RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
If you passed through American airports in the 1970s, you may remember followers of Hare Krishna, men and women in orange robes giving away carnations. The Hare Krishna are long gone from the airports, but this branch of Hinduism is growing. It claims about 100,000 members in the United States, and as part of her occasional series on The Young and the Godly, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty spent a very long day with a Hare Krishna monk in lower Manhattan.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: There's not much traffic on First Avenue at 5:15 in the morning, but in the building between the darkened stores selling tattoos and electronics, a light shines from the second floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
U: (Singing) Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna...
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Inside this urban temple, 13 men and one woman twirl and dance through their morning worship. The monks wear orange or white robes. Others are in business suits or jeans. They face an altar adorned with flowers and statues of the supreme Hindu God Krishna and his female counterpart, Radha.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
U: (Singing in Sanskrit)
BRADLEY HAGERTY: At 6:30, a bespectacled monk with a ski hat covering his shaved head and ponytail blows into a conch shell and offers Krishna different elements of the earth - water, fire and incense. It's a ritual marking the halfway point in this three-hour celebration. He's 35-year-old Gadadhara Pandit Dasa.
MONTAGNE: I just can't think of a better way to start the day.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: The ceremony leaves him enlivened.
MONTAGNE: It was such a devotional activity that we engaged in in the morning, so deeply moving for the soul, that the rest of your day is just much more powerful; it's much more clear, because you've nourished the mind and the soul right from the morning.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Pandit is sitting cross-legged, his eyes closed. Fingering a string of prayer beads, he begins to chant.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
MONTAGNE: When I'm calling out to Krishna, saying the Hare Krishna mantra, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare - when I'm calling out to Krishna, Krishna's actually present there.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Pandit, whose adopted name means teacher, grew up in an observant Hindu family. They moved from India to California when he was seven, and as his father's business fortunes ebbed and flowed, he began asking existential questions.
MONTAGNE: What did I do to deserve these fluctuations in life? What's causing this? Could it just be by chance or is there something behind this?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: In his early 20s, in a time of loneliness, he turned to the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.
MONTAGNE: That's when it really took off for me, because for the first time in my spiritual life, I was being given answers.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Shortly afterwards he began studying with a monk at a temple in the Bronx for what he thought was a few months.
MONTAGNE: And now it's eight years later.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Initially Pandit worried about living without income or savings for old age. But he says...
MONTAGNE: I really don't feel like I'm missing anything. The deepest thing that I think any human being looks for are relationships. And there's no shortage of relationships for me here. I have so many monks that I'm living with and we're such deep friends. We eat together, we wake up together, we worship together. We spend more time together than most couples and families do.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: By mid-morning, Pandit is elbow-deep in lentils, chopping up ginger and throwing it into huge pots on an ancient stove.
MONTAGNE: This is a very traditional Indian prep called kichiri. They say this is a poor man's feast fit for a king.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's a stew with butternut squash, broccoli, green peas and potatoes, but no meat. Hindus believe that when someone makes a meal, the food absorbs the cook's consciousness. And when animals are slaughtered for consumption, the brutality of their death is transferred onward.
MONTAGNE: When we take in violence, that also - whatever you put in, that's what's going to come out, the mentality also, and the personality. So it's explained that if we are eating meat, then we are subjecting ourselves to a more violent consciousness and perhaps more violent behavior.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Nine monks, ages 21 to 48, sit in a line, cross-legged on the floor as Pandit ladles stew into their bowls.
MONTAGNE: Tamarind chutney.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Pandit says every monk knows how to cook and clean, sing and play musical instruments. But for the Hare Krishnas, the most important worship is done outside by engaging the world.
MONTAGNE: Sometimes people may think that a monk is somewhat reclusive - kind of isolated, living in perhaps a bubble, just meditating all day. But it's quite the opposite. I'm on the computer, e-mailing. I'm driving, having to use cell phones, Facebook, and...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Facebook, he says, is great for connecting to college students, which comes in handy since Pandit is the first Hindu chaplain at Columbia University.
MONTAGNE: Now we've got the kitchari, the chutney, the halava, samosas...
BRADLEY HAGERTY: In the late afternoon, after studying and then cleaning the temple, Pandit and his fellow monk Dave Jenkins run through a checklist. It's everything they'll need to teach about 50 Columbia students how to cook a vegetarian meal, as Pandit does every Tuesday night.
U: You look like you're pretty, like...
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Students begin streaming in around quarter to seven - some are Hindu, most not. Among them, Peggy Edner(ph), a sophomore.
MONTAGNE: I'm a Buddhist, actually, but I'm not a vegetarian.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: So why are you here?
MONTAGNE: The food is fantastic. Have you tried it?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Mukund Sanghi, another regular, was born a Hindu. His engineering background made him skeptical of his faith, but he says Pandit's rational arguments have drawn him back.
MONTAGNE: There is a reason behind whatever he says, and it sounds so much more sane. It's practical, and yes, I can listen to him, I can talk to him. It will always be, you know, a new learning experience.
MONTAGNE: Okay. So we're going to be making samosas today.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: The students stand back at first, then crowd around, ready to try their hand at making the deep-fried vegetable turnover.
MONTAGNE: I think there's a lot of oil in there. I know you like your food greasy, don't you?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: But before the students can eat, they must listen to five minutes of Hindu philosophy.
MONTAGNE: When we cook food, through prayers we request God to come and accept it. And so our understanding is that God actually comes and eats it.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Pandit knows most of these students will not convert to Hinduism. He just hopes to give them tools as they head into a world of achievement and stress and possible burnout.
MONTAGNE: What's the solution to that? It's not going not be Prozac; it's not going to be the solution, you know. It's going to be spirituality. It's going to be meditation. It's going to be practices of yoga. And it's going to be connecting with God and with our inner self.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You too can spend a day with Pandit, a virtual one, through an audio slideshow, and you can find recipes from his kitchen at NPR.org.
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