The Journey Within: Autobiography of a Modern Yogi
An inspiring talk with the remarkable Radhanath Swami
Posted Jun 07, 2016
Radhanath Swami is a visionary force of nature. The American-born spiritual leader, social activist, and author (who began life 65 years ago as Richard Slavin in Chicago) has been a Bhakti Yoga practitioner and teacher for more than forty years. Best known for his bestselling 2008 memoir, The Journey Home: Autobiography of An American Swami, Swami is a senior member of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), and the inspiration behind a meals program that feeds some 1.2 million children in the slums of Mumbai. For the past twenty-five years, Swami has worked tirelessly to end hunger, establish missionary hospitals, and eye camps, eco-friendly farms, schools and ashrams, an orphanage, and a number of emergency relief programs throughout India. His most recent book, The Journey Within: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Wisdom of Bhakti Yoga, picks up where the first memoir ended, and offers eloquent insight into compassion, open-mindedness, and spiritual activism as the foundations of an enlightened, modern life.
Mark Matousek: I’d like to begin on a personal note. I’m fascinated by how you changed the story of your life so radically. Starting out as a Jewish kid in Chicago and then becoming a renunciate swami. It’s a revolutionary change a lot of people can’t imagine. When you look back at the person you were, what do you see?
Radhanath Swami: I was a teenager in the 1960s, an interesting time for many of us. The Vietnam War was raging, there was discrimination against African-Americans and many other turbulent events. Trying to find where I fit in, I became a member of the counter-culture and Civil Rights Movement. After some time however, I realized I had the same types of issues as the people we were demonstrating against. I came to the conclusion that unless I found myself and became the change I wanted to see in the world—as Gandhi said—I couldn’t contribute much, nor would there be anything fulfilling or meaningful in my life. So I went on a spiritual search. I traveled around America and then at nineteen, went to Europe and hitchhiked from London to the Himalayas in India. I studied various forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and in India, various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. Eventually, I came to the path of unconditional love and devotion to the one God, who in our tradition we call Krishna. I met my guru and became a swami. This allowed me to share that gift, which I consider to be a very deep universal expression of compassion.
MM: How old were you when you took those vows?
RS: I became a monk at 19, took vows at 20 and became officially ordained as a swami when I was thirty-one.
MM: What was the most challenging part of becoming a monk at such a young age?
RS: There were the physical challenges of hitchhiking across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as they were quite dangerous areas. I wrote about that in The Journey Home. I loved my family and they loved me, so making a choice so completely different from the life they knew was also a challenge. Not having material possessions or the security of a home and taking vows of celibacy for life were kind of natural for me, although they were also challenging. But I guess the greatest challenge for me was that I loved so many different spiritual paths.
I’d met so many enlightened spiritual teachers that it became a challenge to select one. I believed in the oneness of spirituality—unconditional love for God, and unconditional compassion for the beings of this world—but I also understood that unless I chose a particular path, I couldn’t focus and take blessings from teachers that would allow me to have deep realizations and spiritual experiences.
For a year and a half, I lived in Vrindavan, a beautiful forested area on the Yamuna River. It’s a holy place with thousands of temples where Krishna spoke the Bhagavad Gita in The Vedas 5,000 years ago. Everyone was living with simple devotion, so that influence really calmed my heart. I felt that was my path.
MM: Can you remember the first time you saw your guru?
RS: The first time I saw Prabhupada was February, 1971. I’d just come down from living in seclusion in the Himalayas with other sadhus, or homeless, truth-seeking wanderers. I was in Mumbai to attend a special spiritual course one of my teachers was leading and decided to take a walk. I came upon a spiritual festival with a huge crowd of people. They were chanting kirtan or singing God’s names and I was way in the back. When Praphupada came on stage, I was so far away that I could hardly see him but remember him looking both very humble and very majestic. I wanted to get closer but felt timid and besides, there were so many people in front of me. But then one of his disciples began signaling for someone to come to the stage and no one moved. He came right through the crowd, all the way to the back, and took me by the hand. He said, “My guru wants you to sit on stage with him.”
I asked, “How did he know me?” but he didn’t answer, just pulled me forward in a very loving and gentle way. I followed him up to the stage and Prabhupada smiled and greeted me, welcoming me to sit among the few people who were on the stage with him. And that’s how I first met him.
MM: That’s extraordinary. And was that it for you?
RS: Actually, it was kind of a long process. I felt totally uncomfortable. Here I was on a stage in front of a crowd of between 25,000 and 30,000 people, and I looked very different. Everyone else had shaved heads and very clean spiritual robes, while I’d just come down from the Himalayas, had long matted hair and dingy white robes I washed in muddy water. I was accustomed to being in seclusion, living in jungles and caves, and now here I was in front of all these people, and I felt totally out of place. I decided to escape that place but then Prabhupada looked at me with a very grave and assuring smile on his face. I became oblivious to everyone else in the crowd and was just there with him, feeling completely at home.
He was on a raised seat so the crowd could see him and I looked up at him from the floor as my heart said, “This is your guru.” But my mind said that I had just come to India six months before, that I shouldn’t rush into anything because there were still so many great people to meet and I shouldn’t make that decision. So my mind rejected the idea my heart was giving. I spent two weeks with him and when the event was over, I went back to the Himalayas.
A year later I met him again in Vrindavan, but by that time I had already accepted the ancient path of devotion to Krishna. Like many great sages and rishis, this was what he was teaching. Love of God is within the heart of every living being. We have a mind, but we are the consciousness within the body and mind. I’m in my body but I am the eternal soul full of knowledge and bliss, unborn and undying. And the natural quality of the soul, uncovered from the ego and all our misconceptions, is unconditional love for the all-beautiful Lord.
When we awaken that love for God, that love naturally extends toward every living being. Also, the concept of Krishna and Radha, the masculine and feminine aspect of the one supreme God, was so inclusive that it touched my heart. So when Prabhupada came, I was already following his path. But it was when I saw his compassion, concern and deep wisdom, that I accepted him as my guru and decided to try and assist him. I felt that was where my real home was.
MM: Beautiful. I’d like to ask you about the true spirit of renunciation because it’s something a lot of us don’t understand. We think of it as just giving up things but there’s a richer side of renunciation that gives one things we can’t get from the world.
RS: True renunciation is not becoming a monk or swami, living homeless and sleeping on the floor. True renunciation can be attained by anyone—whether a millionaire, parent, student, politician, farmer or engineer. It’s not what you have or don’t have; it’s your state of consciousness. In essence, it means that true peace that comes from true renunciation arrives when we understand that nothing is mine. Whatever intelligence I have, whatever abilities I have, whatever family members I have, whatever wealth or property I have, is the sacred property of God or the Divine. I’m a caretaker. And to use what we have, not for selfish purposes, but for service to God and service to others, is the true principle of renunciation.
It’s like when a husband thinks, “This is my wife,” or a parent thinks “This is my child.” From a spiritual perspective, this is a misconception. The higher truth is: “This wife is God’s beloved daughter, entrusted in my care. And the way I serve God is by giving her respect, protection, appreciation and empowerment. This is what God wants me to give his child.”
When we have that consciousness, whatever money we have, we believe it is entrusted to us by God for the purpose of helping human society find relief and shelter and happiness, physically, emotionally and spiritually. And we use our wealth in wonderful ways because it’s the greatest joy in life for us to see what an incredible difference we can make as an instrument of God’s grace with our talents and with our wealth. I know people who are both extremely wealthy, people who are middle class and people with little material wealth. Whatever their circumstance may be, they are every bit as renounced as monks because they have that spirit. The spirit of charity on a spiritual platform. The Bhagavad Gita explains that real wisdom is when we see every living being with equal vision. When we love God, we naturally love our neighbor as our self, as the Bible also tells us.
When we recognize how precious and truly glorious we are, then we become humbled by that and recognize everyone’s true spiritual identity. And then our greatest joy is in sharing.
MM: As a spiritual figure, how do you balance your inner life with your worldly responsibilities? Is that a challenge for you?
RS: Philosophically, I try to maintain balance and apply these principles the best I can in my daily life. What is the difference between material and spiritual? We are taught that, “God is perfect, ultimately everything that comes from God is perfect.” If we fail to recognize something’s relationship with the ultimate source, we fail to recognize how to live and utilize things in harmony with God’s grace. Is a knife good or bad? In the hands of a thief, it could cut somebody’s throat, but in the hands of a surgeon, it could save a person’s life. The knife is neutral. It’s goodness or badness, positive or negative effect, is according to whose hand’s it is in.
We can use wealth, intelligence, education or health in harmony with our compassionate spiritual nature, or we can use them according to the selfish concerns of our particular egos. We have choices as human beings. We can be saints or we can be terrorists. We can be peaceful or we can be miserable. When we see everything in the world as God’s sacred property, then we’re seeing the spiritual potential, the spiritual substance, everywhere. If we see the body we live in as a temple used to engage in beautiful activities in the service of God’s children, then we recognize it as spiritual. But if we use our body for more selfish purposes, then we’re only experiencing its material conception.
Remembering our relationship with our source is the concept of yoga. It means union, reuniting and finding harmony in our body and minds, with our eternal souls. And from our souls, we find harmony in our loving relationship with Krishna or God. Environmentalism is a natural consequence of yoga because when we understand how Mother Nature is providing everything, we live in harmony and respect for all she gives us. Interestingly, the Latin word “religo” which is the source of the word “religion,” also means “reunite.”
MM: Remembering the connection that’s always there.
RS: That’s saying it perfectly, Mark.
MM: I’d just like to ask you one last question. If you could put into one sentence your recipe for healing the planet, what would it be?
RS: In my path, three things are really important. One is associating with people who inspire us with their positive influence. The company we keep is very important. Number two is our spiritual practice. Putting aside sacred time every day to make that journey within, to tune into the frequency of our true nature and the love and the grace that is within us. Number three is to try living with ethical, moral and spiritual values, which culminates in unselfish service. So, to associate with people who give us inner strength, inspiration, wisdom and faith, to have a spiritual practice in which we connect with our true self and God’s grace and to live according to that connection through serving.
MM: Wonderful. That’s an inspiring recommendation and something we can all take to heart. Thank you so much Swami, and deep bows for the work you and the organization contribute to the world.