Sunday, August 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Swami, guru to Woodstock generation, dies at 87

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Swami Satchidananda, the yoga master and guru whose message of spiritual unity brought solace to the Woodstock generation and attracted followers from Hollywood to Virginia, died Monday during a visit to India. He was 87.

The swami lived in Yogaville, Va., a 1,000-acre community he founded under the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville in 1979. He was in his native south India to address a peace conference when he died suddenly from a thoracic aneurysm, a Yogaville spokesman said.

Brought to America in 1966 by psychedelic artist Peter Max, the swami was part of a wave of Hindu teachers in the 1960s and '70s who found among the nation's youth a curiosity about Eastern mysticism, music and meditation.

He became known as the "Woodstock guru" after he opened that epochal music festival in 1969 by declaring music "the celestial sound that controls the whole universe."

He gradually shifted his base of operations from Sri Lanka to the United States and opened branches around the world of his Integral Yoga Institute.

Among his disciples are singer-composer Carole King, who donated 600 acres to his Virginia ashram, jazz pianist Alice Coltrane and actors Diane Ladd, Laura Dern and Sally Kirkland.

Another adherent is Dr. Dean Ornish, the best-selling author, who said the teachings of Swami Satchidananda inspired his research and program for reversing heart disease through diet and relaxation.

Born in Chettipalayamm in south India in 1914, Swami Satchidananda was the son of wealthy landowners. As a young man he worked in his uncle's auto-import business and learned welding. He also worked briefly in his native country's film industry as a cameraman and producer.

He married and had children. But when his wife of five years died, he began, at age 28, his spiritual journey. He traded his given name of Ramaswamy for Satchidananda, a name that meant "existence, knowledge, bliss."

He studied with some of India's greatest sages, adopting Swami Sivananda as his guru in 1949. He left four years later for Sri Lanka, where he opened a branch of Sivananda's organization, the Divine Life Society. He remained for several years, opening an orphanage and medical clinic and joining a movement to welcome untouchables to Hindu temples.

His Integral Yoga teaches Hatha Yoga and other methods, as well as meditation, chanting and cleansing practices.

He reached a massive audience in 1969, in a cow pasture in the Catskills when, sitting on a stage that would be shared by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead, the holy man challenged the throngs to use "the sacred art of music" to bring peace to the globe.

He attracted a celebrity following that included Mia Farrow and George Harrison. Some of his students became yoga teachers, such as King and Kirkland, who has taught Bob Dylan, Elia Kazan and Robert De Niro.

"He was very, very playful, which is why so many celebrities enjoyed being with him," said Nirmala Heriza, a longtime devotee who directs the Integral Yoga Center of Los Angeles as well as a hospital rehabilitation program for heart patients based on the swami's precepts.

"If you met him today you would feel you were in the presence of a 12-year-old," Kirkland said. "He had such innocence and joy and a hysterical sense of humor."

The swami's slogan was "Truth Is One, Paths Are Many."

"Read the Bible, read the Koran, read the Torah, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita," the ecumenical guru said. "They all say: Refine yourself. Get out of these definitions. It's the definitions that divide us."

An estimated 1,500 mourners attended his funeral in Yogaville on Thursday. He will be entombed in a sarcophagus beneath a statue of his likeness.


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