Swami Satchidananda, Woodstock’s Guru, Dies at

New York Times, Aug. 21, 2002

Swami Satchidananda, the guru with the gigantic cottony beard who opened the Woodstock festival by calling music “the celestial sound that controls the whole universe,” died on Monday in Madras in South India. He was 87.

He lived in Yogaville, Va., a community he founded, and was in India attending a peace conference.

The swami, who used a title given to Hindu monks, arrived on the crest of a wave of fascination with India in the 1960’s, as sitar music, meditation and incense became standard features of college dormitory life. With a gift for irony, a mischievous sense of humor and a disarming way of ending his sentences with a slight “hum,” he gave lectures that were part of the fun.

Peter Max, the artist of psychedelia, invited him to the United States in 1966, and his disciples included celebrities like the singer-composer Carole King, the jazz musician Paul Winter and the actors Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern.

Among the many Indian gurus then appearing in America, he was regarded as more tolerant of the often heavily medicated flower children. He attributed their frustrations to failed institutions and offered his teachings as a way to escape drugs.

“They are all searching for the necklace that’s around their necks,” he said of the Woodstock generation. “Eventually they’ll look in the mirror and see it.”

Over time, his influence deepened, as he established ashrams, or places of worship, and yoga training across the United States, including his Light of Truth Universal Shrine (Lotus) on 750 acres on the James River in Virginia. Corporations asked him to counsel employees, and medical centers sought his advice on nutrition.

Dr. Dean Ornish, the scientist and author who showed that cardiovascular disease can be reversed through diet, exercise and relaxation, became a vegetarian and started meditating on the basis of the swami’s advice. “I felt better,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. “I felt peaceful.”

Ramaswamy, as his given name was then, was born in Chettipalayamm to a family of wealthy landowners on Dec. 22, 1914, a time seen as having propitious astrological energy because Jupiter was aligned with Uranus under the sign of Capricorn.

According to the reference book “<a href="javascript:void(0);" onmouseover="return overlib('The book Religious Leaders Of America was written by J. Gordon Melton, who is a notorious cult defender.’, CAPTION, ‘Alert…’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’, STICKY, CLOSECOLOR, ‘yellow’, TIMEOUT, ‘9000’);” onmouseout=”return nd();”>Religious Leaders of America,” he worked in his family’s automobile import business as a young man, learning the welding trade.

He married and had two sons; one, C. R. Nanjappan, who lives in South India, survives him, along with six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

His wife died five years after they married, and he became more deeply interested in spirituality. He left his sons with his mother and set off on a spiritual quest that took him to mountaintops and deep into jungles and forests. He wandered from one guru to the next, finally finding the one he wanted to follow in Swami Sivananda, a yoga master who wrote 200 books.

On July 10, 1949, on the banks of the Ganges River, he was initiated into the holy order of Sannyasa by Swami Sivananda and given the monastic name Swami Satchidananda. It is said to mean “existence-knowledge-bliss absolute.”

In 1951, Swami Sivananda asked him to tour India organizing branches of his Divine Life Society and teaching yoga. He was then sent to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to do the same thing. His outreach was social as well as spiritual: he opened an orphanage and a medical dispensary.

In 1965, Conrad Rooks, a filmmaker, met Swami Satchidananda while filming his autobiographical movie “Chappaqua.” The next year Mr. Rooks and Mr. Max, who was working on the film with him, invited the swami for a two-day visit to New York. His visa identified him as “Minister of Divine Words,” and he soon attracted hundreds of followers who persuaded him to lengthen his stay.

He broke from Divine Life, and on Oct. 7, 1966, founded his first Integral Yoga Institute in New York. Integral Yoga is his blend of a variety of forms of yoga, including physical exercises, that together are designed to lead to mental tranquillity.

Word circulated on the nascent spiritual grapevine about the swami’s gifts, including an account that
he had cured a disciple’s kidney ailment by blessing a glass of water. Seven months before Woodstock, he presided over a sold-out evening at Carnegie Hall.

At the music festival, he sat on a white bedspread surrounded by microphones. He shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

“The whole world is watching you,” he said to the crowd. “The entire world is going to know what the American youth can do for humanity. America is helping everybody in the material field, but the time has come for America to help the whole world spiritually also.”

In 1972, he founded Yogaville-West in Seigler Springs, Calif. Yogaville-East was begun in Pomfret, Conn. For almost 10 years, it was the United States headquarters for Integral Yoga.

In 1979, he acquired 600 acres of woodlands in Buckingham County, Va., financing the purchase by selling a piece of land in Falls Village, Conn., that Carole King had given him. He later added 150 more acres.

The centerpiece of the town is a shrine with 10 altars for different religions — Hindu, Shinto, Tao, Buddhist, Islam, Sikh, Native American and African, plus two for other unnamed religions. Tubes of neon light rise from each altar; a larger central altar has its own, larger tube of light.

The shrine highlights a belief the swami shares with modern Hinduism, that all religions ultimately lead to God. At the dedication ceremony in 1986, there were two Bengal tigers, a juggler and a baby elephant named Bubbles.

Swami Satchidananda led the audience in chanting “Om-shanti,” or peace.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday August 21, 2002.
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