Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Journey Home-Autobiography of an American Swami

The Journey Home-Autobiography of an American Swami

by Radhanath Swami

Reviewed by Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Das)

The Journey Home is a spiritual memoir—the real-life, autobiographical
account of an exceptional countercultural youth who leaves America in search
of himself. Trying desperately to access the continent within, he sets out
first for Europe, visiting cathedrals, holy places, and hippie hotspots.
With little more than a seeker’s heart and a blues harmonica, he leaves few
avenues unexamined, as his overland journey takes him through the Middle
East and beyond. Western religious ideals and the models who exemplify them
are his first natural guideposts and ports of call. He is open, nonsectarian
and, most of all, earnest.

Ultimately, he arrives in India by the end of 1970, where he finds himself
living the life of a wandering sadhu, a mendicant, with little money and
fewer resources. His travels lead him in many directions, both
geographically and philosophically, and the reader watches him age with the
wisdom of centuries. In a few months, his young world is augmented by
experience and realization. We accompany him into a magical land of yoga,
meditation, and soul-stirring revelations. At various points in his journey,
he meets deformed lepers and frightening Naga Babas, contemplative Buddhists
and mystic yogis—even old friends from the West and angelic devotees.

Through the author’s personal encounters, the reader is introduced to many
of the prominent yogis, monks, 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—either directly or through their legends and teachings. We meet many
nameless luminaries as well, and those whose names, if not for Radhanath
Swami, we would have never heard. Our blossoming seeker meditates under the
original Bodhi Tree—the Buddha himself meditated and achieved enlightenment
here!—and studies with masters and saints.

Each experience inches him closer to his goal. We witness, with him, the
burning of dead bodies in Benares and fascinating pilgrimages to ancient
cities (and inner worlds) where life takes on new meaning, high in the
Himalayas, Tibet, and in holylands innumerable. He lives in caves, deep in
forests, under trees, and moves throughout the subcontinent with a thirst
for “the truth” that is rarely seen—anywhere.

The book is replete with touching, heartwarming (and sometimes
heart-rending) episodes—like when he rejects the advances of a beautiful
woman for the sake of his quest, or when he feelingly and with tears bids
his harp goodbye, throwing it, once and for all, in the River Ganges, or
when he meets his eternal guru. All such scenes are recreated for the reader
with deep emotion and storytelling expertise. Both descriptive writing and
perceptive analysis are plentiful in this book, making it a precious gem
that will enrich the reader with its shining brilliance.

The meeting with his eternal guru is, in many ways, the pivotal episode in
the book. It was on this momentous occasion that all he had learned would
suddenly gel for him. The Indian print of Lord Krishna our young seeker had
carried with him for numerous months, uncontrollably attracted to it, now
had personality, definition—it was the Supreme Lord as evoked in the Hare
Krishna Maha Mantra. This sacred chant, too, was something he had carried
around for many moons, having mystically received it through the grace of
the Ganges River. But now, by his guru’s grace, he was able to connect the
form with the mantra, the Godhead with His spiritual sound vibration. It all
came together, like the three rivers—the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the
Sarasvati—in Prayaga. Still, his quest continued, even after meeting his
master, just so he could be sure that he had left no stones unturned.

But it was in his master’s eyes that he found his way home. This is where he
discovered the true depth of the Ganges and the ultimate meaning of the
Himalayan masters; the value of lineage holders and the wisdom of the Vedas;
the secrets of mysticism and the heart of devotion. His master’s very being
spoke of purpose, mission, and unending love. Home, too, was in Vrindavan,
Lord Krishna’s holy playground, which embodied his master’s essence.

Throughout this work, we find the author’s culminating realizations, as well
as correspondence written to family from distant lands, set apart from the
rest of the text, both with italics and with inset block quotes. These are
often pithy and rich, thought-provoking and even profound. In fact, the
block quotes, along with the book’s picture sections, showing the author as
a youth, with family and friends—so one can visualize the main players in
his life—and with spiritual “celebrities,” such as the Dalai Lama and
others, add immeasurably to the book’s overall effect.

After trekking for months through hostile lands, often barely escaping with
his life, he approaches the threshold of an eternal and magical realm where,
realizing that he has at last reached the precipace of his spiritual goals,
of Bhakti, or devotional mysticism, he makes the astonishing and almost
anticlimactic decision to leave. He returns back to the world from which he
came in order to share what he has learned.

It is an extraordinary choice, given what he survived to get there: a
journey filled with bizarre and often dangerous characters; mystical,
life-altering experiences; treacherous encounters that left permanent marks
on him and on those around him. The narrative of that journey unfolds as an
engaging tale, a love story, and an education in spiritual reality in all
its forms. We are with him through solitude; when he stumbles upon saintly
and accomplished teachers; and as he experiences moments of splendor and
enlightenment. The fact that he graphically and effectively conveys all this
is quite an achievement for a first-time author.

The act of turning back, of potentially denying one’s own salvation so that
the world may benefit, holds a revered place in most wisdom cultures.
Bodhisattvas, the “enlightened beings” of Buddhism, are motivated by such a
wish and forego their own entrance into nirvana, the state of enlightenment,
in order to work for the progress of society. In the Jewish faith, the
tzaddikim or “righteous” men and women (tzidkanit) are great souls who
strive to uplift the oppressed and establish justice. The history of
Christianity bears testimony to the price paid by Christian mystics,
apostles and martyrs who served as conduits for the spirit of God in the
world. And in India the title sadhu is awarded to learned spiritualists who
embody the holy life and serve as teachers and guides.

Not all sadhus risk their spiritual attainment to help others.

In traditional India, there are basically two types of sadhus. One type is
called bhajananandi. These are sadhus who shun society and live in forests
or caves, where they devote all their days to intense penance, rigid study,
and sing bhajans, sacred hymns. They remain aloof from money matters, their
diet is austere, and for most seekers of enlightenment their path is
impossible to follow. The other sadhus are known as goshtananandi. These
sadhus travel to populated cities to give everyone a chance to hear about
God and the principles of a holy life. Their path requires them to confront
one of the greatest challenges of the divine call, namely how to live a holy
life in utterly unholy surroundings. They show it is possible to remain
egoless in an ego-driven environment. Simply put, their teaching is as
follows: how to be both in the world and yet not of it.

According to a brief Author’s Note at the back of his book, Radhanath Swami
emerged from his years of travel wanting to explain for others the beauty
and mystery of what he had discovered, and therein lay a dilemma. Judging by
this very intimate account, he is a shy soul who finds it uncomfortable when
a spotlight is focused on him. Writing an autobiography was just not his
style, but he undertook the exercise in response to appeals made by a number
of his admirers. One friend in particular, Bhakti Tirtha Swami (1950–2005),
was an African-American guru who had risen from an impoverished childhood to
become a Princeton graduate, civil rights activist, High Chief in the Warri
kingdom of Nigeria, and a spiritual leader with students on five continents.
He was also one of the few people in the world who knew the full scope of
Radhanath’s odyssey. In 2005 as Bhakti Tirtha Swami lay dying from cancer,
he made a request. He asked Radhanath to set aside his reservations and
write the story of his journey to God. At first Radhanath refused, saying
that writing about his own life would be “sheer arrogance.”

“Don’t be miserly,” Bhakti Tirtha told him. “Share what has been given to
you.” He passed away two days later.

In some ways, Radhanath Swami’s hesitation over coming back into the world
after his discovery of Bhakti was justified. After all, having gone through
the numerous experiences related in this book, his was now the peaceful and
fulfilling life of an accomplished recluse; why take backsteps into the
drudgery of material life? Associating with those focused on sense
gratification, he knew, would engender the worst of risks. But his ultimate
choice, in terms of path and teacher, tells the story. At this point, we can
let the name be known: By selecting Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Prabhupada (1896–1977), a pure devotee—an activist, who lived only to help
others—as his guru (after declining offers of initiation from several yogis
and other adepts in the Himalayas and elsewhere), Radhanath Swami cast his
fate to the wind, cut his matted locks, and bought a ticket back to America.
More than a symbolic gesture of moving away from the mindset of physically
renouncing the world, these were first steps toward an “engaged” form of
devotion. This contemporary strain of the Bhakti tradition maintains that
people who are aware of their spiritual identity must help to reduce
suffering in the world around them. They must share what they’ve been given.

Every recent generation has had its bestselling mystic guidebook, often
focusing on the life of an exemplary seeker. The 1940s gave us works on the
lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda as well as Paramahansa Yogananda’s now
classic Autobiography of a Yogi. Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain,
detailing the Trappist monk’s quest and accomplishment, came soon after
that. The following decades produced a slew of mystic accounts, prominent
among them are Carlos Castaneda’s series on Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus and
the cult classic Miracle of Love: Stories About Neem Karoli Baba. The Ochre
Robe, an autobiography written by Agehananda Bharati, dominated the genre in
the ‘80s, but there were others.

These first autobiographical books, as listed above, focused on Shaktas or
the neo-Hinduism associated with Advaita Vedanta, or on yogis, as in the
case of Yogananda. For a Christian hagiography, Merton was decidedly more
modern in his approach. Biographical tales of Yaqui shaman mysticism and of
Neem Karoli Baba, both, were tinged by the psychedelic mode of the ‘60s and
by generic Hinduism. Agehananda was a Dasanami sannyasi, following the
philosophical conclusions of Shankara.

The next generation belongs to The Journey Home. Like its predecessors, it
offers readers an intimate look into a true seeker’s life, and into the
tradition he ultimately chose to follow. But what is unique here is that the
tradition of choice is Vaishnavism. The books mentioned above, and so many
others like them, invariably sidestep the Vaishnava tradition. There may, of
course, be many reasons for this: Those focusing on Western spirituality
need not look at the Vaishnava sages and their theological background at
all. It simply doesn’t figure into their survey. But the Eastern texts are
another story. With Vaishnavism accounting for the vast majority of “Hindu”
practitioners in the world today—a statistic that was initially brought to
light by Agehananda Bharati himself—its omission in the pages of the world’s
spiritual biographies is inexcusable.

That being said, the time has finally come for Vaishnavism to be given its
due, and there is hardly a more worthy representative than Radhanath Swami.
Indeed, he has learned from and appreciated every single religious leader
and tradition that has crossed his path. He views reality in an unabashedly
pluralistic way, never discounting the value and merits of any genuine form
of esoteric spirituality. He is nonjudgmental in the best, most enlightened
way—as a Saragrahi Vaishnava, one who looks to the essence, seeing all
religion as just so many roads to the same goal, which is, of course, God.
This makes him a superlative Vaishnava, indeed. Thus, The Journey Home
stands tall in the long line of spiritual classics mentioned above—and it
richly deserves to be there. It, too, has found a home.

*Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the
Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He
has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent
Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan:
Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008).*

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