Tonight the UIC Pavilion is a temple for meditation, introspection. Sri Chinmoy, the spiritual guru, is performing his "Oneness-Happiness Song," a concert to promote inner peace. His posters have been plastered all over town for weeks. I suppose I'm as much in search of inner peace as the next guy, but I mostly want to see the person who could afford to rent out the Pavilion and put up big video screens and give away all the tickets for free.
Blissful women in saris pass out programs describing Sri Chinmoy as a man of peace, his music intended to help you create a "tangible feeling of peace within yourself." The sri's music is "not merely to hear with the ears but to experience with the heart."
Inside the entrance there's a picture of the grimacing sri lifting a barbell with one arm; the caption says it weighed 7,063 pounds. That's right--7,063 pounds. With one arm. The sri has lifted elephants and airplanes with one arm too. A man with a beer belly looks at the picture and says, "So how come this guy isn't in the Guinness book of records?"
The program says the sri has written 800 books and 8,000 songs and has produced 135,000 works of art. It also says he's a former decathlon champion. Being in his presence does give me a certain peace of mind. If my car breaks down in the parking lot, the sri can lift it up with one hand and fix whatever's wrong. And if I have a heart attack, surely the sri has the wherewithal to open my chest cavity and perform cardiac massage.
Onstage is a big white chair, a piano, a cello, and a great big gong. Next to the throne is a white table with various instruments on it. The sri can spin it like a lazy Susan whenever he wants to choose a new ax.
The lower level of the Pavilion is full, and there are a few hundred people in the upper deck. I take a seat in the last row of the main floor, near the concession stand. Onstage a man in a suit says, "Remember your inner yearning, your inner cry. Bring that to the floor. Dwell in that space. Leave your mind issues at the door."
Then the sri takes the stage, bald and barefoot, all dressed in white. He folds his hands and closes his eyes and stands in silent meditation. But back here in the cheap seats, even Mahatma Gandhi would have a hard time meditating. The cash register doors slam. The lids of the sweepers' dustpans open and close. The deep fryers hiss. Garbled voices grumble from the walkie-talkies of security guards. While the sri stands motionless, tuning in on his inner being, someone is sweeping up around my feet. It's like trying to meditate in the bleachers at Wrigley Field.
The sri breaks his trance and blows into something that looks like a seashell. Video cameras in the front row focus on the sri and project him onto two huge screens toward the front. His giant close-up flicks and rolls and goes in and out of focus. He plays the seashell for a while, then sits in the lotus position in the big white chair and picks up a sitar-looking thing.
Back here in the stands few are paying attention. People wander around, talk on the pay phones. Four guys behind me are smoking and eating pizza and popcorn. "I'm not into this meditation," one says. Another says "Medication," and they laugh. A woman in a sari points them out to a security guard saying, "These people are disturbing. I wonder if we could do something to quiet them a little." The security guard shrugs.
The sri picks up a flute. Four young people are standing near the exit door, holding hands and praying. One of them is a woman with a bumper sticker slapped on the back of her jean jacket. It says "No Jesus no peace. Know Jesus know peace." Her passionate prayer has her in tears. "Jesus, I pray for every single person in this room for whom you shed your blood. Change his heart! Do it now before more people are lost!"
The sri blows into something that looks like a gourd on a stick. A female voice asks if I'm into all this. She's another Christian. Her name is Lisa.
"I was in India," she says. "Can I tell you what these people are all about? They have temples. Just like this."
"Do the temples have concession stands?" I ask.
"No," she says. "But all the incense. They call on demons. Jesus has angels and Satan has demons."
"How do you know they're demons?"
"Look at what it's done to their country! It's nothing but poverty."
"So this is Satan's work?"
"Yes!" Lisa says. "Bottom line!"
The woman wearing the bumper sticker prays louder. "Make them understand! Make them understand!"
Maybe it's working. People are leaving in droves. But maybe it's just the sri's music. Someone needs to teach him how to swing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.