What's 'sustainable happiness'? This monk knows

Devamrita Swami, an Ivy League-educated monk who circles the globe delivering talks, will lecture on how yoga principles apply to sustainability—and combating climate change.

When Devamrita Swami delivers a talk, he bets on an audience sharing one fundamental human endeavor: Everyone wants to be happy. 

“Happiness is a universal pursuit,” says Swami, a Krishna bhakti, Yale-educated monk. “And sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual and global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment, other species, or future generations.”

Swami will tease out this concept and others for approximately 45 minutes during a free event hosted at Houston Hall on April 10 at 6 p.m., applying the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita to sustainability in an environmental, ecological, and agricultural sense. The talk, with a free vegetarian dinner after, is sponsored by Bhakti Yoga Club at Penn, a collection of about 15 student members organized in recent years for weekly mantra meditation sessions, vegan lunches, distribution of yoga texts, and as a meeting ground for open discussion about yoga and philosophy. 

Bhakti Yoga Club President Rishabh Kumar, a third-year biophysics major who first got involved with the study of yoga after being introduced to a Hindu sect of yoga by his grandparents, says Swami captured the group’s attention with his ability to connect to younger audiences around the world.

“There are many different monks who can give lectures, but he likes to give these talks to college students, and he’s experienced in doing that across the U.S. and the world,” Kumar says. “I feel like he coordinates well with college students, and his philosophy resonates—he’s able to give very good modern day examples of how [yoga teachings] can be applied.” 

In an abstract sense, those teachings are core yoga principles: control of the mind, avoiding agitation, meditating, practice of vegetarianism, and other staples. Put in the context of sustainability, the discussion extends to treating animals and the environment with respect.

Swami wants future generations to be not just aware of nature, he says, but in touch with it. Applied to climate change, that means pointing the finger to the “toxic consciousness,” he says, that created the planet’s environmental challenges in the first place. 

Devamrita Swami has traveled the world, delivering speeches, since 1982.

“You can’t have an improvement in the world without uplifting human consciousness,” Swami explains. “In other words, I’ve come to the same conclusion many environmentalists have come to, which is that stressing legislation is not enough. There has to be connection between environmentalism and efforts to raise human consciousness.”

To establish that connection, he circles the globe speaking at universities—indeed, he also stopped by Penn last year for a talk—and helped form an anti-cruelty farm in Port Royal, Pa., the Gita Nagari Eco Farm and Sanctuary, which is a slaughter-free, certified organic farm. It is, he says, the only of its kind to be USDA-certified, funded in part by sizable grants from the USDA. Those who volunteer on the farm—including a group of 25 Wharton finance students who will attend this summer—participate in activities that focus on land use, animals, and meditative consciousness. 

Swami says he’s been surprised in his travels to see how “alert” students are to the context of the world they’re living in, and how actively they seek out-of-the-box solutions.

“We hope to show at the farm that their personal transformation needs to take place in a realistic, natural context,” he says. “They have to see that, feel that, and then become more motivated. I’m aiming to move to recalibrate the whole approach of universities and connect them with eco-projects as a vibrant and vital part of a student’s education.”

There’s already been a groundswell movement, he says, as interest has spiked in the past two or three years—catching him off guard in an almost comical way.

“Twenty-five Wharton students want to spend five days on a farm?” he says, laughing. “What’s happening here?”

Through the talk, he also hopes to inspire yoga enthusiasts—especially those engaged in the physical components of the practice, but less so the philosophical—to understand what sustainable happiness means, how it’s intertwined with agriculture, and how it relates to some of the tribalism experienced in society today. 

“Is yoga just about physical postures or breathing? Or what’s it all really leading to?” he says, offering a couple questions he poses during his talks to students. “My presentations are quite a bit laced with statements from the prime yoga text. And I find that students are open to that.”