The tale of an American, who yearns for Realisation.

This is an account of the amazing journey an American youth embarks on responding to the call of his heart. Barely out of his teens, restless Richard Slavin leaves the warm comfort of his Chicago home in search of God. What begins as a self-search holiday with friends turns out to be an arduous quest that takes our protagonist across Europe, Afghanistan, West-Asia and finally India.

Life threatening situations and diseases do not deter this determined man from pursuing a spiritual path that would lead him to his Guru. Fact definitely is stranger than fiction. From Richard to Krishnadas to Radhanath Swamy is a transformation that is gradual and natural like a fruit ripening.

Water is intrinsically woven into this spiritual adventure, with the Ganges becoming the Mother and Yamuna offering Enlightenment on her banks. On the brink of death at least twice, Richard emerges purified and ready for the next ordeal. Fake sadhus, devoted swamijis, dedicated devotees Richard meets them all in his yatra, anxiety about his destination constantly gnawing at him.

Written in simple style, the book, an international bestseller, gains its riveting quality from Richard’s experiences. The terrifying hour in the coils of a snake and much later again held captive by a bird that sleeps in his matted hair, the suave sadhu, who turns out to be gay, the meditative moments near Varanasis’s burning ghat and so on. The sincerity and humility that run as an undercurrent make the document a moving account of a soul going through the pangs of realisation.

Does he keep in touch with his family consisting of parents and a younger brother? Yes, through letters he reassures them that he is safe not of course revealing any of his bizarre experiences that might cause them worry.

Richard, christened Krishnadas by one of the swamis he meets, leads the life of an ascetic, but declines to get initiated by any of the swamis he meets. “I’m not ready,” is his constant reply. “Will I be able to live up to the commitment?” More important is the question, “Is this the Guru I have been searching for?”

Krishnadas’s spiritual quest ends at Vrindavan, where he surrenders at the feet of Srila Prabupada. The place that served as a playground for Krishna and Radha kindles emotions hitherto not experienced. Prabupada’s conversations with guests and his lectures gives him fresh insights. He finds the Master explaining complex ideas with simple analogies. Is God personal or impersonal? Prabupada’s answer opens Krishandas’s eyes. His idea of detachment and asceticism crumbles as Prabupada speaks of bhakti yoga and spiritual energy.

The dénouement comes on the hill top, where the Madan Mohan temple is located. Krishnadas reads the letter Prabupada writes to Krishna on board Jaladuta, the vessel bound for America. Virtually penniless and without a friend or relative to receive or support Prabupada had taken up the journey at the age of 69, after two heart attacks. The mission was to spread the message of Krishna – love for all – in that continent. Likening his situation to that of the Master, much older and physically frail, Richard feels humbled and the floodgates open.

“Yes, you are home,” with this terse expression Srila Prabupada blesses Richard. The Guru also gives him the name Radhanath Swamy.

The reader travels along with the protagonist as he moves from place to place, losing his heart to this American youth, vulnerable in a foreign land but braves on, responding only to his inner voice. Life comes full circle as he meets friends with whom he set out of Chicago, Gary in particular surfacing at the most unexpected moments. You smile, gasp and worry as the young ascetic transports you to a different realm. Suffused with humour and warmth, the book lingers long after you close it, reluctantly.

Promise fulfilled

"Returning to the U.S., after two years, the swami has an emotional reunion with family and friends but the stay is short. He comes back to India to fulfil a promise that he made to the immigration officer at the Indian border – “Let me in. Someday, I promise to do something good for your people.” It is these words that actually move the officer to allow passage to a young American boy, who could pass off as a beggar.

Settling down in Mumbai, Radhanath Swami has helped in the establishment of many temples, ashrams, educational centres, hospitals that heal with both conventional and alternative medicine. An eye camp in Vrindavan, orphanage, organic farming and cow protection are among the good things in which he is involved. For more information visit www.radhanathswami.com

Honouring a wish

There is a poignant background to the birth of the book. A humble person, Radhanath Swami turned down several suggestions to record his story. But he could not ignore the appeal of a close friend, who was dying. Bhakti Tirtha Swami, an African American, who attained a great spiritual stature that brought to him celebrities including Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Alice Coltrane, was passing through the last stages of cancer and wanted Radhanath Swami to be with him. One day, clasping Radhanath Swami’s hand, Bhakti Tirtha said, “This is not your story. It is a tale about how God led a young boy… promise me… that you will write the story.” A few days later he passed away and the book is Radhanath Swami’s attempt to honour his wish.

The Journey Home, Autobiography of an American Swami, Radhanath Swami

Published by Jaico Publishing House (www.jaicobooks.com)

Price Rs. 250.