Om Swami is not your typical monk. Be it the flowing elegant robes, the crisp answers to questions – mundane or mystical, the sharp sense of humor that leaves you in splits, Om Swami undeniably makes spirituality look suave. But more importantly, he makes it all seem accessible and the elusive goal of enlightenment seem achievable.
From renouncing a multi-million dollar global business (including a slick top-model Porsche) to spending months in solitude in the Himalayas to encountering the divine first-hand, Swami’s journey is indeed unique. It is a story of human fortitude and reminds us of the power that lies within each of us waiting to be unearthed. Below is a candid conversation with this contemporary mystic.
Q: The world has given you many labels. They call you a non-traditional monk, a renunciant, the monk who sold his Porsche. Who are you in your own eyes?
Om Swami : My official introduction is this. I’m a simple monk in a complex world. If I were to introduce myself, I won’t say who I am, I will say what I am. I am just the sum total of the values I am committed to in my life.
Q: What are those values?
Om Swami: Compassion, kindness, and truth. Foremost is truth, alongside this is compassion. But between truth and compassion I’ll still choose compassion. That’s really the core value.
Q:In your memoir – If Truth Be Told: A Monk’s Memoir – you speak of a very strong yearning for the divine from your childhood. Why then did you choose to enter the corporate world? What drew you in that direction?
Om Swami: Couple of things. First, was the dream of my parents that I do something meaningful according to what the world calls “meaningful.” Secondly, it’s important to fulfill your desire to rise above it, as opposed to thinking constantly – I wish I’d done that. Because, if you don’t succeed in one area, you are not going to succeed in the other either. The same principles of tenacity, of self-discipline, and of passion apply in all fields.
Secondly, since my childhood, I was so used to wealth and I’ve been financially independent since I was 12. And, the corporate world can also be spiritual. The greatest spirituality is to live in the world and be truthful at the same time. If I’m sitting in a cave, I’m not really dealing with anybody other than my own thoughts, so I don’t have any opportunity to lie or speak the truth. Where is the test? The test of any man is when it’s stretched to see how quickly he snaps.
Q: You had great success in your business. What lessons from this phase of your life fueled your growth, if any? Also, how did you carry these lessons with you when you renounced to walk the spiritual path full-time?
Om Swami: Persistence is something that stayed with me. And knowing that you are pretty much on your own because in the business world nobody is anybody’s friend. Two journeys are always done on your own, the journey to your death and the journey to enlightenment, nobody’s with you through these journeys. Lord Krishna says – “you are your own greatest friend and your own worst enemy.” We just have to conquer ourselves. Like playing golf, you’re not competing with others, you’re only competing with yourself.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of your life as a seeker?
Om Swami: Lack of guidance is what I faced. I had to figure out my own path. Living a life of hardships, whether it was sleeping on the floor or having a wild boar hitting against my rundown hut or hearing the roar of tigers outside – these were tiny challenges compared to the inner challenge. I was ready to die for what I set out for. Not having amenities was not even on my radar. I was really driven by what I wanted to do. Like a soldier who goes out into the battlefield with only a few choices – either they withdraw or they conquer or they die.
One thing I said to Mother Divine (the divine feminine principle that Swami sought to manifest), if I get convinced that you don’t exist, I will go to all the corners of this world and tell people – “don’t waste your time, there is no God.” But my realization of God was very different. The way I see God now is that heat in fire, that coolness in ice, that thirst quenching ability of water. All things of beauty.
Q:Can you put enlightenment in terms that can be easily grasped so that you can fuel the average individual to walk the path?
Om Swami: First of all, I read somewhere a long time ago and I fully agree now that , enlightenment by itself can be overrated. Many people have been using it just for their own agenda, promising things that are not real. If you look at some of the most famous movements in the last 100 years, how many followers of those movements have actually emerged enlightened?
Simply put, enlightenment is a state where you really don’t develop any negative feelings about any creature. Even if you want, you cannot feel any hatred for anybody in that pristine consciousness. You become increasingly aware of your own thoughts, feelings, actions and you overflow with compassion. If you were to squeeze an orange what will come out? It depends on the quality of the orange. When people are squeezed because of situations, what comes out? Imagine if you were in a state where only love and goodness comes out because that’s what you’re filled with. Really that’s enlightenment. Your behavior remains unaffected by the behavior of other people. You don’t react, you act thoughtfully.
Q:There have been many masters before you and each has had their own way of imparting this ancient wisdom. What is your way?
Om Swami: My way is to teach or speak only from experience. I don’t branch out to areas where I don’t have firsthand experience. My premise is very simple. If you do what I did, the way I did, for the duration I did, you will also get what I got. I don’t believe that you need to chant mantras or meditate, to be enlightened.
I think a mother working in a company and coming home to take care of her family, a son taking care of his parents or a nurse working with the intention of helping patients, I think all this is nothing short of enlightenment. It depends on the intention and what skill they develop to fulfill that intention. Skill has to be learned. Nobody is born with any skill except maybe crying. Crying comes naturally to human beings, every other skill we have to learn.
Q: There are two schools of thought on the need for a master on the spiritual path. On the path to freedom what if one’s reliance on a master becomes the biggest fetter? How do you differentiate between being devoted and becoming dependent?
Om Swami: I think that is where a master’s sincerity comes into play. If the master is good, he or she will not encourage the disciples to become dependent on him or her. That’s really where the key is. Because a good disciple has surrendered already. Surrender is necessary when we need help, but surrender does not mean that we let go of our own faculties of thought or consciousness. Or that we say – “now that I have a master/guru my job is done.” In fact, it has just started. So that’s where a master has to help the disciple.
But from my personal experience, it’s usually of little help. I keep telling people they need to be independent. They think I’m trying to push them away. If I tell people I’ve given you the truth, now go work it out yourself, they feel hurt. Dependency is, please master if you leave me, what will become of me? I don’t care what you’re teaching, I need you. Devotion is, I would like to be like my master. In devotion, you have an ideal, in dependency, you have an idol.
To know more about Om Swami please visit omswami.com
Surabhi Kaushik is an Indian writer, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Her works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and parenting essays have been published in various websites such as yourstoryclub, halfbakedbeans, herviewfromhome and India Currents. She is closely associated with “Write Like You Mean It,” a writer’s group in the Main library, Charlotte. She also leads a monthly Fiction Writing workshop and conducts writing workshops at various libraries across Charlotte, North Carolina.