Thursday, May 19, 2011

Radhanath Swami and Dr. Cornel West Bond In A Conversation On Faith

By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on 7 May 2011
Radhanatha Swami and Dr. Cornel West

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.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Dharma Dilemma: The Challenge Of Competing Duties

The latest article from my good friend, fellow monk, and Bhakti Center (Manhattan) president and CEO Ramnath Subramanian (Rasanath Dasa) on the Huffington Post

I grew up in a traditional Indian household where lessons on integrity and duty were the norm. The word that encompassed those qualities was dharma. When I first encountered the word through the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and understood its meaning, it seemed to be the quality that I most sought out in a hero. In my childhood war games I usually played the role of a captured prisoner who would be "tortured" but would not give away "the secret" to the "bad guys" even in the face of "death". At other times, I made up stories in my mind where I would play the role of a friend who would sacrifice his life for his dear companion. It was child's play, but in my mind it was what I wanted to become. As I grew up though, I began to realize that living with dharma meant more than just a romantic notion. Its meaning is in embracing a life of struggle.

Dharma is a topic that has been celebrated through books and talks by philosophers and academics, both from Indian origin and outside. It's meaning surfaces as one delves into the depth of the concept. In its simplest sense, dharma in Sanskrit means that which upholds. It is a concept of central importance in Hindu philosophy referring to a person's duties or obligations based on occupational and situational context tightly intertwined with relationships.

The idea of dharma as duty is found in India's ancient religious texts. It states that there is a divinely instituted natural order governing justice, harmony and happiness. This requires human beings to discern and live in an appropriate manner that fosters order and cordial living. As simple and as socially attractive as the concept may sound, living a life of dharma poses some complex questions for us as individuals living in a world that is in many ways disconnected from these fundamental concepts.

What exactly is my dharma? Is it my daily occupation or my sense of obligation to my family, society and humanity? To answer this question, one has to investigate into the deeper implication of dharma itself. A deeper understanding of dharma is "that which is inherent or essential to." For example, we can state that the dharma of sugar is sweetness. The "sweetening" is the duty of sugar. The sense of duty that is derived from dharma is the acting out of that essential property.

In ancient Hindu or Vedic culture, one's dharma was determined by one's psychophysical make up -- proclivities that stood out in and were inherent to an individual. That aptitude was determined at a young age and nurtured to serve the individual and society at large. This primarily became one's occupation. Other obligations were embedded based on different stages in one's life -- duty towards self, towards family (parents, spouse, kids, etc.) and towards different segments of society at large that also included animals. All of these duties were considered equally important on an absolute level.

The complexity of dharma becomes evident even in current times when our different obligations take mutually contradictory directions. I work as the president of a non-profit organization and recently I found myself in a situation where I was confronted with the decision to let go of a few employees. They are my personal friends, have great integrity and have made significant contributions in the past but for personal and situational reasons were not able to sustain their performance. The decision was a despairing one to make. As the president of the organization it is my primary responsibility to the stakeholders to ensure organizational efficiency. Bad decisions would not only be detrimental for the purpose of the organization, but would also cost me my job. At the same time, my decision would be humiliating and ungrateful to friends whom I truly value and are facing an hour of great need. What about "The friend in need is a friend indeed"?

It is in this type of emotionally ambiguous situation in which the Bhagavad Gita begins. Arjuna, the Pandava prince, facing a life-or-death battle against his unrighteous cousins. In the opposing army he also finds senior and revered members of his own family who raised him and his brothers when they had become fatherless at a very young age. His heart was only filled with gratitude for the stability, care and teachings that they had bestowed upon him. But according to his dharma, Arjuna has to fight in order to establish justice and that means he has to kill the very individuals whom he worships with all of his heart. The result is despair -- a situation where Arjuna feels like "damned if I do and damned if I don't." This sets the scene for a classic conversation on the concept of dharma.

As in any complex or paradoxical situation, there are at least two distinct alternatives -- the path of least resistance with enough justification that our "rational" intelligence and ego can provide, or the hard struggle to find deeper answers, clarity and grounding. It is easy for the head to justify one decision over another when the gut has already made the decision, but that may simply be our refusal to go through the pain of honest introspection. As the renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton states in his book Thoughts in Solitude, "Laziness and cowardice are the most dangerous of all when marked as discretion." Many Nazis did, in fact, justify their acts against the Jews at the Nuremberg trials on the grounds that they were not acting on selfish grounds: they were doing their duty to their country.

Arjuna, at first, also justifies his gut decision to escape the battle with convincing arguments, but eventually musters up the courage to become vulnerable to the struggle and go deeper in his inquiry. And the deeper meaning of dharma manifests. Krishna, Arjuna's friend and confidante, unravels the profound meaning of dharma as going beyond the psychophysical nature of our existence and its corresponding duties and obligations. Instead Krishna encourages Arjuna to discover his true spiritual identity, for that alone can harmonize the conflicting and temporary responsibilities of this world. Referring back to the meaning of dharma as "that which is inherent or essential to", Krishna tells Arjuna that our essential identity is pure consciousness that is born from the spiritual soul, totally distinct from our psychophysical material nature that we so strongly identify with. Arjuna's ethical crisis transforms into a spiritual renaissance, where he realizes that his true dharma is that which aligns deeply with his spiritual and not his material identity.

Living with dharma can present paradoxical and despairing circumstances where our sense of goodness is severely tested. It has been humbling for me to realize that even with best possible intentions I cannot produce solutions that can satisfy everyone involved in a situation. The struggles have helped me to be less judgmental about other people's actions and understand that pure ethical living and idealism, although very admirable, also has its limitations. I realize that the primary aim for living the life of dharma is not only to ensure a society with high ethical conscience but also to go beyond the ethical into the realm of the spiritual. That is why the ancient Vedic texts encourage us to live by dharmic principles and furthermore struggle through despairing contradictions to seek deeper answers on responsibility, integrity and duty. This is where despair becomes a surpassing excellence and the movement from the ethical to the spiritual begins -- as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it. This is where striving to live by dharma becomes our spiritual emancipation. It has awakened a deeper spiritual understanding into the real purpose of my existence, which I will highlight in my next article.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bhakti Vasudeva Swami: Uniting Religion And Social Justic Advocacy

From Qalam: The Columbia University Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies

Event Organized by the Sanctum, Columbia’s Undergraduate Journal of Religion

“When our eyes become anointed with the salve of love, or when our eyes become anointed with transcendental love, we will be able to have a universal vision not based on color, gender, race, age, etc., but based on the fact that everyone is a spark from the Creator. Therefore in a sense, faith has a very vital role to play in originating social justice…”

His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami graced Columbia University with his presence on the evening of Sunday, April 17, 2011 in order to discuss the points of intersection between religion and the pursuit of social justice in the modern world. In response to the question of whether or not religion has any bearing on the movement for social justice in the world’s societies, and if this bearing is positive or negative, His Holiness presents a threefold thesis: he describes the divergence of modern-day religion from its truest spiritual roots; expresses the necessity of human beings’ reconnecting with the spiritual roots of their religions; and identifies how social justice in modern societies will blossom forth from this newly awakened, worldwide God-consciousness. The most critical message His Holiness sought to convey through this presentation is the means by which human beings might gain access to the spiritual truths inherent within both their Selves and their Faiths; and how this newfound spiritual connection might enable humanity as a whole to externalize the promised fruits of its religions in the world today, with the achievement of social justice.

His Holiness envisions religion in the modern world as having two basic forms. Modern-day religion represents a type of social culture, severed from a sense of duty to higher ideals or culpability for the perpetration of unjust, unethical, or immoral actions. Adherents to such social cultures gather to attend “religious” events, but leave such gatherings spiritually and morally untransformed; religion in this sense is only understood from a mundane perspective. By contrast, His Holiness highlights transcendental religion as a form of religiosity or spirituality that produces a genuine practitioner of moral and ethical ideals. This genuine practitioner of transcendental religion is characterized by five “symptoms,” which His Holiness translates from Sanskrit, Vedic verse as: (1) having control over the urge to speak harsh words or insincere nonsense; (2) having control over the mind, which is attained through the discipline of cultivating a particular type of sadana or spiritual practice; (3) having control over the tongue, by not saying improper things at improper times; (4) having control over the abdomen, by having orderly, controlled eating habits; (5) having control over one’s genitals, by engaging in no harmful or immoral sexual behaviors. An individual who has gained such mastery over his or her sensory apparatuses represents a genuine practitioner of transcendental religion.

However, gaining control over these five aspects of the body and mind is in no way the culminating point of the genuine practice of religion. Exercising control over the Self is a means by which one refrains from engaging in immoral or unethical social practices, but does not wholly prepare one for participation in the movement for social justice and human rights. His Holiness asserts that the purification of one’s consciousness is the only means by which one will be able to successfully engage in the struggle to end social injustice. A purified consciousness engenders one with purity of purpose; from a purified consciousness, one begins to see one’s transcendental Self, or soul, at the core of one’s physical, and even intellectual, being. One then sees that this soul-source is connected to that of all other living beings, whether they are human or non-human; from this recognition of the interconnectedness of all life arises a sense of love that is imbued with a consciousness of human commonality and equality. Once rooted in this consciousness, the most genuine shoots of social justice – harmony, tolerance, equality – are able to blossom forth in human societies.

Indeed, according to Vedic revelations, the presence of God in the universe is threefold. God is realizable in three phases: (1) God as spirit permeating the whole of the cosmic creation; (2) God as residing in every person’s heart as the super-soul or the Holy Ghost; or, the body as the temple of God; and (3) God as realizable by calling on His names. It is through the practice of the latter that the truth and reality of the former is manifested within the human consciousness.

With this, His Holiness identifies social injustice in modern societies “as being rooted in an ‘identity crisis.’ That is ignorance, ignorance of our true identity.” This true identity is the recognition of the Self at the core of one’s being as interconnected with all other Selves; and this assemblage of interconnected Selves as being inextricably connected with the Creative Force, or God, of the universe. His Holiness solidifies this conceptualization with a discussion of research reporting a strong correlation between the “purification of consciousness” by a community of individuals, and the subsequent or simultaneous emergence of social justice within that particular community. He cites South Africa at the height of apartheid; despite the intensity of hatred, discrimination, and division in that society at the time, Black, White, and Indian members of the South African Hare Krishna community met together in an atmosphere of unity, concord, and love. “Such is the power,” he proclaims, ”of deep devotion to spirituality, of genuine religiosity.”

Finally, His Holiness presents the tool by which human beings might purify their consciousnesses, in order to achieve the extraordinary vision of social justice, human rights, and world peace in modern societies. He presents the idea that, for every age, human beings are given a tool by which to connect with the deepest spiritual meaning of their religion, and thus with their truest Selves, God, and all of humanity. His Holiness identifies the tool for this age as, “sonic therapeutic intervention, or audition and recapitulation of the names of God.” While this might mean chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, or dhikr as practiced by Muslims, the remembrance of the names of God is an injunction that many religious traditions have enjoined upon its adherents. His Holiness explains, “Basically, we understand that God has multifarious names – such as Jehovah, Allah, or Krishna – and dedicate time everyday to Him through repetitions of these names.”

According to His Holiness, calling upon the name of God is like having a direct cell-phone line to this Higher Power. “Just as human beings appreciate when a friend calls, unexpectedly or even regularly, out of genuine love and concern, so too does God appreciate having His name called upon by human beings; this is because human beings are parts and parcels of that supreme ocean of appreciation.” His Holiness encourages people who have an inclination for religiosity to take time out from their daily schedules to connect with a higher force in this way, as it sustains spiritual awareness. Such a practice is food for the Spirit, which nourishes and invigorates human beings in a manner similar to how food nourishes the physical body. He suggests that two hours be used for this practice, especially in the morning between 4:30 and 6:30am. “Any effort you make in terms of your spiritual endeavors at that time,” he confirms, “will give you very great spiritual benefits.” By engaging this practice, His Holiness indicates that “you’ll be protected from all of the known or unknown temptations. Even your physical environment can be purified by calling on God’s names.”

Truly, the practice of calling upon the names of God is a spiritual tool by which not only one’s own consciousness may be purified, but even by which one’s immediate physical setting – and the world as a whole - can experience purification and spiritual recalibration. Affirming the connection between the remembrance of God, the purification of one’s consciousness, and the achievement of social justice, His Holiness concludes, “If we don’t take care to give some quality time to God, we may have good intentions about social justice, but our intentions may be thwarted, because if we don’t have that purified consciousness, it is very difficult to strive for social justice. …The practice of religion leads to liberation; genuine practitioners of religion are those who uphold the norms of social justice. If your higher self is realized [through the genuine practice of religion], you will see the spiritual essence in everyone; thus, you will be able to genuinely campaign for social justice.”


His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami (Vasudev Das) is a religious leader of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu faith, a doctoral researcher of leadership and organizational change, and a scholar of the social sciences. Born in Nigeria, he commenced his religious and communal activities in 1984 with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). His Holiness frequently travels around the world to educate diverse audiences on the values of love, peace, unity in diversity, self-realization, positive change, and community development.

(Biographical points: Courtesy of Columbia University’s Undergraduate Journal of Religion, The Sanctum)


Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Humble Musings Of The Manhattan Monk 5/15/11

We need to come to the realization that our struggles are impossible roads to cross without the grace of the Lord. This realization must not sink our spirit. How do we center our whole life and being around this grace? By learning how to pray for it constantly, in many sincere permutations of feeling, according to our circumstance and need.

We also come to this center by the habits of our reactions. Patience, firm faith, and hope born of experience, with a determination that never goes wayward, instills in us a gravitational pull towards this grace. Our reactions to our struggles never take us away from this grace.

We must feel the clear relief of giving ourselves to this grace. We earn this right slowly, only through clearly seeing the many-layered mistakes of having turned away from this grace. We feel the painful sear of this error, and this instills within us the transcendental instinct to turn deeply into constant prayer for this grace.

The sweetest and greatest shelter we receive in this world is Krsna's reciprocation to our pure intention to love, serve, and know Him and His devotees. What comparison of relief can we find in trying to build a roof over our head that is destined to leak and fall? A materialistic peace cheaply earned and cheaply used is the poorest excuse for the satisfaction we will actually find in the courage and resolve to give our love based on this pure intention.

Our pure intention is the jewel in the dust of our heart that captivates Krsna's attention and affection towards us. This pure intention is what my Gurudeva sees in me, in his affectionate gestures and glances, in his implicit trust in my young devotion and his service to guide it

We must tenderly shine our best light on our pure intention. Its most natural reality should come to saturate our every thought, will, desire, and deed. It is the best of us, and the great privilege of our devotional life is to understand and make tangible the reality of this intention, this desire to serve with our most clear and loving heart, and to help to unveil it in the hearts of the lost souls who surround us.