Friday, July 24, 2009

Ranjana


Back at Guru's memorial, Saraswati said something else to me that stuck with me.

Remember that over the memorial weekend, Saraswati had been trying to enlist my help in getting her nephew, Pinak -- my sister's then-boyfriend -- to come to New York to see Guru one last time.

At some point that weekend, Saraswati had brought the situation to Ranjana's attention. Apparently, there had been some discussion between them about my family: me, my brother Jeevan, and my sister Nirbachita.

In what I then took as a friendly effort to butter me up, Saraswati told me about a part of that discussion. "Ranjana said," Saraswati recounted, "that Guru had told her that there was a strong connection between you and your family and her."

While Saraswati and I didn't dwell on the subject, it did remind me of the fact that I hadn't yet seen Ranjana at the memorial. As it turned out, I never would.

I must have greeted and hugged a dozen or more of my sister disciples over the course of that weekend, including Lavanya, who had been out of the Center for some time by that point, but who nevertheless looked as beautiful as ever dressed in a sari for that somber occasion.

But I never so much as saw Ranjana during the relatively brief periods of time at which former disciples like me were permitted at the tennis court. In my narcissistic way, I wondered to myself whether she was avoiding me.

In any event -- Saraswati's anecdote aside -- I had always felt a connection with Ranjana. As I've already recounted, from my earliest days in the Center, she seemed to have my back.

Later, once I had ensconced myself as a local disciple in New York, I remember being amused at how intimidated most disciples seemed of her. Not surprised, mind you -- she did really have that beautifully severe look of Anjelica Huston in this picture and she had Guru's ear like very few others.

So, I wasn't surprised that disciples -- men and women -- snapped to it when she asked for something to be done. I was amused, though. I would never obey a command from another disciple, and with Ranjana, I had the distinct impression that I wouldn't be expected to.

One of my favorite runs back in the day was the Forrest Park course. Sundar had taught me the seven-mile route that took us from Jamaica to Forrest Hills and then through the park along wooded trails (which woods sometimes revealed the remains of Santeria sacrifices and other times the occasional illicit rendezvous).

The turnaround point was at the intersection of Forrest Park Drive and Woodhaven Boulevard, but just before reaching it -- on the right -- was an all-weather track. And, sometimes, in the summer afternoons, I'd catch Ranjana and Guru alone there working out.

In truth, it was Ranjana who was working out, while Guru -- with stopwatch in hand -- put her through her paces. She was training for Sports Day. It was always fun to unexpectedly run into Guru like that and I got a real kick seeing them.

I remember seeing Guru's back to me one time as he spoke some unheard instructions to Ranjana as I jogged past along Forrest Park Drive. Ranjana, facing in my direction, but still some 50 yards away, recognized me at once and gave me a big wave hello, causing Guru to turn and look, too.

Happy memories.

On the night before I left the Center for good, I carried a large, professionally framed portrait of Guru over to Ranjana's apartment and left it on her doorstep.

I'm sorry I never got to embrace Ranjana at the memorial and tell her how very sorry I was for her loss. Not that she necessarily needed the consolation from me, but it would have been a nice acknowledgement of the natural fondness that I think we both share for each other.

Perhaps that is a moment I can still look forward to.

The classic shot above of Guru and Ranjana at Sports Day was taken by Shraddha Howard. His other fine pictures can be seen here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ashrita


Maybe it was the effect of the adrenaline that was about to pump through my system, but I no longer remember why we were in a seedy Queens bowling alley late at night.

Perhaps it was to scope out a location for one of his world records. I just don't recall. Nevertheless, Ashrita and I stood at the bowling alley's front counter -- engulfed in the sour odor of smelly feet emanating from all the used bowling shoes behind the counter -- speaking to the attendant. Well, "speaking" is putting it nicely. In fact, we were arguing.

For some reason, the scumbag behind the counter was giving Ashrita a ration of shit. It quickly devolved into a real confrontation for two reasons. First, the attendant was becoming extremely aggressive. Second, Ashrita -- while not reciprocating the aggression -- was also not intimidated. I stood next to him, ready to rumble and feeling pretty certain it was going to go down that way, but Ashrita was intensely calm.

At one point, when the attendant asked if Ashrita wanted "to take it outside," Ashrita responded by saying "I'm not afraid of you, but I'm not going to fight you either." (I'd only ever heard that line uttered convincingly by one other person: my old pal Charlie.)

Ashrita's self-control gave this guy an out and he seemed relieved that Ashrita hadn't taken him up on the offer to step outside. For the first time, the attendant seemed to notice me. I was standing right next to Ashrita, staring directly at the attendant, adrenaline having already compromised any sense of control I had.

"What are you looking at?" the attendant sneered.

"I don't have any idea," I responded, not breaking my glare. Ashrita then beckoned me away and we left.

I have great respect and admiration for Ashrita. Though we were never destined to be BFFs or engage in a "bromance," we did have a lot in common and I've never met anyone with the kind of conscious mental control over physical and nervous pain and suffering that Ashrita demonstrates on a routine basis.

Like me, Ashrita joined the Center at the ripe old age of 16 (though he's about 11 years older than me and joined the Center in 1970) and he's still there after almost 40 years. Incredible. His name means "protected by God" and Ashrita embraces that meaning like it's some kind of infallible cosmic insurance policy.

I remember one time Guru visited the Rocherolles' place in Stamford, Connecticut, which had a large beautiful yard with a pool and clay tennis court in the backyard. Just beyond the court, however, was a dark pond semi-covered by green moss. When someone asked about it, either Narendra or Durdam replied that it wasn't safe to swim in because it was home to water moccasins. Ashrita overheard the comment and began taking off his shirt as he headed directly for the pond.

The image of Ashrita smilingly emerging from the pond covered in green pond scum is still emblazoned on my mind's eye. Today, when I think of Ashrita -- and the role he might play in the Center of the future -- I'm reminded of Swami Vivekananda.

I'm reminded of Swami Vivekananda's courage. Swamiji had the courage to apply what his own master -- Sri Ramakrishna -- had revealed to him in a way that Sri Ramakrishna himself likely would not have approved of had the master still been alive.

For Ramakrishna's closest disciples, his message could not have been clearer: renounce the world. Give up -- forever -- "women and gold," which words to Thakur were synonymous with "lust and greed." Philanthropy? Service to the world? Thakur saw such endeavors as a vehicle for the aggrandizement of the giver's ego. Such work bound one to the world and was to be rejected.

There was nothing particularly ambiguous about Sri Ramakrishna's thinking on these points.

Nevertheless, within about 10 years after his master's passing, Swamiji -- fresh from his first tour of the world -- organized and established the Ramakrishna Math, dedicated to the twin ideals of self-realization and service to the world. Swamiji's efforts weren't without controversy.

Swamiji's gurubhais weren't pushovers. They weren't necessarily going to fall in line just because Naren said so. They had lived with Ramakrishna, too, and some of them couldn't square a mission of service to the world with Thakur's express words to the contrary. In the end, though, Vivekananda's will prevailed for two reasons: he won the confidence of his brother disciples and, critically, he had confidence in himself.

If the Center is to move forward in the wake of Guru's death, and do so with any relevance in the world, it must embrace a mission of selfless service to the world. To do so, however, will require the leadership of a modern Swami Vivekananda -- someone within the Center who can win both the respect and confidence of his (or her) brother and sister disciples, but also have the kind of supreme confidence in himself (or herself) to move the Center in a direction that Guru himself never would have.

I can't think of anyone other than Ashrita who could meet those two criteria.

Where could he take the Center? What distant land desperately in need of service could challenge Ashrita in the way that America challenged Swami Vivekananda?

Africa.

Now, I acknowledge the impropriety of laying down a challenge for Ashrita that I myself have not the courage to try. But I'm going to do so anyway.

For ideas, why not start with the United Nations Messengers of Peace program or consider becoming a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for one of these fine programs?

Or coming up with something really audacious. How about spending some time with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and see if there's a way to act in conjunction with one of its many projects in Africa? Can you imagine the impact a tailored world record attempt in Africa tied in some way to one of these aid or development programs could have?

Not for Guru or the Center, but for the people of Africa.

Ultimately, that was the great genius of Swami Vivekananda. He was confident -- not in his own personality, but in the knowledge that his efforts were the efforts of his master. For that reason, he needn't sing the praises of Sri Ramakrishna on his travels through the world (nor need he feel guilty for not doing so). It was enough to serve and inspire.

That's what he was born to do.

The nice shot of Ashrita above is by Damon Winter of the New York Times. It originally accompanied this article by Corey Kilgannon.

Ashrita's own blog can be found here. His Wikipedia entry can be found here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cartwheels in a Sari (Part Three)


video

While Jayanti's book is ostensibly about "growing up cult," it's also at least as much about how difficult it is to leave the Center.

Which leads me to write about another unconventional theory of mine: that implicit in joining the Center -- or any other spiritual path -- is the notion that some day, you should leave it.

When you think about it, this notion doesn't sound as if it should be controversial. Would you, for example, go to college intending to remain a perpetual student with no intent to ever graduate? No doubt, there are some people who do that very thing, but I think we can safely say that they are the exceptions to the rule. College is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The same is true of the Center. The goal of discipleship isn't to be a disciple (or at least it shouldn't be). The goal is to be a master, by which I mean the goal is to become a person who has developed some sense of mastery over oneself (and not necessarily a spiritual master with disciples of one's own).

Despite their similarities, the path of yoga is not as apparently formulaic as college. One doesn't join the Center with a class schedule and firm end date in hand. Likewise, on the path, one cannot easily compare one's progress to the other students (at least not accurately). People that join the Center after you may, in fact, be "ahead" of you in class. Making things even more obscure, you yourself may not have a true sense of how close or how far you are from graduation.

Nevertheless, I think we can say that if your goal in treading the path of yoga can be defined even loosely as gaining self-mastery, then a fundamental prerequisite must be the weaning of the disciple from the master. Mustn't it?

Unless I'm wrong about this -- "and I'm never wrong" -- a question that next arises is this: why did Guru make it so hard to leave? In other words, if at some point in one's personal development one must wean oneself from one's guru, then why did Guru do everything in his power to dissuade disciples from leaving? (Just for the moment, let's leave aside those disciples that Guru actually kicked out of the Center.)

Let's face it, as Jayanti so eloquently documents in Cartwheels, Guru stacked the deck against those of us who considered voluntarily leaving the Center. First, there was the promise of becoming persona non grata -- we'd lose contact with most, if not all, of our friends. Second, and far more intimidating, was the specter of cosmic retribution -- one's own soul, Guru often said, would punish you for leaving the Center.

All things considered, one would be hard pressed to argue that Guru actually wanted his disciples to leave. That, however, is exactly what I'm suggesting. Making it hard for disciples to do so was an integral part of the process.

Remember what process we're discussing here. We're not discussing any vague metaphysical concept like "God Realization" or "samadhi." Instead, we're discussing what I think we can agree would be -- or should be -- a practical, tangible, easily identifiable prerequisite to any such "mystical" enlightenment. That is: becoming independent, learning to stand on one's own, learning to make decisions for oneself without leaning on Guru for support.

In other words, you're not likely to realize God if you haven't even got the strength to make day-to-day decisions for yourself.

If that is indeed the process -- that eventually one must wean oneself away from one's guru -- then Guru's behavior in this regard might make sense. Consider an alternative. What might have happened had Guru acted in a more humane way when a disciple approached him about leaving? What if Guru had had an open door policy for ex-disciples, where they could have come and gone as they pleased, with no negative consequences?

In fact, what if Guru had actually made it easy to leave, encouraging disciples to experiment with branching out on their own, with the promise that they could always return to the "nest," they could always return to the safety and security of the Center if things didn't work out?

Had that been true, the Center -- to be sure -- would have been a nicer place.  There's no doubt about that.

It also might have fostered a kind of spiritual codependency, which in the long term could have undermined -- or at best slowed -- the very process of becoming spiritually self-reliant that is prerequisite to any sense of "enlightenment" worth having in the first place.

Like it or not, Guru's way put a premium on becoming truly independent, because it was the only way one could voluntarily leave him.

I hearken back to my own internal struggle to leave. At its height, my choice -- as I saw it then -- was a stark one. I could remain in the Center -- the "golden boat" as Guru called it -- and be unhappy (to put it mildly). Or I could leave the Center and face retribution from my own soul in the form of some affliction like cancer. That's honestly how I conceived my options at the time: unhappiness or death.

I chose death. Not that I was sure that I was facing death, but I thought it a possibility. I remember literally telling myself -- out loud -- that I'd rather leave the Center and die than remain a disciple any longer. From that stroke of independence, everything else followed for me (although it came in fits and starts). In the end, I was able to leave on my own terms.

Not everyone, however, had the same experience. It's difficult, for example, to imagine any disciple trying to break free of the Center who faced a more challenging set of circumstances than Jayanti. Jayanti wasn't just faced with losing friends, she faced losing her family. And Guru wasn't just a guru she had picked out of the spiritual marketplace as most of us did. In a very real way, Guru was Jayanti's father figure, the source of her identity, the center of her life -- for her whole life. She knew very little else.

Nevertheless, she was driven to choose death, too. Literally running to the local subway station with the intent to throw herself in front of a moving train, only an observant stranger pulled Jayanti back from the precipice. Then, Guru kicked Jayanti out of the Center himself. "His freeing me was his greatest unwitting act of compassion," she writes.

I realize that most of you -- my readers -- may scoff at this notion that Guru secretly wanted his disciples to grow and become independent, while all the time engaging in behavior meant to keep the disciples down and subservient. Let me, however, leave you with one final thought: Guru knew from his own personal experience how scary (and how liberating) it was to leave one's spiritual community and the concomitant boost to one's independence and self-confidence that results with such a break.

Ironically -- or not -- Guru himself left the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which had many of the same superstitions about leaving its protective environs as the Center later had. It's also no secret that Guru left the Ashram without permission of the Mother, that there was some bad blood as a result, and that Guru left behind family members.

On top of it all, Guru left the Ashram with a woman!

It must have been a scary time for him, and yet in spite of it all, Guru stepped out from the mighty shadow of Sri Aurobindo and became an independent man.

In the video above, two great friends passing in time. Nadira, just starting her journey. Sudhir, approaching the end of his. July 2008.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cartwheels in a Sari (Part Two)


For those of my friends – inside and outside the Center – who are worried about the effect Jayanti’s book might have on Guru’s legacy, the most disconcerting allegations are those of Guru’s meddling in the affairs of parent and child.

Up front, I think we must acknowledge that such meddling would not have been possible save for the acquiescence of the parents themselves.

Parents in the Center were not required to offer up their children to be raised by Guru. Nor do I think it’s fair to say that they were even encouraged to do so. (To be clear, Cartwheels makes no such claim.) And, as a matter of fact, most parents did not relinquish control of their children to Guru.

In this respect,
the Rocherolle family is a good example. While there were many differences between them, the Rocherolles, like Jayanti’s family -- the Tamms -- lived in Connecticut, had two children about the same ages as Ketan and Jayanti, and were in the Center throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Yet, the Rocherolles -- like most parents in the Center -- never relinquished control of their children’s upbringing to Guru. While I suspect that, from time to time, they may have consulted Guru, they never abdicated their role as parents. Unlike Jayanti, Narendra and Durdam had regular christian first names (in addition to their spiritual names), were encouraged by their parents to go to school and do well, and -- perhaps most importantly -- were allowed to fit in with the wider world. They had friends at school and played sports. They were, in effect, normal kids whose religion happened to be different from the other kids.

Although Gayatri and Gangadar -- Narendra’s and Durdam’s mom and dad -- did the right thing, that’s not to say that they paid no price. Within that small, insular world of disciples who lived for Guru -- who made not even the smallest of decisions without his approval -- the Rocherolles had less prestige than the Tamms.

As Jayanti’s book illustrates so well, however, that idea -- that there was ever any value in one’s social standing within the Center -- seems laughable now. Back then, however, it meant the world to some disciples, including Samarpana and Rudra, Jayanti’s mom and dad. Having already relinquished decision making authority over their own lives, sadly it only made sense to them at that time to relinquish that same authority over the lives of their children.

While ultimately it was the parents who ceded to Guru authority over their children -- which they were neither asked nor required to do -- some of Guru’s behavior was, nevertheless, indefensible.

For me, the most heartwrenching anecdote of Cartwheels was that of “Tashvi,” the young former disciple girl whom Jayanti met up with at a Manhattan nightclub. According to the book, Tashvi’s father had passed away and Guru had blamed his fatal illness on Tashvi’s disobedience. It’s difficult for me to conceive of a more despicable thing to tell a young girl in the wake of her father’s death.

It’s so despicable that one is tempted to disbelieve the anecdote, to cry “hearsay” if not heresy. Unfortunately, the tale rings true to my ear. Though I hadn’t heard “Tashvi’s” story before, I have heard plenty of other first person accounts about behavior by Guru that was only slightly less mean spirited. And I know, from my own experience, that Guru had a penchant for blaming the innocent.

As I wrote before, Guru had warned Jayanti and me about being “too friendly” when we had done nothing wrong. Worse still, when I eventually left the Center of my own accord, Guru blamed my brother, Jeevan. He called Jeevan to the back of Annam Brahma, where he had a heated tent set up, and read Jeevan the riot act.

The perplexing question is why did Guru act that way?

Why was he mean? I’m not asking about tough love. I’m not talking about times when Guru ruthlessly ripped into one of his personal attendants who screwed something up (
like when I forgot to bring his favored cello bow to a concert). I’m talking about being mean. What possible motive could Guru have had for telling “Tashvi” that she was the reason that her father died?

Perhaps the beginning of an explanation -- not a justification -- can be found in Guru’s own upbringing. Guru was born and raised in what is now Bangladesh. His parents died when he was a young child. All of a sudden, he found himself on the other end of the continent, being raised in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (which would later serve as the organizational model for the Center). While Guru’s upbringing in the ashram could be described in many ways, “emotionally warm” probably wouldn’t be one of them.

I don’t think it’s implausible to conclude that Guru thought -- based upon his own experience -- that when it came to the spiritual life, parents were dispensable.

In fact, looking backward, Guru certainly could have concluded that had it not been for his parents’ premature deaths, he would not have entered the ashram at the young age he had (if at all). Having overcome so much grief at such a young age, it’s conceivable to me that Guru -- like many who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps -- was
less sympathetic or at least not indulgent of others in similar positions. "I did it. So can you."

Maybe Guru told “Tashvi” what he himself felt as a little boy -- that he was somehow responsible for the death of his own parents. (Perhaps, cruelly, someone told Guru that very same thing when he was a boy.) Maybe Guru felt Tashvi would react to such feelings in the same way that he himself had -- with gusto for the sheltered and comforting life of the ashram. But, the fact is, we’ll never know.

Psychobabble aside, we’ll never know what motivated Guru to be so mean at times or what intent -- if any -- lay behind such incidents. We
can know with certainty the effect such incidents had on the disciples subjected to them. Obviously, Guru’s meanness pushed the disciple subjected to it away.

In this regard, we may infer some intent. In the law -- where the concept of proving intent has been a subject of study and practice for centuries -- it is often said that “one intends the natural and probable consequences of one’s actions.” In other words, we all know that shooting a gun into a crowd is likely to injure someone. So, if you shoot a gun into a crowd, we can logically infer that you intended to hurt someone.

Using the same logic, I think it’s worth exploring the idea that Guru intended to drive some disciples away. The “natural and probable consequences” of treating someone badly is that that person will grow to dislike you, will strive to distance themselves from you. It seems likely that -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- Guru intended the victims of his nastiness to distance themselves from him, be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

There are, of course, other explanations. When I called Jeevan today to ask him how he had reacted when Guru told him that he was at least in part responsible for me leaving the Center -- a preposterous claim on its face -- Jeevan responded in the way that only he can. “Guru was a Virgo,” Jeevan exclaimed. Never having learned much about astrology, I asked him to elaborate. “Virgo males are assholes sometimes,” Jeevan explained. As a consequence, he never took Guru’s assertion of blame personally.

Whatever the explanation for Guru’s meanness, the ethical case against what he said to “Tashvi” and others like her is unassailable. Guru was wrong to say such a thing to her -- or more likely, to have either leaked such rumor to others or to have had Ashrita deliver the message to her directly -- and I regret that there was nobody there to stand up for Tashvi at the time, which leads me to a final thought.

Where would the world be if people simply refused to follow unethical orders?

I remember long ago being asked by a non-disciple family member what I would do if Guru asked me to kill my own mother. It’s the kind of asshat hypothetical question that cult members typically faced from family members, particularly in the post-Jonestown era. My tact was always to fight the question and refuse to answer. “Guru would never ask me to do such a thing, that’s preposterous,” I’d honestly and rightly shoot back. The fact that Guru wouldn’t have asked such a thing (and he would not have) is beside the point though.

The true answer -- and I wished I had answered it this way back in the day -- is that if Guru
had asked me such a thing, I would have told him to fuck off. Then, I would have reported the incident to the police. I honestly think that is what Guru was looking for all along from his disciples, that spirit of independence and willingness to make a stand, even if it meant standing alone.

I like to think that deep down it would have thrilled Guru to no end if, on that day near the end of
Cartwheels in a Sari -- when Guru no doubt instructed Ashrita (a.k.a. "Romesh") to tell Samarpana to kick her own daughter out of the house -- Ashrita had simply refused to carry the message. “Guru, that’s a message I’m not going to deliver,” Ashrita might have said.

Sure, the result of such disobedience would have been predictable. A tongue lashing, perhaps, and immediate expulsion from the Center. But what a graduation from the Center! And how proud I'd like to think Guru would have been -- and rightly so -- for having produced such a strong and independent character to unleash upon the world.

Once the disciple is willing to stand on principle, even in the face of his guru's disapproval, the days of discipleship are over.

If you think I'm wrong about this, borrow a page from our christian friends and ask: "W.W.V.D.?" What would Vivekananda do if Sri Ramakrishna had asked him to tell a mother to evict her own daughter?

The question answers itself.

Credit of the photo of Guru and Jayanti above goes to Jayanti's dad, Rudra, and is found here, with many other interesting photos of Jayanti and her family.

Cartwheels in a Sari (Part One)


Ours wasn't the only family drama quietly playing itself out behind the scenes of Guru's memorial.

Like Saraswati, my old friend Ketan was also grappling with the possibility that his own family members would not attend Guru's memorial services that weekend. In Ketan's case, however, there was no possibility that his mother or sister would make an appearance.

On October 11 -- the very day Guru passed away -- Ketan's sister, Jayanti, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Still in the hospital with her husband and mom by her side, Jayanti wasn't going anywhere.

I'm not sure Jayanti would have been inclined to attend Guru's memorial services in any event. In the years since she had left the Center, Jayanti had gone to college and graduate school, become a writing professor, and started a family of her own.

She had also signed a book deal with Random House. Jayanti had written a memoir about growing up in the Sri Chinmoy Center.

Though it wouldn't hit store shelves for another year and a half, the very idea of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult made some disciples understandably nervous. Ever since a disaffected disciple first went online and started a message board critical of Guru, the Center had been playing defense. As my fictional friend Eugene Struthers might say, however, Jayanti's memoir promised to take such criticism to a "whole ... nutha ... level."

As I later told Ketan, the best defense is a good offense. If the Center wanted to have some control over the public narrative, it had to avoid the impulse to attack Jayanti's book and instead open up and begin competing in the "marketplace of ideas." As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote: "[T]he best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market[.]"

While I sympathized with Ketan's predicament -- being apprehensive about what his sister might say about Guru, the Center, and about him personally -- I was nonetheless genuinely excited for Jayanti and eager to read the manuscript. Nothing doing. Only one person I am aware of had that honor: our mutual friend Sudhir, who was near the end of his long battle with cancer. (My previous posts on Sudhir are here and here.)

After reading the manuscript, Sudhir gave it a thumbs-up. Now, after having read the book itself (twice), I wholeheartedly agree. Jayanti has written a moving memoir of what it was like for her to not only grow up in the Sri Chinmoy Center, but also to have done so owing her entire identity to Guru (due in large part to her own parents' almost complete abdication of their parental roles).

Superficially, it was simply interesting to read about Jayanti's life. I met her for the first time when she was in her early teens and knew nothing of her upbringing, aspirations, or troubles. To me, she was just one of those blessed kids to have been brought up in the Center, having had been spared the pains and indignities of the world.

And although I'm not a big fan of the name changes and purposeful mis-descriptions that the publisher apparently required in Cartwheels -- I suppose we have the lawyers to blame for that -- I did enjoy trying to identify each and every one of them. Prema and Isha, of course, were the easy ones. (Here are my guesses to a few of the more obvious other ones: Romesh, Mayar, and Uttam.)

And, because Jayanti's life in the Center both preceded (the 1970s) and succeeded (the 1990s) my own tenure in the Center (1981 to 1990), it was also interesting to read about some of the organizational history and happenings, some of which I had heard about before and some of which I hadn't.

Those superficial joys aside, though, Cartwheels in a Sari is heartwrenching. I'm no book reviewer and based on my personal affection for Jayanti (and her mom, Samarpana), I doubt I could ever be truly objective (try as I might) about her book. Nevertheless, over the next couple of posts, I'd like to address -- in a free associative way -- some of the issues that came to my mind as I read Jayanti's fine memoir.

First and foremost, Cartwheels left me feeling sad. The revelation of Jayanti's near suicide -- that she was in so much pain, that she had nobody to talk to -- saddened me terribly.

There are many differences between Jayanti and me when it comes to our respective experiences in the Center. The single most important difference between us is that I volunteered for the Center; as a teen, driven by a combination of my own demons and an innate sense of some deeper possibilities, I studied the yoga philosophy of India, looked for a guru, and consciously chose Guru without any outside compulsion.

Jayanti had no choice.
While I had largely been left unattended in the wake of my parents' divorce, growing up on junk food and TV -- and eventually moving on to become a marijuana and alcohol prodigy -- Jayanti's parents wrapped her in a cocoon of Center lore and ignorance of the world around her.

She was allowed to watch just two television shows as a young girl, and even then she couldn't do so without taint; one wonders what possible good Jayanti's dad -- Rudra -- thought would come of telling his daughter that little Laura Ingalls (in the old Little House on the Prairie series) and her family indeed did have a guru, just as Jayanti had, but that he only showed up in other episodes.

I cringed with heartbreaking embarrassment reading about little Jayanti being sent off to a public kindergarten in a sari. True, as a new disciple at the age of 16, I wore my "whites" -- the white shirt and pants that were de rigueur for male disciples at Center meditation meetings -- to high school, but I had done so consciously, much to my own father's chagrin.

The differences between Jayanti and me (and most other disciples) are even more striking though. Guru became Jayanti's de facto father. Unwilling to make even the simplest of decisions about the upbringing, well being, or future of their children, Guru played that role for Jayanti's mom and dad. From the beginning of her life, Jayanti was raised to see Guru -- and Guru alone -- as the center of power, as the decider, as the one whose opinion mattered on all things great and small.

If Jayanti wanted her father's attention -- as all children do of necessity -- she sought it from Guru. That's what she was taught to do. At its simplest level -- represented by her very name -- Guru was responsible for Jayanti's identity. This stuff was completely off my radar screen when I first became acquainted with her. Even when some disciples suspected -- and told Guru -- that Jayanti and I were becoming "too friendly," these massive differences between us never occurred to me.

The fact that, in the end, Guru would turn his back on Jayanti -- whatever her supposed sins -- is heartbreaking.