Article — From the August 2007 issue

Run Like Fire Once More

Chasing perfection at the world’s longest footrace

( 4 of 11 )

What, exactly, had Leonard Bernstein written to the Times? I never found the letter Mike Cogan remembered, but an item in an April 1979 Notes on People column described a recently formed “mutual admiration society” comprising the Guru and the flamboyant composer of West Side Story:

Sri Chinmoy, whose followers say he has written 3,000 songs, dropped by Mr. Bernstein’s Manhattan apartment a few weeks ago, and brought with him a choral group that sang a new Chinmoy number called, “Leonard Bernstein.” It went, in part:

Leonard Bernstein, Leonard!
Eternity’s singing bird! Beauty truth,
Truth beauty,
Nectar oneness your divinity.

Bernstein had responded in kind, presenting the Guru with an original work for sitar, flute, tabla, bass, and drone. Until recently, all I had known of the Guru I owed to an LP called Love, Devotion, Surrender, a 1973 jazz-rock fiasco by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, both former Chinmoy disciples.[3]

[3] The music critic Robert Christgau describes its artwork thus: “On the back cover is a photograph of three men. Two of them are dressed in white and have their hands folded—one grinning like Alfred E. Neuman, the other looking like he’s about to have a Supreme Court case named after him: solemn, his wrists ready for the cuffs. In between, a man in an orange ski jacket and red pants with one white sock seems to have caught his tongue on his lower lip. He looks like the yoga coach at a fashionable lunatic asylum. Guess which one is Sri Chinmoy.”

[4] The 3,100-mile distance of the Self-Transcendence Race celebrates Chinmoy’s birth year; an earlier incarnation, held in 1996, measured 2,700 miles, in honor of his birthday. 

Born August 27, 1931,[4] in East Bengal, India, and orphaned at twelve, the Guru spent his adolescence and early adulthood studying meditation at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where he earned the title Fastest Runner twelve years in a row. In 1964 he emigrated to New York and took a job as an assistant in the passport-and-visa section of the Indian Consulate. These were lean years for the Guru. According to his memoirs, he lunched on potato chips or candy bars, often in a telephone booth outside his office, but already he was laying the foundation for his spiritual mission, playing free concerts and lecturing on Hinduism. In the ensuing decades, the Guru’s self-transcendence empire fanned across six continents, spurred by a distinctly American flair for public relations.

He has performed original tribute songs for a motley assortment of public figures, including Sting, Jane Goodall, Carl Lewis, Kofi Annan, and Quincy Jones, whose cryptic endorsement “Sri Chinmoy is such a brave musician!” appears on posters promoting the Guru’s concerts. Besides Grammy winners and athletes, his disciples include Ashrita Furman, the manager of a Queens health-food store, who has set 148 Guinness World Records—a meta-record itself—most recently for backward bowling, egg-and-spoon racing, and lemon eating. Photographs posted on Chinmoy’s official websites and displayed in the businesses operated by his disciples show the Guru, whose philanthropic network The Oneness-Heart-Tears and Smiles delivers medical supplies around the globe, glad-handing a varsity roster of world leaders—Princess Diana, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa. Nelson Mandela once called him an “outstanding soldier of peace.”

In 1996, a district superintendent of the National Park Service approved a plan to install a brass plaque in the lobby of the Statue of Liberty that would officially designate the foremost icon of American democracy a Sri Chinmoy Peace Blossom site. Three hundred or so spectators attended the unveiling on the Guru’s sixty-fifth birthday. Within a month, the Park Service reversed its decision, and the plaque was removed, but similar plaques identify more than 900 surviving Peace Blossoms around the world, including cultural centers (the Sydney Opera House), natural formations (the Matterhorn, the Great Barrier Reef), airports (Afonso Pena in Curitiba, Brazil), and political frontiers (the entirety of the Russia-Norway border). In 1994 the late king of Nepal officially christened an unclimbed four-mile-high Himalayan peak “Sri Chinmoy Peace Mountain.”

[5] Since 1988, when he launched his “Lifting Up the World with a Oneness-Heart” campaign, Chinmoy has ceremonially hoisted more than 7,000 friends and celebrities, including Jesse Jackson; Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun San; Ravi Shankar; Moorhead Kennedy, held hostage 444 days in Iran; Mickey Thomas, lead vocalist of Jefferson Starship; and the actresses Mercedes Ruehl and Alyssa Milano.

[6] A selection of titles from the Chinmoy library attests to the breadth of the Guru’s interests: The Earth-Illumination-Trumpets of Divinity’s Home, Part 1; I Play Tennis Every Day; The Ambition-Deer; Einstein: Scientist-Sage, Brother of Atom-Universe; Impurity: The Mad Elephant Mental Asylum; A Soulful Tribute to the Secretary-General: The Pilot Supreme of the United Nations; God Wants to Read This Book; Great Indian Meals: Divinely Delicious and Supremely Nourishing; Gorbachev: The Master-Key of the Universal Heart; Muhammad Ali and Sri Chinmoy Meditate; Come, My Non-English Friends! Let Us Together Climb Up the English Himalayas; The Mushroom and the Umbrella; My Heart’s Salutation to Australia; A Mystic Journey in the Weightlifting World, Part One; Airport Elevation: Questions Answered by Master Sri Chinmoy at the San Juan International Airport, October 29, 1976; I Love Shopping, Part 1; My Ivy League Leaves: Lectures on the Spiritual Life; Niagara Falls Versus Children’s Rise; Religion-Jugglery and God-Discovery; The Sailor and the Parrot; War: Man’s Abysmal Abyss-Plunge, Part 1; Sleep: Death’s Little Sister; Canada Aspires, Canada Receives, Canada Achieves; Yes, I Can! I Certainly Can!! 

I took to lunching a few blocks from the racecourse at Annam Brahma restaurant, where footage of Sri Chinmoy’s sundry exploits airs continuously on a wall-mounted television. In 1985 he took up weightlifting; clips of the Guru hoisting all manner of eccentric burdens flashed across the screen while I sipped my lassis. With the aid of a special scaffold, he calf-raised people,[5] cars, the 1,495 volumes of his collected poetry and prose.[6] It brought to mind the omnipotence paradox: Could God produce an oeuvre He couldn’t lift? The footage resembled one of those supplemental tapes certain enterprising high school juniors append to their college applications. The Guru was a grind and a jock. He was the most prolific painter who ever lived. He had read poetry with Joyce Carol Oates and jammed with Carlos Santana. He claimed to have lifted 7,064 pounds and 7,040 pounds with his right and left arms, respectively. Not since Da Vinci had a single man been so well-rounded.

Other videos were available for download on the Guru’s websites. In one of them, the seventy-four-year-old Chinmoy purports to curl a 256-pound dumbbell. The weight rests on a platform above the Guru’s left leg. He knits his face and hums. At the appointed moment, an assistant lowers the platform and the weight sits motionless on Chinmoy’s leg. After ten seconds, the assistant replaces the platform, and the Guru smiles beatifically. The footage presented a kind of Rorschach test. Where some found proof of the existence of God, others saw an old man supporting a dumbbell on his knee. I showed the video to friends. “I don’t get it,” they said. “Did he lift the weight or not?” I kept silent. Here was the pertinent question. Once you answered, there was no turning back. For the moment, I preferred to live in a world of divine strongmen.

is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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