As the Bhakti Ambassador for elephant journal, I am tasked with the opportunity to discover ways of bringing the teachings and practice of bhakti yoga to the pages of elephant. This is a mission of love for me.
As an aspiring bhakta, it is my sincere desire to share the blessings and guidance I have received on the path of bhakti with any who feel called to its teachings.
On a recent journey to New York City, I began a dialogue with friends and supporters of H.H. Radhanath Swami, a sanyasi in the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya. I approached them about bringing Radhanath Swami’s writings and teachings to the pages of elephant on a regular basis. As a way of inaugurating these contributions, I requested an interview with Radhanath Swami, and much to my surprise, we were able to find a quiet moment at Bhakti Fest to sit and discuss bhakti and Maharaja’s journey to the path detailed in his book The Journey Home.
What follows is our conversation. As you will see, not only is Radhanath Maharaja a devoted follower of the bhakti path, but an amazing teacher as well. The depth of his experience, insight and realizations create a situation in which he is able to communicate the essence of the teachings in a simple and profound manner.
The Journey Home, your autobiography, has been out since 2010 and has become a standard in the yoga community. And rightfully so, because it’s quite the tale. But, I thought maybe you would relate the story which led to its writing? What made you decide to share your story?
Over about 35 years, I’ve told some stories about my hitchhiking from London to India, with no money and the experiences I had in my traveling in India as a wandering seeker in the Himalayas and other holy places. And people had been asking me to write a book on it, but I was adamant against writing a book on it. And my reasons were two.
One, in my own life, I considered it an act of arrogance to write a book just about me, where every page is going to be about me, I and mine. And the second was, if I told the truth, I felt nobody would believe it because such inconceivable, incredible things happened during that journey. So, I resisted writing the book for many years.
However, one of my dear Godbrothers, Tamal Krishna Goswami, was really pushing me. So, I started thinking, maybe I should. Then, something happened.
Bhakti Tirtha Swami, one of my dearest brothers and friends, was an African-amercian devotee of Krishna and his heart was so full of compassion. He traveled all around the world trying to spread this message of love of God through devotional bhakti. He was on his deathbed from melanoma cancer and he called me to his bedside in Pennsylvania. So, I came there just for one day to offer my respects to him. And he said, “According to the doctors, I am going to die within three days and I want to die in your arms. Please stay with me.”
But, he lived another eight weeks and I was at his bedside. Toward the end of his life in this world, one day he asked me why I don’t write this book. And I gave him my reasons.
He said, “Your story, in many ways, is everyone’s story. We are all looking for inner fulfillment. We are all looking for higher truths and the way you searched and the things you found could easily be understandable to everyone. God put you on that journey and if your story could help other people, then it would be an act of arrogance not to write it.” Then he looked at me in the eyes with tears and he held my hand and said, “Promise me, on my deathbed, that you’ll write this story.”
I was quite helpless. I made the promise.
When I came out of the room, I thought about it and was thinking, “I’m going to talk him out of that promise.” But then, God took him away and in his memory and in his honor I have written this book The Journey Home.
It’s a true story about a young boy who was very confused by the hypocrisy, and the greed and sectarianism I saw around me in this world. And I had a deep feeling in myself that instead of rejecting spirituality and religion I had to seek the essence because I believed the essence was universal. And, my search for meaning, fulfillment and for that essence is the story within The Journey Home.
Are you happy that you wrote it, given the number of people it’s influenced?
If anybody has been influenced in a positive way, then I am very grateful that I’ve been given the chance to serve them.
As an advanced practitioner and teacher in the bhakti tradition, what do you see as the most important aspect of a bhakti practice? What is the message of bhakti yoga?
That our greatest potential is within ourselves.
The body and the mind are ever changing. The witness, the true self, who we really are, in the Bhagavad-gita is called the atma, or the living force, the soul. We are that atma. The atma is beyond birth and beyond death. The atma is eternal. And the nature of the atma is to love God and in that love of God to naturally see every living being as a child of God, and to love all beings. And it is in that state of consciousness, which is actually our nature, where we can find the deepest fulfillment and we can be instrumental in bringing that fulfillment to others. And that is bhakti.
Seva means to serve Krishna, or God, and to serve all living beings without selfish, egoistic motivations. To awaken that natural state within us, we chant these mantras which tune us in to the grace of God that is within us. We, particularly in my society of devotees, chant this Hare Krishna mantra “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.” It is a divine sound vibration that awakens the inner potential of love, freedom and peace within us. It actually empowers us to be an instrument of that peace.
And there are many names of God. In all the great religious or spiritual systems there are these mantras or chants that awaken our inner essence, our inner love. And that is the basis of bhakti.
So we’re undergoing a bit of a yogic revolution in the west. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the connections you see between the path of bhakti and the path of a more common hatha yoga practice?
We each have a body and a mind and we are the eternal soul. And yoga is to reconnect our consciousness to the eternal soul. Samadhi siddhi ishvarapranidhana. The perfection of yoga, according to Patanjali, is to reconnect ourselves with Ishvara, or the Supreme Being; what we may call God.
All the different aspects of yoga are ultimately to bring our body and our mind in harmony with the true nature of the soul. And that is the inner purpose of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi; all of these are progressive states which bring us deeper and deeper into the realization of our eternal self and our relationship with Ishvara, the Surpeme Being. So, if a person is doing asana for health, or a less stressful life, they will get that.
Asana is one of the most powerful sciences for physical health, but it is a doorway that will gradually open. And through that process, either gradually or rapidly, people will develop a finer intuition towards one’s inner self and one will naturally begin to inquire, as time goes by, of how to actually find deeper and deeper experiences of peace and love. So, it is a very positive culture that is being expanded in the western world.
So, given that we are Bhakti Fest, I thought I might ask you a question about the increasing number of yoga festivals. Very early on in your travels throughout India, you attended “The World Yoga Conference” in Delhi. There you met Swami Rama and Swami Satchidananda and they gave you some valuable instructions. Swami Rama encouraged you to “keep the company of holy people.” And Swami Satchidananda instructed that we should not judge others practitioners for their faults, but instead cultivate our own practice, by saying that “A true yogi is one who lives with the highest human conduct.” How do you see these observations playing out in places like Bhakti Fest?
According to a person’s sincerity to actually make a genuine connection with the divine, or who we call Krishna, one will naturally take very seriously the need to transform his/her character.
Yama and niyama are foundational to true yoga and they are to develop our character, to develop our morality, our ethics, our integrity. And unless we build our yoga practice on that there will be very little actual spiritual enlightenment to our yoga practice.
And it is very important to associate with enlightened people and with people who are striving for enlightenment. In bhakti, we believe based on the teaching of the Bhagavad-gita, the Upanishads and the Bhagavata Purana that every aspect of yoga is steps leading toward prema, or estatic love of God and genuine selfless compassion toward all beings.
One final question Maharaja. There is a poignant moment in your story when you arrive at the border of India and you are denied entry because you don’t have any money. You finally are granted passage by pleading with the Sikh border guard that you will eventually do something good for the people of India. As it turns out, you’ve kept that promise and then some. You are responsible for feeding thousands and thousands of school children everyday, you’ve developed an eco-village outside Mumbai, you’ve opened hospitals and funded emergency relief; the list goes on and on. So, my question is when does The Journey Home continue? Will we ever be fortunate enough to follow the story from where The Journey Home ends up until the present?
Hopefully next year, the next book will come out. It’s called The Journey Within and it’s actually a book based on the simple teachings of bhakti, but in order to explain the teachings of bhakti I tell many stories of experiences I’ve had since the time when The Journey Home concluded.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and for communicating the principles and teachings of bhakti to the elephant audience.
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