The world has been marching to war, Sri Chinmoy has been running for peace… those words were spoken at the funeral of the spiritual giant in 2007. Six years later Chinmoy’s defiant message of hope lives on.
We all live and move in our own worlds, our own circles, circumscribed by work, family, friends, the choices we make. But we also live in the wider world, affected by great forces of change – social and political upheaval, the vagaries of climate, the state of the planet. And from time to time something in our own smaller world makes the news, or something out there impinges on us or resonates powerfully.
A few weeks ago, I switched on the TV and tuned in to Channel 4 News. The main story was about the sudden floods affecting Europe. Jon Snow was talking about the damage caused, the lives lost, and film footage appeared behind him. One image in particular stayed on screen for some time. It showed a statue on the banks of the Vitava River in Prague.
The flood waters had risen, flowing round the statue, almost engulfing it, but not quite. What remained visible was the top of the statue, a powerful Buddha-like head above broad shoulders, hands folded in prayer, cleaving the waters. The image was intensely dramatic, visually stunning. It moved me deeply for reasons that were entirely personal. The statue was of my teacher, my Guru, Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in 2007. I knew him for almost 40 years, as mentor, guide, friend, but he had a role to play out there on the world stage.
When I first met Sri Chinmoy
I first met Sri Chinmoy on a cold December night in 1970. He was giving a lecture in Glasgow University’s Catholic Chaplaincy, and I was profoundly impressed, as much by his being, his presence, his sheer poise, as by what he had to say. (At one point, I recall, he chanted a Sanskrit mantra, then stood for a moment in silence, in his Indian robes, hands folded in front of him, in the exact same attitude portrayed, decades later, in that sculpture in Prague). This was someone who didn’t just talk about spiritual truths, he lived them and embodied them. The peace and light he radiated were palpable.
I discovered he’d been born in what was then Bengal, and in the mid-1960s had moved to New York where he held regular peace meditations at the UN. This was an early indication of that wider role he was to play in those 40 years. Throughout that time I looked on in awe as he pushed himself ever harder, finding new, imaginative ways to communicate, to inspire.
I knew him first as a philosopher, a spiritual teacher who also expressed himself eloquently through poetry and song. Later he immersed himself in drawing and painting, producing thousands of pictures, vibrant with color, executed with a vigorous, gestural energy, but often too with a rare delicacy, especially in his depiction of birds – glorious, soaring, joyful.
He did everything with gusto, and brio, and on a grand scale. The late Leonard Bernstein once described him as ‘the very model of abundance in the creative life’ and in this he epitomised his own philosophy of ‘self-transcendence’ – pushing his own limits and inspiring others to do the same. This carried over into the world of athletics. He himself was a keen athlete – a decathlon champion in his youth, a marathon runner in later life. He emphasised the importance of a dynamic approach to living, nurturing body and soul. Countless athletic events have been organised in his name worldwide (including the perennially popular Wednesday night races throughout the summer months at the Meadows in Edinburgh, on a course designated a Sri Chinmoy Peace Mile).
He was the inspiration behind the Oneness-Home Peace Run, a great global relay which has linked many thousands of people worldwide in a spirit of harmony and solidarity.
When his own running was curtailed, in what seemed a surprising development he took up weightlifting, again pushing his limits, as he put it, ‘challenging impossibility’ and tapping in to a source of strength deep within, as if matter itself were bending to consciousness, to spiritual will.
Over the decades, Sri Chinmoy traveled widely, lecturing and giving what he called peace concerts, singing and playing his own devotional music, often to audiences numbering thousands. After one memorable concert in Paris, a reviewer wrote about how astonishing it was to see one man simply stand with folded hands and impose silence on the vast crowd in the auditorium. The music grew out of that silence. The silence nurtured and sustained the music. (Again the image is the same – the folded hands, the power of peace).
The message of peace, inner and outer, was always at the heart of Sri Chinmoy’s teaching. Imagining a world ‘flooded’ with peace, he wrote, ‘Who is going to bring about this radical change? It will be you, you and your brothers and sisters.’ His work for peace brought him into contact with some of the great peacemakers of our age. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Mikhail Gorbachev all expressed their admiration and respect.
He was deeply honoured when significant sites around the world were dedicated to peace in his name, as ‘Sri Chinmoy Peace Blossoms.’ These included, in Scotland, the Forth Bridge, the Isle of Skye, and the City of Edinburgh. Finally Scotland itself was dedicated as a Sri Chinmoy Peace Nation, in a declaration signed, with a flourish, by the late Donald Dewar in 1999. Sri Chinmoy wrote a song about Scotland, celebrating the country’s qualities. The key words were invention, action and discovery, as always looking at the positives (perhaps no bad thing as we move towards next year’s referendum).
On his last visit to Scotland, in 2005, he held a ceremony at Edinburgh University, in his turn honoring men and women who had contributed greatly to the life and culture of this nation. In a unique extension of his weightlifting activities, and giving a new meaning to the words ‘spiritually uplifting’ he literally lifted each of them above his head on a specially designed platform. Among those he lifted that day were artist Calum Colvin, poets Tom Leonard and Valerie Gillies, and Iain Torrance, then Moderator of the General Assembly. It’s an occasion none of them is likely to forget, and Professor Torrance spoke eloquently about the unusual nature of the ceremony, and how important it was to find new ways of communicating the timeless truths.
So that’s something of the background, explaining just a little about why that news footage of the statue in Prague affected me so deeply. I’m immensely grateful to have known this spiritual giant, for my life to have been touched and enriched by him. But beyond the personal, the image itself seemed iconic, symbolic. The figure stands, hands folded in supplication, invoking something higher, the highest and best in ourselves. It’s profoundly human, and at the same time transcendent.
At Sri Chinmoy’s funeral in 2007, US Congressman Gary Ackerman spoke movingly about the man and his work. “The world has been marching to war,” he said. “Sri Chinmoy has been running for peace.”
Swimming against the tide
He also made the point that Sri Chinmoy had always had to “swim against the tide.” In an age of ugly materialism and greed, he championed the life of the spirit, a philosophy of oneness and inclusiveness. At his last, informal meeting with so few of his followers, he had spoken of the power of hope in our lives. Let us not underestimate the power of hope. No matter how fleeting its life, it offers to us the most convincing and fulfilling power. And perhaps that’s why this image itself, of the statue in Prague, is so powerful. In the face of everything, the floodwaters rising, we hold on to hope, we keep our heads above water, we go on.
As it happens, another similar statue is being installed tomorrow in a Peace park in Ipswich (where Sri Chinmoy once meditated, and where regular races are held in his name). I’ll be giving a short talk at the dedication ceremony, as I did a year ago when another statue was unveiled on the waterfront in Cardiff. The statues are the work of sculptor Kaivalya Torpie from London, himself a lifelong devotee of Sri Chinmoy. (That’s what gives him the insight, the empathy to be able to capture something of the inwardness, the power of the subject matter).
Returning to the statue in Prague, there’s a song Sri Chinmoy wrote, in his native Bengali. His own English translation begins, “The wave subsides and the wave rises. And it ends, Everything eventually blossoms.”