The Guru Years
The word Guru is one of those Yoga words like karma, mantra, dharma and even Yoga that have become so ubiquitous in our culture that the original meaning gets lost. There are financial, sports, fashion, fitness and cooking gurus. The traditional meaning is a teacher who can remove the darkness from the student’s mind so they can experience their spiritual light. The understanding is the inner light is our true nature and has always been there but we might have been distracted by looking for meaning in people, places, and things. The Guru brings it forth. To learn more about the tradition of Guru’s in several cultures and religions go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guru.
The Satguru or true Guru is the Guru who can give a direct transmission of their spiritual energy and attainment to the receptive student, devotee or disciple. They can awaken or boost the dormant spiritual energy called kundalini and in some cases give the receiver an experience of enlightenment. Depending on the level of realization of the student, they may remain in an enlightened state for the rest of their lives or the temporary experience will give them insight into their true nature based on experiential knowledge and not blind faith.
Swami Vivekananda was the first Guru to arrive in America. It was 1893. His time here was only three years but his legacy continues in the Vedanta Society of America. I have read everything he wrote or said and have visited several Vedanta centers.
Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in 1920 and stayed until his death in 1952. He was a “rock star” Guru of his time and filled theaters across America to hear his talks. His Autobiography of a Yogi has sold more than 4 million copies. His organization the Self-Realization Fellowship continues. He was also a big influence on me.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has also had massive influence in our culture with his TM or transcendental meditation and Ayurvedic organizations. He was one of the first Guru’s I had heard about when the Beatles went to meet him. He was controversial with some other Gurus for charging money for mantra initiations to use in the TM initiation programs.
Philip Goldberg wrote a great book titled American Veda which documents the vast and varied influence of Gurus and many other sources of Vedic teachings on our culture. I was grateful to have heard him speak about his book at one of the Yoga Alliance Teacher’s Conferences. Here’s a link to an article he wrote about these Gurus: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/philip-goldberg/three-gurus-who-rocked-ou_b_804186.html.
There have been many Gurus who have come to America especially in the 60’s and 70’s when some hippies were looking for mind-expanding experiences without drugs. There have also been American Gurus and motivational speakers like Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple resulting in a mass suicide, Werner Erhard the founder of est training and James Arthur Ray whose New Age Spiritual Warrior Sweat lodge retreat resulted in two deaths. Some Catholics might consider the Pope, Jesus or Mother Mary their Gurus. Usually the living head of any Religious lineage is considered a Guru and sometimes the founder of the lineage who has passed is recognized as an ascended master.
A very thoughtful book about Gurus is Gurus in America co-edited by Thomas Forsthoefel a professor at Mercyhurst University. They include essays on Gurani Anjali, Ramana Maharshi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ammachi, Baba Muktananda, Bhaktivedanta Swami or Prabhupada (founder of the Hari Krishnas -ISKON), Adi Da, and Osho formerly known as Bhagwan Rajneesh. There were others like Swami Rama, Amrit Desai, Meher Baba, Ram Das, BKS Iyengar and Swami Satchidananda (the Woodstock Guru and founder of Integral Yoga). The American Guru marketplace was crowded during the 60’s and 70’s.
An article about some of them is at http://pluralism.org/religions/hinduism/hinduism-in-america/the-rush-of-gurus/. The history of Gurus in America has revealed very mixed results. Some have been helpful in ultimately teaching their students how to listen to their inner guru and not get attached to their physical forms. Some have abused their absolute authoritarian power resulting in trauma, financial loss and even death in their students. An in-depth book about the potential for abuse from any organization or teacher who says they have all the answers is https://www.amazon.com/Guru-Papers-Masks-Authoritarian-Power/dp/1883319005.
The followers of Gurus tend to fall into three camps. The student follows some of the teachings that are relevant. The devotee is devoted to most of the teachings and practices but may question the authority of the Guru. The disciple has surrendered completely to the authority of the Guru. I remember the poet Robert Bly saying following a Guru might be helpful for about five years but after that, you risk giving away your inner “gold” or wisdom. The Dalai Lama. a Guru to many Tibetan Buddhists said before accepting a Guru to watch them closely for several years to discern if they really walk their talk.
Even impressionable postural yoga students may elevate their teacher to the status of a Guru not realizing they may be manipulated or abused by them in subtle or egregious ways. Some people are attracted to what they are familiar with so if they were raised with authoritarian and chastising parents, they may either reject authority in the future, if they got their fill in the past, or be attracted to it.
I had a lot of reservations and concerns when my first wife told me she had a Guru. I was holding skepticism and curiosity. I knew about fallen Gurus and apparently solid ones. I knew the value of teachers and mentors throughout my life. I knew this meant a lot to her so I tried to respect her decision. We were still hosting our programs at the Kensho Meditation center in our living room. More people were visiting including some involved in the Erie Siddha Yoga group. About this same time, I had several dreams about a large bald headed dark skinned man wearing only a white cloth around his loins walking around in a courtyard. I always woke up feeling blissful.
One day one of our Kensho visitors brought some Siddha Yoga (Perfected Yoga) books and magazines. There were pictures of this same man! He was Bhagawan Nityananda, the modern master of Siddha Yoga who transferred the power of the lineage to Swami or Baba Muktananda before he died in 1961. Baba then chose a brother and sister, Subash(18) and Malti(26) he had been training since childhood to continue as co-successors of the lineage before he died in 1982.
The brother renamed Swami Nityananda left in 1985 leaving her in charge, He was not mentioned in any of the organization’s information. I only knew about the sister who became Gurumayi or Swami Chidvilasananda (the bliss of the play of consciousness). In their “revised” history there was no brother. I learned about him later.
To learn more about Gurumayi go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurumayi_Chidvilasananda. Her brother is at http://www.nityanandatradition.org/lineage/nityananda.html.
We began to attend the local satsangs at the informal leader’s home. Informal means they were not officially sanctioned by the SYDA (Siddha Yoga Dham Associates) organization. Most of the participants were followers of Muktananda and since his death in 1982 were accepting of Gurumayi if not actually enthusiastic devotees or disciples of her. Many Muktananda followers left the organization worldwide after his death. Others who joined after 82 had embraced her as their Guru. Those numbers began to slowly grow.
Initially, I sought balance for my natural Raja and Jnana Yoga nature with Bhakti or love and devotion. I wanted to get out of my head and open my heart. This was also a “path” my first wife and I could share. I thought it might bring us closer together. It eventually had the opposite effect. I loved the chanting and the simple approach to meditation. Just mentally repeat Om Namah Shivaya (I honor the divine within) and the Guru will take care of everything else.
Their teachings were based on a combination of Advaita or non-dual Vedanta with monistic Kashmir Tantric Shaivism and a big dose of Bhakti – the Guru is the means to enlightenment. Their brand was also inspired by the great Indian epics like the Mahabharata, medieval poet-saints, the Sufi tradition and the mystical traditions from world religions. Any kind of critical inquiry was frowned upon so I had to keep any reservations to myself. Most of the teachings made sense to me except combining a monistic worldview with a dualistic structure. The teachings were offered in their books, magazine, talks and correspondence course. I especially liked the course samples I was given and we began to subscribe to them. Two lessons a week to contemplate each month. It was some of the highest philosophy I had been exposed to especially the Tantric teachings.
The importance of the Guru in the lessons I kept at arm’s length, except I felt whole and ecstatic when I meditated on the form of Bhagawan Nityananda. My Bhakti became the chanting, the arati (worship with lights and chanting) and meditation. The current Erie leader wanted to take a break. We were asked to be the new leaders. We led the local group from 1985 to 1991. We hosted weekly Sunday night satsangs (keeping the company of the truth) which included a reading by Baba or Gurumayi, kirtan or call and response chanting (I played the drum) and meditation. Potluck meals and fellowship followed. The core group was around a dozen but as we grew some nights we might have 20 to 40 in our living room. We hosted two satellite shaktipat intensives for the first and I think only time in Erie and drew people from Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
We went to the main Shree Muktananda ashram in South Fallsburg, NY many times including regular programs, special courses, and intensives. I had some amazing experiences there. Siddha Yoga saw unprecedented growth during the 80’s and 90’s. It had attracted celebrities like Jerry Brown, John Denver, Andre Gregory, Diana Ross, Isabella Rossellini, Phylicia Rashad, Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, and Marsha Mason. I saw some of them at summer programs. One time, I was sitting near Phylicia Rashad for a chanting program in the temple. Since the focus was on yourself and the guru, it was not a big deal. Seeing the Guru was the big deal.
Thousands of people would flood the ashram on weekends in the summer. Chanting one mantra for an hour with two thousand people was very intoxicating. It would start very slow and eventually become as fast as we could chant and keep up with the lead singer/harmonium player and drummers. A sweet and deep meditation would follow.
At that time, the ashram schedule was rigorous. Wake up was between 4:00 and 4:30 am. Sometimes a dorm roomie would wake me up shouting mantras in his sleep! An arati (waving of the lights) chant dedicated to Bade Baba (big Baba) Nityananda in a temple with a life like statue of him was the start of sadhana at 5 am. A circus drum was rolled in. A brief but loud thunderous drumming, punctuated by the blaring of conch shells and the clanging of cymbals ensued to wake up the spirit of Nityananda. It sure woke me up! After the cacophony, a beautiful chant describing the perfected state of realized beings set the tone for the day. I loved this practice.
Having been told I was imperfect most of my life, the idea of perfection was very attractive. Afterward steaming cups of hot perfectly balanced chai was available outside the meditation hall. At 6 am the holy grail of Siddha Yoga practices, the Guru Gita was chanted. The Gita is a medieval text of 182 Sanskrit verses describing the qualities of an enlightened Guru and the benefits of devotion to that Guru. It was the practice of swadhyaya, one of Patanjali’s Niyamas meaning the study of the Self and a type of Dharana or concentration practice. We held the chanting book a specific way and focused on each Sanskrit word. The hour long chant was followed by an exuberant kirtan of Sri Krishna Govinda Hare Murare He Natha Narayana Vasudeva. This kirtan reminded me that we are all adorable and loveable.
I felt very good about humanity when I joined others for breakfast at 8 am. The rest of the day consisted of alternating periods of work and chanting. Meditation or hatha yoga were extracurricular activities. The work periods were presented as Seva or selfless service. The usual Seva assignment was kitchen, housekeeping or landscaping. So we paid to be there to work for free. The intention was to work on the ego’s need to expect rewards for work. My experience of Seva was whoever I was working with tended to represent someone I knew back home that I had issues with. Seva was an opportunity to bring more awareness and insight into the source of my issues so I could move toward perfection. I also found it to be a clever way for the organization to save money.
Rotating 30-minute chants would be in the temple at noon. My favorite was the Rudram. The complex Sanskrit words were difficult to chant and it required lots of concentration. Rudra relates to the fierce form of Shiva like Kali is the fierce form of Durga. My understanding is they are personifications of that aspect of grace that creates challenges in our lives to free us of our attachments. Rudra also relates to Agni or the digestive fire. Daily practice of this chant can actually make life more difficult before it gets better. I would take a break from it when life got too hot to handle. As you know, this marriage was already mostly Tapas so I was already at my emotional edge. The other chants helped to lighten this load.
There was an evening arati that was sweet followed by dinner and in the summer an evening program with Gurumayi held in an outdoor pavilion. My guesstimate is on some nights there were 2,000 people. The program started with an MC and testimonials by devotees or disciples about their transformations being with the Guru while she would quietly take her seat. Some people were caught up with what kind of hat she would be wearing that night. Sometimes she would give a talk then lead a chant; other times she would start by leading a chant.
Unlike kirtans today, there was one chant with all non-western instrumentation. The chant would unfold from slow to fast in about an hour followed by a silent meditation. The evening concluded with Dashan (beholding the sacred). Darshan was a time to meet the Guru and receive her blessings and offer her a gift out of gratitude. Anything could be offered. The most common offering was a coconut which symbolized the sweet nectar of the Self-encased by the hard shell of the ego. The market up the road always had a big supply of coconuts.
A long line would form and sometimes one to two hours would go by before it was your turn. Everyone would kneel and bow and she would brush your body with peacock feathers attached to a pole. The “magic wand” sometimes sent a flow of energy into my body. She might ask you a question, make a comment or be talking to someone else. Sometimes she would give you a gift. An assistant might give you a chocolate as they led you off the platform.
Afterward, you could go to an Ashram café, the meditation cave, enjoy a walk on the property or go back to your room. Some were asleep by 9 pm! The energy around Gurumayi was quite palpable. It is hard to explain but the air felt thick and supercharged with electricity. I felt the sensation of my heart opening like falling in love and my busy mind quieting. Sometimes I would feel etheric or spacey. The chocolate helped me in feeling grounded and back in my body. Then I could find my shoes and room!
Siddha Yoga has two foundational beliefs. The grace of the Guru which is given in an initiation called shaktipat, in which the spiritual energy or kundalini of the seeker is awakened and guided from within and self-effort, which is the aspirants’ efforts to follow the sadhana directed by the Guru and to absorb the teachings. They would say that effort attracts grace. Some critics said that the more money you gave to the organization the more grace you would receive from the Guru.
References to shaktipat go back to medieval texts of Kashmir Shaivism and were described as a rare occurrence. Siddha Yoga taught that the easiest way for the kundalini to be awakened is through the grace of a shaktipat Guru. Traditionally shaktipat was only for people who had prepared after years of spiritual practice under the guidance of a Guru.
In 1974, Muktananda formalized the initiation with a two-day Intensive program where hundreds and eventually thousands with Gurumayi would receive shaktipat at the same time through a look, a touch or the Guru’s will power. I took four of them. At the time there was a lot of emphasis to realize enlightenment as quickly as possible by following the schedule and being with the Guru often. I knew people who had taken 10 to 20 intensives. The cost when I was there was $400 per intensive plus room, board and travel expenses. How many did you need? The official word was one depending on your karma and if you did the practices with a fervor. The cost of enlightenment was not cheap. Back in Bade Baba’s time, it was free.
I will share more experiences of Siddha Yoga in the next chapter. There was also a dark side to the quest for perfection that journalists and others investigated. I have learned that even when a Guru or teacher or their organization may be flawed or imperfect, there can still be a positive benefit to the practices.