On Saturday, May 7, Radhanath Swami spoke before a capacity crowd at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. The Rubin Museum is dedicated to the preservation of the art and cultures of the Himalayas, India and neighboring regions. On the eve of the release of his upcoming book The Journey Within, Radhanath Swami was interviewed by yoga teacher and social activist, Dana Flynn on the topic of how to live spiritually through yoga in an increasingly materialistic and impersonal world.
Following the discussion Radhanath Swami took questions from the audience and then the speakers were joined onstage by Ananta Govinda Das, Acyuta Gopi and Govinda Jones, engaging the audience in an uplifting kirtan to conclude the event. One pleasant surprise was that an early shipment of copies of The Journey Within arrived and quickly sold out at the museum’s gift shop. After the talk Radhanath Swami met guests and signed books. Below are excerpts from the evening’s talk.
I would like to give a little analogy which is from an ancient story.
There is the crane, which is a bird that stands on one leg in a stream of water and watches so many little fish that are swimming by. The crane continues to patiently stand there watching until finally a big fish swims by – and then he snaps it up. Now what does this mean?
If we want that higher, bigger thing in life we can’t be distracted by all the little things in life that will inevitable come. Dr. Cornel West, when I was sitting on the stage with him, used a beautiful example of how in this world we are constantly being bombarded with weapons of mass distraction.
And what is renunciation? Its not about getting proud and arrogant that “I can eat less than you”, or “I can sleep less than you”, or “I can be more celibate than you”. Real renunciation is becoming humble and giving up one’s false ego. And to not be distracted by all these little things can come into our life. Because most of the things we fuss over, crave for, and are in a state of disturbance and anxiety about are little things that are not really worth our time and energy. But when we are not focused on something bigger then inevitably the little distractions consume us.
So when we really focus on the higher meanings and purpose, the higher truths in life, and when we have good people there to help us to remain focused, we can live with integrity even despite the storms of temptations and fears. We can live with character. And we can live in a spirit of service to Krishna, to God and to each other and not be distracted by all these things.
And the Gita explains the way to protect ourselves from being distracted by all little things and thinking they are big things is to act on whats really important in our life, on our self realization. And we adjust all the little things and focus on the bigger issues. And that can be applied on so many levels. As a parent, a spiritual seeker, in our work place, to unite on the sacred issues that are always there.
I will give an example of a seed that later grew into a spiritual understanding. When I was about 8 years old I was sitting alone with my mother and she told me “Everyone loves your father and everyone loves your mother, but we don’t love each other. We are going to separate.” I was so hurt and ran off and hid somewhere. When my father came home my mother and father went to their bedroom and talked about what happened. And they said, “for the sake of our children we are going to make this work. We have so many little disturbances and problems but for a higher reason we are going to make this work.” And they did, and it wasn’t easy. I saw over the years, because they had a higher principle they were willing to adjust the little details. Afterwards they were so loyal and loving to each other, on such a wonderful level, that when my mother passed away they had just celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary.
From a spiritual prospective, when I came to Vrindavan and I learned about Krishna and I met my guru and found my spiritual path, I understood that to apply all of this on all levels of life is so important. Because whats really important and meaningful and purposeful and spiritual is what is going to eventually give us the deepest satisfaction.
On Practicing Spiritual Life in a Modern Urban Setting
Question: For one who can’t leave their corporate job or urban life or study in India, what do you think is the best practical advice is for someone to follow the spiritual path?
Answer: The spiritual path is not about changing our occupation or our dress or the location where we reside, its about changing our heart and through changing our heart, changing our prospective of the world.
Some principles in our tradition are very effective:
Satsang – to associate with people who help us to remain focused on these higher principles and who inspire us. Who help us to keep the compass of the choices we make in a direction in which we come closer to God and grow.
Sadhana – to put some time aside everyday, some very quality time to connect with our own being, our soul, with God and the peace and love that is within us. We chant God’s names through meditation, prayer, puja or some devotional activity. In the bhakti tradition, asana and pranayama, if they are focused in our consciousness as offerings of body, mind and soul to the Supreme, then they become bhakti too. So in that way, we tune into that grace within ourselves. Through that enlivening company, through that time with spiritual practice, then the wealth we receive there we apply to our life by living with character, morality and integrity by living in the spirit of service. And I have seen some of the most saintly people, who are CEO’s of corporations and I have seen saintly people who are monks too.
My guru Srila Prabhupada was living in New York City in 1966 and he was 70 years old then and his students were mainly teenagers in the beginning. One of his students took him for a walk and they came to a part of New York City where there was trash all over the streets and rats fighting over the trash. It really was pathetic scene. They were really ashamed and apologized. But he replied, “Don’t you see? New York City is the spiritual world, you just don’t have the eyes to see it.” Even when we see these difficulties, when we see how I can make a difference to these peoples lives, how I can have compassion, then we are seeing the spiritual world. And New York City has a lot of opportunities on so many levels. So if we have that mood of service and inner connection then whatever our profession and wherever we may be we can see the opportunity to express our love and that is where real happiness is, in the heart.
Question: I feel in todays world the concept of guru has vanished. Where have all the guru’s gone? There is the spiritual concept of a spiritual seeker finding a guru but I feel those shoes are empty. Who do we look to today to fill that void?
Answer: Ultimately God is the supreme guru and the guru’s of this world are humble messengers of that supreme guru. In the bhakti tradition the guru does not claim to be God but to be the representative who is helping to bring us to God by repeating God’s message especially through their example and words. In our tradition the concept of lineage is very important. And there is a simple saying that by the mercy of Krishna, or by the mercy of God, one gets a guru and by the mercy of guru one gets God. If we are sincere the Lord is within our hearts, then a divine power beyond ourselves makes a connection. Any time in world history God can make that connection.
Question: Sometimes it feels like there is a spiritual casualty that you are not really getting what you are seeking. Everyone is ready to take this journey within and willing to do the work but we can only go so far on our own and want someone to shine our light on our path.
Answer: I can speak from my own experience. I was seeking that light in so many ways and at a certain time in my spiritual evolution I understood how important it was to have a teacher and a path that I could really put my heart into. And when I met my guru Srila Prabhupada it was natural. I could feel his love for God and I could feel he could open my heart to receive God’s love. And the philosophy he spoke of was so inclusive and made so much sense. I wanted to follow and I wanted to assist. And that was my calling in life.
When we really have a connection, when we find teachers, when we find a community, when we find a path that we are confident will not make us a sectarian person but will actually open my heart to God’s love – when we experience that then we start to see the teachings of Krishna or God and our guru in so many people and so many incidents that happen. The Bible says, seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door will open. Whats really important is that we are sincerely seeking and then our beloved within our hearts will reveal that to us.
And in the Vedic context there are three principles, guru, sadhu and sastra. Guru means one who just is not a charismatic person, but a person who’s teachings are and behavior are exemplifying the conclusions of the sacred text as it has been understood and practiced by enlightened people throughout history. And those three are inseparable – the teachers, the holy text and the line of great people throughout history. When we find that harmony we can invest our faith and our trust.
On the Disheartening State of the World
Question: Growing closer to God and becoming more humble is imaginable to me, but when I look around us as a human race I have a question are we able to collectively do this and move forward?
Answer: From a spiritual prospective I would like to address your question and your genuine concern. There was a great saint, his name was Bhaktivinode Thakur, who lived in the latter part of the 19th century in Bengal. At the time that India was under British rule. He was a magistrate, a judge in the courtroom, and he had ten children. His wife was saintly just like him. Thousands of villagers, monks, British scholars, came for spiritual guidance from him because he was saintly and he cared so much. He was such a compassionate person. If he sentenced a person to prison, usually that person would thank him. “If you are telling me to do this then it must be the best thing.” That was what a caring and enlightened person he was.
He wrote something very important – that where there is the greatest need there is the greatest opportunity to serve.
So there is a lot of need in the world and humanity is fractured on most every level. In the name of a loving God there is so much hatred. In the name of service to the nation there is so much unnecessary political fighting and the people are the ones who are suffering. In the name of humanity a few people are getting richer, and more and more people are suffering poverty. Every living being is equally dependent on the gifts of Mother Earth and whenever one of us pollute her it is violence towards all living beings. So there are a lot of ecological problems and problems on every level. But as one famous person said, “Be the change you want to see in this world”. That is something you have the power to do. We may not have the power immediately to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves. If we can change ourselves and transform arrogance into humility, greed into generosity, indifference into compassion – if we can work in what little way we can, we can make a difference in the world. If we can inspire one person towards that spiritual awareness, its glorious! We should never be discouraged. And each one of us can begin with ourselves to try to do what we can genuinely. Then we are really part of make a beautiful difference in the world.
Photos by Maksim Brenner, Ananta Cuffee and Kaustubha Das