At just twenty-six, Radhika Ramana Dasa has achieved goals that some might consider over-ambitious for a lifetime. He has a PhD from Oxford, a published book with two more on the way, a teaching post at one of the most prestigious universities in the US”¦ and yes, he’s met the pope. No, seriously.
You almost want to resent him for all of it, until you actually meet the guy. Radhika Ramana is open, honest, often self-effacing, and possessed of a shy smile. But most of all, he seems to genuinely deny credit for any of his achievements. “Everything in my life,” he says, “I owe to Krishna and the devotees.”
A look at Radhika’s life reveals this as plain truth. While growing up in the eighties, his house was literally a temple, with his parents Ananta-Rupa Dasa and Arudha Dasi running the Boise, Idaho preaching center from their home. This, along with an extremely unconventional homeschooling curriculum based on the Srimad-Bhagavatam, ensured that Radhika Ramana – then Ravi – and his younger brother Gopal had a very unique upbringing.
“It was a tremendous amount of fun,” says Radhika. “Our family had to personally put on every Vaishnava festival for the congregation. My brother and I had to lead kirtan, dress the deities, and give classes ourselves. We were so busy that we often had to skip studies for a few days, then work hard to catch up.”
Possessed of a studious nature from early on, Radhika Ramana had no trouble doing this. But he loved the flexibility of homeschooling. “If I was absorbed in a particular section of the Bhagavatam, or moving forward quickly in maths, I could pursue those subjects and make up others later,” he says. “It really worked for me to go with my natural learning curve, rather than having something pre-structured imposed on me.”
Radhika’s homeschooling was based mostly on the Srimad-Bhagavatam, from which he learned English, comprehension skills, critical thinking, debate, and communication. He also took maths and science as separate subjects, as well as Sanskrit, which he fell in love with at once.
Although Radhika Ramana’s parents protected him according to their values, he never felt deprived or closed off from the outside world. “They never imposed on us, but rather helped us see how much more rich and wonderful a devotee lifestyle is,” he says. “Every so often Gopal and I would stay over with friends who weren’t devotees, and afterwards we’d talk about the experience with our parents. And we got to see what public schools were like – local ones often invited us to put on Krishna conscious programs for their students.”
These experiences helped reinforce Radhika Ramana’s identity as a devotee of Krishna, and built his confidence that as a devotee he could be respected and appreciated in society. The security they generated were also an important asset when he was accepted into university at the astonishing age of only twelve years old.
Sure to the thread that ran through his life, this was an opportunity dropped in his lap by Krishna. At least, it certainly doesn’t seem a coincidence to Radhika that the professor who suggested he supplement his homeschooling with courses at the local Boise State University was a regular customer at the family restaurant – Govinda’s. Or that when Radhika applied with the dean of admissions, it was the articles he’d written in Back to Godhead magazine that most impressed and became his ticket into university.
And that wasn’t all – his Krishna conscious upbringing continued to support Radhika as he moved from part-time to full-time degree student. “On my first day, the chair of the English department sent me to the honors writing course because all the introductory classes were full,” he recalls. “At first, I was so intimidated by the curriculum. Rather than contemporary novels and story books, it was full of classical literature like Shakespeare, the Illiad and the Oddessy. But everything changed when I realized how similar they were to our own epics in many ways. Homer’s Oddyssey spoke about valiant warriors and their code of ethics, just like the Mahabharata. And the conflicts Shakespeare’s Hamlet faced were very similar to those of Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita.”
Radhika’s teacher was tough to please, but she was impressed with his papers, commenting, “You have insights into these texts that most people don’t.”
Five years later, at the age of seventeen, Radhika left Boise State University with a BA in philosophy, a BS in mathematics, and the university’s highest honor, a silver medallion. It was a momentous year for the young man, who was also initiated by Hanuman Presaka Swami soon after graduating.
Next came the search for a post-graduate school. Again, Radhika’s life and achievements seemed inextricably connected with Krishna – he found himself at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, which had an excellent program in religion and Sanskrit. There he lived in a house with several other devotees including Krishna Ksetra, the ISKCON Minister for Deity Worship, whom he later graduated with. “Throughout my life I’ve really felt that ISKCON is my family,” Radhika says. “Devotees have always given me support, shelter and social life.”
When Radhika graduated from Oxford at twenty-two, he was one of the youngest-ever students to gain a PhD at the world-famous University. From there he moved to the University of Florida, Gainesville to teach for one year. Once again he enjoyed the wonderful devotee association – attending the morning program at the nearby preaching center, taking prasadam at the Krishna Lunch on campus, and spending time with Krishna Ksetra, who taught alongside him.
But suddenly, that all changed. In 2006, Radhika became the assistant professor of religion at Centre College in Kentucky. The job was wonderful – the college’s small size ensured plenty of personal attention, and great relationships with his students. But there was no devotee association.
“For the first time, the importance of devotee association really struck me,” says Radhika. “I realized that without it, none of my accomplishments or spiritual history amounted to much. Throughout my life, Krishna had been so kind to me, and my parents had made sure I had the right association. Now, though, I knew it was my turn to seek out that association.”
So he did, relocating to the college of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where there is substantial devotee community. It turned out to be a successful career move, too: the second oldest university in the US after Harvard, William and Mary ranks among the top sixty institutions in the country.
Radhika Ramana has achieved much in his life. He was named Rookie Professor of the year by Centre College, Kentucky. He was chosen to meet Pope Benedict XVI at an interfaith gathering in Washington, D.C. on behalf of the Hindu American community. His Oxford doctorate, The Caitanya Vaishnava Vedanta of Jiva Gosvami: When Knowledge Meets Devotion was published by Routledge press as part of their Hindu studies series. And he is currently working on two more books: one, a collaboration with Krishna Ksetra, is a collection of scholarly articles about the Srimad-Bhagavatam’s influence on dance, music, and architecture. The other is an introductory book on Chaitanya Vaishnava philosophy, as part of Ashgate publishing’s World Philosophy Series.
In ISKCON, he serves on the Ministry of Educational Development’s executive board, and teaches a two week course on Sanskrit at the Bhaktivedanta College in Radhadesh. And of course, he hopes to raise a Krishna conscious family with his wife Amrita Keli, just as his own parents raised him.
But Radhika Ramana’s most cherished personal goal is to develop steadiness in his relationship with Krishna – without whom, he believes, none of this would have happened. “I didn’t do anything,” he says. “I didn’t go looking for such a wonderful family – Krishna gave them to me. I was terribly afraid to start writing the Back to Godhead articles that were highly instrumental in getting me into college – but devotees encouraged me to do it. Krishna has been so kind and generous, that if I don’t do my very best to give back to him and to others, I feel I’d be letting him and Srila Prabhupada down.”
Radhika believes that the more one receives, the greater one’s responsibility. “I feel like I can’t give enough back to Krishna,” he says. “Every time I try to do something for Krishna by focusing on him more or becoming more serious as a devotee, Krishna always responds with something even sweeter. Then I feel I have to repay him and make an even stronger effort.”
And that, he feels, is the secret to success in life. “Strive past your comfort zone for Krishna and Srila Prabhupada,” he says. “Krishna really appreciates it when we go that extra mile, and then the relationship becomes so much nicer.”
He urges young people in particular to fight against complacency. Their energy, he says, combined with the guidance and wisdom of elders, can truly make an impact on the world.
“There’s a story in the Ramayana about Rama and his monkey army trying to figure out a way to get over to the island of Lanka,” Radhika Raman explains. “Someone suggests that Hanuman can do it, but although Hanuman has the ability, he has forgotten. That’s when the ancient bear warrior Jambavan steps forward. ‘Hanuman,’ he says, ‘You’re young, and full of strength – you can do this.’ It takes time, but Jambavan convinces him, and Hanuman’s ability is finally re-awakened. Then, with a triumphant roar of “Jai Sri Rama!” he jumps across the ocean.”
“So if the youth take the advice of elders, and are ready to go the extra mile just like Hanuman did for Lord Ramachandra,” concludes Radhika Ramana, “They too can leap across oceans.”