Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Alo Devi

It wasn’t just Charlie’s departure that bothered Sevika.

She was also worried about how a certain group of disciples might affect me. The disciples in question were secretly (and derisively) referred to as “A-bombers” within the Center. They earned that moniker by devoting themselves not only to Guru, but also to his little-known consort or spiritual partner Alo Devi.

Alo wasn’t “in the brochure” as they say. I didn’t find out about her existence until just after I had joined the Center. And when I did learn about her, it was only through a whispering campaign and innuendo targeted against her.

As I would later learn, Alo was born in Canada and was named Beverly Siegerman. She was about Guru’s age. As a young woman, she traveled to India and landed at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. That’s where she met Guru.

In 1964, at the age of 33, Guru left the Ashram and emigrated to the U.S., where he secured a clerk’s position at the Indian consulate in New York. (To read about this period in Sri Chinmoy's own words click here.) Ms. Siegerman, an educated and well-traveled woman at that time, was instrumental in Guru’s move.

I’m not a Center historian on this matter and, obviously, wasn’t there at the time, but it seems safe to infer that -- at least early on -- Guru relied heavily on Ms. Siegerman. (See, for example, this short story of those years and Guru's reference to Alo making him lunch -- apparently, every day.) He gave her the name “Alo,” which means “divine light.” And from those earliest of days through the mid-1970s, Alo’s status as “first disciple” grew to include a share of the throne (pictured below with Guru around the height of her influence).

By the time Guru gave up his day job for good, Alo not only lived in his house when in New York , but she also sat next to him on stage at functions, meditated on disciples, and gave out spiritual names to her devotees. It was not uncommon to hear Guru say, from time to time, that he and Alo were one and the same.

By the late 1970s, however, something had changed. While never openly demoting Alo or breaking from her, Guru began undermining any credibility that she may have had by circulating the news that Alo had “fallen” and that she wasn’t the divine being that some people thought she was.

Because the whispering campaign against her was just that, not everyone got the word. Guru didn’t want the word getting back to Alo. In fact, if a disciple raised the issue of Alo's status with Guru directly, he'd kick the disciple out of the Center altogether. That’s exactly how we lost one of our members that fall (1982).

The disciple -- Peter -- had heard the same whispers and innuendo that I had. Because the whispering campaign didn’t jibe with what he was seeing (i.e., Alo sitting up front with Guru, acting as the Mother of the Universe), Peter wrote Guru and asked, point blank, whether Alo was his equal. Guru summarily kicked Peter out of the Center that very week.

I didn’t see a need for such a letter myself. Not just because of what had happened to Peter, but because the secret information about Alo did not contradict my own understanding.

From the get go, nothing about Alo attracted me. She didn’t repulse me, but neither did I feel any special connection with her. Through the ensuing years, this feeling of neutrality allowed me to escape the petty, mean-spirited, and contemptuous attitude that many of the disciples "in the know" showed Alo and her devotees. Truth be told, though, her staunch devotees didn't make it easy to like them.

The hardcore, male A-bombers tended to be a little creepy. So much so, for example, that many of the S.F. Center disciples refused to help one such died in the wool A-bomber, even when he was out giving meditation classes and trying to recruit new disciples for Guru.

I, therefore, volunteered to help the guy. That’s why Sevika made a point to make sure that I knew about Alo. Sevika was on a mission to completely rid the S.F. Center of A-bombers. In this, I think she succeeded. Even this particular hardcore Alo devotee eventually saw the light.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw about Alo. When I reflect upon my years in the Center, the one recurring regret -- the one recurring embarrassment -- to me was my absolute baseless certitude. I wish I could look back upon my time there and see some measure of humility when it came to passing judgment on others and their actions and circumstances. I don't want to repeat that mistake here.

I wasn’t around at the critical time Alo came to power or when she supposedly “fell” from grace. I, frankly, have no clue as to their true relationship. What attracted them to each other in the first place? I just don't know and, therefore, am hesitant to issue summary judgment on Guru and his treatment of Alo.

I think it's safe to conclude, however, that the way Guru dealt with the situation -- which was basically by not dealing with it directly -- lead to some low level dysfunction amongst the disciples. I'm sure Guru had his reasons, but I never heard what they were. As I'll discuss in further posts, there were plenty of things about the Center and Guru's decision making that I didn't always see eye to eye with. This was one of them.

Alo is still alive and well, apparently living in Hawaii at a Center-owned property there. My brother and I spoke to her at Guru’s memorial services, where, despite the passage of years, she seemed to recognize us both.

After receiving some feedback from friends both inside the Center and out, I have slightly revised this post from its original form. Specifically, I cut some of the rather judgmental language that had followed what is now the third to last paragraph.


Y. said...

Here's a note from my old San Jose Center-mate Peter, regarding the letter mentioned above:

"You mentioned me in a post about Alo Devi. The letter I wrote Guru was quite a bit more complex than just my questioning of Alo; it encompassed my entire understanding of my spiritual life to date (which, although it wasn't a terribly long time, had reached something of a crisis point). It also dealt with what I felt were my spiritual goals and how committed I was to reaching them.
The details of that letter have long since faded from my memory.
While your brief mention of the incident is a reasonable perception from the outside, I wouldn't go so far as to claim a simple cause/effect relationship to my Alo Devi references in that letter."

Christopher said...

My name is Christopher Johnston. My mother became a follower and disciple of Chinmoy in 1969. I think that you may have known her by her given spiritual name, Nivedita.

The story of Alo is one that may need illuminating from both the perspective of early history of the Ottawa Centre and my position as an outsider looking in.

In those early days, my mother was the first Ottawa disciple recruited by Mukti, the Ottawa Centre leader. Her sister, Maitreya attended but soon left to found the Toronto Centre.

Both these women had been childhood friends of Alo. It was therefore Alo that spread the seeds that grew the Chinmoy movement.

Early disciples to the Ottawa Centre,two brothers named Robert and Ivan,moved to found Chinmoy Centres in Montreal and San Diego.

Around this time, 1973, Alo's sister joined the Ottawa Centre, met and married Richard who ran the divine enterprise restaurant, The Good Food Restaurant. Byron began his printing shop in the attached garage and the upstairs was residence to many new members of the Centre.

Around 1973 or so, the early center
leadership of Mukti ended. The explanation I received was that she had become a bad leader. Her dismissal by Guru was quickly followed by her sister Maitreya, the sister of Alo and others that had been attached to them either as family members or spouses. Bear in mind that at one time these few were the whole Canadian following of Chinmoy.

Now, as an outsider, I saw many Guru edicts, such as the rule of celibacy and no marriage that ended some discipleships as they had formed marriages within the group.

The difference with the Mukti banishment was that there was this general fallout precipitated by it that was unsettling to me. I now think that the Alo - Guru axis had ended and so with it the welcome of those linked with Alo.

By this time the Guru movement was large enough that he no longer required these people and they were disposable and disposed if not deposed in a purge.

It was very sad to me as these early followers were pioneers and acquaintences I admired. To me, I was wary of the whole discipleship to Chinmoy afterwards, and felt a golden era of innocence ended with that occurrence.

Y. said...

Dear Chris,

Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment. I did know your mother, Nivedita, and remember her fondly.

She, as you know, was in New York regularly in my early years and treated me with the love and affection of a grandmother. I'm sure there are many who had the very same experience.

Were you in the Center, too? Or was it your brother I knew: Pinaki? (I'm sorry, I don't recall Pinaki's Christian name -- maybe it was David?)

In any event, thanks very much for the input and keep it coming.

Guy said...

Hello Christopher,

I am from Quebec City, my name is Guy the short fast runner. I remember your mother as it was yesterday. A true joyful angel. I remember her laughter. I was still too young looking to be a treat so they let me stay at your mom's with female disciples. She was very generous and above all spiritual(Chinmoy) politics. Glad to read your words. I always like your mother very much.

Anonymous said...

The link you have to consulate_years at the srichinmoyhistory website, regarding Guru's statements about Alo, they seem to have edited out every mention of Alo from it. I find this reminiscent of despotic regimes, like Hitler's Germany, or Stalin's USSR; complete with control of information, banishments, removal of evidence... Whatever it takes to please the Supreme, I guess; though I'm sure the Supreme has taken the other side by now.
I've only been reading this stuff for a few days; I'm still a disciple for the moment, --need to think first.
One thing I cannot deny is the copious amounts of inner help and guidance I get all the time. Now, I can't reconcile the sublime inner experience with what is being reported, though I tend to believe what is being reported here, since it's only a quantitative extension of things that have always bothered me, like the 7000 lb lift, which would be unwise to announce if it were true, given its total unbelievability, but given it was not true, which I'm sure of, what is the point of lying and doctoring pics? Would have given him a lot more renown to seasonally make a live TV attempt and fail at it. People would have become disciples in droves every year just because "he's such a cool guy to even try to lift so much weight, even if he doesn't have a chance." Instead he threw his own credibility to the garbage, and stained his immaculate and incredibly huge achievements in the fields of literature and art. I never believed the 7000lb lift, and don't believe when people say they believe it, either. But I find it even harder to believe that the same man wrote the Ten Thousand Flower Flames... How is it possible? How can someone have such immense profoundity, and then be so creepy and dishonest?
It is just NOT possible.
This is my present conclusion.
NOT possible.
Perhaps Chinmoy the man was quite literally a mere instrument of the Supreme, as master and as artist and inspirer, but a mere man, and quite imperfect, in his more idle moments?
Sorry for the rant. I'm all shaken up and trying to make heads or tails of all of this.

Y. said...

It is a huge shock to the system. If you'd like to chat privately, feel free to email me directly (see my profile for email address). Peace.