Created for the disciples and aspiring disciples of His Holiness Radhanath Swami
Learning about the journey of Swami Radhanath is an insight into the best of India — openness, affection and spontaneous joy
I recently learned of a young, American man who left the United States in 1971 to search for true faith. Richard Slavin started in Europe, where, as a hippy, he was largely robbed, refused entry, chased away or kicked out. He travelled, penniless, throughout Europe. He loved Christian churches and cathedrals, and spent much of his time reading about Eastern religions and the Bible. He also spoke with priests and monks at every opportunity.
One night in Europe, this 19-year-old Jewish boy from Chicago heard a voice say, “Go to India.” So, he did. Knowing nothing about India, he hitchhiked, walked and rode buses through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He faced a cholera epidemic and escaped bandits in Turkey. He arrived in Iran during the holy month of Ramadan, where he chose to remain a few days to learn the basics of Islam and Muslim culture. When he arrived in Afghanistan, he was given shelter by a poor family, and experienced his first real culture shock, watching people living lives of true happiness amidst dire poverty. Here he came across a blind, beggar boy who spent his days singing songs of love to God, and Richard thought the boy seemed like the happiest person he’d ever met, which made him ponder the nature of happiness.+ When he arrived at the Indian border after a grueling journey, he was not allowed entry, stuck in the no-man’s land between India and Pakistan. There he waited, and tried and waited, until eventually a change of guard presented him with an Indian official who believed his heart was true and allowed him to enter India.
In India, he travelled by foot and cart, hitching rides, following holy men and women to learn about their beliefs and their gods and faiths. He was open to all faiths, seeking what felt wholly right to him. He was in awe of the cows wandering about so freely in Delhi. Watching the loving relationships between the cows and calves, he became a vegetarian. After studying with many gurus and swamis, he began a practice of austerities. He shed his western clothes into the river Ganges, wore the simple one-piece garment of an ascetic and spent every day meditating on a rock in the Ganges, living on only raw vegetables, fruits and nuts. In 1972, Richard met with members of the Hare Krishna movement and was very taken with their message, but not ready to choose that path. He believed that all paths led to God, but not that he needed to follow a particular leader.
In 1972, the Indian government refused to renew his visa so he returned to America. There, he came in contact with the Hare Krishnas once again and met with Swami Prabhupada, who encouraged him to stay and aid in the development of the New Vrindaban community, where he remained, caring for cows and reading Prabhupada’s books. In 1973, he decided to accept Prabhupada as his guru and receive the Harinam initiation, receiving the name Radhanatha Das. In 1982, he took vows of lifelong renunciation and was named Swami.
In 1983, Swami Radhanatha returned to India, choosing Bombay as his base. No longer an expat, now an immigrant, he has devoted the rest of his life to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and through his works has accomplished many wonderful things for India. Swami Radhanatha began the initiative, now branded Annamrita, providing a free midday meal for 1.2 million school children across India. He was instrumental in founding the Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Mumbai, and inspired the Govardhan Ecovillage (GEV), in Maharashtra, which is also home to the Lady Northcote Hindu Orphanage.
He has worked with Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and has taught or spoken at many well regarded universities such as Princeton and the University of Bombay. When I saw him speak, I gathered with 3,000 other attendees at Pune’s ISKCON NVCC Temple, a beautiful space lined with artworks depicting the life of the Hindu god Krishna. My friend who took me, an American expat from India, taught me about their beliefs. Swami Radhanatha, this man with the quiet, kind and loving voice, left me feeling peaceful, cared for, beloved. He told stories from their faith, with humour and devotion, like a mystical tale of deer and tigers in harmony, “Because Krishna was in the centre, there was no fear, there was only affection. When Krishna is in the centre of our lives… there is no more envy. We become the well-wishers of everyone.”
I may not be a Hare Krishna, but what I witnessed that day, as I’ve witnessed more often in India than anywhere else, was a huge congregation of people packed tightly into a space, smiling with kindness, treating others with respect, and dancing with the purity of joy.