His Holiness Bhakti Tirtha Swami
(John E. Favors, Class of 1972)
John E. Favors, a member of Princeton University's Class of 1972, was known by many names throughout his life. By his second year at Princeton, he adopted the more Afro-centric name Tshombe Abdul. After graduating, he was initiated into a Vaishnava-Hindu lineage and given the name Ghanashyam Das by his spiritual mentor. A few years later, he was awarded the highest order of monkhood, known as sannyasa, and ordained as Bhakti Tirtha Swami. His own students would also sometimes address him by the honorific Swami Krishnapada.
Favors was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1950 and grew up in the city's downtrodden eastside Forgotten Triangle neighborhood. As a child, he felt called to join the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and became the leader of the Youth Division of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he was recognized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among others.
He arrived to Princeton in 1968, among the first Black students admitted to the university in larger numbers. While on campus, he quickly became active in community organizing and advocating for other Black students and students of color. He joined the Association of Black Collegians (ABC) and eventually became that group's president. Under his leadership, ABC led a number of peaceful protests on campus, including sit-ins, teach-ins, boycotts, and a series of historic marches to President Robert Goheen's home. This advocacy helped lay the seeds for the eventual creation of the program in African American Studies and pushed the university to divest from South Africa.
Among his other role models at Princeton, Dean Carl A. Fields and Professor Jan Carew both mentored John and helped him to hone his leadership skills.
In 1971, Favors (by then, known on campus as Tshombe Abdul) wrote the proposal for The Third World Center, on behalf of the ABC. When the proposal seemed stalled, he formed the Third World Coalition to advocate for the center. As a direct result of this advocacy, the university created the Third World Center -- today's Carl A. Fields Center -- in 1972.
John's interest in Hindu philosophy and metaphysics began when he was a student at Princeton. His senior thesis, completed in April of 1972, was entitled "Yoga and Western Psychology, Or, Does Mankind Have a Future?" and drew from his deepening study of Eastern spiritual lineages. Although Professor Carew and President Goheen personally arranged funding for him to study international law in Tanzania, after much soul-searching, he declined the invitation. After graduation, he worked for one year helping to oversee penal reform programs with the office of the Public Defender in New Jersey. During this time, however, his spiritual call intensified and he made the radical decision to pursue monastic life. He resigned from his position and moved into an ashram in the Vaishnava-Hindu tradition.
Within a few years of monastic life, Favors (now initiated into the lineage and given the Sanskrit name Ghanashyam Das) was recognized for his dedication, learning, and spiritual maturity. In 1979, he was awarded the highest order of monkhood, known as sannyasa, and ordained as Bhakti Tirtha Swami. He was soon given blessings to offer spiritual initiation and mentorship to students of his own, marking him as one of the first African American Hindu gurus in the history of the world.
Bhakti Tirtha Swami was an accomplished public speaker, beloved guide, and prolific author. He traveled globally, sharing wisdom teachings in America, Europe, the former Soviet bloc, Africa, and Asia. Among those he counseled were heads of state and world leaders, including Nelson Mandela. In recognition of his humanitarian and spiritual work, Swami was coronated an honorary High Chief of the Warri people of the Okpe Kingdom in Nigeria-- an honor that is extremely rare and practically unheard of for one outside of the Okpe.
Bhakti Tirtha Swami passed away in 2005 from melanoma cancer. His teachings and legacy, however, live on with the thousands of students, admirers, and classmates whose lives he touched and who keep his wisdom alive.