The Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy (1931–2007) promoted a popular regimen of meditation and prayer, establishing a chain of meditation centers that spread around the world. Chinmoy advocated physical fitness as a part of a healthy spiritual discipline, and he became renowned in later life for extreme feats as a runner and weightlifter.
Sri Chinmoy had a gift for publicity and for communicating with wide audiences. Born when his native Bengal was part of the British Empire, Chinmoy's rise to popularity coincided with the growth of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture in the West, and crowds flocked to his lectures. He attracted as followers well-known musicians such as Carlos Santana and Roberta Flack, both of whom were drawn by the strict admonitions against drugs and alcohol in his teachings. Some international leaders, including Russian politician Mikhail Gorbachev, also admired Chinmoy's work, and his insistence that interfaith respect and unity among religions were crucial to individual spiritual development brought him to the notice of the United Nations, which allowed him to host twice-weekly meditations for peace at their New York City headquarters. Extremely prolific as a writer, Chinmoy published hundreds of books of spiritual aphorisms and short poetry. He also composed thousands of songs and became noted as a fineart painter.
In 1964 Chinmoy moved to the United States, settling in the New York City borough of Queens, where he lived for the rest of his life. At first taking a job at India's New York consulate, he then opened a meditation center near his 149th Street home. Followers, attracted to his practices of vegetarianism and sexual celibacy, soon began to settle nearby.
From early in his career, Chinmoy assured his adherents that feats of physical endurance would bring spiritual breakthroughs. One of them, Brooklyn-born Ashrita Furman, took his advice to heart, setting, by 2017, more than 600 of the world records cited in the Guinness Book of World Records. Furman's other accomplishments—also executed with the aim of honoring Chinmoy—include climbing and descending Japan's Mt. Fuji on a pogo stick and riding a unicycle backward for 53 miles.
In the late 1960s, Chinmoy began giving talks on Hinduism outside New York City, and in 1968 he mounted a university lecture tour. The timing was good because college students were then strongly interested in alternative belief systems, and as he traveled the country his audiences grew. After an invitation to speak at the United Nations in New York City, he was approached by U.N. Secretary General U Thant and invited to establish a nondenominational meditation program at the organization's headquarters. This group has continued to offer meditations aimed toward world harmony as well as hosting various cultural activities. A substantial group of Chinmoy's New York City followers is employed at the United Nations. Continuing his outreach in 1974, Chinmoy gave lectures in each of the 50 states.
Prominent musicians were among the new adherents Chinmoy gained through his outreach activities; in addition to guitarist Carlos Santana (who eventually split with him), he won over singer Roberta Flack and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, a member of Bruce Springsteen's rock band. Especially closely associated with Chinmoy was jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, whose Mahavisnu Orchestra ensemble was named by the guru. Many of Chinmoy's admirers in the musical world were disillusioned by the heavy use of drugs and alcohol in the rock and jazz music communities, and the prohibition against such activities made his teachings appealing.
While incorporating certain proscriptions, Chinmoy's teachings focused predominately on human spiritual development. “My ultimate goal is for the whole world to walk together in peace and oneness …,” he was quoted as saying on the website of the New Zealand Sri Chinmoy Center, and this “requires a transformation of human nature.” “Now we are all exercising the love of power,” he maintained. “But a day will come when this world will be inundated with the power that loves. Only the power that loves can change the world. My ultimate goal is for the power of love to replace the love of power within each individual. At that time, world peace can be achieved, revealed, offered and manifested on earth.”
Central to Chinmoy's spiritual effort was meditation, which he attempted to foster by establishing a worldwide chain of meditation centers. Sri Chinmoy Centers exist in about 400 cities in more than 70 countries; at each center, students are urged to build on their instruction by meditating independently as well as meeting in small groups once or twice per week for group meditation.
Chinmoy claimed to sleep only 90 minutes per night, rising at 2:30 a.m. for a meditation session. He believed that the physical and mental aspects of spiritual discipline were inseparable, and he encouraged students to engage in physical exercise, especially running. Chinmoy's followers were also encouraged to apply their talents and skills to the betterment of their communities, with the ultimate aim of fostering world harmony.
Vegetarianism was integral to Chinmoy's philosophy. According to Michael Carlson, writing in the London Guardian, his “teachings were a mixture of Hindu meditation, Vedantic yoga and Vaishnavism, which stresses belief in ‘the Supreme,’ the one transcendent force in the universe.”
Several of Chinmoy's followers became world record holders in ultra-long-distance races, and his New York City marathon club organized several exceptionally long footraces: 700-, 1,000-, and 1,300-mile runs called Ultimate Ultras. Most strenuous of all is the annual Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Race, in which runners repeatedly circle a onekilometer loop in Queens, New York, over a period of 52 days. Runners begin at 6 a.m. and must log almost 60 miles per day to complete the challenge. Twelve runners—nine men and three women—completed the Self-Transcendence run in 2016.
In 1985 Chinmoy's running career ended due to a knee injury, and he turned to weightlifting, where he soon achieved similarly extreme feats, although his claimed lift of 7,063 pounds was disputed by weightlifting experts. He used public exhibitions of his lifting skills, hoisting such objects as pickup trucks and airplanes, to raise awareness of humanitarian projects. Most widely publicized were appearances in which he would lift celebrities, more than 8,000 people in all, including South African president Nelson Mandela, 20 Nobel Prize winners, and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He was a close friend of Albanian-born Indian social worker and nun Mother Teresa, but apparently did not lift her. Chinmoy lifted Gary Ackerman, a Democrat, and Republican U.S. representative Benjamin Gilman simultaneously.
By the mid-1990s, Chinmoy was world-renowned. He offered an opening meditation at the plenary session of the Parliament of the World's Religions, the world's largest interfaith group, in 1993 and again in 2004. He was active as an artist; he often sketched birds and these sketches were displayed at the United Nations headquarters in New York, at the Louvre museum in Paris, and at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, among other high-profile venues. Chinmoy was also the composer of about 700 devotional songs, mostly in his native Bengali language, and he often performed them during free concerts for crowds of up to 19,000 people. He dedicated concerts to Mother Teresa, Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II, and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Chinmoy was also the author of five books.
Chinmoy faced criticism as his popularity grew. Several accusations of sexual misconduct at his centers surfaced and were strenuously denied by his followers; meanwhile, detractors described the atmosphere of his organizations as cult-like. Chinmoy died in New York City on October 11, 2007. Those attending his funeral or sending condolence letters included Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis and former U.S. vice president Al Gore, among many other well-known figures.
Madhuri (Nancy Elizabeth Sands), The Life of Sri Chinmoy, Agni, 1984.
Guardian (London, England), November 19, 2007, Michael Carlson, “Sri Chinmoy,” p. 35.
New York Times, July 1, 2004, Corey Kilgannon, “72-Year-Old Sri Chinmoy Offers an Uplift beyond the Spiritual,” p. B1; October 13, 2007, Corey Kilgannon, “Sri Chinmoy, Athletic Spiritual Leader, Dies at 76,” p. C9.
Sri Chinmoy Centre (New Zealand), http://nz.srichinmoycentre.org/ (August 3, 2017), “Biography of Sri Chinmoy.” □