The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami
Jaico Publishing House
396 pages; Average reading time 5 hours 12 min
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I was meant to be a Yogi
My childhood habit of praying until I fell asleep, the feeling of finding shelter while I continued to pray and my belief in my mother when she said, ‘ God Loves You’ had the potential to take away all the scare I had as a Jew on the American Land. I was born to parents who were not formally religious but expressed faith in god only through their deeds of kindness and generosity. They were naturally worried to have a son who had odd habits like sitting on the floor to eat, obsession with old or torn clothes- basically insecurity with new or good objects of possession. My encounter with the Rabbi who tutored me with basic prayers free of cost, taught me the real meaning of prayer-to ask for the strength to overcome the difficulties of life than ask for an easier life.
While in school and at an age of 14, I was known as the Little Monk and was promoted to the wrestling team – I had everything a teenager could ask for in school, scholarships and attention, however I still craved for more- for a purpose in life, beyond wealth and prestige. The Vietnam War and Martin Luther King Movement got me interested in knowing the basic fabric of life. I came to realize after the death of a close friend that ‘all the lives here are skidding on the ice of uncertainty’.
How it all began
My life’s journey with meditation began through a book- ‘The world’s great religion’– through this my inclination towards spirituality grew at a massive speed.
It was then when I realized that the long hair I grew, only to protest against injustice, was a reason why people around started hating me. But I wanted to accept and love them back as I believed hating them would be like being a part of the same disease they are suffering from. In the meanwhile my friends from school, Garry and Frank invited me to join them for a Europe trip. I was broke and Frank proposed to sponsor my trip. The flight took off and I was left with a sweet surprise when I saw the legendry rock star Johnny Winter by my side. Our long conversations about our life experiences followed by a musical jam where he sang and I played my harmonica made our flight memorable.
We had less money but life still looked easy. Meeting new friends and taking a tour through Europe, smoking Marijuana, still left me distracted. I would often spend hours contemplating religious art. I happened to meet several people who sought freedom in money, sex and drugs, yet this definition of freedom did not inspire me. In fact, I did not accept this definition of freedom. I tried all the glorified methods that defined freedom for others but eventually decided to live on own terms and surrendered my destiny to god. I continued to visit the churches in Europe and strangely found home there.
Go to India– the three words that defined my life
Once while meditating at the Greek Island of Corfu a sweet, commanding voice from my heart called out, ‘Go to India’. In a similar fashion, Gary, who was accompanying me was asked to go to Israel. Our heart broke. The thought of parting ways pinched us. We had gazed up the stars in our childhood, had been together in college and had embarked a beautiful journey together. I dint know how to say a bye, but I just handed my black vest which I had worn for years and was an inseparable part of my identity to Gary and embraced him.
A merciful fisherman dropped me at Athens, for free. I had to cross Istanbul to reach India. I was now joined by two more travellers- Jeff and Ramsay. Istanbul – infamous for vicious criminals who would trade you off for your blood. Walking through the cholera hit streets, surrounded with poverty and misery, we were eager to leave Istanbul. We stayed at East Turkey for a while where people were cordial and affectionate. We eventually entered Iran, met several loving families, some so poor yet so hospitable, so devoted, that they dropped everything they were doing to offer namaaz 5 times a day. I was overwhelmed to see the spiritual integrity of ordinary god loving Muslims and at the same time taken aback to see the extremism followed by some people in the name of religion. At our next destination, Afghanistan too people were poor but still generous and helpful.
An arduous but enlightening journey
At Kabul I lost my way and my friends had left for Lahore without realizing that I was not with them. I was without any money and a kind woman from Holland offered me to stay with her till I figured out a way to reach Lahore. It turned out to be a bad experience as the woman intended to have forced sex with me. I ran as fast as I could. Walking with no direction, I comprehended that sex could be a gift of god, but when it becomes an obsession, it plunders all intelligence and people are driven to abominable acts to satisfy their lust. My friends had sent my ticket back with the bus driver and I continued my travel towards Lahore. I got my passport stamped and my heart rejoiced. I was just one country away from the kingdom of God.
I was at the Hussaniwala border, waiting for my passport to be stamped, so that I could enter India. But all my dreams were shattered in a moment when the lady at the post refused to grant me the visa as I did not have 200$ required to enter India. After several failed attempts I went back to the officer with tears in my eyes and explained him my spiritual aspirations and my journey so far. I am still not sure, what touched his heart and why he believed my words, but he just stamped my passport and let me in the great country of India.
India-where I discovered myself
As I walked down the streets of the new country, I had risked my life to be in, everything around seemed familiar. My journey was an arduous one- It was the grace of god that helped me reach the land of spirituality. One day while sitting on a table I saw a cow nuzzling its calf strolling by. Looking at their innocent and loving demeanour my heart melted. The mother licked her offspring tenderly, and this was the first time I saw a cow so closely. As I saw their love it reminded me of the slaughterhouses in America who ruthlessly kill animals. It was then I resolved to never eat meat.
The lessons I cherish
I happened to attend ‘The World Yoga Conference’ in Old Delhi, where over 800 yogis were expected. I happened to meet Swami Rama here, who propounded selfless service, love without ego. As the conference was in its ending phase, it was clear that all the yogis could not be given a chance to speak. And this outraged the swamis who didn’t get the chance. A battle of the yogis began on the stage and I was left wondering, are these men supposed to bring peace and harmony in the world?
I was now accompanied by Biku Vivekananda, a Buddhist monk from Thailand. Both of us were attending the conference, and were left disappointed at the sight of the Swamis desperate for attention and popularity. I happened to meet Swami Satchinanda, who told us about the oneness of spirit. He urged to find peace within, rather than fighting to get peace. He emphasized that we should not judge the desperate yogis at the conference as they are also on the path of progression. And if we judge them by their faults we fall into a vicious trap.
Yoga is a process of refinement and a true yogi is one who lives with the highest human conduct. At the same pandal we were fortunate to get an opportunity to listen to J. Krishnamurthy who rejected all the systems of ashrams and monasteries and stressed that no creed, dogma or organization could provide enlightenment. It would come through the understanding of own mind.
I am a sadhu now
On the banks of River Ganges, a holy man, who said he is impressed by my desire and determination, gifted me two pieces of unstitched white cloth, and said a sadhu is the one who forsakes worldly attachments to pursue a divine life. I placed my western clothes into the river and my journey as a sadhu began. I was determined to sit on my favourite rock amidst the Ganga and mediate from sunrise to sunset. I had come to realize that sincere spiritual practice is an uphill climb and no matter how many difficulties we face, we have to continue looking upward with hope. Mother Ganga was now my teacher who begins her course from the Himalayas and flows without cease to the sea.
One fine day while I was absorbed in meditation, sweet melodies of harmonica began to play in my mind, drawing my attention. An urge to play the harm, pulled me away from my course of daily meditation and I returned to play. As I was about to play a strange feeling induced me to return back to the river. My harm was my dear friend, with whom I had poured the intimate feelings of my heart. My harm was like my lover, but at the same time it has the potential to distract me from my path. As a resolve to keep away from all distractions, I offered my harmonica to Ganges, setting myself free.
The art of meditation
At the end of the month, on the banks of Ganga at the Rishikesh, I arrived at Shankaracharya Nagar, the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He taught transcendental meditation where he said our consciousness enters into finer and more subtle states. Here, meditation, is to experience a consciousness beyond the subtle existence of the mind and the ego, for it is in the liberated state of pure being that we experience in eternal state. His technique was simple- 15- 20 minutes of effortless meditation, without changes to lifestyle or religious adjustments.
I learnt a lot at the ashram, yet one day I left. I often thought to myself, whether I was required to leave, after all I have learned so much at this ashram. But perhaps, I needed to learn from many paths before I committed myself to one.
The baba who read my mind
While walking through the dense jungle, short Nepalese sadhu held me by hand and asked me to accompany him to a cave where a renowned sadhu Tattwalla Baba was looking forward to see me. He knew I was wandering. When we reached his caves, he was engrossed in deep meditation. We patiently waited for him to come out of his spiritual trance. He came out and as if reading my mind he spoke, ‘God is everywhere. You need not wander to find him and he shall reveal himself to you.’ He continued- God is within your heart and once you find him there, you will see god everywhere. He seemed to have addressed my deepest concerns.
His disciples informed me of his meditation practice and his potential to read minds, his detachment and his hold over the scriptures. One fine day the baba offered me to stay with him in his cave. I was touched and at the same time in awe of him, but I knew this decision was a serious one. Accepting a guru is a decision of a lifetime, and changing mind later is disgrace to the baba. I wanted to travel and meet other holy men of India to experience the verities of holy path. I had to make a decision and bid adieu. Probably before I could say a good-bye, he already knew it. He blessed me with open palms, and said ‘Om Tat Sat.’
As I was walking the forest I reached Lakshman Jhoola in Rishikesh. A little deeper into the jungle an old lady affected by leprosy, was lying on the ground out of misery. She had the tenderly love of a mother and longed to give her affection to someone. Looking at her eyes all my fear of contamination vanished. At the end of the day I realized we have the tendency to judge others by their surface appearance and find only their negative qualities. If we understand the underlying cause of what we think of as bad in someone, instead of being hateful, we shall be compassionate.
As I proceeded further in Dev Prayag, I went to take a dip in the Ganga. A strong current almost swept me to death. That is when a mighty hand pulled me up to safety. The rescuer then chanted various mantras for my protection. This was my first meeting with Kailas Baba, a devotee of Lord Shiva, wearing one piece of cloth and holding a damru in his hands. He taught me how to survive in the jungle. He taught me to identify my food in the jungle and respect every component of nature. Appearing to be fearsome, he was in reality an epitome of emotions. His character devotion impressed me the most. We loved each other like father and a son, but it was time for me to leave. Developing dear relationships in the jungle and moving on to see people was a part of life I had chosen.
Be detached. Be free.
On my way back I halted in the land where Krishna guided Arjuna, the land of Mahabharata, Kurukshetra. I had read many spiritual texts during my journey, but nothing struck me like The Bhagwad Gita. I did happen to meet several gurus, one amongst them who was merely 13 years of age-guised as Krishna and with lakhs of devotees around the world. He offered me to stay with him and seek knowledge. I genuinely believe that he would be an accomplished Yogi, perhaps in his last life, but when I looked inside myself there was no inclination to accept him as Krishna, the Supreme Lord of Universe.
My only possession now was the bag of books, a walking stick and a begging bowl. I was so attached to it that the very thought of parting with it disturbed me. But one fine morning, I noticed that someone had stolen my bag. Disappointed I moved forward. But with every step I felt liberated, free. I had now realized that in order to find what I was truly seeking I needed to be detached and sincere.
The good and the bad
While I walked the streets of Ayodhya, I was guided by men in arms. I had by now discovered the beauty in all the world’s religion, but hateful aggression was also a sad reality of the same world. I met several sadhus for whom simplicity and devotion poured from their heart in whatever they did. At the same time I had met people who exploited innocent soul for their spiritual authority. I met people who were dressed and looked like saints, but burning with carnal desire. I realized hypocrisy in religion has crippled people’s faith throughout history and a holy person cannot be always recognized by external experience. Also, how much one loves God is not something that can be contemplated by looking at an external form. People working and raising families are as much spiritual as the hermit in the forest.
The spiritual abundance of Varanasi
On the advice of many I visited Varanasi. I, somehow, through ample coincidences landed in the ashram of Bon Maharaj, a devotee from Bengal who had left his family only to serve Krishna. Bon Maharaja was only 20, when he met his guru Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati categorically criticized caste system and impressed by his mission, Bon Maharaja devoted his life living like a sanyasi, and since then has been predominant in abolishing caste system and educating masses by opening schools and colleges. The city’s charm was hidden from the West. My lifestyle of a wanderer, eating stale food and sleeping on the sand often took a toll on my health. But miraculously, every time I fell ill, I found some devotee taking caring of me like family.
In the same ashram, stayed Krishnadas babaji, who was constantly absorbed in singing devotional songs or chanting Krishna’s name. No one ever saw him sleeping. At seventy years, he was like an inexhaustible volcano, erupting with devotion. I met several siddha purusha, one amongst them was Neem Karoli Baba. He had the perfect knowledge of the present, past and the future and always knew what I was doing.
Krishna-the loved God
In the villages, Vrajabasis (people of Vrindavan) although poor, smiled radiantly and greeted one another with ‘Jaya Radhey’. They loved god not only as the Supreme Creator but also as an intimate neighbour in their village. The religion and love for this people is not reserved for Sundays or holidays but is intrinsic to every aspect of their daily lives. They loved god by surrendering to him in entirety.
Here, people loved the male and the female nature of one Lord. One being Krishna, the other Radha. I met several sadhus with ultimate devotion and humility but I still felt apprehensive about committing myself to a particular path or a Guru. I had realized that the only way to access God was through sincere devotion. I found myself gradually gaining a deeper appreciation of these people’s reasons for chanting God’s name, serving others with such humility and praying to the deity.
While I met several sadhus who were followed by millions of devotes, I met a silent Bhakta, Ghanshyam, who was one amongst many who had forsaken a wealthy life and career to serve as the servant of the Lord. More than 60 years of his life he spent in a small dark room serving the lord and his deities with everything he had. He gave up everything so easily just to make the deity of the lord comfortable. His only roti, his only blanket, his everything. He was not a learner scholar, a famous guru, or a mystic yogi. But he was a true saint, his humility an expression of his love for God.
I found my Guru
One day at Vrindavan I heard the news of Srila Prabhupada visiting Vrindavan. I was looking forward to attend his 8 day discourse. In his stay of 8 days, he with his simple and intelligent words harmonized every doubt I had when it came to spirituality and the forms of God. He was unpretentious, so free and comfortable in all that he did. He was a learned scholar, eloquent orator and a powerful yogi who had founded a worldwide society with thousands of followers. He was a revolutionary, who travelled around the globe with a few dollars only with a mission to take Krishna Consciousness to every corner of the globe. His methodology of Bhakti Yoga where he transformed material energy into spiritual energy through a spirit of devotion moved me.
With a natural flow and without any external pressure my heart called out for me, to accept Prabhupada as my Guru. As effortlessly as this thought sprung from my heart, Prabhupada accepted me home with the same ease. An outpouring of gratitude sprung from my heart, and that for which I had offered thousands of prayers and shed countless tears to attain, was now revealed.
It was time to go home
I stayed for a few days at Vrindavan and as the expiry of my Visa was near I realized it was time to bid adieu to the land which answered all my queries, revealed my path and my guru.
I went back home and It was increasingly difficult to adapt to the culture I was born in, but was away from for such a long time. My family was elated to see me. Although our lives were worlds apart, the affection and respect we shared remained prominent. Through the practice of devotion of God, I was coming to learn that preserving loving relation in this world required much forgiveness, tolerance, patience and gratitude.
After a few days with my family, I chose to live in an ashram in America. My guru lovingly offered me the name Radhanath Das. I lived a secluded life for 6 years and in the year 1977 my beloved gurudev Srila Prabhupada departed from this world. In the months that followed, my seniors and the voice of guru within revealed that, I should serve the lord by taking the vow of sanyasi. Accordingly in 1982, I was conferred the title Radhanath Swami.
I went back to Varanasi after 11 years, to find that most of my friends had left for heavenly abode. Over the years, I felt great debt to the land and the people of India. A penniless boy in desperation to enter the Indian border had promised the Indian Immigration officer to do something good for Indians. To keep my promise in 1986 I returned to India and settled in Mumbai. We established temples, schools, hospitals for the needy over the years.
An invisible hand of destiny was always leading me to this. Through it all. I have come to realize that if we cling to our sacred ideals, not being affected by success or failure, we may find amazing powers to protect and empower us.
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