Meet Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, Columbia University’s First Hindu Chaplain

Gadadhara Pandit Dasa

Columbia University’s first Hindu chaplain, Gadadhara Pandit Dasa. (Photo: Ramaa Reddy Raghavan)

Gadadhara Pandit Dasa begins his day when most people are enjoying their best REM sleep.  A practicing Hindu monk at the East village ISKON temple (International Society of Krishna Consciousness), Gadadhara, 39, also known as Pandit, awakens daily at 4 a.m.  to begin his prayers and to meditate. He says this early hour free of distractions helps one contemplate on the Divine.

At 9 a.m., the 13 monks that live at ISKON, who come from a variety of countries and backgrounds, eat a simple breakfast of milk, fruit, granola and peanut butter. Gadadhara, who is vegan, enjoys his granola with almond milk. After breakfast the monks study scriptures, attend to chores or prepare for their weekly presentations. At 2 p.m., the monks share a communal lunch of Indian cuisine cooked at the temple.  “Usually there will be rice, soup or dal (lentils), shabji (vegetables) and salad. Sometimes there is bread,” said Gadadhara. The monks gather together and preface eating with a religious song. Then they sit on the floor to partake in a delicious vegetarian meal.

“The primary focus of their life is to achieve a spiritual practice that’s beyond material acquisitions. [The monks] don’t want to be part of the rat race, working 14 hour days, making little money and creating more anxiety,” Gadadhara said.

But Gadadhara has not always been a monk with that mindset. Raised in India, he immigrated to this country with his parents when he was eight years old and says he “grew up in an environment charged with materialism.” He worked in a mortgage company for a number of years, but when his parents’ jewelry business took a turn for the worse it prompted him to become introspective and read the Bhagavad Gita, the famous Indian religious and philosophical text. In 1999, Gadadhara’s curiosity let him to India and a spiritual practice. He says he did not plan to become a monk but one month led to two and now he’s been a practicing monk for 12 years.

About a decade ago the Bhakti Club at Columbia University, formed to introduce students to the culture and spirituality of India through food and discussion, invited Gadadhara to teach vegetarian cooking classes on campus. This led to weekly discussions on the Bhagavad Gita. In 2004,  Gadadhara became the first Hindu Chaplain of Columbia University where he provides weekly spiritual guidance and support to students. Originally his talks were to support Hindu students from South Asia, but today his audience is a mixed group of Americans as well as students from other countries like Mexico, Guyana, and Columbia. He also became New York University’s Hindu Chaplain in 2007. His residual time is spent lecturing to colleges and schools on spirituality and hosting interfaith groups that visit the ISKON temple.

The temple is available to the public for meditation and space is rented out to organizations involved in Eastern spirituality. Plans are in motion to open a yoga studio as well as a vegetarian cafe that will serve ‘wholesome karma-free food.’

“We want to live a simple life focused on body, mind and soul that elevates our consciousness through meditation and prayer while simultaneously spending time helping and guiding others,” Gadadhara said.

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