NEW YORK - Most gurus seek to lift consciousness. For Sri Chinmoy, the key to enlightenment is lifting weights.
Sri Chinmoy presses on--another "record breaker"?
Then there are the guru's less strenuous feats. According to his publicists, Mr. Chinmoy also composes (6,000 songs), writes (750 books and 17,000 poems), and paints (140,000 paintings). Sometimes, he combines talents. Once, in a two-hour period, according to his press kits, he lifted a total of 40,000 pounds, then gave a concert, playing several instruments.
Such productivity is all in a day's work for the stunt man of the spiritual world. With soul seeking out of vogue, it's tough to stay in the guru business these days without a grimmick. The former office clerk turned spiritual leader, it seems, has latched on to one perfect for the body-conscious 1908s: He calls himself the "miracle weight lifter."
Pumping Iron for World Peace
Less enlightened souls may ponder the relevance of pumping iron to say world peace. Mr. Chinmoy declined to be interviewed for this article, but he offers an explanation through his lawyer, Rudy Tamm. Mr. Tamm maintains that weight lifting is "the perfect analogy to the spiritual life."
The lawyer goes on: "As the weight is lifted up, so also a person's low unillumined being can be lifted to a level of increase peace, light and delight." Not to mention fame, which helps pack the auditoriums where the guru stages his stunt and, not incidentally, helps sell more of his books and tape recordings.
Mr. Chinmoy's exploits wow his followers which, by the estimate of his spokesman Agraha Levine, numbers 1,500. "Sri Chinmoy lifted me up like I was nothing," says Khalil El-Amin, a body builder from Olympia, Wash., who says he holds the titles of Mr. America, Mr. North America, Mr. Northwest Natural, Mr. Western Oregon, Mr. Washington and Mr. Olympia Natural. Mr. El-Amin adds: "If he can lift me and others, then I can reach my goal to be Mr. Olympia."
Several hundreds showed up last summer for one lifting event held on a backyard tennis court in the borough of Queens. To enthusiastic applause, Mr. Chinmoy lifted, one by one, several amateur and professional boxers, including Donny Londe. Afterward, the spectators sipped lemonade, gathered in a semicircle around the beaming guru and sang a few inspirational songs.
Says Narada Michael Walden, a prominent music producer who works with the singer Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, of Mr. Chinmoy: "He's constantly inspiring me. He reminds me of God."
Not everyone is quite as impressed as Chinmoy typically uses a special lifting contraption--which resembles a modified Nautilus machine--to assist him in his stunts. Many weight-lifting authorities discount his claims for that reason. "Give me a lever and I'll move the world," jokes Terry Todd, a professor specializing in kinesiology, or human movement, at the University of Texas, who has studied some of the guru's feats.
'Happiest Place in New York'
Other than his weight lifting and artistic exploits, little actually is known of the guru. Born Chinmoy Kumar Ghose in what later became Bangladesh, he joined an ashram, or monastery, at the age of 12. He spent two decades there, studying philosophy, meditating and exercising. He arrived in the U.S. in 1964 and took a position for two years as a clerk at the consulate of India at the United Nations.
At some point in the 1960s, he began leading meditation groups. In 1970, he founded a church, the Sri Chinmoy Centre. He advocates meditation and physical fitness as the means to inner peace. His style isn't flashy. He drives a 1973 Ford Maverick and lives in a single-family home in Queens.
Capitalism apparently is no sin in his view. Many of his followers operate what church representatives call "the divine enterprises," typically small businesses such as health-food stores and restaurants. Among them is a restaurant called the Smile of the Beyond, where the maitre d's standard greeting is: "Hello, it's another great, great day at the Smile of the Beyond, happiest place in New York City!"
The Maestro Plays
Mr. Chinmoy claims to play 25 instruments, including the cello, the organ and the flute. His free concerts rarely fail to draw a crowd. Some 1,200 fans showed up for a concert he gave last month at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where the guru entertained by, among other things, playing the piano with his hands, his fists and his elbows. As he put down each instruments, a flock of worshipful followers who were gathered at the altar would chant the name of another: "Cello, cello, cello."
Mr. Chinmoy, who took up weight lifting in the mid-1960s, is modest about his physical attributes. He is short and balding, and weighs about 150 pounds; his body bears no resemblance to that of a body builder's. "His arms are scrawny, he has a bad knee, and his back hurts occasionally," Mr. Tamm, his lawyer, wrote in a letter to this newspaper.
The Piranha Watch
But Mr. Chinmoy is less modest about his achievements. In fact, he craves publicity. The Sri Chinmoy Centre has a staff of publicists responsible for alerting the media when the guru is going to stage a stunt. They are dogged in their efforts to gain recognition for their leader, whom they describe as "Atlas holding up the world."
"I don't ever want to hear the name Sri Chinmoy again," Bill Clark, who certifies unusual feats of strength for the International Weightlifting Federation, says wearily. Last year, he says, the guru's publicists hounded him mercilessly for weeks, seeking his organization's endorsement of one the guru's feats. Mr. Clark says he finally issued the guru a doctored certificate acknowledging the lift "so that they'd get off my back."
Nonetheless, Mr. Chinmoy's stunts have inspired other devotees to accomplish the extraordinary. Among the most distinguished is Ashrita Furman, 34, of Queens. Mr. Furman holds the record for the most individual world records, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Mr. Furman specializes in the oddball event: simultaneous jogging and juggling (six hours, seven minutes: three balls); long-distance somersaulting (12.3 miles) along the same route Paul Revere took through Boston; and underwater pogo-sticking (three hours, 40 minutes) in the Amazon River. For that stunt, Mr. Furman says, a lookout was posted to keep watch for piranhas.
What accounts for this strange drive? Mr. Furman says he performs his stunts to draw attention to the guru's teachings. He hastens to add that he doesn't compete with his idol, he competes for him. His "whole motivation," he says, is Mr. Chinmoy.