In life, Pandurang Shastri Athavale, the spiritual leader of 30 million people, visited the Chicago area nearly every year since 1979.
In death, he returned one last time Saturday, and more than 5,000 of his followers went to the Rosemont Theater to view his cremated ashes.
Athavale, known to his followers as Dadaji, developed a philosophy that helped economically revitalize 100,000 villages in India, an accomplishment that helped him earn the $1.2 million Templeton Prize for progress in religion, an honor he shares with Mother Teresa, the Rev. Billy Graham and Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.
As leader of the Swadhyaya (pronounced swad-HE-ya) movement, Dadaji preached a philosophy that God is in everyone, and therefore we should treat everyone as if they were a member of our family. Most of his followers are Hindu, but members of all religions are welcome and encouraged to continue practicing their religious beliefs.
In thousands of villages in India, Dadaji’s ideas translated into farmers and fishermen pooling part of their produce to benefit the entire community. Followers also build housing for the needy.
Among the many speakers at a service, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) called Dadaji a “holy man who changed the lives of millions of people with his simple vision of love and respect and equality.”
“He was an individual who changed the world,” said Dr. Frank Morales, a local follower. “He was an individual who in his own humble way started a spiritual movement that changed the face of India and is now beginning to change the face of the entire globe.”
A short video featured Dadaji’s daughter Jayshree Talwalkar and emphasized her role as her father’s spiritual heir.
After the service, she said her father’s death last October at 82 was an emotional blow to his followers. “… But it doesn’t affect the work,” she said. “We will continue, the same way he wanted us to continue.”