In front of tens of thousands of people, the guru motioned. “Tell that young man to come.” But the young man sitting shyly at the very back of the enormous tent didn’t understand. After waving and gesturing to no effect, an assistant went to get him, parting the awed crowd. So Radanath Swami, formerly Richard Slavin of Chicago, met the man who ultimately became his teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Or, some might say, this was how Srila Prabhupada chose him.
On a bitterly cold December night, Slavin, now 59, read from his recently published memoir, The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami (Mandala, $24.95) at Eddie Stern’s Ashtanga Yoga Shala on Broome Street. A slight, unassuming man, he sat quietly in the audience next to one of his students, wrapped in the light orange robe of a monk (unbeknownst to me; I sat down right beside him, in one of the only open spaces in the room). As Slavin approached the stage, no flowers were thrown or gifts given, Rather, his New York-based students revered him quietly from their cross-legged seats, as Eddie gave him a warm introduction.
Radanath Swami explained how he got to India at age 19 from an impulsive summer jaunt to Europe with a childhood friend. While abroad, their god of the counter culture, Jimi Hendrix, overdosed and died, just after the two youths had seen him perform in England. Fame, money, and talent hadn’t saved him. Wasn’t there a better way? Driven by his hunger for knowledge and relief from suffering, Radanath traveled from England to Crete where, meditating in a cave, a voice told him to go to India. Parting from his friend, he traveled overland for six months and entered the country penniless.
Reaching the banks of the Ganges, Slavin tossed in his American jeans and turtleneck, and adopted the life of a sadhu, a spiritual seeker. For more than a year, he traveled to the heights of the Himalayas, to the lush forests of Vrindavan, to the city of Bombay and many places in between. Like many young Americans in the late 60s and early 70s, he was on a quest to make sense of life’s larger import, that until recently had included the Vietnam war and the ordinary middle-class life that awaited him back in Chicago. By the time he met his guru in 1971, he had already studied with many spiritual dignitaries such as S.N. Goenkaji, founder of Vipassana, Maharaji Mahesh Yogi, with whom the Beatles briefly studied, and Swami Muktanada, founder of Siddha Yoga. He had been invited to take diskha, initiation vows, with high babas and gurus unknown in the west.
It might seem ironic that Slavin had traveled to India, searching in poverty, physical danger, illness, and sometimes extreme discomfort to find the man who, in 1966 and 1967, had already established an International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)—otherwise known as the Hare Krishna Movement—in New York and San Francisco. Ironic, too, that once he found his teacher, he returned to the US and only once he was living in an American ashram did he at last cut his hair and take initiation vows in 1973.
But at the reading, Radanath made clear that his search overseas was an important part of his quest: it transformed him. It also tested him. His long silences worried his family back home, a burden he keenly felt. He wrote them ardent letters that instead of comforting them only served to heighten their concern. “I thought they would be so proud when I wrote that the forest animals spoke to me and the butterflies were chanting OM. But my father went straight to the consulate to demand that they find me.” Alas, the consulate could not help: no man living in the caves of the Himalayas could be tracked down.
After teaching in the US for many years, and taking vows as a swami, in 1983 he returned to India where he lives today. His ashram in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) feeds almost 200,000 school children daily, runs a busy urban hospital, and offers spiritual instruction for all who seek it. Everything is done in the spirit of service and devotion, or bhakti, the true spirit of vaishnavism, his lineage.
Radanath’s slim quiet form, his story of determination and love, bears little resemblance to the rowdy Hare Krishnas we typically encounter today, who chant and dance en masse in public parks or harass people with copies of the Bhagavad Gita on subway platforms.
His mother, who had to look up the word “vegetarian” in the dictionary before preparing her son’s long-awaited homecoming meal in 1972, came to accept and take pride in Slavin’s vocation as a Krishna priest. On her death in 2003, Radanath took her ashes to India, spreading them on the Ganges as 2,000 devotees chanted kirtan on the banks of that sacred river.
Radanath’s memoir not only describes the journey of one spiritual seeker but also a world of spiritual leaders and their mesmerizing feats. “The supernatural powers of extraordinary yogis had begun to seem ordinary,” he said. Readers are reminded that even though these leaders have siddhis—unusual abilities that defy time and space—they don’t always use them to good ends, something we would do well to remember in the West. The memoir also serves to remind us that a spiritual quest requires hard work, a desire to learn, and a true heart: it’s not mere fashion and certainly not for the meek.
The evening ended with hot tea, havala, a traditional sweet made of shaved carrot, sugar, and raisins, and a book signing. I left after 11pm, before Swami had patiently signed all the books and the kirtan band had begun to sing its praises to Krishna.
Published on YogaCityNYC.com, February, 2010in Books, Events, Yoga and YogaCityNYC.com.