An Ottawa woman has rented a parking space on a busy street corner in Old Ottawa South to erect a statue to a controversial Indian spiritual leader.
The bronze statue shows Sri Chinmoy meditating and was placed on Sunday at the corner of Bank Street and Belmont Avenue in Old Ottawa South by Pratyaya Hamilton, a follower of Chinmoy's teachings since 1973 and a meditation leader at the Sri Chinmoy Centre.
The statue, gifted to her by a Canadian man who purchased it from a New Zealand artist, has been sitting in Hamilton's home for the last six years. Last fall she put in an application to the federal government to place it on federal land.
Still waiting for city's approval
However, two weeks ago, that request was denied, so Hamilton then put a request with the City of Ottawa to move it into a city park, but didn't want to wait around for their answer expected in the fall.
That led her to the corner of Bank Street and Belmont Avenue and the Majestic Drycleaners and Laundry at the corner.
"All of a sudden, my heart was pulled to this building," she said.
In the early 1970s, a group of Chinmoy's students owned a vegetarian restaurant, a health food store, a bookstore, a craft shop and a printing press on the second floor.
They closed down only five years later, but Hamilton hopes to add a plaque with information about the businesses alongside the statue.
Hamilton paying for spot where statue stands
Chinmoy used to visit Ottawa frequently for different events, including meditations, concerts and university lectures while he was living in the United States and Hamilton said she met him on multiple occasions.
He died in 2007 at the age of 76.
Right now, Hamilton is paying $300 a month to rent a parking space from the business and hopes to either keep the statue at that corner where she's set to install benches on Tuesday or move it to a park with the City of Ottawa's approval.
"We wanted to make it a little peace park where people could sit and reflect on the importance of peace in the world. So we wanted it to be a place of reflection. But now that we have it here, I love it here."
'A dreamer of world peace'
Hamilton described Chinmoy as a meditation teacher and "a dreamer of world peace" and said Chinmoy held meditations at the United Nations in New York for several years after moving there in the 1960s.
"[He] is a great spiritual master. His whole life was dedicated to peace. He was always doing everything to inspire peoples, inspire humanity," she said.
Chinmoy may have been a religious figure to some, but allegations he ran a cult persist 10 years after his death.
One of his former followers, musician Carlos Santana, had a public falling out with Chinmoy.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2000, Santana compared living under the leader's rules to living at an American military college.
"There was always this competition in how much we could do to prove our devotion — who could sleep the least and still function, because you were working so hard, how many miles could you run," he told the magazine.
'A lot of people called it a cult'
That experience does not surprise Stephen Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in alternative and controversial religions.
He's been following the controversy surrounding Chinmoy since the 1980s and has spoken to people who used to be followers.
'His contributions to world peace become highly problematic, in part because of how he ran his own group' - Stephen Kent, Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta
"A lot of people called it a cult. One of the indications that it had cult characteristics is the way it responded to critics. Cults can not assimilate or handle criticism from outsiders, especially if the outsider is a former member. These people are considered evil, they're trying to destroy God's work. Consequently, former members who speak out, from this group and others, can be afraid. They can be afraid of retaliation," he said.
And he's not surprised a statue of the guru has been erected in Ottawa to immortalize their leader.
"It's a highly dramatic and longstanding ode to a leader whose members think he was a spiritual inspiration to them, indeed an inspiration to the world. It's just that, for people who are able to look at the group objectively, his contributions to world peace become highly problematic, in part because of how he ran his own group," he said.
One complaint so far
Hamilton disputes the idea Chinmoy's group is a cult and said she's never heard those allegations.
"Any great man has critics. What is a cult? It's not a cult. It's a meditation centre. He was well respected the world over. I just would disagree with that vehemently," said Hamilton.
After learning about the statue from CBC Ottawa, the City of Ottawa sent a bylaw officer to the site.
By Tuesday afternoon, there had been one complaint.
"It was investigated and no violations were found," Jerrod Riley, a bylaw review specialist wrote in a statement.