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.