Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Things Have Changed

Since December 2001, when I first read Sevika's allegations of sexual misconduct by Guru, I assumed the allegations were true.

Perhaps it was my young legal mind at work, but I knew that if I could come to grips with the possibility that Guru had been having sex -- with his disciples no less -- then I would be better able to conduct the kind of sober, long-term analysis that I had thought would eventually be necessary.

It's that process -- the way in which I tried to reach an accommodation in my own mind between the Guru I had known and experienced and the very different Guru described by a handful of female disciples -- that I had originally wanted to explore with this memoir.

The little discussion there is online about Guru seemed (and still seems) so partisan. Nothing I had read expressed the more nuanced, more complicated, understanding of Guru that I (and perhaps a few others) had come to.

Everything was black and white -- I was looking for the more realistic shades of gray.

As I first began to outline this memoir, I had planned on writing a single post describing the importance of loyalty and gratitude, followed by perhaps a half-dozen posts exploring the implications of the hypothetical worst case scenario and asking "what if."

I suppose I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. In my grandiose way, I wanted to bridge the gap between the most devoted disciples still in the Center and the most hard boiled cynics. When it came down to it, though, I couldn't do it.

I wrote the "loyalty" post, but could go no further.

I think I best expressed the conundrum I was feeling then in an email to a former disciple friend of mine, to whom I turn for advice and clear thinking from time to time:

Boy, was it a struggle thinking about how to approach this subject. Months and months ago, I envisioned a complete expose or multi-part essay -- perhaps five or six posts covering the allegations of sexual impropriety.

Then, as I responded to you just a week or so ago, I thought I'd whittled it down to just two, snappy posts. But after writing the first one -- in essence about loyalty -- I've now found it impossible to post the second one (the one exploring the "what if" question and assuming that the allegations were true).

It seemed incongruous to me to say I'm loyal to Guru in one post, and then in the next post to assume the allegations true and discuss. Do you understand and think I'm right about that?

I do have lots to say, and going through the process of assuming the allegations true did lead me to a stronger sense of spiritual self-confidence, but I don't see how I get around my loyalty post.

I guess I've resigned myself to one of the principles I've discovered in writing this blog, which is that I don't have to share everything. Thus, while a particular process has been beneficial to me, that doesn't mean I necessarily have to blog about it.

Anyway, I thought I owed you some kind of explanation because I had just told you that I had planned two posts on the subject, and then just posted one.

As I wrote, I had resigned myself to posting no more on this subject. Then things changed.

Shortly after I wrote the email above, my sister Nirbachita came to live with us here in San Diego. She had been living with Pinak in Puerto Rico. Within a few days, she got a call from an old friend and disciple named Suchatula.

Suchatula and Nirbachita had gone to high school together and joined the Center together. They were close, but as time wore on, they grew apart as my sister slowly drifted away from the Center. So, Suchatula's phone call was a bit of a surprise. When it was over, Nirbachita was convinced that "something" was up.

Over the next few weeks, Suchatula unburdened herself of her sad and shocking story. She authorized Nirbachita to post her story, but to do so anonymously.

Suchatula has since courageously embraced her story.

I believe every word of it, without reservation.

The picture above is of Guru and Suchatula on her 25th birthday.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Databir

The most remarkable disciple I've ever met is -- without question -- Databir. Nobody else comes close.

In my early days as a disciple, when I was still living in California and only dreaming of life with my guru in New York, silent meditation was my forte. It was the one thing that I was extremely good at right from the start, and if you'll pardon the conceit, I thought I was better at it than most of the other disciples I observed.

You might fairly ask, how could I know that I was "better" at it than the others I observed? I don't have a good answer for that question. I didn't understand it myself -- I just knew. It was part of the gift, I suppose. Like Sri Ramakrishna was fond of saying, it was like one hemp smoker always being able to recognize another hemp smoker, even across a crowded room.

In any event, that psychic communion time was precious to me. As I moved to New York, however, I began to worry that, unless I was careful, I'd lose myself in the daily routine of being a "local."

There was good reason to worry. Guru routinely put down the local disciples en masse. They had "fallen" he had said, and as it became clear to some of my friends that I would be moving to New York permanently, they warned me "not to become a local." Key to avoiding such a fate, I figured, was keeping up my daily meditation practice at home.

That turned out to be impossible.

If you were a "local" disciple -- and a guy -- then the way to get physically closer to Guru was through hard work and self sacrifice. By "hard work" I don't mean just working hard on a particular project or for a set period of time. No. I mean losing sleep on a regular -- if not indefinite -- basis.

For the very short time that I kept up such a pace, for example, I was expected to be at work at the Smile of the Beyond by 8 a.m. and I would work until 4 p.m. If Guru wasn't at the tennis court, I'd get in a run, then shower and head to that evening's function. Afterwards, I might head back to the Smile -- by which time it might be 10:30 or 11 p.m. -- where I'd wash dishes for Bipin and Pulin or do Databir's clean-up chores (while they were up at Guru's house). Sometime after midnight, the boys would return, whereupon we might all head out on a road crew mission to re-paint one of Guru's running courses or drive into Manhattan to poster for an upcoming concert. I might then hit the sack at 2 or 3 a.m.

Rinse. Repeat.

After a single week like that, the idea that I'd get up even a half hour early to meditate before work was absurd. As it turned out, sitting in front of a bedroom shrine no longer seemed necessary. Meditating in front of Guru personally almost everyday, combined with hours of selfless service, resulted in a continuous sense of euphoria that seemed to exude from my very pores. The only problem -- in hindsight -- was that I was only able to keep this frenetic schedule up for a few months before I had to begin drawing some boundaries for myself.

Databir kept it up for almost four decades.

I remember little about the details of Databir's background, except that he was a jock in high school, went to Wesleyan University -- where he played linebacker on the football team -- and upon graduation in or around 1970 became a disciple. On some of our late night sojourns into Manhattan to put up posters, Databir would regale us with stories of his around the world adventure after graduating college. His father, he'd said, gave him an around-the-world ticket as a graduation gift, whereupon Databir travelled the globe.

It was never clear to me how much of the stories were true -- wrestling tigers in India, for example, seemed to be a bit of exaggeration designed to keep me and Ketan awake in the back seat of his station wagon (the front seat being reserved for Guru's use) -- but that didn't matter. It was the excitement with which Databir told the stories and how he could work himself into almost hysterical laughter at our incredulous looks while listening to him.

In my early New York days, before I had officially been granted local status or had secured an apartment of my own, I slept in Databir's living room. Among the books I came across in his house that winter was one I hadn't seen before.

It looked just like one of Guru's -- having apparently been printed by Agni Press -- but it's author was "Casey Waters." It told in simple prose a series of funny and inspiring anecdotes from "Casey's" early discipleship. (How I wish I could remember the name of that book or have a copy of it to quote from. Only a limited number were originally printed and as I recall it may have seen a second printing sometime later, but I've found no reference to it on the web. If anyone has it, please let me know.)

I remember only fragments now. How young Casey meditated 8 to 10 hours a day. How he used to stalk Guru's house, hoping for a glimpse of his master. How one time, Guru and the disciples were taking a bus trip, and for some reason Guru asked Casey to come up to the front. When he did, Guru told him to get off the bus and run back to Jamaica, New York. Casey got off the bus somewhere near the Tappan Zee Bridge -- almost 40 miles away! (Check this for some perspective.) I found the book to be tremendously inspiring.

From the mid-to-late 1980s, Guru played a lot of tennis. I think I can speak for all of the guys who made up my small circle of close friends amongst the locals -- Databir, Ketan, Bipin, Pulin, and later Sagar, amongst others -- that late summer afternoons at the court were the best of times. Within the Center, Guru had a pecking order for whom he would play tennis with and in what order.

In New York, Databir was at the top of that pecking order and they'd play together for hours sometimes. The intensity with which Databir would return the ball to Guru -- often with both feet leaving the ground as he whacked the ball with his forehand -- was something to behold.

As people look back upon the disciples of Sri Chinmoy, it may be tempting for some to overlook Databir. That would be a mistake.

Databir's humility makes him small, almost invisible. In this regard, he reminds me of one of Sri Ramakrishna's little known disciples: Durga Charan Nag, or as he was called by those who knew him, Nag Mahasay.

In comparing Swami Vivekananda and Nag Mahasay, it was said that both escaped the net of Maya by different means. While Swamiji became too big to be ensnared by the net of illusion, Nag Mahasay became too small, ultimately slipping through the mesh.

I won't recount Nag Mahasay's biography here, but it's worth the read if you haven't read about him before. (Here's a link to Guru's retelling of some Nag Mahasay's biographical anecdotes.) What gives his humility power, however, is the fact that in being humble, Nag Mahasay -- like Databir -- was really sacrificing something. In other words, it's relatively easy to be a humble person when you don't have extraordinary skills or capabilities. If you're small by nature, it's not a big stretch to embrace the way of humility.

Databir's all-encompassing humility aside, under the surface there is nothing small about him. He has a prodigious, well-trained mind coupled with a physical energy that has outpaced all of his spiritual peers.

If you ask who was Guru's best disciple, then the answer is simple.

It's Databir.

Nobody else comes close.

The photo of Databir, above, was taken by Unmesh. You can see his other fine photos here. You can visit the Nag Mahashay Ashram here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Objectivity

Emotions -- whether justified or not -- are the biggest hurdle to thinking objectively.

I've found this to be true in my law practice. Sometimes, parties to a lawsuit hate each other so much that they'd prefer to pay their lawyers to continue the lawsuit rather than pay one another to settle the case. In such circumstances, I often find myself playing two roles.

On the one hand, I must show my client support. The last thing he wants to hear -- while paying me lots of his hard earned money -- is any sympathy from me for his opponent. In this regard, I sometimes need to do a little hand holding, to give my client a shoulder to cry on, to let my client know that I'm in his corner no matter what.

On the other hand, however, I'm not being paid to be a yes man. I'm being paid for my best professional advice, which in turn requires me to be objective. I'm not being paid to tell my client what he wants to hear, but rather what he needs to hear. This is true particularly when it means acknowledging the strengths of the other side.

Balancing these two roles -- being empathetic versus being coldly rational and objective -- can be tricky, and I've struck upon a phrase to describe the biggest obstacle to thinking rationally about highly charged affairs.

The phrase is "emotionally induced autism" and it comes into play when thinking about Guru and the Center.

I struck upon this phrase after watching this great talk given by Malcolm Gladwell about his book Blink. Autism, in its most general sense, is a disorder that can -- among other things -- impede one's ability to process sensory data. In his talk, Gladwell discusses the physiology of certain types of police encounters. Specifically, the impact of stress on the decision making of police officers.

Gladwell suggests that police officers' experiences of intense stress temporarily work on their brain's processing ability in a way similar to how autism affects the processing ability of people suffering from that disorder. In other words, as police officers approach a scene of danger, various physiological processes -- like the release of adrenaline and increased heart rate -- impede the officer's ability to process many types of extraneous sensory data. This, in turn, enables the police officer to focus upon and respond to only the perceived threat in front of him or her.

As Gladwell makes clear, however, this phenomena is both good and bad. In terms of personal survival, focus on the bad guy: good. In terms of blindness to data suggesting the "bad guy" isn't actually a bad guy: not so good. Gladwell uses the sad case of Amadou Diallo to great effect to illustrate the devastating downside to the autistic-like impact of stress and emotion on the reasoning mind.

High emotions -- however caused -- threaten to disable one's ability to be objective. Case in point: trying to think rationally about Guru and about one's experience in the Center.

Some people saw nothing bad. Their honest experience was a positive one, and many (though not all) of these people are still in the Center. When presented with evidence, suggestions, or arguments contrary to their positive experiences of Guru, many of these people naturally get defensive. Guru, the Center, the disciple-life is central to their identity. By challenging Guru -- and their personal, direct experience of Guru -- you are challenging them.

When a person feels defensive, thinking rationally about a problem is more difficult.

This logic applies to those on the other end of the spectrum, too. Some former disciples have nothing but bad feelings about Guru and their Center experience. Whatever the cause, their feelings are heartfelt. To acknowledge the good of the Center -- the help Guru provided them -- is almost impossible. To them, acknowledgment of the positive smacks of justification of the negative.

This, of course, is especially true for those few who truly feel victimized by Guru, who feel that whatever good came of their Center experience has been far outweighed by the bad. For these former disciples, objectivity may not be possible nor perhaps advisable.

Of these two camps, I fall squarely within the former rather than the latter. I saw nothing bad. On the contrary, my disciple experience was overwhelmingly positive. There were things I didn't like -- the proselytizing, the tattle-tailing, the weightlifting, the public relations campaigns in general -- and I've been upfront about that in this memoir.

The effects of some of the meditations I had sitting in front of Guru, however, still linger with me today.

And while Guru for the most part treated me with kid gloves, he wasn't so gentle with my sister Nirbachita. In other words, I'm personally aware that when looking back on my Center experience for explanations, I cannot simply extrapolate in a straight line from my experience to some larger positive conclusion.

That said, neither was I scarred -- emotionally or otherwise -- by my nine years in the Center. Perhaps that will allow me to muse objectively about some very emotional topics in the coming posts.

That's Malcolm Gladwell above. Here's an archive of his great articles for The New Yorker.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Akuli


I got an email the other day that reminded me of a story I had forgotten about.

The email came from the brother of a longtime disciple who is still in the Center. Apparently, their mother's health is declining. Having lost touch with his sister, the brother wrote me hoping that perhaps I could help him get the message to his sister.

His sister is Akuli.

When I first met Akuli, her name was "Mirriam." She was a mousy girl who worked seemingly endless hours at Annam Brahma for little money. Then one day, she disappeared. It turned out that -- like my old friend Pulin -- "Mirriam's" family had her kidnapped by deprogrammers.

Unlike Pulin, however, there was never any concerted effort made to find "Mirriam" and get her back, that I had been aware of anyway. I suspect this was because almost as soon as she was discovered missing, she was back among us.

As it turned out, "Mirriam" had taken a different approach with her captors than Pulin had with his. Instead of playing along with them, "Mirriam" simply chanted Guru's name. Out loud. Over and over again. This apparently lasted a couple of days, until her captors could take no more and released her.

That's how "Mirriam" became Akuli.

God knows what drives some parents to be so colossally stupid. Misguided love, I suppose. Religious zeal? Plain old ignorance? The zeitgeist of the 1980s probably played a role, too, what with the 1978 Jonestown massacre still fresh in the minds of so many.

None of that is a real excuse though and I wonder if I would have had it in me in later life to forgive my own parents had they made the same mistake. I'm not so sure. Having your adult child kidnapped and held by the lowlifes who perpetuate deprogramming is unforgivable. Had it happened to me, I doubt I would have had the poise, self-control, and one-pointedness that Akuli demonstrated.

I'm sure one great benefit Akuli realized from that horrible experience, though, is the fact that her faith is stronger than those who would try to do her harm.

She's the stronger person.

If there's one person who might forgive a parent for such a crime, it would be Akuli.

Here's an interesting story by Akuli, whose spiritual name literally means eagerness or enthusiasm (I think).

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Gaining Influence


A knock against Ranjana -- never loudly voiced -- had always been her seemingly ever growing circle of assistants.

At least that was true when I was living in New York ('85-'90). Even then, she commanded the allegiance of a large segment of the local female disciples and was making inroads amongst some of the men as well. Her influence began at Divine Robe Supreme, a clothing and sari shop that she managed (and perhaps owned), which was dedicated to outfitting the local women disciples. (Guys could also buy their whites there.) Women, it was said, could expect some bad juju if they were found to be wearing saris not purchased at Divine Robe.

Ranjana's more direct influence over many of the more dedicated women disciples came with her stewardship of the "Jharna-Kala girls." Guru called his art "Jharna-Kala" or fountain-art in Bengali. The Jharna-Kala girls were basically in charge of managing Guru's art and exploiting it for commercial purposes: making cards, stationary and other small cottage industry items. Not all of the local women disciples belonged -- membership was by invite only. Within the confines of the Center, being a Jharna-Kala girl afforded some measure of prestige.

Ranjana's influence and visibility increased marginally in the late '80s when she formed a relatively small group of bhajan or devotional singers. In my last year or two in the Center -- when my enthusiasm was at its nadir -- Guru gave the bhajan singers a lot attention. They were put up front and center to lead some very long, all night devotional singing sessions.

Even at the time I was in the Center, I had mixed feelings about Ranjana's growing coterie of assistants and the apparent increase in influence.

On the one hand, I saw it as a positive development for women seekers in general. The modern path of yoga -- which I define as those yogic traditions that sprang up in the wake of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) -- has, with few exceptions, been a male-centric path. In that sense, the fact that Guru's two most prominent disciples were women (i.e., Ranjana and Lavanya) struck me as a good thing.

And while rumors swirled in some circles that Ranjana could be a bit of a taskmaster, a person had to learn leadership skills somewhere. In my view, that's exactly what Guru was doing, at least in part: teaching Ranjana how to lead by giving her a chance to learn on the job. So, I discounted the importance of such rumors even if they were true (which was not a given).

So, from the broader viewpoint of empowering women, I had no problem with the idea of Ranjana's growing influence. On the other hand, however, I found the reality of some disciples being subservient to another disciple to be incomprehensible.

To take it even a step further, I found the idea that a disciple would let another disciple act in a subservient way towards herself to be a little repugnant.

In other words, there are two sides to a superior-subordinate relationship. First, the subordinate must be willing to submit. Second, the superior must be willing to accept the subordinate's submissiveness. When it came to relationships between the disciples, neither side of this equation computed to me.

Even by the mid-1980s, there were both men and women disciples who were treating Ranjana -- with Guru's apparent encouragement -- with veneration. As I've discussed, I like Ranjana and feel some natural kinship with her. But veneration? I didn't get that.

I did understand the concept of serving more senior disciples. When I was first beginning to transition from a California disciple to a local New York disciple, my closest disciple friend at the time -- Jigisha -- would often remark that by lightening the burden of Guru's closest disciples you could, in a very real way, allow those disciple to serve Guru more efficiently.

For example, in my first few months in New York I spent my late night hours washing dishes and cleaning up the Smile of the Beyond, in essence doing work assigned Databir, Bipin and Pulin, while they were up at Guru's house. Had I not helped them, when they got out of Guru's house after midnight, they would have had to do another couple of hours work at the Smile. By helping them -- by easing their burden -- they were able to get another couple of hours sleep and to wake up the next morning a little more rested for another day of service to Guru.

And while it's true, I did worship those guys in the commonsense meaning of that word (those three guys were the best of the best), I didn't worship them, I didn't venerate them. Likewise, they never expected (much less demanded) my help and they were extremely grateful for it.

It's reminiscent of politicians in some respects. Those politicians who seem so hungry for power always give one pause, don't they? The folks who I feel most comfortable giving power to are those who seem least interested in having it. This, of course, was the great attraction of Lavanya. When I was in the Center, one could not help comparing and contrasting the styles of Ranjana and Lavanya.

Where Ranjana was given an increasing authority over a growing number of assistants, Lavanya seemed to reject sycophants. While Ranjana appeared to relish being up front and center, it appeared Lavanya could have done without such trappings. That's not to say that Lavanya was a shrinking violet -- not at all. From the guy's side of the aisle, it just appeared to me that Lavanya -- to use a sporting term -- acted as if she'd been there before. In other words, she was confident in her position and didn't seem to need any outward show of importance.

The point of this post, however, is this: while a large staff is often an important indicator of power and prestige, it can just as often serve to undermine the principal's influence. When the staff's loyalty lies elsewhere, the staff can be used to insulate and control the principal.

Credit for the photo of Ranjana (center) and her devotional singers goes here.