Campus reports missing panditsSome refuse to board flights back to their native India
MAHARISHI VEDIC CITY – Administrators of the pandit campus near Vedic City said recently they have had an issue with pandits who do not wish to return to India after staying in the United States for a few years.
About 500 Vedic pandits live in an ashram near Maharishi Vedic City run by the Global Country for World Peace where they spend the bulk of their time meditating and performing “yagyas,” traditional recitations of Sanskrit sounds. The vast majority of the pandits (pronounced “pundits”) come from India, where they spent several years learning the meditations and recitations before coming to the United States as adults.
Bill Goldstein, legal counsel for the GCWP, said that in the past six months a number of pandits have refused to board their flights from Chicago to India, and in some cases they walked out of the O’Hare Airport without notifying GCWP staff where they were going.
A Chicago-based publication “Hi India” reported in January that 163 Indian pandits who lived at the pandit campus had gone missing in the prior year. Goldstein said he does not know how the publication arrived at that specific figure but said it is approximately correct. Goldstein said the pandit campus has cooperated fully with immigration officials, although he added there is little the campus staff can do for the pandits if they decide to run away.
Goldstein said that in some cases, the pandits will flee the airport even after checking their luggage. He said those who flee hope to get a job in the United States, even though they do not have a work visa. The pandits’ visas are R-1, which means they are here on a religious excursion and cannot be paid to work. An R-1 visa typically lasts 30 months. Goldstein added that the pandits who flee probably don’t realize the high cost of living in the U.S. compared to India. He said some of them make their way back to the ashram after finding it difficult to obtain employment and housing.
John Revolinski, administrative director of the pandit campus, said he and the staff at the GCWP are committed to taking care of the pandits, but they cannot force them to board their flights. Goldstein said he believes the problem of the pandits fleeing at the airport began when, several months ago, a group of pandits refused to board a plane and were taken in for questioning. Since they hadn’t broken any laws, the authorities released them. Goldstein said some pandits who learned of this incident interpreted it to mean they had no obligation to return to India and could legally remain in the U.S.
Goldstein said the problem of the pandits fleeing picked up about six months ago and was at its height about a month or two ago, but he believes it has subsided since then. The GCWP has welcomed pandits from India and the Far East for seven years. Goldstein said only a handful of pandits left the campus unauthorized in the first 6.5 years of the campus’s history. In that time, about 2,500 pandits have participated in the program in the ashram. Goldstein said only about 5 percent have left the program in an unauthorized fashion.
Some of those who left in the early years were people who simply walked off the campus into the surrounding countryside.
“Even most of those would come back eventually,” he said. “It’s not legal for them to work in America, but unfortunately some employers will hire them and pay them less than minimum wage. The pandits who leave realize it is not a good idea.”
Goldstein said the campus staff has interviewed other pandits on the campus to ask why some of them are leaving in this manner, and the answer they receive is that some pandits are under financial pressure to provide for their families in India.
The pandits are normally in the U.S. for two or three years before they return to their native country. After that time, they have the option of returning to the program in Vedic City if they so choose, and Goldstein said a majority of them opt to return.
The pandits are all male and are all 18 years old or older. Goldstein said some of the pandits speak English but the majority speak Hindi, and their programs at the campus are conducted in Hindi.
Nearly all of the pandits’ expenses are covered while they live at the ashram. Those expenses are paid for by donations. Their housing is free, and they receive three meals a day from a cafeteria on site. Revolinski said the pandits have a rec center where they play sports such as volleyball, and in the summer they play outdoor games such as cricket. Their plane tickets to and from India are paid for as well. They receive a monthly stipend of $200, of which $150 goes to their family in India.
Goldstein said $200 may not seem like a large stipend, but he said the pandits have no real cash needs since everything is taken care of for them on the campus. The campus has two full-time doctors who tend to the pandits’ medical needs.
Vidya Shankar Mishra is the head pandit on the campus, meaning he assumes responsibility for welcoming new pandits and for taking a leadership role in campus activities. Through an interpreter, Vivek Vaidyanathan, Mishra said he has been meditating for the past 12 years since he was 16. He said he decided to become a pandit while in his home country of India because his grandfather was also a pandit and he saw how everyone in the community respected him.
Mishra has been at the pandit campus for about three years. He said it is not difficult for him to be away from India for so long because he has made so many good friends at the ashram. He described the other pandits as his “brothers.”
Mishra said he and the other pandits have visited the Mississippi River but for the most part they stay on the campus.
“We don’t have a need to go out,” he said through his interpreter. “There are no facilities for us outside. Our food, drink and place to live are all here.”
Mishra said it is a great feeling to know Indian traditions such as meditation are becoming popular in the West. He said it gives him and the other pandits even more encouragement when they are doing their programs and recitations.