In the realm of spiritual autobiography Radhanath Swami’s work, to make a Christian comparison, is in the genre of the “confession,” perhaps most identified with St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, written originally in Latin (Augustine died in the fifth century). Augustine was highly educated, for a time a professor and later a Bishop in North Africa; but his life story, in spite of his success, is one of struggle to achieve the self-control and spiritual depth that he increasingly longed for even with many youthful setbacks.
A similar giant of the spiritual quest in Christianity is the later, lowly Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a shoeless (“discalced”) Carmelite brother who spent his entire life, after a stint in the army, toiling in the common work of duty as a cook and shoemaker in his monastery in Paris in the seventeenth century. He never became a priest, let alone a bishop; yet, his example of loving service and constant awareness of the companionship of God in his humble life were recorded in one of the great classics of spiritual history, The Practice of the Presence of God. Similarly, Radhanath Swami traces in detail his spiritual quest that began with his growing awareness of the inadequacy of a merely materialistic answer to human existence.
Similarly, Radhanath Swami traces in detail his spiritual quest that began with his growing awareness of the inadequacy of a merely materialistic answer to human existence. He was raised in Highland Park, an affluent suburb of Chicago, although his family was not very wealthy, and experienced even in his childhood the anti-Semitism of the family of one of his playmates. In his adolescence he was caught up in the nearly hysterical transformations in American society and values brought about by the Vietnam War and the so-called Hippie Revolution. With his parents’ permission he began to travel around the United States and eventually was able, rather remarkably, to go overseas, first to Europe. He began gradually to divest himself of the ties to personal comfort and success, induced by a deliberate abandonment of a conventional way of life.
He learned how to survive with practically no money — relying instead on the kindness of strangers and what he describes at times as an almost supernatural intervention to help him obtain food, shelter, minimal clothing and the means to travel from place to place. Although he did not use the word at the time, he had begun to practice the discipline of Vairagya , the Indian term for asceticism, the way of life of the wandering Sadhu, who has given up convenience to pursue “enlightenment” — in some sense the direct experience or knowledge of God.
What is particularly remarkable about Radhanath Swami’s The Journey Home is the striking detail of his descriptions of his daily existence on the spiritual path. Every event he records, including several profound friendships he developed with other youths, who, like him had set out on what the Germans call an initiatory period of Wanderung, to see the world before settling down, is drawn into the profound anxiety he experiences to settle the questions about the meaning of existence and the presence of Divine Power in his life. All of this is set forth in an elegantly clear English that completely avoids ambiguity.
Almost inevitably he at last reaches India where he spends a long period of time as an ascetic tourist, adopting the Sadhu-garb of loin cloth and begging bowl, finding his food at the hands of strangers, and sleeping by the side of the road — or preferably on the banks of one of India’s sacred rivers, The Ganges or The Yamuna, among others. His travels took him from caves in the Himalayas to ashrams in the south, by foot or bus or hitch-hiking on the backs of trucks. Everywhere he tried to meet the famous saints as well as the obscure practitioners of the devout Hindu, ascetic life. Among the former he mentions, Swami Muktananda, Ananda Mayi Ma, Baba Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba, and others.
His book is nicely illustrated with photographs of the famous and the obscure, including his personal friends; and of well- known temples and other pilgrimage sites. For a long time he was reluctant to take initiation from anyone until he was certain that the spiritual commitment between himself and the spiritual master was deep and would be everlasting. The sign of this final commitment would be the cutting short his hair, the vow of celibacy (Sannyasa), and the adoption of his final religious name and assuming the title, Swami. Vrindaban, the place where Lord Krishna spent his childhood and grew up to express the values and provide the scenario for the famous Bhava of the love between Krishna and Radha, became the setting for the final decision by Radhanath Swami about the spiritual course for the rest of his life.
He had met Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement previously in Bombay, but in November of 1971 Srila Prabhupada returned to Vrindaban, fortuitously while Radhanath-Swami-to-be was there to hear his lectures and move toward the decisive commitment. This happened just as Prabhupada was preparing to leave Vrindaban.
As the morning sun warmed the world from a chilly winter morning, I drifted along in the sizeable crowd that was gathering outside to bid Srila Prabhupada and his followers farewell. Moments later, the flow of the crowd pushed me in such a way that I found myself standing right before him, gazing into his deep brown eyes, and he into mine… With a choked voice and my emotions swirling in gratitude, I shyly said, “Srila Prabhupada, I wish to offer you my life.” Countless time passed in the silent moment that followed. Then he graciously touched my joined hands with his fingertips and gently smiled…With a slight nod, he said, “Yes, you are home.” (p.319)
Later in America, Srila Prabhupada gave him formal initiation and afterward in 1983 he took the vows of Sannyasa and then could use the ascetic title, Swami. As in the examples of saintly piety in Christianity given above, similarly in Hinduism the exuberant discovery of one’s spiritual destiny involves a subsequent life of effort. For many years Radhanath Swami traveled back and forth between India and America in the meantime maintaining cordial relations with his mother, father and brothers and helping to extend the scope of the Hindu spiritual tradition he had adopted. At the end of his autobiography he says that he finally moved permanently to India in 1986 where he, also, engages in much charitable work among poor children in schools and the sick in special camps to treat eye diseases and other medical conditions.
In one of the closing paragraphs he sums up what he has been through: “As I look back, I am forever grateful for the journey I traveled and to all the people who helped me to grow on the way. Never could I have imagined where the invisible hand of destiny was leading me. Through it all, I have come to realize that if only we cling to our sacred ideals, not being diverted by either successes or failures, we may find that amazing powers beyond our own, are there to test us, protect us, and empower us.” (p.340) – Charles S.J. White