Radhanath Swami: Harmonizer of Tradition and Modernity

Home/Radhanath Swami: Harmonizer of Tradition and Modernity
Radhanath Swami: Harmonizer of Tradition and Modernity 2017-04-14T08:46:28+00:00

A brief biography

Radhanath Swami is a towering spiritual figure of our time. With over forty years of practice in bhakti yoga, Radhanath Swami is now one of the foremost exponents of India’s spiritual wisdom.

The Swami lived a life of passion for ‘truth’, having discovered his life’s purpose early on. In his first book The Journey Home, an international best seller, he gives a gripping account of the geographical and spiritual itinerary of his quest.

The Jewish teenager Richard Slavin, who later became Radhanath Swami, lived in suburban Chicago. The throes of the unjust Vietnam War and the racial discrimination against Afro-Americans deeply affected the young Richard. His restlessness drew him towards the counterculture of the 1970s; he marched in the protest demonstrations. These troubled times arouse in him the desperation to seek his ‘soul’ within.

His quest took him and his friends on a tour to Europe, where they visited cathedrals, holy places, and hippie hotspots. Ultimately, they reached the Isle of Crete to spend weeks – in meditation – on a lonely mountaintop. With little more than a seeker’s heart, Richard prayed for direction and in response, he heard an inner voice: “Go to India.” His overland journey, which was mostly a hitchhike, took him through the dangerous Middle East and beyond. After much travail, He reached India.

He traversed the subcontinent like a wandering mendicant, visited ancient cities and holy lands, lived in caves, met mystic yogis (both real and fake), and learnt lessons from every experience. While in India, the blossoming seeker encountered some of the prominent yogis and gurus of the era – Swami Shivananda, Swami Rama, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Chidananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ananda Mayi Ma, Neem Karoli Baba, Muktananda, even the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.

The pivotal episode of Richard’s quest was his meeting with Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, in Vrindavan, a holy town in India. In Srila Prabhupada, he found a master whose very being spoke of purpose, mission and unending love. And in Vrindavan, also known as Lord Krishna’s home, he found his eternal home.

Richard, being conquered by Srila Prabhupada’s love for God, accepted him as his guru and later, became Radhanath Swami. And through Srila Prabhupada, he discovered the essence of the Vedas: bhakti-yoga, the yoga of love and devotion.

Radhanath Swami felt compelled, after years of service in a monastery, to reenter the hedonistic society to share the wisdom he had received from his guru. He travels all across the world – primarily India, Europe, and North America – sharing the teachings of bhakti-yoga.

In his new book, the Journey Within, a New York Times bestseller, he summarizes the content of the wisdom he has achieved over the years and deftly connects it to our busy modern lives. He explores a diverse range of age-old issues, including the self, wealth, divinity, materialism, adversity, illusion and consciousness. He eloquently persuades us, both through scriptural references from the world’s major faiths and his own life’s stories, that to attain true happiness, we do not need to change our externalities, we need to just change our consciousness. He further illuminates on what is truly important in life and the road map to achieve it.

Radhanath Swami is a masterful teacher and a wise leader well known for his talks that blend spirituality and practical modern-day challenges of this world. Today, he stands the source of inspiration behind many community projects: ashrams and temples; a food program for over 2 million underprivileged school children; a hospital that offers free services to the needy; and an eco friendly farm community to teach living in harmony with nature.

With a sense of humility, Radhanath Swami still feels that he has not done enough in reciprocation with God’s grace, that he has received.

Harmonizing tradition and modernity

Adapting an ancient tradition for contemporary times is a sacred and delicate challenge, a challenge that requires a true seer to navigate. Spiritual teachers who have to harmonize tradition and modernity sometimes compare it to walking on a tightrope. If they bend too much on the side of tradition, they risk making the tradition unappealing, if not irrelevant. If they bend too much on the side of modernity, they risk distorting the tradition and diminishing its potency. It takes a true seer to “see” the essence of the tradition and preserve it while adapting its external form according to the cultural and intellectual ethos of the times.

Presenting an ancient tradition to a modern audience was the challenge that confronted Radhanath Swami two and a half decades ago when he started building a spiritual community at Mumbai, India. In a letter to a scholar, this is how he phrased the challenge: “It is important to remain faithful to the siddhanta [philosophical conclusions] while being open to effective ways of reaching and sustaining people’s hearts. The essential teachings should not be compromised in principle or practice. At the same time there need to be a presentation in a way that will actually achieve the purpose of attracting people’s hearts, nourishing faith and sustaining devotion.”

Mumbai being on the west coast of India is famous as the Gateway of India and is widely considered the economic capital of the country. Consequently, it is the epicenter of modernization, with most western materialistic influences radiating from there to the rest of the country. To present and popularize a pristine spiritual tradition in the heartland of materialism is no easy task. Radhanath Swami represented a tradition of bhakti (devotional love) to God in the form of Krishna that dated back to thousands of years. While most people in Mumbai were familiar with Krishna-bhakti, few saw it as having much relevance with their lives as progressive urbanites. Yet 25 years down the line, by Radhanath Swami’s inspiration, over 2500 individuals – engineers, doctors, businessmen, software professionals, industrialists, professors, government administrators among them – have become dedicated bhakti-yoga practitioners who congregate every Sunday for a weekly devotional get-together at the Radha Gopinath temple in South Mumbai inspired by him.

Evidently, Radhanath Swami has successfully walked the tightrope. What are the elements that led to his success? Here we will focus on four principal elements:

  • Providing a sense of community and belonging
  • Offering immediacy of spiritual experience
  • Showing a different way to change the world
  • Demonstrating a living example of pure saintliness

RADHANATH SWAMI PROVIDED A SENSE OF COMMUNITY AND BELONGING

One of the inevitable consequences of urbanization is the replacement of the joint family with the nuclear family. Soap operas that highlight the perennial domestic conflicts between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law may make the nuclear family seem like a liberating option. But it is an undeniable fact that this apparent liberation comes at a stiff price; nuclear family members are deprived of the emotional sense of community and the practical assistance available in a joint family. In a metropolitan city teeming with millions rushing about in cars and trains, almost everyone at some time or the other feels overwhelmed by a feeling of insignificance and alienation. One feels like a mere statistic in the city’s socio-economic arithmetic, a “nobody” for whom nobody cares outside one’s family circle. And conflicts within the nuclear family jeopardize even that sole shelter, as is often the case nowadays.

Humble beginnings

For such harried urbanites, Radhanath Swami envisioned a spiritual community that would offer, in his own words, “shelter and empowerment.” He had seen both worlds, having experienced the frantic materialism of Western metropolitan sites and the tranquil spirituality of Indian holy places, and he knew he had his task cut out before him – and a formidable task it was: to create a tranquil island of spirituality amidst a turbulent ocean of materialism.

But he started off with guts and gumption, bringing to the task the same resource that had successfully led him in his own search for the truth: prayerful determination. He started sharing his wisdom by conducting small spiritual programs in various places in Mumbai. What raised those humble beginning above the ordinary was the fact that Radhanath Swami personally spent hours and days with the few individuals who seemed somewhat interested. Little did those people know that they were destined to be spiritual pioneers, thanks to the expert mentorship of Radhanath Swami. Of course, not allwhom he beckoned responded to his call, but those who did soon found their lives dramatically, positively transformed. In Radhanath Swami’s presence and guidance, they experienced what he had set out to offer: “shelter and empowerment.” With the testimony of their own transformed lives, they started sharing with others the wisdom and the love they had received.

The Counselor System

Radhanath Swami, with characteristic far-sightedness, envisioned, based on the instruction of his spiritual master and the need of the times, a system for providing love and care to every member of the community. Calling it the counselor system, he explained that “the counselor was a philosopher, friend and guide to the counselees.” He encouraged, guided and trained his early students to become counselors, doing for newcomers to the temple what he had himself done for them. The result was evolutionary in its progress, but revolutionary in its product. Today every visitor who comes to the Radha-Gopinath temple can avail of that product, if he or she so desires. They can choose, without any financial entailments, a counselor who provides them all-round guidance for applying spiritual principles in a modern setting. Consequently, visitors feel welcomed, valued, cared and guided, and many of them take to spiritual practices enthusiastically, rediscovering the sense of community and belonging that had been missing in their lives. Demonstrating the adage, “A friend in need is a friend in need,” Radhanath Swami makes himself available to the counselors whenever they need him to cope with the inevitable trials and tests of life. Inspired by his example, the counselors make themselves available to their counselees. This creates within all of them the sense of belonging to a larger family – the spiritual community – that serves as the feasible modern-day substitute for the traditional joint family.

Empowering women

With his trademark style of empowering all those who are eager to take up responsibilities, Radhanath Swami fostered not just a male counselor akin to a male patriarch, but a counselor-couple, akin to a joint family comprising both male and female elders. The system of having counselor couples – with males guiding males and females guiding females – preserves the gender distances essential for maintaining spiritual standards, but without creating a culture of male chauvinism or female marginalization. Radhanath Swami stresses the vital, indispensable contribution of ladies as mothers and homemakers, the role that tradition has earmarked for them. Simultaneously, he also encourages and facilitates them to take up leadership roles that are compatible with community requirements and individual talents.

The results – multitudes taking up spirituality every month, if not every week – are remarkable, to say the very least. These results are all the more noteworthy, considering the fact that the tradition Radhanath Swami represents demands stringent spiritual standards: daily two hours meditation and lifelong abstinence from meat-eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. And Radhanath Swami credits this spectacular success to the counselor system, declaring it the single most important feature of the temple’s outreach wing.

The counselor system was just the first of the many social support systems that Radhanath Swami and his trained students unfurled: a marriage board, a community hospital, a devotional school… The list has expanded over the years and it will, no doubt, continue to expand, but the motivating, underlying principle will remain the same: to empower individuals by providing a sense of community and belonging.

RADHANATH SWAMI OFFERED IMMEDIACY OF SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE

It is rare that a ten-minute event attracts a crowd of several hundreds. It is rarer still that the same ten-minute program repeated daily continues to attract crowds. But this rare event happens every evening between 9 pm to 9:10 pm at the Radha Gopinath temple. The event? The final musical prayer of the day, known traditionally as the shayan-kirtan. The soft singing of the Hare Krishna mantra to a heart-soothing melody with the accompaniment of gentle traditional music creates a hypnotic atmosphere that transports visitors to a divine world of peace and joy. Add to it the opportunity to behold the beautiful Deities of Radha Krishna dressed in endearing rustic apparel, and you have a delicious feast for the heart that can be relished not just through the ears but also through the eyes.But what makes the spiritual menu irresistible is its timing: by being served out in the late evening, it offers visitors, drained by a long day’s hard and stressful work, a ten-minute divine-energy capsule that not only de-stresses, but also rejuvenates.

Charming Temple

This evening musical prayer is just one of the many features of tailor-made spirituality that Radhanath Swami has meticulously master-minded to offer temple visitors immediate spiritual experiences. Foundational to all these features is the temple building itself. Constructed externally using red sandstone and internally embellished with vintage wooden carvings, it impresses visitors by its traditional look and enchants them with its devotional feel. Little do these visitors know that this magical effect is the end-result of the sustained devotional visualization of Radhanath Swami, who has personally overseen everything from the shape of the decorative patterns on the floor to the design of the artistic wooden boxes that contain and conceal the sound amplifiers. Of course, for devotees, the main charm is not the temple building, but the Deities who reside in, nay preside over, the temple. Radhanath Swami has personally worshipped Deities for nearly a decade on a lonely hilltop in Western Virginia. Thus having himself experienced the spiritual potency of Deity worship, he has inspired many of his prominent students to serve as pujaris or worship-specialists, who feed, bathe, dress, decorate and serve the Deities in manifold ways. The result of his devotion and their dedication is that the temple altar shines with a divine resplendence that attracts aesthetic minds and charms devotional hearts. In addition to the aesthetes and the devotees, for all those who come in front of the altar, the Deities radiate a sweet compassion that soothes stressed minds and comforts troubled hearts.

Air-Conditioned Temple Hall

One of Radhanath Swami’s bolder innovations was to have the temple hall air-conditioned. Such modernization may at first brush seem to militate against the traditional setting that the temple intends to re-create. This innovation reveals Radhanath Swami’s focus on being a stickler not to tradition, but to the purpose of tradition. The purpose of the path of bhakti is to fix the mind on the divine, not to torture the body. One of the most important ways of fixing the mind on Krishna is by hearing discourses that describe his message and pastimes. Radhanath Swami therefore intends the temple hall not just as a place for having darshan (beholding the Deities) for a few minutes, but also for sitting and hearing and relishing talks for hours. If relieving the body of the discomfort of the coastal sultriness of Mumbai can help visitors better fix their minds on Krishna during the crowded classes, then arranging for that relief is entirely in harmony with the principles of bhakti. Thus the spiritual environment at the temple offers transcendental relief from the stresses of city life – and the air-conditioners pitch in by providing temperature relief from the sultry Mumbai climate.

Lively Festivals

The temple pulsates with palpable spiritual vibrations at all times, but these vibrations reach a crescendo on festival days, when thousands congregate for a cultural variety program comprising, among other things, a talk on the spiritual significance and relevance of that festival and a celebration of devotional dancing and singing. The heavy crowding during the festivals appears like the crowding in the metropolitan trains in Mumbai, but except for the appearance nothing else is similar. Unlike the sulky irritable atmosphere in the trains, a cheerful warm atmosphere pervades the temple. In the trains people crowd because they have to: they have no alternative other than the trains for transportation. But in the temple people crowd because they want to: they would prefer no alternative to the temple, because it transport them efficaciously to a divine realm of fulfilling inner experience. These festivals happen approximately once a month, on the days that mark spiritually significant events in the distant or recent past.

More frequent than these festivals are the weekly Sunday feast programs that attract nearly two thousand five hundred people when Radhanath Swami is present to give the talk and lead the singing. The electrifying spiritual experiences provided by these Sunday get-togethers can be inferred from just one observation: hundreds of people commute hundreds of miles to be a part of this four-hour event.

Devotional Dramas

Another important cultural initiative pioneered by Radhanath Swami is the enactment of devotional dramas. This may not seem innovative, given the fact that such dramas have a long history in India that continues to this day in many places. But what makes Radhanath Swami’s initiative distinctive is his insistence that the dramas be performed by devotee-practitioners, even if they are amateurs, and not by hired professionals. The reason for this insistence goes to the heart of devotional philosophy. According to devotional philosophy, the purpose of devotional drama is to provide the audience not just entertainment but also a glimpse of divine emotions. And the audience can get an authentic glimpse, devotional philosophy holds, only when those performing the drama are themselves relishing and sharing those emotions. As only devotees can deeply relish sublime devotional emotions, Radhanath Swami insists that only devotees enact these dramas.

Dramas are performed at all major festivals throughout the year, but a special annual festival focuses exclusively on dramas. Titled aptly as the drama festival, it marks the culmination of months of diligent preparation by dozens of devotees, who participate as actors, decorators, musicians, dancers, directors, and in every other way required to make the drama a resounding success. Participants meticulously study the scriptural narratives, memorize the relevant dialogues, enter deep into the moods of the characters they are enacting and, on the drama performance day, transport the audiences to that same divine mood. The dramas move onlookers to tears and laughs, to terrors and thrills, to agonies and ecstasies – all in the background of loving remembrance of the Lord. For the participants, their fulfillment comes not from the applause of the assembled audience, but from the presence of Radhanath Swami who attentively and affectionately watches the entire drama and then comes backstage to appreciate the performers.

Pilgrimages: Vacations from the World

The most outstanding of Radhanath Swami’s initiatives is the annual pilgrimage, popularly known as the yatra. With over six thousand people traveling to remote holy places, these pilgrimages are, at the very least, a marvel of management. Some two hundred buses going in a pre-determined sequence along dusty broken roads, each bus filled to capacity with cheerful faces jubilantly singing the holy names: that is a sight unbelievable for those who don’t see it and unforgettable for those who do see it. The marvelous management behind this two-week mega-event is the result of Radhanath Swami’s repeated teaching that one’s devotion is demonstrated by the responsibility with which one execute one’s practical services to the Lord. The massive management – right from booking the hundreds of rooms, cooking the thousands of pounds of sanctified food (prasad), arranging the scores of buses for transportation – is all done by volunteers, who, being inspired by Radhanath Swami’s stress on selfless service, seek no remuneration for their tireless efforts – no remuneration, that is, except the pleasure and the blessings of Radhanath Swami.

The managerial expertise is no doubt impressive, but it is like the stage-setup for the real show: the glimpses into the spiritual world. Radhanath Swami, who has during his own spiritual quest has had many such glimpses, shares those glimpses during these pilgrimages through his enlivening classes about the historical and devotional significance of the holy places, through his enchanting kirtans that lead to thousands dancing joyfully in hundreds of small graceful circles and through his enthusing personal presence from the beginning to the end of the pilgrimage. Thus he ensures that pilgrimages are not reduced to rituals of pious sight-seeing, but become vibrant spiritual experiences that inspire and transform the hearts of the participants.

At the end of each pilgrimage, when the participants depart to their respective destinations, they carry with them not just mementos purchased from the gift shops, but also memories that are unavailable at any gift shop. These mesmerizing devotional memories that enter the hearts of the participants are the finished products that have resulted from the materials of the devotional heart and the visionary expertise of Radhanath Swami, catalyzed by the managerial competence of his leading students. These memories sustain and inspire the participants spiritually throughout the year as they eagerly count the days to the next annual pilgrimage. Devotees look forward to these pilgrimages not just as vacations from work, but as vacations from the world itself, for these pilgrimages offer them glimpses of the spiritual world, the eternal home that awaits them at the end of a life of diligent spiritual practice.

In times when people are finding legalistic, overmoralistic religious rituals unappealing, Radhanath Swami reveals himself as a creative genius in coming up with dynamic spiritual methods for providing one and all with immediate spiritual experiences. He brings to life the Bhagavad-gita (9.2) statement that devotional service is joyful to perform.

RADHANATH SWAMI THOUGHT OF A DIFFERENT WAY TO TRANSFORM THE WORLD

The world is, as usual, in the midst of a major global crisis. The real crisis is not that there are so many problems, for these have always been there throughout the history of the world. The real crisis is that nobody really knows how to solve the crisis. Those who claim to have the solution often demand exclusive belief in their sectarian dogma, because such belief, they insist, is the only way to save the world. But more often than not, such dogma ends up creating more conflicts than it solves. No wonder that many intelligent people become suspicious and skeptical about such grandiose “savior” claims. Most other people feel apathetic or helpless toward the world’s problems, reasoning that solving the problems that beset their personal lives is a task big enough to keep them occupied lifelong.

Amidst these winds of crisis, self-righteousness, skepticism, apathy and helplessness, Radhanath Swami’s teachings are a breath of fresh air. He stresses that the solution to problems – individually and globally – lies not in the propagation of a sectarian dogma, but in the practice of universal values. Radhanath Swami does represent to a specific tradition that some might consider sectarian and he does teach a specific philosophy that some might consider dogmatic, but what makes Radhanath Swami non-sectarian and universal is his emphasis on personal transformation and selfless contribution, values that all open-minded people can appreciate. He repeatedly reminds his students that the test of their assimilation of the philosophy and the tradition is that they develop the universal values of devotional love and selfless service. Love for God, he tells them, must lead to love for all his children, a love that is real only when expressed through humble service for the benefit of all. Selfishness, he teaches, is the root cause of all sufferings and selflessness is the only way to happiness. The test of one’s spiritual advancement, he points out, is how much one has traversed the path from selfishness to selflessness. By providing such a nonsectarian and objective test of spiritual advancement, Radhanath Swami ensures that his students respect authentic practitioners of other traditions. Moreover, by encouraging them through his talks to periodically take “a selflessness inventory,” he makes sure that they don’t remain superficial practitioners, proud of their religious label, but devoid of spiritual substance. By his words and example, he gently but firmly leads them along the challenging but fulfilling path of authentic spiritual advancement, by which their latent divinity as parts of the Supreme shines forth to illumine their own lives – and the lives of many others.

An eloquent testimony to the success of Radhanath Swami’s training in selfless service attitude is the astonishing sight that one sees during his pilgrimages: an IIT postgraduate in the kitchen, cooking; a US Doctorate at the prasad counter, serving vegetarian delicacies; and a globally known business magnate at the wash basin, cleaning plates.

By rising from selfishness to selflessness, his students find that their minds become peaceful; their relationships, joyful; their careers, meaningful; and their lives, purposeful. And as they discover themselves wonderfully transformed by applying his teachings, they are naturally imbued with the confidence that those teachings can similarly transform others and the transformation of many such individuals can transform the world at large. Thus they start seeing the truth of Radhanath Swami’s teaching that self-transformation and world-transformation are intrinsically interconnected: the second cannot happen without the first, and the first is the surest way to the second. Therefore they feel inspired to begin the transformation at the place where they have the most influence: their own selves and then share the fruits of that transformation with the world.

RADHANATH SWAMI DEMONSTRATED A LIVING EXAMPLE OF PURE SAINTLINESS

Radhanath Swami’s success at harmonizing tradition and modernity stems from one more factor, a factor far more important than all the earlier three. That singularly important factor is Radhanath Swami’s own pure saintliness.

The essential, indispensable motivation for an authentic spiritual search is the faith that life has more to offer than its material rewards. In a culture that incessantly glamorizes materialism, such a faith in the spiritual potential of life is nearly impossible to develop or sustain. Consequently, many people neglect spirituality. And even among those who practice spirituality, most relegate it to the role of a handmaid for materialism; Spirituality is considered useful as long as it serves as a stress-reliever and shock-absorber along the bumpy ride to material achievements.

Such a watered-down version of spirituality, though immensely popular and practically useful, misses out on the everlasting fulfillment that authentic spirituality offers. What raises people from popular spirituality to authentic spirituality is a saint who lives only for God and his service, and for nothing mundane, and who thus demonstrates the living reality of spiritual fulfillment. For millions, Radhanath Swami is such a saint: a young seeker who left all the riches of the mundane world to search for God and who has returned to the world as a seer for only one purpose: to share the spiritual riches that he has discovered. Over the years, thousands have been charmed by the simplicity, sincerity and spirituality of Radhanath Swami and have their hearts turned from the mundane toward the divine – and that is the hallmark of a saint.

And that brings us to the point with which we started this discussion: the genius of a true seer. A seer “sees” the essence of a tradition, assimilates it his own heart and presents that essence in a form appealing to the modern mind. The essence of the ancient wisdom-tradition that Radhanath Swami represents – and indeed the essence of most of the world’s great wisdom-traditions – is love: pure, selfless, divine love. Radhanath Swami has awakened that sublime love not just in the deepest core of his heart, but in every fiber of his being. And by sharing that love with one and all, he walks skillfully on the delicate tightrope between tradition and modernity. Nay, he dances gracefully along that tightrope, for his love and wisdom have transformed that tightrope into an expressway. An expressway that not only he, but thousands can joyfully tread and eventually attain the ultimate fulfillment that everyone longs for: a life of love – here and hereafter.