Title: The Journey Home: An Autobiography of an American
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
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
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
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
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