Several months ago, I posted a link here to a great radio story I heard on National Public Radio about Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, a 36-year-old Hare Krishna monk and Hindu chaplain at Columbia University. I loved the story, which was kind of a day-in-the-life feature, and was thrilled when a photo accompanying the story showed Pandit praying with prayer beads.
Pandit was born in India and raised in the U.S. in a Hindu family where prayer beads were a part of everyday life. His parents had a temple room – a room dedicated to family prayer and worship – where there were several sets of japa malas – Hindu prayer beads – made from the wood of the neem tree. “It was a very commonplace thing for us,” he said. “There were always a few of them in the temple room and you just pick one up and use it to chant the mantra that you were chanting.”
In the 1990s, Pandit became affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and became a priest there in 2004. During his time of study and initiation, he was given a mala by his spiritual teacher. Before presenting him with the gift, his teacher first prayed on the beads, chanting with a special intention for Pandit’s own spiritual journey on each of the 108 beads. “This sanctifies them and establishes my relationship with my spiritual teacher,” Pandit said. “I really feel that my spiritual life is protected and guided by him, and when I hold those beads I feel that they are very sacred and special because they were given to me by him on the day I officially made a commitment to a certain kind of spiritual practice.”
Pandit’s mala is made of wood from the tulsi, or tulasi, tree, a tree sacred to Lord Krishna, who Hare Krishna devotees revere as God. To pray, he sits cross-legged on the floor and holds the first bead between the thumb and middle finger of his right hand and recites the Hare Krishna mantra, sometimes called the “maha mantra,” or great mantra, on each bead:
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
The prayer is taken from one of the Upanishads, a sacred Hindu text, in which the god Brahma describes these 16 names of Krishna as able to destroy evil. You can hear a recording of the Hare Krishna mantra here.
The Hare Krishna mantra is supposed to be prayed out loud, not silently. “Our understanding is that the name of Krishna will enter the ear and purify the heart,” Pandit said. “So that is our meditation, the sound vibration.” Pandit said he chants the mantra softly to himself. “Others may just hear a murmuring, but I am doing it so that I can hear it.”
Pandit prays with his beads for two hours a day everyday, beginning at 5 a.m. He carries his beads everywhere in a small cloth bag that he keeps with him. He prays with the beads everywhere he goes in New York City – on the streets, in the subways and on the buses. “What happens is the hand goes in the bag and they are being fingered in the bag. A separate strand of 16 counter beads hang off the bag and you move a bead after each round.” 108 x 16 = HOW MANY prayers a day.
Pandit said there is an underlying prayer to the chanting of the mantra which he described as “Krishna, please engage me in your service.” “That is the mood in the heart,” Pandit said. “And we are to chant with the intensity of a child crying for its mother.”
Pandit has his own website, http://www.nycpandit.com. I want to thank him for all his time and for sharing these great pictures.