More than 100 years ago, America welcomed a son of India -- Swami Vivekananda. And he helped bring Hinduism and Yoga to our country. And he came to my hometown of Chicago. And there, at a great gathering of religious leaders, he spoke of his faith and the divinity in every soul, and the purity of love.”
~ President Barack Obama
“My ideal, indeed, can be put into a few words, and that is to preach unto mankind their divinity,
and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.” ~ Swami Vivekananda
America’s First Guru is the compelling story of how Yoga, Vedanta, the deeper aspects of Hinduism, and the Interfaith understanding first entered the popular American conversation in 1893 with the arrival of a charismatic yet almost forgotten Indian monk Swami Vivekananda at the first World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and how he went on to become America’s First Guru, deeply affecting the worlds of ideas, literature, film, racial and religious tolerance, gender, interfaith dialogue, and universal spirituality in America and around the world in the years that followed.
America’s First Guru is a new film by acclaimed Indian documentary filmmaker Raja Choudhury. Produced by A Thousand Suns Academy LLC (US), the film will be distributed on Public Television by WTTW Chicago (PBS). Executive Producer is Mat Tombers and Co-producer/Editor is Gil Seltzer. The film is slated for release on PBS in Spring 2022.
How did Yoga and Indian Wisdom first enter the popular American conversation? How did the most profound Universal concepts of Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta become a part of American lingo? Today Yoga, Karma, Mantra, the higher self, you are it, bliss, the source, the divinity within, and even the simple Indian gesture of “Namaste” are as American as Apple Pie and have become ubiquitous in the worlds of ideas, art, culture, health, literature, business, media, and sports?
America’s First Guru is a compelling new documentary film by National Film Award (India) and Webby Award-winning filmmaker Raja Choudhury, acclaimed Executive Producer Mat Tombers, and award-winning Editor Gil Seltzer for international audiences that explores these questions and helps audiences rediscover this almost forgotten Indian monk that was Indian wisdom’s first and greatest ambassador to America. America’s First Guru tells the story of Swami Vivekananda, the first Indian Yogi to bring the deeper aspects of Hinduism, Vedanta, and Yoga to the West in 1893. It explores his life, epic journey to America to attend the World’s first Parliament of Religions, his impactful 3-year stay (and a second 1-year visit), the charisma that attracted thousands to him - particularly women in the pre-suffragette era, New England and Mid-West Transcendentalists and Unitarians, authors, religious scholars, and artists, and the impact he had upon the American psyche and popular culture over the next century. He had a very focused dream. He would teach the perennial wisdom of India to the West and in return, he would lift up the poor and downtrodden in India with American know-how and money. The legacy he left behind reshaped American spirituality in the 20th century and revolutionized the Indian freedom movement and the desire to become truly free in India.
Filmed in New York, Thousand Island Park, Ridgeley, Chicago, Pasadena, Kolkata, Mount Abu, and the tip of southern India at Kanyakumari; and supported by interviews with leading thinkers and authors on the subject, the film will be presented to PBS audiences through WTTW Chicago.
At a time when the world seems to be regressing towards nationalism, racism, religious intolerance, and increased collective traumas, it is important for us to seek out stories and beacons of universalism, humanism, love, and hope to remind us of our human potential and our common destiny as universal beings.
The Story of Swami Vivekananda and his 5-year stay in America in 2 parts between 1893 and 1899 is a message of universal love, a celebration of the innate divinity in all beings, and one of great hope in the human and humanist potential of our highest consciousness. He was no ordinary Indian monk - an educated English gentleman, a freemason, a singer and a polymath - so the impact he had on America was far more impressive than other monks could have achieved. Swami Vivekananda's teachings of Yoga, Vedanta, and Hinduism were inclusive and universalist in their premise and were the catalyst for the birth of the global Interfaith movement that continues till today. He described his vision in these words:
“My ideal, indeed, can be put into a few words, and that is to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.”
And then he mapped out how one could experience that inner divinity in this life:
“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy - by one, or more, or all of these - and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”
America’s First Guru will make an important contribution to the study of the modern history of American religion, the global dialogue on interfaith tolerance, acceptance, and harmony, and the evolution of higher forms of human consciousness that transcend national, ethnic, racial, and religious limitations. By celebrating this important tipping point in America's history, we will demonstrate how the coming of Vivekananda and the rich universalist Indian ideas of Vedanta and Yoga contributed to not only the expansion of the American spiritual conversation but also in helping shape a century of humanist, mystical and psychological synthesis and syncretism but also a global love affair with Yoga and deep Indian philosophical ideas. The story traces how Vivekananda by the force of his personality and belief was able to single-mindedly start the Vedanta movement in America. This movement was the source of all the yoga, meditation, and other such movements that are currently practiced in America, maybe more than any other place on Earth.
The producers will work with local interfaith, humanist, religious, and progressive organizations across the US as well within the Yoga and Hindu communities to ensure the film is seen widely and a new dialogue is entered to across the country on the role of a more Universal Spiritualty and interfaith understanding at a time of so much difference and intolerance. The film will make an important contribution to educating audiences in America and around the world about how Universalist Indian philosophical ideas and wisdom traditions impacted the American psyche, especially with the huge popularity of Yoga and Self-Help Gurus in the US today. By understanding the nature of America’s first eastern Guru, Swami Vivekananda, audiences will get a better understanding of how metaphors and ideas percolated through the culture as a result of this single tipping point. Audiences will also find the story of how Yoga became so prevalent both entertaining and inspiring.
Producer + Director
Raja is a National Film Award (India) and Webby Award winning filmmaker and digital creative director who has been creating acclaimed documentary films, websites and major events in the US, UK and India since 1993. Trained as an architect at London's prestigious Architectural Association (AA), he entered the world of digital media by creating the highly acclaimed VID Zone music video kiosk network in London in 1993. His most acclaimed films include I Believe on Dr. Karan Singh, Spirituality in the Modern World on Ken Wilber, The Modern Mystic on Sri M, The Quantum Indians on Saha, Bose and Raman – awarded the National Film Award of 2014, Yoga Aligning to the Source and India’s official film on Yoga for the first International Day of Yoga: Yoga Harmony with Nature. Raja is a TED speaker on “Indian Wisdom for Today’s World” and a TEDx speaker on “Yoga 3.0”. Raja is a very popular teacher on The Shift Network, an online consciousness media and learning platform and his course range from Shaktism, to Trika and Vedanta. Raja lives in New Delhi with his wife and daughter.
Mat Tombers is an experienced and acclaimed TV and Digital Executive Producer who has developed original content for Odyssey Networks, Hallmark TV, Fine Living Network, Discovery Times, Outdoor Life Network and the History Channel. He launched Discovery Communications Channels in Australia and India and led the production department for Chambers Communications for several years, developing scripted dramas for broadcast and non-fiction programming for cable networks as well as the syndication market. An active member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences since 1991, he was Governor of the Television Executives Peer Group and helped the Academy launch the Interactive Media Peer Group in 2000. He is currently a member of the Executive Committee for the CINE Awards, serves on the Advisory Board for the Producer’s Guild of America, East and co-chairs the Seminars Committee.
Co-Producer + Editor
Gil is a Brazilian-born, US-raised filmmaker with a film degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Gil's career as an editor has spanned over 20 years. He is the editor of the feature "TransMilitary" which won the coveted Audience Award at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival and of an upcoming feature that will have its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. He started out at CNN cutting Anderson Cooper's 360 and moved on to editing spots at several major brands and agencies. His commercial work has featured the likes of Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé. Directors he's worked with include Bennett Miller, David Blaine and Inez and Vinoodh. Gil also worked with The History Channel on the edit of Superheroes Decoded, a feature-length show featuring George RR Martin and Stan Lee. In addition, Gil is an award-winning screenwriter who's work has gained accolades at the Screenwriter's Colony, the Nicholl Fellowship and the Bluecat Competition among others. His screenplay, "The Delivery", won the Silver prize at the 2019 Page Awards and is on the top ten list for dramas on the 2019 Red List.
Swami Vivekananda will be brought to life by the voice and enactments of his words by New York actor Samrat Chakrabarti who not only looks like Swami Vivekananda but is also Bengali and was raised in England and the US. His film credits include Midnight’s Children, the highly acclaimed The War Within, Bombay Summer, and Ashes. Chakrabarti has also appeared in numerous television productions including 30 Rock, Blue Bloods, Law & Order, The Sopranos, Love Money, Homeland, Outsourced, Mr. Robot, and a recurring popular role in Damages opposite Ted Danson.
The story will be told by a narrator who is still being selected. The voices of other characters will be narrated by various actors and actresses. The film will also be dubbed into other languages for International Distribution.
Confirmed Guest Appearances + Interviews
Swami Sarvapriyananda – Monk of the Ramakrishna Order, President of the Vedanta Society of New York, and visiting fellow at Harvard Divinity School
AL Bardach - NY Times columnist and acclaimed author
Phil Goldberg – author of American Veda and historian of the journey of Indian wisdom in America
Ruth Harris – Historian at All Souls College College, Oxford University and author of a forthcoming book on Swami Vivekananda and his journey in America
Support the Film
America’s First Guru is a not-for-profit educational film for Public Television and Public Showing in the US (and worldwide) and will be distributed through Public Television, Online, and via Educational Institutions and Public Showings. The film is produced by A Thousand Suns Academy LLC, an Arizona-based media company. The film will be partnered and distributed on Public Television by WTTW Chicago (Chicago PBS) who are also the film’s 501 (c)(3) Fiscal Partner for all donations, grants, and contributions over $5,000 which may be tax-deductible in the United States through our 501 (c)(3) partnership with WTTW PBS Chicago. Thank you to the Birch Family Foundation, Michael Singer, Patricia Aboud, Surja Bose, Don Lucke, Penny Sisely, and Shirin Akbar for your kind donations and pledges. Read the WTTW Partnership Letter.
Total Production Budget: $280,000
Total Distribution and Marketing Budget: $120,000
Raised/Pledged to Date: $200,000