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Sunday 27 June 2004
Western seekers after spiritual wisdom travel to India looking for gurus to set them "free." But gurus can also entrap their eager recruits.
Reporter: The dictionary defines a guru as a spiritual leader, but Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh also preached the more earthly virtues of casual sex and wealth.
Reporter: He died on Friday at the age of 58 at his ashram at Poona, in India. Heíd settled there after being deported from the United States in 1985 where heíd been found guilty of violations to the immigration law. After returning to India, the Bhagwan deliberately toned down his act. Gone were the 93 Rolls Royces, and scores of gem-studded Rolex watches. But the Bhagwan, with his full grey beard and hypnotic gaze, still drew...
Rachael Kohn: The demise of Rajneesh and a heap of other gurus in the Ď70s and Ď80s didnít put an end to ĎGurumaniaí. Hello, Iím Rachael Kohn and this is The Spirit of Things.
The search for Enlightenment at the feet of Indiaís ĎGod Mení goes on today as ever before. Indiaís most famous guru is Sai Baba, whose followers include every class people, including the former Indian Prime Minister, Vajpayee. The exposes of Sai Babaís miracles and the continuing allegations of his sexual abuse of children, is now the subject of a BBC documentary. It features interviews with men who allege that when they were children, he sexually abused them.
Today on The Spirit of Things, I talk to two people with a lot of experience chasing gurus. Mary Garden went to India to follow Sai Baba, but was disappointed. She ended up with another guru, with whom she got more than she bargained for.
Mary Garden: He said he was raising our kundalini, and erasing all the samskaras of sleeping with dreadful Western worldly men. So he saw the sexual act as purifying us, and I had no reason not to believe him.
Rachael Kohn: The spiritual journey of Mary Garden has its ups and downs, as we hear later in the program.
Mick Brown is an English journalist with a spiritual curiosity. But unlike Mary, who put her whole life into the arms of gurus, Mick is content to be an observer, although, it seems, heís more credulous when it comes to Sai Baba.
Mick Brown welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Mick Brown: Thank you very much, itís lovely to be here.
Rachael Kohn: Mick, your book The Spiritual Tourist is subtitled ĎA personal odyssey through the outer reaches of beliefí. What do you consider the outer reaches of belief?
Mick Brown: The outer reaches of belief for me are really those belief systems which lay outside the conventional Judaeo-Christian belief systems.
Rachael Kohn: So it was a natural choice to go on the guru trail?
Mick Brown: Yes, it was really. Itís a progressive thing. Over the years Iíve been exposed to various Eastern teachings, with friends who followed various Indian teachers, books that Iíve read, my own curiosity, and I wanted to unify all these things in one particular journey, which is what I did with the book.
Rachael Kohn: So you didnít start out as a sceptic?
Mick Brown: Perhaps as a sceptic, but not as a cynic.
I think scepticism is rather a good thing, that one should be discriminating and discerning in these matters. But I think cynicism that one should just dismiss these things out of hand, because they donít happen to conform to our rational belief system, is a very bad thing and a very corrosive thing and a very dangerous thing. But I think what I set out to be was as open-minded as possible, and then just to record my own experiences as honestly and as truthfully as I possibly could, and if I didnít understand something, to be honest about that and say ĎI donít understand thisí, and if I did experience something, to be honest too, and say, ĎThis is what I experiencedí.
Rachael Kohn: Mick, who impressed you most, of all of the gurus that you met?
Mick Brown: I think itís probably difficult to talk about individuals really. I met a wide array of extraordinary people, but I think what I felt myself most drawn to at the end of the journey, was Tibetan Buddhism, and the Tibetan Buddhist teachers.
In a sense the book acted almost as a sort of process of elimination for me. In exploring all of these different teachings and these different teachers and these different disciplines, it got to a point where I was asking myself what I could safely believe and safely disbelieve. And so I came to the point where I felt most comfortable and most close to Tibetan Buddhist teachers and Tibetan Buddhist teachings, and I think thatís because for me at least, Buddhism offers the most pragmatic approach to the big questions of our life, about happiness, and the meaning of our life and why are we here, and why do we live and why do we die and so forth.
And also of course I think towards the intensely charismatic characters that you find in Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, in particular of course, but not just the Dalai Lama, other less-celebrated lamas but who seem to me to embody their teachings really, and I think thatís a great sort of criteria for any guru or for any teacher, the degree to which they themselves embody these teachings. I think you know an enlightened person by their acts, not necessarily by their words, and I think I found that more often in Tibetan Buddhist teachers than in anybody else.
Rachael Kohn: Well I suppose the guru or the spiritual teacher who raises the most questions in our minds today about whether their acts actually reflect their teachings, is Sai Baba, and Sai Babaís one who you actually spent quite a lot of time on in your book, particularly about his famed miracles, such as the appearance of Vibhuti. Where did you first see it, and can you describe exactly what it is?
Mick Brown: Yes, well Sai Baba is I think an extraordinary phenomenon and a very perplexing phenomenon.
Of course heís probably the best-known of all the living Indian swamis or teachers, and has a global following, running into, itís estimated, many, many millions. Iíd heard a lot about Sai Baba over the years, but then as I became exposed to more and more of these stories and began to hear more and more about him, my path eventually led me to a house in North London, where I witnessed something rather remarkable, and one of the things that Sai Baba is said to do, as an avatar, as an incarnation of the Divine, as itís claimed of him, heís said to be able to perform many, many miracles, perhaps the least of which is to produce vibhuti, which is this holy dust, for want of a better word.
And there are many accounts of him producing this from his fingers, but also of it manifesting quite spontaneously on photographs of Sai Baba in the homes of devotees. And Iíd heard about this, but I hadnít actually seen it myself until I went to a house in North London.
It was an Indian gentleman who actually worked as a taxi driver, and heíd wanted to build an extension to his home in order to house this snooker table, billiard table, and so heíd gone ahead and built the extension, and had then invited some Hindu priests to bless the broken ground, and they happened to be devotees of Sai Baba, and they left in the home a picture of Sai Baba.
Shortly after that, vibhuti began to spontaneously manifest on the picture, and he was rather disconcerted by this, and called them back and asked exactly what was going on, and they said, ĎWell this is a blessing, this means that Baba is present in the house, and youíre not to disturb anything, youíre not to touch anything. And was told you canít put your snooker table in, this is now consecrated ground, as it were, and you must keep this as a shrine to Baba.
And so he had added to this picture with many other pictures, and also with little Buddha statuettes and images of the Christ and symbols of Islam, all of which appeared to be manifesting this extraordinary scented dust, vibhuti. And devotees would come to his house and would pray and have small services and then theyíd scrape off the vibhuti from the pictures and give to devotees and theyíd take it away with them by way of a blessing.
Rachael Kohn: Mick, I was surprised that in your book youíre not very sceptical about this, despite the fact that quite a number of exposes have been on web sites for years now about how that actually happens. What do you think?
Mick Brown: Well, have there been exposes about how that happens?
I mean the only plausible explanation I could think of for how that happened was that this very sweet man, this very sweet taxi driver and his family were spending their evenings systematically unscrewing picture frames, coating them with vibhuti, coating pictures with vibhuti, screwing the picture frames back up again, and basically creating this extraordinary hoax, which is what perhaps a more reductionist view of this matter would lead us to conclude it was. I didnít believe that was the case.
Now I donít offer any explanations of what is happening there. Obviously the taxi driver and Sai Baba devotees would have an explanation that this is Babaís miraculous powers working across time and space. I donít have an opinion about that. But what I do believe is that it wasnít a hoax. So I do believe that that is the case, and I think in a way this goes to the heart of the ambivalence of Sai Baba, because heís a very perplexing and very confusing character to me, and of course now heís a character thatís engulfed in these extraordinary allegations of sexual abuse and of other abuses and of all sorts of charlatanry. And I also happen to believe that some of those are true.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, they certainly have been around for some years now. I got the impression that the gurus you met donít really recognise each other. Are they touchy about it? What do you think Sai Baba would say if you mentioned Mother Meera, another great female guru to him? Bhagwan Rajneesh when he was alive?
Mick Brown: In a way, thereís a tendency among gurus, to be rather solipsistic in this sense. Iím sure there are gurus and teachers who will acknowledge the greatness of previous teachers, but I didnít have the opportunity to ask Sai Baba what he thought of Mother Meera, nor indeed to ask Mother Meera what she thought of Sai Baba. But you do kind of get this sense that thereís a sort of unspoken rivalry between them in a way.
And what theyíre really concerned with is their own particular, you might call it mission, or you might call it scam, which ever perspective you happen to be coming from. But they donít tend to talk about each other a great deal. And I got very puzzled by this, because the claims that are made for some of these people, for Sai Baba, for example, I mean if you talk to Sai Babaís devotees, itís claimed that he is the great avatar of the age, the great Christ of the age. But you know, the same claims are made for other gurus that they too are supposed to be avatar, incarnations of the Divine.
But thereís no sort of avatar registration office, as it were, where one can go and sort of corroborate these claims. And what tends to happen I think is that a teacher will come forward, then will gather disciples around him and their reputation will really rest on their teachings, of course, primarily. But then on the degree to which word spreads from the disciples outwards, like ripples from a lake, and so the congregations get bigger and bigger and bigger, or they donít, depending on the charisma, the effectiveness, the spirituality of the teacher.
Rachael Kohn: Well speaking of gatherings getting bigger and bigger, or at least followings, thereís the case of Benjamin Creme. Now thatís someone who I met about ten years ago when he was prophesying the coming of Maitreya, and I gather you met him and he was still prophesying the coming of Maitreya, but I think Maitreya lives somewhere in a London suburb, is that the case, or has he not quite arrived yet?
Mick Brown: Iím not sure where he lives or whether heís arrived.
Benís belief is that Maitreya arrived in Britain from Pakistan on a British Airways jet some time in the 1970s, but Ben isnít very precise about this.
I was very taken by Ben and by Benís story, and to me it has the wonderful quality of a childís fable really, that here is this eagerly-awaited world teacher, and according to Ben, who is a painter first and foremost, and in later life apparently discovered clairvoyant power, was then a Theosophist, a student of Alice Baileyís teachings and so forth, claims to have notification from one of the Ďhierarchy of mastersí, that Maitreya is here in London waiting to be discovered.
I was taken by this, not because I believe the story, but because I loved the story and was intrigued by the story. And so I set myself this task of really following what turned out to be a rather delightful wild goose chase of trying to check out tips and leads, and I have to say Iíve not been able to discover whether Maitreya is living in London or indeed anywhere else in the world.
Ben, I think, is utterly sincere in his beliefs, and I think Ben is a very wonderful man. And I think in a way, whether or not heís right about whether Maitrea is here or isnít here, the story has a great sort of metaphorical purchase really, and I think thatís to do with a feeling of the expectation of redemption, the tremendous yearning for redemption, and also is this sort of beacon of optimism.
Rachael Kohn: But heís kind of practical too, I mean heís got an NGO organisation called Share International.
Mick Brown: Thatís right.
Rachael Kohn: Which I first encountered way back in 1993, and those newsletters he puts out, regularly feature photographs of miraculous lights that are meant to be signs that Maitreya is about somewhere. Isnít he kind of exploiting the false hopes of people, and getting their money as well?
Mick Brown: No, I donít think so because I came to know Ben quite well in the course of writing the book, and Ben lives very modestly, and I think he is utterly genuine and sincere in his beliefs, and I think that the magazine is actually the product of much more of the people around Ben than it is of Ben himself.
And in many ways itís an interesting magazine, I mean it talks a lot about various development programs in the developing world, these photographs of supposed miracles Iím fantastically sceptical about those.
In my book, I do explore one of these cases. I visited a church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where these crosses of light were supposed to be appearing. I came to the conclusion that the crosses of light were actually nothing more than the reflection from car park lights coming through rippled glass. And yet you go in there and I met people who claimed to have been healed by being exposed to these crosses of light. Now Iím not saying that she was cured by the crosses of light, but somehow, perhaps for her, belief in the efficacy of the crosses of light was enough for her to cure herself.
You know, I think extraordinary things do happen, and this whole subject really, itís a very complicated subject, and it works on many, many different levels and throws up all sorts of questions. When you canít really be answered I donít think in absolute terms.
Rachael Kohn: Nick, did this personal odyssey through the outer reaches of belief actually deepen your faith in gurus, or did you conclude that there might have been some kind of psychological addiction going on here, a kind of gurumania?
Mick Brown: Well I think thatís a very good point, and I do think that that is the case in some instances. I think whatís happened here is that the whole question of gurus, itís a relatively recent transplant from the East into the West.
The idea of sort of guru devotion, that one surrenders oneís ego to a teacher, is of course long-established in Eastern traditions, but I think what has happened in the West is that in the rush to surrender oneís ego, thereís also a danger that people can surrender their discrimination and surrender their discernment. Thatís a pattern that weíve seen time and time and time again in the West. And the consequence of that has been that people have left themselves open to abuse by bad gurus, if you like. And I think there have been bad gurus, there have been charlatans, there have been people whoíve exploited the power that they have over their devotees.
But the fact that some gurus are charlatans doesnít mean that all gurus are charlatans, and doesnít necessarily mean that the guru-student relationship is in itself a bad thing.
For myself, I donít think Iím devotee material really, and thatís probably much more to do with an innate scepticism, or whatever you want to call it, that I have. Itís a little voice at the back of my mind, that never quite switches off, and no matter how taken I might be with a particular teaching or by a particular teacher, no matter how powerful the experience I might be having, thereís a little voice at the back of my mind saying Donít forget youíre a journalist, and youíre an observer, youíre not supposed to be participating in this too much. And I think thatís probably a failing on my behalf.
Part of the motive for writing this book was to try and discover some faith within myself, or to try and get to the heart of whether I have a capacity for belief. I certainly have a capacity for doubt and I certainly have a capacity for agnosticism, but not yet for belief.
Rachael Kohn: Well thank you for coming on to The Spirit of Things and sharing with us your spiritual Odyssey.
Mick Brown: Thank you very much, itís my pleasure.
Rachael Kohn: Mick Brown was speaking to me from London. Heís the author of The Spiritual Tourist: A personal odyssey through the outer reaches of belief.
Weíre exploring gurumania here on The Spirit of Things, with me, Rachael Kohn.
Rachael Kohn: For some people, their native home is an alien place. New Zealand born Mary Garden was a Ďnaturalí when she moved to India in the Ď70s to follow Sai Baba. The Sanskrit chants sounded familiar to her, and the desire to live a spiritual life seemed possible only in the land of the gurus. But Maryís experiences were more less than she hoped for, and now she makes her home in Bundaberg, Queensland, older and wiser.
Mary Garden spoke to me about her spiritual journey, which started when she noticed a poster in a health food store in Auckland.
Mary Garden: I was not really searching for anything at that point of time in my life, I wasnít looking for religious answers at all. But I chanced upon a notice in the window of a health food shop advertising a ceremony that night at a yoga ashram in the outskirts of Auckland.
Now I had been practising yoga for a number of years, and you must remember back then, that was all quite new. I donít know quite why I ventured out to the yoga ashram that night, I think it was out of curiosity more than anything.
Rachael Kohn: Was there something about that poster that caught your attention?
Mary Garden: There was a snake reaching upwards to the sky and in New Zealand we donít have snakes, and Iíd grown up with a sort of horror of snakes, but this particular snake fascinated me, and there was also pictures of lotus flowers adorning the notice, and I thought How intriguing.
Rachael Kohn: Do you think the attraction was partly sexual? I mean a snake coming out of a pink lotus flower.
Mary Garden: Certainly subconscious. I was having quite a bit of difficulty in my life at that time, in relationships. I was feeling quite depressed and lonely, and back in the Ď70s you didnít talk about things like that at those times. I mean we were still in the age of psychiatric Gothic type hospitals there, and we grew up with a terror of loony-bins, so you wouldnít dare tell anyone that you were feeling depressed or lonely.
Rachael Kohn: Well you joined an ashram in Auckland, and you read the books that were hugely influential in the Ď70s, like Herman Hesseís Siddhartha. Were you becoming a different person as you were reading those books from the farmerís daughter?
Mary Garden: I became a different person from that night that I went out to that ceremony. It was like I found Ė well, going back to that night at the ashram, I think I had a kind of mystical experience listening there to the swami chanting.
I had never felt bliss or peace like that before, I certainly had not had those experiences in the Christian church. Considering what I had been going through in my life, why wouldnít I want more of that? I mean I wanted more of that peace and bliss that I had felt and from there I went to live in this little yoga ashram, and there for the first time in my life, I had a feeling of being part of a community. And itís very easy to dismiss people who go off and get caught up in religious groups, but I think itís a reflection on our society, that alienation and loneliness and the lack of community, and thatís what a lot of these groups provide.
I mean people donít go these groups wanting to be caught up in some sort of destructive mind control or to be abused, they go there because in the early stages, they feel that they are part of a family and instant community, and a sense of belonging, and at last thereís some meaning in our lives.
Rachael Kohn: It certainly seemed to have a therapeutic effect on you. You had been suffering from depression, as you said, and also migraines. Did they go?
Mary Garden: Yes, yes, to a certain extent. For the first time in my life, I felt, Oh, thereís some meaning in my life at last. I had grown up in the Christian church and went to university and did very well, but there was something missing. And when I was a very young girl there were two things I wanted to be when I grew up and that was to be a nun and to be a mother, and I thought this is what I want to be, Iím going to be a Hindu nun, and Iím going to go to India.
Rachael Kohn: And you went to India to meet up with the guru Sai Baba, who today is the object of much critical scrutiny, but then I guess he was at his heyday. What did you like about him?
Mary Garden: Well at that time I was convinced, especially in the early days, that he was God incarnate. To a certain extent I think these gurus have enormous charisma and that is not to be underestimated.
Rachael Kohn: What was it like when you saw him? What was the first meeting like?
Mary Garden: Well in a way I was disappointed because I thought heís the reason for all these changes in my life, and Iím going home, and I was expecting on the very first darshan. Darshan is a Hindu word meaning having an audience with a master, that he would come over and somehow recognise me. But he walked right past me and ignored me.
Now what happens when youíre with a guru you end up rationalising a lot of things, so if he notices you, thatís good karma, and if he ignores you, thatís also good karma because that may be strengthening you. So if youíve got a guru that is God, and this is what people even today still believe that Sai Baba is the incarnation of God, the avatar. So youíre caught up in all this group euphoria of worship and itís very, very hard when youíre in a group not to be affected by that. I have a very close friend up in Bundaberg whose mother went to one of the early rallies with Hitler in the 1930s, and she had to grip hold of her seat because she wanted to become part of this group hysteria.
Rachael Kohn: Did you ever get that sense of euphoria? Did you like being a devotee?
Mary Garden: In the early stages, definitely. Definitely. And I loved the whole lifestyle in India, and that was the strangest thing. I never felt quite at home in New Zealand and I never do, even now, but when I arrived in India, I felt it all seemed so familiar.
Rachael Kohn: What do you think accounts for the fact that you felt so at home in India?
Mary Garden: To a lot of Westerners who went there at that time, it was quite a culture shock, and it definitely wasnít for me. Even going into the temples and listening to the chants and the vedic prayers, I picked up a lot of that very quickly, it was very easy for me to learn Sanskrit and vedic prayers in Hindi, and I find that quite a mystery, even to this day. I felt very much at home in India, in a way that I had never felt at home in New Zealand.
Rachael Kohn: Well your experience with Sai Baba seems to have been ambivalent, because you did have bouts of crying. What were they about?
Mary Garden: That is very common around a lot of gurus, and I wonder if in a way what happens when you go to these guru figures, in a way you almost regress, you become like a child and youíve put them up there like a parental figure, and in a way maybe our society really doesnít allow us to grieve, so maybe some of that was genuine grieving.
Rachael Kohn: Well youíre right about your dreams of Sai Baba, which had some very strong sexual overtones.
Mary Garden: Well there were three dreams I had, and one was premonitionary, it was about a baby being killed which was quite extraordinary, because later on in India I had an abortion. One of the other dreams was making love with Sai Baba in a divine sense, and that in a way reflected something that happened to me with the guru, the yogi in the Himalayas where I did get involved in a Tantric sexual relationship.
And the third dream was quite ominous, because Sai Baba came out in darshan one day, this was in the dream, and his penis was like an enormous head of a dinosaur, and it was wrapping itself round the heads of young boys, and when I woke up out of the dream I felt mortified that Iíd had such a dream, and I thought, Well maybe Sai Baba is healing me of some deep, dark whatever in my subconscious. But it wasnít long after that, that I went into Bangalore and had coffee at a coffee shop, and there was an American lady there who looked at me and said, ĎMary, what are you doing, still involved in that cult?í And the word Ďcultí stung me, because I thought anyone who was living round Sai Baba would regard him as God, and then she went on to tell me that he was sexually molesting the young boys. And it was like a light went on in my brain, because this is what I felt the dream had told me.
And suddenly I woke up, it was like Iíve been in some sort of dream state, and the man that Iíd been worshipping as God, is some sort of devil, a sexual molester.
Now look this is 1973, now the BBC has just screened a documentary called 'Secret Swami', which is an expose of Sai Baba, so it has taken 30 years for these allegations to finally come to light.
Rachael Kohn: Once a follower herself of Sai Baba, Mary Garden now swears off God Men altogether.
This is Gurumania, on The Spirit of Things, with me, Rachael Kohn.
My guest, Mary Garden, is the author of The Serpent Rising, originally published as a fictional account, but later in life she re-wrote the book in the first person, since it is an account of her own spiritual journey.
Rachael Kohn: You decided to persevere on your spiritual search, and that was when you met Swamiji, who was called The Boy Yogi. It sounds like his ashram was in a very nice setting.
Mary Garden: Absolutely beautiful. I think one of the things that disappointed me about Sai Baba is that the ashram was so big and it was busy and noisy, and up in the foothills of the Himalayas where I ended up staying quite a few years, it is absolutely exquisitely beautiful, and in this little ashram nestled in the jungle, you could hear the Ganges roaring 24 hours a day, and it was very quiet.
I think thatís something that people forget, when a lot of people who go to ashrams and join these groups, they are very quiet places. Society these days seems to be getting noisier and noisier, and theyíre like places of rest and retreat, and certainly in the early stages you feel like youíre in some sort of heaven.
Rachael Kohn: What were the followers of Swamiji like? How many of them were local Indians, and how many were Westerners like you?
Mary Garden: Well in the early days there were no devotees at all living in the ashram, they used to come up for darshan in the afternoons. Some of them were politicians and quite high people. We used to employ Indian servants. From what Iíve heard from people whoíve gone up to the ashram in recent years, he very seldom allows Westerners to stay there any more, he has a few Indian devotees.
Rachael Kohn: Mary, how did you become part of the inner circle?
Mary Garden: Well the first day I went to meet him, quite reluctantly, I went up with an Australian who said, ĎYouíve got to come up and meet this amazing yogi in the jungleí, and I said ĎIím not into gurus, I donít want to get caught againí. But I went up for the long walk through the jungle, and up to this beautiful ashram.
When I sat down and fronted the yogi, he was sitting cross-legged in front of the perjure place like an altar, and he was the most beautiful person I have ever seen: long hair, and at first I thought he looked 12 or 13 years of age, but he was much older than that. And he looked at he and said, ĎYouíre very tired, arenít you? Youíre very tired of your lifeí, and I mean I was, and I just burst into tears.
These yogis have enormous powers, I mean thatís not to be disputed. He asked me if I wanted to stay there and I jumped at the opportunity, because Martin, who I had gone up there with, was not allowed to stay, and it was considered a rare privilege to go and stay in his ashram. And I also thought this would be a chance to do some serious yoga practices, because what had been so frustrating down at the Sai Baba ashram in Bangalore is that we spent the whole day just waiting around for the two times in the day that Sai Baba would come out and give us darshan. And I wanted more than that. Iíd gone to India to become more spiritual, I wanted spiritual practices and wanted to learn to meditate and to do yoga and study the Hindu scriptures. So to me, I felt this was the place I was meant to be.
Rachael Kohn: Well Swamiji certainly gave you much more than you expected. Your private encounters with him turned into opportunities for sexual intercourse. Now he gave those encounters a spiritual explanation; did you believe him?
Mary Garden: Oh definitely at the time. He said he was raising our kundalini and erasing all the samskaras of sleeping with dreadful Western worldly men, so he saw the sexual act as purifying us, and I had no reason not to believe him, because the very first time it happened, I went out of the room feeling like I was in some kind of trance state, just feeling ecstasy, even though it was not very pleasurable on a sexual level Ė he was just sort of in and out of me, I went out feeling like I was in ecstasy.
Rachael Kohn: Well it actually struck me, you know, your description of your encounters with him, struck me almost as a fairytale kind of setting, the kind that young girls dream of, sex with a prince, sex thatís sacred, sex with almost no consequences.
Mary Garden: Yes, he was like the Adonis that I had been searching for all my life. Further on down the track I considered him as the incarnation of Krishna, I mean I thought Krishna is part of the Hindu mythology, Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu and came down and played with all the gopis, and Radhar was his chief gopi, and I considered myself Radha at times, which shows how deluded I was.
Rachael Kohn: Well especially as there were a couple of other Radhas, or at least one other one.
Mary Garden: Yes, there were several. And I think thatís what happens with some of these gurus in these ashrams, they become like harem situations, where youíre competing for the guruís attention. But at least for a few years I was quite convinced I was Ďhis heartí, he used to call me. There was another girl in the ashram who he used to call his Ďhead chakraí, and I was his Ďheart chakraí, and I was certainly quite happy about that.
Rachael Kohn: Well there were consequences though: you got pregnant, and that revealed another side of the Swamiji. Perhaps the cold side.
Mary Garden: Definitely. Well that was really the turning point. I became quite sick.
The problem with gurus is that in some ways they take over your life, you have to ask permission to do everything. In India they are seen as a vehicle of God, and they have all the answers and they know whatís going on and theyíre in control of your karma. So when I kept going to him and saying, ĎIím sick, I need to see a doctorí, he would say, ĎDonít worry, donít worry. Iím in charge of your karma and itís just your bad karma working off.í
Well finally after a few months, I did go to see a doctor in Rishikesh, and was quite startled to discover that I was pregnant, and at first I thought ĎHow incredible. I mean this is going to be a holy child. Iím carrying the child of a holy beingí, and was quite excited about going back to the ashram and I thought maybe that was why Swamiji had prevented me going to see a doctor because he didnít want me to have an abortion or change my mind about it.
But his reaction was quite the opposite. He just didnít want to know anything about it, and advised me to talk to Saraswati who had been there several years longer than me, and she said, ĎYou donít have a choice at all, you have to get rid of the baby, thereís no place for a baby in an ashram, you have to go down to Delhi and have an abortion. That is what Iíve done on a few occasions.í And I was absolutely devastated, because part of me had always wanted to be a mother, and I thought, I canít abort this child.
But after a few days I knew really there was no other option. I had very little money, I was also worried about my physical health because the doctor said I was suffering to a certain degree, malnutrition, and I thought Iíve probably harmed the child. So I went down to Delhi to a very dismal hospital and had an abortion, and I was much further advanced than I thought, it was really traumatic.
But at the time I was very much in love with Swamiji and I was chanting mantras all the time, so in some respects I was quite drugged, and I went back up to the Himalayas and just blotted it out, and pretended it hadnít happened. But my relationship with Swamiji changed quite dramatically then, he just didnít want me around him. And for the first time in my life I actually started feeling angry, which was quite healthy, but I certainly didnít think that at the time, because anger is an emotion that we werenít allowed to feel, we were allowed to feel sad and we were allowed to feel love in these setting.
Rachael Kohn: But it certainly was an emotion he allowed himself. He could run hot and cold.
Mary Garden: But heís operating on a different level to us, this is what we were taught and this is what a lot of the gurus teach that theyíre operating on a level that we canít judge.
Rachael Kohn: Well Mary, you decided to leave the ashram, but eventually you came back. I wonder whether your spiritual yearnings were so intertwined with your erotic ones, your sense of even possessiveness of the guru, Swamiji, that you really couldnít separate the two very easily.
Mary Garden: I think I was very addicted to the bliss and ecstasy that I had felt around him. And even though sexually it wasnít very satisfying, the sexual relationship, I was very addicted to being in love. And of course we had quite a few mystical experiences there as well. There is one that I mention in the book.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, on your return, youíd come back and he puts you in some kind of blissful space that I almost thought that he had drugged your tea.
Mary Garden: Everybody says that, and he didnít. And Iíve met many people whoíve been to India whoíve had very similar experiences. He certainly didnít drug my tea.
Rachael Kohn: So how do you account for it?
Mary Garden: I have no explanation at all. Iíve been in correspondence with quite a number of Hindus over this experience. I am quite ambivalent because there are people like Andrew Harvey, who was an ex-devotee of Mother Mera, heís written quite a number of books, he would call it demonic. Now Iím quite confused about that experience, but all I know is that it really didnít change me for the better. So I havenít really given that much thought to it.
Rachael Kohn: Well your physical health suffered in India, and you did return home, and then went to Brisbane, but then at that time, you got caught up into the Rajneesh circuit. What attracted you to the Rajneeshis?
Mary Garden: Well I first met them in Auckland and I thought ĎThese are like no other devotees of any guru that Iíve met, they seemed so happy and so authentic.í And in some respects I feel that my time with Rajneesh was my way out of India, because I was still very, very addicted to wanting to be with a guru and the mystical experience and so much wanted to go back to India, and also a bit frightened, because of what I had experienced with Swamiji.
But Rajneesh seemed quite different, and he was offering something that no other guru that I knew of was offering, and that was psychotherapy. That really had an enormous impact on my life. I went back to India and spent one year in Poona. Even to this day I will say that was the happiest year in my life.
This was a very good time to be with Rajneesh, it was before the group moved to Oregon, and what Rajneesh did which other gurus didnít, I mean for one he didnít lie about sex, there was none of this hidden, telling people to be celibate and then behind closed doors, having sex with devotees.
Rajneesh says one of the ways to Enlightenment is through sex, but he also introduced psychotherapy, because he felt that especially westerners need to be healing on a psychological level before we meditate, and do spiritual practices. And it was interesting that in my very first interview with Rajneesh, he told me to go off and do some therapy groups. Now there was no coercion in the Rajneesh Ashram, we did not live inside and closed ashram, we rented apartments in Poona, there were a few people that lived in the house with Rajneesh so they would have had quite a different experience from the tens of thousands of us that went to Poona. That year was quite extraordinary because I had my first experience of psychotherapy which really did change my life for the better.
Rachael Kohn: But had you been cured of your perhaps gurumania? I mean Rajneesh himself collapsed into a heap of scandals and certainly there was a lot of materialism that he was part of. Today, do you separate out the spiritual search and spiritual awakening from the need for a guru?
Mary Garden: I think that the potential for abuse in a guru-disciple relationship is absolutely enormous, and I am not into gurus at all, I think they can be very dangerous.
I subscribe to what the Dalai Lama says, he advocates that Westerns look for teachers and spy on them, and check them out for ten years, and I donít believe that we should be giving our power away or worshipping any human being, I think there has been enormous abuses that have occurred with gurus who have set themselves up as incarnations of God.
Now there are teachers in India who are seen as gurus. There are teachers like Goenka who runs the Vipassana meditation courses and Nithigadata in Bombay. Now they donít set themselves up as infallible God-men, so there are teachers and there are gurus, but in every group that I have studied where there has been a guru figure surrounded by adoring devotees, there have been appalling abuses that have happened, and that really bothers me.
Rachael Kohn: How would you describe your spiritual life today?
Mary Garden: I live a very simple life, and I think thatís one of the gifts that I got from being in India. I find Western society quite materialistic and Iím still quite troubled by the lack of community.
Iíve spent the last ten years living in various alternative communities in Queensland, and I think weíre missing that in this society. I also practice Vipassana meditation and I really should do a bit more. My great love at the moment is writing, and I feel I tap into some sort of spiritual energy when I write, I donít believe Iím channelling or anything like that, but the inspiration behind the writing, and I also feel that when Iím writing Iím shining the torchlight on things, and I feel maybe that is my mission in life, especially after being in India, seeing what I saw there, going through what I went through and writing my book.
Rachael Kohn: Mary, do you think we are any wiser today about gurumania than we were then in the Ď70s?
Mary Garden: I donít think we are. I thought when I wrote the first edition of my book in the Ď80s, and at that time there were quite a few memoirs and exposes written, I thought that would be the end of it. And I took a break from this whole area for ten years and went to live in Maleny, and didnít want to know about gurus and cults or whatever was going on, and I was absolutely shocked a few years ago to find that people are still flocking over to Sai Baba and to Rajneesh, to the Hugging Mother, and these arenít your hippies or your baby boomers, these are professional people.
It stuns me, people obviously still have a need to believe in something and unfortunately they want to believe in someone outside of themselves, whereas I think we need to take much more responsibility for ourselves, and that the spiritual path is narrow and quite difficult, and you canít have instant enlightenment.
Rachael Kohn: Mary, I think youíre right, and thanks so much for reminding us again of that important truth. Itís been great having you on The Spirit of Things.
Mary Garden: Fantastic. Thank you, Rachael.
Rachael Kohn: Mary Gardenís book is called The Serpent Rising and on the cover is a picture of Mary under the spell of the late Bhagwan Rajneesh, now known as Osho.
If youíre wondering about Maryís reference to Swamiji, itís a generally used title for holy men in India.
This has been Gurumania, with me, Rachael Kohn. I imagine weíll all be glued to the TV set when the BBC documentary on Sai Baba makes it to Australia, but if you canít wait, you can find links to the BBC on our website.
The program was produced by me and Geoff Wood, with technical production by Mark Don.
Rachael Kohn: And now itís time to hand out the prizes.
Rachael Kohn: The Spirit of Things has won this yearís World Gold Medal for Religion in the New York Festivalís International Radio Competition for ĎThe Monk and the Modern Girlí.
Rachael Kohn: A seventh century Chinese monk travels thousands of miles to bring back all the books of Buddhism to China. A modern Chinese woman follows in his footsteps to reclaim Buddhism for herself.
Thatís the Gold Medal winning ĎThe Monk and the Modern Girlí next week on The Spirit of Things, with me, Rachael Kohn. I hope you can join me.
Guests on this program:
was born in London in 1950 and is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. Previous books include American Heartbeat: Travels from Woodstock to San Jose by Song Title. He has just completed The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet's 17th Karmapa.
was born in Whakatane, New Zealand and grew up in Tauranga. In 1973, Mary abandoned an academic career to spend seven years in India following gurus such as Bhagwan Rajneesh and Sai Baba. Her book, The Serpent Rising is an account of those years, and of the religious manipulators she encountered. She now lives in Queensland.
The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief
Author: Mick Brown
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 1998
The Serpent Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction
Author: Mary Garden
Publisher: Sid Harta Publishers, 2003
Increasing numbers of Sai Baba's followers are alleging he has sexually abused them or their families. BBC Television has just broadcast a documentary, Secret Swami, investigating these allegations.
CD Title: Dancing to the Flute: Music and Dance in Indian Art
Label/CD No: Celestial Harmonies 13135
Presenter: Rachael Kohn
Producer: Geoff Wood
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