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Vaishnava Chaplains Bring Bhakti to New York’s Prestigious Universities

By: for ISKCON News on Nov. 29, 2012
Ghanashyam Das, Hindu Chaplain at NYU
Columbia. Princeton. New York University (NYU). All prestigious universities in the New York and New Jersey areas, and all engaging ISKCON devotees as their Hindu chaplains.

It all began with Gadadhara Pandit Das becoming Columbia University’s first Hindu chaplain in 2004. There, he holds weekly classes on mantra meditation and Bhagavad-gita, as well as a vegetarian cooking class that draws nearly 100 people every week.

Since 2008, Venkata Bhatta Das has been the Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton, where he holds Bhajan devotional music groups, Sunday worship ceremonies, and Wednesday Bhagavad-gita study groups. He also organizes major events such as interfaith conversations and the University’s annual Diwali festival, which draws over 500 people.

Both Venkata and Gadadhara also regularly assist individual students who come to them for spiritual guidance.

Then there’s Ganashyam Das, a celibate monk at Manhattan’s Bhakti Center, who since 2008 has been fulfilling a similar position at NYU.

Formerly a student of New Jersey City University, he joined ISKCON in 2000 after becoming intrigued by devotees distributing books on the street and purchasing a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is.

It wasn’t long before he was teaching the Bhagavad-gita himself at NYU as well as vegetarian cooking classes, a program he had inherited from another devotee. But soon, this would evolve into an official position as Hindu Chaplain of the University.

“I was talking to Gadadhara Pandit, who is also a monk at the Bhakti Center, and who was already running programs at Columbia like I was at NYU,” he says. “And he told me, ‘All these colleges have Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, but because no one really knows how to represent Hinduism, there’s no Hindu chaplain anywhere.’ There was a big hole there, and the universities wanted that hole filled.”

As monks and students of Hinduism, and as people who were already holding well-liked programs at their respective universities, Gadadhara Pandit and Ghanashyam seemed like ideal candidates.

Gadadhara volunteered for the post of Hindu chaplain at Columbia and was accepted. Seeing his success over the next few years, Ghanashyam decided to follow suite.

Today, student members of the Krishna Bhakti Club he established at NYU run several robust programs which he teaches. He is also an active member of the University’s new Center for Spiritual Life, which features a prayer room, a meditation room, and a 300-seat auditorium. There, he meets bi-weekly with other chaplains from various faiths to work on creating spiritual events and programs.

The NYU Center for Spiritual Life in downtown Manhattan

“For example, recently we had a panel on prayer, where representatives of all the different traditions explained what prayer means to them,” Ghanashyam says. “Representing Hinduism, I spoke about how chanting is simultaneously a meditation and also a prayer.”

As well as student events, special events are also organized for NYU’s chaplains and chaplain affiliates, which altogether number around forty. For some of these events, Ghanashyam has cooked and served prasadam—vegetarian food sanctified after being offered to Krishna.

“The chaplains are now wanting to come together and understand each other’s traditions more,” he says.

Students also get to taste prasadam regularly—and learn how to cook it, too! Every Monday at 6pm, seventy-five students—mostly Westerners—gather in a spacious classroom with a huge window-wall overlooking Washington Square Park, for a cooking class organized by the Krishna Bhakti students’ club and taught by Ghanshyam.

Most are already vegetarian and interested in learning how to cook and eat well. Some bring their non-vegetarian friends, hoping they’ll be drawn to a new non-violent diet.

“I cook about five or six dishes, enough for seventy-five people,” Ghanashyam says. “As it’s only a fifteen-minute walk from the Bhakti Center, I cook them there and cart them over on foot. Then I stand at the front of the classroom with my wok and demonstrate how to make one of the dishes I brought. We do everything—halava, different kinds of subjis, chutney, soups, dahls.”

As part of his demonstration, Ghanashyam also speaks to the students about vegetarianism, the Bhagavad-gita, or mantra meditation. “Then I ask for volunteers to help serve out the prasadam, and we have dinner together and hang out and talk into the night,” he says.

The prayer room at NYU's Center for Spiritual Life

As well as helping already practicing vegetarians to become better cooks, the class has inspired some fifteen to thirty people to take up a vegetarian lifestyle over the years.

Meanwhile the Krishna Bhakti Club at NYU also organizes one-off special events, often for visiting ISKCON Swamis, which are advertised with flyers around the campus.

Radhanath Swami, a regular guest, recently spoke to students about stress and strife in the modern world; Devamrita Swami visited in November to speak about environmental issues and the ecology of the heart; and Sacinandana Swami held a guided meditation with visual aids.

Other special events include a Govardhana Puja celebration, which has been held annually at NYU for the past seven years. Students help make a likeness of the sacred Govardhana hill out of sweets, listen to a talk about the history of the holiday, and walk around the hill out of respect.

“They love this event, and are happy to do it!” says Ghanashyam.

He ends most events, he says, by letting students know about programs being held at the Bhakti Center.

One of these is the weekly Thursday evening Bhagavad-gita class, which was held at NYU for many years and still draws NYU students. The class is creatively designed for optimal learning: rather than going through the Gita verse by verse, Ghanashyam systematically presents the major themes of each chapter. Questions are asked to engage the audience, and discussion is encouraged.

Radhanath Swami speaks to NYU's Krishna Bhakti Club

“We also use slideshows and diagrams as learning tools,” he says. “For instance when we started the Gita, we had diagrams explaining who all the different personalities named in the first chapter were, breaking down the five Pandavas and showing a bit of their lineage. We also show pictures that illustrate the story or point we’re discussing.”

This class and the other events held onsite at NYU have introduced many students to Krishna consciousness. Some regularly attend programs at the Bhakti Center, some have begun chanting, and a few have even joined the ashram and become full-time devotees.

Of course, besides teaching classes and organizing events, perhaps Ghanashyam’s most important role as Hindu chaplain is to simply be there for the students whenever they want to talk, and to help them in whatever they’re going through.

“Many of them are under a lot of stress,” he says. “In New York City, the tuition is very high, and of course it’s just an intense place in general. I tell them that they need to add spirituality. Because a higher goal in life will give you the strength and power to deal with the smaller daily struggles. I also recommend chanting in the mornings, as it will create a feeling of happiness or peace that can linger for the rest of the day.”

Other students have different issues. One young man, Ashish, recently began to very regularly attend programs at the Bhakti Center and became serious about Krishna consciousness as a way of life. His parents, however, were worried about his increased involvement, and this in turn concerned him deeply.

“I told him that his parents’ main fear was that in taking up spiritual life, he would give them up, and become detached and cold,” Ghanashyam says. “So I advised him to be an even more good, loving, respectful son, to serve them whenever he can, and to help them understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He’s been trying to apply all that, and has told me it’s going very well.”

It’s helping students like this and building relationships with them that’s the most important to Ghanashyam.

“That’s my main motive for being here,” he says. “All the students are struggling in different ways, and going through a lot of stress and difficulties. So to be able to reach out to them, and give them a spiritual message that I know will be the solution for them if they take it seriously, is deeply, deeply fulfilling.”
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