Asked how many hours he meditates each day, Sri Chinmoy, attired in a sky-blue satin dhoti, pondered the question for a moment. His eyes were almost closed. He seemed absolutely calm.
"God has blessed me with the capacity to meditate even while I am talking," he said. "Even now when I am answering a question I am at the height of my own meditation."
He developed this capacity during two decades in an ashram In India, which he entered at age 12. At the ashram, he said, he would spend 11 hours a day solely in meditation.
Since moving to the United States almost 30 years ago, he has reduced daily meditation to perhaps four hours, he said, often meditating while doing something else.
"Now it's like driving a car," he said. "When you drive, you are doing several things at once. You are using your eyes, cars, hands, your mind. If you have meditated for many years and have reached a lofty height in your meditation, as I have, you can meditate while running and cycling and painting."
Chinmoy, 60, does all those things and more. Interviewed in a downtown hotel before his recent one-man Concert for Inner Peace at the Pavilion of the University of Illinois at Chicago, he presented himself, first and foremost, as the leader of a spiritual movement. It is, he said, an ecumenical enterprise that operates meditation centers in major foreign and American cities, including Chicago, and has attracted a core of 1,400 disciples.
Born Chinmoy Kumar Ghose in what is now Bangladesh, he came to New York City in 1964 at age 33, a year after his withdrawal from the ashram. He now lives in a modest, two-story, wood-frame house in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. He owns the house, which is painted celestial blue, and a '72 Ford Maverick.
His message seems mainstream for a holy man reared as a Hindu, though he says he has transcended that tradition and that his religion is "now the love of God." He believes meditation is the path to serenity and an awareness of God, that one must treat others with compassion and respect and that the most devoted truth-seekers should become vegetarians and practice celibacy.
While his teachings may touch hearts and inspire souls, many of his enthusiasms and achievements are decidedly secular.
Indeed. Chinmoy may be the most remarkable, unorthodox and eccentric guru on-or off-the planet. Consider:
His weight lifting, which has gained widespread media attention, strained credibility and prompted the Wall Street Journal to label Chinmoy "the stunt man of the spiritual world."
The Journal referred to what Chinmoy's followers call "special events." Employing an unusual device-"a calf-raise machine-Chinmoy is said to have elevated barely, but enough to count, two elephants (one at a time), a one-engine seaplane, a Ford truck, a tiny schoolhouse and an assortment of other exceedingly heavy objects.
Another Chinmoy specialty is people lifting. One of his ways of recognizing excellence in others he says, is to use another contraption to lift them off the ground, with one arm extended above the shoulder; 1,893 people have received the treatments. The liftee stands on a platform, Chinmoy pushing up from below.
Honorees include four Nobel laureates, Rev. Jesse Jackson, two San Francisco 49ers, comedian Eddie Murphy, the president of Sri Lanka, Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis, the prime minister of Iceland, several Catholic bishops, Roberta Flack and the former finance minister of India.
In 1989, at the State of Illinois Center, Chinmoy lifted, among others, former Chicago Bulls coach Doug Collins and Chicago Police Supt. Leroy Martin.
Chinmoy's ardor for athletics. About 500 annual running, cycling and swimming events are sponsored by his centers. The guru, a Chinmoy brochure declares, is unique among Eastern spiritual masters in emphasizing the importance of sports in the spiritual life." As a youth in India, it notes, he was a champion sprinter, won two decathlons, captained the soccer team and coached volleyball.
His astonishing creativity. Chinmoy says he has composed 6,000 songs, rewritten 800 books, some of which contain his 20,000 poems; and since 1974 produced 140,000 paintings, which represents about 20 a day. Skeptics are invited to count the books, displayed at the Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant in Queens (owned by a Chinmoy disciple, a follower said.
His zest for the spotlight. Chinmoy's press kit contains long lists of religious leaders, heads of state, government officials and celebrities he has met or written. There are also pictures of Chinmoy with Pope John Paul II, Pope Paul VI, Muhammad Ali and Mikhail Gorbachev.
He first met Gorbachev in Canada in 1990. In July, Time magazine published a picture of the two together at the economic summit in London, observing that some "eyebrows were raised by an unusual private meeting" between the Soviet president and "the New Age Indian guru."
Chinmoy seeks out important people not for personal aggrandizement but to disseminate his message of peace, a disciple said adding, "These leaders have great influence, and he wants them to have his views."
Chinmoy's one-man music concerts at which he plays his own compositions, usually on 25 to 30 instruments. According to his press kit, he has given more than 295 concerts in 30 countries since 1984, drawing almost 500,000 people. This is noteworthy because Chinmoy and his supporters concede that he is not a gifted musician; he sometimes makes mistakes and starts over, and generally improvises the melodies on the spot. The idea, however, is to use the music as the gate to meditation.
Suspicions of fraud
After a discussion of meditation, Chinmoy turned his attention to the attacks on his weight-lifting claims, which appear to have wounded him deeply.
Critics alleged that some were questionable if not fraudulent particularly his avowal of the world record in the standing military arm-lift-an astoundingly 7,063¾ pounds. Musclemag, a bodybuilding publication, said the lift was impossible and denounced the guru and his supporters as "publicity-hungry perpetrators of falsehood."
"I don't blame people who suspect my performance," Chinmoy said. "My own mind suspects it. How can I blame them?"
He smiled. He stands 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 142 pounds. His is not a body beautiful, and his arms seem almost frail.
"I know I cannot do it," Chinmoy continued. "When I think of 7,000 pounds, can you imagine? I can't imagine someone can be so strong. Yet so many people have seen, and you can show it on the video."
But videos may not show what Chinmoy thinks they do.
After viewing the videotape of another lift, Terry Todd, professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement) at the University of Texas and a former national champion in weight lifting and power lifting, concluded that Chinmoy misrepresented the type of lift he claimed.
Todd debunked Chinmoy's claims in an article for Iron Man magazine: "What he does is not without merit. Given his age and length of training, his lifting is not an insignificant feat of strength.
"But to say he is performing supernatural or phenomenal feats or to suggest he's one of the strongest men in the world is absurd."
As for the 7,063-pound claim, "I don't believe he did it. It's a physical impossibility."
Pradhan Balter, 42, president of Chicago's Sri Chinmoy Centre, said he thought the weight debate overlooked lessons the guru sought to teach through his lifting.
"They say he's a fraud. He's simply trying to inspire people to go beyond their limits."
Balter saluted Chinmoy for his responsible attitude toward money.
Chinmoy bridled when asked if he depended on offerings from disciples. "No! I sell my books, my music, my paintings."
At the Pavilion that night, Balter introduced Chinmoy to the audience, which totaled 6,800 and reflected a diversity of ages and races. "The concert is dedicated to inner poise, inner strength, a sharing," he said. "This is not a rally.
"The music is not for the mind but for the creative heart. Listening becomes meditation. Leave your mind issues behind for two hours. You can pick up your anxieties and tensions when you leave."
After meditating for several minutes, Chinmoy sat in a large chair and picked up a ceramic flute shaped like a teapot from a lazy-susan tabletop that held numerous small instruments and began to play.
The crowd was respectfully quiet throughout, though there was much restless movement along the aisles as some headed for the concession stands and smoke breaks.
Outside, a Chinmoy disciple from Seattle said: 'Some aren't familiar with this kind of concert. This is not rock 'n' roll. Chinmoy says for some it's the wrong food for some it's the right food, for some it's too much food."
Free's the key
Two days after the concert, Balter spoke of Chinmoy's resistance toward organizational wealth. "There are no dues to be a disciple, the concerts are free and he refuses to ask for donations."
In fact, it was the word "free" that initially brought him to Chinmoy. After graduating from Northwestern University, Balter returned to New York City, where he grew up.
He had studied yoga and world religions, and he decided he needed a guru. "I wrote every spiritual group with an Eastern approach. They all had a smiling bearded man and a fee. I knew if a fee was attached it was wrong."
Finally, he found a meditation class at Columbia University. "And it was free. Free was the key word."
The teacher was Sri Chinmoy. You think of Eastern spiritual masters being reclusive," Balter said. "You go to a cave in the mountain for wisdom. You renounce the world. Not Sri Chinmoy. He says it's important to accept the world."
And lift weights.