What it feels like to be with Radhanath Swami?

I have been serving Radhanath Swami as a secretary for over a decade, closely observing him. Here are few things I have noticed in him.

Radhanath Swami’s service attitude is beyond compare

Vehicles honked and spewed out black clouds of exhaust. Pedestrians peacefully crossed the busy street, zigzagging through the sluggish traffic. Malls, swarming with customers, lined the sidewalk. We were at Connaught Place, one of the largest financial, commercial and business centers in New Delhi.

As our car headed towards Hotel Lalit, Radhanath Swami from the rear seat reminisced, “During my spiritual quest, whenever I passed through New Delhi, I stayed at the Hanuman Temple here, at Connaught Place.  I stayed in the company of sadhus.”  I was all ears. It was one of those special moments when the Swami candidly shared from his travels through India. Radhanath Swami continued, “It is my desire to walk through these streets again.” After a thoughtful pause, he added, “Somehow I never get to do what I want to do.” Hearing that, I felt pained. Perhaps in this visit, I hoped, there was a chance for him to fulfill his desire. The next day he was scheduled to deliver the Key note and Inaugural address at the All India Management Association’s (AIMA) second World Marketing Congress. I supposed that the conference would get over by 11:00 am; since our flight was at 2:00 pm, there was a free slot, sufficiently big for a stroll through Connaught Place.

The next day, things didn’t work out as I had expected. By the time the Swami got out of the conference hall, it was late; we had to rush to the airport.

Our next destination was Rishikesh, where he was invited for several talks at the International Yoga Conference.

While at Rishikesh, I re-read Radhanath Swami’s autobiography The Journey Home to further explore his connection with Connaught Place. Apart from what he had disclosed in the car, I discovered one more connection—an intimate one. It was at Connaught place that he first saw a painting of Lord Krishna. The passage in The Journey Home read:

Designed by the British, Connaught Circus was laid out in an immense circle surrounding a spacious park. Exploring the enclosed walkway, my attention was drawn to a hand-painted sign that read, “S.S. Brijabasi and Sons Religious Artwork.” Stacked on the sidewalk were hundreds of 8 x 10 prints. ……For about an hour I sat on the sidewalk searching the selection. Among the pictures was a beautiful woman with eight arms holding swords, choppers, and spears and riding on a lion, then a fantastical, somewhat pudgy man with the head of an elephant who was sitting on a mouse……..I came across a magnificent monkey, wearing a crown, whose eyes shone with devotion……….As I rummaged deeper through the stack of prints, I discovered a person with a dozen heads, each of a different species and multiple arms………

Suddenly, from out of the stack of prints appeared a personality that attracted me like no other. He had a bluish complexion, wore a peacock feather in his crown, and played a flute while posing gracefully beside a river. Behind him a white cow stared lovingly and a full moon bathed an enchanted forest in pearly light.  Spontaneous tears filled my eyes. The person in the picture seemed to fill my very soul. Why was this happening to me? I felt him calling me. But how?  It was only a painting, and of a fantastical person I didn’t even know. His name was written on the bottom in an ancient alphabet I couldn’t read.

I gave whatever money I had to the shopkeeper, but it was not enough. He smiled and gave me the picture anyway, a picture that I would not part with during the rest of my travels. Who was this person in the image? For a long time, that was to remain a mystery.

After our 4-day stay at Rishikesh, we were scheduled to return to Mumbai, and during transit we were supposed to change flights at Delhi. As I packed the bags for the journey, Radhanath Swami asked, “Will it be possible for me to visit Connaught Circus during our transit through Delhi?” “I will work out the logistics and let you know,” I replied.  I hurriedly called a contact at New Delhi. The person said it was possible. So it was planned that after alighting from the flight at New Delhi airport, Radhanath Swami would collect the train ticket from my contact waiting outside, take the half hour train ride to Connaught Place, walk through the streets there, and then return back to the airport to catch the flight to Mumbai.

We landed in New Delhi at 1:45 p.m. The connecting flight to Mumbai was at 5:00 p.m. Things were going as per plan. But as I dialled the number of my contact who waited outside the terminus, Radhanath Swami interrupted, “Should I really go? Tomorrow is the Gaur Poornima Festival, and I have to discourse. I might well use this time for preparing.”  What could I say? For him it was duty calling again. Thousands in Mumbai would be visiting the temple the next day to attend the birthday festival of Lord Chaitanya. And his lecture was the sought after inspirational event for the attendees.

We searched for a quiet place, and Radhanath Swami pored over the Chaitanya Charitamrita, the biography of Lord Chaitanya, whom the Gaudiya Vaishnavas believe to be Lord Krishna himself. At 5: 00 p.m. we boarded the flight that brought us back to Mumbai.

The next day Radhanath Swami discoursed 4 hours non-stop from the Chaitanya Charitamrita, as thousands listened in rapt attention. Later, many proclaimed this to be one of the most inspiring festivals of their life. As I listened to them, I was distracted by burning questions. When is the next time we will pass through New Delhi? And even then, will Radhanath Swami again sacrifice his personal desires for the sake of service?

Here’s one more incident that occurred when we were at Kanpur.

Reality belittled wildest imaginations on this impromptu ‘Grand Prix’ from the North Indian city of Kanpur to the Lucknow Airport. Our car raced at 130 Km/Hr! Still, Radhanath Swami yelled from the rear seat, “Faster, faster.” Radhe Shyam Prabhu—an illiterate in traffic rules—appointed himself the traffic-navigator, and shouted directions from the rear, while I, like a coach impatient for victory, sat next to our ‘race driver’ Vikas and kept nagging him, “How much longer will it take to reach?” And like a gramophone record stuck in its track, the jittery Vikas kept repeating a mantra hour after hour – “We will be at the airport in ten minutes only.”

8 January 2011, 5:30 p.m., Kanpur. As the car keys turned on the ignition, Vikas turned to Radhanath Swami, “My family has been decorating our home since last night—all night long—expecting your visit at our humble residence. My home is only a 5-minute drive off the highway. Please, if you could place your holy feet there, even for a moment, we will be blessed.”

How could Radhanath Swami deny? “I will come, provided you promise that you will help me reach the airport on time.” To catch the flight was critical, for that was the last flight to Mumbai, and flying the next day meant cancelling pressing engagements lined up for the next day at Mumbai.

Vikas nodded innocently, knowing not what awaited him.

At Vikas’s home, we were cordially greeted, but after a while it was time to leave. The whole family saw us to the gate, and bid us a fond farewell.

Yet, the family’s concern that we reach the airport on time continued to follow us. After 7:00 p.m., while the ‘Grand Prix’ was at its peak, the family called Vikas every five minutes with the same question I was bothering Vikas with—How much longer…? And Vikas repeated the same irritating mantraWe will be…ten minutes. High strung, I finally switched off Vikas’s mobile.

The car ‘landed’ at the airport terminus at 7:45 p.m. We rushed into the check-in. Radhanath Swami had once joked that India is the only place where sadhus can bribe with blessings. But here, we didn’t even have to do that. Our sadhu attire was sufficient to get us through in seconds.

Once aboard the plane, while I adjusted to the miracle that we had finally made it, Radhanath Swami asked me to dial Vikas’s number. As I dialed I screamed in my mind, “Oh no! I myself have switched off his mobile.” Fortunately, Vikas had turned on the mobile by then, and it rang. When he answered the call, Radhanath Swami gasped, “I am grateful and happy for your service of driving us here. But I would have been grateful even if we hadn’t caught the flight. Sorry for the anxiety we caused you. But the anxiety you had to undergo and we had to undergo was a small price that all of us had to pay for the happiness of your family.”

Yet another incident that exemplifies the Swami’s extreme service attitude occurred in 2005, when he guided a few wealthy families of downtown Mumbai around Govardhan Hill in Vrindavan.

Govardhan Parikrama, as the scriptures call it, is the circling of Govardhan Hill, and is considered one of the austere yet important limbs of bhakti yoga.

Having to shoulder management responsibilities of the parikrama, I could hardly rest the night before: went to bed at 11 and was up by 3. The lights in Radhanath Swami’s room were turned on, both when I rested and when I was up: he rested even less, or perhaps didn’t rest at all; certainly, he was preparing for the dozen lectures he was to deliver the next day.

On the day of the parikrama, devotees were ready by 6:00 a.m. at Govardhan Ashram, our starting point. We were 30 in all, 20 aristocrats—men, women, young and the old—and 10 monks. Radhanath Swami discoursed at the Ashram, elaborating on a text from the first canto of the Srimad BhagavatamQueen Kunti Prayed, ‘My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling.’ I wondered if any aristocrat felt flattered.

At the beginning of the 28 KM trek Radhanath Swami requested the participant who wore sports shoes, “It will be better to do the parikrama bare foot.” The shoes went out flying, and the participant, a middle-aged aristocrat, beamed. He was sincere and, as I was to discover later, reflected the sincerity of his class group.

As the day progressed, the sun beat down on us, and apparently a little more on my wealthy brothers and sisters. They puffed and panted, but never complained. I could see that they were indeed serious about spirituality, perhaps even more than I was. At noon we briefly halted for lunch at an inn, where I stole a nap. Except for lunch, we only halted at places of holy importance where Radhanath Swami discoursed denouncing the flickering happiness of the material realm and pronouncing the verdict of the scriptures—that only spirituality, and not wealth, could provide lasting happiness to the soul. His compassion amplified his voice rather than an external sound system [which we hadn’t carried anyways.]

By dusk the party was limping to keep pace with Radhanath Swami, as the destination still evaded sight. Radhanath Swami turned to the aristocrat who had earlier abandoned his jogging shoes, “There are different muscles for walking and running. Now that the walking-muscles are tired, let’s run.” The two ran for about five minutes, at the end of which the aristocrat was visibly grateful—rather than mournful—to walk the rest of the trek.

We reached back the circle’s starting point—Govardhan Ashram—at 10 p.m. That night I hoped would be an endless night. Before he rested, Radhanath Swami confessed, “I am a little tired.”

Radhanath Swami’s devotion is beyond compare

Ever tried cooking for someone dear? It’s a powerful way of conquering your beloved’s heart. That’s why Bhakti Yogis, whose sole yearning is to conquer the heart of the Supreme Lord, ascribe such importance to cooking, a seemingly ordinary chore.

One day at Radhagopinath Ashram, as I sat chatting with the cook in the kitchen, Radhanath Swami entered. Spotting the milk that boiled on the stove, a sweet smile bloomed on his visage. He came closer and grasped the stirring spoon and began to stir the milk gently. Glancing towards the cook, he said, “You please become the GBC, and allow me to cook.” Silent moments passed as the cook groped for a reply. Then, as if reaching a conclusion after deep introspection, Radhanath Swami added, “I will have to serve as a GBC for many lifetimes before I could get the opportunity to cook for the Lord.” (GBC is the abbreviation for Governing Body Commissioner, the highest managerial position in ISKCON)

Radhanath Swami’s detachment is beyond compare

One day Radhanath Swami was invited by a family that lived in downtown Mumbai. I accompanied the Swami as we drove to their home late in the evening.

When the sun drops into the Arabian Sea, Mumbai is lit by Neon signs that line its busy streets. Being the economical capital of India, the city stands immune to the electricity shortage that plagues the rest of the country. Mumbaiites, the residents of Mumbai, get electricity in plenty, though they are often embarrassed by shortages of clean water and fresh air.

This day, however, was different. Our hosts had been preparing their home for Radhanath Swami’s arrival the whole day, and at dusk, unfortunately, electricity gave way. So, when Radhanath Swami’s entourage reached there, their home resembled a dark den. “Sorry, there’s no power,” our host sighed.

Radhanath Swami, without batting an eyelid, replied, “Anyways, I am not attached to power.” It wasn’t just a repartee; he had spoken out his heart. He holds no stakes in any of the projects that he has developed over the years: Radhagopinath Temple and Ashram, Bhaktivedanta Hospital, Govardhan Ecovillage, etc.; He has refrained from being even a signatory in any of these ventures.

Another incident that exemplifies Radhanath Swami’s detachment occurred when we were visiting Jagannath Puri, Odisha. We were put up in a hotel, and again, a well-wisher had invited us for lunch at his home.

The Swami, after finishing his lunch quickly, turned to me. “Sorry, I can’t wait till you finish. I have got an urgent appointment back at the hotel room,” he apologized and I shook my head indicating OK. As I continued with my lunch, Radhanath Swami hurried back. Our generous host, an Odishan gentleman, served me seconds and then thirds of all the local delicacies and I stuffed myself with every one of them: my ramble back to the hotel room would digest it all, I thought. The room was a twenty-minute walk away, but we had come by car for the sun beats down at noon time in Jagannath Puri.

After lunch, I thanked my host and as I exited, I found our car still parked on the roadside. Radhanath Swami had chosen to walk back in the scorching sun, to avoid inconveniencing me.

Radhanath Swami’s affection is beyond compare

Radhanath Swami is often invited for lunch at people’s homes. In the Vedic tradition an opportunity to cook for a sadhu and feed the sadhu is considered a rare service, a rare blessing.  The more the sadhu eats, the happier is the cook; and even a word of appreciation about the preparations from the sadhu is eagerly awaited.

There are several stories of Radhanath Swami going out of his way to make the cook happy: sometimes tolerating the extra spices, sometimes tolerating the blandness, sometimes over eating, sometimes eating though not hungry and almost always eating preparations that go against his dietician’s advice. There are even grisly stories of him having to vomit after returning from the host’s. But every time, Radhanath Swami is appreciative of the preparations. Being his secretary, I am a witness to several of these stories.

With me, however, Radhanath Swami was once a little unorthodox. Yet, through that experience, I felt the intimacy of our relationship sore up to newer heights. This happened when Radhanath Swami’s favorite cook Radha Vallabha was sick. I then got an opportunity to cook for Radhanath Swami. I found my mind in ambivalence. While I obviously felt exhilarated, I also felt jittery: I was cooking for no ordinary person. The preparation before the cooking—deciding the menu, thumbing through the recipes and collecting the ingredients—seemed no less intense than preparing for IIT JEE, the entrance exam that I had cleared years before for getting admission in IIT. The actual cooking was more intense than IIT JEE itself.

While the flames rose to heat the vessels, the heat was already on me. When those flames threatened to burn the preparations, I was already dead-burnt in anxiety. All along, the stirring spoon moved in synch with my heartbeat.

Once ready, the preparations—lafda, karela sabji, beans sabji, chapatti, rice and daal—were taken to Radhanath Swami’s room by Damodar Dulal, where it was  to be served out. After half an hour Damodar Dulal returned to the kitchen, where I was all ears to hear Radhanath Swami’s comments about my preparations.

“He asked me who had prepared today’s lunch,” Damodar Dulal began to narrate the exchanges he had with Radhanath Swami while he had served out the lunch.

As Damodar Dulal spoke, the suspense was building in me.

“I said you have prepared,” Damodar Dulal continued.

Now, that suspense was killing me.

“He told me…” Damodar Dulal paused.

My heart beat also paused. What did Radhanath Swami say????????

“He told me, ‘please tell Radha Vallabha to get well soon.’”

Another incident which stands out in this connection happened when the Swami’s dietary supplements were sent by an acquaintance in the United States.  “Did you request for it, or did he send it on his own?” Radhanath Swami asked me. “He sent it on his own,” I blurted out a lie. I was pushed by a surge of subconscious fear, a fear of causing him pain. Bothering anyone for his personal needs was something that his humility couldn’t tolerate.

But the next moment, I found myself in an avalanche of guilt, “How could I lie to him, my spiritual preceptor?” And now, I saw that I didn’t even have the nerve to admit my lie! I walked out his room, my mind clouded by mixed emotions.

I sought relief in the chanting of the holy names on a veranda outside. With closed eyes, I fingered my beads. “Are you sure he sent it on his own?” Radhanath Swami’s voice broke my meditation and I opened my eyes. He stood right in front of me. “Yes,” I blurted.  He smiled and went for an evening walk. Off guard, I had again succumbed to the push of my subconscious mind that now wanted to hide my first lie. My guilt compounded. I had lied for a second time! And the thought of confessing before Radhanath Swami scared me all the more .  My mind tossed me in its waves of extreme guilt and fear. Was it going to kill me?

As a defense, I pulled myself together and plunged my mind into the sound of the holy names. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. That sound slowly gripped my squirming mind and I felt peace.

“Are you really sure he sent it on his own?” Radhanath Swami’s low voice brought me to the external world again.  He had returned after his hour long walk. Before I knew, my subconscious mind barged in with a reply that barked out of my mouth, “Yes.”  He smiled and went into his room.

I now felt as if I were ruthlessly stabbed to death. I didn’t want to think anymore, for if I did, my mind would strangle my corpse.  Mustering all courage, I approached Radhanath Swami and fell on my knees, “I have lied to you. It was I who requested for the dietary supplements.” Suddenly, I felt my life force reenter my body. “I guessed you were lying. That’s the reason I asked you thrice,” Radhanath Swami responded gravely.

I returned to my chores, but my vicious mind  kept pulling on me, “How bad he might have felt that you lied! You have broken his trust.” Night eclipsed the twilight, but I had already lost hopes of a peaceful sleep. My mind wouldn’t let go of me.

It was 9:00 p.m. when Radhanath Swami came to my rescue, after searching out my poor soul.  He came to where I was and spoke with an affection that I will never forget, “Don’t worry. I still love you.” Tears of joy over-flooded my eyes and, struggling to restrain my bursting emotions, I bowed.

How could his soft heart rest in peace, knowing that another heart burned in anguish?

Radhanath Swami’s humility is exemplary

The crisp morning air wished us a pleasant day, with the fragrance of fresh blossoms it carried. The window was open and overlooked a garden, beckoning us to sample the beauty of the town we were visiting—Hrishikesh.

Inside the room sat Govinda Prabhu and Gaur Gopal Prabhu at the computer, while I went about my daily chores. They were preparing a list of devotees who were to be initiated by Radhanath Swami during his forthcoming visit to Poona. While anyone and everyone can joyously try out Bhakti Yoga, those who are serious about the path, the scriptures recommend, should accept a Guru. In the Gaudiya Vaishnav Tradition, the Guru accepts a disciple in a ceremony called diksha, or initiation, during which the disciple is handed prayer beads. Those beads, the disciple always carries in a cloth pouch called the bead bag; this bag’s unique design allows one to finger the beads without having to take them out of the bag. Interesting?!!

As I looked for my bead bag to say my prayers, Radhanath Swami walked in. While on his way to the Ganges to say his prayers, called the mantra meditation, he had dropped by to see us. Radhanath Swami’s expression turned quizzical. Gaur Gopal Prabhu, as if in response, said, “We are working on the initiation.” Holding up his bead bag, Radhanath Swami shook it. The beads inside clattered. “And I am working on mine,” Radhanath Swami announced, “first trying to be a good disciple myself.”

He walked out carrying a smile that unveiled the gratitude he felt for his Guru. Though he had thousands of disciples round the globe, and thousands more queued to accept him as Guru, his humility wouldn’t allow him to consider himself a worthy disciple of his own Guru.

Radhanath Swami sat relaxing on the lawn with a few of his students. The Chakra Building veiled them from the noontime sun, while breezes breathed in and out of the ISKCON Mayapur campus, cooling this shade over nature’s carpet of green.

Radhanath Swami looked over as his students rapped on. After meandering along various topics, their conversation finally turned into a glorification session, each one glorifying the spiritual qualities of others. That’s something which devotees of Lord Krishna love to do.

“Karunasindhu is so gentle. Wish I could emulate his gentleness,” said one.

“Jagannath is so enthusiastic in Kirtan, wish I could be like him,” said another.

When everyone was done, Radhanath Swami leaned to finger a blade of grass on the ground, “Wish I could be like this blade of grass.”

Lines about a blade of grass from his book The Journey Home echoed in my mind…

You see this grass? It is happy to serve everyone, even by remaining in the most humble position under our feet. Whenever it is stepped on, it comes right back up, to serve. We can learn from this humility.

Radhanath Swami has a brilliant sense of humour

It was the festival of lord Ganesh, which is much awaited in Mumbai. Streets leading to makeshift temples of Ganesh get lined with countless hawkers who sell incense and flowers. The neighborhood of these temples that number in thousands in the city, transfigure into bustling bazaars. The crowd even spills out into the main roadways, causing traffic jams.

Radhanath Swami was to preside over a spiritual get-together at a well-wisher’s that evening, and I was to accompany him. Foreseeing the delay caused by the obstructed traffic flow, I suggested to him, “I think we will have to leave early.”

“But why?” he asked.

When I explained, he replied, “Ganesh is supposed to remove obstacles, not put obstacles.” His body shook with laughter.

Another story.

A famous bollywood actor, Yuvaraj, was driving the car while Radhanath Swami and I were the passengers. At one point, when the car moved ahead, ignoring the turn we were supposed to take, Radhanath Swami asked, “Why didn’t we take the turn?” The reason was the traffic and the complex traffic rules. But unable to gather the right words, Yuvaraj spoke out, “It was difficult to take that right turn.”

Radhanath Swami said, “While living in this world, it’s always difficult to take the right turns.”

– Vraj Chandra Das

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