East Meets West at Princeton University Brings Together Radhanath Swami and Dr. Cornel West.
Two men having a conversation – On one seat sits Dr. Cornel West, a distinguished African American gentleman in an elegant black suit and tie, sporting a dramatic Afro hairstyle and a black goatee shot through with gray. One of the most well-loved and respected professors at Princeton University, he’s a Baptist and is outspoken about his faith, especially his love of Jesus as the force that defines him and guides him in everything he does.
A scholar and somewhat of a celebrity academic, Dr. West is very active in the public sphere—he weighs in on politics, is a champion of social injustice causes, and is a prominent figure in the field of African American studies. His 1993 bestselling book, Race Matters, changed the way Americans look at race. During the last election a popular magazine called him “Presdient Obama’s conscience.” He’s a deep thinker and highly learned, yet in many ways very “of the world.”
In the other seat sits Radhanath Swami, looking rather otherworldly with his shaved head and shining orange robes.
Years ago, he was Richard Slavin, a Jewish kid from suburban Illinois, until in 1970 at the age of nineteen he left his normal life and hitch-hiked to India, where he soon found himself meditating in the Himalayas. After many years searching as a wandering monk, he found his own spiritual path in Bhakti Yoga, Hinduism’s devotional tradition. And today he remains a Swami, serving the Divine as a simple, renounced monk. Yet like Dr. West, he has also made his contribution to the world, launching acclaimed social action programs such as missionary hospitals and eye camps, eco-friendly farms and schools, and the Midday Meal program, which feeds more than 260,000 plates of nutritious vegetarian food to underprivileged children in Mumbai daily.
Two men who have much in common, yet have taken very different spiritual journeys. East meets, quite literally, West.
Just two men having a conversation. On stage at Princeton University, with almost 800 people eagerly listening in.
This was East Meets West: Hindu and Christian Perspectives on God, Love, and Spiritual Activism, an event held in Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University on April 19th.
“Although the idea of bringing these two great teachers came from the Princeton Hindu Life program—part of the university’s Office of Religious Life—it was very much a collaborative effort,” said Vineet Chander, Director of the Hindu Life program at Princeton and one the event’s main organizers. “The Anthropology department, the Center for African American Studies, the South Asian Studies program, and a number of Hindu and Christian student organizations helped to bring the idea to life. It was amazing—this was the first time that Hindu and Evangelical Christian students were invested in and helping to organize an event together.”
Everyone’s combined efforts paid off, and by the day before the conversation, nearly all the seats in the auditorium had been booked—it would be a full house.
On the day itself, a private dinner was held for Dr. West, Radhanath Swami, several chaplains and religious leaders on campus, and a handful of student leaders from various organizations. As they ate the delicious full-course vegan meal, the two guests of honor immediately hit it off, chatting like two old friends, joking, and referencing memories from their childhoods.
After the meal, there was some downtime, and the two spontaneously decided to spend some more time at Dr. West’s office getting to know each other a little more before their onstage conversation. From all reports, their rapport grew even deeper during this time. “At one point, Dr. West apparently expressed appreciation for his mother, mentioning that she continues to be the biggest influence in his life,” Vineet said. “Touched by this, Radhanath Swami said that he would really love to meet her someday. At which point Dr. West responded, ‘Let’s call her now.’ So they did! That should give you an idea of how this quickly grew beyond a mere formal event into the start of a beautiful and deep friendship.”
At 7:30pm, a diverse crowd gathered in Richardson Auditorium, consisting of students of many different backgrounds, faculty members, members of the local Princeton Community, and guests—some from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
Chander welcomed everyone, before turning proceedings over to his colleague Reverend Paul Raushenbush, who was officially moderating the event. Formerly a Dean at Princeton’s Office of Religious Life, and now moving on to become senior religion editor of the Huffington Post, Paul introduced the two speakers, and set the tone for the evening.
Radhanath Swami spoke first for roughly twenty minutes, sharing his perspectives on the relationship between devotion to God and activism, as well as his own experiences of how the two things intersected. Dr. West then did the same. Next, guided by Paul, they discussed each other’s faiths and journeys in a two-hour talk. Everyone was riveted to hear about how each of the speakers had their own very personal relationship with the Divine, and how they used that relationship to serve, and try to bring positive change to, the world around them.
In a particularly powerful reflection, both Dr. West and Radhanath Swami spoke about the idea that love has a private face and a public face. The private face can be expressed as devotion, full of intimacy and tenderness. And the public face, the speakers agreed, is expressed towards in the world around us. Radhanath Swami spoke of this public face of love manifesting as compassion, while Dr. West commented that it can take the form of justice.
There was also much appreciation for the differences in each other’s faiths. When Radhanath Swami spoke of extending love beyond national boundaries, beyond racial boundaries, and even beyond the boundaries of species, Dr. West very much appreciated the point and picked up on the subtleties. With great humility and sincerity, he shared that although his own tradition doesn’t speak as much about the importance of extending compassion to sentient beings other than humans, it was an element of other traditions that he was inspired by and hoped to develop more in himself.
The talk concluded with both speakers offering responses to diverse questions selected from members of the audience. These ranged from reconciling the idea of a loving God with the existence of evil, to how one can balance spiritual pursuits with school and work responsibilities.
The conversation ended at around 9:30pm and was followed by a vegetarian reception where audience members had an opportunity to meet Radhanath Swami and Dr. Cornel West, as well as to purchase their books through the University bookstore, which had been specially contracted to sell them.
“We organizers knew that this would be a thought-provoking and insightful dialogue,” Vineet said, “But we were delightfully surprised by just how deeply and organically Dr. West and Swami connected as people. The genuine respect and love they shared for one another—as spiritual brothers—helped this event go far beyond the formal academic exercise that many of these types of lectures can become. For all of us who got to witness it, it was both a blessing and a profound lesson that when real interfaith exchange happens, it’s not about trying to convert one another or glossing over the differences. It’s about finding common ground, appreciating and celebrating differences, and finding inspiration to go deeper in one’s own spiritual journey, and one’s own love for the Divine and all beings.”
This article was modified from a longer piece by Madhava Smullen. Special thanks to him.
For information about Dr. Cornel West, please visit http://www.cornelwest.com
[flickr album=72157626583948157 num=10 size=Square]