If your life is swimming
In the river of sorrow,
Then burn the incense of your heart
And inundate your entire being
With Eternity’s Light and Infinity’s Delight.
Sri Chinmoy, Ten Thousand Flower-Flames, Part 81, Agni Press, 1983
Trying to harness inspiration in our lives is one of those most illusive of things. For most of us it’s appearance is fleeting and ephemeral. Then when it is confronted by our own stubborn reluctance and lethargy it quite often slips away, before we can grasp it and allow our beings to be surcharged and renewed. Ashrita Furman seems unique in that he has for more than 30 years now found himself with inspiration as an almost constant companion.
Yet when you are like him, seemingly imbued with an almost continual enthusiasm for self transcendence it is not difficult to see why inspiration calls upon him so often. It is his unfailing appreciation for new opportunities to challenge himself, along with a deep inner aspiration for spirituality that has shaped and molded his life in ways, that this once upon a time skinny teenager from Queens never probably dreamed was possible. Yet even when he was young there were unmistakable hints that his future would eventually lead him towards some pretty spectacular achievements.
“As a kid I was always interested in the Guinness book of records. I never thought I would get in them because I wasn’t very athletic, and I was not even interested in sports. Then I started meditating with Sri Chinmoy, and his philosophy is that we have to use every aspect of our being to try and get closer to God. So I stated doing sports and I found, that using different meditation techniques that I could actually break records. As I broke more and more it became more exciting for me. I found greater and greater challenges, and I found that really there are no limits. That if we go deep within and find that inner strength, calm our minds, feel our hearts, then we can do anything.” Currently Ashrita is closing in on 500 world records since he started in 1979.
He has for more than 3 decades now been continually exploring all the eclectic realms of possibility within the Guinness record book. Achievements that all are as diverse as they are difficult to better. At the same time his unfettered imagination allows him to create totally original records that Guinness seems happy to accept in order to continually widen the realm of possibility for other wannabe record holders.
He says that it is we who set barriers for ourselves, usually within our own minds. Over the past few Augusts, in honor of his Spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy’s birthday on the 27th of month, he has attempted much different kinds of records. Usually the building of incredibly large things. Last year he and a team created the world’s largest tennis racket. But all these big things require the assistance of quite often a large and diverse group utilizing many different skills and talents to order to make it all come together.
This year he is attempting to build the world’s largest incense stick. One that he says, “is more for joy, for fun. It is really fun working with a team. Because usually when you find these obstacles, and we had many obstacles building this incense stick.”
On his solo projects he describes, “It is usually just yourself, God, and my spiritual teacher. But when you are working with a team. You really expand your capacity. Because all these other people have so much talent, and they can transcend themselves. It is really a great adventure. I am almost an observer, because many times I don’t have that talent. (Carpentry, metalwork, design, etc) It is very exciting to be with the group and face those challenges and see how my friends use their capacity’s to overcome the obstacles.”
“I love doing a record on Sri Chinmoy’s birthday, and many many of my friends feel very uplifted on that day, for us it is a special day. We feel heightened and it is a day in which we want to offer our gratitude for our meditation teacher. It is more an act of devotion on that day when we are trying to do something, create something that will give joy to people. It is definitely much more soulful, much more spiritual, and it is something that stays with you for a long time.”
One of the key people that Ashrita needed in order to make the world’s largest stick of incense was Nikhil Divekar from Mysore in South India who actually manufactures incense there. The task was made even more challenging due to Ashrita’s insistence that the stick when completed would also be by design and content an almost exact replica of a true stick of incense.
“I have been doing this for the last 8 years (making incense).” He says that the idea for this project was first hatched almost 2 years ago when Ashrita went to the Taj Mahal to set a record and he assisted him there. “After that he had this idea to make the largest incense stick in the world. It was just an idea then.”
After returning home to NY Ashrita contacted Nikhil and asked him to send some materials and a formula in order to start experimenting. Fast forward to this summer and he comes to New York and gets involved with the testing and experimentation on a larger scale in earnest. The only problem is that group is short of all the necessary ingredients. which Nikhil is now forced to have shipped from his own suppliers in India by Fed Ex.
“Traditional incense was only made with good materials, only natural materials. Nowadays incense is made with charcoal and cheaper materials. If we used charcoal it would have been much easier. It would have dried quickly. But Ashrita wanted the integrity to be maintained. This is how traditional incense is made.”
When first contacted 2 years ago Nikhil sent 60 kg of materials. Now they are waiting for the all important additional 200kg of ingredients to arrive.
When asked what he feels about working on Ashrita’s project. “It is very beautiful when you do something as an offering to some higher cause. This is not the end. It is a means to an end. He has a much higher purpose and he does this to inspire people. That is why even I was inspired. I came especially for this from Goa.”
Bahumanya was one of those who started working on mixing the powders and applying it to the stick from the very beginning. From Oxford England he has helped out many times over the past few summers on a number of these novel giant constructions. “In the past we have made the world’s largest lollipop. It was 3 1/2 thousand kg. We made the world’s largest popcorn cake, the largest bouquet of flowers. The list goes on, we do it every year.”
It is the early stages and as we talk he says the previous record for incense sticks was 29 feet tall built in China. “We are going to beat that by about 2 feet. But we are on track.” He started on the project only the day before. He says he has had absolutely no experience in making incense but says that because he loves to cook. “The guys who originally had the idea thought, oh, Bahumanya loves to mix stuff, so let’s get him on this job.”
He shows me a list of all the ingredients he is working with and a recipe he is using to make it all. The fragrance is intoxicating and he jokes, “we aim to get this fragrance out all over Queens, and maybe even Brooklyn. We are going for the big one here.” The main scent he says is Nag Champa.
“It will look exactly like an incense stick. That is our aim. It will be the same dimensions in proportion. It will have a bamboo stick at the bottom. It will be in an incense holder, so it will be at a 45 degree angle.”
The day we talk is the 21st and he has until the 27th to mix and apply layer upon layer of the mix to the stick. A gasoline dryer is used to help with the process. “We have a few obstacles to overcome. Primarily is that a lot of stuff we need is in India right now.
As for how much time he will put in, “I guess I am going to be here for a minimum of 8 hours a day and probably more. But I won’t be the only one. There is hundreds of hours of work here.
“The stick needs something to hold it.” Of course one of the most obvious questions that came up immediately when Ashrita decided to build the world’s largest incense stick was just how to support it. “So right now we have the skeleton of the holder. It is going to be 34 feet long.” Yuyudhan is also no stranger to assisting in Ashrita’s large projects and has now found himself in charge of building an exact copy, on a gigantic scale of a holder that can support the incense stick being constructed a few feet away. His model he tells me is the one he uses at home.
“It is too scale and it is going to be about 5 feet wide and 8 inches tall.” He says that it was not necessary to build the holder in order to break the record but instead he says constructing it, “is the fun part.” He says that currently they are researching to see if in fact the holder will also be a record unto itself.
“We have a couple hundred pounds of incense that is going to be sitting here cantilevered off, in total maybe 400 pounds. We need this frame to hold that without bending and collapsing. So half of it is steel and half of it is wood.” He says that once it is all assembled in the yard he is working in it will then be taken apart and then put back together again in the final location.
He is confident that once it is put back together again there will also be no insurmountable difficulties then putting the stick into the holder. He says that with not much time left for it all to happen he is not worried. “It always happens. It always comes through.”
The final ingredients arrive from India
Checking the manifest
Opening new boxes
Homagni is one of those sometimes invisible but key people in helping Ashrita with these big projects. He says that the incense stick project almost happened 2 years ago. At that time Nikhil sent the necessary ingredients and he started to experiment with them. “It worked pretty well but I was still hoping that he would come. So this year Nikhil managed to get his visa. “So as soon as we heard he was coming it seemed like a good choice. To oversee the more technical aspects of making the incense.”
“We are using the materials that he sent a few years ago and also the material that arrived today. ”
He describes that when working with the ingredients that the process of making incense is similar to making bread dough. Then smearing it onto an incense stick and allowing it to dry. There is a lot more experimentation in how long it would take to dry. How thick we would need to make it to make the correct scale.”
“More of the technical stuff is with the incense stick holder. We are pretty confident that the incense stick is going to burn, and we are confident that it is going to smell nice, because we are using Nag Champa oil as well.”
He says that the difficult part will simply be inserting the stick into the holder. Something that cannot really test. “It is a little tricky. But that is why we have Yuyudhan our resident engineer to come up with how to make that happen. Because it is a lot of weight. It is a long length so it is quite tricky.”
“The incense holder by the way is not part of the record it is just the incense stick. But it turns out that making the holder is probably more work than making the incense stick itself. But it does add to the entire effect.”
He says there is very little information on the previous record holder nor any pictures for the largest incense stick which was built in China. “So we had to sort of just go on intuition and our own experiments.” He says that there is no simple definition of just how an incense stick should look. “So we are coming up with a version that looks right.”
As we talk he says, “we are surprisingly on target, now that the additional powders have come from India.”
“We have a good team that is all I can say. It is definitely much more manageable than some of the previous records.” He mentions the popcorn cake and lollipop. “The work on those was off the charts.” He says that the crew in total is anywhere between 30 and 40 different people.
Applying more paste
Keeping a bird’s eye view
Papaha is a very gifted artist and has helped design many different aspects of Ashrita’s large projects. “As usual I am the art director. Yuyudhan replicated a very nice designed incense holder so now I have to decorate it. Make it beautiful and still authentic and something exciting for the audience to see.”
“We are hopefully creating something that will say ‘Happy Birthday Sri Chinmoy’ and would fire off in a kind of firework display.”
He confesses, “yesterday was the beginning of my pyrotechnic career. It was successful. I had a few good men working with me, figuring out the details.”
On the afternoon of August 27th the first thing to be moved to the site is the holder
A lot of hands make light work
It is put in place
Applying ingredients to sign continue
The incense stick is wrapped for safe transport
Carrying the stick
It arrives at site
Measuring incense stick
The width as well… an average 76 centimeters
A moment of silence before the big push
Mounting stick into holder
All hands on deck
It is not easy
Certainly not easy at the top
An impressive sight when it is in place
Ashrita and Nikhil light the world’s largest incense stick
Another great and fragrant Guinness World record
“We heard that it was the equivalent of 30,000 incense sticks. Nikhil came all the way from India to supervise the operation. We had dozens of helpers who spent days, more than a week putting on the incense. It is the highest quality ingredients from Goa. Yuyudhan designed the world’s largest incense holder. Now that it is burning it is an official record, to prove that it actually works.”
“Papaha made this sparkly Happy Birthday sign. We will light the sign and then sing Happy Birthday.”
Papaha’s sign is lit
“We choose an incense stick to express our gratitude to our meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy, who would have been 82 on August 27th.
“He showed us a way to find inner peace and tranquility in a world of turmoil and stress.”
“Going beyond your everyday capacity is such a fulfilling feeling. The day I break a record I’m just happy the whole day.”
“I’m trying to show others that our human capacity is unlimited, if we can truly believe in ourselves.”
Accept my last offering
As You accepted
My first offering.
My first offering was
My last offering is
Sri Chinmoy, Transcendence-Perfection, Agni Press, 1975