[The first of our Fall Hindu series.]
Living in La La Land
High school, for me, was a sheltered experience. Being anxious of the drugs, smoking, and gang activity of my public middle school, I asked my parents to place me elsewhere. They put me in a small, Christian high school with a population of about 350 students. My graduating class of 1990 had a total of 80 students. The kids there were nicer and I no longer felt stressed by bad influences.
In our free time, my friends and I loved to play sports, watch movies, and play video games. I loved playing tennis and volleyball, and I enjoyed watching football, but ever since Venice Beach my favorite sport had been basketball. I wasn't great at it, but I could hold my own on the court. I wasn't a great offensive player, but I excelled in the defensive position. Even though I wasn't that tall or wide-about 5' 8" and 145 pounds-I loved getting under the rim to get rebounds. I became a huge fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and tried to never miss a game. During the late 80s, the Lakers had the unstoppable big three: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. Watching them play was amazing. Magic was the tallest point guard the league had ever seen and could see over his defenders. Kareem had the unstoppable skyhook. I was devastated when I heard that Magic had contracted HIV and would no longer be playing. I moved into the monastery a couple of years after Kobe Bryant entered the NBA so I never had a chance to witness his rise to stardom. The Lakers were my favorite team, but I loved watching Michael Jordan play. He had a finesse that hadn't been seen before. His ability to hang in the air was a new phenomenon for the league. He dominated and owned the court like no one before.
I was introduced to tennis at an early age by one of my dad's friends. Tennis is more challenging mentally than basketball because there are no team members to bail one out in case one is having an off day. It is all up to the individual to lift oneself out of a slump and get his or her game back in gear. When I was 12 years old and living in Glendale, we had a park near our house with tennis courts where I would practice my serves in the mornings before school. I continued to play tennis on and off through high school and in my senior year won our high school tournament. Everyone was surprised because no one knew that I played.
The happy and carefree days of my life were about to come to a close and I was about to start the walk down the road of maturation. In 1992, my father's jewelry factory burnt down and he lost a tremendous amount of inventory. During this tragic event, one of his managers ran off with all of his business contacts and joined forces with a competitor, and as a result my dad lost most of his clients. Unable to pull things together, we eventually lost our house, cars, and practically all of the money we had saved. Hard times were on the horizon. Because things had come easy for me, I couldn't grasp the magnitude of what was happening. I had lived life in a bubble and hadn't personally experienced much hardship.
As our status dwindled, so did my sense of self. So much of my identity as a person was connected to the things we had accumulated and the status in society that we had developed. I wasn't the most motivated of individuals and never had much ambition to accomplish grand things in life. I had become dependent on the comforts my parents were providing and had expected that they would always be there. This sudden change created a lot of confusion in my life, about the present and future.
In 1993, it seemed as if there was nothing left for my father to pursue in Los Angeles and he was looking for an opportunity where he could once again make it big. In a desperate attempt to earn money, he decided to pursue an opportunity he had heard about from a friend, in the former Eastern block country of Bulgaria. Having just come out of communist rule, it was an open market and my dad wanted to capitalize on it. With so much uncertainty about my future, I lost all focus during my third year at Cal-State University of Los Angeles and decided to join my father in Bulgaria. I can still clearly remember standing in line to check out of school. It was a bit surreal. I knew this was going to be a major transition in my life, but I didn't have a clue what was in store.
I didn't tell my high school and college friends what I was going through and what I was about to do. I was embarrassed; I felt it was a failure on our part and it was hard to tell everyone that we had failed and were losing everything. As things tightened financially, I distanced myself from my friends because I no longer had money to go out to eat or watch movies. So, when we decided that we were going to leave the country, I packed whatever would fit in one suitcase and left California. Most of my friends had no clue what had happened. I told one friend that I was going abroad, but I only told him that it was to help my dad in his business. I didn't mention anything about the downturn our life had taken. For the most part, I had fallen off the face of the earth. I didn't want to be contacted, as I didn't really feel like explaining myself until we got back on our feet in some kind of "face-saving" way.
Moving to Bulgaria
Within a couple weeks after leaving school, my mom and I flew to Bulgaria, leaving our home, cars, and other belongings at the mercy of the banks. As the flight was landing, I was taken aback at how depressing the city looked. All of the residential buildings looked identical and were approximately the the same size and color. ...
Discovering the Bhagavad Gita
Since most people in Bulgaria didn't speak or understand English at all, my dad had hired two secretaries who could help with the business and translate. One of them had learned English and could communicate fairly effectively, while the other could only speak and understand at a very basic level.
During her lunch breaks, I noticed her reading a book with a cover that looked familiar to one of the spiritual books I had had on my shelf in Los Angeles. I asked her where she had gotten such a book and what the content of it was, and she said someone at her college had given it to her. The book she was reading was the Bhagavad Gita. I was very fascinated by the text and its teachings and asked her to share with me what she was reading. She would try and explain to me whatever she could. Even though I don't remember what she told me, it was enough to make me obtain my own copy. So, when I visited Los Angeles for a short two weeks, I picked up a copy of the Gita to bring back to Bulgaria. I didn't have much else to do there; there were two channels on TV, one in Bulgarian and the other in Russian, and I had already seen the movies in the theaters. It was the perfect time to read.
I had made several attempts to read the Bhagavad Gita in the past, but it hadn't felt relevant. Life had been good, and I had never felt compelled to ask existential questions. This time, the Gita pierced me to the core of my soul. It spoke to me so powerfully that even on days that I worked from morning to night and felt exhausted, I still found time to read at least one verse. Mohandas Gandhi says:
When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.
The Bhagavad Gita, which literally means "the Song of God," was spoken by Krishna, God incarnate, to His devotee and friend Arjuna at a time when Arjuna was at a major crossroads in his life. His father had passed away when he was still young; then, as a young man, his cousins and uncle betrayed him by cheating him and his four brothers out of a kingdom that was rightfully theirs.
After spending thirteen years in exile in the forest with his brothers and wife, he returned to request that his family's kingdom be restored to them, but was refused. Having no further recourse, Arjuna realized that in order for his family to survive, and to insure the welfare of the kingdom, he would have to wage war against his family members. His cousin had already made several attempts to murder Arjuna and his brothers and attempted to humiliate Arjuna's wife. When the day of battle arrived and both armies had assembled at Kurukshetra, a town in Northern India, Arjuna felt uncertain about his impending actions. He asked his charioteer, Krishna, to drive his chariot to the middle of the battlefield so he could see his opponents. When he saw his grandfather, who had raised him after his father's death, and his teacher, who had bestowed great affection on him, standing alongside his uncles and cousins ready to fight, Arjuna had a complete nervous breakdown.
His mind became clouded, and he no longer wanted to fight. His very bow was slipping from his hands. Ultimately, he sat down on his chariot in great grief, unable to lead the battle. At that crucial time, Arjuna turned to Krishna and asked him what should be done. Krishna was surprised by Arjuna's uncertainty. In his lifetime, Arjuna was one of the best warriors in the entire world. He was well known as confident, determined, and accomplished. He had always stuck to his decisions, and he had never backed down from a just cause.
My situation was definitely nowhere near as difficult as Arjuna's, but I did feel that I could relate to his frame of mind. Arjuna's situation was so extreme that it might seem unrelated to anyone's practical concerns and issues. However, just as Arjuna had to battle with his mind to make the right decisions, we all have our own battles that we're constantly going through. Most of us are fighting several battles simultaneously. Many high school students are faced with the stressful task of choosing a college and a new home for the next four years of their life. When they arrive at their new school, they might struggle with being away from their families and the comforts of home while learning to manage their own schedule. For some, there is the anxiety of attempting to choose a major and ultimately a career path. If you ask a college senior what they plan to do after graduating, most will tell you, ''I'm still trying to figure it out." Finding someone you hope to spend the rest of your life with is a source of great worry as well. Even if you find "the one," there is so much anxiety about whether relationships, figuring out how much energy to invest in a new relationship further complicates the issue. Marriage, kids, finances, retirement - who can say that these aren't battles? The Bhagavad Gita was spoken five-thousand years ago to Arjuna who was sitting on a chariot, but the advice Krishna offers in response to the problems of humanity are timeless.
It's possible that one needs to be in a certain frame of mind in order to grasp spiritual truths. Intellectually, we can comprehend spiritual knowledge, but without a crisis or real need for answers, the messages won't sink in to a point where they will change our lives. I was definitely ready to understand why all this happened, ready to know how to proceed in life with some kind of faith. The Gita gave me hope in life once again. It helped me to understand that there was a reason for everything, and that nothing was happening simply by random chance. ...
Urban monk in training
Returning to America was an unexpected culture shock. After living such a simple life without television, internet, radio, and other technology, I had become quite comfortable with a slow-paced lifestyle. I hadn't committed to the monastic order since I wasn't certain I could live out my life this way. Completely immersing myself in spiritual culture was like bathing away my confusions and uncertainties. I knew I would have to take it one day at a time.
My father wanted me to go home and spend some time with the family, but I felt inclined to go straight to the New York monastery. This wasn't easy for my parents, as they had expected me to move back home with them. I know it was heartbreaking for my mother because, like most mothers, she wanted me to always be close to her. However, I had just undergone the most powerful six months of my life, and felt quite strongly that I shouldn't disrupt my spiritual momentum in any way. I knew there was more that I needed to discover about myself and more that I needed to learn. My journey wasn't complete.
The experience in New York was very different from the one in India. Up until now, I had lived in New Jersey, and this was the first time that I would be living in New York. Compared to Bombay and other major cities in India, New York is not nearly as stressful. Primarily, everything is cleaner, down to the air. In Mumbai, none of the cars have a proper exhaust system, so they pump out dark black exhaust into the air everyone breathes. The worst part is when you're in one of those motorized three-wheeled auto-rickshaws with no doors or windows and you inhale everything from all the vehicles. I was horrified the first time I blew my nose after a day around Mumbai and saw black grit in the tissue. Some of the local monks said that walking around Mumbai for a day is like smoking a half a pack of cigarettes.
A European monk who had been raised as a Christian started the monastery in Manhattan in 1997. He was in his late 30s and had been a monk for over 15 years. The first place he had acquired was a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Fifth Street and Bowery. It was so small that I was convinced it was a studio turned into a one-bedroom to extract more rent. In the beginning, he lived there with two monks who he was training. In a little over a year some well wishers pitched in and he was able to upgrade to a three bedroom on Fourth Street and First Avenue.
They called the new space the Bhaktivedanta Ashram and this is where my experience as a monk in New York began.
To read more from Gadadhara Pandit Dasa's Urban Monk. Exploring Karama, consciousness, and the divine.
Gadadhara Pandit Dasa website.
We recommend two translations of the Bhagavad Gita:
The Bhagavad-Gita: Khrisna's counsel in time of war by Barbara Stoller; and
The Bhagavad Gita: a walkthrough for Westerners by Jack Hawley.