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Obituary: Swamy Chinmayananda

Poothapally Balakrishna Menon (Swamy Chinmayananda), philosopher, holy man: born Kochi, south India 1916; died San Diego, California 4 August 1993.

SWAMY CHINMAYANANDA was an Indian holy man and philospher who preached the tenets of Hindu spiritualism to people around the world in a simple, but compelling manner for over four decades.

For a man who was a staunch agnostic in his formative years, Chinmayananda was eventually revered as a saint. His well-attended yagnas or discourses which infused spiritualism with worldliness, plumbed the spiritual depths of ancient Hindu scriptures, turning them into simple, moral lessons to enlighten audiences.

Chinmayananda claimed no supernatural powers. His smiling eyes, keen sense of humour, insight and modernism endeared him to his audiences. He differed from other religious leaders in his approach, preaching the mantra that self-denial and detachment from the material world do not necessarily lead to salvation. He stressed that Hinduism as expounded in the scriptures was not a bundle of superstitions but a definite science. His discourses, placed in a contemporary context and delivered in simple English, appealed both to simple rural folk, enslaved to ritual, in India, and to worldly audiences overseas.

Contrary to the wishes of his guru, or teacher, Chinmayananda principally targeted the upwardly mobile and evolved the yagna, or discourse, technique to drive home his point. His first yagna in Pune, western India, in the early Fifties was held under a tree. On the third day, when his audience had grown from a handful of curious passers-by to a teeming crowd of engrossed listeners, someone produced a microphone and, almost instantly, his fame spread. In 41 years of preaching, Chinmayananda held over 530 yagnas, including some in Islamic states in the Middle East.

Chinmayananda was born Poothapally Balakrishna Menon into a middle-class family in Kochi, in Kerala state, south India, in 1916 and after an MA in English literature he qualified as a lawyer. Before he could begin practice, however, he was attracted by the writings of other Indian philosophers and sages on ancient Indian scriptures. Keen to know more, he began looking for a guru.

In 1943 his search took him to Swamy Sivananda's ashram in Rishikesh, a small town on the banks of the Ganges, considered holy by Hindus. Here he renounced the world after being initiated as a sanyasin or holy man and, for the next 10 years, moved north into the Himalayas to meditate and study ancient texts in a secluded ashram. He emerged in the mid-Fifties and inaugurated his first yagna in Pune.

Chinmayananda also founded the Chinmaya Mission with branches around the world running schools, old-age homes, hospitals and spiritual discourse centres. He was a strict disciplinarian who demanded complete silence during his discourses.