A Sense of Place
Human beings have traversed the earth seeking food and refuge from the extremes of weather, escaping hostile neighbors, and looking for a place of bounty and beauty. A good friend, Nayan Chanda, has written a book about how people, over millennia, traveled the world and made contacts with new people, and established new empires and new relationships before anyone labeled it "globalization." One of the types of men who traveled the world was preachers. What Nayan does not tell us, which I hope he will in a new book, is that there were the opposite of preachers who traveled the world, seeking beauty, spiritual solace, a new "home" where their hearts would bloom and where they would find peace: the seekers!
As I have written in a couple of other essays, India has always welcomed such seekers for India is indeed a holy place, and men and women have trekked their way over millennia to find a guru, and experience the mystical and the magical. Sure, there are millions who make their way to Mecca these days, in organized and subsidized Haj "pilgrimages" or to Jerusalem or Rome during Christmas. As far as I know, no non-Muslim or non-Christian has written a book about finding a teacher or a mystic in those places, if indeed any such person went there looking to find one. Whereas, it is said that even Alexander the Great went to India looking to meet one of its great ascetics, about whom he had heard in his native Athens. A story is told of Alexander meeting such a monk and offering him great wealth; when he was told that all such wealth was a waste and a distraction, Alexander in fury sought to lop the head off the monk, but he was shamed by the challenge of the monk to "go ahead and kill me." It was the only time in his march across the world that Alexander surrendered!
Yes, indeed, many of us Indians have trekked our way across the world, and not just recently. Traders from India navigated the seas and established trading posts and relationships along the coast of East Africa as well as across vast stretches of Southeast Asia. These Indian traders and kings even influenced the religious practices of the people, without ever trying to manipulate or coerce them into a new faith, so from Thailand and Malaysia, and from Cambodia to Indonesia you will see how India's spiritual and cultural influences shaped the life of people in those regions. The great Angkor Wat temple complex, for example, reflects one of the South Indian styles of temple architecture.
Over a period of a few decades, recently, a few hundred thousands of Indians have made their way to the United States, after the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965. I believe none of us came here looking for a spiritual teacher or a mentor. I do not believe we have found any, except if that person happened to be a traveling guru from India! However, during that same decade, when Indians began traveling West to the United States, young Americans traveled East, to India, looking not for a stable job, a good university education, or to set up a business. They went seeking spiritual solace, curious, just as Alexander was, about the fabled land where men and women had discovered through rigorous practice the way to "liberation."
I have written about Patrick Levy and about Narvada Puri, and in that sequence of Western seekers from the 1960s, is Richard Slavin, now known as Radhanath Swami, who has written his own wonderful tale of early travails and eventual fulfillment in a beautiful book titled, The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami. The book has attracted more attention than either Patrick Levy's book or Narvada Puri's, including a lame review by the Harvard professor of religion, Francis Clooney, but that attention and limp reviews notwithstanding, this is a story of a beautiful journey that should be read by those who still see India as a spiritual beacon, for it will confirm that the journey to and through that spiritual home is mysterious, powerful, sometimes frustrating, and finally liberating. It is not a book, however, for those who simply seek to travel to India to photograph exotic people and places, nor is it for those who think the spiritual journey will be without hazards or hardships.
Richie, as Richard was called by friends and family, also began with a hunger deep inside. He was 19 when he decided, with a friend, to leave the comfort of his suburban Chicago home and go "trekking" overland from Europe, via Israel, Turkey, and Afghanistan to end up in India. He finds, early in Chicago, that one of his best friends' parents "hated him" because he was a Jew! Little Richie was "sweet, but so strange," people observed, seeing that he liked sitting on the floor and eating (like Indians) rather than sitting at a table and eating. He even stood and ate at restaurants, a compromise his parents made with him! He wore clothes and shoes only that looked old and worn, and when he was 16 and a close friend died in an accident he began to look more desperately for spiritual sanctuary.
Attending Miami Dade College with friend Gary Liss, who would become a very powerful presence and influence in his life, Richie one day comes across a poster advertising Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's transcendental mediation class, and that then leads him to meditation, and combined with his love of music, Richie was on the road to becoming Radhanath Swami. It would take a few thousand miles and a few years to get there, and this book recounts that fascinating journey. The incidents and events as Richie and Gary trek through the world, and as Richie and Gary part ways in Israel, are so strange, astounding, singular that they have all the hallmarks of a "true life thriller"—just waiting to be made into a gorgeous Hollywood movie some day: not just a superficial "eat, pray, love" but a story of a life of substance, challenge, and fulfillment.
Indeed there are aspects of food, and of prayer, and even of tantalizing love in this journey that will make readers wonder how a young man, actually just a teenager, has the nerve, the courage, the conviction to carry on his journey toward the spiritual goal that beckons him. He meets a lovely Swiss girl, Irene, in Florence, Italy who tells Richie "I have been praying for a companion," and begs him to ". . . take me with you wherever you go." That powerful temptation Richie rejects as a night of deep reflection tells him that he has got miles to walk on his spiritual journey. And sitting in Greece both Gary and Richie (now called "Monk" by his friends and by Gary) hear voices: one telling Gary that he should go to Israel, and another telling Monk to go to India. As they part ways, Monk decides to give up the nickname Monk and revert to his real name, Richard.
The on-land journey to India is so full of hazards that indeed they seem tailor-made for a Hollywood thriller. But to India he is headed, and Richard is determined, and he makes it—accidents, chases, prisons, and bad guys notwithstanding. The story about his quest for a guru in India, and of his meetings with the well-known gurus and humble villagers, of his battles with dysentery and snakes in the dark, of esoteric experiences and miraculous saves all make Richard's journey into becoming Radhanath Swami a "stunning story," as the great yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar describes it. There is no way one can sum up or highlight the incidents and those events, and the only way one can feel the power of his telling is by reading the book. Radhanath Swami returns to the U.S. but feels a great debt to India, and returns in 1986 to make it his permanent home. Settling down in Bombay, now Mumbai, Radhanath Swami has established several temples, schools, hospitals, and ashrams in Mumbai and elsewhere in India, and travels to the U.S. to enthrall and encourage those seekers now wanting to find a guru and quell their spiritual tumult. Just like Narvada Puri's mother and sisters and other family members traveled to India from Germany to visit the "truant seeker" so does Radhanath Swami's parents travel to visit him in India in 1989, and when his mother dies in 2004, his father and brothers request that he carry his mother's ashes to India to be sprinkled in the sacred Ganga.
Radhanath Swami's life journey is inspiring, and there will be some whose life will be transformed as they read his book. May their life journey be fulfilling!
First published on Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Sense-of-Place-Ramesh-Rao-01-03-2012