Across Felton Street from the Jyoti-Bihanga restaurant is Lestat's Coffee House—a hip, loud, fast Normal Heights café. Lestat's patio overflows with patrons dressed in black downing espressos, chain smoking cloves and yelling affably at one another. Two teenage punks—one with a black Mohawk, one with pink spikes—have staked out the corner of Felton and Adams Avenue to bum cigarettes and loiter in the shade. A couple feet away, a man screams into his cell phone. Few seem to notice the tranquility just across the street.
Inside Jyoti-Bihanga no one is smoking or shouting, there are no annoying ring tones or black berets. The vegetarian restaurant is the Valium you take after bingeing on the amphetamines served up by Lestat's and the neighborhood's bars.
"There are a few purposes for a place like this. Mainly we want to be able to offer something to the community," says Mahiyan Savage, the restaurant's manager, co-owner and co-founder. "We meditate every morning before we come to work, and we meditate at the end of the day. We try to create a place with an aura of peace. And I think people notice it. I've had many people come in and say, 'Oh, I've had such a hectic day that I could hardly wait to get here.'"
Creating a space with an aura of peace isn't a marketing gimmick. Everyone who works at Jyoti-Bihanga is deeply committed to a quiet restaurant, quiet mind and quiet soul. All 10 employees and volunteers are devotees of an Indian guru, philosopher and spiritual master named Sri Chinmoy.
"I study meditation with a man named Sri Chinmoy," Savage says with a cheery smile. "And one day he asked me to open a restaurant."
And that was that. With no experience in the restaurant business, Savage and some 20 other San Diego Chinmoy devotees found a space, learned to cook and started the restaurant. For those that follow other, more humdrum, spiritual masters—like priests, rabbis, clerics, monks—a request like this lies somewhere on the continuum between unlikely and absurd. But priests, rabbis, clerics and monks don't attract the same type of followers as Chinmoy.
While the Queens, N.Y.-based meditation guru is a peculiar character, his devotees—estimated at 1,000 to 5,000—have pushed the boundaries of peculiarity. They've painted their homes sky blue, run 3,100-mile foot races and pogo-sticked up Mount Fuji, all to celebrate their devotion to Chinmoy. But they also make a mean Vegan Neatloaf (Jyoti-Bihanga's answer to Mom's meatloaf).
Mahiyan Savage looks like a perfectly normal person. Well, he smiles longer, brighter and more often than most, but beyond that, perfectly normal. Today he's dressed in his guru's preferred sky blue and blends in perfectly with color scheme of his restaurant—where everything, including the servers' outfits, is blue or white.
Savage intends the restaurant to be an oasis from the honking, flashing frenzy of Normal Heights, so it's decorated with Chinmoy's soothing, simple, bubbly art work. To cover the street noise, Savage plays CDs of Chinmoy's soft, melodic music. Scattered on the walls are images of the guru, ranging from snapshots of him running or shaking hands with some celebrity to a 6-foot, life-sized photo of him meditating on a leafy lawn.
The place is calm now, but it wasn't always. As the faithful know, deep calm takes many years.
Built in 1928, the building was intended to be a bank, but it never became a bank, explains Savage. Instead, it became a revolving reflection of the Normal Heights neighborhood—occupied a year, vacant the next, it was a bicycle shop, a chicken coop and topless bar, he says.
When the restaurant began 20 years ago, Savage was no Wolfgang Puck. The owner of a La Jolla tennis shop, Savage began studying meditation with Chinmoy disciples to improve his game. While meditation and tennis made him a poorly qualified restaurateur candidate, a Chinmoy disciple doesn't question the wisdom of the guru.
"My mother taught me to make a few simple things, like apple pie," he says with his ubiquitous kindly smile. "And then we had friends who had restaurants who came and helped us. Then we had everyone in the group get jobs in restaurants to try and learn things."
While the restaurant has become a mecca for vegetarians, it's also become San Diego's Chinmoy epicenter. Beyond Jyoti-Bihanga, there is a Chinmoy-inspired gift shop, Pilgrimage of the Heart, and a meditation center. In all three businesses, every employee is a Chinmoy student.
Many come from across the world—Jyoti-Bihanga currently has volunteers from a half-dozen Eastern and Western European countries. They come to travel or enjoy the company of the likeminded or learn the business in hopes of starting their own restaurants. Savage himself says he's been to more than 30 countries during the last 25 years in the service of his guru, often helping fellow students open restaurants.
Savage says the restaurant hasn't been a cash cow, and he's had to borrow money from fellow devotees during a few lean years to stay open. One of the obstacles keeping the place financially solvent is that twice a year for two or more weeks, the business is shut down so the faithful can gather in Queens for a spiritual rejuvenation. There's no choice but to close the restaurant because everyone who works there wants to go.
"In fact it's one of our biggest problems," says Savage with a laugh. "We close for a month or more every year. I feel very grateful that we can do those kinds of things and keep going."
It may seem an odd business plan, but you have to remember who you are dealing with here. If there are typical gurus, Chinmoy is not one of them.
The youngest of seven children, Sri Chinmoy began life as Chinmoy Kumar Ghose on Aug. 27, 1931, in Bangladesh. At age 12 he was orphaned and entered an ashram—a hermitage where wisemen live in tranquility amid nature. Chinmoy remained there for the next two decades studying meditation and, according to his publicists, became one of the world's great masters of meditation. But this wasn't enough for Chinmoy.
As a young man, Chinmoy took part in the great guru boom of the '60s, and in 1964 he moved to Queens. While he missed out on nabbing the Beatles (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi got to them first), he founded his own center in the late '60s and drafted John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana as students (christened Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana by Chinmoy, both left the guru by the '80s). Chinmoy also toured Ivy League campuses, published books and, according to his followers, exploded into a streak of unprecedented activity. While he espoused the monkish virtues of celibacy, vegetarianism, non-violence and meditation, he didn't stick to moderation.
The numbers are impossible to wrap your mind around, but give it a try just for fun.
In 1975 he topped his personal poetry best with 843 verses in 24 hours. Over 100 days in 1974 and 1975 he created 10,000 drawing and paintings (he's tagged the number of peace birds he's drawn at 4 million). And the numbers go on and on and on—1,000 books; 17,000 poems; 13,000 songs; 700 concerts (at which he's played between 25 and 150 instruments).
But wait, there's so much more.
After his '70s artistic phase, Chinmoy began getting into some serious weightlifting—7,064 pounds with his right arm, 7,040 with his left. Besides barbells and dumbbells, he's hoisted airplanes, trucks and celebrities ranging from actors (Eddie Murphy) to heads of state (the prime minister of Iceland) over this head.
Of course all these stats are provided by Chinmoy's publicist and not by any official weightlifting association.
Whether or not Chinmoy's accomplishments are true, exaggerated or fabricated, his followers' documented achievements seem to surpass even their guru's.
Savage isn't a boastful man. He attributes his successes to meditation, temperance and Chinmoy. So when asked about his profound, transcendent accomplishments, he doesn't have much to say.
"I've done a 47-mile run," he says bashfully. "That's as far as I've run."
It takes a dozen prodding questions to get him to admit to more—50 marathons over 30 years, a non-stop, 12-hour run.
"But this is nothing compared to what some of our members do," he says.
Like Savage, Pilgrimage of the Heart gift shop employee Atulya Berube has run the annual 47-mile race set up to celebrate the guru's 47th birthday (Atulya ran it 36 hours after he finished a marathon). But as one of the United States coordinators of Chinmoy's World Harmony Run, Berube knows there are few limits when it comes to Chinmoy's disciples. The World Harmony run—one of the Chinmoy organization's many races to promote the guru's vision of international harmony—is impressive, but it's just a warm up for what some of the faithful do.
Many runners and non-runners consider Berube's ability to run astounding, but his wife, who's training for her second non-stop, 24-hour race, can, quite literally, run circles around her husband. Yet like many things in the Chinmoy world, what seems astonishing is routine.
The absurdity zenith is a 3,100-mile race around a city block in Queens. With a record field of 14 runners, the 9th Annual 3,100-mile race finished last week. Just to sum up: that's two months of 50 miles a day in New York's hot, humid summer weather.
It boggles the mind.
"And that's the reason Sri Chinmoy holds a race like this, to boggle the mind, to break down the mind, because so often it's the mind that holds us back from so many things we want to do," says Berube. "Even if it's just getting up and speaking to a class or taking a test, we can see how anxiety and fear limit us immediately. But these are only limitations of the mind, and when we learn to break that mind down and operate more from our hearts we can accomplish a lot more."
To many, there's a big difference between public speaking and running from San Diego to Maine. But Berube is convinced the race is proof of Chinmoy's wisdom.
"I've been there at the race while they are in the midst of it, and it's so beautiful," he says while maintaining the faithful's obligatory bright smile. "It breaks down so many things that we get hung up on. You really simplify your life because all you are doing is running…. Your food is taken care off. There are people taking you to and from the race. All your other normal functions are taken care of so you can just focus on the race. To see this space that they get in and see the level of gratitude the runners have for even the simplest things that we take for granted is amazing. Just sitting down is a joy for them."
With Chinmoy and his devotees there's always something more eccentric around the bend. It seems the Wall Street Journal was dead on when the paper dubbed him "the stunt man of the spiritual world."
Beyond the hoisting of the Beverly Hills Cop and the running of 5,000 laps through a dirty city, there's Ashrita Furman, who regularly breaks Guinness world records on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. And we're talking bizarre records—way more bizarre than that guy with his beard of bees.
Furman has pogo-sticked across the Amazon, somersaulted along Paul Revere's ride and yodeled for 27 continuous hours. In an Outside profile of Chinmoy's followers, the magazine reported that "to increase his tolerance for discomfort, he has had people bite him while he meditates."
But it's all in good fun, right? No one gets hurt, everyone gets fed and they're all on the path to spiritual enlightenment.
Not so, say Chinmoy detractors who consider the guru nothing more than a life-wrecking con-artist in a blue robe.
Rick Ross has followed Chinmoy's career as the director of the Rick A. Ross Institute—a nonprofit organization devoted to the study of destructive cults and controversial groups. And, according to Ross, Chinmoy isn't just a quirky guru with a swarm of outlandish followers.
"He's a spiritually abusive guy," says Ross. "I've had many, many complaints about him over the years."
Ross has been studying cults for two decades, and using Dr. Robert J. Lifton's research, Ross considers Chinmoy's group a cult. According to cult expert and psychologist Lifton, cults have three identifying characteristics: a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship; a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform; economic, sexual and other exploitation of group members by the leader. For Ross it's pretty clear that all three criteria are met.
"The issue is where does all the money go? Nobody knows," he says. "Where does all the money go from the restaurants? Nobody knows. How are monies handled? Nobody knows. And they work the people very long hours and they receive very low wages."
And Ross, like Outside magazine—which has mocked the guru's weightlifting claims in more than one article—puts no credence in Chinmoy's Hulk-like strength.
"Anyone can lift the weight based on his formula, which is to use a leverage device to lift things," claims Ross. "I can do it, you can do it, your kid can do it. There's nothing to it. So he has no weightlifting ability other than, well, I guess he could lift a grocery bag or a carton of milk. But he's certainly not a body builder or a weightlifter. That's just a publicity stunt."
Ross says Chinmoy is a shameless and almost peerless master of self-promotion—that his harmony runs, peace plaques, celebrity lifts, world records and restaurants are all about getting ink. But behind the smiling photo-ops, Chinmoy is an immoral, manipulative man, alleges Ross.
New York resident and former disciple Anne Carlton agrees. A year ago, Carlton told the New York Post that her former spiritual master sexually exploited her and a score of others.
Carlton joined the group as a teenager after a friend brought her to a couple of free meditation classes. In 1981, at age 19, she began working at a devotee-run restaurant in Connecticut. Carlton says she worked long hours for little pay for years and was constantly driven to the point of quitting, but every time she consulted friends—all of whom were Chinmoy followers—they cajoled her into staying.
She relocated to New York but still couldn't seem to sever ties with her all-encompassing spiritual community. Then, in 1991, Chinmoy began to notice Carlton.
"The girls started dropping hints like, 'Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, guru is looking at you,'" she says.
He even whisked her away to one of his concerts in California, where she was treated like a queen. At first it was wonderful, a decade of toil for a great reward. But halfway through the trip, Carlton alleges, Chinmoy invited her to his room and seduced her.
"He told me to embrace him. I was totally scared. I was terrified of him," she said in an interview with CityBeat. "It was a very manipulative thing. It's a mind-fuck. I never even thought it was wrong."
That was the first night the student and master had sex, alleges Carlton, but it wasn't the last. Carlton says Chinmoy called on her every few weeks and eventually, in 2001, he asked her to have sex with another female devotee as he watched. Carlton had never had sex with a woman, and she says it wasn't something she was interested in, but she did it because her guru asked her to.
It wasn't long after that that Carlton says she snapped out of it. She wanted more from her life. She wanted independence, and romance, and she wanted to have a baby—something she says Chinmoy wouldn't allow because he preaches celibacy.
"It just dawned on me, 'Oh, my God, this guy isn't who he says he is,"' she says. "It shattered my world; it was like coming out of coma, or out of deep hypnosis. I just felt heartbroken."
In the 2004 New York Post story, Chinmoy's lawyer denied Carlton's allegations. CityBeat repeatedly attempted to contact Chinmoy and his lawyer through two of his meditation centers in New York and Washington, D.C., but phone calls were not returned.
Since Carlton's public condemna-tion of Chinmoy, the small, angry online community of Chinmoy bashers has grown. There are hundreds of postings complaining about the guru—mostly made up of his former followers. Even Carlton's claims are backed up by a handful of anonymous women who also allege exploitation. One woman even alleged that she became pregnant by Chinmoy and was then coerced into having an abortion.
But, to this point, it's all allegation. According to Carlton and Rick Ross, no one has ever sued Chinmoy, and he's never been charged with any crime.
"It's very difficult to sue a cult leader because he would say, 'You were a true believer and now you're not and so you're angry and want to sue me, but what you did was of your own free will as an adult,'" says Ross. "Lawsuits like that are very tough to win."
A cream candle burns next to a grainy, black and white photograph of Chinmoy's face. The guru's eyes are at half mast. He looks dazed and confused.
"This picture of Sri Chinmoy is very meaningful because it was taken when he was in a very high and very deep state of meditation," explains Mahiyan Savage to the eight San Diegans gathered for Savage's free meditation workshop.
In a small room bathed in white, the class sits in mismatched folding chairs as Savage—always smiling, always soft-spoken—lectures about the powers of meditation. After a short introduction, he asks each person gathered why they came and what they hope to gain from meditation. Most want to reduce stress and find a way to better focus their minds. One wants to learn how to see auras and project his spirit into the astral plane—to which Savage laughs and says, "Remind me to tell you about my astral-projection story later." But he never does.
Instead, Savage talks about finding an inner quiet that will subdue the mind's endless chatter. He leads the group through a series of guided mediation exercises. He has the class focus on the candle flame and nothing but the candle flame. Then he has everyone close their eyes and picture a serene lake in a pristine meadow. During each exercise he gently leads the group, reminding people to gently refocus their thoughts if they find their minds drifting.
"It's not easy—be patient, it takes time," he advises the beginners.
During the hour-and-a-half-long class there is little talk about Chinmoy. Savage tells a few quick anecdotes and plays a bit of the guru's music during the meditation sessions, but the class is no indoctrination. There's no proselytizing or collection plate passed around. The humble room seems remote from thousand-mile runs, hundred-mile pogo-sticking and sexual exploitation.
When asked about the sexual exploitation allegations that surround his guru, Savage doesn't get defensive, nor does he lose his kindly countenance.
"I know the people that make the accusations, and it doesn't bother me personally because I know that they're not true," he says. "The only thing that bothers me is that it gives people the wrong idea about Sri Chinmoy."
Over the years, Savage has had the chance to observe Chinmoy interact with hundreds of devotees and he hasn't seen anything that would suggest any impropriety. He also doesn't want unproven allegations to overshadow all the work Chinmoy has done to promote peace and harmony throughout the world.
"He's very dedicated to his principles," he says. "He's a pretty sincere meditation teacher who has done so much for the world."
Savage refers to the Sri Chinmoy Centre's sponsorship of free meditation classes, poetry readings, races and concerts—all in the name of global harmony.
As Savage says goodbye to the class, they are let out into the night. Some seem excited to come back and learn more, while others—like a woman who thought Chinmoy was a Buddhist monk and the guy who wanted to learn about astral projection—seem less impressed.
As the group disperses down the street, a guy with a scraggily beard and hair turns into Lestat's Coffee House. On his Nike T-shirt, in retro puffy lettering, it says "There is no finish line." It's an aphorism both Nike and Chinmoy can get behind. For the extreme guru and his more extreme followers, there's always another mile to run or world's record to break or restaurant to open.