One year after his last visit to SOAS, Radhanath Swami, returned to the London campus on October 8th to share his thoughts on the role of spirituality and devotion in the modern world. Home to students from over 130 countries, the university was already buzzing in anticipation of his arrival, with many students eager to meet and hear from him again. This year’s program included the participation of the renowned Stephen Chan, professor of Oriental and African Studies. As expected, the event did not disappoint, and set the tone for the budding academic year.
There was a sudden hush as the esteemed guests entered the crowded lecture theatre, with over 150 attendees sitting on chairs and standing along the walls. Radhanath Swami was the first to speak, opening with a sacred invocation. He spoke of the misconceptions and inebriates of modern society and offered a more promising and progressive alternative based on ancient teachings. His critique exposed the underlying lack of peace and fulfillment in the world despite immense strides in material advancement, and proposed that true advancement rests on consciousness and character – that without developing these attributes in ourselves and the social body, all of our endeavors to improve the polluted condition of our times will fall short of their potential. He offered the example of boils on the skin. To address the external symptom, the boil, while neglecting the ultimate source of the problem, the condition of the blood, would only serve to temporarily alleviate the problem. Similarly, without addressing the underlying diseases of envy, anger, greed and selfishness, we cannot hope to change the world in any permanent or lasting way. As such, spirituality is a vital aspect of any attempt to benefit the world today and in the future.
Radhanath Swami called upon the lessons of history, transporting the audience back to the Vietnam War, the 60’s, and the counter-culture movement of his youth. He referenced leaders of the past who took it upon themselves to redirect the course of history, such as Martin L. King and Gandhi and he demonstrated, with a deep sense of urgency, the need to be courageous enough to change the world by starting with ourselves. To equip ourselves with the tools necessary for this effort, spirituality holds the key to awakening our individual and collective consciousness and strengthening our character. Radhanath Swami challenged conceptions of self-identity, integrity, enlightenment and global harmony, urging everyone to not simply embrace the future, but to define it.
Afterward, Professor Chan spoke of the corruption of the world both outside, and within ourselves. In a moment of touching honesty and reflection, he admitted that Radhanath Swami made him wonder whether he himself chose the right path in life, considering their similar background. He extolled the virtues of selflessness and evolution, both on a personal and communal level. He also raised deep concerns about the possibility of achieving high levels of spiritual advancement in the face of corruption and degradation in the world as we know it.
The session then evolved into an open forum, and students were invited to raise their own questions about the practicality and role of spirituality in the modern world. In the course of answering the many diverse questions that followed, Radhanath Swami explained that spiritual development and empowerment are entirely independent of time and circumstance, that there is no need to remove ourselves from modern industrialized society in order to pursue spiritual advancement, and that industrialism and modernity can be seen as neutral forces that can be utilized for either good or otherwise according to our desire. He gave the example of a knife, which could be used by a surgeon to save lives or by a burglar to harm them, the only real determinant being the development of consciousness and character. His words resonated with the SOAS mind-set when he encouraged all to become real activists and instruments of compassion, claiming that the ultimate challenge of progressive humanity is to balance inner cultivation of true spiritual virtue with service to the world.
The event closed with an opportunity for students to individually approach Radhanath Swami for personal advice and exchanges, which resulted in long queues of attendees and a late evening, topped off by a delicious vegetarian dinner.