Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cartwheels in a Sari (Part Two)

For those of my friends – inside and outside the Center – who are worried about the effect Jayanti’s book might have on Guru’s legacy, the most disconcerting allegations are those of Guru’s meddling in the affairs of parent and child.

Up front, I think we must acknowledge that such meddling would not have been possible save for the acquiescence of the parents themselves.

Parents in the Center were not required to offer up their children to be raised by Guru. Nor do I think it’s fair to say that they were even encouraged to do so. (To be clear, Cartwheels makes no such claim.) And, as a matter of fact, most parents did not relinquish control of their children to Guru.

In this respect,
the Rocherolle family is a good example. While there were many differences between them, the Rocherolles, like Jayanti’s family -- the Tamms -- lived in Connecticut, had two children about the same ages as Ketan and Jayanti, and were in the Center throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Yet, the Rocherolles -- like most parents in the Center -- never relinquished control of their children’s upbringing to Guru. While I suspect that, from time to time, they may have consulted Guru, they never abdicated their role as parents. Unlike Jayanti, Narendra and Durdam had regular christian first names (in addition to their spiritual names), were encouraged by their parents to go to school and do well, and -- perhaps most importantly -- were allowed to fit in with the wider world. They had friends at school and played sports. They were, in effect, normal kids whose religion happened to be different from the other kids.

Although Gayatri and Gangadar -- Narendra’s and Durdam’s mom and dad -- did the right thing, that’s not to say that they paid no price. Within that small, insular world of disciples who lived for Guru -- who made not even the smallest of decisions without his approval -- the Rocherolles had less prestige than the Tamms.

As Jayanti’s book illustrates so well, however, that idea -- that there was ever any value in one’s social standing within the Center -- seems laughable now. Back then, however, it meant the world to some disciples, including Samarpana and Rudra, Jayanti’s mom and dad. Having already relinquished decision making authority over their own lives, sadly it only made sense to them at that time to relinquish that same authority over the lives of their children.

While ultimately it was the parents who ceded to Guru authority over their children -- which they were neither asked nor required to do -- some of Guru’s behavior was, nevertheless, indefensible.

For me, the most heartwrenching anecdote of Cartwheels was that of “Tashvi,” the young former disciple girl whom Jayanti met up with at a Manhattan nightclub. According to the book, Tashvi’s father had passed away and Guru had blamed his fatal illness on Tashvi’s disobedience. It’s difficult for me to conceive of a more despicable thing to tell a young girl in the wake of her father’s death.

It’s so despicable that one is tempted to disbelieve the anecdote, to cry “hearsay” if not heresy. Unfortunately, the tale rings true to my ear. Though I hadn’t heard “Tashvi’s” story before, I have heard plenty of other first person accounts about behavior by Guru that was only slightly less mean spirited. And I know, from my own experience, that Guru had a penchant for blaming the innocent.

As I wrote before, Guru had warned Jayanti and me about being “too friendly” when we had done nothing wrong. Worse still, when I eventually left the Center of my own accord, Guru blamed my brother, Jeevan. He called Jeevan to the back of Annam Brahma, where he had a heated tent set up, and read Jeevan the riot act.

The perplexing question is why did Guru act that way?

Why was he mean? I’m not asking about tough love. I’m not talking about times when Guru ruthlessly ripped into one of his personal attendants who screwed something up (
like when I forgot to bring his favored cello bow to a concert). I’m talking about being mean. What possible motive could Guru have had for telling “Tashvi” that she was the reason that her father died?

Perhaps the beginning of an explanation -- not a justification -- can be found in Guru’s own upbringing. Guru was born and raised in what is now Bangladesh. His parents died when he was a young child. All of a sudden, he found himself on the other end of the continent, being raised in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (which would later serve as the organizational model for the Center). While Guru’s upbringing in the ashram could be described in many ways, “emotionally warm” probably wouldn’t be one of them.

I don’t think it’s implausible to conclude that Guru thought -- based upon his own experience -- that when it came to the spiritual life, parents were dispensable.

In fact, looking backward, Guru certainly could have concluded that had it not been for his parents’ premature deaths, he would not have entered the ashram at the young age he had (if at all). Having overcome so much grief at such a young age, it’s conceivable to me that Guru -- like many who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps -- was
less sympathetic or at least not indulgent of others in similar positions. "I did it. So can you."

Maybe Guru told “Tashvi” what he himself felt as a little boy -- that he was somehow responsible for the death of his own parents. (Perhaps, cruelly, someone told Guru that very same thing when he was a boy.) Maybe Guru felt Tashvi would react to such feelings in the same way that he himself had -- with gusto for the sheltered and comforting life of the ashram. But, the fact is, we’ll never know.

Psychobabble aside, we’ll never know what motivated Guru to be so mean at times or what intent -- if any -- lay behind such incidents. We
can know with certainty the effect such incidents had on the disciples subjected to them. Obviously, Guru’s meanness pushed the disciple subjected to it away.

In this regard, we may infer some intent. In the law -- where the concept of proving intent has been a subject of study and practice for centuries -- it is often said that “one intends the natural and probable consequences of one’s actions.” In other words, we all know that shooting a gun into a crowd is likely to injure someone. So, if you shoot a gun into a crowd, we can logically infer that you intended to hurt someone.

Using the same logic, I think it’s worth exploring the idea that Guru intended to drive some disciples away. The “natural and probable consequences” of treating someone badly is that that person will grow to dislike you, will strive to distance themselves from you. It seems likely that -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- Guru intended the victims of his nastiness to distance themselves from him, be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

There are, of course, other explanations. When I called Jeevan today to ask him how he had reacted when Guru told him that he was at least in part responsible for me leaving the Center -- a preposterous claim on its face -- Jeevan responded in the way that only he can. “Guru was a Virgo,” Jeevan exclaimed. Never having learned much about astrology, I asked him to elaborate. “Virgo males are assholes sometimes,” Jeevan explained. As a consequence, he never took Guru’s assertion of blame personally.

Whatever the explanation for Guru’s meanness, the ethical case against what he said to “Tashvi” and others like her is unassailable. Guru was wrong to say such a thing to her -- or more likely, to have either leaked such rumor to others or to have had Ashrita deliver the message to her directly -- and I regret that there was nobody there to stand up for Tashvi at the time, which leads me to a final thought.

Where would the world be if people simply refused to follow unethical orders?

I remember long ago being asked by a non-disciple family member what I would do if Guru asked me to kill my own mother. It’s the kind of asshat hypothetical question that cult members typically faced from family members, particularly in the post-Jonestown era. My tact was always to fight the question and refuse to answer. “Guru would never ask me to do such a thing, that’s preposterous,” I’d honestly and rightly shoot back. The fact that Guru wouldn’t have asked such a thing (and he would not have) is beside the point though.

The true answer -- and I wished I had answered it this way back in the day -- is that if Guru
had asked me such a thing, I would have told him to fuck off. Then, I would have reported the incident to the police. I honestly think that is what Guru was looking for all along from his disciples, that spirit of independence and willingness to make a stand, even if it meant standing alone.

I like to think that deep down it would have thrilled Guru to no end if, on that day near the end of
Cartwheels in a Sari -- when Guru no doubt instructed Ashrita (a.k.a. "Romesh") to tell Samarpana to kick her own daughter out of the house -- Ashrita had simply refused to carry the message. “Guru, that’s a message I’m not going to deliver,” Ashrita might have said.

Sure, the result of such disobedience would have been predictable. A tongue lashing, perhaps, and immediate expulsion from the Center. But what a graduation from the Center! And how proud I'd like to think Guru would have been -- and rightly so -- for having produced such a strong and independent character to unleash upon the world.

Once the disciple is willing to stand on principle, even in the face of his guru's disapproval, the days of discipleship are over.

If you think I'm wrong about this, borrow a page from our christian friends and ask: "W.W.V.D.?" What would Vivekananda do if Sri Ramakrishna had asked him to tell a mother to evict her own daughter?

The question answers itself.

Credit of the photo of Guru and Jayanti above goes to Jayanti's dad, Rudra, and is found here, with many other interesting photos of Jayanti and her family.


Anonymous said...

Dear Yogaloy:
You state the following --

"I like to think that deep down it would have thrilled Guru to no end if, on that day near the end of Cartwheels in a Sari -- when Guru no doubt instructed Ashrita (a.k.a. "Romesh") to tell Samarpana to kick her own daughter out of the house -- Ashrita had simply refused to carry the message. “Guru, that’s a message I’m not going to deliver,” Ashrita might have said."
Do you remember from "Cartwheels" the part where the Guru suggests during a bus trip that the best way to deal with Alo Devi would be to kill her? Who volunteered to do the job? None other than "Ash****"!! Why do you think he would possess the individual conscience to refuse to deliver a message? I would suggest that he is more deeply damaged than you imagine - a good soul who came under the influence of CKG from the age 16!
P.S. - Good work. I appreciate your blog very much.

Y. said...

First off, thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to read. I appreciate it very much.

As for your comment, I think you're mistaken. I see no reference in Cartwheels in a Sari to "Romesh" (or anyone else for that matter) volunteering "to do the job."

That anecdote is covered in pages 69 through 79 of Jayanti's book. If you think I've missed something, please let me know.

On your broader point, I will simply make a point I've made before. I assume the good faith of others. To put it another way, I try to make it a rule not to question the motives of others.

As I'll address in a separate post soon, while I'm quite aware that he engenders strong emotions in many former disciples, I have great respect for Ashrita.

Anonymous said...

I never thought Guru would like anyone one to stand up to him. In fact, from personal experience, I know he always had to have full control. To go against his command was to to be against him. He always said, "either you are for me or against me." He was not big enough to accept that anyone could disagree with him and be right in doing so. Jayanti's story is a painful story indeed. Unfortunately the Sri Chinmoy centre is filled with many painful stories that are hidden from the both the SSC and the publics awareness. It is really great that the truth is starting to come out. It is not that we are against him. It is simply that the truth is THE TRUTH. one can accept it or reject it but they can not change it. Thank you for all that you are doing.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a commment but it did not show up. Why might that be?

Y. said...

Yeah, sorry. Technically, I have to "approve" the comments before they are posted.

That doesn't mean that I have to "approve of them" or agree with the substance of the comments. It just means that when you comment, it's delivered to me by email. I then have to manually hit "publish comment" before your comment will show on the blog.

Nothing nefarious going on. Thanks for taking the time to read! Peace. Out.

Anonymous said...

July 12, 2009 - Jayanti's blog -

According to this former disciple, in the period close before Sri Chinmoy’s death, the guru told this particular story to his followers:

Once there was a master who had many students. One day, the master asked the students if they were prepared to obey the master unconditionally. All the students initially said yes, but when the master asked them if they were willing to burn down the house of their own families, all the students changed their minds. Except one. This student agreed and went and burned down the home that housed his own wife and child. The master then told the rest of the students that they were not and would never be true followers because they were not surrendered to the master.

According to this former disciple, Guru then told his own disciples that the moral was that “spirituality trumps morality.”


Y. said...

Yes, I read that report, too.


Over the years, I heard similar stories -- or at least stories with the same message (i.e., spirituality trumping morality) numerous times. As I've posted above -- and at other points in this memoir -- I have my own (apparently) unique take on these types of hypothetical challenges.

The premise of this story -- if you think about it -- is that it's ideal to "be true followers." That to be a follower or a "first class disciple" is the goal of a life time. Maybe for some, I guess. But I never thought that way and so I immediately see these types of hypothetical conundrums differently.

I see this story as the point of departure for the seeker.

When -- after years of devoted surrender -- your guru asks you to do something unethical or something you don't feel right about, then the question becomes what are you going to do about it?

At that point there are two options: (1) cave and do the master's bidding and remain a follower or (2) stand up and declare your independence.

It's hard to defy one's guru. It's especially hard to tell him to his face something that he doesn't want to hear. But it's a great, angst-ridden opportunity to begin standing on one's own, which is the whole point of yoga, isn't it?

Finally, a point easily missed or overlooked (particularly by non-Center members who may read these comments). Guru never asked any of his disciples to kill anyone.

Sad to say, but I suspect that had he done so, there would have been more than one person willing to carry out such an order and I'm sure Guru knew this.

All of that said, the rigid boundaries of ethics (a term I prefer to morals) are constructions too narrow to account for even the permutations of normal human interaction, let alone the subtle twists and turns one must navigate as an individual trying to loosen and eventually liberate oneself from the grip of one's limited personality.

To my mind -- and I think to those who take the path of yoga seriously in practice -- ethics are aspirational modes of human behavior. They are not methods for human development.

Ethics are good, but they aren't everything.

(Let me note here how much I enjoy Jayanti's blog posts. I hope she keeps them up. Also, I hope we hear more -- soon! -- about her next book project.)

Thanks for reading and for the comment!

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog, and just finished reading Jayanti's book, and I have some thoughts. I find it interesting that you claim so firmly that your guru did not ask parents to surrender their children to him, considering you did not have children at issue. Jayanti was the only child born into the Centre after celibacy was required, and it seems pretty clear that everything about that situation was handled differently than it was for other children, so it makes perfect sense that he would require her to be sacrificed to him by her parents, no?

Additionally, you remark about how Ashrita could have stood up to Guru and refused to follow the order, but it was pretty clear from the details of her story that her mother was not respected for standing up for her daughter. It also seems very clear from news reports, stories, and Jayanti's book that women were treated very differently from men, but all the same - a disciple is a disciple, and if the Guru would respect independent thought and standing ground from men (and potentially from Ashrita), then shouldn't he have respected the women (and specifically Samarpana in this story) equally?

I am really enjoying reading your blog - I should be studying for the NY bar but can't seem to turn away - but I find the disconnect in logic on these points troubling, which is why I pose the questions.

Y. said...

First, thanks for much for reading, for the kind words, and for taking the time to pose such good questions! I appreciate that very much and it's obvious that your reading closely (which I hope bodes well for your skills on the NY Bar -- the second hardest bar in the land!!). ; )

Just a joke from a member of the California bar. I do wish you the very best and hope your diversion with the blog is just the relaxation you need for your upcoming challenge. Best of luck.

To your points:

First, I'm proud to say that Jayanti and her mom are still personal friends and that we speak every few months. I love her book and nothing I write (I don't think) contradicts her story. I'm just trying to add context from my limited perspective.

You say that "it makes perfect sense that [Guru] would require [Jayanti] to be sacrificed to him by her parents, no?" I hesitate to agree with that.

First, because nothing was ever so explicit. I don't think Guru ever sat Samarpana and Rudra down and said, "now you will turn your child over to me." I think it just happened as a matter of course, as a result of her parents' desire to surrender all to Guru.

Like all devoted disciples, her parents more or less surrendered their own decision making authority to Guru. It was only natural, I suppose, that they also defer to Guru about decisions about their children.

Second, I gave a real life example to support my view: the Rocherolle family, who did not abdicate their parental responsibilities to Guru. And, as I blogged (I think), they paid a price amongst their peers in the Center because they were seen as not as devoted as the Tamms.

Ultimately, discipleship was a voluntary endeavor. For their own reasons, Samarpana and Rudra made the choices they did and while they were in the Center, they benefited by a sense of devoted prestige.

As to Ashrita, the point is NOT that he could have stood up to Guru and Guru would have accepted it. Not at all (and I think I made that clear in the post, too). Certainly, he would have paid a price, most likely he would have been thrown out of the Center.

Guru did not, AT ALL, respect individual thought in that way from disciples. Nevertheless, at some point, one must stand up on one's own and become independent of one's guru, and that just looked like a prime opportunity for Ashrita to do so (one he obviously missed).

Ironically, I think, Guru actually put up with more individuality from his close women disciples than he did from men. Ranjana and Lavanya, for example, didn't hesitate (on some occasions at least) to refuse to do certain mundane tasks and Guru seemed unwilling to force them. (Jayanti mentions cleaning up the birds, as a good example of this.)

No guy would have refused such an order and Guru would not have allowed any guy to refuse such an order had he given it.

Hope that adequately addresses your points (and good luck with the bar exam!).