Sri You Later

A guru's followers ponder eternity without him

Sri Chinmoy is everywhere on Parsons Boulevard in Queens, up the hill from the F train and kitty-corner to Hillcrest High School. The guru gazes from the menu at the Smile of the Beyond luncheonette and plays the flute, esraj, and cello on the plasma screens in his group's other "divine enterprises," like Guru Health Foods and the Perfection of the Head World barbershop. At the Aspiration Ground—a tennis court located behind 162-22 85th Avenue, a red-brick, two-story home—Sri's students adhere to his philosophy of enlightenment through physical activity. And on 164th Street, a bookshelf at the rear of the Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant boasts such Chinmoy titles as My Lord's Secrets Revealed, The Divine Hero, and Earth's Cry Meets Heaven's Smile.

The master's devotees credit him with authoring 1,500 books, along with 115,000 poems and 20,000 songs. He allegedly painted 200,000 works of art.

Behind the counter at Divine Robe Supreme, Govinda White—who divides her time between the sari shop and a flower store that the group runs in Ottawa, Canada—describes Chinmoy as a man "in this world, but kind of out there, in a very sort of cosmic way. It was like he was floating around."

Now all that's left of the 76-year-old Chinmoy is his hovering presence, since he passed "behind the curtain of eternity" on October 11, after an apparent heart attack in his sleep.

In Jamaica Hills, a neighborhood of modest homes accessorized with small satellite dishes—and, often, a yellow cab out front—disciples were planning to end their monthlong mourning period earlier this week. Visitors from spiritual centers in Australia, South Africa, and the Far East were camped out with some of the 200 followers in the neighborhood, while female members symbolized their grief by wearing white saris, awaiting word about the future of the organization.

"We're all asking ourselves how long we're going to wear the white saris," White noted.

A native of the Chittagong District in what is now Bangladesh, Sri Chinmoy Kumar Ghose arrived in the U.S. in 1964 and was soon lecturing about meditation and world harmony, accumulating an estimated 7,000 disciples—including, for periods of time at least, musicians John McLaughlin, Roberta Flack, Clarence Clemons, and Carlos Santana—acknowledging the goodness of all faiths, and drawing attention by organizing "peace concerts" and swimming, cycling, and running events.

"He always followed something inside his heart and soul," said a spokesperson who chose to remain nameless. "We never asked him, 'Why did you come to Queens?' It was an inner guidance."

In addition to his spiritual prowess, Chinmoy claimed to be a physical marvel who could function on 90 minutes of sleep, lift more than 7,000 pounds with each arm, and hoist 500-pound men with one hand.

Two decades ago, when I was writing for USA Today, I was dispatched to the Aspiration Ground to watch Chinmoy lift a house. Instead, I saw what looked like a garden shed connected to a calf-raising machine. To add to the domestic aura, there was a flickering television inside, among other items. With his followers gleefully chanting, the guru scrunched his shoulders under the mechanism's padded arms and stood on his toes, tipping the structure slightly.

When he next addressed the crowd, I was surprised to hear proper English instead of carny.

Yet his students are a friendly bunch, well-liked by their Greek, Hispanic, and South Asian neighbors and driven toward physical milestones by the guru's example. Each year, followers have two months to run 3,100 miles in a "self-transcendence" exercise. Ashrita Furman, arguably Chinmoy's most famous devotee outside the entertainment industry, has set more than 160 Guinness records—on all seven continents—for such exploits as underwater pogo-stick jumping, spinning the world's largest hula hoop, and distance sack racing.

Generally, Furman would dedicate his accomplishments to Chinmoy. But with the guru's passing, a committee of between eight and 10 "senior members" will step in to fill the void. "There will not be a successor to Sri Chinmoy," said the spokesperson, "because no one has the same spiritual height, the same realization."

Does this mean factionalism and infighting? "I hope not," said Sundar Doltan, the Belfast-bred barber at Perfection of the Head World. "I don't think so. But things will change financially. It was easier to give money to Guru than to a committee."

Surrounded by the sounds of bhajan devotional music in the sari shop, White conceded that Chinmoy's "physical presence" is already missed in practical as well as emotional ways: "He's written so many books, so the message is already there. The challenge now is getting it out."

That philosophy includes abstinence from meat, recreational drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Sakshama Koloski, a Macedonian who joined the group a decade ago, admitted that the celibacy part "can be pretty difficult if you don't have the connection to an inner life. But if you meditate, you can feel a greater satisfaction."

Of course, as has happened with many a guru, former members would from time to time accuse Chinmoy of flouting the celibacy requirement. The New York Post once branded the master "Sleazy Sri," citing female devotees who recounted unpleasant sexual encounters with the master, including one who maintained that he forced her to have an abortion.

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