I am very honored to have this opportunity to be with all of you today. My special gratitude to Vivek, Dr. Mishra, Mitra, Mitya, Loretta, Michelle, and to each and every one of you.
For how many of you is it your first trip to India?
How many have been here before?
May I tell you about my first trip to India? I actually wrote a book about it.
Radhanath Swami shares his story from his early years of life
I was born in Chicago, in the United States in1950. When I was a teenager it was the 1960’s, and for those of you who have studied something about the sociological history of America, that was a very turbulent time because our parents, many of them, were brought up in the great depression, where practically the American economy totally collapsed and there was massive poverty. My father had to leave school when he was about 14 to work full time, just to help his parents to give the simplest food to the family. But then in the 1940s there was World War II and after that America’s economy really started to flourish, and people many became very wealthy. My father was working very hard and he got some nice wealth, so it was a booming time.
But the youth at that time formed what was called the ‘counterculture,’ which means millions of young people in their teens and 20’s rejected the whole society, the whole establishment that their parents stood for. They left home to search for something with more meaning and many were looking for it in drugs, in music, in sex and some in spirituality too.
My father went bankrupt when I was about nine. So when I was about 14-15, I got a job while going to school and everyone I worked with were African-Americans. They were a minority and in those days, if you are an African-American, 98% you would be born in a ghetto, would live and would die in the ghetto. Constitutionally there were civil rights for everyone, but socially there were practically none. It didn’t make sense to me. So I joined the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King.
At the same time, there was a war in Vietnam and many of the young people really didn’t believe that we should be there. We felt we had no real business there. It wasn’t based on truths; it was based on political manipulations. So there were demonstrations against the Vietnam War and I joined that too. I got tear gassed by the police and I was chased with clubs. Some of my friends were put in prison. It was a turbulent time and at that time we were thinking, ‘Yes, people may have a lot of money and people may have hell of a lot of power and prestige, but there must be something deeper and more in life than that.’ So people like me started questioning everything.
So myself and one of my friends decided to take a summer trip between college semesters to Europe, just to see other people from other countries, from other religions, to see how they view the values of life, what is their conception of America and of God. So we went. It’s a long story but we had no money. We were meeting people and as my life progressed more and more, I really felt, ‘Whatever I do in my life, whether it’s helping my father’s business or going into science or going into engineering or art, unless I found the spiritual foundation within myself, I didn’t really see that I can be meaningful to the world,’ but at the same time I saw so much hatred and violence and prejudice in the name of religion. It’s been there throughout history. So, do I just reject religion altogether? I often thought of that. But then my heart just wouldn’t allow me to do it; nor would my intellect. I believed that there must be essential values, essential common principles and goals that are the core of every religion and the fighting is about superficial external things. If we don’t understand the core essence, then we think those external superficial things are the essence. So, I wanted to find that unity within the diversity that I was searching in spirituality, sociology, and in the world altogether.
So I went on the spiritual search. I studied my own religion deeper. I was born into Judaism and I was going to Christian monasteries and studying there. On a mountaintop in Greece, while I was praying for direction, I heard a voice in my own heart. It was a loud voice that couldn’t be heard anywhere outside of me and it said ‘GO TO INDIA’. So I hitchhiked from Greece to India through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It took about six months. I studied Islam from a scholar of the Koran in Iran, and observed the people. I found so much beauty in all these traditions and at the same time so much possibility of extremism everywhere. Finally I reached India.
Radhanath Swami speaks on why is India so special
Why was India so special for me and why so many millions of people from all parts of the world come to India for spiritual enlightenment? Because many people are looking for a very universal principle of spirituality and the heritage of India has a very deep legacy in that spirit. From a spiritual perspective this country, with all of its problems, has a very unique and special quality within this world.
- The largest population of Hindus in the world is in India. Krishna was born in Mathura and spoke Bhagavad-Gita in Kurukshetra. Ram was born in Ayodhaya, and Valmiki Muni wrote his legacy, ‘The Ramayana,’ living here in India.
- Also, it has, even today, the largest population of Sikhs, and Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion in India.
- India has the largest population of Jains. Mahavir, the founder of this religion was also from Bihar in India.
- Buddhism, one of the fastest-growing religions of the world today, has its holiest of all holy places in India. Buddha was born in Lumbini and attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya.
- I believe, outside of Iran, India has the largest population of Parsis or Zoroastrians; they found refuge here when they were being persecuted.
- India has one of the oldest Jewish communities on the entire planet earth
- It also has one of the oldest Christian communities. In Christianity, one of the direct disciples of Jesus was St. Thomas and just after Jesus Christ departed from this mortal world, St. Thomas came to India to Kerala to what is now Chennai and established Christianity, and it’s been thriving ever since 2000 years.
- India also has the second largest Muslim population in the whole world.
So it’s interesting how many various religions from all over this planet has found refuge and flourished in this land of India because of the foundational universal principles of the spirituality of this nation. It is called sanatana Dharma, spiritual principles that help us to understand: who we truly are, what is our true relationship with each other, with the environment, with God, with the world. These universal principles when understood deeply actually include all other true religions. In one sense, all are part of Sanatana Dharma and there is no need for sectarianism. There is actually not just a respect to live and let live – not just for mutual respect of making an alliance so that we don’t kill each other, which is usually what we have to do – but at the core of the teachings in the heritage is an understanding that we are ultimately all coming to the same spiritual path. It is like different rooms in the same house and we should actually respect, honor, and appreciate each other. Because this principle has been found in the teachings of the great spiritual masters of India, people from all over the world have come here to look for that, to find that.
Radhanath Swami shares wisdom from a verse of Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the foundational scriptures that have been here for millenniums in India. When I found one particular teaching there, one verse out of 700, in my own life I thought, ‘This is really what I’m looking for.’ May I tell you the verse –
brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva sva-pake ca
The English translation is, “In an enlightened person, the quality is that they see every living being with equal vision, whether one is a high priest, or whether one is living in the streets or whether one is an elephant or a cow dog. Wherever there’s life, it is sacred.”
aham bija prajapita
In the Gita we believe, “There is the one God of all living beings who has come to this world many times, in many ways, with many names.” He spoke the Gita as Krishna and he explained, “Every living being is a child of the same source, the same God. We are all brothers and sisters.”
In the beginning of actually realizing this, beyond just the theoretical conception, is to ask the simple question, “Who am I?” because unless we understand who I am, I can never understand who anybody else really is. The Gita tells that the living force within us is spiritual, it is sat-chit-ananda: it is eternal, full of knowledge, full of bliss. That living force is one who is seeing through the eyes, hearing through the ears, tasting through the tongue, thinking through the brain, and loving through the heart.
The body and mind are like an automobile, but the atma or the soul or the self is like the driver. When we understand who we truly are, as an eternal beautiful godly being, then we can also recognize how wherever there’s life, there is that spirit, and all beings are our brothers and sisters. We understand that whatever wealth we have, whatever knowledge we have, whatever strength we have, whatever influence we have, we are not the proprietors, we are the caretakers. All these are gifts, after all, without the air we cannot breathe, without the sunshine we cannot see, and without the rains we have no nourishment. – Radhanath Swami
There are higher powers that are providing for us in every way. According to theistic traditions that higher power is Bhagawan or God or Krishna or many names, and all these are gifts. The knowledge that we all acquire in our universities through our studies, the wealth we may obtain through our hard work or inheritance, the influence we have over other people due to our positions, if we think this is mine, the tendency is to become very arrogant, ‘I am better than you,’ or if somebody else has more than us, the tendency is to become envious or depressed. We have to understand this concept that I am the caretaker and whatever gifts we have, we are grateful to have them. We should try to understand the true nature of our heart, our soul and we know that sharing what we have whatever, it may be for the welfare of others, social, spiritual, physical, emotional, that is where my real happiness is, that is where my real pleasure is. There is no higher pleasure to the heart than to love and be loved.
When we connect to the love that’s within us, which is our true potential, then in whatever we do we become instruments of compassion. That is the greatest need of the world. – Radhanath Swami
Radhanath Swami explains the spirit of compassion
To live in a spirit of compassion is the only thing that can actually satisfy the heart. An elevated society is where people love people and use things to express their love. But if we forget that principle, then what often happens is, we love things and we use people to get those things and keep those things.
I heard a very beautiful statement that you can tell how wealthy you are by counting how many things you have that money cannot buy. When we hear this, we have to question, what is real wealth?
Real wealth is the fulfillment and happiness that is within us. – Radhanath Swami
Once I saw little girl, her parents were extremely wealthy and they both worked really hard all day but they had no time for their daughter. So when I saw her, she was dressed really pretty but she lived in misery, because a beautiful dress wasn’t going to make her happy. She wanted the love of her parents, but they didn’t have time for her because they were too busy.
The heart is yearning to love and be loved and real wealth is to have that love, to find that peace, to find that meaningfulness in our life, whether we are billionaires or millionaires or upper-class or middle-class, or whether we are penniless little Swami’s like me. – Radhanath Swami
Those are all details, but our real wealth is the satisfaction that we find within ourself. Gita teaches that true intelligence is to find one’s enlightenment and satisfaction within ourselves. Some people, throughout the ages have said, “If you become spiritually content then you’re not going to be able to be active and competitive within the world around us,” but that’s actually not necessarily true, because love is the most powerful motivator, and compassion is even greater motivator, whether we have families or whether we are monks. The Bhagavad-Gita was spoken on the battlefield. A mother, because of her love for her baby, is not complacent. She will serve her child 24 hours a day without expecting anything in return because she loves. So similarly, we need to develop that love within ourselves which comes through associating with people who inspire us in this way, inspire us in these values. We need to have a spiritual practice to actually make that connection and sustain that connection. We need to live in the spirit of seva. Here in Mumbai, we have people, who work as CEOs of major international corporations, who work extremely hard, but the foundation is their love and compassion, not the arrogance or their greed. They excel over so many others because their motivating reason is very deep and beautiful. So, these are basically the foundational principles that are visible when we study the spiritual heritage of India. It is these principles that have attracted people from all over the world to come to make that connection.
Radhanath Swami on religion and yoga
Some people don’t like religion, but they want a spiritual connection. So they come to study yoga. But interestingly, as I was kind of like that, I learned what yoga means.
Yoga is the Sanskrit word which means to re-unite, to reunite our consciousness with our soul, and when we make that connection we reunite with God. – Radhanath Swami
We learn to reunite with the sacred principle of life within all beings and within the nature around. This reunion and all the different aspects of yoga are meant to gradually bring us to that enlightened state. Then I learned that the Latin word, religio is where word religion comes from, and the meaning of that word is ‘to bring one back,’ ‘to bind one back.’ Religion and Yoga exactly mean the same thing. Neither one of them indicate anything sectarian in their origin. It means to reconnect with our true essence, and in doing so to reconnect with the environment and the people and all beings and God and to live with that principle.
Sometimes I go to Rishikesh and it’s really interesting. I first went to Rishikesh in 1970, when I arrived in India and I was 19 years old then. I was living in a cave in the jungles and I was kind of all alone. But now, when I come to Rishikesh, my God, so many people from everywhere, in fact I see menus and restaurants in Hindi, in Chinese, in Hebrew, in German, in Italian; people are coming from everywhere.
Vrindavan is a holy place. I was just in Vrindavan and Mayapur and there were people from almost every country, seeking enlightenment, seeking that universal essential spiritual principle. Now, India is becoming very prominent economically within the world. It’s something really important for the people of India and the people of the world to understand the beautiful wealth of the inherent culture of this land.
Radhanath Swami urges all to understand underlying spiritual values in India
I’m so grateful that you have all come. I need to tell one more little story. My father is 91 years old now. I just talked to him a few days ago on telephone. He said that he watches the news on television. He said, “So much bad news.” He went in detail in which I don’t have to share with you, because you know, so much bad news in America, in the Middle East, in different European countries, in Africa, in Russia, in Ukraine, in Southeast Asia, and so many places. But he said, “The only good news is India. Its first time in my life, I’m seeing that the brightest place in the world now is India.” I have been here more or less since 1970, that’s around 45 years. He said, “For the first time, I really am happy that you’re there and I feel you are safe.” So the reason I’m telling you this is, on all levels people are really recognizing the potential of India in so many ways. There are people like Vivek, who is an investor, a banker, and an educator, with such deep beautiful universal spiritual values. And there are so many people here that I see that really are like that, and that’s something really the true beauty of India. It’s my sincere hope and my prayer that along with understanding the politics of India, the economic possibilities in India, how things work and how people think here in India, let us try to actually understand and bring home with you an appreciation for the underlying spiritual values that are here in India. There is a saying, “If you lose your wealth, you lose nothing. If you lose your health, you lose something. If you lose your character, you lose everything.”