We live at a time when the world is surcharged with tremendous negativity and we’ve a choice to either blame the systems and get cynical or be a transition person and thereby be an instrument to usher in hope and positivity.
Stephen Covey refers to a transition person as one who breaks the flow of bad or negative traditions or harmful practises that get passed from generation to generation, or from situation to situation, whether in a family, a workplace, a community or wherever. “Transition persons transcend their own needs and tap into the deepest, most noble impulses of human nature. In times of darkness, they are lights, not judges; models, not critics. In periods of discord, they are change catalysts, not victims; healers, not carriers.”
As I introspect on how I could be a transition person, a surge of inspiration gushes through me as I remember Radhanath Swami’s six hour marathon memorial class a few years ago on his best friend Bhakti Tirtha Swami. By his exemplary character and positivity Bhakti Tirtha Swami influenced thousands, including Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali.
Bhakti Tirtha Swami was born in 1950 as John Favors to an Afro American family in the violent, poverty stricken ghettos of Cleveland, Ohio. Although lot of reforms had been initiated, the African Americans were still being looked down upon as an inferior race; the prejudice was rampant and inferior education kept them down. John’s father died even before he was born and John faced freezing winters with his single widowed mother to take care of him. Although his mother could barely afford two sets of clothes for her son, she encouraged her son to happily give away clothes to other needy friends. The spirit of compassion and selflessness was deeply imbibed in the character of Bhakti Tirtha Swami even as a child with barely any necessities.
In the violent neighbourhood he lived in, people argued with guns. To survive in this intense atmosphere of lawlessness and suppression, even as a teenager he carried a loaded gun. He was also born with a speech defect. He stammered for two to three minutes to utter even a simple phrase. This attracted ridicule, but john was undaunted. When he spoke from the Bible about God, his stammering was gone. He was enthusiasm personified and he realized he was born not to speak anything material but to glorify God and serve others.
Despite the meagre facilities, he excelled in his studies and his desire to serve others led him to tutor other children. A kind hearted and wealthy Jewish girl saw his potential and sincerity, and convinced her school principal to give him admission. This was the most prestigious prep school where the wealthiest kids studied, and John was the first black student ever to be enrolled. As he performed exceptionally well and won the hearts of all with his attractive characteristics, the principal was eager to get him admission in any university he desired. Meanwhile the best universities were vying for him, and he chose Princeton University for his higher studies. At Princeton however many of the wealthy South Americans that studied hated blacks and they often ridiculed John or pushed him the wrong way.
John however chose to work on his strengths. He excelled in his studies and became popular. He majored in psychology, took to National law, and became the president of the student council. Being an activist, he also became a leader for the civil rights movement for that area. During the annual convocation when he was asked what he hoped to do in future, John replied, “I want to be a global humanitarian.” Since he was intelligent, creative and dynamic, he got an opportunity to work for the United Nations. For a man coming from a downtrodden situation, all opportunities for tremendous influence and material prosperity were now opening up. John Favors had indeed come a long way.
Generally when people coming from a downtrodden background get material wealth and success, they get intoxicated and attached. However John wasn’t enamoured; he was on a spiritual search. During his quest, he read many scriptures and one guru whom he associated closely revealed to John that John’s questions were really very deep and could be answered only by Swami Srila Prabhupada, the founder of International Society for Krishna consciousness (ISKCON), a worldwide spiritual organization that systematically propagates spiritual knowledge and educates the masses on techniques of spiritual life so as to achieve real peace and unity in the world.
John now began to associate with the students of Srila Prabhupada but faced another problem. Being the only Afro American member of the group, John began to face discrimination and saw that he wasn’t being treated properly. Only a couple of people spoke to him while most ignored. One day he met Srila Prabhupada and revealed his heart that there is racism and prejudice in his society of followers and students. Srila Prabhupada could have apologized or denied the discrimination but his response changed John’s life forever. Srila Prabhupada said, “If you get affected by what these ignorant and foolish students of mine say and think, then what’s the difference between you and them?” Srila Prabhupada had broken through his superficial layers of material consciousness and challenged him to raise his consciousness and be a transition person rather than complain about situations that are beyond our control. John felt grateful to Srila Prabhupada; the answer made him fearless and confident of ushering in a spiritual change in the society. He accepted Srila Prabhupada as his spiritual master and joined his family of spiritual workers. As an instrument of positive change, he became empathic and compassionate to others, and especially the new members. He personally took care of them like a mother, friend, guide and a servant. His enthusiasm to serve filled the lives of all those he came in contact with a sense of hope and happiness.
The secret of his inner strength to serve was his diary writing. An integral part of his daily schedule was to write an open letter to his guru and honestly speak his heart. Praying for guidance and mercy, he would explain in the letter what he was doing.
Bhakti Tirtha Swami recollects an incident that was transformational in his services. In 1976, he discovered that his team members considered resigning because his standards were very high; his long hours of tireless and enthusiastic services was impossible for others to keep pace with. They felt pressurised by him to also work like him and felt it was impossible for them to follow him. As a leader of the group, Bhakti Tirtha Swami was saddened to know that in the whirlwind of his services, he had affected others like this. He fervently prayed to the Lord for strength and after deep contemplation and sincere prayers, concluded that he needs to change. He vowed to cultivate the mood of being the servant of all by always encouraging others. He realized that to discourage others was a great disservice. He then resolved to give more importance to others getting better results rather than work on his own success. He carried this guiding spirit of being the genuine servant of servant of all with him for the rest of his life.