Feats of prowess show spirit's inner strength

New Jersey Star-Ledger/November 3, 1998

Applause echoed along the fence line. "Lifting up the world, with a One-ness Heart," the people sang. Ever the showman, guru Sri Chinmoy balanced on one leg before easing the aircraft down.

"He's warming up," said Bhagirathi (formerly Karen) Savage, 42, who lives in a community of Sri Chinmoy adherents in Queens.

Sri Chinmoy, 67, is a native of Bangladesh who immigrated to the United States three decades ago and has gained a following of thousands around the world. He preaches that inner, spiritual peace can be achieved through self-transcendence, and that when enough enlightened people achieve this state of bliss, world peace will follow.

He was famous in the 1970s as a guru to rock and pop stars, including Carlos Santana, Clarence Clemons, Roberta Flack, and Sheena Easton.

These days, the guru and his hard-bodied followers pursue inner peace with a regimen of meditation, a strict vegetarian diet, and extreme feats of weight lifting, marathon running, and distance swimming. Sri Chinmoy has been called a spiritual stunt man. He loves publicity.

The guru's followers claim to hold all kinds of world records for such things as continuous hand clapping (50 hours), and continuous rolling along the ground (12 miles). He himself has lifted an elephant a couple of times and once hoisted up two linemen from the San Francisco 49ers -- with one arm.

In his demonstration on the Teterboro tarmac Monday, Sri Chinmoy lifted a total of 23,065 pounds with his calf-raiser machine -- six light airplanes -- in sequence -- one of which he lifted twice because the wind blew off a sign that he wanted in the video his followers were making. Before the second lift of the plane, a Piper Arrow, Sri Chinmoy directed his aides to add 800 pounds of barbell weights and four passengers; four more men perched on the wings.

"He wanted to make it more challenging," said Ketan Tamm, 31, of Greenwich, Conn., the official record keeper of the event. "He's always trying to teach by example."

All that work was before 9 a.m. Not bad for a slender, balding man just 5 feet 7 inches tall who likes to say his bizarre lifting performances are meant to "conquer the age barrier and go back to our childlike heart."

If he was faking it, Sri Chinmoy did a convincing impression of a man in pain. He hobbled away after the first lift and danced around working the cramps out of his calves. After three lifts, he slumped in a chair while his people readied the next plane. Eventually the guru repaired to a Toyota van.

"The body has an unlimited ability to adapt, especially in deep concentration or duress," said Russell C. Smelley, a professor of kinesiology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. In short, it is possible to lift that much.

But the key is that Sri Chinmoy's calf-raiser machine gives him leverage, with the fulcrum around the middle of the airplane, Smelley said. "There's a little bit of tomfoolery in that he has the right leverage," he said. "It's a bit like professional wrestling. Still, it takes a very talented and prepared person to do it."

Sumadhur Paige, who designs weightlifting equipment for the guru, said the calf raiser works on the same principle as Nautilus machines everywhere. "The person is not lifting the total weight," Paige said. "I don't think Sri Chinmoy is trying to fool anybody. He knows it's not the full weight, and he assumes people watching know. He's trying to demonstrate the power of human potential."

One person's publicity stunt is another's religious experience. "He uses his inner strength, which anyone can achieve through meditation and prayer," Savage said. "When you achieve that, you lose your insecurity or fear. You become more powerful."

She herself has taken up marathon running since joining the Sri Chinmoy community 18 years ago. "When I saw him, I was so moved by his humility and his sheer spirituality," Savage said. "It was what I always wanted. He's inspired me in so many ways."

As an example of the superlatives bandied around about this man, Sri Chinmoy's followers claim he has written 1,200 books, 62,000 poems, and 14,000 songs.

After the demonstration, Sri Chinmoy rested in his van as 125 devotees gathered in a semicircle, hands clasped at their chests. Many waved shyly at the guru. Two by two, they lined up to get donuts and apples. They paused to raise the breakfast up toward the waiting guru, as if for his blessing.

"I do this as an inspiration," Sri Chinmoy said in a brief interview. "When we are inspired, we allow the divine element in our lives and try to do good things for mankind . . . I want to give people joy. Inside joy is peace.

"If I am happy, I won't strike you. If I am miserable, I will strike you. People who are happy never do bad things. Only when they are unhappy do people fight and drop bombs."

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