There's not much traffic on First Avenue in lower Manhattan at 5:15 a.m. But in the building between a darkened tattoo shop and electronic store, a light shines bright from the second floor.
Inside is the New York City headquarters of the Interfaith League, a Hare Krishna group. A visitor is greeted with a blast of sights and sounds: Thirteen men and one woman are twirling and dancing, playing cymbals and drums and chanting Hindu tunes. Hare Krishna monks are in orange or white robes. Civilians are in business suits or jeans. They all face an altar adorned with flowers and statues of the supreme Hindu God, Krishna, and his female counterpart, Radha.
A little over an hour later, a 35-year-old monk named Gadadhara Pandit Dasa blows into a conch shell and pours a water offering. This marks the half-way point in this three-hour morning worship service, a daily celebration.
"I just can't think of a better way to start the day," he says, grinning. "It's such a devotional activity, so deeply moving for the soul, that the rest of your day is much more clear, because you've nourished the mind and soul from the morning."
Searching for Answers
Pandit – whose name means "saint"— sits cross-legged on the hardwood floor of this urban temple. He begins to chant the Hare Krishna mantra. He explains that repeating the names for Krishna is a spiritual event of sorts, allowing God to enter his soul.
"Our focus is on the sound vibration itself, because we know that sound is an incredibly powerful tool," he later explains. "It can cause avalanches, and sound, through music, can move our emotions in all different directions. The same with spiritual sound. When I'm calling out to Krishna, saying the Hare Krishna mantra — Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare — Krishna is actually present there."
Pandit grew up in an observant Hindu family. He was an only child. They moved from India to California when he was 7, and as his father's business fortunes ebbed and flowed, he began asking existential questions.
In his early 20s, Pandit moved to Bulgaria to help his father with his import-export business. Unable to speak the language, he had few friends. He spent evenings alone and lonely, and one night, began reading the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.
"That's when it really took off for me," he recalls, "because for the first time in my spiritual life, I was being given answers."
Beyond Material Wealth
Pandit found solace in Hare Krishna explanations for Hindu beliefs: why life fluctuates (it's karma, because you reap what you sow); why reincarnation occurs (because one life may not be enough to pay off past debts); why Hinduism has thousands of gods (because Krishna is the supreme God, and lesser gods help run creation).
When Pandit returned from Bulgaria, he began studying with a monk. Then he moved in — temporarily, he thought.
"I was taking it one step at a time, one month at a time," Pandit says. "And at some point, after maybe a year or so, I said, maybe this is something I should consider. And now it's eight years later."
Pandit says initially, the questions haunted him: Can I live this way the rest of my life without income or savings for old age, fitting all my possessions in a locker? Yet he found that the material deprivations paled next to the wealth in his spiritual life and his friendships.
"I really don't feel like I'm missing anything," he says. "The deepest thing any human being looks for is relationships. That's where we get the most joy. And there's no shortage of relationships for me here."
The monks eat together, wake up together and worship together. "We spend more time together than most couples and families do," Pandit says.
Drawn to Monastic Life
By mid-morning, eight monks, ages 21 to 48, have gathered for spiritual reading and discussion. A long, narrow room serves as dining room, living room and bedroom for the men. They sleep on the hardwood floor and store their sleeping bags in lockers with all their other possessions: coat, sweaters, robes, laptop computers.
At this moment, they're each peering into their laptops, reading the Bhagavad Gita online. The day's reading concerns the pain of leaving all for the higher love for Krishna.
But why enter a monastery?
Matthew Hall, who left his Protestant family in Houston three years ago, says he was looking for peace, love and satisfaction — something that eluded his friends with good jobs and money.
"They end up with a bunch of bills, stress, a whole bunch of anxieties," Hall says. "People weren't truly satisfied. And so I figured, why should I put any endeavor in material prosperity? Let me just find a monastery and dedicate my life to spirituality, because this is what's giving me happiness."
Life in Close Quarters
Of course, it can be trying living in such close quarters. And Ari Weiss, a Jew just testing the waters of monastic life, says it can be equally trying for the monks' families.
"One of the hardest things for me is having my parents on the periphery thinking, 'Is my son a fanatic?'" he said, laughing nervously. "They love me so much, but at the same time, this question is in their mind."
His parents, of course, remember the Hare Krishna monks of the '60s and '70s, who danced in the city streets and gave away carnations at airports. Pandit says while there are about 100,000 Hare Krishna followers in the U.S., there aren't enough monks to do that now: Their ranks dwindled as young devotees traded their robes and sleeping bags for families, houses and jobs.
Generally, Pandit takes a nap in the morning. But not today: He's on lunch duty. The special today: A traditional Indian stew called kichiri, with butternut squash, broccoli, green peas and potatoes. Hare Krishnas don't eat meat.
Pandit says the way he cooks reflects his faith, right down to honoring — rather than eating — those he says are also children of God.
"If we're trying to love [God] but simultaneously causing harm and violence to his children, he's not going to be all that pleased," Pandit says. "'OK, you love my two-legged children, what about my four-legged ones?'"
Engaging the World
Nine monks and a few visitors sit in a line, cross-legged on the floor of the all-purpose room. Pandit ladles stew into their bowls. Pandit says every monk knows how to cook, clean, play musical instruments and sing. But for Hare Krishnas, he says, the most important worship is done outside, by engaging the world.
"Some people may think that a monk is somewhat reclusive — kind of isolated, in a bubble, meditating all day. But it's quite the opposite. I'm on the computer, e-mailing. I'm driving, using cell phones and using Facebook. I have my own Web site."
Facebook, he notes, is "great for connecting to college students." And that is where Pandit's calling lies: He is the first Hindu chaplain at Columbia University and New York University.
At 4:30 p.m., Pandit and fellow monk Dave Jenkins run through their checklist: rolling pins, pots and pans, flour, vegetarian stew, side dishes – everything they'll need to teach some 50 Columbia students how to cook a vegetarian meal, as Pandit does every Tuesday night.
Students begin streaming in around 6:45 p.m. — some Hindu, most not.
"Someone gave me a flyer that said, free vegetarian food, and he was obviously Hindu," says Sanali Phatak. "I was like 'Indian food! I'm going to this.'"
Cooking with Consciousness
Phatak is getting her master's at Columbia Teachers College. The first-generation Indian-American has grown close to Pandit. She attends his Bhagavad Gita study groups on Friday afternoons and says he helps her understand her faith.
"In most traditional Hindu households, you don't want to ask too racy questions," she said with a laugh, adding, "You know, 'Why is drinking looked down upon?' Your parents are like, 'Oh, drinking is just bad.' But what's the more spiritual reason for that?"
Mukund Sanghi, another regular, says his engineering background made him skeptical of his family's Hindu faith. But Pandit's rational arguments have drawn him back.
"There is a reason behind whatever he says, and it sounds so much more sane," Sanghi says. "It's practical, and yes, I can listen to him, I can talk to him. It will always be a new learning experience."
With a critical mass of about 50 students, Pandit announces that they're going to make samosas — deep-fried vegetable turnovers — and the crowd lets out a whoop. He banters with the students, commenting that one student's samosa resembles the state of California or that another's looks a little greasy. The lesson ends, but before the students can eat, they must listen to five minutes of Hindu philosophy:
"Food absorbs consciousness," he says to the polite crowd, "so when you're eating, you can ask yourself, 'Whose consciousness am I eating today?'"
Pandit knows most of these students will not convert to Hinduism. Still, he hopes to give them tools as they head into a world of achievement, stress and possible burnout.
"Prozac is not going to be the solution," Pandit says. "It's going to be spirituality. It's going to be meditation. It's going to be practice of yoga. And it's going to be connecting with God and our inner self."
At least that's what he hopes. And it's why Pandit will arrive home at 11 at night, crawl into his sleeping bag and get up at 4 the next morning for another day of worship.
Have you ever wondered why Hare Krishnas don't eat meat, or how the movement differs from other strains of Hinduism? Read a primer on the Hare Krishna movement and its practices and beliefs.
What is Hare Krishna?
The Hare Krishna movement is a branch of Hinduism, formally known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Its name comes from its chant — Hare Krishna — which devotees repeat over and over. It was started in the 16th century by Sri Chaitanya of Bengal (1486-1533). He emphasized the worship of Krishna and believed that chanting the names of God was so powerful that in addition to one's own meditation on them, they should also be chanted in the streets for the benefit of all.
Swami Prabhupada brought the movement — formally called the International Society of Krishna Consciousness — to the U.S. in 1966. Public dancing and chanting became its trademark.
How does the Hare Krishna movement differ from other strains of Hinduism?
Devotees of the Hare Krishna movement consider themselves monotheistic. According to the sacred texts, Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavat Purana, Krishna is the supreme God, who oversees millions of demigods — who are seen as administrators of the universal affairs. These demigods are needed to run creation. They have certain roles, but — just as the secretary of state reports to the president — these demigods serve at the pleasure of Krishna.
Krishna is often accompanied by Radharani, the female aspect or counterpart of Krishna.
The Hare Krishna understanding is that when Hindus pray to Krishna, or when members of the Abrahamic faith pray to Allah or Yahweh, we are all praying to one and the same person.
In addition, the Hare Krishna movement has adapted itself to the West. For example, Swami Prabhupada provided an equal opportunity to both men and women to become priests in the worship rituals — a privilege reserved only for men in traditional Hinduism. Perhaps because of its sensitivity to Western ethos, the Hare Krishna movement has been more successful than more traditional Hindu branches in attracting non-Indians into its culture, philosophy and practices.
What is the Hare Krishna mantra?
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
The word "mantra" means to deliver or free the mind. The word "Hare" refers to the divine feminine potency of God. "Krishna" means the all-attractive one, and "Rama" is the reservoir of all pleasure.
Hare Krishnas believe that the sound vibration of the mantra has a direct impact on the soul. According to a philosophy of ancient India, the soul is spiritually asleep. Just as an alarm clock awakes a sleeping person, the Hare Krishna mantra awakens the soul to its spiritual reality — whereby it can experience its eternal connection with Krishna or God. And devotees believe that a person need not understand the language of the mantra, because the sound vibration transcends the sensual, mental and intellectual levels of consciousness and puts one directly in touch with the spiritual.
Reincarnation and karma — what are those about?
In Hinduism, karma — what a person deserves for his past acts — proceeds not only from what he has done in the present life but from past lives as well. According to Hindu philosophy, human beings are not always reborn as human beings. Some are, but others are promoted to still higher forms, forms beyond our present experience, and others are degraded to lower species. One's future status depends on whether one lives in harmony with nature's laws or violates them. Only human beings can gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, whatever a person thinks about at the time of death determines what sort of body he or she will take in the next life. Those death-bed thoughts shape the next body — what sort of eyes, nose, ears and tongue, as well as what sort of hands and legs and other bodily features one will have.
And what one thinks about at death depends largely on one's thoughts and actions during life.
Why don't Hare Krishnas eat meat?
Hindus believe that animals are children of Krishna, created by God with a soul. Therefore, to eat an animal is an affront to God. Moreover, it's bad for your consciousness: Because the slaughter of animals is violent, when you eat meat, fish or fowl, you are subjecting yourself to more violent thoughts and, perhaps, violent behavior.
In Hinduism, cooking is intertwined with spirituality. Hare Krishnas believe they are cooking for the pleasure of God. They never sample the food they are cooking, since it must be offered to Krishna first. Moreover, Hindus believe that food absorbs the consciousness of the cook.
If you are angry and elbow deep in the lentils or kneading dough for chapattis (unleavened bread), Hindu philosophy claims that your emotions are transferred to the food — and then to the person who eats the meal. It is one reason monks don't go to restaurants, because it raises the question, "Whose consciousness are you eating today?"
Vegetarian Recipes from Gadadhara Pandit Dasa
Note: Many of Pandit's recipes call for asafoetida powder, a spice known as hing in India. Made from a species of giant fennel, it can be purchased in specialty spice stores.
Makes about 20 samosas
2 tablespoons ghee or oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
2 or 3 hot green chilies, minced
1 small cauliflower, cored, trimmed, diced and steamed until tender
1/2 cup peas
3/4 teaspoon asafoetida powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon fresh coriander leaves, minced
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
ghee or oil for deep frying
Heat 2 tablespoons of ghee or oil in a large frying pan over moderate heat. Sautee cumin seeds until they turn golden brown. Add the ginger and chilies and stir fry for 1 minute.
Add the asafoetida powder and stir momentarily. Then add the cauliflower and peas. Add the turmeric, cinnamon and salt
Reduce the heat to low, stir all the ingredients and partially cover.
Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and quite dry. Add the fresh coriander leaves and lemon juice. Remove from heat and coarsely mash the vegetables.
Allow the mixture to cool to room temp. Divide the filling into 20 even portions.
1 3/4 cups unbleached flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons melted ghee or butter
1/2 to 3/4 cup warm water
Mix the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the melted butter or ghee and rub it between your fingers until it resembles a coarse meal.
Make a depression in the center of the mixture, add most of the water and quickly mix and gather it into a ball.
If the dough is too dry to cohere, add warm water to make a medium-soft pastry dough.
To assemble the samosas
Roll the dough into a rope about 10 inches long and cut the rope in 10 equal sized pieces. Cover with a moist cloth.
Take one piece of dough and press it into a smooth patty. Lightly oil a smooth working surface. With a rolling pin, flatten the patty into a round, thin disk about 6 ½ inches across. Cut the disk in half with a sharp knife.
Dip your finger into a bowl of water and moisten the straight edge of one pastry. Pick up the semi-circle and fold it in half, forming a cone. Gently but firmly press the moistened edges together, slightly overlapping them to ensure the seal.
Carefully spoon one portion of the vegetable stuffing into the pastry cone, leaving a 1/4 inch border on top. Dip your finger into the bowl of water and moisten the inside edge of the cone. Firmly press the moistened edges together, thoroughly sealing the filling inside the triangular pastry casing. The top edge can be left plain, crimped with a fork or plaited with your fingers. Place the samosa on a tray and finish rolling, filling and shaping the rest.
Place 2 1/2 to 3 inches of ghee or oil in a wok or deep-frying pan over moderate heat. When the temperature reaches 290 degrees , slowly fry 8 to 10 samosas at a time for about 6 to 8 minutes or until they're flaky and a pale, golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Spinach, Tomato, Eggplant & Chickpea Stew
Six to eight servings
1/2 cup ghee or oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 hot green chilies minced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
10 dried curry leaves
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida powder
1 medium eggplant cut into half-inch cubes
4 medium tomatoes cut into half-inch cubes
1 pound spinach
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups cans chickpeas
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Heat the ghee or oil in a heavy saucepan or large wok over moderate heat.
When the ghee is hot, add the ginger, chilies, cumin seeds and mustard seeds.
When the mustard seeds crackle, add the curry leaves, asafoetida powder and eggplant. Stir fry the eggplant for 8 to 10 minutes or until the eggplant is a little softened.
Stir in the tomatoes, spinach, turmeric and salt. Partially cover and reduce the heat to moderately low. Cook until the eggplant is soft and the spinach is reduced in size, stirring when required.
Add the chickpeas and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the sugar and lemon juice. Remove from heat and serve hot.
Four to five servings
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter
1 cup semolina or farina
For blueberry halavah, use 1/2 cup blueberries
For peanut butter halava, use 1/4 cup peanut butter.
For carob halava, use 1 teaspoon carob.
Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. (For carob halvah, add carob now.)
In a different saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the farina and stir fry until golden brown. (For peanut butter halvah, add peanut butter now.)
Slowly pour the sweetened liquid into the grains. Be careful! The mixture will sputter as the liquid hits the hot grains.
Stir for about one minute. (For blueberry halavah, add blueberries now.) Continue stirring until all the liquid is absorbed into the grains. Serve halava hot or at room temperature.
Six to eight servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 hot green chilies, minced
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida powder
1/2 cup diced green peppers
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup cooked corn pieces
3 cups tomatoes, chopped
3/4 cup tomato paste
3 cups cooked kidney beans
1 cup tofu, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. When the oil is hot, add the minced green chili and sauté for 1 minute. Add the asafoetida powder and sauté momentarily. Add the diced pepper and celery.
Saute, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.
Add the corn and the chopped tomato and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes.
Add all the remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
If the chili is too thick, add some reserved bean liquid. Serve hot.