Bhakti Tirtha Swami, a Clevelander who became a world leader in the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, died June 27 at Gita Nagari, a spiritual farm community in Port Royal, Pa. He was 55. He had been diagnosed with melanoma cancer last year.
He was known as John E. Favors while he grew up in the “Forgotten Triangle” neighborhood of East 82nd Street and Kinsman Road.
Bhakti Tirtha was a member of the governing body of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement. He was the first African-American to become a Vaishnava Hindu guru, according to a Krishna spokesman. He traveled the world as a representative of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, the world’s largest publisher of texts on which the Krishna movement is based.
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In the 1970s, Bhakti Tirtha worked with scholars in Eastern Europe, where he distributed religious books. He was named a high chief in Wari, Nigeria, for his work in Africa. During an extended stay in South Africa, he helped organize a children’s games event and met with President Nelson Mandela.
He was born in Cleveland, where his family attended Second New Hope Baptist Church. When he was 10, his music teacher, Vivian Dubose Jordan, inspired him to become a child evangelist and appear on radio. He was a student at Rawlings Junior High School when he met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He received a scholarship to Hawken School through the Upward Bound program and graduated in 1968 with a perfect attendance record since kindergarten. Despite attending the suburban private school, he remained active in organizations in his neighborhood and worked in Carl B. Stokes’ first mayoral campaign.
Bhakti Tirtha Swami enrolled in Princeton University. He was president of a student council and the Third World Coalition before he graduated in 1972. He also began studying Hindu writings and decided to focus on individual change rather than seek social progress through political action. He rose quickly in the Hare Krishna organization where he pledged celibacy and become a monk in 1979.
Bhakti Tirtha was a prolific writer who produced 15 books on religious topics. He led community development projects in the United States and other countries and founded the Institute for Applied Spiritual Technology.
Throughout his adult life he continued to visit Cleveland. He brought wealthy fellow undergraduates with him on holidays so they could experience life in the inner city. He made appearances on local television and in other cities and countries.
He continued to teach his followers during his illness. In his last book, “Die Before Dying,” he discussed facing death as a chance for spiritual growth.
Bhakti Tirtha is survived by sisters, Bernadette Satterfield, Julia Henderson and Frances Myers, all of Cleveland, Marguerite Brooks of Austin, Texas; and a brother, Paul Favors of Cleveland.
A memorial gathering will be from 3 to 6 p.m. Aug. 20 at University Center Auditorium at Cleveland State University, 2121 Euclid Ave.