Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Gaining Influence

A knock against Ranjana -- never loudly voiced -- had always been her seemingly ever growing circle of assistants.

At least that was true when I was living in New York ('85-'90). Even then, she commanded the allegiance of a large segment of the local female disciples and was making inroads amongst some of the men as well. Her influence began at Divine Robe Supreme, a clothing and sari shop that she managed (and perhaps owned), which was dedicated to outfitting the local women disciples. (Guys could also buy their whites there.) Women, it was said, could expect some bad juju if they were found to be wearing saris not purchased at Divine Robe.

Ranjana's more direct influence over many of the more dedicated women disciples came with her stewardship of the "Jharna-Kala girls." Guru called his art "Jharna-Kala" or fountain-art in Bengali. The Jharna-Kala girls were basically in charge of managing Guru's art and exploiting it for commercial purposes: making cards, stationary and other small cottage industry items. Not all of the local women disciples belonged -- membership was by invite only. Within the confines of the Center, being a Jharna-Kala girl afforded some measure of prestige.

Ranjana's influence and visibility increased marginally in the late '80s when she formed a relatively small group of bhajan or devotional singers. In my last year or two in the Center -- when my enthusiasm was at its nadir -- Guru gave the bhajan singers a lot attention. They were put up front and center to lead some very long, all night devotional singing sessions.

Even at the time I was in the Center, I had mixed feelings about Ranjana's growing coterie of assistants and the apparent increase in influence.

On the one hand, I saw it as a positive development for women seekers in general. The modern path of yoga -- which I define as those yogic traditions that sprang up in the wake of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) -- has, with few exceptions, been a male-centric path. In that sense, the fact that Guru's two most prominent disciples were women (i.e., Ranjana and Lavanya) struck me as a good thing.

And while rumors swirled in some circles that Ranjana could be a bit of a taskmaster, a person had to learn leadership skills somewhere. In my view, that's exactly what Guru was doing, at least in part: teaching Ranjana how to lead by giving her a chance to learn on the job. So, I discounted the importance of such rumors even if they were true (which was not a given).

So, from the broader viewpoint of empowering women, I had no problem with the idea of Ranjana's growing influence. On the other hand, however, I found the reality of some disciples being subservient to another disciple to be incomprehensible.

To take it even a step further, I found the idea that a disciple would let another disciple act in a subservient way towards herself to be a little repugnant.

In other words, there are two sides to a superior-subordinate relationship. First, the subordinate must be willing to submit. Second, the superior must be willing to accept the subordinate's submissiveness. When it came to relationships between the disciples, neither side of this equation computed to me.

Even by the mid-1980s, there were both men and women disciples who were treating Ranjana -- with Guru's apparent encouragement -- with veneration. As I've discussed, I like Ranjana and feel some natural kinship with her. But veneration? I didn't get that.

I did understand the concept of serving more senior disciples. When I was first beginning to transition from a California disciple to a local New York disciple, my closest disciple friend at the time -- Jigisha -- would often remark that by lightening the burden of Guru's closest disciples you could, in a very real way, allow those disciple to serve Guru more efficiently.

For example, in my first few months in New York I spent my late night hours washing dishes and cleaning up the Smile of the Beyond, in essence doing work assigned Databir, Bipin and Pulin, while they were up at Guru's house. Had I not helped them, when they got out of Guru's house after midnight, they would have had to do another couple of hours work at the Smile. By helping them -- by easing their burden -- they were able to get another couple of hours sleep and to wake up the next morning a little more rested for another day of service to Guru.

And while it's true, I did worship those guys in the commonsense meaning of that word (those three guys were the best of the best), I didn't worship them, I didn't venerate them. Likewise, they never expected (much less demanded) my help and they were extremely grateful for it.

It's reminiscent of politicians in some respects. Those politicians who seem so hungry for power always give one pause, don't they? The folks who I feel most comfortable giving power to are those who seem least interested in having it. This, of course, was the great attraction of Lavanya. When I was in the Center, one could not help comparing and contrasting the styles of Ranjana and Lavanya.

Where Ranjana was given an increasing authority over a growing number of assistants, Lavanya seemed to reject sycophants. While Ranjana appeared to relish being up front and center, it appeared Lavanya could have done without such trappings. That's not to say that Lavanya was a shrinking violet -- not at all. From the guy's side of the aisle, it just appeared to me that Lavanya -- to use a sporting term -- acted as if she'd been there before. In other words, she was confident in her position and didn't seem to need any outward show of importance.

The point of this post, however, is this: while a large staff is often an important indicator of power and prestige, it can just as often serve to undermine the principal's influence. When the staff's loyalty lies elsewhere, the staff can be used to insulate and control the principal.

Credit for the photo of Ranjana (center) and her devotional singers goes here.

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