Mary Garden issues
a travel warning for seekers of spiritual enlightenment
Australian Financial Review, 21 November
Section: Ordinary people Page: 6 Words: 5,087
No amount of evidence, nor the quality of it, will
serve to un-convince the true believer. Their belief is something they
not only want, they need it.
conversion to Eastern mysticism was sudden and unexpected. One morning I
was a non-believer; that night I was a believer. And yet it took me
years to wake up. The dramatic turnabout in my life happened during a
ceremony of worship conducted at a yoga ashram 30 years ago. This ashram
on the outskirts of Auckland was the first of its kind in New Zealand
and the Hindu swami that led the ceremony was also the first to visit
can't understand fully what happened to me that night. It was as if I
was transported into another world during the hour or so that I sat
there. I remember there was incense burning, candles lighting up the
darkened room, some very strange pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses on
the altar at the front of the room. There was no restless chatter or
movement among the small group of people assembled there. The swami was
chanting prayers to the gods, and perhaps there were some pictures of
various holy men as well, but I don't remember. The chants and prayers
seemed strangely familiar. Within minutes my mind seemed to "explode"
into ecstasy and bliss. I felt the region of my heart grow warmer and
warmer and then it was as if it was opening and all these feelings of
love were pouring outwards. My forehead felt ablaze with white light. I
had dropped acid once before and in many ways this experience was
similar, except that here I felt in complete control and this enormous
sense of peace came over me.
As I drove
home I decided to quit my postgraduate studies at Auckland University
and go to India as soon as possible. Maybe for the rest of my life.
I was not
alone. The hippy movement - its pot and flower power - had left some of
us jaded and more lost than ever and so we embarked instead on a
spiritual search. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of us went to India:
Eastern mysticism was new and exotic to Westerners and we were in the
vanguard. We traipsed from guru to guru unable to see that we would have
been better to give up on them altogether - at least until we had sorted
ourselves out psychologically. But there had been no exposys or warnings
of the damage that could be done to our minds and our bodies when we
surrendered our critical thinking (and our hearts) to gurus. We were
young, gullible and susceptible.
making preparations to leave, I stayed at the yoga ashram and became
part of an "instant" community. I also picked up "instant" answers to
the meaning of life. I began to learn about chakras and the
kundalini fire that was meant to move slowly up the spinal cord
purifying "blocks" in its wake. I read books such as Paul Brunton's A
Search in Secret India and Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi
and was blown away. It was as if I had entered an enchanted kingdom, so
different from the dreary Christianity of my childhood. It never
occurred to me to question or doubt their stories. I had become a "true
believer": in reincarnation, karma, meditation, chanting, Siva, Krishna
and Hanuman (the monkey god) and Ganesha (the elephant god) and in the
need to have a guru. I was on what seemed to be a permanent high: the
depression and loneliness that had hovered over my life for the previous
few years had vanished (we didn't talk about these things back in those
days). Plus I didn't have to think about sex again: I was going to be
celibate like a true Hindu sadhak or renunciate. What a relief to
no longer need romantic relationships with men.
I heard of
Sathya Sai Baba a few weeks before I was due to leave. I met some Sai
Baba devotees and was captivated by what they told me. Tales of Baba
healing the sick, curing the lame, resurrecting the dead, transporting
himself great distances, manifesting in many places and bodies
simultaneously. Also, of drawing necklaces, bracelets and rings from
thin air and a sacred ash called vibhuti from the palm of his
hand. (Millions of people all over the world, including the present and
former prime ministers of India, believe that Sai Baba is the Avatar, a
direct incarnation of God. He himself has said "his coming" was
predicted by Jesus Christ.)
was Sai Baba who was behind all the strange and remarkable changes in my
life? I was not going to miss out. I'd go to Bangalore, surrender my
life to Him. I changed my travel destination to South India instead of
the Himalayas as planned.
impression of India was that at last I had come home. Within days of
arriving I began to wear a sari as well as a red spot (kumkum) on
my forehead and began learning Hindi. With my black hair and olive skin,
I was often mistaken for an Indian woman.
honeymoon lasted only three months. By that time I was disillusioned if
not bored by a life revolving around "darshans". This meant sitting for
hours on the dusty ground in the compound of a palatial residence
waiting for "God" himself to appear each morning and afternoon. We were
supposed to be blessed and purified by being in such a holy presence.
I was also
disturbed by the groupthink - even the most trivial and banal things
were attributed to Sai Baba as if "He" was omniscient and omnipresent.
There was a language that went along with all of this: "He's cleansing
me"; "It's all His Grace", etc. I was also a bit freaked out (to put it
mildly) by the rumours I heard in the nearby town that Sai Baba was a
"sex maniac" preying on male disciples during private interviews. I fled
convinced that Baba was the devil himself or at least something dark and
sinister. Thankfully no-one came to track me down and change my mind as
had happened with members of other groups such as the Moonies or the
Hare Krishnas. But it was some time before I could shake the spell that
had been cast over me. Images of the orange-robed god-man darted across
my mind from time to time, as did the odd phrase and melody of some of
the hypnotic bhajans (devotional songs) that had been sung at the
ashram. As I had not met any ex-devotee there was the odd moment on the
long dusty train ride to Delhi when I wondered, "What if I am wrong and
have blown it, thrown away the chance to be with God himself?"
of this initial disillusionment I did not give up on my search and spent
six more years in India. Most of these were with an enigmatic yogi
called Swami Balyogi Premvarni whose isolated ashram was nestled in the
jungle near Rishikesh, in the Himalayas. During the times I ran away
from him I checked out other yogis and swamis, spent time with the Hare
Krishnas in Vrindaban, stayed a year in the ashram of the controversial
Bhagwan Rajneesh and did a number of Buddhist Vipassana meditation
retreats. The latter were conducted by a very respected teacher (and
deservedly so) called Goenka (no claims here of being a god-man or
readers may find it difficult to understand why these gurus are so
powerful? We first need to look at the concept of the guru itself, which
is an essential component of Eastern mysticism. There is no parallel in
other spiritual traditions. Guru is a Sanskrit word; "gu" means darkness
and "ru" means light. Hence guru means one who can lead you from
darkness to light. Hindus consider that if one chooses a spiritual path
in life (note that this is traditionally the path recommended when one's
duties as a parent or a householder etc have been fulfilled - in the
latter part of one's life), then it is essential to find a guru.
are considered the living manifestation of God (Bhagwan) here on earth.
As God is seen as too powerful to make contact directly, these gurus are
conduits to channel his energy. Premvarni (we used to call him Swamiji)
would say: "God will blow your fuse; you need me as a transformer."
As God in
human form, these gurus (very few are women) become the absolute
authority who cannot be questioned or challenged by disciples. Even
doubting them is seen as "resistance", a lack of faith and too much
reliance on the intellect. Hence the measure of our spiritual
superiority became our openness and complete acceptance not only of our
guru's teachings but also his behaviour, no matter how bizarre, cruel or
even unethical. Most of the gurus I met taught the need to give up all
thinking and to surrender totally. At the entrance to Rajneesh's ashram
in Poona was even a sign: "Leave your minds and your shoes outside the
guru is seen as infallible, then the disciples are always to blame: it
is their karma. On the other hand, what the guru does is a divine
lila (game) or "test". There were times we would call Swamiji "Rudra"
(the god of destruction in the Hindu pantheon). In this way we could
rationalise his outbursts and acts of cruelty. He himself used to call
it his "teaching nature" - he claimed he used it intentionally to wake
us up. One seeker who spent several months there a few years ago
recently wrote to me: "I was in constant internal agitation about
whether his behaviours were tests or mere emotional abuse." (This person
has still not fully resolved his experience there). Now, looking back,
Swamiji's behaviours were acts of violence and abuse, if not those of a
madman; this discernment is unavailable to devotees who believe their
guru is perfect.
beginning I found Swamiji's dramatic mood swings unnerving. He would be
seductive and charming one minute and vile the next - for no apparent
reason. He would scream, yell profanities (often in Hindi) and even beat
one of the Indian servants. Sometimes he would attack a Western disciple
(usually male) who regarded this as part of their spiritual discipline
and welcomed it. I'd be shocked at his outbursts, chuck my possessions
in my backpack and get ready to leave. By the time I'd front up to
Swamiji to get my money and passport out of his safe he'd have turned on
his charming, seductive self and I'd be sucked back in, even blaming
myself for doubting him. However after a few months, his "teaching
nature" scarcely bothered me.
surrender to such a guru-figure can result in the disintegration of
personality and individuality. Joshua Baran, a former Zen Buddhist monk,
remarks: "Devotees lose their natural alarm systems, which tell them
when things aren't right. This is usually a gradual process." In effect
what happens is brainwashing, a subtle process of thought reform.
instead of the promise of increased spiritual awareness and humility,
what can often take place is increased robotism. In my own case, over
the years I became more and more indecisive, since most major decisions
were made for me. Eckart Flother, a well-known German journalist, spent
some months as a sannyasin in Poona in the late 1970s and wrote
of the dehumanising effects of life with Rajneesh: how a person can
become like a puppet; almost an apathetic creature trying to satisfy his
basic needs while the rest of his energy is being used to glorify the
Contributing to the marked personality changes of devotees are the new
names they are given, an essential part of the initiation process. These
new names have tremendous significance - they signify a rebirth, a
cutting off of the past, as if what devotees were before needs to be
somehow obliterated, forgotten. Swamiji bestowed on me the Sanskrit name
Archana which means "adoration of the divine", or worship, and explained
that was my true spiritual path. Years later when I became a Rajneesh
sannyasin I was given another name, Ma Prem Sagara, meaning "ocean
of love". These names fed our delusions of somehow being divine or
really trapped us were the blissful states of mind achieved through
meditation or chanting. We all had the most extraordinary experiences
for which I have no explanation to this day. But what we didn't realise
is that just because we experienced peace and ecstasy and maybe had
various visions, this did not mean that emotional difficulties or
psychological problems had been cured or transcended. These mental
states had little to do with spiritual growth.
several reasons why it was so hard for many of us to leave or to give up
our search altogether. Not only had we lost our sense of reality but
also our defence mechanisms. We had become too frightened or paranoid to
leave. While in Poona we were constantly reminded that if we lost faith,
we would miss out on this rare opportunity to be with an enlightened
master - Bhagwan Rajneesh. In the Himalayas, we were encouraged to
develop a phobia of the outside world: that world out there, outside the
ashram, was in some way evil, samsara, non-spiritual. If we left,
it would mean that we had not only failed but had also been in error.
And we would have to return to the West, now a foreign place; many of us
had no jobs to go back to and had broken ties with old friends and past
social networks. Most of all, we lacked the insight to leave!
our virtual imprisonment could have dire consequences. Even though
Swamiji claimed to be celibate, within weeks I had become a consort and
- shortly after - his chief consort. He insisted it wasn't sex; it was
just raising my kundalini and getting rid of all those lowly
vibrations from years of sleeping with worldly men. I learnt that within
Hinduism there is a rare tradition of tantra in which there is a
place for legitimate coupling by spiritual partners for a kind of
mystical union. So I felt special, even flattered.
came to an end when I fell pregnant: that was not meant to be part of
the divine drama. Swamiji had assured me that he was in control of my
destiny and when I became sick he pronounced that my body was "cleansing
itself". Finally (after several months) I persuaded him to let me see a
doctor. At first I thought, "what a miracle, a holy child!"; it never
occurred to me to have an abortion but that's exactly what Swamiji
ordered: it was my fault and my "bad karma".
changed my mind, alone in a noisy Delhi hospital, but when my passport
and all my money was stolen, I fell into a state of utter confusion and
distress. I also feared being rejected by Swamiji and cast out of his
returned to the ashram, things were never the same. I was no longer
subservient and became defiant and enraged at times. On one occasion I
charged into the meditation room and confronted him, screaming, "You're
a murderer, Swamiji. You killed my baby. You're a sex maniac." It was
then I knew I had to leave this place before I went completely insane.
year in India was spent in Poona with the Bhagwan Rajneesh. Life there
was in many ways refreshing and in strong contrast to the rigidity and
repression found in many of the traditional Hindu ashrams I had visited.
Unless one was part of the "inner circle" and lived within the confines
of the ashram itself, one was free to do as one pleased. Nothing was
forbidden - sex, dancing, alcohol, drugs, partying. The ashram also
offered a wide range of workshops and retreats: from tantra sex
to Gestalt therapy and Zen meditation. It was here that I had my
first experience of Western psychotherapies and these helped me. I lived
outside the ashram in a comfortable apartment and even began earning an
income from various projects including the compilation of a book called
Bhagwan's Neo-Tantra. I slowly began to recover from Swamiji and
was no longer drawn back to him.
some disturbing things went on around the Bhagwan both inside and
outside the ashram. Increasingly I found myself in a questioning or
doubting state of mind - that "monkey" mind of mine, which had hounded
me throughout my odyssey. At the end of the year I received a note,
ostensibly from Rajneesh but presumably from one of his secretaries. It
said I was resisting him and it was time to go back to the West (many
other sannyasins received similar notes at this time). I took
that as my cue.
to worldly life, settled in Brisbane and have never wanted to return to
India. My dream of finding some kind of enlightenment through Eastern
gurus was finally over and I had started to wake up. I also realised
that I had lost a large chunk of my life. In those seven years away I
had read no newspapers, watched no television, listened to no Western
music and read no books that were not religious tracts. I had been
oblivious to what had been going on in the wider world.
It took me
years to make sense of what I had experienced. It was difficult because
in those days cult counsellors did not exist except for a few
evangelical Christians who, in my experience, dished out more of the
same "mind control". I also knew of no ex-devotee of any guru. Perhaps I
was the only one, the only one who could not stand up to the rigours of
spiritual life? I wrote a book based on my journey, The Serpent
Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction, which helped resolve some
of the ambivalence I had been struggling with. I experienced some good
things in India. As well as the strength to survive, I gained some
recipes for a simpler life. And I still practise Vipassana (albeit in
small doses): sitting still, watching my breath, calming my mind. But
essentially my entanglements with gurus had been dangerous and
destructive. They had all abused their power.
only in the late 1980s that sensational stories began to appear in
print: articles and books by ex-devotees of Sai Baba, Ron Hubbard
(Scientology), the Hare Krishnas, Muktananda, Sun Myung Moon, Rajneesh,
Guru Maharaji, Krishnamurti and other Hindu gurus, plus various Zen
masters and Buddhist lamas.
Milne's book, Bhagwan, The God that Failed, documents the
hypocrisy that surrounded Rajneesh. A few years after I left, bizarre
events began to unfold in that group. They relocated to Oregon and hit
worldwide media attention when Rajneesh bought scores of Rolls-Royces
and the ashram began stockpiling weapons. The group also tried to
influence local county elections by making large numbers of people ill
on election day so their own candidates would be elected. This led to
the first large-scale biological attack in history when 751 people
dining at restaurants in the small city of Dalles were poisoned with
salmonella (grown in the commune). Two sannyasins pleaded guilty
to charges of food poisoning. And 35 others pleaded guilty to other
charges such as conspiracy to murder public officials.
renamed himself Osho when he returned to India. According to those close
to him, he became more and more dependent on prescription drugs such as
Valium as well as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and died in 1990 from
heart failure. His closest disciple and companion, Vivek, had committed
suicide in Bombay a few months before. Despite all the controversy, Osho
groups still function here in Australia.
first spilled some of the "beans" on Sai Baba with Lord of the Air,
in which he claimed that this so-called avatar was in fact a deviant con
man who preyed on his followers, especially male disciples. His
accusations were dismissed for decades and it is only in recent years
with the help of the internet that his claims have been corroborated.
More allegations have been added; there is a flourishing internet
still go on pilgrimages to Bangalore. Devotees, because of their
unconditional belief in Sai Baba as God, find it easy to dismiss any
accusations as false, without even reading them. Some vocal devotees
simply rationalise the widespread allegations of sexual abuse. An
American devotee named Ram Das Awle says on his website: "I'm inclined
to think some of the allegations about Baba are probably true. It
appears likely to me that He has occasionally had sexually
intimate interactions with devotees." He says that Sai Baba touches men
to awaken their kundalini energy or to remove previous bad sexual
karma, and that "any sexual contact Baba has had with devotees - of
whatever kind - has actually been only a potent blessing, given to
awaken the spiritual power within those souls. Who can call that
'wrong'? Surely to call such contact 'molestation' is perversity
"cult" phenomenon has been under close scrutiny for many years now, and
one prominent researcher, Margaret Singer, remarks that what she finds
astonishing is that most people don't realise how all humans can be
influenced. She has interviewed more than 3000 former members from
groups with vastly different ideologies, from the Rajneeshees to the
members of Jim Jones's People's Temple, and concludes, "they are all
extended con games". Philip Zimbardo (former president of the American
Psychological Association) points out: "Whatever any member of a cult
has done, you and I could be recruited or seduced into doing - under the
right or wrong conditions. The majority of 'normal, average,
intelligent' individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal,
irrational, aggressive and self-destructive actions that are contrary to
their values or personality - when manipulated situational conditions
exert their power over individual dispositions."
Steel, a former devotee of Sai Baba, speaks for many when he writes on
his website of how his "serious doubts about the truth of the Divinity
claims (together with collateral damage to my faith from the
accumulating sexual allegations) have forced me to recover my critical
judgement, anaesthetised for so long by my belief in Sai Baba's special
self-proclaimed divine nature, and to organise the niggling doubts which
I had collected (but conveniently hid away) into a more coherent
pattern. As for naivety and gullibility, I shared these attributes with
other devotees for many years".
ask: What's wrong with groups that bring solace and a sense of belonging
to so many people? Author Wendy Kaminer replies: "That's a bit like
asking what's wrong with a lobotomy, [or] a steady diet of happy pills.
The rise of charismatic authority figures is always disconcerting,
especially when they malign rationalism and exhort us to abandon
critical thinking in order to realise spiritual growth. Pop gurus prey
on existential anxieties and thrive when our fear of being alone and
mortal in an indifferent universe is stronger than our judgement. No-one
who seeks worship, however covertly, deserves respect. Argue with them,
author, Mariana Caplan, says that seekers should aim for a "conscious
discipleship that is fully empowered, intelligent". She argues that
disciples need to understand their own "complicity in the corruption
that sometimes arises in the student-teacher relationship". But when in
1997 a woman was awarded $US1.8 million from the Himalayan Institute in
Honesdale, Philadelphia, her attorney described the sexual exploitation
of his client as "spiritual incest", and worse than rape because she and
other devotees viewed the swami as "a person approaching divinity".
Using his position as spiritual guru to gain their trust, the swami had
convinced young women to submit to sexual demands.
Lama was shocked when he heard that Tibetan lamas were liaising with
Western female students and said the only remedy for such a situation
was for the culprits to be "outed", mentioned by name publicly and no
longer considered as teachers. But he also pointed out that in the final
analysis, the authority of a guru was bestowed by the disciple. The guru
doesn't go looking for disciples. The Dalai Lama's recipe is to "spy" on
the guru for at least 10 years. Listen, examine, watch, until you are
convinced the person is sincere. In the meantime treat him or her as an
ordinary human being and receive their teaching as "just information".
thought to be a passing fad of the 1960s and 1970s has not disappeared
as many commentators assumed. In the following decades and even today
people still go to India and elsewhere to surrender their minds to gurus
- even to those that have been exposed as frauds, charlatans, liars and
hypocrites. In addition, many self-styled false messiahs have emerged in
the West. Increasing numbers of New Age teachers and leaders of groups,
workshops and seminars who claim "this is it", "this will change your
life", "here is the way", continue to mushroom across Australia. They
are not all harmful, of course, but what seekers need to be wary of are
those groups that rely on charismatic leaders (with potentially
manipulative control over disciples), where there is an authoritarian
structure that requires unquestioning obedience and where there are
in-out group attitudes - they, the chosen ones, alone hold the "truth".
Kornfield, a well-known American teacher of Vipassana meditation, is a
strong advocate for psychotherapy as part of spiritual life: "Because
the issues of personal life are often our greatest source of suffering
and neurosis, of our deepest attachments and delusion, we fear them and
may unconsciously use spiritual practice to avoid dealing with them."
This is what I was lucky enough to realise at Poona and it has been a
cornerstone of my life ever since.
guru-disciple relationship is probably the most authoritarian of all in
its demands for total surrender and obedience. Hence it can also be the
most destructive. And far from achieving the freedom and enlightenment
that many of us wannabe spiritual pioneers of the 1970s sought (and were
promised), we experienced mental imprisonment and confusion. We were
seduced by yogis and swamis telling us what we wanted to hear: that we
were special and that they were God incarnate. Our need was our
downfall. (Other "spiritual" relationships can also be damaging - eg the
widespread abuse by some Catholic and Anglican priests, the details and
serious consequences of which have been surfacing of late.)
to time I look back on those years in India and it seems like a strange
dream. Was that really me?
Garden is the author of The Serpent
Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction, a second edition of which
has just been published by Sid Harta Publishers (Melbourne, 254pp,
http://www.marygarden.net or: http://www.users.bigpond.com/marygarden
Brooke, Lord of the Air (Lion Publishing, London, 1976).
and Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality
Change (A Delta Book, New York, 1978).
Caplan, Do You Need a Guru? (Thorsons, London, 2002).
Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises
of Spiritual Life (Bantam Books, New York, 1993).
Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian
Power (Frog Ltd, California, 1993).
Macdonald, Holy Cow! (Bantam, Australia, 2002).
MacKenzie, Cave in the Snow (Bloomsbury Publishing, London,
Milne, Bhagwan, The God that Failed (Sphere Books, London, 1987).
Singer, Cults in our Midst (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1995).
Zimbardo, 'What messages are behind today's cults?', APA Monitor,