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Swami Rama (1925 - 1996)

Swami Rama Swami Rama's early years are shrouded in the mists of contradictory assertions and deliberate obfuscation. Biographies by his disciples say he was born Brij Kishor Kumar or Brij Kishore Dhasmana in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, to an elderly Brahmin couple. At an early age, he was adopted by his father's guru, known as Bengali Baba, and raised in the cave monasteries of the Himalayan Mountains among saints, sages, and monks. Various biographers describe him as attending the universities of Allahabad, Varanarsi, and Prayag; studying philosophy at Oxford University in England; earning a medical degree from Darbhanga Medical College; and doing research in Germany. He also is supposed to have been ordained a swami, or monk, at age 15, and appointed to a high spiritual post, Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham, in 1949 at age 24. After renouncing this post in 1952, he married and had two children. His biographers are virtually silent on how he spent the next 16 years, except to say that at some point he returned to a life of meditation and spiritual study in the Himalayas. In this spiritual role, he was supposedly known as Bholi Baba, a revered saint who died in the early 1950s. After some of Swami Rama's disciples visited a shrine marking the spot where Bholi Baba died, Swami Rama explained that he had "dropped his body" as Bholi Baba, and his soul clothed itself in another man's body.

Whatever the truth of these early histories, the man now known as Swami Rama arrived in the United States in 1969, shortly after The Beatles popularized Eastern gurus by studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Swami Rama gained a small following during his first year in the United States, but his popularity exploded after he was invited to become a research subject at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. There he demonstrated his voluntary control of body functions that had previously been considered involuntary. He stopped his heart from pumping blood by sending it into fibrillation and slowed it dramatically. He raised and lowered the skin temperature in different parts of his hand simultaneously, and switched from one brain wave pattern to another at will. He also was able to accurately recount conversations and activities going on around him during a period when an EEG showed he was emitting Delta waves, indicative of deep sleep. These feats, recounted in national magazines and newspaper articles, gave him an imprimatur of scientific credibility that quickly swelled the ranks of his followers with doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists, scholars, and other highly educated spiritual seekers. The guru also appeared on national television shows including "Good Morning America" and "The Phil Donahue Show."

Swami Rama founded the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the USA in the Chicago area, with the stated goal of merging Western science with Eastern spiritual practices. In the late 1970s, the institute moved its headquarters into a former Catholic seminary in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, a location that attracted yoga students from New York City and Philadelphia for weekend and vacation retreats. The institute grew to include 26 chapters and affiliated centers around the world, a graduate program in Eastern Studies, a holistic health clinic, a publishing house and magazine, a yoga teacher training program, and an annual conference that drew the top speakers of the day on spirituality, yoga, meditation, and holistic health. Swami Rama also led his students on annual pilgrimages to India, where he had an ashram on the Ganges River in Rishikesh. He lectured tirelessly and wrote dozens of books that have reached a worldwide audience estimated in the millions.

In the late 1980s, Swami Rama began raising money to build a hospital in Dehradun, India. The Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust today boasts a medical university, a nursing college, and a system of affiliated rural clinics. However, controversy also dogged the guru's later years. A 1990 article in Yoga Journal magazine detailed the guru's inappropriate and abusive sexual relationships with several of his women followers, along with financial improprieties. Several years later, a young woman sued Swami Rama and the Himalayan Institute for sexual abuse, winning damages of $1.875 million in 1997. In the meantime, though, Swami Rama returned to India, where he died of lung cancer on Nov. 13, 1996, before Jasmine Patel's case came to trial.

Swami Rama is survived by his Indian son and daughter, Mohit Dhasmana and Devyani Mungali, and his American son, Robert Walter. It is unknown whether he has other children.