“We all need joy, and we can all receive joy in only one way, by adding to the joy of others.”
Eknath Easwaran (1910 – 1999, given name Easwaran, family name Eknath) was born into an ancient matrilineal family in Kerala state, South India. He grew up under the close guidance of his mother’s mother, Eknath Chippu Kunchi Ammal, whom he honored throughout his life as his spiritual teacher. An unlettered village woman with a continuous awareness of God, she taught him through her example 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 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, contact with the YMCA and close friendships within the Muslim and Christian communities 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 India to freedom from British rule through 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 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, Easwaran entered the teaching profession, eventually returning to Nagpur to become a full professor and head of the 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.” Old, old questions began to come to him unbidden as he lay awake at night: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life for? These questions followed him through years of inner turbulence that would see the breakup of his arranged marriage and eventually the painful separation from his sons. 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, discovering for himself the divine ground of existence described in the verses he used in meditation. Ever the teacher, he wished to share with others these profound experiences, eventually developing the method of passage meditation that today is associated with his name.
In 1959, the Fulbright exchange program offered him the opportunity to come to the United States. 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 Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.
Eknath Easwaran teaching what is thought to be the first credit course on meditation offered at a major university in the U.S. at U.C. Berkeley in 1968.
After a return to India, Easwaran came back to California in 1965, dedicating himself to the responsive American audiences that began to find their way to his classes in the turbulent Berkeley of the late 1960s, when meditation was suddenly “in the air.” His quiet yet impassioned voice reached many hundreds of students in those turbulent years.
Always a writer, Easwaran started a small press in Berkeley 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 Easwaran had maintained a home for some years. The press moved to Tomales, California, where the Center bought property for a permanent headquarters in 1970. There 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 thousands of talks and his many books Easwaran taught passage meditation and 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 worked by his side for forty years, by his students, and by the organization he founded, the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.