Bronwyn Rideout investigates the connection between the Lotus Heart restaurant in Christchurch and Sri Chinmoy.
The Lotus Heart Restaurant has been on my radar for almost as long as I have been living in New Zealand. I was introduced to it by a vegan friend in 2007, when it was still located in Cathedral Square. The restaurant was clean, airy, bright and well-appointed, but the prominent place given to the hard-to-miss wall-sized portrait of a beatific Indian gentleman made it obvious that place was a bit… different.
While waiting to pay the bill on my first visit, I rounded the shelves to see books and music that had been written and published solely by Sri Chinmoy. There was also an album that contained photos of the aforementioned gentleman either sitting alongside famous politicians and celebrities, or lifting them using an overly complicated and excessively modified lifting device.
Sri Chinmoy lifts a twin engine Baron airplane with Hugo Girard, 2002’s “World’s Strongest Man” titleholder, 5-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl and their wives sitting inside. Chinmoy uses a modified standing calf raise machine.
While I haven’t found an online copy of the picture of Sri Chinmoy lifting the diminutive Hayley Westenra that I saw in person, maybe readers will appreciate the time he made a nuisance of himself in the central North Island attempting to lift 1,000 lambs.
My interest piqued, I decided to turn to the internet – not for the free meditation classes on offer, but to find out more. Despite being 2007, there was much more information out about Sri Chinmoy than there is available now. Many ex disciples had turned to blogging platforms such as Livejournal and Yahoo! Groups to share their experiences, and these have long since become defunct. Skeptical websites that had investigated Chinmoy and his operations are now dead links, taking with them any evidence that supported the scattered counterclaims that remain.
In the years following Sri Chinmoy’s death in October 2007, it appears his disciples have become internet savvy and have effectively google-bombed any negative – press unless one deliberately includes cult, scam, or fraud in their search parameters. The best repository of Sri Chinmoy information that is not curated by his organisation is the Cult Education Institute, run by Rick A. Ross. Your mileage may vary with regards to the ethics of Ross’ deprogramming work, and the absence of digital versions of the reports he includes.
My most recent visit, during my Christmas holidays in December last year, has made me decide that the amazing food is not worth its less than dismal stance on masks, vaccines, and public health. The restaurant was crowded, and diners were nearly cheek to jowl. My husband and I didn’t have a booking, but they were able to seat us near the front entrance, ironically the only place with ventilation and where social distancing was possible. While we waited for our meals, my husband took great delight in noting the poor placement of the single, minuscule QR code, and I questioned the validity of the vaccine exemption cards that were pinned to the colourful saris and white tunics of the employees.
We weren’t the only ones that noticed.
RNZ reported on December 29th that the Lotus-Heart was fined $20,000 for multiple COVID-19 rule breaches. This was followed with a further $24,000 fine on January 27th. Owner Bhuvah Thurston is reported to have not engaged with Worksafe in any capacity. After shutting down from December 31st to January 19th, the restaurant has continued its defiance by advertising itself as a “Private Contract Association”, which enables the diners to forgo wearing a mask, scanning, or being vaccinated to enter the premises.
Employing similar tactics to the Love Boat Club (formerly MAD café) in Golden Bay, Thurston hopes that by presenting Lotus-Heart as a private club under “common law” they can bypass government regulations. There is some irony in the about-turn to sovereign citizenship, a sham form of secession, given that the Lotus-Heart has claimed $154,000 from the government’s COVID-19 wage subsidy programme.
However, an unexpected development came from the Sri Chinmoy Centre of New Zealand. Director Jogyata Dallas announced on January 28th that the restaurant had its membership revoked due to its “disregard for current mandates”. Both national and international Sri Chinmoy Centre directors claim that their late guru was a champion of peace, and would have advised his students to follow government and health regulations. As of February 4th, the Lotus-Heart Restaurant continues to respond reactively. It has gone relatively silent on social media (their Instagram account is now private, and their Facebook page has disappeared), and the membership enrolment page from the main website has disappeared into the ether.
The name Sri Chinmoy may not mean much to most New Zealanders. Despite having centres located in Auckland, Hamilton, Taupo, and Wellington that host a myriad of free meditation sessions, concerts, and foot races, there are only an estimated 100 students in New Zealand.
But who was Sri Chinmoy? A guru whose followers are comfortable with attributing a decidedly un-counterculture, pro-government/pro-modern medicine philosophy to him?
It is difficult to parse fact from fiction, due to the aforementioned google-bombing; his Wikipedia entry is hardly unbiased, as it heavily relies on the writings of Sri Chinmoy and his followers. His obituaries were no more enlightening, focusing on his quirkiness and public preoccupation with running and weight-lifting – which earned him the moniker of “The Gonzo Guru” by the Chicago Tribune in the early 90s.
Chinmoy Kumar Ghose was born in what is now Bangladesh in 1931, the youngest of 7 children born to Shahsi (a railway inspector and banker) and Yogamaya. After the death of both parents in a short span of time in 1943, Chinmoy decamped to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry to join two of his elder brothers. Life within the ashram included a disavowal of alcohol, drugs, sex and politics, but where Chinmoy gained a love of athletics, especially running.
Most narratives of Chinmoy’s early life skip to his job with the Indian Consulate in New York. Ex-disciple Anne Carlton reports, as part of her testimony, that there were tensions at the ashram that hastened his departure. Carlton reports that despite encouragement to pursue his Olympic dream, life at the ashram was difficult, with insufficient food and little educational opportunities. When he was chastised for secretly visiting another ashram, Chinmoy found sponsors connected to the ashram to bring him to the US and secure him a position as a visa clerk at the Indian consulate in 1964, at age 32.
The pay was poor and he was frequently pestered by the “Mother” of the ashram to send back exotic goods to India. With interest in eastern religions rising, Chinmoy saw an opportunity to tap into the same pool of wealthy, Western devotees who supported the Sri Aurobindo ashram. He gave talks on Hinduism, earned his green card, and in 1966, left the consulate to pursue his spiritual vision.
In part 2, we’ll look deeper into the lengths Chinmoy went to transform himself into a myth, the scandals that lay underneath, and how the groups has fared in the nearly 15 years since their guru’s death.