Elizabeth Gilbert in the book Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Eve… describes the “physics of the quest”, a force of nature that governs the laws of the spiritual journey. It states that if you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and embark on a truth-seeking journey, accept everyone you meet as a teacher and forgive yourself for difficult realities; then truth will not be withheld from you. Several minds from both the East and the West have communicated this idea of spiritual science and Hinduism. One of the key Eastern minds elucidating this for common minds was Swami Chinmayananda, the inspiration behind the Chinmaya Mission, a Hindu spiritual organisation spread across more than 26 countries.
Swami Chinmayananda was an Indian spiritual teacher who transformed from being an agnostic to delving deeply into the purpose of life and its cause and effect. He communicated the tenets of Hinduism as a spiritual science not just in India but worldwide, including at the United Nations (UN). In his 1992 address to the UN, which was themed ‘Planet in Crisis’, he emphasised the importance of interconnection and how it can bring peace.
Swami Chinmayananda was a proponent of the usefulness of theories of interconnection from the Eastern metaphysical perspective. He specialised in Advaita Vedanta which roots out any man-made divisions and is centered around the idea that one divisible facet governs man, woman, nature and beings. Evolution of thoughts catalyzes this phenomenon. Several theorists and philosophers of interconnection in the West also maintained this idea; one such was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin through his thesis of the phenomenon of man (Le Phénomène humain).
Swami Chinmayananda believed in inclusion and was famously described as a “teacher” by Pritish Nandy in one of his interviews. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described his uniqueness in enabling social cohesion while releasing a commemorative coin in 2015. He described him as a teacher enabling access to spiritual science for people of all communities, sans caste, creed, gender, or any other man-made divisions. He wanted maximum number of people to benefit from the knowledge of Vedanta and believed that the individual is the catalyst to the change we aspire to see. He was one of India’s dynamic trans-national non-state public diplomats for Vedanta.
Swami Chinmayananda emphasised the scientific rigour of Hinduism in his presentations. In his address at the UN, he distinguished Vedanta as a subjective science. He always alluded to the importance of the subjective science for which he was a domain expert. For him, what mattered was internal inquiry through reason, rationale and logic, which eventually substantiates to us what our real potential is, enabling us to solve challenges from the standpoint of the truth. In this famous address at the UN, he declared that “through individual perfection alone, world perfection is possible.”
Swami Chinmayananda urged everyone to be evaluative thinkers by examining ourselves first. He stated that all Eastern subjective thinkers “scientifically observed, analysed, and collected all the data and came to the conclusion that the quality and types of thoughts that arise in you are ordered by your own intellectual convictions.” Analysing ourselves can help us rise above and think of all as one. He emphasised this in the Vedic chants, such as in the Purushasuktam, which enshrines we are “One Divine Person, One Divine living organism”.
Swami Chinmayananda’s teachings remain relevant today and always. He emphasised the importance of rising above animosities and focusing on interconnection. In the 21st century, where we face pandemics, poverty and unemployment, can we solve these challenges alone? We need to recognise our potential, fix ourselves, and come together to create a better world. This was nothing but his lifelong pursuit. Swami Chinmayananda’s teachings were not just consistent with the principles of Vedanta, but it mirrored ideas of Swami Vivekananda. Today, thinkers like the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson in the US also reiterate some of these ideas in their works that both these spiritual giants of India stood for and espoused.
Values play a critical role in a nation’s soft power, and Swami Chinmayananda believed that right thinking and good values are vital components of our efforts. His teachings in Vedanta prepared individuals to face challenges and equipped them with mental strength, fortitude and the courage to confront obstacles.
One of his key objectives was to facilitate a dialogue between Eastern and Western thinkers, which, in my view, is relevant in today’s time and age. In what has come to be known as “cultural exchanges” today, in his time, he wanted to Western thinkers to visit India and participate in dialogue with Eastern minds, centred on mutuality. Towards this end, he visited close to 26 universities in the US and invited them to study in India and understand the country’s civilisational wisdom. The Chinmaya International Foundation, premised on Adi Shankaracharya’s maternal birthplace in Melpazhur Mana, is furthering this objective of his. He believed this would bring about an integrative approach to teaching the youth the scientific rigour of Eastern thought, especially Hinduism. In the hyperventilating age of social media, these integrative discussion spaces, virtual or otherwise, have to be revived and reignited as an ode to this spiritual teacher.
On May 8, his 107th birth anniversary, we remember Swami Chinmayananda as a communicator of spiritual and life sciences, who helped people not only in India but around the world to develop their mental strength and fortitude, enabling them to confront and overcome the challenges of life.