Artist and spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy drew countless birds — not just on paper or canvas, but on clocks, seashells, glass, fabric, and children’s toys.
Countless are the birds of the air, and countless are the fish in the sea. We call something countless because — even though it has a finite number — it defies our human capacity to quantify. We could start a project to count all the birds in the air, but it would take generations and by that time there would be new birds in the air not counted previously. There would be innumerable technical challenges, and who would fund such a study?
Of those things which are countless, the most countless of all is infinity. When I was growing up, math teachers liked to recommend George Gamow’s book One, Two, Three…Infinity as a way of grappling with deep concepts. It was entertaining and profound at the same time, explaining how there could be differently sized infinities. But even Gamow (half-jokingly) admitted that when you expand your thinking beyond a certain point, you’re no longer dealing with Math or Science but Divinity:
There was a young fellow from Trinity,
Who took the square root of infinity.
But the number of digits, Gave him the fidgets;
He dropped Math and took up Divinity.
— George Gamow
The Upanishads say:
Infinity is that.
Infinity is this.
From Infinity, Infinity has come into existence.
From Infinity, when Infinity is taken away, Infinity remains.
After reciting this passage in a 1971 Yale lecture, Sri Chinmoy continued:
Creation is the supreme sacrifice of the Brahman. Creation is by no means a mechanical construction. Creation is a spiritual act, supremely revealing, manifesting, and fulfilling the divine splendour of the Brahman. The divine Architect is beyond creation, and at the same time manifests Himself in and through creation.
— Sri Chinmoy, The Upanishads: the Crown of India’s Soul, Agni Press, 1974
On earth, we are limited by the finite. We cannot create anything which is literally infinite. But by knowing the infinite, we can speak of the infinite in our creations. We can point to the infinite, approximate the infinite, give a taste of the infinite even within the finite.
The last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony runs about 26 minutes in human time. But within that time, worlds within worlds open up for the listener, and the experience of infinity becomes immanent, palpable.
Gustav Holst, in the closing strains of his orchestral suite The Planets, was likewise able to convey a sense of countless years in the life of the planet Neptune.
In his poems, Sri Chinmoy often speaks of infinity, and of endless days with “no dole, no sombre pang, no death in my sight.” He writes:
At last I know my age.
My age is Infinity’s page.1
Above the toil of life my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.2
He also writes:
Birds have a very special significance; they embody freedom. We see a bird flying in the sky, and it reminds us of our own inner freedom. Inside each of us there is an inner existence we call the soul. The soul, like a bird, flies in the sky of Infinity. The birds we see flying in the sky remind us of our own soul-bird flying in the sky of Infinity. While looking at the birds, feel that you yourself are a bird; you are your soul-bird flying in the sky of infinite Light, infinite Peace and infinite Bliss.3
This connection between birds, flight, and infinity is a pervasive feature of Sri Chinmoy’s artistic oeuvre. It’s also present in his music — particularly his piano and organ improvisations which are filled with a maelstrom of notes that would be nearly impossible to transcribe, and which call forth a sonic impression of infinity.
Yet, we may fail to notice infinity in his bird paintings and drawings due to the inherent limitations of the formats in which they are presented. On the Internet, we may see a few of his works, or perhaps a short video showcasing more still. And while such presentations may communicate both spiritual and decorative elements, they stop short of communicating the conceptual nature of his art.
It’s one thing to draw a few birds; it’s quite another to draw literally millions of them, so that they remain (for all intent and purposes) countless. Only when one sees those rare gallery exhibits where there are thousands of his soul-birds on display on multiple levels does one begin to get a sense of how vast his vision was, and how deeply he believed in the essential message which underlies all such paintings and drawings: Life is beautiful! If it isn’t, put a bird on it!
Sri Chinmoy traveled widely and often used native materials in his art. His Oslo exhibit displays a riot of iridescent colour, while the one in Kagoshima reflects a more sparse, calligraphic style, well-suited to zen meditation:
In Bali, he amassed an amazing collection of objects on which to draw, including a cheap knockoff Charlie Brown & Snoopy clock:
Here are a few more videos which hint at the countlessness, vastness, and infinitude of Sri Chinmoy’s art:
It’s clear from these videos that though Sri Chinmoy created countless paintings and drawings, he did not do so mechanically but from a state of rapt creative attention, investing himself fully in each brushstroke.
Collector Robert Scull (1916-1986), interviewed in 1975 at the Jharna-Kala Gallery on Mercer Street, said: “It’s an incredible output, and I think that that amount of paintings done in two months must be coming from a deep autobiographical well of images and feelings.”
Artist Paul Jenkins (1923-2012), interviewed on the same occasion, said: “The abundance! Yes, there are many watercolors, but what’s here is an abundance of color, abundance of images, abundance of things that come through your mind when you meditate. And I don’t look at them with a tough eye, say like an artist art critic. I look at them for what they are: for his joy.”
In presenting Sri Chinmoy with an award from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts in June 1976, the late Brian F. Gormley described his work as “art cleansed of all the ambitions and desires that we too often see in the art world.”
Sri Chinmoy died in October 2007, and a few years later the comedy series Portlandia created a stir with its “Put a Bird on It!” sketch, gently satirizing the artistic spirit informing some good Portlanders. That concept re-echoed through the blogosphere in March 2016 when a Portland rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was unexpectedly visited by a “sparrow to believe in”:
But Sri Chinmoy was the original put-a-bird-on-it guy:
During a peace ceremony in Malta in 1991, he released doves into the air as a symbol of the commitment to world peace made by the leaders assembled on that day:
In his concerts, he performed on an ever-changing variety of instruments, including the dove ocarina. Sumangali Morhall describes a concert she attended in September 2005:
The maestro arrives, and the hush finds new depths. The opening meditation is a silent overture, creating most seemly and serene environs for new sounds to take flight.
The blue ceramic dove is first as always, like a sweet ethereal invitation to another realm, then the esraj with its seamless husky call; one note yearning for the next. A western flute somehow echoes in a bass octave, doubling its mellow melting warmth, yet still mirroring the surrounding silence. A dance of strings: the curled smiling sunny tones of the sitar follow those of smaller things responding brightly to Sri Chinmoy’s touch.
Delight is not just in the sounds themselves, but also in the physical beauty of each instrument, and in the grace with which they are handled to draw forth their truest, sweetest, and most powerful voices. Sri Chinmoy’s image on the screen portrays the depth of meditation holding the source of every note. How haunting the harmonium; the notes hanging as backdrops in the air, and then Sri Chinmoy sings… I feel only heart then; one vast affirmative in that striking yet mellifluous flow of sound and expression.
— Sumangali Morhall, “Sri Chinmoy’s World Harmony Concert, Hamburg”
Although it’s possible to count the numerous concerts Sri Chinmoy gave over a lifetime of service, these concerts were made up of countless spiritual moments in the lives of seekers — experiences which are recorded on the tablet of their hearts. As striking as were Sri Chinmoy’s outer achievements, they are nothing compared to his inner achievements, which can never be quantified.
When we think of infinity, we tend to be overwhelmed and not to think of beauty in the same breath. But in Sri Chinmoy’s song “O Beauty-Infinity” (here performed by Blue Flower), these two qualities go together:
Sri Chinmoy taught that God is infinite; but perhaps more important to the many persons of artistic temperament who gathered around him, he taught that God is “beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful. Beauty unparalleled in the garden of Eden.”4
In the inner world, beauty and infinity make two most charming companions.
Special thanks to Kedar Misani of Switzerland, who has posted many excellent photos and videos of Sri Chinmoy online. Visit his YouTube page here.
1Sri Chinmoy, “My Name, My Age, My Home” from My Flute, Aum Classics, 1998 (1972)
2Sri Chinmoy, “Revelation” from My Flute, as above
3Sri Chinmoy, from Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 36, Agni Press, 2004
4Sri Chinmoy, “O My Lord of Beauty” from My Flute, as above
Other items you may enjoy:
“A Magnificent Obsession” by Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
“The Strange Birds of Ottawa” by Chidananda Burke
“Spiritual leader draws seven million Peace Birds” by Julie Gunther
(updated link to follow)
“United Nations Displays Sri Chinmoy’s Paintings” – Newsweek
1975 Documentary on Sri Chinmoy’s Painting and Philosophy of Art
“Bird Imagery in Secular and Sacred Music” (group discussion)
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