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Obituaries

S. Subramuniyaswami, 74; U.S.-Born Hindu Spiritual Guru, Leader

November 23, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a California native who converted to Hinduism, founded the magazine Hinduism Today and represented his religion around the world, died Nov. 12 at his ashram home on Kauai. He was 74.

The satguru, or spiritual teacher, died on the 32nd day of a self-imposed fast, which he began shortly after learning that he had incurable intestinal cancer, said Paramacharya Palaniswami, the editor of Hinduism Today.

His death followed an ancient practice called prayopavesa, which Hindus consider a highly spiritual method for ending life in the face of grave illness.

An imposing figure with long, silky white hair and a beard, he led a life that combined modernity with ancient traditions: He required his monks to master Apple computers, but he also was devoted to the hand carving of a granite temple in India for its eventual home at the Kauai ashram.

"He called it the best of the East and the best of the West," Palaniswami said. "He felt the East had this grand, profound spirituality and the West had a grand ability to make things happen."

The blue-eyed Danish American became what the book "Religious Leaders of America" called a "pillar of orthodox Hinduism." He helped build temples around the world, including one in Malibu. And he turned Hinduism Today into a glossy bimonthly magazine that has become a major voice for English-speaking Hindus.

Born Robert Hansen in Oakland, he grew up near Lake Tahoe. After losing both of his parents by the age of 11, he was adopted by a friend of his mother's, a woman who had deep ties to India.

As a teenager, he was trained in classical Eastern and Western dance and in yoga. By 19, he had a promising future as a leading dancer with the San Francisco Ballet.

But in 1947, when he was 20, he renounced his dance career and sailed to India and Sri Lanka. He sought enlightenment in the caves of Jalani in central Sri Lanka. Shortly thereafter, he was ordained by a respected Saivite Hindu guru, Sage Yogaswami, who slapped him on the back and predicted that his pupil would "build temples and feed thousands."

The guru gave him the Hindu name Subramuniya, which means a sage whose spiritual teaching stems from intuition.

Before leaving Sri Lanka, which was then called Ceylon, Subramuniyaswami founded an ashram and Saiva Siddhanta Church, a conservative denomination that now has four monasteries and 32 missions in seven countries. He called it a church because that word was more familiar in the Western world to which he intended to return.

He arrived back in America in 1950 and spent the next several years in reclusion, continuing to develop himself spiritually through meditation.

In 1957, he founded the Himalayan Academy to spread Hindu thought and opened a temple in San Francisco. According to Palaniswami, it was the first Hindu temple in the nation.

As the hippie era blossomed in San Francisco, the guru began to attract followers.

"He took flower children lost in the Vietnam conflict, got them into yoga and pulled them out of what he called the abyss," recalled Satish dev Kumar, one of Subramuniyaswami's followers who now lives in Los Angeles.

He was an enchanting figure, who moved with a dancer's sublime grace.

"People would see him on the street," Kumar said, "and just follow him."

In 1970, the satguru established a monastery on Kauai. The complex will one day include a large granite temple, which is being hand-carved, block by block, in Bangalore, India. Palaniswami said the satguru insisted that the carvers spurn modern efficiencies, such as hydraulic tools, in order to pass on the ancient hand-carving craft to a new generation. Begun in 1990, the temple is not expected to be completed for several more years.

In 1979, Subramuniyaswami began publishing Hinduism Today to report on the hundreds of Hindu denominations in the world, to foster Hindu solidarity, and to dispel misconceptions about the religion, which is unlike Christianity and other Western religions in its lack of a single founder or central organization.

The 15,000-circulation magazine, which calls itself the English-language voice of Hinduism, is designed and edited on computers at the Kauai ashram by 14 monks and 10 monks in training who belong to his monastic order.

"If that was the only thing he had done, it would be very important," said Kusumita Pederson, head of the religious studies department at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y. One of its attributes, she said, is that it is "not afraid to be critical of things that are wrong in the Hindu world," tackling such issues as domestic violence and corporal punishment.

The satguru took a special interest in the Tamils, Sri Lankan Hindus displaced by the civil war that began in the early 1980s. He organized relief efforts and helped them resettle in other countries. He also established a monastery in Mauritius and supported Hindu communities in Malaysia, Denmark, Canada, Germany and Australia.

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