As the swami walked in his saffron socks across the carpeted floor, concentric ripples of bobbing shoulders flowed around him. After he passed, his students held their position, palms pressed together at chest level, fingertips up: the namaskar, one of the fundamental yogic positions. The gesture is a familiar one. Christians might push it forward, their faces raised in supplication, or hold it close, knees on the ground, head bowed, listening for the quiet voice. In yoga, the prayer position is performed with the feet solid on the ground, spine straight from lumbar to the tip of the neck, eyes straight ahead, the breath slowly leaving the body as the palms come together. In daily practice, it is a gesture of centering — the body and its chakras at the axis of the universe. Performed with a slight bow, it is one of greeting and acknowledgment – “You too are the center.” And performed on Saturday night, for his holiness Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, (“Swamiji” to his friends, who include, in practice, virtually everyone he encounters) it was one of genuflection.
The founder of the international movement “Yoga in Daily Life” was making his yearly visit to his disciples in America. After visiting Atlanta and attending a United Nations Conference on sustainable development in New York, he spent four days conducting yoga classes at the Yoga in Daily Life center at 2402 Mount Vernon Ave., the American headquarters of Yoga in Daily Life, which has branches in Atlanta, New York and in 25 other countries. On Saturday, people sat cross-legged and barefoot on the floor of one of the center’s large, carpeted rooms. An altar at one end of the room was draped in saffron and dominated by photographs of Swamiji, his youthful eyes and smile flashing from the dense fuzz of his black hair and beard, and several other swamis.
Moments before Swamiji entered the room, the comfortable chatter hushed. The audience’s profound discombobulation as they bowed was in dramatic contrast to the cheerful ease with which the swami flowed across the floor and settled himself in a composed lump at the front of the room on a throne-like cushioned couch set before a blue lotus banner. He tucked his crossed legs beneath his saffron sari and graciously bent his head to accept a red and white flower lei from a woman who kneeled deeply as she set it around his neck, then bowed her forehead nearly to the floor, palms together.
THE SWAMI remarked on his lateness then watched with the audience as a video on his ashram (an educational center) in Rajasthan, India was broadcast on a projector. The center is home to a school for 250 students, an ambulance and fire truck, a shelter for sacred cows abandoned during draught and an enormous man-made lake designed to harvest the rainwaters of the monsoon seasons. The Swamiji’s holiness does not place him above the need for money. His poverty and disaster-relief projects require him to focus a good part of his time on it. After the video, he used his utilitarian English to introduce Jonathon Dean and his wife. Dean met Swamiji overseas and helped bring Yoga in Daily Life to America. He also introduced Hunt Burke, the president of Burke and Herbert Bank, who is a major donor to the Alexandria center, as well as a practicing member.”
After almost an hour, Swamiji had barely spoken. When the special guests sat down, attention swung to him and rested there ponderously. “Music,” he said. A quartet sang two lovely hymns in Latin, acapella. Then a flutist played Bach. Attention returned again to the Swami. “One bhajan,” he said. “Without bhajan there’s no program.” Audience members burst to their feet and ran to the altar. From beneath its draperies they pulled tablas and other drums of all sizes, shakers, rattles, bells and a portable organ with a bellows and disperses them into the audience. In moments, the room twanged, rattled, snapped, thumped and sang with a joyful Indian spiritual. Those with no instruments clapped their hands in time with the swami, who sat on his cushions, eyes closed. When the song ended, the instruments were rushed back and two men from North Carolina came to the front of the room, again at the Swami’s briefly worded request.
“This is a gospel bhajan here,” said bearded Colin “Kamal Puri” Allured. The audience joined in the refrain as he fingered his acoustic guitar. “And he walks with me and he talks with and he tells me I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” After the gospel, clarinetist Amos “Kelaish Puri” Fischer joined Allured, who had switched to an electric sitar, in a series of improvisations from evening prayer songs of Yoga in Daily Life. As the intricate web of music spun into the corners of the room, Swamiji smiled serenely, his eyes closed, and slipped deep into a state of concentration that furrowing his face. As the music ebbed, he released the tension, smiled and clapped. “Very good combination,” he said. “East meets the west.”
After more than an hour, the swami had said less than fifty words. But he had been teaching constantly. He took off his lei. “The flower garland for Mrs. Dean, forgotten,” he said, gesturing for someone to bring his to her. Then he sat in silence, second after second. He finally began to chant. “Oooommmmmm….” The audience picked it up and sound filled the room like rising water. “Shanti. Shanti. Shanti-i,” Swamiji chanted.
“It’s a beautiful evening,” he finally said, after allowing the final echoes to still. “We are blessed ones, fortunate ones that we are today here together.”
He launched into a rambling speech that would ultimately last one and a half hours. Speaking mainly in generalities and parables, he touched on fundamental concepts: forgiveness, unity, happiness. He focused on humanity’s aggregate points of agreement: the existence of God, the need for shelter for family, for food. “Every culture is a very good culture, but the best culture is the agriculture,” he said, crediting an anonymous philosopher. “Food is the source of life. We can’t exist without the nourishment.”
A “swami” must by definition practice yoga, and Swamiji’s spirituality was infused with an appreciation for the body and the lived life. “First happiness is a healthy body,” he said. “First is the health, second is a happy partnership, good wife and good husband.” He said that divorce occurred when the marriage was made with emotion, but not with a trusting commitment from one another’s inner selves. “The third happiness of the human life is good children. [Who are] working for humanity and environment and protection of all creatures.” And the fourth: “to have your own garden, your own products for your own health.”
He turned to the environment, “We are day by day putting tons and tons of poison into the water, into the soil,” he said. “Ocean life is dying, and our life is the ocean. Without ocean we can’t imagine how we would live. It’s high time we should wake up and think over if we should use something chemically or not.” Describing the developed world as a “throw-away society,” he made a case for the transcendent importance of environmental stewardship. “Protection of the environment is our prime duty. Sometimes I think protection of the environment is more than the largest of the gods. Protection of the environment is the protection of the life and what is god? God is life.”
But for all his activism and emphasis on the collective effort it will take to restore the earth’s health, the swami’s message was ultimately personal. “Be good. That’s all. Be good. Simply be good. Before you blame others, think, maybe you are the guilty one.”
“Very rare are the people that take on their own mistakes. Very rare are the people that take on themselves the mistakes of others. That s why I always admired when Jesus says, ‘I die for you.’ This is something great, ‘I die for you.’”
“IT’S A REALLY PRECIOUS time when he comes here,” said Allured, the sitar player from Winston-Salem, who has been a disciple of Swamiji for several years, but had never played for him. “The energy is so potent at the times he’s here it sort permeates the year.” Years ago, when Allured, first saw the swami’s picture, he knew the two had shared a bond in past lives. “The guru-disciple experience lasts lifetimes.” He became an official disciple of the swami in a ceremony in which he was given a new name, Kamal Puri, and a mantra, a personal prayer to chant over the wooden beads of his “mala” prayer necklace that would connect him to his master.
Allured studied classical guitar at the North Carolina School of Arts and makes his living playing gigs and teaching guitar lessons. He said his own music is influenced by the uplifting intent of Indian spirituals. “Nada Rupa para Brahma,” he quoted one saying. “The form of the Supreme is sound.”
“In my life, [music is] the best way to share the experience of unity, the shared vibration, the presence and all the things Swamiji teaches.”
“He is a great inspiration to me and a great teacher,” said Dinah Wiley after Swamiji’s speech, which ended not with boisterous clapping, but a silent namaskar. Wiley is the president of Yoga in Daily Life – USA. “Part of it is just observing how he lives his life, and his joy, his ability to be in the present, his love for people, his commitment to the planet and making a contribution.” She said she practiced yoga for “personal transformation,” beginning with increasing physical strength and flexibility that open pathways in the body for energy to circulate. Coordinating the body gives practitioners the opportunity to examine the monkey chatter thought-noise that permeates most people’s mental experience. “Through the meditation you get to know yourself and the ways in which you make your own self suffer, and how to discard those parts and basically become a happier person,” Wylie said, “to rid yourself of those complexes, all the negativity that holds us back.”
“It’s in the nature that everyone would like to be happy,” Swamiji said in an interview after his speech, “No matter how — every creature is running towards happiness.”