Meditation and yoga are practised by millions of people who swear by the salutary effects of both. But the figures who brought these practices to the West have not had such wholesome reputations.
As an undergraduate student in Montreal, I had a boyfriend who introduced me to meditation. It was not something I was ‘in to’ but I was willing to give it a try, at least to keep him happy. I liked him a lot, and we had very amusing times together, but he was not academically inclined. I think he hoped meditation would slow down, if not stop, my intellectual preoccupation with religious studies. Why study religion, he implored, when you can just be spiritual?
I was not convinced that they were separate, and this would eventually lead us to go our separate ways. I believed that religion shapes the experience we call spiritual and much else besides, including the all-important moral choices we make. And there were plenty of strange ones on view in the 1970s that raised a lot of questions in my mind. The nature of a religion surely owed something to its spiritual claims and aspirations. At any rate, I was on a mission to find out.
Meditation, on the other hand, was touted as ‘religion free’ and came with the audacious claim that it was the high road if not the most direct path to ‘authentic spirituality.’ It was a convenient assertion since the mainly Christian and Jewish students on campus, who were willing to try meditation but were uneasy about abandoning their inherited tradition, were assured that would not be necessary. What the gurus and swamis didn’t say was that it was close to inevitable.
Meditation’s only formal requirement to achieve union with the Divine, variously referred to as Brahman, the Godself or Nirvana (not the rock group), was to sit cross legged, eyes closed and chant a mantra like Om Mani Padme Om or just Om. In one easy step the whole apparatus of religion, including its ordained ministers, doctrines and communal memberships, became irrelevant.
Or so it seemed. What the young recruits barely noticed was that meditation was promoted by a whole new set of spiritual teachers, mostly Hindu or Sikh gurus and Buddhist monks, who ran ashrams and monasteries, and imposed strict daily regimes, rituals and dietary requirements on their adepts. They also made frequent calls on your time, your money, if not your entire life.
In the meantime, the practice of meditation was intended to subdue ‘the monkey mind’ of incessant curiosity, remove all sources of intellectual doubt, and finally empty the mind of ego. Those vaunted aims all struck me as entirely contrary to what I needed to progress as a university student. To be sure, my ego got a battering from university professors and humility soon emerged as an indispensable aid to learning. But the concept of treating thought itself as an obstacle to spirituality rather than a road to it was so foreign to me that I wondered why some people specifically sought it out.
I met some of them at the ashram, where I occasionally attended the evening meditation session. I noticed a preponderance of young women, which set me wondering. Why were they there in such numbers? Were they attracted to the charismatically handsome teacher in charge, Serge, of long dark wavy locks, piercing violet blue eyes and snow-white cotton garb? As a Quebecois, Serge was somewhere between a beatific Jesus and an aloof yogi. He was in his mid-to-late twenties, and I was aware of a loving dynamic between him and the small group of meditators.
As it turned out I was ‘a natural’ at meditation, or so I was told. I liked the experience of sitting cross legged, eyes half closed, in the small, darkly lit, incense fragranced meditation room. What a change from the bright neon lit lecture halls and my sparse ‘one and a half’ apartment below the street, near to the university, where I spent hours studying and writing essays for my Honours BA. The ashram, by contrast, was cosy and intimate, and I found it easy to feel the so called ‘third eye’ radiate in the middle of my forehead, a sweet buzz that felt like a mild electrical current.
But was this the feeling of Divine Bliss? Was it the portal to enlightenment? Looking around, the meditators that I met did not strike me as particularly enlightened or happy. On the contrary, they looked alone and a little bit desperate. Perhaps it was because of all the talk about the imminent arrival of the man whose photograph was everywhere. Each time I attended the small ashram, located half way up the ‘the mountain’ at the centre of Montreal, Serge and his acolytes fuelled anticipation of the Swami’s visit. Yet, time and again it was postponed. In the nine months or so that I attended meditation, he never did show up.
That sense of expectation and unfulfilled promise was a pattern. One of our friends, a young woman from a well-to-do Jewish family, who was besotted with Serge, believed that they were to be married. But the wedding, which needed the blessing of the Swami, was repeatedly delayed. Finally, the day arrived. It was grey and rainy, and we gathered in the early morning to witness their marriage vows. I clutched my hand-made present, which was a pillow I embroidered with their intertwined initials. We waited and waited and waited, until we were told it was cancelled again. She was devastated, and we felt embarrassed and foolish.
It was a painful lesson about spiritual seekers and their unrequited yearnings which were often wrapped up in other kinds of desires. The deep need for attachment, love and sexual intimacy, which burgeons in the young, not only surged through the new religious movements of the 1970s, but it would be the engine of their success and their demise. I was already asking myself how much of the spiritual quest was a quest for love?
Ashrams also appeared to be the ideal places to find refuge, but not of the kind that Buddhist monks speak of when they seek refuge from the transience of life, a doctrine known as samsara, the wheel of birth and death. It was all too evident that some of the young women and men whom I encountered were looking for escape hatches from their families and their expectations to get a university education or get on in business.
I remember in particular one young woman, pale, pretty, and delicate, who was from a privileged background in Montreal. She had given up everything, including her inheritance, to follow Serge into Swami Shyam’s ashram, much to the chagrin of her family. To me it seemed a reckless, ungrateful and possibly dangerous choice, but to her it was the life she wanted, pure and white, like the clothes she wore.
I knew I would never be among the white clad brigade because I was not about to give up my scholarly interests for the promise of bliss, spiritual or otherwise. But encountering people who were prepared to jettison all the opportunities that their parents had worked hard to give them, in order to follow exotic teachers who dangled dreams of purity and redemption in front of their eyes, was a lesson not only in religion but in life.
I often wondered what became of Swami Shyam, as I had not heard his name bandied about during the heyday of new religious movements in the 1980s when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM, “the Beatles’ guru,” and Maharaj Ji, of the Divine Light Mission, the world’s youngest guru at the age of 14, were making headlines. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s controversial claims that meditators could levitate using TM lost him some credibility, while Majaraj Ji hung up his dhoti for a business suit, but not before going bankrupt and facing court in a family feud about leadership and money.
Then there was the Woodstock guru, Swami Satchidananda, who opened the historic music festival in 1969 and led the audience of 350,000 youth in yoga poses, meditations and chants. Links to the music world proved valuable when the legendary singer-songwriter, Carole King, gave him the property ‘Yogaville’ in Buckingham County, Virginia, where he lived and established an interfaith organisation called LOTUS, for Light of Truth Universal Shrine. Through his company, Integral Yoga International, and thousands of ashrams, Satchidananda spread the yoga-meditation movement to millions of suburban folk and their children around the world.
Meditation and yoga are practised by millions of people who swear by the salutary effects of both. But the figures who brought these practices to the West have not had such wholesome reputations. The promise of enlightenment and “200 percent of life” as Maharishi pledged his followers has been elusive. Claire Hoffman’s memoir of growing up in the TM compound, Utopia Park, in Iowa, reveals the exploitation of followers and the neglect of children in the movement. (1)
In Australia, the Royal Commission in Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard accounts of sexual abuse in the Mangrove Mountain ashram, run by Swami Akhananda, a disciple of Swami Satchidananda. The horrific details of the abuse at the ashram, which was aided by the woman in charge of the girls, Shishy, were reported by news.com.au in December 2014, and were buttressed by accounts of others, including one senior woman who was sexually assaulted by Satchidananda himself. (2)
And Swami Shyam, the guru who was eagerly awaited by his Montreal ashram followers all those years ago? At a conference on the Gold Coast, NSW, which was focused on the codes of conduct in yoga-meditation settings across Australia, I researched Swami Shyam to see what had become of him. It turned out he was the object of numerous allegations of sexual abuse and financial exploitation of followers. In one case he was having sexual relations with a mother and daughter without one knowing about the other. Secrecy was a sacred vow to the guru and his modus operandi for maintaining control of his followers. It’s the oldest rule in the book of the narcissistic leader, whose grandiose view of himself and his requirements knows no bounds, and feeds on the unending admiration and desires of all those around them. (3)
And as Amanda Lucia has shown in her meticulous analysis of the Guru-disciple relationship, the sacralisation of the guru’s physical body as a source of cosmic energy or shakti is both the spiritual source of the disciple’s attraction and the means by which the guru exerts tremendous control and subjugation of the disciple, including sexual slavery. As one follower from Montreal who became depressed and suicidal as a result of her relations with Swami Shyam put it: "Like a lot of women there, I needed attention, I needed love, I needed help." (4)
(4) Lucia, Amanda (2018). "Guru Sex: Charisma, Proxemic Desire, and the Haptic Logics of the Guru-Disciple Relationship". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 86 (4): 953–988.