questions growing up. Questions like, what happens to me when I die? Do I come back to this world as something else, or does my existence just come to a halt all together? Since I grew up in the Hindu tradition, I always believed in the idea of reincarnation; that life will continue, and I just accepted that, but it was hard to understand or grasp it really. Also, questions like, what is God? Is it a person? An individual? Can I relate? Is it just an energy? How is it that I’ve been so fortunate in life? I had everything growing up that I wanted, and there are so many people in India that are very impoverished. How is it that I somehow was born to a set of parents that could immigrate over to America? Why wasn’t I born to a set of parents who were just struggling to get a meal every day? Somehow I landed this…how did that take place? And many times when I experienced misfortune in my life, I wondered, what have I done to deserve this? These are questions that anybody can have. It wasn’t until there was a severe financial difficulty that my family faced that I really inquired deeper; I feel like I’m just a piece on a chess board. Who is in control here? To make a long story short, I came across the Bhagavad Gita, which is the main spiritual text of India. As I started reading it, it started giving me the answers to the questions that I was always pondering and I found myself becoming a little bit more peaceful. When you’re uncertain about something, that’s when anxiety comes up and when you’re certain about something, even if you’re not comfortable with the explanation, it is easier to deal with. So for about five years I studied this and other spiritual texts, I started talking to monks and in 1999, I decided to quit my job as a loan officer in a mortgage company and go to India and explore my spirituality. I didn’t even go there with the intention of becoming a monk. I just wanted to take a break from life, because life already took me through a roller coaster.
After a six month monastic stay in Bombay, Pandit returned to New York City and lived in a monastery for a summer, an experience which he describes as the happiest he had been in his entire life. Ten years later, he continues his life at the same NYC monastery.
As a monk why did you choose to live in a huge cosmopolitan setting?
I don’t know that I actually picked NYC. My parents moved to the East Coast and this is where I really dove into my spiritual life. And since there was a monastery here, and since I am an only child and I wanted to be close to my parents, it just made the most sense to stay in the place where I found my spirituality and to continue my spirituality in that same place. My parents come to my temple every week and I get to see them regularly. New York can be a difficult place to live. There’s no doubt about that, but I find that the people in New York are very real and they are very interested in their spirituality. New York can be a little bit more of a difficult place, so I think that forces people to turn towards their spirituality. So I find a great need and that encourages me to be here and serve the public in that way.
Aside from sexual activities, what else did you have to renounce when you chose this life?
As a monk you give up a certain amount of freedom, if you can call that freedom. You make certain choices, willingly, to refrain from certain things, like going out on a Friday night to a bar, or a movie, or restaurant. But, I live with 13 other people, so life is always a party for me. I don’t need to wait for Friday or Saturday night, because every morning we wake up and we sing and dance. I don’t feel like I gave anything up actually. Honestly, I have a bigger social life now than I’ve ever had, just because of all the people I know worldwide, in India, the U.K., and the U.S. What did I really renounce? What are we all hankering for? Deeper than anything else, deeper than money and prestige, it’s just friendships and love. Any living being, if they can get that, they can renounce everything else. Everything else is expendable. I’ve gained something greater.
A Typical Day in the Life:
5:00-6:15 AM – Mantra chanting meditation in the monastery temple
6:15-7:00 AM – Devotion through song and dance
7:00-7:45 AM – Lecture from scripture (monks rotate days to lecture)
7:45-8:00 AM – Ceremony for Prabhupada (brought Hare Krishna tradition to the West)
8:15-9:00 AM – More chanting meditation
9:00-9:45 AM – Breakfast
Then everyone does their other duties. I’ll send e-mails, keep in touch with students through Facebook, get ready to go down to Columbia.
1:00-2:00 PM – Lunch
9:30/10:00 PM – Bed
The primary goal of all of your work with students on campus?
Help people to slow down a little bit in their lives and realize that there are deeper spiritual goals that we all have that cannot be frustrated by anything around us. If we continue to pursue our spiritual goals of self realization, understanding that we are not the body, then we’ll always have that goal in sight. That, no one can frustrate, even if I have a dozen failures in life, that remains constant and I always have something to shoot for. To help people to introspect and reflect on life in a deeper way and not just get carried away on the express train that we’re always on.