The highest study in the land of higher studies (Reflections on my US trip 2015) – Part 1
For the world, America is the land of Hollywood, Disneyland, Wall Street and the arena for fulfilling “the American dream.” For Americans, it’s the “Land for the free and the home for the brave.” However, for me, like many Indians, it had been for years the land of higher studies. Some twenty years ago, I had desired, as do many Indians, to go to the US for higher studies. And I had been well on course to going there, having done well in GRE (Graduate Record Examination), the exam for getting admissions in US colleges. But by Krishna’s merciful intervention, I had been introduced to the wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita. Being attracted by its bhakti-centered message, I had ended up staying back in India for “the highest studies,” as my spiritual master HH Radhanath Maharaja had referred to my decision to dedicate my life for studying the Gita.
And yet here I was on my way to America as my flight took off on 16 Sep, 2015, from Mumbai to Orlando, USA. Of course, I was going as a teacher of the Gita. Coincidentally, I happened to arrive in America on exactly the same day as Srila Prabhupada had arrived there fifty years ago. I prayed for his blessings so that I could do my small part for serving his mission.
Learning while teaching
During the next month, I found myself learning how the Gita was being lived in a culture distinct from its native culture and how its wisdom could be best communicated in such a culture. At the start of my trip, I had made a resolution to not repeat any class that I had spoken earlier. This resolution had two purposes: to ensure that I generated fresh content for my hearers on thespiriutalscientist.com and to mitigate the physical rigor of traveling by intensifying the intellectual adventure of speaking. For me, speaking becomes exciting when it doesn’t have to conform to predefined content. And speaking during my American tour did turn out to be an adventure: during the course of the talks and question-answers, I came up with over a hundred ideas for articles to add to the over five thousand ideas in my ideas file.
But sticking to the resolution of always speaking fresh content turned out to be much more difficult than what I had expected. I soon became aware that I didn’t know too many ways of making the Gita’s message intersect with the needs, interests and concerns of new people. So, I found myself repeating some, even many, points in my classes to new people, though I ensured that the content of my classes to devotees was mostly new.
Over the some forty classes I gave during my month long trip, I managed to stick to the resolution of not repeating a class. Even when I was scheduled to speak on a topic that I had spoken earlier, I managed to generate largely new content on that topic. While speaking at San Jose on rasa in Krishna-bhakti – a topic I had spoken twice and differently in Chowpatty and Pune – I came up with an impromptu acronym RASA (Redirection, Adaptation, Spiritualization, Appreciation) and took the class in a new direction. I was also scheduled to speak twice on “God Proposes, Man Disposes – Understanding Krishna’s Peace Mission” – a topic I had spoken on at a Sunday feast in Chowpatty. There, I had spoken on the pastime itself in detail, whereas in Seattle I focused on its context – both within the Mahabharata and within the bhakti philosophy – and in New Jersey I structured the talk around an acronym GOD (Grants free will, Offers counsel, Delivers Consequence).
I was somewhat intimidated while speaking at Alachua because it was filled with Prabhupada disciples, but their humility and kindness was humbling and inspiring. Speaking to them on the occasion of Radhashtami was an even greater challenge. By Radharani’s mercy, I spoke on “Appreciating Radharani’s position and devotion” and acquitted myself reasonably, if the sustained applause after the class was any indicator.
I started my last talk in Alachua by saying, “Today I will share a formula that I hope you will never use – it’s the formula for ruining relationships. The formula is: Judging without understanding.” After the class on “Judgmental mentality ruins relationships,” Brahma Tirtha Prabhu, one of the prime movers of ISKCON Resolve (an initiative for resolving conflicts within the devotee community), commented that the class was ISKCON Resolve in action.
My most action-filled speaking engagement was a talk in San Jose for Artha Forum on Leadership and Bhagavad Gita. The Artha Forum is an initiative for sharing spiritual wisdom to cultivate and channelize social responsibility among corporate leaders. The Forum had organized a panel discussion with three panelists scheduled to speak on “Spirituality and Leadership” and I was to give the keynote address. The panelists were Ron Pitamber, CEO, Heritage Hotels Group; Eason Katir, Former Finance Commissioner for the City of Davis, and Upendra Kulkarni, D-GM for Intel. During his talk, Mr. Kulkarni said, “Though I am a panelist and am expected to answer questions, I would like to ask Swamiji a question: Spirituality is about compassion, whereas business is about competition. How can the two go together?” During my talk, I started with a Powerpoint presentation as planned, but then took an impromptu detour to answer the question. I explained the Gita concept of the three modes and analyzed how competition can be in three modes. Competition in ignorance is about succeeding by destroying one’s competitors, whereas competition in goodness is about using the presence of competitors to bring out the best in oneself. When I explained the different types of competition and how spiritual wisdom can foster a culture of healthy competition, Mr Kulkarni as well as others in the audience clapped in applause. While speaking this point, I was thinking of Novak Djokovic’s statement after winning the US Open that his rivalry with Federer and Nadal had made him a better player than what he would otherwise have been. But not being sure how the audience would respond to a monk talking about sports players, I desisted from speaking that example. Soon I realized that I had misassessed my audience because after my talk one of the attendees quoted that very example for constructive competition.
My first talk to largely American students was at the University of North Florida, where an American devotee, Amrita Keli Mataji, is a chaplain and runs a yoga club. As soon as I entered the classroom, I noticed the warm, informal, friendly mood among the students and devotees. So, when we were all introducing each other and it was my turn to introduce myself, I felt inspired to confess, “As this is my first visit to America and my first talk to a largely American audience, I am a bit nervous.” The students laughed and one girl while introducing herself added, “Welcome to America. Relax – we don’t eat human beings here.” We all laughed and my class on the topic of “Love is the highest reality” took off lightheartedly and concluded with a lively QA.
After I spoke to students of the University of Florida on “How spirituality increases our social contributions,” an Indian student said that he had been an atheist till six months ago, but due to some experiences, had started looking for God. He had been watching the videos of Zakir Naik and had been attending the talks of a Christian pastor, and he compared those talks with my talk: “I felt they were trying to convert me to their belief system, whereas I felt you were trying to help me tackle my problems without trying to convert me.” I felt edified by his insightful appreciation, remembering one of the last messages of Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj: “We are not the propagators of a sectarian organization – we are the sharers of the non-sectarian wisdom for raising global consciousness.” That message had especially resonated with me and I felt grateful that it had permeated into my heart so that it became evident in my speech without any conscious effort on my part.
Kalakantha Prabhu, a senior Prabhupada disciple and author who has rendered the Gita and the Bhagavatam tenth canto into English poetry, invited me to speak at Krishna House, Gainesville. Krishna House is a spiritual hostel next to the University of Florida. Students – boys and girls, most of them Americans – stay there, attend the morning program, study the bhakti philosophy through daily Bhagavatam classes on selected verses and take prasad. The verse I had to speak on explained how Parikshit Maharaj prepared for his death by hearing. I spoke on “Death and the search for meaning” and several students, including Kalakantha Prabhu himself who attended the talk, appreciated the point that “Within the atheistic worldview, everything is meaningless – so atheists’ criticism of religion that its rituals are meaningless is meaningless.”
At Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO at a program arranged by Sanatana Priya Prabhu and other Denver devotees, I spoke on “Managing the mind through introspection and meditation.” While introducing the concept of the mind, I started by confiding, “Right now, a voice inside me is telling me that you are going to forget what you plan to speak, thus making a fool of yourself.” As the students laughed at my self-deprecating candor, I added, “That voice is the voice of the mind,” thereby attracting their full attention to the topic.
At Ohio State University, I spoke at the vegetarian club, which is run primarily by Naveen Krishna Prabhu and which is the only program I saw where an Indian is attracting a substantial Western audience. I spoke on “To manage the mind, regulate the mind’s diet” to an audience of largely American students. They come every week for a light, non-didactic vegetarian cooking class, but they all sobered and heard attentively when I explained that an unhealthy mental diet of negative thoughts and conceptions can be so dangerous as to make one million people commit suicide every year. After the talk, one boy told me privately that he had been contemplating suicide, but my talk had given him new direction and confidence.
I spoke on “IDEA – Four insights for facing adversities” to students of California State University, Channel Islands, at a program organized by Nandini Radha Mataji who is a Professor at that University. I used the acronym IDEA (Identity, Destiny, Eternity and Activity) to explain how spirituality can help us go through and grow through life’s adversities. An Indian girl asked how one could be detached without becoming hardhearted. I explained that detachment is not hardheartedness, but is clear-headedness – it enables us to step away from actions, situations and relationships that are detrimental to our growth.
At Bhakti Center, New York, I spoke on how Bhagavatam faces the problem of evil squarely in the eye by narrating Parikshit’s death – something that could well be misunderstood as God’s failure to protect his devotee. After my talk on “Appreciate the depth and length of your existence to appreciate Krishna’s love,” some attendees said that they liked the point that just as a baby needs to grow up to connect the comforting warmth of a blanket with her mother’s love, so too we need to spiritually grow up to connect the relief coming from devotional activities with Krishna’s love. I added that whereas the baby grows up naturally, we need to consciously strive for our spiritual growth by philosophical education and devotional cultivation.
At Seattle, I had a corporate program for employees of Microsoft and other software giants, where I spoke on, “How work becomes workload.” I explained the four self-sabotaging strategies of the mind using the acronym LOAD (Limitation, Obsession, Aversion and Dystopia). After the class, many attendees told that these were the very things happening in their minds and lives – and to counter it, they felt inspired to take to meditation earnestly.
In Los Angeles, I was given the service of speaking the Sunday feast class during the festival commemorating the 50th anniversary of Prabhupada’s arrival in America. Several devotees appreciated the point that, reciprocating with Srila Prabhupada’s determination, Krishna transformed mission impossible into mission unstoppable.
At my talk in Farmington Hills, Detroit, which happened to be my last talk in America, I spoke on “Our longing for love is perfectly fulfilled in Krishna.” As my family members were also present there, I tried to incorporate something personal to help them better connect with my talk and understand what had inspired me to become a monk. Speaking about my personal life was not a well-thought strategy, and when I spoke about my mother’s sudden death to leukemia some twenty-five years ago and how it had shattered me, I found myself emotionally overwhelmed and had to struggle to check my tears and continue speaking. I dared not look at my family members, lest their tears increase mine, and I spoke for a few minutes with closed eyes till I regained my composure.