African American studies professor Cornel West GS ’80 and Radhanath Swami, a yoga practitioner and director of the Radha Gopinath Ashram, discussed their perspectives on religion and life at a talk titled “East Meets West: Hindu and Christian Perspectives on God, Love and Spiritual Activism” on Tuesday evening in Richardson Auditorium.
West and Radhanath were introduced by Associate Dean of Religious Life Paul Raushenbush.
While Raushenbush acknowledged that “East meeting West can be not such a delicious fusion,” he said such differences could be overcome by “coming at it with a heart that desires one another.”
Radhanath was the first speaker to address the near-capacity crowd, recounting the story of his search for religious truth. As a teenager, Radhanath studied Judaism, Christianity and Islam as he hitchhiked across the Middle East. In Kandahar, Afghanistan, he met a blind child in a tea stall who sang of his love for God for “almost an hour,” an experience Radhanath said changed his life.
“He was the happiest person I had ever seen up to that point in my life, and I had to question, ‘What is happiness?’ ” he said.
The encounter led Radhanath to become a swami of the Bhakti path of Hinduism. Quoting a guru who taught him, Radhanath said that “true religion is that which awakens selfless love for God and love for every living being.”
“Spiritual activism is really the nature of a person who is connected with their true self,” Radhanath said. “We can be a power to ... help people when we truly love; care is the symptom of love.”
West spoke after Radhanath’s remarks, explaining that, to him, spiritual activism is rooted in the fact that “each and every person has a sanctity. Not just a dignity, the way the Stoics talked about it, but a sanctity.”
West added that “even our secular brothers and sisters” need to seek something larger than themselves as a foundation for their ideals.
“Their notions of equality need to be grounded in that which cuts across the grain,” West said, adding that “it doesn’t make any sense to talk about loving your enemy without some connection to a power greater than you.”
West spoke about the difficulties faced by students in particular in attempting to set priorities in their lives.
“How do we convince them that the aim of life is not to be the smartest person in the room?” West said, adding that the nature of life at a university exacerbates this problem.
“It can become so bubble-like that idolatry can seep in before you know it,” he said, later adding that “one of the challenges of university life is that it places a premium on smartness,” as opposed to courage, creating an environment in which “everyone is up for sale, just waiting for the highest bidder.”
Iffat Hussain, an instructor at The College of New Jersey who attended the event, said she thought the speakers “really struck a chord” with the students who attended.
“The whole message for everybody was that the weak point of society is that we have the tendency in contemporary culture” to become complicit in prevailing injustices, she said.
The event was sponsored by multiple groups, including the Department of Anthropology, Princeton Hindu Satsangam and Manna Christian Fellowship.