By Abe Handler
Columbia Daily Spectator
January 28, 2005
Krishna Chaplain Gadadhara Pandit drew a large crowd for a vegetarian dinner in Lerner on Wednesday.
Amid the peacoats and denim of Morningside Heights, it is hard not to notice Gadadhara Pandit. Bareheaded and clad in plain, traditional robes, Columbia’s new Krishna chaplain stands out on campus.
After nearly four years of advising Columbia’s small Krishna community, Pandit has become a major part of some students’ lives on campus by leading a study group on an Eastern spiritual text and a series of weekly vegetarian cooking classes that draw over 100 students each session.
Hare Krishnaism is the American embodiment of a very old, monotheistic sect of Hinduism whose adherents chant “Hare Krishna Rama,” believed to be the name of God, as a form of worship. First brought to the West in 1965 when an elderly Bengali gentleman established a Krishna temple on the Lower East Side, Hare Krishnaism quickly gained popularity among non-Indians in the United States—adopting the name given to it by Western observers.
What began as a small, informal gathering of students with Chaplain Pandit has evolved into the Columbia University Bhakti Club, which now boasts over 400 members. The club’s mission is to introduce the spiritual culture of India to members of the Columbia community. Despite offering only minimal publicity for its cooking classes, the Bhakti Club hosts the most well-attended weekly event in Lerner.
Indian-born and raised in Los Angeles, Pandit first realized his calling as a young man working in his father’s import/export business in the eastern United States.
Pandit returned to India for one year to travel and study at a monastery in Bombay before joining a monastic order on the Lower East Side and teaching an accredited course on the Bhavag Gita, the primary spiritual text of India, at SUNY Albany.
It was then that he accepted an invitation from his friend Li Wa—a Ph.D. candidate in biology turned Columbia law student—to advise a small study group and cooking circle of Columbia students that met in Wa’s apartment. Seeking to promote spirituality and a non-violent vegetarianism, this group developed the weekly cooking classes that outgrew two prior spaces on the way to the current location in Lerner.
Inspired by spiritual principles enshrined in the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhakti Club’s cooking classes arose out of a philosophy of non-violence that Pandit said “extends not just to human beings but also to animals.” Because Pandit believes his cooking to be a form of worship, the monk does not taste the food while cooking because his creations are intended for God.
“We wanted to introduce spirituality and vegetarianism in a way which would allow people of different cultures to feel comfortable,” Pandit said. He began last Wednesday’s class with a warning to new attendees: “Don’t worry. Nothing strange is going to take place.”
Though the religion’s principles are of Asian origin, it has long fought the perception that it is a Western-originated cult.
“When you bring something that is so deep-rooted in one part of the world and transport it to a completely different culture in a different part of the world, there is a good chance that it will stick out like a sore thumb,” Pandit said.
Pandit’s application for University chaplaincy was approved last fall. Columbia has 17 chaplains, whose primary jobs are to serve as spiritual advisers to the University community.
Pandit emphasized that Krishnas believe they are worshiping the same God as that of common Western monotheistic religions. He added that Krishnas respect all forms of prayer. “If all worship God in a sincere way, all will attain the same goal,” Pandit said.
Regardless of theology, the large crowds each Wednesday in Lerner seem drawn to Pandit’s classes from motivations ranging from spiritual curiosity to vegetarian epicureanism to the traditional college impetus: free food.
While GS student Peter Goliszewski has long attended the classes to learn about Krishna spirituality, SEAS graduate student Theodore Kengre is drawn to the gatherings by the perceived health benefits of vegetarianism.
“I appreciate hearing about his philosophy,” said regular attendee Ezra Koenig, CC ’06. “I don’t just come here for the food.”
Another audience member said, “I’m a vegetarian. It’s hard to get vegetarian food around Columbia … You can only eat salads and sandwiches for so long.”
Although most popular with undergraduates, Pandit emphasizes that the Bhakti Club’s classes draw students from many backgrounds and University affiliations.
Vegetarian dinners are held at 7 p.m. each Wednesday in Lerner party space. Bhavag Gita study groups are held at 5 p.m. each Friday in 502 West Lerner.
“The club is helping like-minded students form deep spiritual friendships,” Pandit said. “For me, that’s very satisfying.”