Realizations The Autobiography
of Julian Lee / COPYRIGHT
2009 JULIAN LEE
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The Later California Days
I Visit an American Turned Shaktipat-Guru in Ojai
By this time, because of my wide reading and study of great Indian gurus, I had a rather cynical eye toward the many Americans who presented themselves as "spiritual teachers." California had long been full of them before I ever arrived there. It was very rare that I would ever go and see any of the many "teachers" passing through Ojai, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. In the end there were four who I visited: Two who I wanted to see (Karunamayi and the successor to Swami Hariharanda), one who was too interesting to pass up (the American Shankaracharya), and another I was coerced to go and see against my will. (An Osho casualty who was going by the absurd name of "Iswara Maitreya.")
I just knew too much, and it was clear at a distance that most American "spiritual teachers" had two traits: 1) An almost complete lack of any genuine spiritual attainment, and 2) the tendency to set themselves up as de facto guru figures while disavowing that activity and ignorantly dissing the guru principle for show. So it was rare that I responded to any flyer or advertisement for a visiting guru.
Once I saw a poster in a local window promoting a public satsang for guru figure going by the name of "Shankaracharya." He was clearly a westerner by his bone structure, and I found it amusing that he used the name of Shankarcharya, one of the most prominent religious figures of India. My thought was, "Oh, another one."
But I also noticed they were local. They had moved to Ojai. He had a calm, benign expression. The fact is, it's a wonderful thing to be able to meet and hang out with genuine sages, genuine yogis, and genuine gurus. I was further intrigued that it spoke of shaktipat. I knew about shaktipat from my own experience, and shaktipat talk was associated with Swami Muktananda, who was an extraordinary Indian mystic. Maybe these people know? Ever hopeful about the prospects of western man, I thought: "Maybe there is something authentic about this person; perhaps this is a case of an American alive with the authentic yoga of India? That would be good news."
I had to credit him, at least, for not playing the usual games. He was openly presenting himself as an enlightened guru, getting out on that limb. Most westerners, such as the frequent Ojai visitor "Gangaji," try to invent a new, responsibility-free "guruhood," receiving worship and devotion from spirituality-starved westerners while disavowing any guruhood or need for real qualifications. But in any case, that was that. I was charmed that such a character had set up an "ashram" right in my little town. But I had no intention to go see the new local guru "Shankaracharya."
However, I had struck up occasional conversations with a coffee server at my favorite Coffee Shop, the Ojai Roasting Company. I had noticed him reading the Bhagavad-Gita in his off moments, and encouraged his interest in that book, chatting about it now and then. With further conversations over time it turned out that he had moved into Ojai with that very guru, Shankarcharya. He told me that they had open meetings on Tuesday nights, and I was welcome to come. He was not too promotional about it. This particular fellow had a sort of dull manner of speaking. That was a good sign, too, I thought. Later I realized had I been a female, he would have been much more avid to get me to their Tuesday meetings. But for now I thought he was just properly sober about evangelism. This one turned out marginally interested in the Bhagavad-Gita compared to girls. In the mood for a lofty experience with an enlightened guru, or with genuine devotees, I determined to go that Tuesday.
What I found there was an extraordinary individual who had indeed connected to siddha lineages of India, but who was in a state of terrible decline because of lust and interest in women. It was truly sad in the end, yet truly spectacular. A genuine shaktipat guru was going down in flames because of western immorality and "Osho" ideas about the compatibility of spirituality and lust.
The moment I walked into their meditation hall -- largely built by the guru himself -- I felt the cool, cool shakti. Immediately upon walking in, I began to get yogic kriyas. That's an unusual thing! The right wall of their wooden floored hall was lined with photographic portraits of great Indian gurus, many of whom this man had actually met or spent time with, some well-known, some rare. There was a very beautiful shrine at the front of the hall to the Goddess Durga. It was exactly like what you might see in India, maybe nicer, and helped set a mood. Apparently, people sat on the floor on meditation cushions, or little rugs, or with nothing. I had nothing, so I just sat and waited for the proceedings to begin. I was deeply delighted.
This Tuesday meeting, I later gleaned, was meant as their community outreach effort and prime method for getting new members. But the people there paid little notice to me. Nobody said "Greetings" or even hello. Nobody introduced themselves or asked my name. I thought it was odd, even by the standards of everyday American families who receive guests in their home for dinner or football. Even the long-haired country boy from the coffee shop, who was present and could have easily eased my way by introducing me to his house mates, ignored me. Later I understood that had I been a female, I would have had guided tours and much attention. For this man's little crew took after their master. Anyway, I paid it no mind and waited for the proceedings. As they assembled they were an unprepossessing bunch, and dressed very everyday. What commenced was then extraordinary.
The guru walked in from a side door very slowly on crutches and in a leg cast. I heard later that he had taken a bad fall and had some very nasty breaks to his leg and pelvis. He walked in with difficulty.
Chanting commenced, in Hindi or Sanskrit. I tried my best to sing along. They had no lyric sheet. But I loved the chanting and the words sounded beautiful. Immediately his whole crew of about ten was having astounding and often bizarre yogic kriyas, and so was I. Later, they began going up to him where he sat before the altar and he whopped them on the head or back with a great frond of peacock feathers, in the manner I'd heard Muktananda used to do. Sometimes a female would walk about and do the whacking. I had seen her down in the town. She seemed to have some kind of special relationship with Shankarcharya.
Then he gave a talk. His talk was not dynamic, not astounding, not chiseled. It disappointed me. He seemed to ramble and wander. But he had an unmistakable "sense of Ramakrishna" about him. I had read the gospel of Ramakrishna a great many times, and the book can "take me there." While watching and listening to this man there was a spirit and attitude that reminded me of the great bhakta of Calcutta. His talk was about the "pesky ego." Later it seemed he took up this theme often, and I got the impression he took up this theme often in order to create comfortable space around his own mediocrity and flaws and not so much for our edification.
After the first session I approached him, pranamed him, and showed my enthusiasm for the event. He tarried there upon my approach and spoke to me. I told him how astonishing it was to see so many having yogic kriyas. He said, "You know about the kriyas?" I said, "Yes, I began to have them after I got initiated by Yogananda in a dream." He said, "That's very auspicious. That's very unusual. So you are a devotee of Yogananda?" I confirmed. Careful not to tire him or block his way, I moved away to see what might happen next.
They all went into a side room where there was a big couch. I loitered around with them. There were at most eight. Though I was the only new visitor or "prospect" for their "ashram," and though the group was small, nobody paid any attention to me. No introductions or other common courtesies of civilized life. Somebody had fixed a kind of tapioca and they were eating. It was all very casual. I was not offered any food, but I saw they were all helping themselves. Wanting to feel a part, I found it in the kitchen nearby. I'd never seen such a thing. There was granola to mix into it. With the trepidation that comes from messing about in a stranger's kitchen, I got some in a bowl, located a spoon, and came out to where they were. It seemed it was O.K. to eat some. Truly, these young people had a terrible hospitality issue. I commented cheerfully on the interesting food. (I'll eat practically anything without much bother and was still fascinated by the group.) One of them informed me it was "yogi food." At least they had the proper yogi food. Food was never much of a priority in my life, but I lifelong I was always attentive to any guest in my home, whether a new or an old one.
Making conversation, I learned they had recently moved from Virginia (or Tennessee) -- some southeastern state -- where they had a household and community of dozens. I received the impression they had come into some conflict with the locals there. They had evidently come to California intent on expanding his following. They wanted an "ashram" full of followers -- a Scene! But now he'd been on ice for about 6 months because of his terrible accident, and the community seemed to be struggling.
As I sat around with them I could see it was a motley crew, not an impressive bunch. I was spoiled by being around the exceptional western devotees who surrounded Karunamayi. How satvic, devotional, and sociable they were by comparison! Even under silence rules, where talking wasn't even allowed, they were somehow more amiable than these retrogressives. They sure had the shaktipat, but what about character? And why were their yogic kriyas (spontaneous bodily movements) so spasmodic, bizarre, and indecorous? Was there some pollution in the shakti spring here?
There was one blond fellow, maybe 25, who appeared to have the rickets. He was very lean, almost as if he'd had stunted growth. When this fellow had kriyas they were very unusual: He'd basically writhe around on the floor, bark like a dog, and make sounds like a baby. This fellow would wear white pants like the L.A. visitors. I later found out that Shankarcharya had a frustration with his little community: He wanted them to be more disciplined, spiritually impressive and holy looking. After all, his place was styled the "Sadhana Ashram." He wanted his followers to somehow convey sadhana (spiritual discipline). So he was always wanting his community to wear white, and white only, but this spry young blond fellow was the only one -- aside from the L.A. visitors -- who complied. And then he only got the pants right, not the shirt.
Sometimes I'd see him in the coffee shop in his thin white pants and whatever shirt. The impression was always like someone wearing his pajamas in public. (Indeed, wearing pajama bottoms for pants in public was a lamentable habit in Ojai, California circa 2000.) Though the guru called his crew "Sadhana Ashram," I never did get clear on what, precisely, the sadhana was. At one point the blond fellow brought up my website, celibacy.info, which teaches the importance of chastity, or brahmacharya. Sadly, he regarded its chastity-affirming information as a revelation or new and revolutionary to his worldview. So I guess that explains much.
There was a dark-haired fellow there who always came and seemed to consider himself a devotee, but who did not live there. He was the friendliest of the group and easily engaged in conversation. However, when he found out I was an astrologer the conversation often turned to him asking me to give opinions about his natal chart and planets, and I soon tired of that. This occurred later as I met him now and then down at the coffee shop.
Then there was the female in her thirties with long dull brown hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. Sort of like a 60's "earth mother" in type, but too young to actually be from that time. She wore white Indian pants, sometimes the top was White, and she wore mala beads and other exotica. Western women do always get the fashion right when they wish to mess with Indian religion. They love wearing all those swishy clothes and being "Indian." But this one seemed much more genuinely, in her own way, into Hindu religion than most. During the peacock whacking events, when she would walk around as her guru's proxy, the oddest voices and sounds would emit from her. It actually seemed she was speaking in foreign or ancient languages.
She seemed to be very integrated with this group and with a close relationship of some kind with Shankaracharya. In the room she was busy doing this and that, and occasionally helped him. It became clear from their conversation that the two of them had also traveled to India together. She apparently did work promoting her guru, including a website. She had a young daughter who was not his. But she basically acted like his wife. It was never clearly spoken, but I ended up with the impression that she viewed herself as his "consort" and that they had a sexual relationship. Thinking this might be true, my respect for this group further declined.
Yet the shakti in the household was unmistakable, and so was his connection to great siddha lineages of India. I learned that he had been with the great guru Muktananda. Well, Muktananda was considered great up to the time it was learned he was having sexual encounters with some of his young female disciples. Shankarcharya had been with Muktananda, I learned, and had been so high up with him that he'd even been the "abbot" (so to speak) of Muktananda's New Mexico ashram. I learned that the American had also spent large amounts of time in India with other Indian gurus, including a genuine hermit and cave dweller whose photo was also on the wall.
Shankarcharya had some kind of renown, apparently, in the L.A. "spirituality" scene, perhaps by placing ads. By the 2nd meeting visitors from Los Angeles came. It was two men and a woman. The tallest was a 30-something fellow with longish brown hair and a beard. He easily might have been Jewish. He always brought a cute, 20-something, red-headed Gentile woman with him. He and the woman wore white in the Indian fashion. How spiritual! How cute! It became apparent from their conversation that this was his live-in girlfriend. This cheerful bearded fellow was evidently Shankaracharya's star disciple. Why, I never knew. But he seemed happy to arrive and did a few pranams to Shankarcharya. At that point, seeing his cute sexy girlfriend, I began to feel a bit disgusted and disappointed with this scene. I thought: "Oh no, not just more typical L.A. 'yoga' decadents."
There was another fellow who went by the name of "Girish." He was perhaps the most aloof and unpleasant of the three. He never looked my way, said hello, or made eye contact, though I saw him giving tabla instructions to the long-haired coffee server I'd originally met. I later saw this fellow's face in the pages of Los Angeles magazines such as "L.A. Yoga" and "Yogi Times." He apparently was a tabla artist and made music CDs marketed to the "yoga" crowd. Looking back, his unfriendliness may have been the ethnic aloofness that Jews typically show to Gentiles. I don't know for certain, but that was the feeling of it. It was very practiced. He always came with the dark haired Star Disciple and his estrogen-faced concubine. These three always left early.
Now after the 2nd visit they had their tapioca-and-granola layabout in the side room, and again I unobtrusively got some food for myself after they were well-dining. I hoped, in those casual meetings after the chanting, to hear conversation about spiritual things. I had the fond hope that he might have insights, know secrets. A story about Muktananda? Or maybe that he could just speak about the scriptures in an illuminating way. I hoped it could be like those storied nights of Yogananda later at night in the ashram of Sri Yukteswar. But Sankara seemed to prefer talking about computers and software.
But on this night, stimulated my my assertiveness to ask some questions about India, they brought out a photo album. It had extraordinary photographs of great Indian yogis and gurus, many of which I'd never seen. I elicited from them a story about going to the ashram of Sai Baba of Shirdi and actually seeing him. A photograph they had on the wall, which looked exactly like the old saint, was reportedly one they took during the encounter.
Now there were these cosmic anecdotes in the after-chant side room to give the evenings some spiritual nimbus. But it seemed always me trying to direct the conversation to spiritual topics, scriptures, meditation, saints. This saddened me. Instead of hearing about samadhi or anecdotes of Indian yogis, I more often fretting to his crew about his problems getting Apple's Final Cut Pro to function right. He seemed bogged down in computer and software snafus. And after our first little chat, he never addressed a word to me.
I found it vaguely absurd that such a great guru would be so interested in such mundane things. But on the other hand, I'd heard he was a carpenter and he'd almost single-handedly built their beautiful, windowed, meditation hall. His concern, it seemed, was his effort to make certain videos with footage he had made in India. Who knows what he was trying to put out there? But I wondered why he was having to do it all himself and didn't have more help. Again, the sense of a "guru in decline" gathered in my mind. Truly, he had a sad crew and his "chief disciple" struck me as an egotist reveling in spiritual glamor of instant successorship with his fingers reprobately in a Gentile girlypie to boot. Oh, how fun to play holy and have L.A. life too! I was losing my interest in these idiots. Still, Shankara and his scene had the unmistakable mists and scent of the saints and India. I wanted to come one more time.
What finally disgusted me was the 3rd meeting. Again, I was loitering with them after the chanting, in the side room. At this point, I was getting sick of their inhospitable ways and being ignored by them. I made conversation best I could could about the spiritual, India or whatever, like swimming upstream with his worldly little crew. But the guru liked to pay attention to two people: His protege, who he joked with, and his protege's girlfriend.
But most of all the red-headed girl. He flirted with her. They were getting ready to go one night, and he was decrying it, "Going already?" They said something smilingly about the weather, how it'd be better to leave early. Then Shankaracharya said: "No, stay the night. Not you (to the man), but her!" It was all supposed to be a joke, of course. But it was obvious. This was a corrupt guru, with his mind on sex and woman. I silently left. There was no point to saying "Goodbye." They had never even said "Hello."
I had Shankarcharya's birth information and had drawn his chart. I saw that by coming out to Californian he had taken on a very unfortunate chart. It was easy to see why he had that accident, and easy to see things were going to just get worse. I wondered why a holy man would make such a mistake? Why was his guidance so bad? Certainly, his accident had been a terrible blow to the community. He was weak. His talks were, apparently, less dynamic than before and the L.A. visitors -- including the "successor" romeo -- were just glamor opportunists. After I saw him flirt with the buxom redhead, practical wife of his protege -- I was so disgusted I never went back.
Soon after that I heard from his people that they had moved to Topanga Canyon. After putting much money and work into that house, they had abandoned it. They were not getting the following they wanted and thought they'd do better in the L.A. area. Apparently, their new home was a terrible downsize for them. I saw his consort with her daughter around town a few times more. Then they were gone.
You can't mix lust with the ancient yoga. It is a defilement, pointless, and embarrassing. It has to be treated as sacred, kept in a proper container. And in this way those of the spiritual class are supposed to present that standard to the worldly mass. Mixing sex with the yogic religion enrages God. He will punish you and cast you down just as he did with Kriyananda (disciple of Yogananda) and the nasty rotter Osho. Even the greatest guru who you have by the toe will shake you off and abandon you if you willfully indulge in sex after stepping on the yoga path. No wonder the kriyas in that place were so undecorous and unseemly. The kundalini-shakti eats as her food the chastity-ojas of the male. This is what she engages with. When it is abused and spent elsewhere, it enrages Her.
The Indians have a more uncorrupted culture and realistic view of sex. The men are not mixed with the women. Ramakrishna himself, who was one of the heroes of this guru, never saw mixed groups. Male and female groups came to him separately. It's part of my work, and my Brotherhood's work, to raise up genuine yoga in the west and morality is part of yoga's A,B,C's. It's not an easy battle, but even when one has slips or failures he should stand by the chastity ideal and never forget it.
Some years later I decided to look them up to see how they had been faring. I found their website online: http://www.sadhanaashram.org/index.html. On a lark I called the phone number listed at the page. A voice came on the answering machine with a bland message:
"Hi, this is Sadhana Ashram. We can't come to the phone right now. Please leave your message. Have a great day."
Though the voice did not identify itself I recognized who it was. It was Sankaracharya, answering his own phone and sounding like some house husband just in from mowing the lawn. I looked at the webite's "monthly message." It was still announcing their arrival in Ojai five years ago. The website had not been updated since the day I visited them.
By not understanding the basic moral dharma relative to yoga, he had truly gone down in flames. The real Sankaracharya, the great yogi of India from whom this American pilfered his name, always proclaimed celibacy as a central indispensable of spiritual realization and samadhi. Being around women can be helpful for that rare yogi who struggles to keep out of samadhi; for bringing him down into his body and normalizing his consciousness. Or just speaking with worldly people will do. But how few are these. And even these should maintain decorum and champion traditional moral ideals for the benefit of all.
Oh, the absurdities of Americans who play with Indian dharma without the dharma. May they all go down in flames.