Meditations on The Journey Home – Lesson from Chapter 1
Richie (now Radhanath Swami) had habits that were unconventional by middle class American standards. He refused to sit in chairs while eating and preferred to sit on the floor, which his parents forbade. A compromise was settled for; Richie would stand at the dinner table. He got his new clothes washed again and again, until they looked old, before he agreed to wear them. He scraped his new shoes with rocks till they looked worn out. Richie idolized the poor and having better things than others embarrassed him. Once at a country club dinner, he disrupted everything and ran away from the table on discovering that the busboy serving was his classmate.
A spiritual seeker leads a simple life, by minimizing his or her personal needs, while maximizing his confidence in God. In India, the sadhus, the spiritual mendicants, live in the forest, with mother earth serving as a chair, table and bed. They wear ragged clothes, and give away their belongings, and subsist on madhuakri, daily meager begging for food. It is a voluntary life of denial of material comforts; not for nothing but for a higher purpose- fixing the mind and energy on service to God. Even as a young child, Radhanath Swami had an inclination for being simple. Radhanath Swami explains that a Sadhu’s primary characteristic is his dependence on God, and of possessing a humble service attitude, fixed in the consciousness that he is the servant of God and all living beings. As little Richie, Radhanath Swami also displayed the characteristic of being conscientious. He ran out of the club so as to not hurt his friend; even as a child Radhanath Swami was sensitive to others’ feelings.
A genuine seeker of God is not impressed by the externals of a spiritual path. He delves deeper into the meanings of rituals, and explores the inner secrets of outward worship and prayer. This natural drive to seek deeper meanings prompted Richie to ask the Jewish rabbi for the meaning of the prayers that he was tutoring Richie in. The Rabbi became emotional; not every seven year old begs to know the meaning of prayers offered to God. In India most children learn to pray when they are young, but seldom does a child seek to know the how’s, why’s and what’s of a prayer. Richie’s honest enquiry deeply satisfied the Rabbi, and he explained from the Talmud, “It is better to pray to God for the strength to overcome temptations, difficulties and doubts in order to do His will, rather than pray for him to do our will.”
Before I read ‘The Journey Home’ I had been disillusioned with religious rituals, and had reasons for being cynical. I can’t forget a friend’s wedding I attended some years ago where the priest called upon the bride and the groom to perform holy rites, while the guests watched smoke rise from the sacrificial fire. The hall reverberated with the loud chanting of Sanskrit mantras (hymns) by the priest sanctifying the marriage. Suddenly there was a protest; one of the guests- a Sanskrit scholar himself- heard carefully the chanting of the mantras, and was upset at the insensitivity of the priest who’d been blabbering hymns not connected to a marriage ceremony; he even offered rapid mantras meant for a funeral service! A bigger shock for me was the callousness of the marriage party; they politely quietened the complaining guest and let the function go on unchanged. I left disappointed at the sham of a sacred wedding where no one understood or cared for the significance of the rituals.
At a time when we witness increasing religious intolerance, global terrorism (justified in the name of God), and corruption by the clergy of different faiths– all originating from superficiality in understanding and practice of religion- Radhanath Swami’s concern to go beyond the externals of religion comes as a breath of fresh air.