This article is adapted from Dr. Tilak’s book Understanding Karma In Light of Paul Ricoeur’s Philosophical Anthropology and Hermeneutics, North Charleston, SC, BookSurge, 2007, with the kind permission of the author.
Of all the Indian mystics and spiritual teachers who have travelled our world guiding those in quest of self-realization, Sri Chinmoy is unique because of his skilful use of the medium of poetry and visual art to communicate his teachings to the target audience in small groups spread across the five continents. Born in Chittagong, India in 1931, while still a child, Sri Chinmoy had a deeply mystical experience and at the age of twelve he entered an ‘ashram’ where he spent the next twenty years in intense prayer and meditation; perfecting his inner vision and realizing that rare state of awareness with God that various traditions call Enlightenment or God-realization. Driven by an inner voice or urge to offer his realizations to aspiring humanity, he moved to New York in 1964. “It was the Voice of my Inner Pilot, who commanded me. I had no choice in the matter” (see Sri Chinmoy 1977: 52).
After he had settled in New York, Sri Chinmoy turned his attention to the United Nations and its activities. From its inception, the United Nations had recognized the value of meditation as a force for world peace. Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General, accordingly had a meditation room built in the Secretariat building. Dag Hammarskjöld, his successor, was mystically oriented and re-designed the room, as it exists today. U Thant, who followed Dag Hammarskjöld, was equally mystical in his outlook and brought deeply Buddhist spiritual and humanistic perspectives to the working of the United Nations. Over the decades, an ongoing series of programs and symposia have been designed to provide a forum for ambassadors, officials, and staff to share and reinforce their spiritual vision of and for the United Nations. In 1971, Sri Chinmoy was invited to serve as a leader of the meditation group, which is formally known as ‘Sri Chinmoy: Meditation at the United Nations’. It is an association of United Nations delegates, staff, NGO representatives, and accredited correspondents. Over the years, Sri Chinmoy authored over 1,500 books of poetry, plays, stories, aphorisms, and essays. A renowned artist, he was also recipient of ‘‘Contribution to the Arts’’ award given by the New York School of Visual Arts in 1976.
In an interview given to Bishop Kennedy and Sister Patricia Fox in Adelaide, Australia on March 12, 1976 while on a tour there, Sri Chinmoy explained the raison-d’être of his life and mission thus: “Discover yourself through yogic meditation.” It would appear that Sri Chinmoy perfected the art of meditation, which ultimately led him to self-perfection and ‘God-realization’ without any external help. Subsequently, he taught the art of meditation to anyone who cared to learn. To his Australian interviewers, Sri Chinmoy explained that he preferred the life of activity, dynamism, and self-giving (i.e. Karmayoga) to remaining closeted in the Himalayas (Sri Chinmoy Centre 1977: 54-56, 63). In a seminar he conducted in Ottawa, Canada in 1993, which I had attended, Sri Chinmoy explained his philosophy of life thus: “I have come into the world to be of service. I don’t teach in the outer sense of the term. I enter into my own highest meditation.” He then lapsed into what may be called a deep state of meditation for a few seconds to provide a practical demonstration of his meditative techniques. Returning to verbal explanation and commentary, he continued, “I keep my heart’s door open and then anybody can enter and together we go to our God.” Those interested were invited to maintain an inner connection with him; and he promised to provide inner and outer guidance that would take them to the ‘source’ of life.
The interaction with the master in Ottawa in 1993 clearly brought out for me Sri Chinmoy’s hermeneutical stance: To interpret is to bring out what is concealed in a given manifestation, to make evident what in the manifestation is not evident from the milieu in which the interpreter’s audience lives. Like the legendary Hermes, Sri Chinmoy acted like a ‘go-between’ to his interlocutors, transmuting what is beyond human understanding into a form that human intelligence could grasp. His poetry recitals and talks seemed to bring out what Palmer calls the three directions of meaning implicit in the verb hermeneuein and the noun hermeneia in a hermeneutical act: (i) oral recitation or expressing aloud in words; (ii) a reasoned explanation; and (iii) a translation from another language (see Palmer 1969: 13-14). To learn something on one’s own is like a fagot without fire; but when the preceptor (guru) imparts knowledge, his/her power and grace come with it, igniting the fagot.
The athlete Karmayogin
Sri Chinmoy and his unique method of teaching were brought to my attention in the early seventies when students in my yoga class at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada, began to mention his name and ask questions about his spirituality and why he was becoming so famous. After some preliminary research it became clear to me that there was indeed something different in Sri Chinmoy’s re-interpretation of the traditional Karmayoga that put him apart from any number of spiritual teachers from India who roam around the world today. He probably was unique in stressing the old Greek adage of ‘healthy mind in a healthy body.’ By incorporating physical culture and sports (such as the biennial Peace Run or the running of marathons organized the year round all over the world) in his overall spiritual project, Sri Chinmoy aimed at an active and creative attitude towards an integrative life of meaning and purpose. In many ways it was modelled on the institute of gymnasium with its lectures and discussions as well as physical exercises, which was the most popular institution in ancient Greece.
Every two years, hundreds of disciples and others interested are encouraged to join together in a round-the-globe relay run under the aegis of ‘Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run’ with the aim of promoting world peace. The ‘Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team,’ an international running organization, which believes that sports can be a powerful instrument for promoting world peace, organizes the Peace Run. Each year the team puts on more than five hundred events worldwide, including triathlon championships in a number of countries. It is an Olympic-style relay by men, women, and children representing more than seventy nations. Carl Lewis, the 9-time Olympic gold medallist, was one of the dozens of well-known athletes and celebrities who have participated in it. Each participant runs a few metres holding aloft a flaming peace torch then hands it over to the next runner along the route. The route stretches more than fifty-one thousand miles: almost twice the earth’s circumference. In keeping with the tenets of Karmayoga, the Peace Run is designed to be practical. By touching directly thousands who line the route, it expects to bring hope, inspiration, and friendship. More importantly, it seeks changes in attitude: in the runners, in those who cheer them on along the way, and in community or political leaders who see in the run the groundswell for peace.
Sri Chinmoy at the National Art Gallery, Ottawa
It was almost two decades later, in November 1993 that I had the privilege of meeting Sri Chinmoy in person when I attended the inauguration ceremony of the exhibition of 100,000 miniature drawings of soul birds done by him at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, Canada. It appears that about two years prior to that opening, Sri Chinmoy was guided by his ‘Inner Pilot’ to express and share his transcendent experience with others by illustrating it in the form of the soul birds. The project took concrete shape on December 29, 1991, while he was on tour of Malta. The one million mark was to be reached three years later, on January 5, 1994 in Fiji. In the next two years, his painting activity reached a crescendo. Incredibly, the five million mark was reached on July 19, 1996 in New York.
Back at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, Canada in 1993, I remember being deeply moved by the transformative power of his miniature drawings. As I sauntered from one salon to another taking in the minuscule and tiny drawings that were scattered and displayed everywhere like butterflies, I suddenly became aware that my ‘worm’s-eye view’ of the mundane reality that was essentially conditioned by space and time was first challenged and then transformed into the ‘bird’s-eye view’ urging me for a dialogue on supreme and transcendent reality beyond space and time. It was, as if, myriad soul birds were soaring in the sky within. I then realized how Sri Chinmoy the artist and poet, was also a modern incarnation of the Vedic kavi shaman who possessed the power to make things clear and to purify the universe by his power of the possible and of imagination (māyā). As the Ŗgveda puts it, he was like a priest, poet, seer, and free magician all rolled into one (Ŗg 3:38.1-4; 1:164.18).
Performing artist and actor as hermeneutist
After visiting the art gallery, we assembled in the theatre for an ‘audience’ with Sri Chinmoy, the artist and the actor, who staged a commanding performance for us. It was preceded by a short presentation by Karen Kain, the famous Canadian ballet dancer, who had received initiation from the master. On the stage Sri Chinmoy loomed majestic, alternatively reciting poetry and furiously drawing on a 4’x 4’ white canvas paper tiny soul birds in dark ink with a few deft strokes of a pen in rapid succession. One could feel something of the ancient Vedic sacrificial ritual (yajña) in operation there. Sri Chinmoy’s public painting and recitation ritual evoked the core element of the Vedic and Indic spirituality expressed at once as a ritual, a spectacle, and a performance. It could only be described as pre-discursive, supra-textual, and even visceral inviting engagement of one’s entire person. True, the audience heard him verbally and propositionally, but one could also sense, see, even smell the ‘extension and sending across’ of the uniquely spiritual tradition. It was as if his ritual acted out aesthetically and dramatically that which spirituality represents. The work of art perhaps is the ultimate example of the human capacity to express will through matter. A painting or a sonata, for instance, is a purpose or idea in sensuous form through which the immaterial human function or will become incarnate transcending the periphery of the actor’s physical and human realm and body; in such a way that all may share the product of art that originated in the artist’s will and desire.
A work of art, from the perspective of hermeneutics, is not a mere ‘thing,’ it is social cement, a connecting link or even fusion between this mind and that mind. The fact of Sri Chinmoy being up on stage in a highly charged ecstatic state in the pantomime of drawing the soul birds facilitated this fusion. It is as if he had invited the audience to join him in a transformative experience in which the meaning of inner development was not pre-determined, but grew out spontaneously by participation in the event. Here, the motif and experience of the bird as messenger reached a threshold point. It carried the living sense of being in a meaningful and longed-for union, of which the bird was emblem, signpost, messenger, and medium. This suggests that the purpose of art is transformational rather than mere visual display. As long as the inner experience is true, then the art, too, is true. In this ‘staged’ encounter, one is witness to poetics as a hermeneutical technique of explanation and interpretation, which culminates in appropriation, i.e. a creative shaping and retaining of received knowledge and experience as one’s own. It is not, however, a passive receptivity but a product of dynamic engagement. The reciprocal interplay between Sri Chinmoy and the disciple can be seen as a re-fusion, powering dynamism of its own.
Bird: metaphor and messenger of the soul
In cultures of Asia the bird motif has been traditionally connected to spontaneous, even involuntary, kinaesthetic imaging and knowing based on a natural closeness between the bird imagery and the Spirit. The conjunction of the bird and the Spirit is identified in the bird ‘totem,’ which is simultaneously expressed in the real bird, the artist, and in something approaching a Platonic idea of the bird’s essential nature and gift (see Cunningham 1991). In Indian spirituality, the swan (hamsa) motif points to the transcendent reality (brahman) as an aspect of the soul. It is therefore not surprising that where the creative spirit was, the bird motif would be found close at hand. Alternatively, this phenomenon could be understood in terms of Karl Jung’s theory of synchronicity. Whenever an important interior, revelatory expansion occurs within the human psyche, it is externalised simultaneously in the form of a work of art or literature centred on a root symbolism such as the bird. Others then are able to participate and relate in the interior development of the visionary through the shared symbolisms. The artist, in turn, crystallizes this new pattern of relationship by the use of a new metaphor, affirmed in the depths of his/her being. In Sri Chinmoy’s drawings and poetry, birds symbolized the evolving spirit like the stork who, according to an age-old legend, brings the newborn child from the sky. Like Chinese martial arts and poetry, Sri Chinmoy’s transformative art made use of the bird imagery as a model for proper posture and attitude that are thought to transcend mere imitation leading to merger with ultimate reality (brahman).
Sri Chinmoy’s sketches of soul birds seemed similar in technique and symbolism to works of the Daoist Fifth Moon artists of China that, too, are usually drawn with a few broad strokes of brush using black ink and leaving ample blank and empty space on the white paper. According to the principle of clairvoyanticism of Daoist theory of art based on the Dao De Jing (particularly chapters 25, 41, 42), this technique is used to realize the presence of the infinite (Dao or brahman) seen from the standpoint of the finite. Jacques Maritain, the French philosopher of art, explains this technique with reference to the first of the six canons of art traditionally attributed to Hsieh-ho who maintained that the artist catches the unique spiritual resonance in ‘Things,’ inspired as he is by his communion with the spirit of the cosmos. Through his contemplative effort, the artist brings out from ‘Things’ the encaged soul and the inner principle of dynamic harmony; their ‘spirit.’ Like an invisible ghost, it comes down to them from the spirit of the universe and gives them their typical form of life and movement (Maritain 1965: 14).
Sri Chinmoy, the Vedic artist and poet
In the Vedic tradition kavi was at once seer, poet, artist, shaman, and yogin. As performer and transformer of consciousness, the Vedic kavi cannot be separated from his/her object creations and intention. The function of intention is comparable to the Latin intendere ‘to stretch’ or to ‘extend’ and reveals the metaphorical origins of the notion of intentionality as a kind of ‘stretching’ of the mind in order to ‘see’ into the future. The drive to go beyond sense to reference (to use Paul Ricoeur’s expression) lies not within the structure but in the subject’s intentionality and ultimately in the very being of the subject. The kavi’s art and poetry is not a mere paid diversion or distraction as is often the case with modern artists who live in the bohemian world of gallery, theatre, and concert hall. True art cannot be appreciated apart from the artist who created it. To that extent artist and his/her art must always remain on the cutting edge of ever-transforming consciousness. For this reason traditionally, the Vedic kavi’s art was present and was revealed in and through the actual performance alone.
It seems that Sri Chinmoy’s art, too, could not be separated from his performance, or more appropriately, from the performing ritual that he staged for us in Ottawa. The secret of ‘all great art and religion,’ according to Gregory Bateson, is ‘how to tell the difference between a sacrament and a metaphor...It’s something that one cannot tell’ (see Greentree 1991). The birds that figure in Sri Chinmoy’s drawings are more than metaphors; they are the consciousness of brahman. Those who meditate on them realize the feeling and state of brahman, which can be induced in the mind that has been deliberately sensitised and prepared to receive it. This phenomenon may be analogous to Abraham Maslow’s ‘peak experience’. Sri Chinmoy was a kavi in the traditional sense of that term because through the medium of art he was able to induce the state of brahmanin himself and in those who were receptive to, participated, and shared in his performing art ritual. This presupposes recognition and conviction (after Ricoeur) that imagistic insights are as fundamental a form of cognition as presumably is verbal, abstract, and propositional thought. Painting and sculpture are texts (like art) constructed in a visual mode that can be thought of as ‘artifactual’ means for evoking intended feelings and sensations of transcendence. The juxtaposition of artefact with feeling can become a powerful means for creating meaning in the world as well as extracting meaning from it. In a pamphlet entitled 5 Million Birds and published by his centre (n.d.), Sri Chinmoy described the genesis of his art in these words:
Everything is in seed form in the inner world first, and then only can it become manifested in the outer world. The embodiment of thought-reality, which is manifested here in the form of art or in any other form, first existed in the inner world. Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy (Sri Chinmoy Centre 1977).
Sri Chinmoy claimed that the act of painting came to him spontaneously. He saw a streak of light, which he followed. When painting, he did not have in mind a set number or figure. All he did was to render himself as a perfect instrument of the Supreme by surrendering to His Will. “The human artist in me says: ‘what is finished is finished. What is complete is complete.’ The divine artist in me says: ‘Nothing can be permanently finished, nothing can be completely complete. For in the inner world today’s destination and today’s perfection are the starting points to embark on a new journey and to see the face of a new dawn’.” (Sri Chinmoy Centre 1977).
The context of Sri Chinmoy’s art is conducive to a symbolic mode of interpretation, which forces us to interpret his miniature ‘soul birds’ connotatively as signifiers of transcendent meaning. Here, Ricoeur’s view of painting (based on a theory of Francois Dragonet) would be useful. Ricoeur held that painting (and in a similar fashion, writing) is not an attempt to duplicate reality but to augment the real by the strategy of contracting and miniaturizing it. But in the very abbreviation of time-space dimension, it enlarges our vision of reality, explains Sri Chinmoy’s preoccupation with the miniature in his paintings of birds.
Painting for the Dutch masters was neither the reproduction nor the production of the universe, but its metamorphosis. The eikon opens up a reality that is more real than the ordinary real (cited in van Den Hengel 1982: 36).
Like the writer, the painter in Sri Chinmoy worked with an ‘optic alphabet’ with which he wrote ‘a new text of reality.’ His more than one million bird miniatures visually depict and represent unity in multiplicity. Incredible though it may sound, each drawn bird is different, however infinitesimally. In the pamphlet of the Sri Chinmoy Centre referred to above, the message of his ‘art’ is stated to be ‘Self-transcendence which is the life, heart, breath, and soul of my Art.’
As soon as we think of one million birds, it is all multiplicity. But as soon as we think of the bird-consciousness, it is one. The bird-consciousness represents the consciousness of our soul’s inner freedom.
Sri Chinmoy’s style is at once lyrical and abstract with relatively fewer substantives in his poems. But whenever present, they act as archetypal symbols: bird, boat, or flame for instance. The evocative power of his poetry is packed with verbs of action, which impel the reader (and the listener) to make a qualitative leap of consciousness. Alan Spence, who has published collections of poetry and short stories and was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, narrates an incident when Scottish poet Tom McGrath was reading aloud to a friend a poem by Sri Chinmoy called ‘The Absolute.’
Their initial reaction was that the poem was ‘old-fashioned’ in rhythm and diction and that peculiarly Indian sensibilities could not be captured in English. As the recitation went on, however, it became clear that:
[We] were listening to a voice speaking from the absolute pinnacle of human experience, and speaking directly from it…Not only had we heard a great poem, but we both felt we had been in the presence of a consciousness the nature of which filled us with the deepest humility and reverence (See introduction of Alan Spence in Sri Chinmoy 1982: 8-10).
This power in Sri Chinmoy’s poetry lay in the fact that though composed in English, his poems were crafted in the traditional Indian medium of mantra and sūtra. Mantra refers to formulaic arrangements of letters designed to generate a specific sequence of sound vibrations that produce an intended effect on the body, mind, and the consciousness of the person chanting. Sūtra refers to aphorisms that are densely packed with words of multiple meanings. Every time a poem is read aloud and/or heard, therefore, refigured surplus meaning leaps out as it were, evoking a shift in the consciousness that McGrath and his friend had talked of.
Sri Chinmoy’s deployment of a poetic and recitative mode (in place of standard prose exegesis) to evoke and elucidate the Absolute appeared deliberate. His hermeneutical act thereby avoided, what Nikky Kaur Singh, a Sikh scholar based in the US, coyly brands a prosaic exegesis that precariously hangs on to ‘the side of a passage, underneath a line, on the bottom of a page, in a footnote, a passive act’ (1992: 264). Sri Chinmoy’s visual art and poetry, therefore, has an enduring potential to become a fountain of creativity, which can contribute greatly to spiritual aesthetics opening up in the process an entirely new road and vista in transformative art. Since it is not confined to a rational system of thought, but operates like the traditional Vedic or Daoist aesthetics, it allows a direct, intuitive experience which contains within it certain basic, profound, and subtle meanings essential to the attainment of brahman or ‘the Way’ which is the origin of art (see chapter twenty-five of Dao De Jing where hsiuang-hun is recognized as a prerequisite to the beauty of poetry and art).
What was it that was so appealing in the persona of Sri Chinmoy in addition to his transformative art and poetry? During the performance that I attended, he abruptly lapsed into meditation apparently completely losing individual awareness. He metamorphosed himself, as it were, into a receptive public medium for divine self-expression. Consequently, the audience felt a kind of three-way mystical union with him through the medium of his artworks. Instructors from his Centre in Montreal who I used to invite to speak to my students shed additional light. What appealed to those who for various reasons were dissatisfied with their actual condition and the more traditional forms of religion, was Sri Chinmoy’s charisma, his teachings on peace and spiritual truth that appeared greater than science. Sri Chinmoy employed a variety of ways to engage spiritual truth and communicate it to anyone who cared to learn. The most direct way was to communicate directly from heart to heart in a ritual/performative setting as he did for us in Ottawa. The written and spoken word for the general public was yet another way.
It would seem that Sri Chinmoy’s disciples who belonged to different faiths understood his message differently. To his expatriate Hindu disciples, Sri Chinmoy’s teachings came across as more discursive and reflective oriented by the tradition of the initiation by the guru (dikşā). One is reminded of Max Weber’s well-known notion of exemplary charisma; the guru’s exemplary presence enables disciples to discover their own true identity. To put it more generally, the mechanism of transaction, so important in Indian spirituality, moves the disciple to give his/her utmost respect to the guru while at the same time surrendering his/her old constricted sense of self. In exchange, he/she receives the guru’s love and an enlarged sense of who he/she really is.
Others welcomed an opportunity to establish a personal link and relationship with Sri Chinmoy either directly or indirectly, finding solace in the universality of his message and its claim to transcend the particularities of any one religion or culture.
Sri Chinmoy passed away in 2007. And though he is no longer physically among us, one tangible way to still access his unique charisma and teachings can be anchored in the sixteen million soul-bird miniatures that he has drawn. The life and the spirit of these miniatures did not end with the physical end of the master. The encounters of thousands of his followers and others with the soul-birds miniatures will continue to enter into and animate the spirit and message of Sri Chinmoy.
Cunningham, Keith. 1991. The cry of the heron: animal as medium and as messenger. Quest, vol 4 no.2 (Summer 1991): 72-80.
Greentree, Victor. 1991. The artist as shaman. Quest, vol 4 no.1 (Spring 1991): 48-54.
Kaur Singh, Nikky-Gurinder. 1992. Poetics as a Hermeneutic Technique in Sikhism. In Texts in Context: Traditional Hermeneutics in South Asia edited by Jeffrey R. Timm, 245-270, Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press.
Maritain, Jacques. 1965. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, New York: The World Publishing.
Palmer, Richard. 1969. Hermeneutics; interpretation theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Enanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
Sri Chinmoy. 1973. Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita: The Song of the Transcendental Soul. New York: Rudolf Steiner Publications.
Sri Chinmoy. 1976. My Heart’s Salutation To Australia Pt II, New York: Sri Chinmoy.
Sri Chinmoy Centre. 1977. Sri Chinmoy. New York.
Sri Chinmoy. 1982. Between Nothingness and Eternity: a selection of poems with an introduction by Alan Spence. Jamaica, N.Y.: Aum Publications.
van Den Hengel. 1982. The Home of Meaning. The Hermeneutics of the Subject of Paul Ricoeur, Washington D.C.: University Press of America.
Note on the Author:
Shrinivas Tilak is an independent researcher based in Montreal, Canada. Born in 1939 in India, he immigrated to Canada in 1965 where he did B.A. (Asian studies) and M.A. (history and philosophy of religion, Concordia University, Montreal), and Ph.D. (history of religions, McGill University, Montreal). His doctoral dissertation was on the meanings of old age and aging from the perspective of ayurveda. His research interests include Ayurveda, Indology, and Hermeneutics. Dr. Tilak’s major publications are: The Myth of Sarvodaya: A study in Vinoba’s concept (New Delhi: Breakthrough Communications 1984); Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition (Albany, N. Y. State University of New York Press, 1989), and Understanding karma in light of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophical anthropology and hermeneutics (North Charleston, SC: BookSurge, 2007).