Learning about the lives of great saints inspires ordinary souls to accept and attain the goal of pure devotional service. His Holiness Romapada Swami is such a saint, whose inspirational life story instructs us in the key elements to successful transcendental life.
His Holiness Romapada Swami took birth as Brian Rumbaugh in a middle-class, Christian family on December 27, 1948, in the small town of Utica in upstate New York. He was the youngest of five children. He grew up imbibing core ethical values of life from his pious parents. As a young boy, he was noted to be responsible, principle-centered and a high-achiever by his siblings and peers.
From his weekly attendance at church with his parents, Romapada Swami would deeply contemplate the messages of the Bible. He exhibited attraction to God from an early age, a symptom of a ‘mahatma’ (great soul), that one can see in the lives of Emperor Pariksit, Srila Narottama das Thakura and Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura. In his teenage years, Romapada Swami tried to understand and imbibe the first two commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He especially struggled with the second commandment, wondering how one can love others who exhibit un-lovable, bad behavior. At his Sunday school, he tried to find out what Heaven looks like and what people do there. His spiritual superiors at the time were not able to provide a satisfactory response to any of these core questions. It was not until he met his spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, that he found clear and convincing answers. In fact, Romapada Swami is now a powerful example of unconditionally loving others despite their sometimes inconsiderate behavior.
When faced with the demand to leave college for being drafted into the notorious Vietnam War, Romapada Swami had to fill out a form indicating his reasons for refusal. One question especially hit home — “What are your core convictions?” to which he was unable to answer with depth. This launched his exploring of the self and various spiritual traditions including Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. He read seven different versions of the Bhagavad Gita prior to Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is, none of which were comprehensible.
It was not until 1969, while attending the State University of Buffalo, that Maharaja met his eternal spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Romapada Swami entered a crowded auditorium of primarily intoxicated and delirious persons, where Srila Prabhupada was chanting Hare Krishna along with the then famous poet, Allen Ginsberg. During that evening’s short talk, Maharaja was unable to understand the content, as Srila Prabhupada’s thick Bengali accent was unfamiliar to him. However, the experience left a deep impression in his heart.
Shortly thereafter, he received his first Back to Godhead magazine from his dear Godbrother, His Grace Bhurijana Prabhu, who was studying at the same university. Reading an article by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was a powerful, consciousness-uplifting experience. Romapada Swami’s seed of deep appreciation for Srila Bhaktisiddhanta began then, manifesting in his in-depth study and articulate, comprehensive presentation to his followers of the Sri Brahma Samhita text, translated and commented upon by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta.
Despite being introduced to the Hare Krishna mantra by an impersonalist group, Romapada Swami was spontaneously and intuitively attracted. Reading Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita finally helped him digest the essence messages of the great text. He took advantage of a center started by Rupanuga das Prabhu, right next to the university. At one point, he was living with other students in a co-op type environment practicing various spiritual paths simultaneously, while also attending school. He found the chanting of Hare Krishna to be the most effective of the several processes he was experimenting with.
Then came a moment of truth: while taking a long japa walk, through the fields, into the forest, and finally into a clearing, Maharaja looked across at the skyline of big buildings and realized that he was basking in an ecstatic spiritual energy which was completely different than what the concrete jungle in front of him could offer. A very deep sense of gratitude awakened for Srila Prabhupada’s heart-rending sacrifices in bringing the holy name to the West and delivering souls like himself from rampant materialism. That deep feeling of gratitude catapulted him to move in as a full-time devotee in the Boston temple and to give up any pursuit of the career he was planning. Although he was admitted into Medical School, he realized that many persons become physical body doctors, yet few become doctors to help others on the spiritual platform. His decision for life was made.
On a recent flight, Romapada Swami was asked by a Christian missionary, who intended to ‘save’ him, about his reasons for being a Hare Krishna monk. Maharaja responded with three things: he found teachings that answered all his questions that the tradition he was born into could not; the process of mantra meditation was the most powerful spiritualizing activity he had experienced; and above all, he met a perfect person who exemplified the teachings of pure devotion. The man simply responded with ‘Umm’ and walked off at the end, recognizing the depth of Maharaja’s realization and connection with the Divine.
Initially Maharaja’s family thought his interest in Krishna consciousness to be a passing phase. However, as they realized that it was not going away, his parents did some research into its authenticity and felt satisfied that their son was not involved in a cult, but rather with a tradition that has its roots going back several thousands of years. Over time, his parents and siblings grew to appreciate the value-based life Romapada Swami was living and felt proud of him.
After spending some time in the Boston temple, he was traded with another devotee from New York who knew how to run the press machine. He received harinama diksa (or 1st initiation) in July of 1971 from Srila Prabhupada and later received his brahmana diksa (or 2nd initiation) in the summer of 1972. Maharaja spent many years in the New York temple, as his nature is to remain committed. During Srila Prabhupada’s time, he was Sankirtana Leader and Temple Commander for over 150 devotees!
For years Maharaja was fully dedicated to book distribution, either going out on sankirtana himself or serving as the Sankirtana Leader. He would arrange for various harinama and book distribution spots, provide books and prasadam to the devotees, acquire necessary permits, and coordinate the overall effort. At one point he would go out on book distribution from 9am to 9pm every day, except Sunday, when he would return earlier for the Sunday Feast program. Such is his dedication!
In addition, under his leadership prasadam distribution was organized at various public festivals where thousands of plates of sanctified food were offered to the public. On hearing such reports, Srila Prabhupada once wrote to the devotees that they would conquer New York with prasadam distribution.
Right from the early days, Romapada Swami has been respected for his deep care and mood of service to the devotees. He would spend a significant portion of time on the phone, guiding, encouraging and uplifting devotees. His astounding personalized care continues even today.
At one point, several of Maharaja’s Godbrothers insisted that he take up the sannyasa ashrama, as it would assist in his preaching. Reluctant to do so, given what he had seen be the general material motivation in taking sannyasa, Maharaja finally conceded in the month of 1983. Soon after receiving sannyasa, Maharaja humbly recounts how he would immediately return obeisances to other devotees who would offer them to him, not considering his spiritual status. He comments that it was a learning point for him to be a transparent agent of Srila Prabhupada and to receive obeisances on his behalf. Maharaja then traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe, preaching Krishna consciousness. He would offer courses as a teacher in the Vrndavana Institute of Higher Education and conduct week-long seminars along with other leaders in Gita Nagari.
In 1985, Romapada Swami became an official initiating spiritual master (diksa guru) within ISKCON. Based out of New York, Maharaja almost single-handedly kept the program alive there by engaging his disciples in harinama and book distribution around the city.
In 1992, he took on the role of GBC for New York and New Jersey. This service expanded to the Midwest regions in 1994. He began traveling extensively — an analysis made in 2007 indicated that he spent a little less than three days in each place! Astoundingly, he does not like being, nor does he feel comfortable, in planes.
Despite such intense travel, he carefully nurtured the devotional creepers of receptive souls over decades. During a rough period when many devotees were exiting the movement, a Godbrother commented that ‘devotees need to be trained.’ Maharaja took this message very seriously and is committed to the training of devotees. By such careful cultivation, robust congregations have developed in cities within the US such as Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Detroit, St. Louis, Houston, Boston, Orlando, Tennessee, Seattle. Maharaja has done similar magic in places as Guyana, Hyderabad, Indore, and more recently, China! He has attracted such a diverse set of individuals to Krishna conscious practice and lifestyle — another testimony to the universality of bhakti.
Given how he was first introduced to Krishna consciousness, Romapada Swami remains dedicated to college outreach. Inspired by him, various bhakti student groups were formed in prestigious universities such as MIT, UIUC, Penn State, IIT Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Texas A&M and Northeastern University. Under his guidance, a vibrant prasadam distribution program called ‘Krishna Lunch’ was established in the Chicago area universities. Attracted by the ‘Krishna House’ project in Gainesville, Florida that has brought many young western persons to the path of pure devotion, Srila Romapada Swami was instrumental in establishing two new Krishna House projects in Chicago and St. Louis.
Programs for youth and children are very important to Romapada Swami. He has actively inspired Soul Connection youth groups in Chicago and St. Louis, along with two youth Gita summer camps in the Chicago area. He also does a special youth yatra, or pilgrimage, to sacred sites every four years.
In addition to his multifarious duties, Maharaja conducts presentations at various corporations such as Intel, Microsoft, Lucent, Cisco and Fanny Mae. Relating in appropriate ways, he presents topics such as ‘Stress Management’, ‘Spiritual Economics’ and ‘Science and Spirituality.’
His Holiness Romapada Swami is well-respected as a mature, balanced and careful manager. He has served Srila Prabhupada’s ISKCON in various capacities, providing wise leadership and scripturally-based direction. Initially acting as a Sankirtana Leader for several years, Maharaja later took on Temple President positions in Manhattan in 1978 and then in Brooklyn in 1982. From 1996 to 2016, he served continuously as a member of the North American Executive Committee. For the year of 2009, he took on the very grave service of GBC Chairman for the entire body of ISKCON. Anyone with some leadership experience in the movement knows the significant challenges faced by those in a GBC position. Yet he remains like a lotus leaf on water, untouched by the modes of nature. During his term as Chairman, his GBC friend, His Holiness Bhaktimarga Swami had the following to say about him:
“I told him that I could never do his job, taking in so much negativity. ‘You have to smile and take things lightheartedly, otherwise you can’t keep going,’ he said. This human being, this monk, this American swami from New York, is not ordinary. He’s a thoughtful, caring, and sacrificial person, who has won my respect all the way for taking on a heavy burden for the sake of helping humanity.”
Despite managerial services being out of character for him, Maharaja describes it as the ‘burden of love’ for his spiritual master’s movement. As a result, one of his most outstanding and spoken of qualities is his dutifulness. One time, during a long haul flight of 14 hours, the flight attendant was astonished by his working on his laptop the entire time!
Desiring to thoroughly offer the gift of devotional service to those who are receptive to it, Romapada Swami conducts several retreats each year that provide intense, uplifting and spiritually nourishing experiences for all involved. Currently he organizes the following each year: Pilgrimage to the Holy lands in India, Gita Nagari seminar retreat, Festival of the Holy Name seminar, Thanksgiving seminar, Christmas retreat, West Coast Japa retreat, East Coast Japa retreat and Vyasa Puja festival.
Once when speaking to the Soul Connection youth group in Chicago, Maharaja commented that if they knew all that he deals with in a single day, their jaws would drop. It is impossible to fully capture all of the activities and facets of devotional engagement that His Holiness Romapada Swami is involved with in a brief biography. However, it is clear that he is 100% absorbed in serving the instructions and mission of his beloved spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. As Srila Prabhupada writes at the beginning of his Bhagavatam about his own spiritual master — “He lives forever by his divine instructions and the follower lives with him.” Similarly, Srila Prabhupada lives forever in his divine instructions and his follower lives with him. Romapada Swami is a genuine saint, and those who cross his path are truly fortunate!