He was only another name, another guru, until I read Sally Kempton’s article in New York Magazine. Sally had written for Esquire a couple of years ago about her liberation as a woman. Now, she was writing about a different kind of liberation.

Having decided to look for a guru, she chose, in the manner of one looking for a heart specialist, to get the best. Muktananda was said to be a living saint, a perfectly realized human being, a sadguru — the highest of gurus. He had the ability, moreover, to give shaktipat, to awaken, by touch, or glance, or simply by his presence, the dormant energy in everyone called shakti or kundalini. Arousing this energy is the goal of all spiritual disciplines. For some, the awakening is subtle; others speak of visions, strong rushes of energy, and spontaneous movements.

Sally’s first meeting with Muktananda changed her life. It opened her to a dimension she never knew existed. It was a place her lovers hadn’t touched. A place beyond career, and ambition. She gave them up, and joined Muktananda’s personal entourage.

I was impressed. Like Sally, I’d heard of realized beings, deathless saints, and gurus who had achieved total self-mastery and merged with God. Only I’d never met one. That there were such individuals fit what I knew about the universe, but so did the far side of the moon.

* * *

A week later. I came across a newspaper published by Muktananda’s devotees. It featured an article by Paul Zweig, a writer and the chairman of the comparative literature department at Queens College in New York City. A religious skeptic, Zweig was in the company of an old friend, now a devotee herself, when he met Muktananda. The experience was wrenching, tearful, blissful:

. . . walking home along Broadway, in a state between dreamy relaxation and pure aerial energy, I sensed that my system had been overthrown, because what I was experiencing was simply irrefutable. This upheaval didn’t need me to prove its reality, just as fear or erotic excitement are tremendous proofs of one’s reality.

And there was an article by Muktananda himself. Being a guru, he observed, is popular these days — “you get a lot of food, you are honored and respected, you can charge a fee, you can pass off anything on credulous folks.” Of course, he wasn’t talking about himself, or the other true gurus in whom the divine energy blazes. Entering into a relationship with such a guru is “the most meaningful thing” that can happen to someone.

Muktananda, it appeared, came from an ancient and unbroken Indian line of Siddhas, or perfected masters. His own powers were developed after years of intensive yoga and meditation. He wandered for 25 years, meeting many saints, before finally accepting Swami Nityananda as his own guru. After nine further years of meditation under Nityananda’s guidance, he achieved “God-realization.”

Don’t worry, Muktananda wrote, about finding the right guru. When you’re ready, the guru will come and initiate you from within. The moment a true disciple comes into the presence of a true guru,” he said, “the guru knows what to give him.”

Again and again, in his and the other articles, the emphasis was on the guru. True, chanting and meditation were important; once the shakti is aroused there is a spontaneous need and desire to meditate, a turning inward to the source of the Self. But without the guru’s grace, perfection was impossible. So — sit close to the guru, study his gestures, his words. “It’s good to spend as much time with him as you can,” suggested the advertisement for the weekend Intensives. One hundred dollars for two days of meditation and chanting, and the opportunity to be touched by Muktananda.

One hundred dollars seemed pretty intensive for two days. Also, I didn’t like the syrup. The writing about him seemed obeisant. A little odorous. I was reminded of standing in synagogue as a youth, the men around me extolling God, the Highest of the High, the All-Mighty, the All-Everything, and thinking to myself, flattery will get you nowhere.

I was suspicious. It’s one thing to acknowledge that God exists everywhere, in everyone. Did he reside more equally in Muktananda?

But something, somehow, had moved Sally Kempton and Paul Zweig out of their tight and sour sense of themselves, their anxieties and their fears, their prison of ego. They talked about feeling happy. Could I say the same?

My wife and I were planning a trip up North, with our infant daughter, to visit our families. We set up an interview. In our letter, we referred to ourselves as earnest and sometimes confused seekers. Sally, who functions as Muktananda’s press agent, wrote back that when she mentioned this to him, he said, in response, “A seeker is confused when he doesn’t have a guide.”

* * *

The interview was for 10 o’clock, the ashram an hour away. We left at 8:30. Took a wrong turn. Stopped for directions. Crept along, behind a slow truck, for miles. It was getting late. There was no time to stop for extra film, or a tape casette. The casette didn’t matter, because the tape recorder didn’t work. Our daughter started crying. Her diaper needed to be changed. Sweating, and yelling at each other, we pulled into the parking lot fifteen minutes late.

This is comical in the telling. But we weren’t laughing. In light of what was yet to happen, it’s hard to chalk it up to coincidence. But what’s coincidence, anyway? The tip of an iceberg called reality. And who can fathom its true dimensions? A Guru? Maybe.

* * *

The DeVille Hotel, which Muktananda’s followers had rented for the summer, had seen better days. Still preposterously elegant, it evoked, for me, the childhood vacations spent with my parents at such resorts. But the four hundred devotees living here were hardly vacationing; they followed a strict and traditional ashram life, getting up at 5 in the morning to chant and meditate, taking meals together in a huge dining room, and going about their business with an efficient, no-nonsense air. The ground floor was decorated with poster-size photographs of Muktananda and Nityananda, a large, big-bellied man in a loin cloth surrounded by a glowing aura.

The ashram was well organized. There was a reception desk and Sally was on hand to greet us. We were given name tags. Everyone else had them, and there was a profusion of Rohinis, Shantis, and Gautis — the same Esthers and Normans and Davids I’d taken milk and cookies with in the children’s dining room in another time, another place, when Hindu names were laughable. Actually, most of the devotees seemed younger than me, in their late teens or early twenties. Their faces were unlined, untroubled — perhaps they were simply untested? I’d come, perhaps wrong-headedly, to associate seasoned spiritual seekers with faces etched by many little deaths and little births, psychedelic upheaval, social uprooting, disappointment, renewal. Maybe the people here had been through it all, and had been washed clean. Maybe all the sour and the sweet of the search didn’t matter once you knelt at the guru’s feet. Still, I found the air oppressive: the incense, the icons, the photographs, the printed messages to remember God. I didn’t want to be reminded at every turn. It crowded me psychically; it made me forget.

The interview room (formerly the card room) was colorfully appointed. Muktantanda’s throne, a spectacle of velvet pillows and tiny mirrors and peacock feathers, was on a raised dais. On the small table beside him there were three time-pieces, suggesting either a Marx Brothers stage prop or a neurotic obsession. Some dozen devotees, all women, all in long dresses (and all well-dressed) sat on one side. They had red dabs on their forehead, symbolizing the third eye, which is opened through spiritual illumination. While waiting for Muktananda (we had been fifteen minutes late; he kept us waiting another half-hour), we were told that all of his interviews were tape recorded, in case he said something new. One of the women had a camera and took pictures throughout the interview. Several took notes. All together, it had the feel of a White House press conference, or, more accurately, an audience with a monarch. In the manner of a royal court, his devotees tittered at every joke — for some more politely than genuinely, it seemed to me.

Muktananda came in wearing a saffron-colored robe, a knitted cap, and sunglasses. Sally had written that he looked like a black jazz musician. She was right.

He checked the timers, wound them, fiddled with them. I might have laughed, but I was too nervous, and intimidated. His presence was restrained, but powerful. No piercing looks, no holy air, but the posture of someone totally at ease, and in control. When he took off his glasses, his eyes seemed animated, alternately warm and indifferent.

Sally had urged us — repeatedly, in the protective manner of a press secretary — to focus our questions on his teaching, rather than on topics Sally thought were less important — diet, sex, The New Age. I complied for the most part, although it felt unnatural. I wanted to speak my heart, ask the questions that spontaneously occurred.

Maybe Muktananda’s answers would have been more satisfying if I had. As it was, I was disappointed in the interview. I felt that, for the most part, we were asking for, and receiving, spiritual platitudes. From Muktananda’s writings, I know he was capable of giving us more. The fact that he communicated through an interpreter didn’t help. Nor did the lack of a tape recorder (I wanted to borrow, or buy, their tape; Sally said no, Muktananda required everyone to bring his own. It made me feel like I was in school again, being penalized for some meaningless infraction).

* * *

Our infant daughter was with us when we began the interview. Although Muktananda had held, and joked with her, at first, we got the feeling from his disciples that this was no place for a five-month-old baby. When Mara got restless, they took her from the room. A while later, we heard her crying. Priscilla went to get her. After quieting her, she tried to return. Muktananda brusquely waved her away. Sally jumped up and escorted her back outside. She told Priscilla, “You must take care of your own karmic burden.”

[Priscilla said that while she was waiting, she spoke to a young woman who related that after being touched with a peacock feather by one of Muktananda’s disciples — some of whom act as channels for his energy — she felt a bolt of lightning shoot down her spine. It exploded there and every cell in her body had an “orgasm.” Mara finally fell asleep. She was again left with someone and Priscilla was allowed to return.]

***

The interview was nearing an end. I had heard enough about shaktipat. I wanted the experience itself. “How does one obtain the guru’s blessing?” I asked. Muktananda smiled and stood up. “You’re a good man,” he said. He clamped his hand on my head. He pressed his thumb between my eyebrows. He pressed long and hard. Nothing. His hand felt good, strong and reassuring, but no lightning, no orgasm, no awakening. I was embarassed. I closed my eyes to concentrate. I opened them again. He was still touching me, looking at me. This went on for about thirty seconds. I felt, when it was over, as if I’d disappointed him. I wondered if he knew.

He didn’t touch Priscilla’s forehead at all, but forcefully rumpled her hair for about five seconds. She, too, felt nothing unusual. Then he walked out of the room, his stride long, his body erect, his big belly (big from yogic breath retention, not overeating, it was explained) thrust forward.

We followed him into the lobby. Everything stopped. His movements were studied by everyone, as if each gesture contained a profound message. Hollywood movie stars evoke the same response. So do politicians and other celebrities. Muktananda’s followers explain that eventually they let go of their attachment to his physical form. I saw no sign of this while I was there.

We attended the group chanting in the sexually-segregated meditation hall. Nityananda’s photograph was suspended in a rectangle of electric light bulbs. It looked more like a tacky Times Square advertisement than a religious centerpiece. I was holding Mara. When she started squirming, I took her to the back of the room, so she wouldn’t disturb anyone. One of the devotees came over to me and said, “You’re standing on the woman’s side. You should stand on the men’s side.”

I was dismayed. Was it more holy to ape the rituals and traditions of another culture than to endure one’s own? I wondered how many of Muktananda’s followers thought only a year or two before that separate bathrooms for men and women were sexist? If they’d left that behind, they certainly hadn’t left with it their impatience. Before the last chant was over, people were already shuffling around and gathering up their things; lunch was next, and the line was long. Priscilla said it reminded her of church.

* * *

We decided not to stay for the evening darshan, during which Muktananda receives visitors and bestows blessings. The subtle condescension I’d been feeling all day was making me uncomfortable. By virtue of whatever luck or genius or grace had brought them this far, Muktananda’s devotees were on the inside; I wasn’t. Shaktipat seemed to have become a new kind of spiritual play-money (Sally had suggested that Siddha Yoga would “sweep the world”).

I wondered how a being of Muktananda’s obvious evolution could be surrounded by such a scene. Was it naive to be so perplexed? Naive to think that his touch could wash me, lift me, open me like stars across the sky, and carry me home? Naive to suggest that Muktananda still had ego, a cosmically extended ego, to be sure, huge and powerful enough to imagine that it is God, but limited nonetheless? This was a metaphysical question beyond my ken.

We were pondering it, as we began driving back to North Carolina. We’d left the ashram fifteen minutes earlier. I was at the wheel. I don’t remember my exact words. They weren’t charitable. Probably something like ego-trip.

That’s when the engine blew up.

Nothing spectacular, but efficient. The damage was total. We’d need a new engine.

The van was towed to a crumbling little depot of grease and corruption called a service station, the kind you see in movies about the South. Except this was New York State, where there’s no heavy accent to honey the deception.

We called Priscilla’s father, who called a friend. In the meantime, Mara started to cry. It began to rain. Finally Tony arrived. He’d arranged to have the van towed to another town, where he knew a mechanic, and he drove us there in his car.

We had just arrived and stepped out of the car when we heard the crash. A car had run off the highway and smashed into the stone overpass 100 yards from us. The car was flattened — and smoking. I ran for the fire extinguisher. Tony pulled out the driver. He was alive, but bleeding.

Were we being told something, and, if so, in what language, and by whose hand? All I have is the question, nothing more.


What is the essence of your teaching?

To live in this world happily, to become established in that state where there is happiness. This is a result of meditation, and not any other means. When the inner energy awakens, spontaneous meditation begins to take place. The guru is one hundred percent necessary for this. Through his shakti your own can be awakened. But there are many different kinds of gurus. The one who does it must be perfected. One whose shakti has been awakened is in the state of perfection. Only if he awakens you can he give you the state of perfection.

What is the guru?

The guru is the one who awakens shakti. The guru is not an individual being, but the grace-bestowing power of God.

Would you explain more about your teaching, and about Siddha Yoga?

Siddha Yoga has been in existence since the beginning of time. It has extended in unbroken lineage, encompassing all other yogas. The siddha is one who is supremely independent. No one can make him dependent. Most people are enslaved by their minds. They are dependent on eating and drinking. Or greed. Or jealousy. They consider others beneath them. The siddha is free from all this. Nothing can cheat and trap him. Through the mere touch, look and grace of the siddha, your shakti is awakened within yourself.

All humans are one and the same. Sometimes we get letters from prisoners. We instruct them on the meditation and they get the experience even though they’re in prison. One prisoner was going to be hanged. His girlfriend sent him one of my books and a mantra card. With great devotion and faith he read it. The shakti was awakened. He has not been hanged yet. The point is that all humans are equal. Some just by watching get awakened. It all depends on your faith and the worthiness of your inner feelings and motives.

If a man has a pure mind, he can see God even in a stone. If his mind is impure, he can see a stone in God.

Is prayer a part of your practice?

Yes. To contemplate God and pray to God. Mantra and meditation and contemplation.

What is the nature of attachment? how does someone let go?

The nature of attachment is that you become dependent. But if you recognize the true nature of things, the attachment leaves you. Sometimes you need good attachments to things so your life can go on. You have to have love for your husband or wife or car or factory. But it should be love without attachment. The tendency of attachment is not good. It doesn’t let men go higher. It doesn’t let the self expand. An actor came to me and said his wife had left him and he couldn’t act anymore. I asked him what she was doing before she left. She was also an actress, he said. Has she given it up? I asked. No, she hasn’t. I said, you should also continue. Learn something from her.

Is there an individual soul that reincarnates again and again?

Every soul which is born will take birth again. That is the law. In the scriptures it’s asked, Why does one take birth? To do something and then to die. Why does one die? To be reborn. So it is certain that one who takes birth will die. This is a play. Now, morning. After five or six hours, evening. Then, night. Because of man’s desire he takes birth and dies. Sometimes in this circle he gets the right kind of discrimination. Then he begins to meditate. Once established in that state he is liberated.

It is said that we create our reality through our beliefs. To what extent is this true?

It is completely true. You create your own heaven and hell, delight and grief. The Gita says you become your own enemy. You destroy yourself. Or you become your own friend and uplift yourself.

These times have been called a turning point in history, a New Age. Is the world about to undergo a spiritual transformation, and will it be marked, as some predict, by such disasters as earthquakes and wars?

Spirituality is increasing. More young people are taking an interest in spirituality. They’re bored with dancing, clubs and movies. They’re involved in meditation, yoga and devotion. There are mostly young people here. I’m the only one who is old.

What about the predictions of disaster?

It is true. Lebanon is finished. Guatemala. These are the fruits of past actions. Good people are engaged in good actions. Bad people in bad actions. Everyone says, This is mine. They make wars. They throw bombs. But when they die they don’t take even a piece of that dollar bill. What do they take? Others have to bury them.

We come with different shapes and bodies but once we understand our own true reality, we know we are one. As long as we don’t have this understanding, we consider everyone different. But in everyone, the flame of God exists. Blood and hair are one and the same. We all come from one place. At the end we all go to the same place. We see duality due to our ignorance. If we meditate a bit and look within ourselves we will perceive the ocean of peace.

Inside, there are many different powers and skills. To see and hear things far away. But that is beyond the sleep state. Not where there is duality.

People make gold ornaments. Here. In China. In India. Maybe the shapes differ, but the gold is the same. Though we appear to be many, inside we are one and the same.

Respect your fellow man. Give significance to a human being. Don’t think of him as a tree to cut down. I tell everyone, meditate on yourself, worship yourself, and respect your self. You are the supreme consciousness, the divine flame. The ocean of happiness lies within you.

I am happy you have the Sun magazine. As you have the sun outside, there is the sun within you. At least you have light and not darkness. Through the grace of the guru you attain the greater light.