So I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive to conduct an interview with a Swami. Prior to this, I had not had a direct encounter with someone who holds this religious title. I wasn’t sure if there was a particular way to address him, or a particular manner in which I should speak with him.
Now before I go any further some of you may ask, “What exactly is a swami?” Well, to continue along the lines of the uncertainty I experienced, I didn’t know either. I had to look up the definition.
The word swami means master. The name Swami is a monastic name given to one who has “set aside all of the limited, worldly pursuits, so as to devote full time effort to the direct experience of the highest spiritual realization, and to the service of others along those lines.”
Now that I was clear that there would be a master on the other side of the call, I finished reading his latest book, planned my questions for the telephone interview and began to wonder, “What have I got myself into? I am not spiritually prepared to talk with a master.”
Despite my initial concerns, the interview with Radhanath Swami turned out to be one of the most endearing and accessible interviews I’ve done.
Flowing like a conversation between two familiar acquaintances with undertones of kindness, patience, presence and sincerity, Radhanath Swami went on to explain that his most recent work, The Journey Within, is “meant to highlight the opportunity we all have to find deeper, more meaningful forms of happiness and being an instrument to give others that happiness.”
Here’s what Radhanath Swami had to say:
RS: Actually, I never wanted to write either one. When I was 19 years-old I left my home in the Chicago area on a spiritual quest.
I decided to hitch hike from London through Europe, from Greece to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, to India and to the Himalayas. Through the journey I visited monasteries, cathedrals, holy people and synagogues. I studied Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Eventually I came to India and studied various forms of Buddhism, Hinduism and yoga.
I saw something beautiful and common at the essence of all these traditions. I believed in that essence and wanted to give my heart and my life to connecting with that essence.
I came to a very holy forest in India named Vrindavan where people consider it their holy place who are devoted to the one God, who appeared with the name and the form of Krishna. There I felt this was my home.
While there I met my guru, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I saw that he was representing a very ancient lineage of great enlightened beings. I was so influenced by his compassion that I wanted to assist him.
Over the years, since 1970 when I made that journey, people have asked me to write a book about it.
I had a consistent answer, “No.” I just would not consider it. One, I’ve never wrote a book before, so I’m not a writer. Two, if I told the truth about what happened to me I really didn’t think people would believe me because it was quite different. And third was, if I just write a book about me where the words “me” and “mine” are on every page, isn’t that an act of arrogance? I’m trying to go beyond arrogance.
So I was firm until one of my dearest friends, Bhakti Tirtha Swami, was dying of cancer. His doctor told him he had three days to live. He asked me to come visit him.
I drove about six hours and spent a day with him. The next day when I was about to leave he said to me, “I want to die in your arms. Please stay with me.” I thought he had two days, but he stayed for another eight weeks.
The most profound experiences of human relationships I’ve ever had in my life were during those eight weeks sitting by his bedside. We just shared our hearts to help each other connect with God, who we call Krishna.
Toward the end he told me I should write a book about my travels. He said, “It would be an act of arrogance” if I did not write the book. “If your story will inspire other people, then it’s your service to them to share it.”
I still didn’t want to do it, but I made the promise. He squeezed my hand, smiled and said, “You cannot tell a lie to a man on his death bed.”
A few days later he left us and I wrote the book, The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami.
On one level The Journey Home is about travelling through some incredible and mysterious places, but it’s really about an internal journey of how I was being transformed by these situations in the good and bad times.
After The Journey Home was published, another publisher who had read it convinced me that I should I write a book about the universal teachings that I discovered on this path, using analogies and stories that would make these teachings easy to understand.
This book is The Journey Within and in a sense is a sequel to The Journey Home.
BJB: In the introduction you write The Journey Within “…is a call to an adventure to reach beyond monotony and pursue your hearts deepest calling.” For those who have identified what they want to pursue and are taking action towards the calling, but still experience monotony and frustration. What is the deeper purpose of monotony? Is it a call to do more or be more?
RS: So much of how we are either diminished or we grow in the fulfillment, the happiness, the purpose of our life is according to how we perceive everyday events. Two people could see the same thing. One could be depressed by it and one could humble oneself before God in that process.
A knife is knife. A thief will see the knife as an instrument to kill somebody, and a surgeon will see the knife as an instrument to save a person’s life. According to the consciousness of what our purpose in life is, is very much how we’re going to perceive the same things.
The monotony, the fears and the challenges of this world come to everybody. It’s according to our consciousness how we’re going to respond to those challenges.
If we associate with people who inspire us and help us to connect within ourselves, read literature and expose ourselves to forms of entertainment that gives us a philosophical way of seeing the world, have a spiritual practice to develop that inner strength and inner vision then we see the world in a different way.
The storms of life are then re-interpreted in a way that we can grow.
BJB: On page 19 you write, “The Supreme Being has appeared on earth many times in different places to teach us how to revive our awareness of our original nature.” If we have experienced several occurrences to relay the same message, why is the progress toward self-realization so slow?
RS: We all have free will. We all have our present state of consciousness and the past, which has very much influenced our present state of consciousness.
So for a person who has been smoking cigarettes for 20 years, it takes some time to feel happy without them. A person who has never smoked a cigarette in their life doesn’t need any time to feel happy without them. I’m sorry it’s such a crude example, but we’re very much habituated to certain mindsets and inclinations according to the decisions we’ve made in the past.
In that sense what might be very easy for some person to overcome on the spiritual path, or to be attracted to on the spiritual path, is very difficult for others.
Whether it’s difficult or easy, we all have the potential within us and the opportunity. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says, “If we’re sincere, then God helps us.” If we really try our best, sincerely, that’s all we have to do.
The sincerity of our efforts is the true success of our endeavor.
BJB: What is the role of religion to remind us of our awareness of our original nature?
RS: In my search, I’ve met very enlightened Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and different types of Yogis from different schools of Hinduism. Within each religion there are people who are seeking the essence and who can appreciate that essence in others’ path.
And there’s also those who are perhaps quite insecure and therefore as a way of expressing that they become arrogant and sectarian and “my way is the only way.”
When you’re brought up to hear “my way is the only way,” then you really can believe it because there can be so many scriptural references to prove that. But in my life I saw that in every spiritual path there were people who were saying, “My way is the only way,” and they all had equally powerful spiritual references.
It’s a contradiction.
Krishna speaks the Bhagavad Gita explaining that through our history, the one supreme God, the Father and Mother of all living beings is one source that has appeared in many ways, places and forms to present the same essential spiritual message; which is how to know Him, love Him and experience true spiritual happiness and be an instrument of that happiness beyond birth and death.
Religions are for that purpose of understanding what is truly the deepest meaning of life, the highest purpose that we’re here for and how we can discover the love that we’re searching for.
It’s not an impossibility, it’s not a fantasy, it’s the highest reality and it’s within us, but it’s forgotten.
BJB: What has been the most surprising and unexpected part of the spiritual journey for you?
RS: I think the wonderful opportunity to see how every moment unfolds and how every moment is a unique opportunity to surrender our hearts to our beloved.
BJB: Having relayed and experienced so much information over the past few decades, what questions do you have?
RS: When we develop faith in God as the origin of everything that exists, faith in God’s inherent goodness toward everyone despite the inconceivable changes of this temporary world, and faith in God’s name when we chant, we make that connection to God and open up our world view to see that deeper perspective of things even in the most ordinary of situations.
In that way the most essential questions of, who am I and who is God? What is my relationship with God? What is my relationship with this world around me to be a caretaker and respect the sacred property of the environment? What is my relationship with all my brothers and sisters in all different forms of life?
These answers I’ve come to understand by the grace of my guru and the saints, and by the wonderful spiritual practices I’ve been given.
What I’m striving to go in the direction of is:
How can I best serve in a particular situation?
How can I best help somebody?
How can I best overcome this problem myself?
How can I best make the right choices in life when there are so many uncertainties?
How to apply these eternal teachings to an ever-changing world according to the circumstances?
There are limitless unanswered questions. We have to humble ourselves and prepare ourselves to make the right choices.
BJB: Is there anything you would like for readers to know about The Journey Within that we have not covered?
RS: The book is a very sincere offer of service to whoever is kind and gracious enough to read it, and to help us in whatever spiritual path, or whatever path we may be on in life, to understand that there is a beautiful higher dimension of reality that is within us.
It can transform the way we see the world and the way we interact with each other.
Everyone is looking for happiness and The Journey Within, in its teachings and stories, are meant to highlight the opportunity we all have to find deeper, more meaningful forms of happiness and being an instrument to give others that happiness.
“In spite of his constant global travels over many years, Radhanath Swami established his spiritual headquarters at Radha Gopinath Ashram in Chowpatty, Mumbai. For the past twenty years he has guided the community development and has initiated a number of acclaimed social action programs including Midday Meal, which feeds more than 260,000 plates of vegetarian food to indigent children daily; missionary hospitals and eye camps; eco-friendly farms, schools and ashrams; and a number of emergency relief programs throughout India.”
Flowing with the same ease as our conversation, The Journey Within is spiritually and emotionally accessible. Presenting timeless teachings through simple metaphors, the Journey is a beautiful reminder that “life leads us on many journeys, and all are ultimately meant to lead us to the love that lies within us.”
Radhanath Swami will return to the U.S. in the spring to release his new book, The Journey Within: Exploring the Path of Bhakti which will be available on May 24th, 2016.
Originally published at www.examiner.com on May 22, 2016.