According to Columbia’s first Hindu chaplain, finding the peace of an Indian ashram in hectic New York is as simple as sitting with yourself (and without your iPhone) for just a couple minutes a day. Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, author of the new book “Urban Monk” and a religious life adviser at Columbia for the past 11 years, became a monk in his early 20s and writes about his journey of finding spirituality in America. Spectator sat down with Pandit to discuss monkhood, vegetarian cooking, and why spirituality can be the ultimate stress-reducer for college students.
Liana Gergely: What motivated you to become a monk as opposed to just practicing Hinduism in your private life?
Gadadhara Pandit Dasa: It was a whole variety of life experiences. It’s not like I woke up one morning and knew. I went through ups and downs which really made me ponder the meaning of life. I realized that I had gained a lot and lost a lot, money and property, and I started thinking about the temporary nature of the world. So I started reading the Bhagavad Gita, and it opened my eyes to the fact that there is a deeper purpose behind our lives. That purpose is to understand who I am in the core … beyond the physical body, who am I? I studied the Bhagavad Gita for 5 years—chanting, meditating, exploring—and at one point I decided I was going to take a retreat in India to explore my spiritual life. The lifestyle spoke to me in such a powerful way.
LG: Have you had any specific experiences as the religious life adviser at Columbia, where you’ve seen Hinduism and the practice of these spiritual practices have positive effects on a student’s life?
GPD: When I was doing a vegetarian cooking class, I saw that students were exploring a vegetarian lifestyle because of environmental factors and animal treatment. We weren’t just teaching people how to cook. We were teaching them how to cook with the right spiritual consciousness—sharing with others and ultimately offering the food to God. So many students would come in and sigh and say, “I’m here, finally.” It wasn’t for the cooking: It was for the experience. I also saw that our meditations had a deep impact on the students. Columbia is a very stressful environment with the workload, and they can burn themselves out, and the meditation satisfied a need that couldn’t be satisfied any other way. What do you do for your mind? What do you do for your soul? And the chanting of mantras is the ability to focus the mind and become aware of your mind and how turbulent it really is.
LG: Tell us more about this new book. Why should we pick it up and read it?
GPD: People kept asking me why I became a monk, so I wrote about it. And when I showed it to someone, they said, “You should really publish this.” The book tracks my moving from India to America and learning to navigate this culture, with immigrant parents who are working just to survive. My parents then achieved major success. They had a million dollar business which at one point we lost … It crumbled. And that was the turning point in my life where I really started exploring spirituality. I hope people get from this that when life gets difficult, we can turn to our own spirituality to find answers and deal with our difficulties. Because too often we look for answers in every direction except going inward, because we don’t know how to go inward. We know how to go out, because that’s what we’ve always done. We solve problems by eating, by watching TV, by going to a nightclub, by going on vacation. But the problem follows us wherever we go. When my family lost everything: our house, our car, our business, all our money … I had nowhere to turn, there was nowhere else to turn except inwards. Watching TV wasn’t going to help me. Going out wasn’t going to help me. Even though there was storm in my life, meditation helped me stay more rooted. Some of the leaves might have fallen off, but I was still rooted.
Dasa will speak on Tuesday, Sept. 17 from 6-7:30 p.m. in Everett Lounge, first floor of Zankel Hall in Teachers College. The event, which is co-sponsored by the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute and the Mindfulness and Education Working Group, will offer Indian snacks and a little bit of zen on the side.