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My own special kind of guru-blindness

Have you ever taken one of those colour-blindness tests?

Usually, they take the form of a cluster of multi-coloured dots. “Can you read the word ‘God’ in the dots?” you will be asked. I am partly colourblind so I always say no, they just look like dots to me.


At this stage, everyone begins to look at me pityingly. “Ah but it is right there, right in the centre! If you can’t see it, that means you are colour blind between brown and green.”


   So I look again. Nopes. There ain’t no words there --- at least none that I can see. They try another cluster of dots. Can I see anything there? “Yes”, I say, relieved, “the number 75.” They began to look at me with some respect. “Ok at least you can tell some colours apart,” they concede grudgingly.


   I am waiting for somebody to invent a similar test for gurus. I believe in God. And while I don’t accept all of the practices of Jainism, I know my navkar mantra and am proud of the traditions of the religion I was born into. Like all Jains, I have a connection to Hinduism too: Diwali pujas, faith in the Lord Ganesh etc.


   So, in most respects, I am not anti-religion or sneery about the rituals that accompany rituals. But there is one respect in which I have the religious equivalent of colour-blindness: show me a guru who is widely admired and I will tell you honestly that I just can’t see what the admiration is about.


   I don’t necessarily think that they are all frauds or conmen (though I was more sceptical when I was younger); I just don’t get what people see in these men and women.


   There was a time when, as a young journo, I went to ashrams to do stories on gurus. Some seemed better than others. I quite liked Swami Muktananda, whom I met several times, for instance, but I never found anything of value in his teachings. I respected Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for his work on yoga and perhaps there was something to Transcendental Meditation though personally, I did not see it.


   Some gurus, on the other hand, seemed to me to border dangerously on cult-leadership. I never met Abhay Charan De who called himself Prabhupada and founded the Hare Krishna movement but on every visit to one of the Hare Krishna temples, I began to think that many of De’s followers were barking mad.


   Rajneesh posed a peculiar problem. In the days when he lived in a flat on Bombay’s Peddar Road in a building called Woodlands, I knew many people who had gone to see him and come away impressed by his erudition. So when Rajneesh moved to an ashram in Poona (peopled largely by white people), I went to stay for a few days to see what the fuss was about.


   And I just didn’t get it.


   I attended the great man’s discourses and found them laughable. I read what he had written and it was mostly gibberish. Even up close, when I was face to face with him, there was absolutely nothing --- no magic, no aura, no charisma. The only slightly unusual thing about him were his eyes which had a hypnotic quality to them. In the 1980s, I interviewed only one other man who had eyes like that. Unfortunately that man was the famous smuggler Haji Mastan.


   This generation does not remember Rajneesh. What little they know of him comes from the Emmy award-winning documentary series Wild Country. In some ways Wild Wild Country is like The Social Network, the movie about Mark Zuckerberg. When the film was released some years ago, the vast majority of people who saw it thought that Zuckerberg came off as a mean, selfish jerk. (Personally, I think one reason why people have so little sympathy for Facebook during its current troubles is because they are predisposed, thanks to the movie, to think of Zuckerberg as a greedy little hustler.) On the other hand, millennials reacted sympathetically to the portrayal of Zuckerberg and regarded him as a hero-figure.


"Is there some part of me that rebels when these modern day swamis address crowds of bejewelled ladies and accept their flowery supplications?"

   In the case of Wild Wild Country, the polarising figure is Sheela Silverman, called Ma Anand Sheela at the Oregon ashram. Many people regarded her as strange and at least slightly out of control. (The documentary suggests --- but does not actually say --- that she launched a biological attack on the people of a nearby small town). And eventually, Sheela went to jail.


   Nevertheless, Wild Wild Country has made her a heroine for many people who are too young to remember the reality of Rajneesh and his followers. I have heard people referring to her approvingly as a “real bad-ass babe” (that is so wrong on so many levels!) and she has even emerged as a Lara Croft style action-woman heroine.


   When I went to the Rajneesh ashram in Poona, there was no Sheela to keep people away from the old boy who had not yet taken a vow of silence (though if you had to sit through his discourses as I did, you might have hoped that he would take a vow of silence there and then!) and he was more accessible. (Sheela emerged later as number one boss lady after an internal power struggle.)


   But even then, as I looked at the joyous sea of saffron at the ashram, I felt colour-blind. What could these people see in this unabashed huckster with his Rolls Royces and his discourses full of jokes stolen from the pages of Playboy magazine? Why had so many ashramites abandoned perfectly normal lives in the West to cheer and swoon at every one of this man’s inanities?


   And the truth is that they were not, as outsiders liked to believe, all lunatics who were trying to escape nervous breakdowns. Nor were they, as some people claimed, drug addicts trying to replace heroin with faith.


   Many of the people I spoke to were bright, well-read and thoughtful. They had led successful, well-adjusted lives in the West. Nor were they necessarily the cultist zombies of popular legend whose eyes would glaze over when Rajneesh was mentioned. They were quite prepared to have intelligent discussions about him and would try and counter whatever criticisms I had of him.


   I left Poona convinced that it would all end in tears. And indeed it did though I could never have predicted that Rajneesh would transfer his ashram to Oregon or that his followers would declare war on the local rednecks. But, when it did end, his followers did not all have breakdowns. Most just went back to what they had done before they entered the ashram and resumed their careers.


   In some cases, the Rajneesh phase in their lives was soon forgotten by the outside world. Take Vinod Khanna who went back to Bollywood, revived his film career and eventually went on to become a central minister. By the time he passed away, how many people even remembered that Vinod had given up his movie career and followed Rajneesh to Oregon?


   What was it about Muktananda or Rajneesh that I could not see? I still don’t get it. When I saw Wild Wild Country, it only confirmed my initial impression that Rajneesh was a strange guy. (The last few public statements where he calls Sheela a ‘bitch’ and says that she wanted to ‘make love’ to him but he refused to sleep with her because she was his secretary should polish off what is left of his reputation.)


   But obviously, there is more to it than that. When I watch the publicity-loving Jaggi Vasudev on TV, I am horrified by how banal he sounds. Likewise, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar leaves me cold, even if you forget the environmental controversies and his brief stint as an expert on global currency rates.


   On the other hand, I know intelligent people who think highly of both Jaggi and Ravi Shankar. They are not idiots. Many have actually studied philosophy and find wisdom in the words of both these gurus that I clearly do not.


   I have given up trying to work out what it is that I am missing. It’s not that I am unwilling to have my scepticism curbed. For instance, I was a doubter when I went to make a show about Deepak Chopra but came away hugely impressed by him.


   Was this because Chopra does not claim to be a guru? Is there some part of me that rebels when these modern day swamis address crowds of bejewelled ladies and accept their flowery supplications?


   I don’t know.


   Which is why I am coming around to the view that my inability to find anything of value (or anything to respect) in the teaching of most gurus is akin to colour-blindness.


   Just as I used to look at the cluster of dots and fail to find the word ‘God’. I look at these gurus and the only word I can vaguely discern is ‘humbug’.


   It must be my own special kind of guru-blindness.



Posted On: 12 Sep 2018 02:45 PM
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