Gurus at Olympia

by J. N. M. Wijngaards, “The Tablet” 21st June 1980 pp 598 – 600.

Next week an estimated 100,000 visitors will invade Olympia to take part in the Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit (21 to 29 June). They will attend lectures, watch round-the-clock demonstrations and throng the stalls of close on 200 exhibitors. It will be a paradise for students of the human psyche.

The mind, of course, like Pandora’s box, shelters the unexpected. At the festival the lid will come off and what creeps out will range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Crystal balls and aromatic gum can be ordered from Sut Anubis. One can learn how to keep fit the easy way – through belly dancing! Hormone therapy will show how “plants can be made happy”: all one needs to do is insert a bio-rhythmic switch and so generate an aura energy field around them. Sensible advice, too, is offered: “how to live better on less” (don’t we all need this?) and “how to meditate while spinning wool” – (an exciting and practical zen-buddhistic lesson on prayer).

While health in all its forms emerges as concern number one, the influence of eastern religions stands out. We meet the East in food and medicine, in dance and music, in schools of yoga and meditation. But the exports from the East that are marketed most eloquently and seem most in demand, are its spiritual masters. We are invited to sit at the feet of Pir Vilayat Khan, Sathya Sai Baba, Aurobindo Ghose, Chinmoy, Motilal Gandhi – to mention but a few. A guru for every taste.

The Search

The success of oriental sects underlines a weakness in our society: the utter boredom and staleness of its bourgeois objectives. The spirit will out, in search of transcendence, through any crack it can find. Reaching out beyond drabness and earthiness unites such unlikely companions as psychocalisthenics, mediumship, holistic thinking and tantric consciousness. But the spirit needs guidance and it finds its guides in unusual, mystifying spiritual leaders from the East, particularly from India.

A typical story is that of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement. Born in Calcutta in 1896 and having learned management skills in a pharmaceutical firm, he became a student of Gum Gosvami in 1922. Gosvami was of the opinion that Krishna-consciousness should be spread throughout the world and he instilled this idea into the mind of his willing and able disciple. Prabhupada began by translating Vedic literature into English through a fortnightly magazine. Soon he enlarged on the contents by adding imaginative commentaries, which he published as books. Half a century of failures and hard work prepared him for the boldest step of his life: his mission to America when he was 70 years old.

Prabhupada arrived in New York on a freighter in 1965. He was penniless. For some months he struggled for survival. But his total commitment, his communicative talent and the religious climate in the United States ensured a complete success. When he died, in 1977, he left behind a flourishing organisation with more than 100 centres all over the world. “A small man wants to make himself happy”, the Swami said, “a bigger man his own family: a truly great man the whole world.”

What is so compelling in Prabhupada’s message that thousands of youngsters are willing to shave their heads bald, don saffran robes and roam the streets with begging bowls, singing “Rama is God, Krishna is God”? The evidence is baffling. God, we are told, revealed himself in Krishna. Krishna is our best friend. He is the only person who can save us from all evil. “Krishna-consciousness” is, in fact, what Hindus call an approach to God through bhakti, through devotion. One comes close to Krishna by loving him with all one’s heart, singing to his honour and living a dedicated life. What went wrong in Christianity that this was seen as something extraordinary and new?

Prabhupada put out an enormous volume of print during the 11 years of his western mission. His master, Gosvami, once drew a drum and a printing press on the same sheet of paper. “The drum (traditional instrument of Krishna preaching) can be heard throughout the village”, he had said, “but the press resounds through whole continents”. Prabhupada heeded this advice and produced 40 books, mostly lengthy commentaries on classical texts. Readers are expected to master a completely new language. The Sri Caitanva-Caritamrta, for instance, introduces at least 400 technical Sanskrit terms in its 600 pages. The life story of Krishna is riddled with phrases such as: “Because You are the original person, You are therefore described in the Gopala-tapani, as well as in the Brahma-sanhita, as govindam-purusam” Why do young people buy these books in millions of copies whereas their religious education teachers despair of holding their attention?

Converts to Krishna adopt a new religion. Not every Hindu missionary is as honest and outspoken as Prabhupada was. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi claims that his technique of “Transcendental Meditation” does not affect ones faith or denomination.

As a student of physics at Allahabad. Mahesh met Gurudev, became his disciple and imbibed Shankara teaching. After his masters death, Mahesh announced his new movement in 1957. He found little response in India, but his brief, unsuccessful tutorship of the Beatles gave him welcome publicity. Like others before him, Mahesh rolled his few belongings in a blanket and travelled via Singapore, Hong Kong and Hawaii to San Francisco.

Once in the States, Mahesh showed a keen understanding of what would “go down” in the West. He stripped his message of all traditional trappings and presented it as a simple meditation technique adapted to American activist life. The approach consists in mentally repeating a “sacred word,” a mantra, until the mind is temporarily “switched off.” It is a so-called obliteration technique, not unlike staring at a fixed point or looking into a flame. By over-concentration on a particular sensation, the mind lets go of its conscious grip which produces sensations of release and deeper consciousness. Students of TM are told that two periods of 20 minutes a day will transform their lives.

Claims for TM

The Maharishi’s genius consisted in surrounding this simple technique with an elaborate aura of mystique and expectation. To keep control firmly in hand, he decreed that each person needs his own, specific mantra, which can be assigned only by accredited teachers of the organisation. A considerable fee is demanded on enrolment. Impressive scientific studies proclaim TM’s visible effects on alpha-rhythm in the brain, on breathing, the heart beat, blood pressure and reducing weight. TM is said to relieve insomnia, increase resistance to disease, improve perception and creativity. The crime rate is down in cities where TM is practised, and so on. Adepts of the technique may look forward to acquiring one or more siddhis, miraculous powers, such as levitation, seeing things hidden from view, becoming invisible, attaining pure consciousness.

The best gimmick of all, in my view, is the term “Transcendental Meditation” itself which is sure to attract intellectuals hungry for prayer. Whether they really learn to pray is quite a different question. The technique, of course, does pave the way for some of the initial stages: for silence, for withdrawal from everyday distractions, for seeking release. But to Christians, prayer means much more than a superconscious state of mind, it means a loving response to God who loved us first and who showed his love through Jesus Christ. Many Catholics, won over by the first positive effects of the technique — which they would have gained equally in any meditation of silence and withdrawal — are too easily convinced that it helps them live their Christian life more fully.

Quite a few Catholics I know have, in spite of initial protestations, given up their practice in exchange for the religion the Maharishi offers. Their belief in Christ has faded away in a search far the unfathomable Hindu Neti-neti; they found a substitute morality in the guru’s plan of reforming the world and an alternative “church” in his organisation. When A. Campbell, propagator of TM in Great Britain, maintains that St John of the Cross and the Maharishi are on the same wavelength, he forgets to point out that the Spanish mystic drew his inspiration from sacred Scripture and from a profound devotion to Christ’s humanity. But A. Campbell’s autobiography, as also the life story of so many TM converts, does raise a valid question: why should someone who received an excellent Catholic education in a Jesuit college turn dissatisfied from communion with the Church and then find “the fulfilment of his deepest desires” in a Hindu meditation technique?

Succession of gurus

There have been a whole succession of gurus missioning the West. The successful ones are good writers and capable managers who clothe their own brand of Hinduism in a twentieth-century garb. Swami Vishnu Devananda, who heads the Sivananda Yoga movement, created a peculiar mixture of orthodox vaishnavite doctrine and plain esoterics (communicating with the dead through quartz crystals, pranic healing), with non-violent politics thrown in as a bonus. He “bombed” Tel Aviv and Cairo with flowers; he marched through Belfast praying for peace. All such gurus physically came to the West. One master beat them all, achieving the same while remaining in his ashram at Poona.

If the other gurus are writers and managers, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh may be called a super-writer and super-manager. Small wonder. He came from a Marathi business family and lectured in philosophy for some years at Saugar University. Thus he cross-pollinated good commercial sense with an uninhibited love of talking. He is reaping the fruits today. Rajneesh Ashram in Poona is a veritable supermarket of religion which offers 65 courses a month to an estimated 1,400 disciples and which publishes 45 new Bhagwan titles a year. The profits are handsome and if a religion’s success could be judged by income, Rajneesh would score high.

As in all commerce, luck is needed too. Good fortune smiled on Rajneesh in the sixties when throngs of disenchanted hippies visited Bombay en route to the legendary beaches of Goa. It was just the kind of audience the master had prayed for. Indians did not, and still don’t, take him seriously. These confused, sexually mixed-up and parent-craving youths, however, required the medicine that he could give them. They took to him, talked about him at home and so provided the first network of contacts that now spans the world.

Rajneesh revealed

What does Rajneesh teach? In a nutshell, that every person should develop himself or herself fully; that every doctrine, practice or moral principle that helps should be retained, the rest discarded. Rajneesh’s talks and writings are endless rambles to justify these basic tenets. In doing so he draws on every conceivable religious tradition in history. He quotes from Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian literature. He quotes them in any way he likes, criticising, commending or giving a new interpretation. Because his source material is sound and because he is well-read and intelligent, some of his statements make sense. The western approach to religion is too notional, he tells us. Science destroys life when it demystifies it. Most sexual problems arise from repression.

Strong winds cannot blow all morning, as Lao Tau warned us and Rajneesh’s books prove him right. A good deal of their contents are plain rubbish. Who could seriously defend that Hitler was a vehicle for Maitreya, supported in the first part of the war by Ashoka’s estoric circle of nine? Or what to think when we are told that the Hindu concept of time reflects original calculations? People in Britain unconsciously witness to this. “In England, they change the date at midnight. That makes no sense, really. It looks absurd. No one will awaken out of his sleep just to change the date. It is illogical, impractical. The date must be changed in the morning. But why in the night? In India it is 5.30 in the morning when it is midnight in England! There was a world before Mahabharat when the Hindu mind ruled over the whole world. Whenever there was morning in India, that was the time to change the date.” (I Am The Gate, Poona 1975, pp. 209-211).

More upsetting than such absurdities is the shallowness of it all, the claim to give guidance while doling out such a miserable hotch-potch.

If I seem unnecessarily harsh in my judgment it is on account of my conviction that, indeed, many are misguided. When I visited Rajneesh’s centre in Poona last year, it was not the master but the disciples that impressed me most. Those flocks of orange-clad young men and women from Europe and America who claimed to have found a peace and joy they could not find at home. They are living witnesses to a lack in our society and to an emptiness in the way we live our Christian faith.

The person of the master plays an important role in binding the disciples. The questions addressed to the guru in the public sessions often reveal an almost hysterical devotion. “When I first saw you, Bhagwan, I felt I had found protection. Bhagwan will protect. But I’m asking myself ‘How is Bhagwan going to protect me from Bhagwan himself?`” “I love to be in your presence. . . Bhagwan, what type of game are you playing with me?” I dreamed of you, Bhagwan. You told me ‘Drink me, eat me, breathe me’.” “Listening to you Ifeel as if I am dying. You are my peak, my Everest, so beautiful and so far away, and yet incredibly close.” “You are the best whisky-coke l’ve ever had. l stumble out of your lectures every day, my head spinning. Should I give you up as a bad habit?”

Personal direction

The reply to the last question is predictably: yes. But if Rajneesh is a bad habit, what good habits can we offer people instead? If the young in such numbers are attracted by Prabhupanda, Mahesh Yogi, Devananda Swami and Rajneesh, not to mention a dozen others, what are they really asking for? If the formula: strong spiritual leader- meditation technique – experimental religion, is a norm to go by, they would seem to seek more personal guidance in the experience of God. I know other factors are involved as well. Yet this demand for “personal direction” comes through as a powerful plea. Do we, priests, really teach our people “how to pray”: how to withdraw in silence, how to sense the presence of God and the movements of his Spirit? Do we take the time to give personal encouragement and guidance, to help people along through witness and sharing? Are parents and teachers the guides to living prayer they should be, or do they only impart a system? Has Christ, the greatest master of all times, lost his appeal for many because we do not “impersonate” him as we should? “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me.”