As part of a far-reaching U.S. tour, devotees of the former Divine Life Society leader and 1993 Parliament luminary Swami Chidananda Maharaj took the stage on Saturday, May 20th at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago to celebrate the rich life of the swami in his 100th birth year.
The Parliament was honored to be asked to participate and was represented by Executive Director Dr. Larry Greenfield and Board Trustee Swami Varadananda, who both delivered tributes. Among the panelists, they were joined by Swami Yatidharmananda of the Swami Chidananda Sevashram of Rishikesh, India, and International Kriya Yoga Foundation Leader Paramahamsa Prajnanananda.
Each reflected on Swami Chidananda’s enormous contributions to his own tradition and, by virtue of his participation in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, to the interfaith community.
Dr. Larry Greenfield’s remarks focused on how humbling the experience of honoring the Swami was for him after reading myriad expressions of appreciation for how Swami Chidananda conducted himself-- without a trace of personal ego, absolute dedication to the service of others, and with ultimate humility. Relaying tributes from past admirers and collaborators from the Parliament’s early years, Greenfield explored why the Swami's legacy in the Parliament of the World's Religions was pivotal to its success:
"Swami Chidananda is of course one of the most revered leaders in our own history as a Parliament. When the decision was reached in the late 1980s to reconvene the religious leaders a century after the historic first gathering here in Chicago in 1893 and host Parliament in Chicago in 1993, the planners of that event, that centennial event...readily invited the Swami become a part of the preparation."
Numerous Trustee Emeriti of the Parliament sent in their expressions of recognition for Chidananda, which Greenfield read to the audience, beginning with Leilani Smith of the Baha'i faith who stated,
"I worked closely with Swami Chidananda as we formed the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions and nurtured through the early years in the preparation for the centennial Parliament in 1993. It was his faith and his vision that helped establish the Parliament of the World's Religions. And he is enjoying the reward of his labor in the heavenly spiritual realm as we remember him now, and for many years to come."
Pratima Desai, a Parliament Trustee Emeritus wrote to Greenfield,
"Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society was one of India's leading saints. I recall the Swami was invited to become a part of the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual and Religious Leaders at the Parliament in 1993, and was also selected to be one of the 12 honorary presidents of the Parliament. Swamijis life's mission was to seek the divine in all. In celebrating Swamis life perhaps this is the one aspect that ought to be the highlighted. Just as he sought the spark of divinity in all, so, too, we must be inspired to find that aspect of divinity in all of humankind irrespective of caste, religion, color, or sex."
And the tributes kept coming. According to current Parliament Vice-Chair Dr. Kusumita Pedersen, he was "one of the outstanding and most respected Hindu spiritual leaders of the last century." Greenfield was especially touched by the poignant remarks of the Parliament's first executive director Dr. Daniel Gomez-Ibanez:
"A genuinely holy teacher, a giant;...Swami Chidananda was the real thing."
Parliament Trustee Swami Varadananda of Chicago's Vedanta Society holds onto similar memories of Swami Chidananda, regarding him in his highest esteem. Varadanada's remarks recounted the many ways in which Swami Chidananda's character embodied the best of many of the most revered spiritual leaders he has ever encountered- loving reminders. Varadananda openly shared stories of his personal encounters with Chidananda, summarized perfectly when he said,
"...even though he was head of the whole organization, you never felt this was someone you had to be kind of very careful with of anything- he was just very relaxed and approachable, and you felt good in his presense. At the same time, I'm sure, he was very strong and very powerful as a leader."
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Swami Chidananda was an avid participant in global interfaith dialogues and met with world leaders including Pope John Paul II and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Although deeply influenced by earlier Hindu saints like Swami Vivekananda, Chidananda became known for drawing wisdom from his relationships with members of other faith traditions, building an well-rounded philosophy and worldview that sourced truths and ethical imperatives from a variety of beliefs.
Many reports on his life discuss his great acts of generosity, such as constructing a mosque for Muslims in India; one of many reasons he earned the nickname "Give-ananda." Some of the stories shared by those who knew him detailed his immense empathy with, and compassion for, all living creatures. Swami Chidananda passed from this life in 2008 at the age of 92.
The most passionate speaker at the celebration, Swami Yatidharmananda, traveled to the United States on a visa obtained to participate in the 2015 Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. He began his monastic life as a disciple of Swami Chidananda at the Divine Life Society and, upon his guru’s passing, became a digital archivist and founded the SCS. His current work is to preserve the history of the life Swami Chidananda, so that future generations can continue to learn from this humble, inspiring, and compassionate figure.
Yatidharmananda was joyous in remembering his beloved guru, and glowed in expressing what meaning he held to those who studied with him. He said,
"Gurudev Sri Swami Chidanandaji succeeded not merely to hold aloft in both hands the banners of religion and service but to live and to teach the identity of these two human ideals as a single flame of the soul’s march to perfection.
The celebration of his 100th birthday anniversary is to us all an obvious occasion to pay our homage and gratitude to the great culture of India, whose vital spirit pulsates through the veins of its saints and sages, a noble example of which is Sri Swami Chidanandaji."
The words of Swami Chidananda himself were then remembered when Swami Yatidharmananda imparted his succinct spiritual instructions:
Wake up at dawn each day to salute the Universal Being. Bow down in adoration unto Him before you start the day. Go through the day serenely, full of happiness and contentment. There is nothing to condemn in this world. Change your angle of vision. Forego a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Stop anxiety and smile gently unto yourself. Feel that the whole world is the manifestation of the Lord and you are serving the Lord in all these names and forms. Convert life into Yoga. God walks with the simple, reveals Himself through the sufferer, gives understanding to the noble and keeps His Grace from the haughty. So renounce ego, cultivate virtues and be free. Keep the mind always calm and peaceful. Be the conqueror of your mind, the subduer of your desires and a master of your destiny, for you are the master.
The celebration concluded with a vote of thanks and the traditional ceremonial honors of plaques and scarves bestowed upon the Dharmic organizations involved in supporting the program from around the Chicagoland area, the program speakers and the temple leadership.