Bringing the Swami to America

By Peter Max

(In honor of Peter Max’s 80th birthday, his longtime friend and colleague—also an Integral Yoga founding member—Victor Arjuna Zurbel has produced a stunning short film to commemorate the occasion and Max’s humanitarian contributions. Enjoy the film about the incredible Peter Atman Max here.)

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.

After breakfast, Conrad said, “It’s time to go to see the rushes of the movie.” We went to a screening room and while I watched episodes from his extraordinary film, I heard the “OM Shanti” chant. I had never heard any sound like that before and didn’t know where it was coming from. Then the camera zoomed in on a huge banyan tree and as it panned down, I saw the Swami sitting under the tree chanting, “Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” I turned to look at him and he smiled back, saying, “That’s me.” I still had no idea what he did, but everything about him was so wonderful! The Swami left the screening a little early and I wanted to follow. I was not as interested in the film as much as I was about the Swami; I just wanted to be with him. So after the Swami left, I stayed for a few more minutes and then said to Conrad, “You know, I’m a little tired myself. Maybe I’ll go back to the hotel. By the way, what room is the Swami in?” Conrad said he was in room 776.

As soon as I entered the hotel, I went directly to the Swami’s door, although I didn’t want to disturb him. But as I got there, I found the door open and saw the Swami, sitting against the backboard of the bed, almost as though he was expecting me. He said, “Come, come. Come on in.” I was so excited to talk with him one-on-one. I asked, “What do you do?” “I’m a monk,” he said. “Oh, that’s really nice. From India?” “Yes, from India. But now I have an ashram in Kandy, Ceylon.”

He saw that I was more than curious about the things he was telling me, so he reached up for a book on the shelf and opened it. He turned to a page that had an illustration of a person seated in lotus with a line of seven golden circles over him. He pointed to them, saying, “Those are called chakras and, in Yoga, we try to awaken them all. The middle one is the heart chakra.” He continued to show me the book and I was completely fascinated. He told me about the different branches of Yoga and I asked him if he could show me a Yoga posture. He stood up straight and tall and started to demonstrate a sequence of moves. I picked up a blank envelope from the desk, and did a little drawing of each posture. I still have that envelope with the drawing.

We became friends and I spent the next five or six days with him. When I wasn’t working with Conrad, I tried to spend every moment with the Swami to learn as much as I could from him. The last day I was in Paris, I said to him, “Swami, America needs you very, very much. It would be really nice if you could come to America.” “America needs me?” he asked. “Why?” I told him that the youth were experimenting with drugs to expand their consciousness and the whole country was undergoing great change. His teachings of Yoga were what we needed. I also spoke to Conrad about bringing the Swami to America. Then the Swami told me, “Okay, if there’s a need, I’ll come.”

I flew back to New York and when I got home, my friends all asked me to tell them about Paris and the film, but all I could talk about was the Swami. He was going to arrive three days later and I was very excited. I went to JFK airport to pick him up but missed his arriving flight and couldn’t find him at the airport, so I turned around and quickly went home. When I returned to my apartment, he was already there, chatting with my wife, Liz.

She told me that when he arrived and she saw his strange clothing and unusual, long beard, she was so astonished that she quickly closed the door in his face. Then she worked up the courage to re-open it and asked, “Are you the Swami?” She was embarrassed but he gave her a beautiful heartfelt smile. When Liz and I were alone in the kitchen, she asked me what we were going to do with him, and where we could put him up. I told her that we would work it out, as he was a very great Swami. But at first, she thought it was strange that I, a 26-year old man, with a young wife and newly born son, had brought this 52-year-old man with shoulder-length hair and a long beard into our house.

The best we could offer him to sleep on that first night was a fold-up bed in the middle of the living room, which he accepted graciously. Early the next morning, at five a.m., I had to heat up a bottle for our baby and tiptoed through the living room to get to the kitchen. As I peeked over to see if he was sleeping, I noticed that the bed was made and he was sitting in the corner in lotus pose, meditating. I was so inspired, I just had to know what this was about and wanted to learn how to do it so much. Later that day, we walked in Central Park and talked about many things. I told him about the hippies, and the new social, political and artistic movements that were happening. When we got back to my apartment, I excitedly called all my friends and invited them to come up and meet the Swami.

At six that evening about 45 people showed up. The Swami was sitting in lotus on the couch. Some of those who came in to meet him had just smoked a joint and were a little stoned; others had a cigarette in their hand. Some sat in chairs and others laid down on the floor with their legs stretched out in front of them, their feet towards the Swami (they didn’t know it was considered disrespectful in the East). As the Swami started to speak in his soft, gentle voice, the people got very calm and relaxed. Those with cigarettes began to put them out and those with their legs stretched out began to sit up straight and even crossed their legs to emulate the Swami The whole room grew very quiet and was filled with a sense of anticipation and wonder.

After speaking for about two hours, the Swami closed his eyes and silently led us into our first Yoga meditation. Afterward, we all went into the kitchen and shared our experience and discussed what we could do to keep the Swami in New York. One of my friends said, “I know what to do.” He put his hands in his pockets and dropped whatever money he had on the Formica table. Everybody followed that gesture and dropped $5 and $10 bills on the table. Between us, we gathered about $100, and that was the birth of the Integral Yoga Institute.


Peter Max is one of America’s most popular and successful artists. He has had numerous one-man exhibitions at museums in America and throughout the world. Max has also extended his artistic expression beyond conventional walls, and has painted “canvases” as diverse as a U.S. postage stamp, a 250-foot World’s Fair mural, the 600-foot wide Woodstock 1999 stage backdrop, and a Boeing 777 super jet for Continental Airlines. More about Peter Max can be found in the best-selling book, “The Universe of Peter Max,” and online at: 

from the  Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.


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