09/19/2013 02:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Faith Journeys, Faith Collisions, and Hip-hop: A Dialogue at the Rubin Museum


Photo by Shanta K. Sukhu (Copyright: Invite Photography)

On Friday, Sept. 14, the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan helped to launch Urban Monk: Exploring Karma, Consciousness, and the Divine, the provocative, stirring, and enlightening new autobiography from Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, Hindu teacher and chaplain at Columbia University, New York University, and Union Theological Seminary. Pandit was joined by Dr. Marcella Runell Hall, the director of the NYU Center for Spiritual Life and leading scholar on the interweaving between social justice, activism, hip-hop, and faith. Their conversation was part of a wider effort to understand "why faiths collide", based on their extensive experience working in the vibrancy of the interfaith field in New York City.

Pandit's journey towards becoming an "urban monk" (he lives and serves within The Bhakti Center cultural center in the East Village of Manhattan) is a slice of the new monastic pie which calls out to seekers across the spiritual spectrum. Introduced as a "Hindu monk with a Facebook page", Pandit and Hall unpacked many of the seeming contradictions of a monk's life in the Big Apple, revealing a unique 21st-century spiritual experience which adheres to a classical Eastern tradition yet walks firmly in the intensity of the post-post-modern diaspora of the "spiritual but not religious" age we live in.

Urban Monk also has as a simple purpose, as Pandit revealed from many of his personal encounters, in that "it's not everyday you run into a monk. When you do you naturally want to ask what happened? My book is a chance to share my journey with a broader audience."

Pandit revealed that Urban Monk began as an introspective journal inspired by the personal resonance he was feeling with the challenges and complexities many of the people he was counseling as chaplain at Columbia and NYU were experiencing in their own lives. The journal eventually unfurled into a revelation of his own idiosyncratic pilgrimage to the Vaisnava (Hare Krishna) tradition of his Hindu heritage. Urban Monk tells of Pandit's life as a child in Los Angeles, playing basketball with men twice his size and age, absorbing the hip-hop and funk sounds of LL Cool J and Rick James, integrating as best he could as a lone Indian child into the mores of La La Land.

Both Pandit and Hall agreed that the subculture of hip-hop was a way to find meaning and to provoke questioning as outsiders to the mainstream. Hall's nomadic childhood (she attended 12 schools in 12 years as a child) and her travels through the intertwining realms of interfaith and academia has led her to explore in her doctoral work the pedagogy of hip-hop and social justice. Pandit is one of 62 chaplains currently involved closely with the new Center for Spiritual Life at NYU, which is creating a indispensable space at the cutting-edge of interfaith, exploring the urban issues of 21st-century spirituality that both Pandit and Hall are living, teaching, and expressing.

Pandit and Hall explored some of the intimate episodes detailed in Urban Monk, such as Pandit and his family dealing with the fall-out of their family business burning to the ground, forcing them to move to newly post-communist Bulgaria in the early '90s. There, amidst tremendous hardship and confusion, Pandit returned to the spiritual roots of his heritage by becoming deeply attracted to the spiritual principles of the Bhagavad-Gita. Returning to the United States, Pandit began working in the mortgage industry as the first vestiges of what became the housing crisis that nearly crashed the global economy in 2008 began to rear its ugly head.

Trying to hustle unseemly mortgage packages to people who could not afford them pushed Pandit further towards spiritual life. He said half-jokingly that "mortgages led me to monasticism faster than anything else." Traveling to India, he began a retreat at the ashram of the Radha-Gopinath temple in Mumbai that challenged his very sense of being. As an only child who by his own admittance grew up "sitting on the couch", Pandit suddenly had to share living space with over 60 other monks, sleeping on the floor, taking cold showers, and dodging malaria in one of the world's most overpowering metropolises.

Yet the camaraderie of his fellow monks and their example of deep devotion and enthusiasm for God (Krishna in the Vaisnava tradition), as he recalled, "shifted me entirely out of the suffering I was experiencing in America. I began to love every moment, every cold shower, every element of the lifestyle. It made me realize what I had been missing my entire life."

Pandit eventually found himself drawn to New York City, where he continued his urban monastic journey by becoming the first ever Hindu chaplain at Columbia University and New York University, and the first ever Interfaith chaplain at Union Theological Seminary. In their mutual experiences in chaplaincy and spiritual leadership in New York, Pandit and Hall spoke further about their understanding of how religious literacy defines whether faiths collide or connect. Their mutual aspirations is to provide opportunities to help people not only find the fundamental literacy of their own faith, but from there to be able to humbly open their minds and hearts to the other colors and shades of faith across the spiritual spectrum.

Pandit discussed many of the unique ways in his urban ministry in which he tried to encourage this literacy, including presentations on the many deep and profound connections between the Bhagavad-Gita and The Matrix, as well as the vegetarian cooking classes he would lead for over a hundred students at Columbia University, teaching not just culinary skills but the essential arts of cooking with loving consciousness.

Urban Monk is a story of a seeker breaking down stereotypes and sharing a spirituality which speaks not only to the most personal concerns of our own lives but to the essential needs of our civilization for a deeper and more eternal meaning than the temporary realities which surround us can provide us.

For more info on Urban Monk, check out Pandit's webpage.

And click here for more info on the Center for Spiritual Life at NYU.