By Luis S R Vas
Eknath Easwaran, professor of literature turned spiritual teacher, who gave passage meditation to the world, is one of the most popular writers on spirituality. Here, an overview of his life history and inspiring teachings
Passage meditation does not require adherence to any particular religion or belief
Eknath Easwaran is respected around the world as one of twentieth century’s great spiritual teachers. Though he did not travel or seek large audiences, his 27 books on meditation and the classics of world mysticism, have been translated into 26 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.
Easwaran’s best-selling book, Meditation, has sold 200,000 copies since 1978 – almost entirely by word of mouth, as Nilgiri Press, the small publishing venture he founded in Berkeley, California, in 1965, rarely advertises.
Although he is known primarily through his books, Easwaran has personally touched the lives of the thousands of people who have heard him speak. He began regular classes on meditation during 1960 in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the early ’90s, as his books gained increasing attention from foreign publishers, his meditation retreats started to draw people from around the world.
Easwaran’s reputation as an author and teacher rests largely on the practical appeal of his method of meditation. It 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.”
Easwaran’s method of meditation consists of going slowly into 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 . . .”
Easwaran’s Eight-Point Programme provides tools for translating St Francis’s high ideals into everyday behaviour. Each step is a practice followed in every major religion:
• Passage meditation
• Repetition of a mantram or ‘prayer word’
• Slowing down
• One-pointed attention
• Training the senses
• Putting others first
• Spiritual companionship
• Spiritual reading
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 Easwaran’s life as well. For 40 years he devoted his life to teaching the practical essentials of the spiritual life as found in every religion.
Whenever asked what religion he followed, Easwaran would reply that he belonged to all religions. His teachings reached people of every faith.
Eknath Easwaran was born in December 1910, in an ancient matrilineal family in Kerala, South India. He grew up under the close guidance of his mother’s mother, Eknath Chippu Kunchi Ammal, whom he honoured 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, Easwaran first learned English in his village high school, where the doors were opened to the treasure-house of English literature. At 16, 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 Hyderabad, contacts with the YMCA enriched his sense of the universality of spiritual truths.
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, 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 in 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, Easwaran entered the teaching profession. He eventually returned 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 scriptures from around the world quickly developed into the method of meditation that today is associated with his name.
Easwaran was Professor of English Literature at the University of Nagpur when he came to the United States on the Fulbright exchange programme 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 organisation 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 Easwaran’s eight-point programme of meditation aimed at helping ordinary people conquer physical and emotional problems, release creativity, and pursue life’s highest goal, self-realisation.
After his return to India, obligated by the terms of the Fulbright programme, Easwaran went 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 ’60s, 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 clamour of protests in the streets and police helicopters overhead.
In the last decade of his life, 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, Easwaran taught his eight-point programme 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 wife, Christine Easwaran, who worked by his side for 40 years, the students he trained for 30 years, and the organisation he founded to ensure the continuity of his teachings, the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, are carrying his work forward.
Luis S R Vas has authored over a score of books during his decades’ long career in feature writing, publishing and corporate communications.
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