Naropa Buddha Head, watercolor, 30" x 22," $425
At the Lotus Feet of Swami Sitananda
From the word go Swami Sitananda has been a phenomenon. That half the newspapers in the world from the Times of India to the Johannesburg Star have splashed His picture across their pages is understandable: God-- distinctly on the baby-faced side--does not appear on earth every day. And yet only a Johnny-come-lately to the PR world could have failed to perceive the know-how expended on Swami Sitananda's American tour. Boston where I saw Him was literally covered with a confetti of posters and signs advertising His appearance last in the Hines Auditorium. Who with a taste for the bizarre could have stayed away? The eight-year-old Boy-God, the Savior of the World, the Satguru, the New Messiah, the Perfect Master such was His billing, and for sheer theater the spectacle promised to be a seismic event. Arriving an hour early I found I needed Zeiss field-glasses just to see the entrance through the phalanxes of top-brass Hari-Krishnaites, assorted shamans, troubadours, and other subgroups who pressed together in a vertigo of anticipation. And amidst the hue and cry the devotees of Swami Sitananda stood about idly in clusters, their eyes rolled back in their heads, looking as if they were tuned in on a direct pipe-line to the On-high. Though in these inflationary times there already exists a small cottage industry of imported gurus and avatars, at 7:30 fully six thousand curiosity-seekers had poured into Hines Auditorium to catch a peek of the Boy-God. Devotees tend to be straight-arrowish, buttoned-down, and highly organized. With their savvy and go-go-go the ushers earned that night a merit badge for efficiency after they seated the hordes from outside. "My God," I said to myself staring at the stage, "look at that!" The devotees had adopted 0ttoman techniques. On a raised pyramidal platform thirty feet high pots of rhododendrons led the eye up to an ornate throne around which glistened a tinsel rainbow. Afterwards in the ten o'clock roundup of gossip in the lobby I learned that the rainbow alluded to a passage in the Revelation of St. John--all of which in the light of Swami Sitananda's pretensions was appropriate, though in Athens-by-the-Charles cynics next to me were buzzing about the Swami's private airplanes and $30,000 gold Mercedes-Benz ( "Must God ride on a donkey?" ask devotees indignantly when pressed on this point ). All around me devotees were craning their necks to catch a hoped-for glimpse of the Boy-God; but He crystallized on the stage only after an hour of introductions by an entourage of aides-de-camp and rock bands.
By the time Swami Sitananda made His appearance a good portion of the audience, stimulated by the sight of devotees bowing full-length in the aisles and elderly women fainting in their seats, was in a state of semi-hysteria. With double-quick steps Sitananda mounted the platform, sat on His mahogany throne, and stared impassively at the assembled thousands who scrutinized Him in His white suit and boots. While the higher-ups among the devotees genuflected around Him, He adjusted the flower-bedecked microphone. The audience came to a stand-still. You could hear a pin drop as He began to speak. At eight Sitananda had the unmistakable presence of a master evangelist. Close-up He revealed himself to be more of a roly-poly than His pin-ups would suggest. As He spoke it was obvious that He was having scads of fun as the latest matinee-idol of the post-Woodstock era. Let's be blunt: it's easy to be cynical about Sitananda. His is not a rags-to-riches story. From birth He has been raised by the Holy Family to think of Himself as the Light of the Universe. Like some Roman Emperor, He has been brainwashed by the myrmidons in His cocoon to consider Himself God. Immune from self-doubt, He finds everywhere disciples who kiss His toes, drink His bath water, hang upon His every word. At three He was already giving Satsang. At five He officiated at His father's funeral. At six He announced to over two million disciples on an open field in Bombay that He would bring peace to the world in His own lifetime.
So He sat on His throne-- India's latest export to the West-- orating about the Shakti in slightly accented English to an audience mesmerized by His words. "Give me your minds," He cried, "and in return I will give you perfect peace. Give me your hearts and I will give you perfect bliss. For I am the Perfect Master." About the whole spectacle there was something schizzy, as if after growing tired of old established gurus--of Krishnamurti or the Maharishi-- the audience had turned in desperation to a boy-god, trendy and up-to-date, like itself. In the land of life-liberty- and-the-pursuit-of-happiness-gone-sour He spoke of hope. To those stuck in the mud of materialism He offered something far better than their Visa-Mastercards. Even the most skeptical sat half-nelsoned in the grip of His virtuoso mystagoguery. The more He rattled on about the Shakti the more fabulous it sounded. And the Shakti was free-- that was His trump card. Before you could say Jack Robinson hundreds were ready to goose-step behind Him and enjoy the sleep of the conscience-free.
And presto! like a genie rubbed back into a bottle, He was suddenly gone. While the audience sat poised on a needle-point wondering if He would return to His throne, I made a beeline for the gent's room and then stopped to listen to some lobby-loungers. "Baloney," one person argued, "The kid's only the devil's plaything. Look, you have to be careful about swamis. Choosing a swami is like choosing a wife. Besides, I'll let you into a dirty little secret. lt's an odds-on Sitananda is the Anti-Christ." Like almost everyone and his brother, I was caught off balance. For days my mind grasshoppered from one hypothesis to another trying to categorize in old molds the little I knew about the Shakti. I began to lose sleep..... The upshot was that curiosity had gotten the better of me and I had but one alternative-- to cross my Rubicon and check out the Shakti by attending Satsang.
So I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. When I arrived at M.I..T, where Satsang is held, an encephalalograph would have shown my brain waves doing mindboggling tricks as I steered my way with eager anticipation through the glass and steel of the Institute to the mathematics department where the devotees with sinister logic squatted every evening for two hours. It was as if, worming their way into the citadel of technocracy, the devotees were determined to shout, "Damn you," to their antagonists. Or did the devotees remember that Pythagoras too had heard the music of the spheres? M.I.T. is is not known for its wall-to-wall carpeting; but in the light of Swami Sitananda's many palazzi-- in London, in Geneva, in India-- not to mention His fleets of limousines and airplanes, it may have been the Third Law of Retribution that dictated to the devotees to hold Satsang beneath the sterile ice-bright fluorescent lights of the Institute. To the devotees who had divested themselves of their worldly possessions the asphalt impersonality of the M.I.T. lecture hall was adequate for their purposes. I arrived in medias res. Next to the makeshift altar dominated by a framed blown-up photograph of Swami Sitananda a devotee was droning on and on about the Shakti. I took a seat. I listened. I had crossed the shadow line.
The devotee's hemorrhages of higher sentiments made your ears flap. You had to be stronger than Samson to remain indifferent to his verbal overkill. I was unanchored. Not even the sight of other devotees bowing on the floor and then placing flowers and fruits on the altar seemed incongruous so infectious was the atmosphere. Reason said that fate had blown me in like a grain of sand; the devotee proclaimed that sooner or later we are all summoned to the Lotus Feet of Swami Sitananda. Then the devotee stopped. Whereupon a clean-cut fellow in faded blue jeans got up, muttered a prayer, and began to speak. His eyes sparkled with the fires of conviction. Two swollen veins throbbed at his temples.
"Okay, so my brain has caught fire. So what? Before I received the Shakti I couldn't see two steps ahead of me. I was one of those left-wing Neanderthals you see around Harvard Square. But now, well, let me cite you some scripture: the Kingdom of God lies within you. Oh, what's that mean? you're saying to yourself. A game of dreams? Look, man, there's a scale of being. You've got to believe that. And Swami Sitananda is at the top. Yeah, at the very top. What's the Shakti? It's four things. Swami Sitananda enables you to see a light within you-- a real light-- brighter than a thousand suns. And you hear the primordial vibration of God. You taste the divine nectar. You hear music-- actual music. You know, I often wondered where Mozart got his ideas from. Now I know. He was linked up to the music inside. Because that's what Swami Sitananda does. He turns you on to the energy inside you-- to what's keeping you alive. We're not our minds. We're not our bodies. We're this energy. And Swami Sitananda-- don't ask me how because it's by His grace-- enables us to experience this energy. And this is absolute truth. This is absolute bliss. This is where it's at. Because everything outside is dark. But inside it's all light. And you have to meditate on this light and then you know that Swami Sitananda will bring peace to the world. Because that's what we all want-- peace. And you're not going to get peace outside where it's all darkness. Not from your mind or your body "
So now I had a peephole into the Shakti. It was light, nectar, and sound. And why not? In the century of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle nothing seemed impossible and only a fool would put up a trespassers-keep-out sign to the Shakti-- especially if it was as good as was claimed. As the devotee continued to talk I listened with rapt fascination.
"I continued some violation of the county ordinance see. 452, subdiv. 1, 2, 3, and had finally gotten myself together up in Mendicino when one day this old friend Steve turns up at Ten Mile River and all he could raps about was Swami Sitananda. Anyway that night I had a dream-- it's the honest-to-God's truth-- of Swami Sitananda in the shape of a frog. Okay. Let's skip three months. I'm down in Santa Monica visiting Steve and everywhere I go l'm bumping into devotees so that it's freaking me out. Steve and Bob are sharing a place near the beach and every day they are giving me Satsang until I have Satsang coming out of my ears. We're in their little meditation room. l'm just about to leave when, bingo! a frog jumps across the room and lands on my lap-- the same frog I saw in my dream. lt's the honest-to-God's truth. It freaked me out. You see, Swami Sitananda has a way of revealing Himself because Swami Sitananda is light. Swami Sitananda is nectar. Swami Sitananda is the primordial vibration."
He stopped, a mustache of perspiration beneath his nose, and disappeared into the audience. Then a woman in her mid-twenties clad in a cotton-white dress lurched up. Though in the subsequent month I attended at least twenty Satsangs so that most of the devotees have taken on in my mind the character of Siamese twinship, the memory of this woman's Satsang still remains intact. She exuded a glad-to-be-alive exhilaration. In Limboland, before crossing the great divide, only her hate glands and venom sacs had kept her going, she insisted. But now......
"Now I do everything for Swami Sitananda. I have devoted my life to Swami Sitananda. I used to travel a lot, you know, always looking for the perfect spot, the perfect island, the perfect sunset. But now I realize that perfection lies with Swami Sitananda's Shakti. Only yesterday I went to the dentist's and he couldn't understand why I was so slap-happy on the chair while he drilled my teeth. Little did he know that I was positively blissed-out meditating on the Shakti. What is the Shakti? Well, Swami Sitananda shows you that even the most sought-after love potion is nothing by comparison to His Shakti. It's the only perfection in the world. You can meditate twenty-four hours a day and be blissed- out all the time. I don't want to theologize because the mind is our biggest enemy-- oh, is it! But instead of T.V-ing it, you can turn on the T.V. in your mind and see the light and taste the nectar and hear the music. You know, my old friends think I'm crazy when they ask me what I'm doing and I tell them, 'Oh, I get up. I do meditation. I cook at the ashram. Then I do service and at night I go to Satsang. ' Is that all? they ask. I tell them that I've never had such peace and happiness since I surrendered myself at the Lotus Feet of Swami Sitananda. 'Far out!' they say. Here Swami Sitananda is willing to give them everything free and they're not even interested. They say, 'Swami Sitananda has measles. God can't have measles.' Of course God can have measles. Swami Sitananda isn't His body. He just assumed the form of this eight-year-old boy."
Afterwards during the question period I was still at a dead loss to explain the Shakti. Drugs? Hypnosis? Psychedelic incense? Batting my brains out, my thirsty imagination conjured up a whole smorgasbord sampling of detective-story ideas. Only one thing was certain: Swami Sitananda had several hundred sub-swamis through whom He conferred the Shakti, and to qualify for a Shakti session one had to attend Satsang. That was axiomatic. Whether the sub-swami would then accept the candidate was a question mark. It was touch-and-go all the way. Some devotees had gone only to a few Satsangs and received the Shakti immediately Others had gone to many Satsangs but had to wait for months before acceptance. So, still curious to the marrow-bone, I left Satsang. Without prior initiation not even the subtlety of a fox could crack the secret of the Shakti.
The weeks passed, and I had bitten my fingernails to the quick trying to figure out how the sub-swamis transmitted the Shakti. The guessing-game atmosphere at Satsang only skyrocketed when one devotee remarked that the ceremony resembles the bishop's laying-of-the-hands during communion. I too soon began to dream of Swami Sitananda. His Lotus Feet seemed to follow me at every step. Finally it was announced that a sub-swami was arriving soon in Boston for a Shakti session. Should I turn over a new leaf? I asked myself. Should I stop eating meat? For stories circulated at Satsang of people's dentures actually chattering when approaching a sub-swami for the first time. The thought of rejection raised hives on my back. How, after all, could I hide my pedestrian wavelengths from the sub-swami's x-ray perspicacity? "You have nothing to worry about," admonished the devotees, "Just sit tight and wait." News of the sub-swami's imminent arrival had spread like wild-fire and at the eleventh hour the milling crowds resembled a swarming of bees. After a weary parade of holier-than-thou introductions the sub-swami, wrapped in a saffron robe, at last appeared. There was not a lick of hair on his head and with his small-boned features and parchment complexion his face looked like a netsuke carving. The Holy Man spoke. For almost two hours he spoke of how, though the world was going to rack and ruin, Swami Sitananda's Shakti could cheer the cockles of your heart. Swami Sitananda, he said, is an alchemist who can transform tin into gold. There was no beating around the bush: the sub-swami was eloquent. Hard-liners might have argued that the Shakti was a fool's paradise, a mental Novocain, a cock-and-bull story, but when the sub-swami, sweaty and hoarse, finally stopped, fully two hundred people raised their hands to receive the Shakti.
This created strategic problems because the sub-swami was to be in Boston for only four days and could initiate no more than twenty-five at each session. It was late at night; and though candidates were fretting to get away, in a twinkling the devotee-in-charge lumbered to his feet and passed out cards. The chances were minus nil that anyone with fewer than twenty Satsangs to his credit would be able to finagle his way into the sub-swami's graces; and, indeed, in the aftermath about a half of those present were apologetically blackballed. Despite the stiff competition I made the grade but soon suffered gooseflesh and shivers when the chief devotee called my name and in a toneless voice asked, "Are you willing to devote your life to Swami Sitananda? Are you willing to give up your mind and all your possessions to Him? Do you really believe everything He is said to be?" I had gone too far to start playing psychological chess and snorted out a series of sandy answers to each question. One by one he put the others under scrutiny and then dismissed us with instructions to be at the Swami Sitananda ashram the next morning at eight when the Shakti session would begin.
Of course I got no sleep that night. Who could sleep when planted in his brain was the thought of Nirvana the following day? So puffy-eyed and nervous as a cat, I arrived at the lion's cage. The ashram was far from swanky. In the dingy living room photos of Swami Sitananda were by and large the only decoration. I had just enough time to peek into a large bedroom barren except for some sleeping bags and mattresses when the chief devotee beckoned to me to enter a room where two dozen lone wolves sat cross-legged on the floor awaiting the sub-swami. In a Photostat copy of all the world-weary case histories I had heard at Satsang he then spoke of his past and offered us one last chance to make an exit. Did we really want the Shakti? Were we fully prepared to surrender ourselves to Swami Sitananda? "Don't judge the Shakti from the vantage point of the past," he said, "The mind cannot comprehend the Shakti because the Shakti is greater than the mind." We listened. The air grew thick. Someone opened a window. Then the sub-swami entered.
Close-up the sub-swami was almost a wax-squeeze of Gandhi-- an ageless anchorite eager to chaperon us to the merry-go-round of Knowledge, Truth, and Bliss. "Are you all prepared to receive the Shakti?" he asked with a lip-smacking smile. Suddenly he grimaced. The air was lethal, and he insisted that we move to a bigger room. In the hubbub that followed I examined the others. Except for one middle-aged matron most of the devotees-to-be were in their early twenties. One with a beet-red face lounged up to me and said, "Whaddaya think of the swami, man? It's been a real trip. I flew from L.A. to Chicago to Atlanta to Boston and now I've finally found the swami." Seated in yoga position on a chair, the sub-swami took us all in with a circling gaze. The grapevine had it that for months he had been buzzing around America stage-managing Shakti sessions, yet he seemed immune from fatigue. For six hours he regaled us non-stop with a pot-pourri of anecdotes and tales. Like some latter-day Scheherazade, he was chock-full of goodies: "The Shakti is an apple. And the apple is free. But the apple comes from a tree and that tree is Swami Sitananda. To receive the apple you must serve the tree." Not once did the sub-swami deviate from his philosophy of human misery. Wrapped in an impasto of lush rhetoric his pathological revulsion from life knew no limits; yet after three hours the room was still engulfed in an ocean of suspense when, continuing to hold the Shakti at arm's length, he dismissed us for a ten minute break.
Then the chickens came home to roost. The sub-swami made a kind of curtain bow saying,; "Now, when outside bring back a small gift for the altar-- something you already have with you." The down-and-outers searched their pockets for change. A guy in silk corded pajamas cried, "I'm in love up to my ears with Sitananda. He can have everything I own." The Swami's pashadom boasts not only its many devotees but its innumerable sources of income, and upon the resumption of the Shakti session the house had taken in a tidy sum.
In no mood for shilly-shallying the sub-swami got right down to business. While the chief devotee darkened the room, the sub-swami swore us to an oath of secrecy lest we be pursued by Swami Sitananda's curse. Then with gaping mouths the figures on the floor listened to instructions about how to flick on the Celestial Light. Slowly the sub-swami squatted about the floor pressing his fingers against our eyeballs. The woman next to me cried,"I see light! I see light!" For that was the celebrated Celestial Light: the arabesques of light which come from applying pressure to the retina. But that was not all. In revealing the mystery of the Light the sub-swami had scraped off only the topsoil of the Shakti. There still remained the inner music. Smiling with his toothy gums, the sub-swami told each person to stick his fingers into his ears and concentrate on the sound on the right side. Then one by one he asked the musicians to describe their do-it-yourself symphonies. Some claimed to hear buffalo feet running over the Great Plains; others heard the zoom of waterfalls or flamenco handclaps. As for the much-tooted nectar, on the spur of the moment the sub-swami yoo-hooed to the chief devotee to show us his tongue. The chief devotee dropped down on his hind legs and matter-of-factly opened his mouth. A free-for-all almost broke out as people stumbled over each other to catch a glimpse of the tongue. For previously the sub-swami had announced that to taste the nectar it was necessary to ram the tongue all the way backwards against the roof of the mouth. All in all, there was something extraordinary about the chief devotee's tongue. Acting almost as if it had a life of its own, the tongue was engaged in a kind of Cleopatra number as I lunged forward to take a peek. When visible it had the texture of alligator skin but its whereabouts was not always known, for in a jiffy its master could make it disappear half way down his throat. Pop-eyed, people stared at the chief devotee the way pilgrims gaze at the bejeweled tongue of St. Anthony of Padua.
Realizing that the room was talking on the atmosphere of a freak show, the sub-swami abruptly clapped his hands to talk about the primordial vibration. Here the sub-swami touched on higher matters. "When the powers and principalities of the air," he announced, "created the universe they instilled into man the vibration of So-Sung, the primordial sound, which manifests itself in each breath." So-Sung might be called Sitananda's tetragrammaton. Its importance far outshadows that of the nectar; for whereas the nectar trickles down the back of the throat only after much tongue practice, to meditate on the sound of one's own breath guarantees an immediate union with Swami Sitananda. To place the Shakti in some sort of ontological niche the sub-swami once again called upon the chief devotee, this time in the guise of a doctor angelicus, to read passages from assorted scriptures to emphasize the correlation between Sitananda's four revelations and their more prestigious counterparts. Putting on my thinking cap, I sat back and listened to the chief devotee's obiter dicta. His eyes of forget-me-not-blue scanned the group as he explained how the primordial vibration corresponds to the Word of St. John and the nectar to the manna in Sinai...........Was it for this that I had crossed my Rubicon and lost my beauty sleep? But though the soap bubble had burst, there was a final scene. The new devotees sat about the room with party smiles on their faces. Then, led by the sub-swami, these orphans of technocracy, weary and heavy-laden and ravenous for meaning, bowed on their bellies before the altar. At last they had found a resting place at the many-petalled lotus Feet of Swami Sitananda. (c)