THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
part 2 of 2
In April 1990 Stephanie was dawdling along the aisles of the Wild Oats health food store when the young woman from the ashram approached and asked if she had heard the news.
Revelations of the guru's sexual demands had come out at a meeting of devotees a month earlier, she told Stephanie. She didn't know the name of the woman who had been required to have the abortions, but Stephanie immediately thought of Diana, the beautiful young woman who had been the swami's near-constant companion.
Now that Stephanie thought about it, she hadn't seen the woman at the ashram in some time. It wasn't unusual for people to be banished for long periods of time, and devotees simply didn't ask about people who had left, because it implied a lack of focus and devotion to the guru. Still, Diana's long absence now made some sense.
Stephanie called her and asked if they could talk. They met at a Boulder restaurant. Diana sobbed as she told her story to Stephanie. She had come from a troubled family and was physically abused as a child. She and her husband had met the guru when they were young newlyweds, and both soon became devotees. She found in the guru the protective father she had never known.
"He was my Lord, I was his servant, child, disciple, and I trusted that he knew what I needed for my spiritual growth," Diana said. Devoting her life to him, she quickly became a favorite and was invited to live in the ashram.
One night she was called to the Swami Amar Jyoti's cottage only to find that he had more in mind than a foot rub. "The first time he approached me sexually, he made me promise that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, tell anyone...not even my best friend."
Over the years, the sexual demands continued. The guru insisted Diana accompany him on his trips and attend to his needs. He would demand sex even when she warned him she had no birth control and was in a fertile period. It didn't matter. And when she twice became pregnant, he ordered her to have abortions without telling her husband.
The woman told Stephanie she had finally left the ashram eight years earlier because she feared she would lose her son to the guru; she and her husband had already split up under the strain of her devotion. But leaving had taken tremendous courage, not just because she would be alone in the world with nothing--no job, no training, no skills--but also because of the warnings of the Guru-gita.
"I wouldn't have been surprised if I had been run over by a truck when I left the ashram," Diana said. Now she was terrified that her ex-husband would find out what had been going on all those years and do something rash.
Stephanie was soon crying along with Diana. As far as she was concerned, the guru had committed incest. In her desire for a "good daddy," she had denied the guru's similarities to her father--his manipulations of people's emotions, his way of humiliating those who loved and trusted him, his mysterious comings and goings. But there was no denying this.
She referred Diana to a therapist and also to Juanita Benetin, a Boulder attorney who'd recently won a case against a minister accused of sexually assaulting a member of his congregation. Word of the guru's sexual activities spread slowly through the ashram, in part because of the prohibition against inquiring after missing followers, in part because the men and women were segregated. But the news did leak out, especially when Stephanie started contacting other devotees. Some of the women who admitted having had sex with the guru told her they found it to be uplifting; others confided that it had been crude and rough, nothing remotely spiritual. But who were they to question God's ways?
Some followers weren't shocked by the revelations; they'd assumed something was going on with the guru's closest disciples. There was even some jealousy among the females that other women had been so favored. And a few of the men shrugged and said, "Lucky them."
But others stopped going to the ashram.
Angry and disappointed in the man he'd once considered not only his spiritual leader but his best friend, Tim Rea called the guru in India and demanded an explanation. The guru told him it was something he would have to explain in person, and avoided addressing the allegations. "It is what it is," he told Tim. "I'm not going to let them crucify me again."
While they awaited the swami's return, Stephanie organized the women who left the ashram into a support group. Although they met regularly for almost a year, the women were split on what action to take. Most needed to talk about their feelings, but otherwise they simply wanted this painful episode of their lives to go away. Only Stephanie and Marcia Richardson wanted to do more. Marcia had given up a college scholarship and a career to follow the guru. For years she had ridden an emotional rollercoaster: first a favorite living on the ashram gounds, then banished for something as trivial as arriving late at satsang. Every time the guru punished her, she blamed herself and was resigned to climbing the ladder of enlightenment all over again.
But now she blamed him. How much had she and the others given the swami, allowing him to live his dirty little lie in style? She regretted all those wasted years devoted to a man who couldn't practice what he preached. If it meant violating the sanctity of the Guru-gita, the hell with it, she thought. She'd rather be cast in blackness than follow this man.
Tired of waiting, toward the end of 1991 Stephanie wrote the Swami Amar Jyoti at his residence in India, asking him to return so that his followers could begin the healing process. There was no response.
The following June Stephanie heard that the swami would not be coming back because he was afraid his former devotees wanted to hurt him. "It's because of you that Swamiji can't return," one woman accused over the telephone.
Stephanie quickly fired off another letter: "I wait, perhaps foolishly, for you to acknowledge a very simple truth--that having sex with your devotees is abusive, no matter from what perspective you view the situation. However, the job of mending keeps me too busy for me to find time to look for ways to hurt you.
"I want nothing from you other than this admission."
Through one of the Sacred Mountain ashramites, the swami responded that it wasn't Stephanie's place to criticize him. Stephanie wrote back: "Many times in your satsangs you have said...that if anyone should find a stain in your purity, they should speak up, and therefore I am communicating with you rather than keeping silent regarding what I understand to be sexual abuse and incest." She closed the letter with a list of suggestions, starting with the demand that he come back to Colorado and discuss his failings with his devotees. She also urged "that you divide your remaining American property and other finances equitably, providing for those people who would like to separate from you and providing reparation for [the women who had been sexually abused] who deserve and wish compensation for their suffering." She insisted his reply be delivered directly. On September 19 the swami penned a personal response. He thanked Stephanie for her suggestions but intimated that, as an unenlightened person, perhaps she wasn't seeing the issue clearly. "There are different angles of looking at the same thing," he wrote, without mentioning the charges of sexual abuse. "From social (or even layman) or cultural point of view it may look one thing and from some `insight' or higher point of view (and from Karmic view too) it may be different. "I am not sure when I'll be able to come to the U.S.A.," he continued. "Due to present situation, it's hard for me to lift up my heart and just come though the majority of devotees want me to come." If he did return, he assured her, Stephanie would be welcome back at the ashram. "You don't have to bow down and no `rules' will be applied to you.
"I would request you... keep these matters to be `discussed' in one family...rather than the public," he added. The swami closed with a postscript that if he could in any way reduce or eliminate her pain, "I would feel blessed."
As Stephanie read the letter, she recalled how the guru had once implied that as a child she had somehow provoked her father into rape. She wrote back again, this time lecturing her former master about his failure to address what she called his sexual and other abusive behaviors: "Regarding your invitation to come to the ashram and your suggestion that I curtail my communications regarding your sexual relationships with your devotees, I have to say that I don't feel any need to go to the ashram. I can't take in as guidance the words of someone who lies. You taught me this discrimination...And I believe I have the freedom to talk to whomever I wish."
She said she was planning a trip to India in early 1993 with Bob, and asked if she could arrange a meeting. This time there was no reply.
The following February Stephanie and Bob, a practicing Buddhist, went to India anyway, touring Buddhist holy places with a teacher, the lama Thrangu Rinpoche. As she traveled through lands that had produced both the Hindu and Buddhist religions, Stephanie was struck by the differences between her guru and the lama.
The lama was a simple man who traveled on the same dirty buses and stayed in the same rundown hotels as his companions--something the swami, who always insisted on the finest accommodations, would never have done. But the most significant revelations were the simple ones. When she accidently dropped a load of Rachel's soiled diapers at the lama's feet, she was mortified. The guru would have had a fit; the lama merely looked at her and smiled. When she fretted that motherhood didn't allow her enough time to practice her Buddhist prayers, Thrangu replied gently, "Tending to your child is the greatest spiritual practice anyone can follow."
At the Grand Rapids ashram, Ann Welding, who had stayed put when the guru established his Colorado outpost a dozen years before, had been wondering at the various reasons offered for his long absence from this country. He was renovating a palatial new home in India, the followers were told, or he was trying to start new ashrams. In September 1992, after a Sunday satsang, she finally heard the rumors from a tearful ashramite woman. Ann didn't know what to think. When the other woman saw her distress and asked if there was anything she could do, Ann responded, "Yes. Tell me you're a liar."
The daughter of a Roman Catholic Republican father and a fundamentalist Democrat mother, Ann had grown up cynical about "Sunday-only Christians." By the early Seventies she was looking for someone to believe in, someone who represented a true path to spiritual enlightenment. She thought that she had found that person in the Swami Amar Jyoti. Over the years she'd donated thousands of dollars to Truth Consciousness and hundreds of hours to make the Michigan ashram and its grounds beautiful. Now she listened to the story of Diana's abortions and thought, "Oh my God, he's promoting murder." That evening she told her husband she was leaving the ashram. Like Stephanie, Ann soon organized a support group of women who'd become disillusioned with the swami. In May 1993 Ann and other former members of the Michigan ashram were asked to meet with Robert Conrow, then the vice president of Truth Consciousness, and Berkley Freeman, the swami's Boulder attorney and student, as well as the nonprofit corporation's registered agent. The guru's former followers were shocked to hear Freeman admit that seven to eight women were involved.
But the two men asked the gathering to remember all the good things the swami had done for them. "After all, he is human," Freeman said. He got no further.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Ann erupted. "He represented himself as God incarnate, don't give me this `He's only human' crap now."
A few days later the former devotees hired a lawyer to investigate whether they could force the guru to break up his American holdings and divide the proceeds between his disillusioned followers. They soon learned what Conrow and Freeman hadn't told them during their visit: The pair had just signed the papers selling the Michigan ashram for more than $200,000.
Truth Consciousness was in need of cash. Earlier in the year, Diana and her ex-husband had reached separate agreements with the swami reported to be in excess of $100,000 each. A condition of those agreements was that they be called "resolutions" rather than the more finger-pointing "settlement."
And in fact, some things weren't settled. Fed up with being blamed for the swami's downfall, on June 7, 1993, Diana mailed an open letter to the Truth Consciousness community:
"Many times since I came forward with my story I've heard the swami defended with the words, `all of the ladies Swamiji was (or is) sexually involved with consented to it, therefore it is not abuse,' `the ladies who were involved are just as responsible as he is because they didn't say no,' and, `it (the sex) is his "divine working" and cannot be explained on a social or human level.'
"Anyone who is truly a disciple of Swami Amar Jyoti knows very well that the code a true disciple lives by is, `Thy will, Lord, not mine.' Perhaps you have a relationship with him in which there is mutual respect, where you are valued equally, where your opinions carry equal weight, and where neither of you holds any superiority or power over the other...These are nowhere near the dynamics that existed between him and me.
"He was God (not mere teacher or guide, but GOD) and I strove only to be his servant and a lowly instrument of his will. I prayed each day to be freed from my own will, needs, desires, and attachments so that I would be worthy to touch the dust of his feet. He reminded me over and over again how far I was from that worthiness and how undeserving I was of his grace and presence...
"The more he or any of his disciples maintains that his sexual abuses were `consensual,' the deeper the hole he digs, the more he exposes his gross, base nature. Some might be vulgar enough to say that incest is `consensual' when the child completely trusts the parent and therefore does not protest against the parent's abusive actions.
"The sex that Swami Amar Jyoti had and has with his disciples is incest. I placed full trust in him as Lord, Father, and Protector, and he completely and totally abused that trust to satisfy his own human desire. When I had doubts about his actions, I hated myself for lacking in faith and devotion. In this type of guru/disciple relationship there is no room for `consent.'"
Stephanie was still writing letters, too. In September she demanded that the guru either agree to meet with her or donate $50,000, representing her contributions as well as a penalty for her suffering, to a Boulder organization she would form to support people living with AIDS. Otherwise, she said, she would make the swami's "transgressions" known to the public and various government agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Robert Conrow responded. "The situation to which you refer has been dealt with sincerely, diligently, and properly," he wrote. "It is a source of regret that you have not been able to recognize this." Not only would Stephanie not be compensated, he said, but he'd shown her letter to several attorneys who agreed that her demands constituted extortion under Colorado law. "As from the outset, the hope remains that on this divided planet, our group will promote healing and not further division," he concluded.
Stephanie went ahead and contacted the INS, outlining the swami's sexual behavior and its impact on his devotees. "At this juncture," she wrote, "I would like to ask you to intervene in whatever capacity you can to prevent further abuse on the part of Swami Amar Jyoti in this country." She has yet to hear back from the agency. Marcia Richardson also wrote the guru, demanding that she be repaid $70,000 for donations and her purchases of tapes and books, as well as fees for retreats. "Secondly, it compensates partially for the scholarship, studies and career I gave up in order to devote myself to this swami and his organization," she said. "In addition, it includes what only can be a minute token payment of the betrayal and upset this has caused me. I would not have become involved with this swami or Truth Consciousness, Inc., if I had known of this swami's duplicity, sexual misconduct/abuse and masterminding two abortions."
Marcia received a letter from Conrow that was almost identical to the one he had sent Stephanie. Two months later, in December 1993, Conrow left Truth Consciousness and his guru. He now works in a new-age bookstore in New York.
This spring lawyers in Michigan and Colorado told the guru's former devotees that any lawsuits would be fruitless, other than those filed by women who could make a case for sexual abuse. The guru is protected by constitutional guarantees to freedom of speech and religion, the lawyers said.
Berkley Freeman declines to talk about the situation. "I will contact my client and see if he cares to discuss this," he says. So far, the swami, now 66, doesn't. Nor do the people still living at the Sacred Mountain Ashram, who refer any questions to Freeman.
Truth Consciousness, which still lists the swami as its president, is trying to sell the community property at Sacred Mountain, though not the ashram itself, for more than $400,000. It's also peddling a windswept, 320-plus-acre parcel near Ward that the guru once called "The Garden of Eden," for about $2 million. The Grand Rapids and New Zealand ashrams already have been sold.
To Stephanie, Sacred Mountain is as good as gone. She realizes she will never meet with the guru and resolve the bitterness between them. She knows that he was not the "good daddy" she searched for most of her life. She credits her acceptance to a retreat she attended last November, at which the Buddhist lama Thrangu taught the art of compassion.
One night, as Stephanie meditated to cultivate compassion, chanting long Tibetan prayers, the image of her father appeared. She'd buried any thoughts of him for more than a year, since she'd heard from her brother that he had been found dead in Florida, alone and penniless. At the time, she hadn't known whether to celebrate or mourn.
Now his face again floated in her mind. This time, though, he wasn't angry and watching. He was pleading for help. He was stuck in the bardos, the limbo between death and rebirth in the Bud-
dhist religion. His soul had stopped evolving and couldn't be reborn without her help.
Stephanie recoiled--and then the prayer of compassion she still chanted took over.
It was a tough battle for her father's soul. She cried as she chanted, desperately trying to remember the intricate Tibetan wording as conflicting emotions tore at her. Part of her wanted to let her father go into the blackness; no one could blame her. But slowly the anger and resentment flowed out of her body, and the little girl buried inside reached out to set her daddy free. Suddenly, his face was gone.
Exhausted, Stephanie finished her prayer. She was still sitting, trying to understand what had just happened, when she realized that what she had accomplished--raising a child, completing her Ph.D., starting a psychotherapy practice, writing her poetry--she had done through her own hard work. She didn't need her father or a guru or anybody else to tell her that she was a good girl, a smart girl, a girl worthy of love.
She just knew that it was true, and that was enough.
end of part 2
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