On May 23rd, former ISKCON News editor Navina Shyam Das graduated summa cum laude from law school at the prestigious Temple University, Philadelphia and was honored as Valedictorian.
Navina Shyam tied with one other student for the number one rank in his class, receiving the highest GPA amongst 300 students.
It has been a long path for Navina, who spent many years searching for his professional calling.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio as the son of ISKCON congregation members, the young Indian American was the first in his family to become vegetarian and to delve deeply into Krishna consciousness.
“During my undergrad years, I was depressed, and was searching, trying to understand things,” he says.
After searching through other religious texts, he made an informed decision to choose Krishna consciousness, and began living and serving at various ISKCON centers throughout North America.
While serving at the Krishna House in Gainesville, Florida in 2002 he met his wife Krishna Priya and decided it was time to start a career to support his family.
Navina first did a Master’s Degree at the University of Florida in urban and regional planning, thinking he would like to work as a planner. During the summer in between years, he tried the job out, but didn’t find it intellectually engaging enough.
In 2006, he moved to the University of California, Irvine, where he began a PhD in cultural design, specializing in Vastu Shastra under a Bengali professor.
In 2008, he moved back to Florida, where he served as assistant director at the Bhaktivedanta Academy, a primary school at the ISKCON Alachua community. However, realizing that he liked the school but didn’t enjoy managing, he left after a year and a half.
It was then that a devotee suggested practicing law to him.
“I thought about it, and thought it was a pretty good fit,” he says. “It seemed a nice combination of intellectual work—reading and writing, critical thinking etc—but it’s about very concrete problems.”
Navina quickly registered for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), while working as managing editor for ISKCON News. Offers began to appear, and he chose Temple University, which offered him a full scholarship. In August 2010, he began the first year of his three-year Juris Doctor degree.
“The first year of law school is an infamous American institution, the academic equivalent of boot camp,” Navina says. “It’s super intense. Lots of reading, a lot of hours, a lot of anxiety. There were a few times where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t deal with this.’ To add to the drama, my daughter Varadha was born right in the middle of my first semester, three weeks before my exam.”
Of course, Navina Shyam made it through and graduated top of his class. But throughout the whole process, he remained very introspective and conscious of how he, as a devotee of Krishna, should approach material education—which ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada often referred to as a “slaughterhouse.”
For one, Navina was determined to keep focused on his Krishna consciousness and not get distracted by the academic world.
“In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna talks about four types of people who don’t surrender unto Him: the foolish people, the lowest among mankind, the atheists, and those whose knowledge is stolen by illusion,” Navina says. “So I really feel like higher education in America, especially the large universities, are the bastion of that last category. The whole culture of higher education is atheistic, ‘rationalist,’ and opposed to spiritual practice. And I’ve seen it have an effect on devotees and weaken their spiritual life. And you wonder, was it worth it?”
To stay focused on Krishna consciousness throughout his academic training, Navina Shyam tried to follow the example of devotee academics that inspire him. There’s Srila Prabhupada disciple and religion professor Garuda Das, whose translation of the Bhagavad-gita helps bring academics closer to Bhakti and to Prabhupada’s edition. And there’s Venkata Bhatta, a fellow young Indian American who also went to law school, and now teaches Krishan consciousness as a Hindu Chaplain at Princeton University.
It was also important to Navina Shyam to simply view higher education as an instrument, a means to an end, rather than as a badge of prestige.
“In modern American culture, particularly if you’re in certain socio-economic strata, it’s just what you do,” he explains. “To be an accomplished, successful person, you have to have that degree. And it’s even detached from the content. It’s just a feather in your cap, that you can flash around. But for those pursuing spiritual life, that doesn’t seem right. We have our own standards for judging success and evaluating character. The first thing we want to know about someone shouldn’t be where they went to school or what degree they have.”
Thus for Navina, the important thing is not the degree itself, but what he’ll do with it.
“I don’t think higher education is intrinsically maya, or intrinsically Krishna,” he explains. “You could reject it for the wrong reasons—which Rupa Goswami calls phalgu vairagya, or artificial renunciation. And you could accept it for the wrong reasons.”
So what will Navina Shyam do with his law degree? He says that he would have loved to do something direct—if ISKCON had a general counsel office with “any kind of base-line salary,” for instance, he would work there “in a heartbeat.”
But since it doesn’t—yet—he will work according to his nature, following Lord Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad-gita to do one’s prescribed duty. He will support and provide for his Krishna conscious family. And he will do what he can to help ISKCON along the way.
Navina Shyam will be studying for his bar exam for the next two months, then taking it at the end of July. Next, in August, he’ll begin his career with a one-year term as a law clerk for a federal judge in Philadelphia. After that, he intends to apply for a position as an assistant US attorney, working for the federal government as a litigator.
“I talked to a second cousin of mine who is a lawyer, and he said that because he has a guaranteed income, he’s able to do things on the side for friends and family, and doesn’t need to charge,” Navina says. “So I also hope to be able to use my extra time to do things for temples and devotees, and not have to really charge. I’ll be able to provide consultation if there’s some kind of legal question about a property dispute, or if somebody wants to donate something to a temple in their will, I’ll be able to put that provision in.”
Navina Shyam is also already providing the legal perspective as a member of the board of directors of ECOV, an organization that takes care of the New Vrindaban community’s cows and farming.
In the future, his dream is to become a judge.
“I would enjoy the job, and I feel like it would contribute something to ISKCON’s respectability,” he says. “There’s a Bhaktivinode Thakur quote: “When will the high court judge wear tilak?” So I don’t know if I’d be a high court judge, but at least some kind of judge. It seems like it would be something Prabhupada would be proud of.”