The SWAMIJI says
Radhanath Swami, respectfully called Swamiji, makes a stop on Kaua’i Friday on a tour to share the story of his life devoted to God and promote his book, ‘The Journey Home – Autobiography of an American Swami’
It’s a book with a hook – Radhanath Swami, at the urging of a dying friend, wrote The Journey Home – Autobiography of an American Swami and is bringing it to more than 30 cities in North America in six months. Let’s see, if it’s September, it must be … time to meet Swami! He’ll give a presentation Friday at 6 p.m. at the Church of the Pacific in Princeville.
The hook? It’s difficult to put this book down. Like a thriller, one unbelievable hair-raising adventure after another introduces us to Swami – formerly Richard Slavin, who at 19 leaves his home in a Chicago suburb initially headed for a summer in Europe that extends to seeking a life devoted to God. Over the course of two years, he finds his path to God and a guru in India, where he lives today. He practices Bhakti, a devotional yoga tradition that maintains that people who become aware of their spiritual identity share an imperative to reduce suffering in the world.
That simplicity of life Radhanath Swami sought and still follows is awesome; even the term minimalist contains too much stuff to describe his way of being in the world. Forsaking all for God, Swami travels lightly and has few needs. Someone gave him a computer to write the book, but he didn’t even know how to type.
He calls in for this interview from an ashram in Culver City, Calif., where he’s seated on the floor, head shaved, dressed in the saffron robes of a swami. Swamiji – an affectionate and respectful term: “You may call me whatever you want,” he says – has risen early as usual and followed his daily routine prior to this call.
It starts with seva – selfless service.
“I do some spiritual practices every morning,” he says. “We chant Hare Krishna and I do prayer, meditation, read scriptures for a few hours and then whatever seva opens up for me, I try to express whatever gifts I have received through my activities.”
Seva, Swamiji explains, “is selfless – a sense of service that is done with humility and without ego for the pleasure of God. Selfishness, on the other hand, is when we do things according to dictations of our ego, where something is specifically to satisfy my own desires without reference to God or to other people.”
At home in the ashram he founded in Mumbai, India, seva has many faces. One of them is project Midday Meal – the ashram delivers nutritious vegetarian lunches to approximately 250,000 ghetto schoolchildren Monday through Friday.
“The government invited us to do this – there’s so much poverty in Mumbai,” says Swamiji. “One reason children drop out of school is because they’re hungry and can’t focus and concentrate – the meals help them stay in school and not become beggars.
“We have four kitchens in different areas; they are extremely hygienic, and it’s quite a cast of people. Cooks start at 2:30 in the morning and a whole series of vans set up to carry the containers.”
The government supplies some grains – slightly less than half the meal – and the ashram supplies the rest according to funds people contribute, says Swamiji.
“The government wants us to feed 1 million children,” he adds. Somehow it’s easy to believe that this is the go-to guy who can inspire the request to happen.
Another face of seva is the Bhaktivedanta Hospital that he inspired, the only multi-specialty hospital in the area. Named in honor of his guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, it has about 130 beds, a certain amount of them set aside for charity cases.
“We have homeopathy, ayurveda and naturopathy,” says Swamiji. “We’re trying reach out and help people in a holistic way – body, mind and soul.”
More seva: “We set up a whole operation in villages every year and do about 800 cataract surgeries, and have hundreds of volunteers working for us,” says Swamiji. “Some doctors come from different parts of the world.”
There is the values education that Swamiji initiated.
“Teachers go into public and private schools to give universal principles and holistic values,” he says. “There are a lot of differences between castes, and we try to bring universal ideas of real values to create unity and spiritual awareness.”
Plus, the ashram has a small orphanage and an eco-friendly farm.
“We’re growing about 25 acres of food on 55 acres, and turning the rest into a retreat center,” says Swamiji. “People will come from different parts of the world to retreat and learn about living in harmony with the environment and God.”
There’s so much more in the way of projects and of selfless service done by Swamiji and others at his ashram that it could fill another book – not that he’s seeking to write more or to achieve notoriety.
But for his promise to a dying friend that he would convey his tale so others may be inspired, and but for Kaua’i friends Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Brownstein, who have a long connection with him and who facilitated this presentation on Kaua’i, we might never have heard of Swamiji.
Nutan Brownstein, whose hometown is Mumbai, lived about 15 minutes away from the Radha Gopinath Temple that Swamiji started in 1986 and where she attended as a younger woman. She says Swamiji admired her father’s paintings.
Her father was Indra Sharma, famous for his spiritual paintings of gods and goddesses, some of which are in the Hindu Monastery here and were on display in the Princeville Resort.
“He would come to my home and observe my father paint, and it was very soothing,” says Brownstein. “Swamiji gives discourses; there are about 3,000 people coming every Sunday. He is very down to earth and very simple.
“Swamiji was an influential teacher for me. I observed in him how one serves God, and how you can live your life with that alignment. He has influenced my life to be a better human.”
Swamiji knew from an early age that he had a calling.
“When I was a small child, there was a soft whisper in my heart to break free from the things that everyone does, to try to understand a meaningful purpose – it was toward God and spirituality,” says Swamiji. “It was a whisper I could not ignore most of the time, and as I grew, it became louder and louder, not so much a whisper as a calling.”
As a teenager in the 1960s, Swamiji says he saw a lot of demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
“I was trying to discover a higher and more meaningful cause to make myself better when I did leave at 19 – before that, I started to study spirituality and meditation, and I was convinced that unless I find compassion and peace and love in my own heart, I can’t be an instrument to share it with the world, which I longed to do.”
As he embarked on his journey, he says, “This voice grew louder and louder – my heart yearned more and more for that thing and eventually, that whisper became an all-consuming voice.
“We believe that that inclination toward spirituality is inherent in every living being, and in the stream of life we have the opportunity to respond and to connect to that. We’re all looking for love. Love is the most fundamental need of every human being – to give love and receive love.
“That’s really the only pleasure that can satisfy the heart, but when we disconnect that love we had for God and each other, when we forget, we try to find that pleasure through so many of life’s external experiences, but it never reaches the heart.”
Swamiji has had occasion to meet the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, many gurus and, of course, his own guru, who compassionately spread the wisdom and culture of bhakti all over the world.
“What impressed me very deeply in the opportunity to come into the company of spiritually minded people,” he says, “is the spirit of compassion, the spirit of selfless devotion to God, and to other people. And I found that great saintly people live in the spirit of compassion and, in doing so, they find the deepest, highest fulfillment – much greater than any of us chasing after superficial pleasures and experiences.
“They not only experience the highest spirit of love, but also can inspire that in other people. That is the precious gift of being in the company of spiritual souls, that we can feel their love – and we can feel their love in them and also feel their love in ourselves.”
To learn more about Radhanath Swami, visit radhanathswami.com/about and follow the links to his book. For information about his Friday appearance, call Dr. Arthur Brownstein at 635-9502. A suggested donation of $20 to defray expenses is welcome.
Most importantly, all are welcome.