Indian sports date back to the Vedic era. Horse riding, wrestling, swordsmanship, archery and physical excellence were an integral part of the kshatriya caste’s training. Skill in weaponry was one of the 13 branches of learning which every educated kshatriya male was expected to study, and the warriors with prowess often had special privileges as well – in one of these, the kshatriya was allowed to carry off a woman for his bride, and the other consisted of a competition for a bride in which the chief event was an archery contest. Arjuna and Rama are depicted in the Mahabharata and Ramayana as having won their consorts in such tournaments.
Interestingly, the Sri Aurobindo ashram near Pondicherry in south India famously promoted sports and physical excellence as an essential part of spiritual discipline, and yoga, track and field, soccer and other sports were part of the daily activities of the ashramites and their path of integral yoga. Sri Chinmoy, one of its most prominent members, took this culture of sports and meditation, physical wellbeing and spiritual discipline to the West in 1964 and eventually founded a worldwide organisation that would organise over 800 races every year, revive ultra distance events, and found the longest footrace in history, the now annual 3,100 mile ultra marathon! Aucklander Dharbasana Lynn is the only New Zealander to ever compete in and finish this most gruelling of races, finishing in 2010 in 51 days.
Sri Chinmoy was an avid sportsman from his youth and throughout his life. In the spiritual community where he grew up, he excelled in soccer and volleyball, and was the top-ranked sprinter. During his late teens he was also a decathlon champion.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he was an active long-distance runner, completing many marathons, ultra-marathons and shorter races. For many years he played tennis almost every day, and frequently competed in track-and-field events in Masters Games, including the World Masters Games in Puerto Rico in 1983, and the World Veterans Games in Miyazaki, Japan in 1993. He took up weight-lifting in the mid-1980s and over the years set several records in the calf-raise and one-arm lift.
Sri Chinmoy believed that a balanced lifestyle fosters harmony and inner peace. His integral approach to life encouraged physical fitness and sports as a vehicle for personal transformation.
“There are countless people on earth who do not believe in the inner strength or inner life. They feel that the outer life is everything. I do not agree with them,” he says. “There is an inner life; there is spirit, and my ability to lift heavy weights proves that it can work in matter as well. I am doing these lifts with the physical body, but the power is coming from an inner source, from my prayer and meditation.”
Inspired by his example, several of his students have attempted to stretch their own personal limits – setting new world records in various fields, running multi-day races, swimming the English channel and climbing some of the world’s highest mountains. Sri Chinmoy met, encouraged and honored many sporting legends, including the great Jesse Owens who in the summer Olympics in 1936 in Berlin won international fame with four gold medals in the 100 and 200 metres, the long jump and 4×100 metre relay. The most successful athlete at the games, Owens was credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler’s belief in Aryan supremacy.
Sri Chinmoy was also an avid tennis player himself and played with Leander Paes and another Indian champion Ramesh Krishnan in New York city. Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in 2007, would have been saddened by the recent passing of another sporting great, the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali whom he met on several occasions and shared a long friendship with. A photo of the two men together was placed on the front page of The New York Times the morning after Ali’s passing.
Sri Chinmoy, who led the twice-weekly peace meditation at the United Nations for 37 years, told the world’s beloved athlete Ali, “You are changing the face and fate of mankind. Your very name encourages and inspires. As soon as people hear ‘Muhammad Ali,’ they are inspired. They get tremendous joy. They get such dynamism to be brave and face ignorance…Your heart of oneness with all humanity makes you the greatest.”