Bringing the Swami to America

By Peter Max

Since meeting Swami Satchidananda, the last 50 years have been the best years of my life. I’ve learned so much from Gurudev; even the way I met him was miraculous. It was 1966—a time of psychedelic experimentation among the youth and Yoga was virtually unknown in America. As an artist, I was on a creative retreat, experimenting with new modes of expression through the medium of collage. Before I became an artist, I had almost chosen a career as an astronomer, having had a strong fascination about the universe— planets, stars, galaxies, novas, nebulas, and the vast distances in space. One day I decided I was going to try and find out what the universe and life was all about through my art and decided to create a large collage of the universe in my studio in New York’s Upper West Side. I worked on a large table that was about five feet square and began assembling photographs. I worked on the collage for almost 16 hours a day for three days.

When it was complete, I wanted to be able to see the whole image, hoping it would give me a perspective on the universe and what life was all about. But it was so big that in order to see it, I had to climb up a ten-foot ladder and look down at it. There I was, at two in the morning, climbing a ladder up to the ceiling. When I looked down at my collage creation, however, I didn’t really see anything that was a cosmic revelation; I was hoping to see something that was beyond belief. I was very frustrated and disappointed, especially since I had worked very hard on it.

I reached my arms up to God and wanted to scream, but suddenly realized that my wife Liz and our baby son, Adam, were asleep in the next room. So, instead, I did a kind of dry, silent scream while I closed my eyes and wished for an answer to my quest. Suddenly, with my eyes closed, I envisioned a cloud that opened up and a man with a white beard appeared through it and said, “Relax, everything is okay.”

I felt a new sense of peace and began to relax as I descended the ladder. It was now three a.m. and as I was about to go to bed when my phone rang. Who could be calling me at that hour? I picked up the phone and a man said, “I’m so sorry. I’m calling from Paris and forgot the time difference. My name is Conrad Rooks.” He told me that he was making a film in Paris and somebody had shown him a brochure of my collages. He loved them and asked if I could come to Paris and give him some ideas for visuals and color treatments for his film.

“When do you need me there?” I asked. He said, “I’d like you to come tomorrow.” I said, “I’m sorry, I really can’t. My wife just had a baby.” So I said goodnight and went to bed. As I drifted off to sleep, all I could think about was the vision I had on the ladder of the man in the white beard. The next afternoon, someone knocked on my door. I opened it and a man who was wearing a Zorro hat and a black coat that hung down to his ankles was standing there. “Hello, I’m Conrad Rooks, the man who called you last night,” he said. “What are you doing here?” I exclaimed. “I thought you said you were in Paris!” “When you said you wouldn’t come, I decided to get on the next plane and here I am,” he declared. I invited him into the studio and when he saw my collages on the wall, he let out a loud “YAHOO,” throwing his hat up to the ceiling and letting it fall to the floor.

After he looked at my art and we talked a bit, he said, “I’d like you come down and meet my friends. They’re sitting on a bench across the street on Riverside Drive.” “Your friends? Who are your friends?” I asked. “I’ve got Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs waiting downstairs to tell you about my film.” I couldn’t believe my ears! So we went downstairs, and there sure enough was Ginsberg and Burroughs. They both told me about the extraordinary underground film that Conrad was making, Chappaqua. They persuaded me that the film needed my creative input and that I should go to Paris. So I decided to go.

When we arrived in Paris, we went to the Hotel Napoleon Bonaparte. Conrad picked up the house phone and said, “Hello, Swami? I’ve got the American artist with me. Can you please meet us downstairs for breakfast?” I had heard the term “Swami” before, but thought it was a man who could do special, paranormal feats and didn’t know it was a monk or holy man. The elevator door opened up and a tall, dark, magnificent man walked out wearing orange clothes and a beautiful long beard. The moment I saw him, I knew that it was the man in my vision. As I shook his long, slender hand, I looked into his deep brown eyes, and was enchanted by their beauty and dynamic presence, which I realized was emanating from within…

Read the rest of this article in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.

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