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The Essence of Spirituality


Title: The Journey Home: An Autobiography of an American Swami

Author: Radhanath Swami

What is spirituality? This is a question that has bothered me for a long time. It has obviously nothing much to do with religions since religions seem to forge believers into bigots and bombers. I bought this book, written by a man who was born a Jew in Chicago, left home in search of the meaning of life at the age of 19, and became a Hindu Swami at 21, because I thought it would give me some insights into the problem I face with spirituality. The book did enlighten me though in a limited way.

Spirituality is a hunger, not of the body but very similar. The spirit, soul or whatever you may call it, is hungry. It is as Saint Augustine of the Catholic Church said, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” If there is God, then nothing less can satisfy us merely because nothing else can be as perfect and as delightful and as charming as God.

Not everyone experiences such hunger, however. Perhaps there is no God. Perhaps God does not care to reveal itself [I don’t understand why God should have a gender; gender would be an imperfection] to everyone. Perhaps God is a charming illusion, the ultimate pie in the sky. Personally, I would find philosopher Spinoza’s God far more acceptable than any religion’s: “the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe.” Albert Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.”

There are a lot of other intelligent people who wouldn’t find even Spinoza’s God acceptable. Philosopher-writer Jean-Paul Sartre would sneer at Spinoza’s God. God is a human creation, as far as Sartre is concerned. Sartre doesn’t think we have a soul. There is no ‘essence’ to human life other than what we create ourselves. In simpler words, we create the meaning of life for ourselves.

Sartre’s contemporary, Albert Camus, would agree too. Camus thought of human life as absurd. The human situation is as absurd as that of Sisyphus whose entire life was condemned to be spent in pushing a massive boulder up the hill. The moment the boulder touched the zenith, the gods who had punished him would push it down. Sisyphus would walk down the hill to push the stone up again. And again. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. That is the most apt metaphor for human life, Camus argues in his eminent book The Myth of Sisyphus.

Camus’s Sisyphus sustained most part of my adult life. He does even now to a great extent. But a question arose a few years back in the back of my mind whether it was possible to have a more meaningful life. A deeper meaning than what Camus’s intellectual honesty offered me. What is the source of the serenity that some people, who are essentially religious, possess? It is this question that led me to read Radhanath Swami’s book. 

Author with Ms Pratibha Patil, former President of India

The book is not a spiritual guide, however. As the title implies, it is about a journey, one that is at once physical and spiritual. The 19-year-old Richard Slavin leaves home without much money. His original plan was to visit Europe with a few friends. But he was a restless young man in search of something that would give him the kind of satisfaction that Saint Augustine spoke of. His journey took him to India. He hitchhiked most of the distance from Europe to India. He walked hundreds of kilometres too when that was required.

Much of this book is about those adventurous travels. There are hair-raising episodes like getting caught by drug-pushers in Istanbul. There are temptations like the one from a European woman in Kabul. There are times when the young man’s life is in danger. He reaches India in the end.

He meets many gurus, yogis, sages and others like the Naga Babas who all teach him many things about spirituality. He sits in meditation in many places like a boulder in the river Ganga and a cave in the Himalayas. His heart continues to be in the Augustinian kind of restlessness. Until he reaches Vrindavan where he meets the ideal guru and eventually becomes Radhanath Swami of the ISKCON.

Very little is said about what happens after that. I would have been more interested in that part – the essence of a swami’s lived spirituality. The book is an interesting read for what it is: a young man’s hazardous journey in search of life’s meaning.

Gary Lissa is another young man who had started his spiritual journey just like Richard at the same time. But he abandons asceticism and finds meaning in leading a very ordinary life as a physical trainer in America. Radhanath Swami meets him years later and the conversation between them is enlightening.

“Swami,” Gary said, “our lives are totally opposite. What do we have in common? I’m a physical trainer and convince people that they’ll be happy with a healthy, handsome body. But you’re a swami and convince them that they’ll be happy if they realize that they’re not the body at all, but an eternal soul.”

I had to smile, and replied, “Because the Lord is in everyone’s heart, the body is a temple of God. Gary, we can harmonize our talents. You teach people how to improve the temple and I’ll try to teach them what to do inside.”

Gary has his way and Swami has his. Each one of us has to find our own ways to deeper happiness. Sartre and Camus may not be able to transcend the rigorous demands put on them by their giant intellects. Spinoza and Einstein could. Were Spinoza and Einstein happier than Sartre and Camus? Are the swamis and yogis and scores of other such people living in the Himalayas whom we meet in this book happier than Spinoza and Sartre?

I won’t dare to answer these questions. I know one thing: each one of us should seek spirituality or the deepest happiness in our own way. Borrowed truths have done a lot of harm to our world. Let me conclude this with an episode from Radhanath Swami’s book.

One of the many masters that the author met during his initial journeys in India was the maverick J Krishnamurthi. “Man cannot be enlightened through any organization, creed, dogma, priest, or ritual, nor through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through understanding the contents of his own mind, through observation, not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection.”

In other words, gurus are redundant. When the session with J Krishnamurthy was over, the author asked a Buddhist monk who was attending it what he was going to do now that masters wouldn’t be required in his monastery if he were to follow JK. “I will follow Mr J. Krishnamurthy,” the monk said with a mischievous smile. “I will reject the teachings of the teacher who teaches us to reject teachers and teachings.”

We choose our paths according to our psychological make-up. That is the only genuine way to spirituality. Accept a teacher if you need one. Accept a religion if you need one. Embrace the intellectual honesty of Camus if that suits you. What matters ultimately is whether you re genuinely and profoundly happy.

PS. This post is a part of Blogchatter Half Marathon

PPS. This is not a book review in the traditional sense. Read my last traditional book review here: Smoke and Ashes


  1. Spirituality means different things to different people. I see it as a virtuous path that embraces kindness, respect and generosity, leading the person towards self-contentment and happiness.

    1. India has taught various paths too: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, etc. Why is the country trying to pulverize variety now, I wonder.

  2. Hari OM
    I can add little - your concluding paragraph holds the essence! YAM xx


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