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Sri Eknath Easwaran is respected around the world as one of the twentieth century’s great spiritual teachers. Although he did not travel or seek large audiences, his twenty-seven books on meditation and the classics of world mysticism have been translated into twenty-six languages in Europe, China, Japan, India, and Latin America, with over one million copies currently in print. Commentaries by him on current events and trends have appeared in the International Herald-Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor.
Vintage Books, a division of Random House, has added Sri Easwaran’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita to its Vintage Spiritual Classics series, placing him in the company of such perennial favorites as the Little Flowers of Saint Francis and the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
Sri Easwaran’s best-selling book, Meditation, has sold 200,000 copies since 1978 – almost entirely by word of mouth, since Nilgiri Press, the small publishing venture he founded in Berkeley, California, in 1965, rarely advertises.
Many people first came to know of Sri Easwaran’s teachings through Laurel’s Kitchen, the best-selling vegetarian cookbook written by several of his students, which was published by Nilgiri Press in 1976. Now titled The New Laurel’s Kitchen and published by Ten Speed Press, the cookbook has sold over a million copies.
Although he is known primarily through his books, Sri Easwaran has also personally touched the lives of the thousands of people who have heard him speak since 1960 when he began giving regular classes on meditation in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the early 1990s, as his books gained increasing attention from foreign publishers, his meditation retreats were drawing people from around the world.
Sri Easwaran’s reputation as an author and as a teacher rests largely on the practical appeal of his method of meditation, which enables ordinary people to translate lofty ideals into daily living within the context of any religious tradition – or, equally well, with no religious commitment at all.
He often quoted the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced him deeply: “I have not the shadow of a doubt that every man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.”
Sri Easwaran’s method of meditation consists in going slowly in the mind through the words of inspirational passages that express one’s highest ideals, chosen from scriptures and mystics of all religions. To everyone, regardless of faith, he recommended beginning with the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love . . . .”
Sri Easwaran’s Eight-Point Program provides tools for translating St. Francis’s high ideals into everyday behavior. Each step is a practice followed in every major religion: meditation, repetition of a mantram or “prayer word,” slowing down, one-pointed attention, training the senses, putting others first, spiritual companionship, and spiritual reading.
Sri Easwaran’s life’s mission was to extend to everyone, “with an open hand,” the spiritual disciplines that had brought such rich benefits to his own life. One of his better-known books, Your Life Is Your Message, took its title from an incident in Gandhi’s life. An American reporter came up to Gandhi at his train window and asked breathlessly for a message to take back to his people. Gandhi scrawled some words on a piece of paper and handed it back as the train pulled out of the station. The paper read, “My life is my message.”
The words make a fitting epigram for Sri Easwaran’s life as well. For forty years he devoted his life to teaching the practical essentials of the spiritual life as found in every religion. He taught their universal message that although the body is mortal, within every creature there is a spark of divinity that can never die. And he taught, and lived, a method that any man or woman can use to reach that inborn divinity and draw on it for love and wisdom in everyday life.
Whenever asked what religion he followed, Sri Easwaran would reply that he belonged to all religions. His teachings reached people in every faith.
Eknath Easwaran was born in December 1910, into an ancient matrilineal family in Kerala state, South India. There he grew up under the close guidance of his mother’s mother, Eknath Chippu Kunchi Ammal, whom he honored as his spiritual teacher. From her he learned the traditional wisdom of India’s ancient scriptures. An unlettered village woman, she taught him through her daily life, which was permeated by her continuous awareness of God, that spiritual practice is something to be lived out each day in the midst of family and community.
Growing up in British India, Sri Easwaran first learned English in his village high school, where the doors were opened to the treasure-house of English literature. At sixteen, he left his village to attend a nearby Catholic college. There his passionate love of English literature intensified and he acquired a deep appreciation of the Christian tradition. Later, in Hyderbad, India, contacts with the YMCA enriched his sense of the universality of spiritual truths.
Sri Easwaran often recalled with pride that he grew up in “Gandhi’s India” – the historic years when Mahatma Gandhi was leading the Indian people to freedom from British rule through complete nonviolence. As a young man, Sri Easwaran met Gandhi and the experience of sitting near him at his evening prayer meetings left a lasting impression. The lesson he learned from Gandhi was the power of the individual: the immense resources that emerge into life when a seemingly ordinary person transforms himself completely.
After graduate work at the University of Nagpur in Central India, where he took first-class degrees in literature and in law, Sri Easwaran entered the teaching profession, eventually returning to Nagpur to become a full professor and head of the graduate department of English. By this time he had acquired a reputation as a writer and speaker, contributing regularly to the Times of India and giving talks on English literature for All-India Radio.
At this juncture, he would recall, “All my success turned to ashes.” The death of his grandmother in the same year as Gandhi’s assassination prompted him to turn inward. Following Gandhi’s inspiration, he became deeply absorbed in the Bhagavad Gita, India’s best-known scripture. Meditation on passages from the Gita and other world scriptures quickly developed into the method of meditation that today is associated with his name.
Sri Easwaran was Professor of English Literature at the University of Nagpur when he came to the United States on the Fulbright exchange program in 1959. Soon he was giving talks on India’s spiritual tradition throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. At one such talk he met his future wife, Christine, with whom he established the organization that became the vehicle for his life’s work. The mission of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, founded in 1961, is the same today as when it was founded: to teach Sri Easwaran’s Eight-Point Program of meditation aimed at helping ordinary people conquer physical and emotional problems, release creativity, and pursue life’s highest goal, Self-realization.
After a return to India, obligated by the terms of the Fulbright program, Sri Easwaran came back to California in 1965. He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area the rest of his life, dedicating himself to the responsive American audiences that began flowing into his classes in the turbulent Berkeley of the late 1960s, when meditation was suddenly “in the air.” In January 1968, at the University of California, Berkeley, he inaugurated what is believed to be the first academic course on meditation ever offered for credit at a major American university. His quiet yet impassioned voice reached many hundreds of students in those years, despite the clamor of protests in the streets and police helicopters overhead.
Always a writer, Sri Easwaran started a small press in Berkeley in 1967 to serve as the publishing branch of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. Nilgiri Press was named after the Nilgiris or ‘Blue Mountains’ in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where Sri Easwaran had maintained a home for some years. The press moved to an old dairy barn outside Tomales, California, when the Center bought property there for a permanent headquarters in 1970. Nilgiri Press did the preproduction work for his first book, Gandhi the Man, and began full book manufacturing with his Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living in 1975.
In the last decade of his life Sri Easwaran suffered increasingly from the pain of cervical spondylosis, tentatively traced to an injury he received as a young man. The condition severely restricted his public teaching but coincided with a dramatic flowering of his life’s work.
In thousands of talks and two dozen books, Sri Easwaran has taught his Eight Point Program to an audience that now extends around the world. Rather than travel and attract large crowds, he chose to remain in one place and teach in small groups – a preference that was his hallmark as a teacher even in India. “I am still an educator,” he liked to say. “But formerly it was education for degrees; now it is education for living.”
His work is being carried forward by his wife, Christine Easwaran, who has worked by his side for forty years, by the students he trained for thirty years, and by the organization he founded to ensure the continuity of his teachings, the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.