On New Year’s Day 2014, the man called Swami Sankarananda - who will be visiting New Orleans Jan. 4-15 - began a nine-month, almost 3,000-mile trek across the United States, carrying nothing but necessities in a 25-pound backpack: a sleeping bag, razor, toiletries, socks, camera, mobile phone, headlamp and 1-liter water bottle. Wearing the orange dhoti of a Hindu monk, he resolved to “walk in prayer unceasing for all to know peace.” In an exception to this simplicity, he posted daily on Facebook, sharing personal interactions and observations.
Following the same route and mission as Peace Pilgrim, who crisscrossed the country for 28 years during the 1950s through the 1970s, he vowed to ask for nothing, including food, water, shelter or money, accepting with gratitude only what was offered. Swami pledged to walk in faith, trusting that whatever he did not carry would be provided.
“I was going to either transcend fear and desires completely or die in the desert trying. There was no third option and no going back,” he wrote in a journal.
Sankarananda, 60, became a Hindu monk after living almost two years in India, but spent most of his previous adult life as a corporate executive, earning a six-figure salary, traveling internationally and owning grand homes, luxury cars and boats. His technology career had begun as computers were taking off and his expertise was always in great demand. He appreciated fine wines and experimented with cocaine, LSD and mescaline.
“I drank to do business and I drank to escape,” he wrote. “Nothing was ever enough. I had seemingly become the character that I played, but inside was still that boy that just wanted to love and be loved. I had confused excitement with happiness.”
An excessive lifestyle took a toll. When the economy lost steam, he bottomed out, his car was repossessed and home foreclosed.
“I began to feel the need to investigate life and what the world is, why it is the way it is. And, finally, I began to look at the desires that kept coming from my mind and to begin, just begin to see the craziness of at least some of them.”
For two years, he immersed himself in a scientific mindset, reading about quantum physics, the dual-slit experiment, entanglement of sub-atomic particles, string theory, X-ray cosmology, black holes, dark energy, infinite parallel universes, and hologram theory, which postulates the world is not as it appears. Ancient philosophies synch with scientific discoveries, he concluded.
Practicing yoga provided the first hope for real happiness he had felt since childhood. Experiencing “Vaiagya,” a Hindu word describing dispassion for the pleasures of the material world, he renounced all commitments. On July 20, 2011, he did not show up for work because he was headed to India for a spiritual bootcamp. For the first time, he believed he was making a personal choice. Intense practice and study from 5:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. at the ashram helped him realize nothing he had ever done brought real happiness. Having focused on achieving personal satisfaction, he’d always craved more. Now, he had no desire or need for anything.
“It was sinking in that joy is to be found in simplicity not complexity,” he said.
Inspired to become a sadhu, or wandering monk, the idea arose to walk coast to coast across the United States. Later, he learned about Peace Pilgrim, who walked 50,000 miles, advocating for world peace, peace between neighbors and inner peace. Swami decided to follow her example, traveling with nothing and surrendering his fate.
Starting on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California, Swami followed the Rose Bowl Parade. Smiling and waving at everyone he passed, he made a wish for their peace and happiness, repeating in his mind the mantra “Om Name Narayanaya.” Some people waved back, a few put up a finger and others honked car horns. That first day, he walked 27 miles to Long Beach, arriving at 1 a.m., before turning eastward into the California desert. At first, Swami carried a peace petition to present to the United Nations, but realized individuals sharing peace and love could be more effective than the U.N.
In San Clemente, a friend presented him with a matching orange T-shirt imprinted “Coast to Coast Walk for Peace” to help communicate his purpose. Six weeks later, he was welcomed at the Catholic Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, Arizona, and reminded that all separations, all sects, are illusions.
In Benson, Arizona, a soldier on his way to El Paso, Texas, pulled his truck to the side of the road and asked how long it might take to become comfortable with himself? Swami Ramaswarupananda Ji immediately responded to the Facebook post: “When you know yourself fully!”
By the time he reached Deming, New Mexico, on March 8, he had walked 1,500 miles and worn out his cross-trainers. Coincidentally, a friend offered a new pair of tennis shoes.
“When we quiet the unruly mind, when we focus on the beneficial and just do our best, the universe takes care of us,” he said.
On less traveled, two-lane highways, the air was often so still, he would stop and marvel at hummingbirds, smell the honeysuckle and wildflowers, and feel the breezes against his skin. “The beautiful howl of the coyote at night along with that occasional vehicle, provide the only hauntingly beautiful refrain in this expanse of high desert,” he wrote.
Erica McQuown met Sankarananda in Arizona when her mother Michelle invited him for dinner. Michelle had done a pilgrimage in Spain and read Peace Pilgrim’s book. After spending a few hours with him, Erica changed her life course from engineering to Ayurveda medicine. They’ve stayed in touch, even traveling together in India. “He’s been my teacher ever since,” she said.
The 130-mile deserted stretch between Animas and Hatch, New Mexico, was completely uninhabited. “The only place I can recall that is as quiet and peaceful as this is ashram. Indeed, this is nature’s ashram,” he wrote. Truckers gave him water, but he was offered no food and fasted three days. Several times, his orange garb attracted the wrong kind of attention when he was mistaken for an escaped convict and police officers came to investigate. One officer even summoned a mental health professional to evaluate his sanity. After passing the test, however, they gave him bottles of water and granola bars.
Near Encino, New Mexico, a town with fewer than 100 residents, Sankarananda was miraculously offered food and shelter until the storm passed. Continuing to Santa Rosa, an old Spanish town on the Pecos River, he turned onto Route 66. Like many baby boomers, his family had taken a vacation on that mythical American highway, now lined with mid-century motels and diners (a two-lane road also is ideal for a pilgrim wanting to make eye contact with passing motorists).
Continuing on Route 66 into the Texas panhandle, he noticed a sign marking the Burmese Theravada Buddhist Fellowship. When he knocked, a Myanmar refugee answered the door, welcoming him to stay several nights through Burmese New Year. Truck drivers and state patrol officers frequently offered a lift, but Sankarananda declined, saying that would break his vow to walk on foot. Spontaneous acts of kindness were common, such as an Amarillo woman who washed his clothes at her laundromat. Many people accompanied him for a few miles of pilgrimage.
Outside Tulsa, Okla., Sankarananda stopped overnight at Osage Forest, a retreat center inspired by the teachings of Father Bede Griffiths. While in India, he had heard about Griffiths, a British-born priest who lived in ashrams and later became known as Swami Dayananda.
A Native American in White Oak, Oklahoma, invited him to his family home because it is Shawnee tradition to extend kindness to strangers and wanderers, in particular. The man’s brother had just died and Sankarananda was allowed to partake in their sacred rituals, including a sweat lodge. “Unity of all is the core of ancestral teaching…traditions help us find our way,” he said.
In St. Louis, just as the soles of his sneakers were wearing thin, Swami received a text, offering a new pair. A group met him on the road with sandals and provisions. “It’s another beautiful example of the divine string that connects all. We think that events are random, disconnected. This is only the mind. All is synchronous,” Swami reflected.
In Central Illinois, he decided to “go deeper in faith,” donating the sleeping bag, rain poncho, backpack, extra dhoti and razor, scaling down to a waist pack for the final three-months. “We have in us the very source of self-reliance and no baggage is necessary.”
Debra Risberg, who owned a yoga studio in Bloomington, Ill., had been “blown away” by Peace Pilgrim’s book. A year later, out of the blue, she got a Facebook message from Sankarananda, asking if he could talk at her studio. “It was by the grace of God when he showed up,” she said. “He’s got a lot to teach people about how to be happy and fearless. I think he is the real deal,” she added.
Passing through Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, he arrived in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, Peace Pilgrim’s home, in time for the annual celebration of her life on Sept. 20, in a park dedicated in her honor.
During his entire journey, Sankarananda did not have a single bad experience, and his “magic” water bottle was never empty more than two hours, replenished through the generosity of others.
A message Sankarananda shares for the New Year: “This world is not as it appears on the television news; it is not even as our own mind sees it. Bright examples shine all around us. Know that if one genuinely seeks a thing like Peace or Truth, it may be known, and this very process of seeking brightens both seeker and world.”
Swami Sankarananda will be speaking at several locations throughout the New Orleans area, including Propeller (4035 Washington Ave.), Swan River Arabi Yoga (7011 St. Claude Ave.), Tibetan House (4900 Tchoupitoulas St.) and Unity of New Orleans Spiritual Center (3722 St. Charles Ave.).
Positive Thinking Workshops will be held at Swan River Arabi 5:30-7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, and 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 8, as well as Unity of New Orleans at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11. A satsang will be held at Tibetan House at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12. He will also speak at Unity’s Sunday service at 11 a.m. Jan. 8. All of the above events are free and open to the public. A weekend Silent Retreat at Swan River Arabi, Jan.13-15 is by donation and requires advance registration.
- To find the complete transcript of “Pilgrimage Home," visit www.fromfear2peace.org.