On one seat sits Dr. Cornel West, a distinguished African-American gentleman in an elegant black suit and tie, sporting a dramatic Afro 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 “Obama’s conscience.” He even made an appearance in the Matrix sequels as a councilor of Zion. 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 guru in ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada. And today he remains a Swami, serving the Lord in the renounced order of life, and leading the spiritual community of Radha Gopinath Ashram in Chowpatty, Mumbai.
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 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 about, well, 800 people eavesdropping.
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.
The story of this remarkable meeting between faiths and cultures goes back several years, when Radha Vallabha Dasa of ISKCON New York, who is currently working on a documentary on spiritual activism, envisioned a public conversation between Cornel West and the late ISKCON guru Bhakti Tirtha Swami. It made sense: Radha Vallabha admired both, they were both from the same generation, they were both from African American backgrounds and had similar experiences growing up, and they were both influential spiritual leaders.
In 2005, however, Bhakti Tirtha Swami passed away. Some time later, Radha Vallabha casually mentioned his idea to his friend Venkata Bhatta Dasa (Vineet Chander), who was just interviewing for the position of Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton.
“Of course, it’s no longer possible to arrange a meeting with Dr. West and Bhakti Tirtha Swami,” Radha Vallabha said. “But wouldn’t it be neat, and just as interesting in a different way, to have him meet with Radhanath Swami?”
The idea very much appealed to Venkata Bhatta, and as he got the job, and settled into his new position at Princeton, he let it germinate. If this was to happen, he wanted it to happen organically, and finally in fall 2010, the time semed right.
“The biggest challenge was just getting the time to sit down with Dr. West and and pitch the idea to him,” says Venkata. “He’s so incredibly busy that just to get a sit-down meeting with him requires months of scheduling in advance. But when we were finally able to match up schedules and I sat down with him, I was pleasantly surprised by how personable he was.”
Venkata gifted Dr. West with a signed copy of Radhanath Swami’s memoir The Journey Home, and began to share with him Radhanath Swami’s story, as well as that of Bhakti Tirtha Swami, to whom the prospective event would be a tribute.
Within a few minutes, Dr. West became very enthusiastic about the idea. A date was set, Princeton students and staff began a major promotional campaign on campus, as well as at yoga studios and bookstores in the area. They also used Facebook and other social networking sites to reach a broader audience beyond the campus.
“Although the idea came from the Princeton Hindu Life program—part of the Office of Religious Life—everyone from the Anthropology department, to the Center for African American Studies, to both Hindu and Christian student organizations helped to organize the event,” Venkata says. “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 meal catered by Govinda’s restaurant in Philadelphia, 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,” says Venkata. “At one point, Dr. West expressed appreciation for his mother, mentioning that she continues to be the biggest influence in his life. 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 up.’ So they did! And so you have this funny scene where Radhanath Swami and Cornel West are spontaneously phoning up
Dr. West’s eighty-year old mother, and just chatting away to her. That should give you an idea of how this grew beyond a mere formal event into the start of a beautiful relationship.”
At 7:30pm, a diverse crowd gathered in Richardson Auditorium, consisting of faculty members, students of many different backgrounds, members of the the Princeton Community, Christians, members of the greater Indian community in New Jersey, and ISKCON devotees from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
Host Venkata Bhatta Dasa welcomed everyone, before turning proceedings over to his colleague 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 God, and how they used that relationship to serve, and try to bring positive change to, the world around them.
“The audience was struck by the many similarities in their perspectives,” Venkata says. “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, Maharaja said, is manifested as compassion, while Dr. West commented that it can manifest as justice. So a theme that emerged strongly in the discussion was that as people who are aspiring to be servants of God, we have a responsibility to express that love and live out that faith in the world around us.”
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—perhaps delicately hinting at the benefits of a more compassionate diet—Dr. West very much appreciated the point and picked up on the hint.
Then, with great humility and sincerity, he shared that although his own tradition doesn’t speak much about the importance of a compassionate diet, it was an element of other traditions that he was inspired by and hoped to develop more in himself.
“The overall tone of the conversation was one of two people really connecting in an honest way, and going far beyond the formal academic exercise that many of
these lectures can become,” says Venkata. “They were just very genuinely sharing what it is about their faith that allows them to be agents of change and service in the world, and inspiring one another with that sharing.”
The talk concluded with prearranged members of the audience handing in questions on index cards which both speakers answered. These ranged from ‘How do you explain the problem of evil?’ to ‘How can one balance living a God conscious life with school and work responsibilities?”
The conversation ended at around 9:30pm and was followed by a reception for all, which, like the private dinner, was catered by ISKCON devotees. There, audience members had an opportunity to meet Radhanath Swami and Dr. Cornel West, as well as to purchase their books at the University bookstore, which had been specially contracted to sell them.
“Looking back at the dialogue, what came across was that these are two people who can recognize commonalities, but can also be very honest about the differences in their faiths, and even appreciate the differences,” Venkata says. “I think that the dialogue left us all feeling like Radhanath Swami was a better practitioner of Krishna Bhakti as a result of the conversation, and that Dr. West was a more inspired Christian, or, as he says, a ‘lover of Jesus.’”
Venkata concludes: “For all of us, it was a profound lesson that when real interfaith exchange happens, it’s not about glossing over the differences or trying to convert one another. It’s about using those differences, and one’s appreciation for those differences, to go deeper in one’s own faith, and one’s own love for God.”