Eastern Religion in the West - Part 3

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918 - 2008) arrived in West in 1959

[Young Maharishi] Mahesh Prasad Varma was born in 1917 or 1918 to the family of an Indian civil servant and became an accounts clerk after getting degrees in science and mathematics at Allahabad University. In 1941 he began working for Swami Brahmananda Saraswati or Guru Dev, the head of one of India's monastic orders who died in June 1953. Mahesh began his public career in 1955 at Cochin, South India, preaching the divinity of his master and initiating householders in his technique of meditation though this was strictly forbidden by the Master as Mahesh was of a lower caste. He gathered followers, created an organisation, left India in 1958, toured Asia and arrived in San Francisco on 29th January, 1959.

"By the grace of my master, I have found a simple technique, a simple formula, to transform the inner man to the great height of the spiritual level, and to bring it to every man everywhere, I have come out." - Maharishi 1960

TM© is a system of meditation that attracts people who know nothing about meditation. The "technique" is a simple mantra meditation based upon a Sanskrit word of one of the many Hindu names of God. Each recipient received a mantra determined by their age and sex at time of initiation though it was claimed that this was a complex method depending upon the individual recipient. His uniqueness stemmed from his public claim that only twenty minutes of meditation a day were required to experience bliss and the incredibly optimistic manner in which the effects of the meditation were described. For ten years he travelled through USA and Europe gradually increasing the numbers of those initiated and developing an organisation, the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, which was greatly facilitated by the interest of some wealthy followers. Despite his public optimism he did notice:

"A hundred people are initiated, and after a month only about 25-30 are found meditating, and after 6 months there will be only five, then no-one." - Maharishi 1964

[Maharishi and the Beatles]

He first gained public notoriety in 1967 after the Beatles became followers and went to his ashram in India. Further publicity following their very public disenchantment with him probably negated any initial media positivity. George Harrison's comments on a television interview program: "We've only been doing it a matter of six weeks maybe, but there is definite proof that it's something that really works" probably encapsulates the experience of most people who try a system of meditation. After an initial enthusiasm the effects do not prove adequate to keep the person meditating (even twenty minutes a day). Harrison was no fine example of the effects of TM as he soon moved on to Krishna Consciousness and his womanising, adultery, booze and cocaine abuse and general meanness and grumpiness are well documented despite the spiritual spin-doctors.

Transcendental Meditation was the first Indian based "spiritual practice" to use a capitalist profit-making method of gaining and initiating new members. He had been, after all, an accounts clerk. The Maharishi franchised the teaching of TM even though there was virtually nothing to teach. Certified TM teachers' income is based on the number of people they can attract, inspire and initiate. It is a fact of life that people interested in meditation to improve their lives are equally as interested in gaining wealth to improve their lives. The method is so simple and the personal mantra is chosen from a list so that the Maharishi could easily have taught it on television or through a video. This would have demonstrated a real faith in his method but would not have created a wealthy organisation and a group of true believers dependant upon him. Initiation was cheap (and even free) in the 1960s when the Maharishi first became famous but was later made expensive presumably to make it appear valuable. The David Lynch Foundation requests donations to provide "scholarships" for people to learn TM. This is a scam that provides income for TM teachers for something that is basically available for free. There has been little publicity over Maharishi's sex life though it is accepted amongst his ex-students that Mia Farrow was not the only young lady he propositioned. In the film "David Wants To Fly" Maharishi's former personal assistant explains that one of his jobs was to bring women to the Maharishi's room for sex. Another ex-disciple, Judith Bourque, reminisces about her torrid love affair with the Maharishi, which ended when he found another young woman. She has written a book about it, Robes of Silk, Feet of Clay.

[TM] In the late 1970's Maharishi did something that showed, if nothing else, his confidence in his own techniques and knowledge or his chutzpah. The TM organisation publicly declared that practitioners of TM could attain superhuman powers. Though these were ordinarily disparaged as unwanted side effects of meditation in the Indian tradition and are commonly accepted in certain sections of popular culture though they have never been demonstrated in the West, their public display would revolutionise the scientific, technological world-view that our society is based on. Alas, it was not to be.

Here was the opportunity for TM to publicly show in an incontrovertable fashion the validity of it's claims. Media disdain for the Maharishi meant that these claims were publicised in a disparaging humorous fashion but finally on Wednesday, July 19, 1986 the Maharishi proclaimed a public demonstration of the TM-Sidhi © techniques at the Capital Convention Centre in Wahington DC. Unfortunately for the world and Maharishi's public image, yogic flying turned out to be the ridiculous spectacle of meditators hopping like frogs and absolutely not defying gravity. The photos of meditators apparently floating done with the use of high speed cameras (and probably trampolines) indicates a contempt for truth completely unbecoming in an organisation supposedly devoted to Natural Law, Pure Knowledge and Cosmic Consciousness.

Dalai Lama (1935 - ) became known in the West: 1959

The Dalai Lama is the saintly head of Tibetan Buddhism, the umpteenth reincarnation of the Buddha who has ruled Tibet, the spiritual Shangri-La in the Himalayas, since time immemorial. There the poor but saintly and ever so happy peasants toil cheerfully to support the monasteries in which live the thousands of dedicated monks whose esoteric and magical powers and deep meditational practices allow them to overcome cold, hunger and gravity while creating the spiritual energy that keeps this world from turning to the dark side of the force. At least that's the Hollywood version of Tibet.

The historical reality is a little different. Tibetan history is extremely complex, ridden with conflict, violence and power politics intertwined with struggles for religious dominance between the indigenous Bon shamanism and Buddhist sects. The first Dalai Lama was Sonam Gyatso (1543-88), head of the dominant Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) monastic sect. This title was bestowed him by a Mongol chief Altan Khan in 1578 and applied retroactively to his two predecessors so that he is called the third Dalai Lama. Basically the Dalai Lama was a puppet of a foreign power whose aim was to control Tibet's foreign policy without having to waste the expensive military resources that conquest and direct control would require. The 2nd (4th) Dalai Lama was a grandson of this ruler and with the aid of Mongol military force he crushed the Karmapa and Nyingma (Red or Black Hat) sects and became both the spiritual and temporal ruler.

The Dalai Lama appears to be a charming and inquisitive person whose public persona has done a lot create a warm and fuzzy feeling for Tibet in the West. However there is considerable controversy in the Tibetan Buddhist community with many of their "reincarnated" gurus having been involved in gurus/sex and drug scandals. There have been violent disputes over just who is the official "reincarnated" tulku and there have been protests against the Dalai Lama.

Members of the International Shugden Community (New Kadampa Tradition) publicly protested against visits of the Dalai Lama to various countries. This appears to have arisen from the creation of a new cult in the West based on the person of Kelsang Gyatso who turned a community of Buddhist students into rejecting all other Tibetan lamas and traditions as sources of authority. This has centered on the worship of an entity called Dorje Shugden, worship of whom was apparently banned by the Dalai Lama because of the "protector's" exclusivist sectarian sentiments. There were even anti-protest protests.

Yogi Amrit Desai (1932 - ) arrived in the West: 1960

Amrit Desai, 28, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1960 to study at the Pennsylvnia College of Art. This may have been a ruse to enter the USA as Asians were not allowed to immigrate but he quickly became a very successful yoga teacher/entrpreneur. By 1966 he had established the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania (YSP) and had trained 75 teachers. By 1970 he had developed 150 yoga classes, all taught by YSP instructors. "It became the largest yoga society in America," says Desai. "More than 2,000 students graduated from classes every 10 weeks." In 1969 he returned to India to see his guru, Swami Kripalvananda whose autobiography includes the usual Indian guru stories of an immortal master, Dadaji in this case, resurrection, instant initiation into new secret teachings and a recognition that Dadaji was the spitting image of a statue of the 28th incarnation of Shiva. Simplicity itself, Desai's guru was Bapuji and his guru was the deathless Dadaji and he was really an incarnation of Shiva.

In 1974 Bapuji initiated Desai and empowered him as a guru in his own right even though he had a family and Bapuji had initiated 3 official renunciate swamis. Desai did well as a Yoga teacher but he did even better as a kundalini-raising guru bestowing shaktipat.

Within the Kripalu parampara (lineage), shaktipat is perceived as a profoundly embodied psychophysical experience marking a partial awakening of prana, or energy, of kundalini shakti. After receiving shaktipat the yogi or yogini typically experiences an array of automatic movements and preliminary manifestations called kriyas that could include shaking, crying, dancing, chanting, visions, and spontaneous or automatic asanas (postures) and mudras (advanced postures or hand gestures) - Gleig & Williamson

In 1983 Kripalu moved from Pennsylvania to Lenox, occupying a former Jesuit monastery and Vanderbilt country estate in the Berkshires. Kripalu had 300 residents, served 12,500 guests annually with its numerous yoga and holistic health programs, and oversaw 40 affiliate groups around the country. In 1989 Desai told Hinduism Todaythat brahmachariya celibacy holds much of Kripalu's power. Men and women live separately, but also eat in different halls and travel in separate cars. There is good harmony too. Notes Desai, "My life is such. No conflicts." A senior staffer half-jokingly confides the only thing they haven't figured out is how to consistently get the staff up for the 5:00 AM meditations. By 1994 Kripalu was considered one of the best holistic health resorts in the US.

Desai had moved into the role of Gurudev, the (semi-)divine teacher with renunciate followers (monks), giving satsang, diksha and shaktipat providing spiritual guidance, and creating his own form of Teaching.

Desai prescribed new norms of behavior for members of the charismatic community after initiation that included foregoing normative sexual relations (that is, celibacy for nonmarried residents and moderation for married residents), and living a life of simplicity and selfless volunteer service.

In 1994 Desai was accused of extramarital affairs with five female residents of the Kripalu Fellowship. In what is possibly unique in the annals of guru scandals Desai admitted the acusations were true and asked for forgiveness. In another almost unique response the Board of Directors forced him to resign as Spiritual Director. He was almost the last of his peers to remain free from scandal. In 1995, Andrew Cohen, self-proclaimed World Teacher, was able to purchase "Foxhollow," a 220 acre estate in Massachusetts, that once belonged to the Vanderbilts that was part of Desai's Kripalu Yoga Center. The property had come on the market because Yogi Amrit Desai, the married celibate founder and spiritual leader of Kripalu Yoga Center who demanded strict celibacy from his students, owed $3 million to settle some legal claims made against him due to his sexual exploitation of some of his female students. Desai had also been making a lot of money from his position while the followers laboured for a pittance doing seva (service). Some things never change.

The Kripalu Center For Yoga and Health reorganised as a "transnational secular yoga retreat" and has continued to thrive. It is no longer based on the Hindu guru-disciple ashram model which has proven such a failure in the West.

[Gurudev Amritji Desai] A man with the energy and drive of Desai was not going to remain sulking in the shadows. He began the Amrit Yoga Institute and calls himself Gurudev Amritji Desai. Naturally his website does not mention the years he lied to his followers and his children, cheated on his wife, abused his position of trust, made a fortune from his dedicated disciples and played the role of Gurudev. Oh that's right. He's still playing it. We can be sure that his spiritual practices have certainly raised him above any shame that a less enlightened person might feel. Actually Desai has stated that he believes those years of fucking his female disciples, lying and cheating was "a blessing" that "accelerated his own personal reflection and growth." How much more spiritually advantageous it would have been if he had been even more of a hypocrite? His daughter Kamini wrote:

"My father's greatest teaching is not in the words he has spoken or the experiences he has conveyed, but in the example he has given of what it means to surrender to life and the mistakes we make as the medium to liberation."

Andrew Cohen commented:

I remember my own disappointment, for I had seen Yogi Desai as the last of the few modern pioneer masters of yoga in the West who, up until that point anyway, had remained free from scandal. What is going on here? I found myself asking over and over again. These great men were true masters after all, men who not only had experienced glorious heights of bliss and ecstasy that most only dream about, but in this case, who also had the power to transmit that experience to others. … So what gives?

The answer is simple. You do not have to be "great men and true masters" to inspire other people. You just have to tell them what they want to hear in a way they find exciting and presto, it's done. There's nothing spiritual about it. If you accept that spirituality, realisation and enlightenment do not actually exist, then it all makes sense.

Homegrown Gurus: From Hinduism in America to American Hinduism - Ann Gleig & Lola Williamson