By Life Positive
An interview with American-born Radhanath Swami, the head of ISKCON, Girgaum, Chowpatty, whose book, The Journey Home, is a thrilling testament to the power of love for God
Radhanath Swami, the most popular face of International Society for Krishna Consciousness(ISKCON), has become the talk of the town after the release of his epic book, The Journey Home. It is a bewitching tale of a life committed to the mission of finding God. Hitchhiking his way through Europe, Istanbul, Turkey and Afghanistan, the author reaches India, braving uncertainty and courting life-threatening dangers at the young age of 19 in the early ’70s, pulled by the tug of his heart. A roller-coaster ride into India’s geographic, lingual, cultural, religious and spiritual diversity coloured his experiences in myriad hues, weaving a rich tapestry of a life shaped beautifully when entrusted into the hands of the universe.
Richard Slavin, aka Radhanath Swami, was born in America to Jewish parents in the 1950s. Since early childhood he was different. Till the age of eight he would refuse to sit on chairs and would have his meals on the ground, like Indians, much to the perplexity of his parents. While they believed in being well turned out, Ritchie would deplore being seen as better looking than the have-nots. So the new shirt would be washed till it looked old, and the new pair of shoes would be scraped on a rock till they looked worn out before he wore them. Sensitive Ritchie always felt closer to the poor, marginalised, weak, discriminated and the downtrodden. The word God thrilled and fascinated him. As he entered his teens, this thirst to know about God, and his own true identity gripped him like a vice. He tried to throw in his lot with the hippies, grew his hair long and flouted convention, but soon was disappointed, for the path led nowhere. So when a friend asked him to join him on a tour of Europe, he jumped at the offer. On his journey, he heard a clear voice asking him to go to India, while he sat meditating in a cave in Greece. Throwing all caution to the wind, he plunged into an unknown expedition, listening only to his heart all the time.
What follows is a tale of courage, gripping uncertainty, adventure, lurking dangers, hairbreadth escapes, love and acceptance in strange places, thrilling discoveries, rib-tickling humour and strange coincidences, shaping up a story more dramatic than any action film ever made on celluloid. For example, in Khandahar, Richard played host to a mongoose which chose his thick crop of curls as his bed for the night. Warned by his host that the mongoose would turn savage if disturbed, the terrified Richard sat up motionless all night until next morning, after a delightful night of rest, the creature hopped off his head and sauntered off!
Richard’s tale is unique, not only through his dramatic and diverse experiences, but also because of the sheer doggedness with which he pursued his search for his true path. After rejecting the offers of many acclaimed gurus, he finally surrenders to the devotional aspect of spirituality and becomes the disciple of Srila Prabhupada, pioneer of the ISKCON movement in the West.
In loving and serving Lord Krishna, he finally slaked his soul’s thirst. Richard is the epitome of a seeker. Full of curiosity, eager to learn from even a leaf, and intelligent enough to retain only the useful and drop the unnecessary. His humility, sensitivity, compassionate heart and love, and capacity to merge into new surroundings, endear him hugely to the reader. Little wonder then that fan clubs of his book are legion, and the man himself is much sought after. The team of Life Positive met Sri Radhanath Swami at the Sri Sri Radha Gopinath temple in Girgaum, Mumbai, one of the three temples run by the ISKCON group in Mumbai. This is the place he calls home whenever he is in India. Wrapped in ochre-coloured shawl and dhoti, hands folded in welcome, blue eyes beaming with hospitality, he received us warmly in his study. His self-effacement is so deep that it is hard to recall that this is the same young man who triumphed over unbearable trials and tribulations.
An excerpt from the interview:
You tested almost all the paths but finally surrendered to the dvaita path, the path of loving the personal God called Krishna. Did you do it because you found it to be the best or because it was your inherent calling?
Your question carries the answer within itself. I would say I found it the best because it was my innermost call to be of service to Lord Krishna. My quest was to know God through ecstatic love. And ecstatic love for God is meant for lovers. The personal God facilitates such a relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped. The impersonal seekers of God are looking for liberation, but I would like to say that ecstatic love for God too leads to mukti or liberation.
What do you think is the reason for the phenomenal success of the book, The Journey Home?
If anybody likes it, it is because everyone is looking for what I was looking for. In this way it is everyone’s journey. The search for God is a universal quest. We are all looking for fulfilment, contentment and a final answer to all our questions. My book resonates with the inner call of all the seekers of God.
There is a tendency for fundamentalism in ISKCON. Do you agree? If yes, then why do you think it has happened?
ISKCON is based on Srimad Bhagvatam which says that the supreme and ultimate aim of a soul is to perform loving service to God. Krishna Consciousness does not deny other religions, since all of them are ultimately seeking the essence of the soul, which is love for God. Every order and religion has this problem of people and followers feeling that their way is the best. Sri Bhakti Vinoda Thakur, father and mentor of Srila Prabhupada’s guru, Bhakti Sidhhanta Saraswati Thakur, was extremely liberal. He used to say that whenever he saw people of other faiths worshipping God, he felt very joyous because they were loving and serving his own lord in their own way. When Srila Prabhupada came, he wanted to rediscover the love people have for God. And when you love God, loving other people and other creations of God come naturally to you. You cannot love God without loving everybody.
ISKCON stresses too much on the study of scriptures. How do you correlate bhakti with it?
Bhakti is not only about discovering God’s love in your heart, but is also about doing that which pleases the lord. And what God wants his children to do in order to stay close to him in service can be known through the study of scriptures. Bhakti is not only about emotions. It is a science. It includes hearing the katha of God, studying the scriptures, singing his praise and saying your prayers. Srila Prabhupada has authored the book called Nectar of Devotion (The Complete Science of Bhakti Yoga) which is a guide book for all the seekers who want to evaluate their progress on the path of devotion.
You live and breathe to please Krishna, but choose to live in Mumbai, rather than Vrindavan. Why?
Our goal is to serve the lord, in however best way we can. And Vrindavan is not only a geographical place. It exists in our hearts. My guru said that the highest form of loving Krishna is to seek his pleasure rather than our own. There is so much opportunity to help people in this great city. By serving them we serve the best interest of our spiritual consciousness. We grow in bhakti and devotion, and help the cause of Krishna Consciousness.
You came across many fake gurus, even in Vrindavan, during your search for God. Did you not once feel that all this searching could be meaningless?
Of all the places I have been to, I have specially felt the presence of God in India. When I first put foot in India, I felt, “Finally, I have come home.” And when I entered Vrindavan, this feeling overpowered me once again. I was not disheartened by encounters with unreal gurus and fake godmen. They showed me all the more clearly that there must be a real God and real guru too. The presence of counterfeit money establishes the existence of real money. It does not cancel it. Fake exists in relation to the real.
What do you have to say about the materialism that has come to pervade the social fabric of India?
It is very sad. Indians have forgotten what they have. The great philosophy, heritage and legacy of India cannot be found elsewhere. Science, philosophy, education are as good and bad as the values internalised by us. We have to remind Indians about what they have. Prabhupadaji used to say, “In the West people are very far from God…but their thirst is genuine, In India people are very near to attaining God, but they do not care for it.”
Are you working on any other book?
There is no end to seva. The new book that I am working on is called The Journey Within. I must admit that the journey within was much more challenging than the journey I undertook to reach India and find my path.
What is your life’s message?
My message is that if we seek God, he will be there. He gives vision if there is thirst to find him. He provides answers if there are questions. He gives support if you are looking for it. His grace is everywhere if you can tune into it. We seek love but if we discover the love of God, then we can love everyone.
What is the vision behind the Bhaktivedanta hospital that you have established in Mumbai?
The hospital is our expression of our love for God. The purpose is to show compassion for the living being and to extend the compassion to the body as well as the spirit and the soul. We want to heal the human being at every level and not only the physical body. A healthy mind requires encouragement, peace and clarity. A healthy soul is not afflicted by the vices of ego, ignorance and avidya. Our aim is to give the best possible care to all patients through mainstream as well as alternative therapies. By dedicating all the services we give the needy, to Krishna, we are healing the body, the mind and the soul of the patients. Sure enough, Bhaktivedanta hospital in Mira Road, Mumbai, lives upto Swamiji’s words. The food offered to the patients is first offered to Krishna and then distributed to patients as prasad. The patients wake up to the music of aarti streaming into their rooms every morning. Portions from the Bhagavad Gita are read and explained to the entire staff every morning before the routine begins. The spiritual care department gives people spiritual books and tools to lead a better life after leaving hospital.
Weekly classes and discourses are held on the Srimad Bhagvatam and the Bhagavad Gita to make common people more attuned to the Divine. Not only that, Krishna himself is considered to be a resident of the hospital. So his deity form is placed on a small chariot and is wheeled from room to room, ward to ward, every day, blessing his ill children, and assessing their well-being, like a doctor. The spirit of seva is marked in every person, from the biggest surgeon to the lowest ward boy. Cleanliness apart, the hospital strikes you with its sheer beauty. The consulting doctors do not dismiss the patient after prescribing medicines but also offer prasad to them, believing in its healing power.
The Mid-Day meal programme run by him feeds thousands children in the slums of Mumbai.
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