Sri Chinmoy

Spiritual leader and peace activist
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The Independent Online

Chinmoy Kumar Ghose (Sri Chinmoy) spiritual leader, teacher and peace activist: born Shakpura, India 27 August 1931; died New York 11 October 2007.

Popular mythology tends to imagine a guru – in the word's original and proper Hindu sense of spiritual adviser or teacher – as a placid and mostly sedentary figure. Not so Sri Chinmoy, who wove vigorous exercise into a meditational system that preached peace and inner harmony and gained him thousands of disciples worldwide, as well as admirers ranging from the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the Olympic champion Carl Lewis and the soul and jazz singer Roberta Flack.

And of what other spiritual leader from the Indian subcontinent, Christendom or the Islamic world could it be claimed that he (or she) not only produced countless thousands of books, poems, songs and drawings – but also ran ultra-marathons, swam the English Channel, shoulder-pressed 7,000lb on a special apparatus and publicly lifted trucks, planes, houses to underline the urgency of boosting humanitarian aid?

Such, however, was Sri Chinmoy. Some derided his activities as gimmickry. Others claimed he ran a sinister cult. More fundamentally, his success reflected a paradox of the modern age, where official religion has manifestly failed to provide answers to the world's problems, leading man's unquenched spiritual thirst to seek less conventional outlets. By the end of Chinmoy's life, the meditation centre he ran in the New York borough of Queens claimed 7,000 disciples in some 60 countries.

Born the youngest of seven children, in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, he was orphaned in 1944 at the age of 12. That year Chinmoy entered the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a spiritual community near Pondicherry in South India. There he spent the next two decades practising the Ashram's version of "integral yoga" – meditating, writing, exercising and working in the community, as part of the search for self-knowledge, self-liberation and union with the supreme spirit.

These ideas he took with him when in 1964 he followed an "inner command" and moved halfway round the world to New York City. There he worked initially as a clerk in the Indian consulate, and quickly opened his meditation centre, in Queens. His fame and following steadily grew. By 1968 he was giving talks at Yale, Harvard and other leading universities. In 1970 he began to hold regular meditation sessions at the United Nations, the body he believed offered the best hope of international peace and reconciliation.

In 1987 he founded the World Harmony Run, a sort of global relay for peace. By then a knee injury had long since put paid to his running. Instead he threw himself into weight lifting – hoisting planes and trucks as well as famous individuals, from Nelson Mandela and Jesse Jackson to Hollywood celebrities and Japanese sumo wrestlers.

The stunts, as some of them most certainly were, generated publicity. But Chinmoy's athleticism underlined a deeper point: that physical activity played a vital part in the search for enlightenment. "His life was all about challenging yourself and being the best you can be," Carl Lewis said.

Some challenges were curious indeed. A special section of the Guinness Book of Records could be devoted to the accomplishments of his followers. Take Ashrita Furman, a health-food store manager, who in 2004 pushed an orange a mile with his nose in 24 minutes 36 seconds, under the gaze of Chinmoy in person, and has covered five miles on one-metre stilts in slightly over 39 minutes.

But however frivolous, these achievements were vindication of his belief that everyone is capable of things they believe to be beyond them. For Chinmoy, a particular person's religion was immaterial. "You call it Christianity, I call it Hinduism, somebody calls it Judaism and somebody else calls it Islam," he would say. "But there is only one religion . . . there are many branches of the religion-tree, but there is only one religion, and that religion is God-realisation."

The path lay through harmony and enlightenment, to reach what he called "the ever-transcending beyond". Progress towards that goal could never end, "for God himself is inside each of us and God at every moment is transcending his own reality".

Rupert Cornwell

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