A Guru-Who-Isn't, And His Peace Message

New Plaque Affixed to Statue of Liberty

The New York Times/September 7, 1996
By Andrea Kannapell

It's not exactly "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses." It's a "Peace-Blossom" poem, and the author is one Sri Chinmoy, the leader of a spiritual group that believes that athletic feats -- long-distance somersaulting, for instance -- are a means to transcendence.

Sri Chinmoy's followers, with the assistance of the National Park Service, recently placed a brass plaque of the poem In the Statue of Liberty's lobby, where the only other marker is historical.

It is the latest of what followers say are nearly 1,000 "Sri Chinmoy Peace-Blossoms"-sites dedicated with markers that carry the leader's name, ranging from Victoria Falls and the Sydney Opera House to Mount McKinley and the Grand Coulee Dam.

Sri Chinmoy, a native of Bangladesh who came to the United States more than 30 years ago, makes his headquarters at a meditation center in Jamaica, Queens. The peace he teaches is an inner, spiritual peace achieved through self-transcendence, by extension creating a trouble-free world. Followers say they do not keep count, but there may be tens of thousands of group members around the world. They often change their names to incorporate an Indian name, engage in running and swimming marathons and hold an extraordinary number of world records for feats like underwater pogo-sticking.

Followers also say that Sri Chinmoy is capable of amazing physical and artistic feats: in addition to writing 13,000 songs and 1,120 books, they say he has drawn 5 million pictures of peace birds and lifted 7,000 pounds with either arm.

And, they stress, they are a "spiritual family" rather than a religious group. In the case of the Statue of Liberty plaque, the distinction is important.

Diane H. Dayson, the Superintendent of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island National Monument, who made the decision to allow the plaque to be placed, said two members of the group, Sandra Mahar and Nishtha Baum, approached her six weeks ago about dedicating the statue to world peace as part of the Sri Chinmoy Peace-Blossom effort. Though she grew up In Jamaica, Queens, Ms. Dayson said she had never heard of Sri Chinmoy.

While a request for a religious plaque would have been turned down immediately, Ms. Dayson said, the issue of world peace seemed apolitical and universal. Ms. Mahar and Ms. Baum set off on a campaign on behalf of the plaque, showing Ms. Dayson letters from officials at other sites praising the project and several videos, including one of speeches and plaques at two other national parks, the Grand Coulee Dam and Mount McKinley, and another of Sri Chinmoy lifting huge weights.

"While I couldn't believe that he could lift all those pounds," Ms. Dayson said, "the video showed him lifting all those pounds."

Plaques are few at the Statue of Liberty, one of the nation's most frequented national parks and a global symbol of political freedom. On the outer walls, there is a marker from the Masons, to honor their role in building the statue, another designating the statue as a National Corrosion Restoration Site, and one from the Association of Civil Engineers. In the museum in the statue's base is a bronze rendering of the poem "New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, best remembered for the lines "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free."

Until the new plaque was placed, on Aug. 27, the statue's entryway held only one plaque, a prominent marker on the south wall denoting it a National Historic Site. The new plaque is mounted in an out-of-the-way alcove toward the back of the north wall, a rectangle of blue about a foot tall and three-quarters of a foot wide, with raised bronze lettering.

At Mount McKinley in Alaska, a Sri Chinmoy plaque hangs at the Palkeetna ranger station, among markers commemorating attempts to scale North America's highest peak. The group dedicated a one-mile running course across the top of Grand Coulee Dam in Washington.

"They said they were an organization that promotes world peace through athletics, mainly running," said Craig Sprankle, a dam spokesman. "It was my understanding they were talking about international peace."

Dr. Agraha Levine, a student of Sri Chinmoy for 22 years who often serves as his spokesman, described the Peace-Blossom program as a way to foster the ideals of peace and friendship.

"Sri Chinmoy has been at the heart of fostering these ideals through many initiatives," said Dr. Levine, who asked that the leader he called a "student of peace" rather than a guru, to avoid unpleasant implications. "He believes that if we can go deep within, each in our own way, church, synagogue or mosque, in the peace of the mountaintops, finding the peace and goodness in all of us-Sri Chinmoy feels each of us has a soul, each is a child of God- we can find infinite compassion, infinite peace, infinite love. And infinite strength to go beyond the limitations that so often stop us from becoming the kind of people we want to become.

"Sri Chinmoy's is a message of self-transcendence."

Roger Scott, a spokesman for the National Park Service, who was involved in planning for the Statue of Liberty plaque, said there had been questions about the group's orientation but they had been addressed. " In speaking with the group," he said, "they say they are definitely not a religious group, just followers of Sri Chinmoy, who is an advocate of world peace. We felt It was a good, apolitical program to be associated with. The statue gets requests by the score, and many have political connections that Parks would rather not be associated with."

Ms. Dayson said that she tries to accommodate requests that are "not too outlandish" because of the statue's importance to so many different kinds of people. She has refused requests for rock concerts and bungee jumping but has granted requests for dinner parties and even a wedding.

The footage of the plaque ceremonies at the two national parks convinced her the Peace-Blossom effort was worthy. "I thought, if they've done it, how bad could it be?" she said.

Then, Ms. Dayson said, Ms. Baum and Ms. Mahar brought in a new element: Sri Chinmoy was approaching his 65th birthday (his birthday has been celebrated in the past by a follower capturing the world record for continuous hand-clapping - Ashrita Furman, 50 hours, 1981).

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