A world-traveling monk in the Krishna bhakti tradition is in Philadelphia this week to deliver his spiritual philosophy of happiness, which he described as "how to be happy in a way that doesn't exploit other people, future generations, the environment or other species."
Devamrita Swami, 67, said that, between travels, he primarily resides in New Zealand and at the 350-acre Gita Nagari eco-farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania, one of the country's only cruelty-free dairy farms. But this April, he has been touring Philly universities and will speak at the Mantra Lounge and Meditation Center in Fishtown on themes like "spiritualizing the economy" and attaining what he calls "sustainable happiness." But while he is affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement, and often quotes the Bhagavad Gita, Devamrita Swami's teachings tie in to environmental issues that are increasingly striking a chord among younger Americans.
"Our pursuit for happiness is causing enormous damage, and we rarely take the time to become happiness-literate, in terms of understanding the impact our pursuit of happiness is causing on nature, on other human beings, on other species and ourselves," the swami told Metro. "I'd like to go deeper, in terms of helping people understand their happiness footprint."
But is general unhappiness really a rising problem? Devamrita Swami says yes, pointing to American Psychological Association reports that say data suggests "the nation is on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis." Meanwhile, The New York Times recently reported that one in four Yale University undergrads (about 1,300 students) enrolled in a course about attaining happiness, while roughly half the undergrads will at some point in their education seek mental health counseling.
"I began to think, 'If this is going on at the elitist level, what about down on the street?'" said Devamrita Swami, a Yale graduate who was born in New York City and lived for a period in West Philadelphia while attending Central High School. "I sense what's going on in terms of the stress and anxieties people are feeling, which is pushing them deeper into bodily identification. You can call it identity politics, or tribalism, but the unhappiness and the stress is pushing them to take more shelter in what the yoga texts call an illusion. It awards the person an imaginary sense of power and solidity."
Devamrita Swami's teachings are spiritual and urge students toward finding "non-material happiness" in a relationship with "supreme consciousness," and he said they apply to people of any faith or creed.
"The solutions that I'm offering, what the Bhagavad Gita offers, cut across bodily designations and bodily labels. They are non-material solutions and therefore the solutions are not stymied by economic class, ethnicity and so forth," he said. "That's why I'm dedicated to broadcasting these solutions."
But elements of the teaching like spending time in an agricultural setting on farms like Gita Nagari seem to be catching on in wider spheres: The farm has recently begun seeing a regular influx of undergraduates on "alternative seasonal breaks" from elite schools around the country.
"This has caught me totally off-guard. Students want to experience an alternative. They know there are huge environmental problems, and they want to actually participate in a solution, rather than just study it," he said. "But to fathom that there could be non-material happiness, that takes a brave step."