By: Madhava Smullen on Oct. 6, 2017 (ISKCON News)
On Friday September 15th, Bhaktimarga Swami, “The Walking Monk,” crossed the finish-line for his 3,550-mile walk across the USA in San Francisco, beneath shining blue skies and rolling white clouds.
It had been two years since he set off.
This wasn’t the Swami’s first adventure on foot. He has walked across Canada from coast to coast four times; and he has trekked across Ireland, the Fiji Islands, Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, and Israel, to promote a more simple, healthy and spiritual lifestyle.
But this latest walk, in honor of his guru A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and the 50thanniversary of Prabhupada’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness, has been the most personally meaningful to him.
The walk began on September 20th, 2015, at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier, where Srila Prabhupada first reached the U.S. on the steamship Jaladuta in 1965 from India.
From there Bhaktimarga retraced Prabhupada’s journey from Boston to Butler, Pennsylvania, where he stayed with sponsors the Agarwal family.
Two hundred ISKCON devotees from all over the East Coast of the U.S. joined Bhaktimarga Swami to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Prabhupada’s arrival there. The celebrations included visiting the former YMCA where Prabhupada stayed and worked on his Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Bhaktimarga Swami then continued on to New York City, where Srila Prabhupada registered ISKCON in 1966. On November 10th, 2015, to conclude the first 907-mile section of his walk, Bhaktimarga chanted under the famous “Hare Krishna tree” in Tompkins Square Park, where Prabhupada led some of the first public kirtans in the Western World.
After a winter break, the walk began again on May 11th, 2016, with Bhaktimarga Swami walking from New York to San Francisco to replicate how ISKCON spread. The first leg of this walk covered around 966 miles and ended in Seward, Nebraska in August 2016.
The second leg began in May 2017 and covered approximately 1,600 miles, before ending in San Francisco this September 15th.
Rather than having a grand finale party, says Bhaktimarga Swami, he ended the epic walk in a “peaceful and meditative mood,” accompanied by only his two Canadian helpers Hayagriva Das and Bhakta Marcel, and senior Prabhupada disciples Vaisesika Das and Nirkula Dasi.
For the last four miles of the walk, the small group followed the route of the first ever Rathayatra Festival in the Western World, held in San Francisco in 1967. From the corner of Masonic Ave and Page Street, they made their way down Irving Street and on to the Pacific Ocean, just as the early devotees had exactly fifty years before, carrying Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra on the back of a decorated flatbed truck.
“There was no big fanfare, it was more a walk for the heart,” says Bhaktimarga Swami. “At the end, we touched the Pacific waters, and sat reflecting on the highlights of the walk. It ended on a happy note – it was a beautiful day, the sun was shining.”
Recalling the most recent last leg of his walk, from Nebraska to San Francisco, the Swami says he took Highway 50, dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America” by Life magazine. His route also took him onto the Lincoln Road, the first transcontinental highway in the United States, built in 1913.
Every day, he walked twenty miles, through all manner of terrain and weather. Crossing the Great Basin Desert in Utah and Nevada was particularly tricky: “It was bare, with no trees. The sun was intense – it got up to around 100 degrees, and you forget what a running creek looks like,” the Swami says. “But at night it was cool with a clear sky. Chanting under the stars out there, with nothing to distract me, was magical.”
Along the way, Bhaktimarga chatted to passing motorists – people on their way to Burning Man; a fellow long-distance walker on his way from Flint, Michigan to see his dad on the West Coast. The Swami’s bright orange robes and shaved head elicited some unusual requests. Once, a couple asked for his blessings that they could have children: he obliged. On another occasion, he was asked to do “dog blessings” by a woman working for an animal rescue organization.
“So I went to a park, where they brought all the dogs who had been rescued from abuse,” he says. “I did a puja and food offering to Srila Prabhupada, then gave the remnants to the dogs. The rescue workers were very grateful.”
Bhaktimarga’s assistants also organized regular speaking engagements for him on the road at yoga studios, service clubs like the Lions Club and park gatherings. Local newspapers and radio stations often conducted interviews, fascinated at this unique personality passing through their area.
To everyone, the Swami spoke about Srila Prabhupada’s arrival in the U.S. 50 years ago, and his continuing mission. He talked about some of the social challenges he had seen along his trek: loneliness, drug addiction, depression – and how Prabhupada’s view was that the solution to these problems was ultimately a spiritual one.
In his endearing, folksy way, Bhaktimarga Swami also entreated people to go back to the basics – to walk more instead of taking the car; to see the wildlife and touch the earth; to take time away from our devices; to meditate, sing, and pray more; to talk to our neighbors.
“If people could just come together more, that would do a lot to repair the instability that exists in the lives of people today,” he says.
Finally, along his way, the Swami also meditated on Srila Prabhupada and fifty years of his mission by visiting the ISKCON temples he had established across the U.S.
“Seeing what Prabhupada has done, and what’s still being maintained by his stalwart devotees, makes me feel closer to him,” he says.
At 64, Bhaktimarga Swami tells us this has been his last walk crossing a big country from coast to coast – the physical challenges can be punishing. But, happily, he isn’t done with the trail just yet: as soon as next year, he has his sights set on Spain’s pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.
“I love walking, seeing the wildlife and meeting so many fantastic people,” he says.