"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."