His Holiness Devamrita Swami entered this life on October 16, 1950 in New York City, as the firstborn in a family dominated by a very devout and education-motivated Christian mother. Later in life his mother confided to him that during the time of his conception, she was praying to God that He send her a “servant of the Lord.” Observing her infant crawling to bookshelves, trying to grab books, she waited until he reached four years and then personally taught him to read, while ensuring that he immersed himself in church programs for children. At that time, he began to memorize Bible verses, and loved the Bible, hymns, and church life. Attending a Lutheran primary school for the first three years of his primary education, he relished learning in a religious atmosphere. At eight years old, the Lutheran Church offered him a university scholarship if he would promise to be a minister in the future.
Later, because the family, financially overextended, could no longer afford the fees at church schools, he enrolled in public primary and intermediate schools. His mother, observing that the best New York public schools had high Jewish enrollment, deftly maneuvered through school districts, constantly hunting the best public schools and teachers for her children. During these years, her eldest son developed an interest in Judaism and began to wonder about the existence of other spiritual paths.
The mother, a connoisseur of all Protestant faiths, began to attend Presbyterian churches, and there the future swami, at the age of thirteen, delivered his first Sunday sermon. Noting her son’s boredom and lack of challenge at school, his mother pushed for his acquiring a full scholarship plus living expenses to private boarding schools in New Hampshire, where he attended Exeter Academy during the summer and Holderness School for Boys during the regular school year. An abnormality amidst boys from the super rich and famous families of America, he would never forget his experience that wealth and class do not bring happiness.
At fifteen, dazzled by his sophisticated material studies, the spiritual inclinations accompanying him since infancy curdled into agnosticism. A year later, however, the historic recording “A Love Supreme,” by John Coltrane, turned him around. Stirred by the jazz legend’s devotional expression and by his public declaration, on the album cover, that love of God is the ultimate goal of life, the future Devamrita Swami made up his mind to find it—pure love of the Supreme. Coltrane’s explorations of the music and philosophy of India–especially his chanting verses from the Bhagavad-gita—perplexed and fascinated the mind of the young student, now bound for university.
In 1968, he received a scholarship to Yale University. Upon his informing his academic advisors that he was searching for the highest knowledge and wanted to study whatever he wanted, irrespective of academic rules for concentration, his overseers gladly agreed, admitting that they, while students, would have loved to have done the same. Plunging into world history, Western philosophy, anthropology, political science, economics, and the history of science, by his fourth year at Yale he gave up—no thinkers had impressed him. He had failed to find any conclusive knowledge or any effective socio-political strategies for thoroughly improving humanity. During those years, seeking relief from the university, he would travel by bus to New York City and wander in the East Village and Second Avenue areas, expecting to discover something there that would save his life.
As graduation neared in 1972, he asserted to his dean of studies that he saw no future for himself in materialistic society. Brushing him off, the dean looked him straight in the eyes and pronounced: “You are a Yale man; you will influence the world.”
One month after graduation, he bought on the street a small book by Srila Prabhupada. Life was never the same. Stunned by the contents, he immediately went to a metaphysical bookshop to obtain more literature by Prabhupada. Addicted to Prabhupada’s writings, yet skeptical of the budding Krishna consciousness organization’s ability to solve the world’s problems, he would order books by mail—just to avoid personal contact with devotees. Three or more hours daily, for six months straight, he repeatedly read all the available titles by Srila Prabhupada, and then, finally, in December 1972, he decided to visit the New York ISKCON temple, newly located in Brooklyn. Devotees informed him that the Krishna consciousness presence in the West had first begun on Second Avenue—during the years he walked that area, as a student desperately searching for hope.
Praying to the temple Deities, Sri Sri Radha Govinda, that They cut the knot of his material entanglements, he became a full-time staff member of the temple in March, 1973. Initiated by Srila Prabhupada in January 1974, Devamrita das spent several years traveling throughout the USA distributing the literature that so transformed his life, and then went to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Los Angeles to assist in Srila Prabhupada’s book production, as a copy editor and later as chief manager. A few months after Srila Prabhupada’s departure from this world in 1977, he embarked upon his international missionary life and in 1982 officially accepted the renounced order of life, as Devamrita Swami.
For over three decades he has traveled extensively on every continent of the world, sometimes enduring the most difficult and trying situations in ISKCON history. Especially harrowing were eight often solitary years spent infiltrating the iron curtain, the former communist bloc of Eastern Europe, for developing underground bhakti cells and clandestine book distribution. His personal motto during those severe years: “I may live or die, but Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-bhagavatam are eternal.”
A member of ISKCON’s Governing Body, he has been chosen by his peers to serve as international vice-chairman and then chairman. His extensive current regional responsibilities include “down-under”–Australia and New Zealand–where he spends five months of the year, as well as northwestern Russia, South Africa, Hawaii, and the Gita-nagari farm project in Pennsylvania. Beyond those areas of spiritual responsibility, he travels far and wide, especially in North America, Europe, and India.
An author published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, he has, to date, written Searching for Vedic India and Perfect Escape. Among his myriad services to Krishna and Srila Prabhupada, he focuses upon arranging nontraditional settings for Western audiences to approach bhakti; challenging young Indian students and professionals to penetrate the veil of religious belief/religious myth; and advocating spiritually-based economics, sustainability, and environmentalism.