Religion : Enemy of Progressive Human Culture?
Before the publication of his widely acclaimed book, “The Journey Home”, Radhanath Swami talked with writer Joshua Greene at length about what prompted him to write the book and also the circumstances around which he took a daring trip to India in the 1960s. The interview also touched around the aspect of religion and renunciation – and reveal answers which are enlightening and broad. Some Excerpts from the interview.
Radhanath Swami: There is a Sanskrit word saragrahi, which means one who seeks the essence in every situation. If we have an honest and sincere desire to grow in our character, in our devotion, our enlightenment, then we will always find the way to do so.
For those teachers who are honest and pure and true in what they teach and how they live, we can gain great inspiration and great knowledge and wisdom. But when we see there is hypocrisy or contradiction between what a person teaches and the real purpose of the message, there is also much to learn from that: to learn what we should be on guard against, to see how even religious leaders fall into pitfalls, the same essential as for all of us in different ways, and how we should be on guard and careful to protect ourselves from those pitfalls. We can learn and acquire great wisdom from properly applying spiritual truths to the mistakes of others, both today and throughout history. And those lessons are essential.
Q: Why did you take such a dangerous journey to India when you were only seventeen?
Radhanath Swami: I was raised in the 1960s in America, in a time of much social and ideological rebellion. At that time there were serious questions in my heart that I felt needed to be addressed. Why is there hatred, cruelty, war? Why so much selfishness and greed? There must be a deeper, higher purpose in life. In the beginning through political reform I participated in the civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King and in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I entered into the counter-culture of the ‘60s, but in my own evolution of consciousness I came to the conclusion that real solutions have to be found within oneself.
If we don’t transform our own values, then we can’t really do anything substantial in this world. So myself and my friend Gary traveled to different parts of the world to study different points of view and different types of life. Gradually there was a calling in my heart that led me deeper into a spiritual search, until on an island in Greece on a mountaintop I was praying and meditating and I heard a voice that changed the entire course of my life.
It said, “Go to India.” I left my friend Gary, I left my comfortable cave and began to hitchhike from Greece to India. I had no money. That calling, even though I knew it was going to put me into hardships and risks, was so loud there was nothing that could stop me from following that call.
I knew that it would break my parents’ heart that I wasn’t going to come home from the two months of my Europe vacation. But I felt it was really something I had to do in life. Now, when a person really has nothing and puts oneself in mysterious places, it is unbelievable what can happen. In my journey across the Middle East and throughout India I was putting my life in the hands of God. Many dangers, many threats to my life, diseases, and many of the most incredible mystical moments as well.
I was just trying to follow my call. I felt like a leaf floating in the waves in the current of destiny. Wherever it led me, I accepted. And beautiful things can be discovered in life when we let go of our own ego. I think it is a truth of life that when a person really sincerely focuses on a goal, with an open heart, then magical things take place.
I believe that magic is the grace of God, who can empower, perfect and nourish us to overcome all obstacles and find a great treasure within our own hearts. And when we find that treasure in our own hearts, then we have something very valuable and very beautiful to share with others.
Q: The Sixties were an exciting era. What was it like traveling across Europe then?
Radhanath Swami: Gary and I departed from America by taking a flight on Icelandic Airlines. If I remember it was about $65. We flew to Iceland then to Luxembourg. We had a friend Frank who was our beneficiary. He had money, we had no money. He promised to support us through our journey. But the first day in Luxembourg he was robbed and that very day he went back to America. So Gary and I were on our own to learn to live in foreign countries.
Our only way for survival was to make friends with people and gain their trust and try to give our affection and friendship. Often in return we received their friendship and affection, and that was all we needed. At one time we had no money and wanted to go to Crete from Athens. We gave blood in a blood bank in Athens. In those days it was extremely painful. So in the blood bank we were holding our arms waiting for our payment and we noticed there was a guitar player from France and a violin player from Switzerland, and I played the harmonica.
So we decided to form a band. And we went out into the streets. Gary was our percussion by shaking a hat with some coins in it. We became quite popular on the streets of Athens, Greece—except the police did not enjoy our performance. They brought us to the police station and confiscated whatever they could find and told us to never do it again. At that time with whatever little we did hide from the police we took a little boat to the island of Crete. And that’s where the calling to travel to India came into my life.
Q: “The Journey Home” reveals some terrifying moments in that overland travel to India. Why do you think you had to go through so many obstacles on your path to God?
Radhanath Swami: Obstacles are great stepping stones, to prepare us and purify us to make progress toward our goal. This holds especially true in spiritual life. But when obstacles come, especially those that are beyond our control, it helps us to deeply take shelter of a power and a grace beyond our own. Otherwise, the tendency is to become very lukewarm in our spiritual life.
Difficulties, obstacles provide us an opportunity to either give up, find some other alternative, or to go very, very deep, to really take shelter of God on our spiritual paths. Also, those difficulties help us to appreciate the value of what we are striving for on the path of grace, the path of enlightenment.
Q: Were you unhappy with being raised Jewish? Why did you decide to adapt to what most people would call Hinduism?
Radhanath Swami: At that time in my life I had a burning desire to understand truth, to understand who I am, and to understand God. If we look for a purpose, we find a purpose even in the most unlikely places. At that time in my life, I really wanted to know who I was. I wanted to find answers to questions that were so prominent throughout the society. I wanted to know God, to understand how I could love God, how I could become an instrument of God’s compassion in my own life.
That desire burned in me so intensely that it literally evaporated all of my other ideas about what I wanted to do in my life, and it set my feet on that path. My realization at that time was: “There must be an essence within every great religion or spiritual path that has come.” I took note of so much irreligion in the name of religion: hatred on a path that is meant to cultivate love; bigotry and discrimination on paths that are meant to make us forgiving and compassionate. I saw hypocrisy and contradictions, but I had a deep faith that in the original teachings of all these great traditions there was the same essence, the same ultimate goal.
Not to be a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew or a Jain or a Parsi, but to love God and to be an instrument of that love in our life—and to have good character. And the more I saw the problems, the more I really, really wanted to find the essence. So I studied Christianity, I studied Judaism and later in the Middle East I was studying Islam, and I was studying different branches of Buddhism and Hinduism. I wanted to find that essence.
So I began to study various spiritual traditions, and I found universal truths there. And for me it wasn’t a matter of converting from one religion to another. For me it was a matter of becoming religious—of becoming actually spiritual. I wasn’t looking to become this religion or that religion. I was looking to love God and to find a path that would inspire me to love God. When I discovered this path of Bhakti, I found something that philosophically was inclusive, to encompass all the great spiritual teachings and paths that I had encountered in my search.
Q: What is Bhakti and what is that you found in Bhakti?
Radhanath Swami: I found a beautiful, personal conception of God that charmed my heart. I wanted to give my life that. By giving my life to that I felt I was giving my life to the essence of every great spiritual path. Bhakti means the path of unconditional love and devotion to God and to all living beings. Because all living beings are part of God. In the Bible it is said that the first and great commandment is to love God with all your heart and mind and soul. And if we do that, if we understand our personal relationship with the Supreme Divinity and the sweetness and beauty of God, then naturally we will love our neighbor as ourselves because we will see the presence of God in every living being. Every living being is a child of God.
And we will see everyone as our neighbor. You cannot love God and not love every living being. It is the essence of Hindu, of Islam, of Judaism, of Christianity. It is the essence of Buddhism, of all great spiritual paths, according to my discovery.
Q: You chose to become a renunciant. Do you recommend the path of renunciation?
Radhanath Swami: Real spiritual life is not necessarily about changing our position in society. It is about transforming our hearts. One can be in business, in education, a mother or father, a farmer, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a politician. One can even be a swami. But when we overcome selfishness and learn the beauty and art of selflessness—seva or selfless service—spirituality is meant to transform arrogance into humility, greed into generosity, vengeance into forgiveness, hate into love, criticism into appreciation, hopeless into hopefulness—it is meant to transform us into becoming instruments of the inner peace that is in our heart with God.
That is real journey home. The journey of transformation, of understanding that there is a power beyond our own, the power of God that can enthuse us, inspire us and empower us to be real instruments of change.
…To be continued….
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