Wandering around India looking for God is probably one of the most spiritually risky things you can do these days. The temples are full of ornate sculptures of countless shapes of God. Endless strings of flowers are hung on an infinite many pictures of Gods, Goddesses and so-called living saints, left to dry and rot until they turn back into dust. Chemical laden incense made in factories by the impoverished masses are burning at altars in every corner of every city, hillside and highway. The seeking nature within those who are called from afar to this land is tested in abundant ways. How to find the meaning among so many interpretations of the One? Perhaps here the medicine is losing yourself to find Her.
If you haven’t gotten the vibe yet, this article is not going to be a sunshine filled one. I believe to honour the whole is to see both sides of the coin. And so not everything is unicorns and rainbows, nor could it be. This is the point in my Indian saga where I critically review the religious culture here. After three weeks visiting ashrams in South India I want to describe the many pilgrims from all over the world who flock here to dwell in these ashrams like thirsty kittens clawing one another to get to the tits of liberation. I want to paint a picture for you of the pseudo-babas, the wanna-be-saints, the travellers who revere the desolate reality of India at large claiming its despair as an exercise for their enlightenment. What is drawing people to give up the slick black suits of their Western culture for the starched white garb of the Holy? And are the ways spiritual institutions are sharing traditions actually in line with spiritual principles anymore? What are the followers actually following?
Times have become a little desperate on this planet. Not only the physically starving are anguished by emptiness. The relative rich too are starved of meaning. The relatively privileged “Westerner” comes to India searching for someone to follow to Heaven. The lack of spiritual sustenance that we experience in our “western” culture has us vulnerable to fall into the role of Devotee without careful critical analysis of the Guru. Sometimes the Guru leads the Devotee to hell instead. Because we know very little about the whole Culture of guru-disciple relationship, we are easily enchanted by the mystique of it all.
The way this materializes in the ashram scene in India is fucking spooky, with people from all over the world giving up their outside lives to follow the “realized Ones” (the human beings who have attained God-realization for themselves). I thought my Tantric ashram was a bit of an insane asylum, but holy cow, the way the conventional “pious” ashrams I visited this month go about things was shocking. It’s as if people are signing themselves into a sort of religious prison system, believing that by renouncing all the incredible gifts Creator has bestowed upon them and following around one human being who has “special powerful energy of God” they will somehow be relieved of their sorrow. Unable to understand their situation, my mind became critical and questioned the true spiritual value of this kind of devotion.
One of the most prominent aspects of this tradition I question is the way that Devotees are told explicitly what is “right” and “wrong” conduct. In the Tantric traditions I have explored, the entire manifested Cosmos is considered to be God herself/itself. Nothing is ‘unholy’, rather only the perception of a thing can be sinful. “Sin” is considered not some “wrong deed” but the essential primary ignorance of viewing the manifested world of duality as real and fixed rather than illusory and mutable. In the “Hindu” traditions ( I use “ “’ because honestly I think the world is lost as to what the true meaning of Hindu even is anymore) and the Vedanta followers (the non-dualistic sects) there is a dense paradox where the world is theoretically recognized as all the unified whole of Brahman (God), yet somehow there are a million rules and regulations and ways that you the devotee can be “right” or “wrong”, “holy” or “sinful” in any action.
While everyone is claiming to view the world as nothing but Brahman, implying inherently that there is no good or evil, the practice involves endless rules for how you can and cannot conduct yourself. This hypocrisy between cosmology and practice seeps into all the manifestations of the way things are done, and thus, I believe conditions the mind of the subject, a.k.a the spiritual aspirant in this case, to vibrate in a realm of guilt and fear. Constantly objectifying his reality into dual perception of what is the “right” thing to do and what is the “wrong” thing to do imprints the subconscious self with the very antithesis of the worldview of all as Brahman. Perhaps the desperation of the person drawn into the role of devotee makes them vulnerable to actually wanting this kind of judgement and rules to follow.
Regardless, this state of fear manifests in devotees policing each other in right and wrong conduct. This is something I have found in every spiritual organization I have visited. This is why I make the controversial comparison between these ashrams and prisons. Instead of having been convicted of a crime by society, here we self-convict ourselves of some spiritual lack and sign up willingly to be policed and monitored by other inmates, just like you might see in a jail community. Convinced that there is something inherently wrong with us, we are drawn to organizations, communities, spiritual institutions etc as a means of repentance for the imagined sins we have committed.
This inherent belief that “there’s something wrong with me” is a very common subconscious belief conditioned in childhood by our mass culture of uninitiated adults raising children while still having the psychological awareness capacity of either a child or adolescent. The parent projects upon the child ceaselessly, and voila, now we have an entire global society of people who deep down believe either that there is something wrong with them, or that they have done something wrong just by their mere existence.
A deep seated, unconscious belief of oneself as innately and inexplicably fallible makes a person easily influenced and malleable. Of course, I am speaking from my own experience of life. When I believed something was wrong with me, I couldn’t trust myself, and so began to search outside for something I could trust. This is where the thirsty kittens clawing for the teat of liberation comes into play. Because the only real spiritual experience is an invisible manner of perception which exists within oneself, a constant search for outside sources of spiritual revelation never quenches the thirst of the seeker. It was not until I had the courage and support of real teachers to look inside and see my own life that I was able to begin to clear out all the beliefs and ideas based on ignorance and conditioning. And thus begin to build real freedom.
Ideally an ashram would provide a safe place to do this. Theoretically, this is the role of the Guru. To aide in this process of intimacy with the self and clearing of confusions. Sadly, rarely do either Ashrams or Gurus manifest this way. Rather, an outside person who claims to be spiritually liberated tells the devotees how they ought to live. The desperate seekers, starved for guidance, accept without questions the direction of the Guru/Saint/Baba and manipulate their outward behaviour to conform to the Guru’s concept of right living.
In some ashrams this looks like wearing an all white sari and doing endless hours of volunteer labour picking up trash or other tedious tasks. In other ashrams this looks like wearing a little scarf around your neck to show your are one of God’s helpers, and singing chants to the picture of your precious Baba. In others this looks like spreading your legs and receiving a sexual healing from your Guru’s holy cock. Perhaps it is simply a matter of our time in space that even the Guru’s are confused and projecting their unconscious beliefs onto the disciples. I have begun to doubt whether taking on anyone who calls themselves a Guru, or joining in any kind of institution that claims to be spiritual can be healthy for the evolving beings of the modern day.
Let me clarify as things get touchy here that in no way am I claiming to understand how it is for everyone, or anyone really. I’m just offering a kind of sharp look at the possible subconscious causes for the behaviour within ashram culture. I speak from my heart, from a place of seeing aspects of what happened for me personally and my observations of those around me. Because I have been intimately involved with these Cult-ture structures I feel it is honest and necessary for me to express these observations somehow. I never know where my words might reach, and they may touch the eyes of someone like me, when I was still searching for someone to follow and save that person one hell of a trip.
The manifestations of this yielding to the external standards are limitless. The essential shortcoming is that nowhere in this jumping through hoops does the seeker learn to feel his/her own inner teacher. The devotee may appear as very pious and “spiritual”, yet having a completely uncultured intimacy with her own self. In this way, the spiritual evolution of the follower can never come to fullness. She is stuck in a trap of fulfilling the expectations of an outside source, which only re-affirms the initial belief that there is something wrong with her that she must act differently than she feels. Because now she is continuously silencing her own internal Guru, her Kundalini, her Intuitive awareness of all that she is, on account of serving the needs of an outside source; the Baba/Saint/Guru. To really liberate herself, she needs to follow her own compass. Which could (and often does) piss off the Guru.
Even that very notion that the Guru gets pissed off when the devotee doesn’t do what he says shows very clearly that he is not all he claims to be. Someone who truly understands and lives in God Realization knows that “Everything is Perfect”. When all is God, nothing someone does can be right or wrong, it is all just diversity, unity in diversity. How then can so-called realized souls never tire of dictating what others should do? Buddha said to never worship him. Jesus said the same. That is the true way of sharing the teachings, merely as a messenger, a guide. As soon as power and control comes into play the spiritual has been lost to the traps of mankind’s battle with his ego-self. A clue to see how this is manifesting with a potential Guru is around his relationship with money.
In the past three weeks I have been to three different ashrams, all showing various symptoms of this paradoxical worldview. The extreme to which they manifested the paradox varied. The saga crescendoed at Satya Sai Baba’s ashram, where the story is rich enough to share in some detail.
Satya Sai Baba is regarded as an ‘Avatar’, a Divine incarnation who from birth was enlightened and is viewed as literally God himself. This view of a manifested human being as the Godhead is, to me, a logical fallacy. For God to be God he has to be the Whole of existence, and therefore cannot be one individual alone. If the alleged Avatar is thought to be God in the sense of being the essential spirit of God, then this is no different then each and every human being and would never suggest that he sit on a thrown for you to bow at his feet. The only difference between the Avatar and the common person lies in the realization of their God Self, which everyone and anyone has the potential to come to. As soon as a Self-realized human being claims to be more important than all others, he has shown his un-Godlike character.
Why masses of people choose to worship these kinds of Gurus is a clear example of how lost humanity is. This is where I grieve for my people. Rather than do the hard work of sitting in meditation with oneself, clearing the distractions and becoming intimate with the Divine within, the common man rushes to follow around someone who can “materialize” gold watches from his hands (cough…sleeves). It is easier to not think, and just do whatever this God says, and believe that simply by being physically near him you will reach heaven. This kind of laziness and unconsciousness of the average person to me is the real meaning of hell on earth. In Sai Baba’s ashram I really felt like I was living among zombies. Zombies who believe they are angels.
Now here’s the real cherry on top. Sai Baba died in 2011 and only his corpse is available for worship at the ashram. So instead of worshiping his alive form, the devotees worship his corpse calling it his “Mahasamadhi”. In the Yogic traditions “Mahasamadhi” refers to the moment when a Yogi chooses to leave his body of his own conscious will, leaving forever the realm of worldly incarnations to transcend to the astral plane. It is a mark of completion of Karmic evolution from ignorant to recognizing himself as the Divine One in every aspect of his living. Remember, many ashrams in India have nothing to do with Yoga as we know it in the west and are focused on ritualistic (we might say superstitious) devotional practices that look a lot more like religion than even Bhakti Yoga (union with the Divine through devotion). In Sai Baba’s ashram, his Mahasamadhi refers literally to his corpse, and the devotees believe that simply by being near this (7 years after his death there are still thousands of devotees from all over the world worshiping this body) they have a better chance of liberation!
Every day, twice in a day, hoards of lost souls are herded like sheep into a cue to be given the chance to prostrate their bodies on the gravestone. Literally rope is used to herd the people into order, as everyone pushes and shoves their way towards the gravestone. One by one they get down on their knees and press their foreheads onto the lavish marble casing of this one man’s body. All the while beggars without arms are sitting outside the gates of the ashram begging for food.
I share this story to paint a picture that is not unreal. It actually is happening, and showcases the state of spirituality alive today. It is not an isolated case. All over the world people have made shrines of “Buddha’s bones”, they stare at intricate sculptures of Jesus pinned to the cross, or kneel on carpets to shout “Allah!” out of impressive amplifiers, without any real shift in consciousness occuring. Spiritual materialism is an epidemic and climaxes in wars based on religious clashing. It is important that each of us do our part to dismantle this kind of idol worship and build for ourselves true and honest personal connection to the Divine.
I nearly got in line to bow my head to the body of the Baba. But something in me said ‘No’, this ends now. No more searching, no more seeking, no more wanting, no more needing anything to be more than me. Something cleared in me that day, standing in a herd of zombies dressed like saints. A part that has been trying to clear for a long while, lifetimes likely. I could feel the karmic knots of causes for this psychotic effect loosening and straightening themselves out. Like that satisfying feeling when you’re sorting out a hectic ball of yarn and you realize that by tugging gently at this one string the whole thing will loosen up and let go.
And so it is that I realized I will never make an ashram of my own. The world doesn’t need more ashrams. My narcissistic dream of being a Guru (something I tried to hide, though probably many of my close relations and clients could sniff out) was organically decomposed at Sai Baba’s grave. It was like my spirit said “you’re Guru enough for the both of us man” and tossed a cigarette butt onto the ground to burn to dust. Instead, I will follow my above advice and devote my life to building true and honest personal connection to the Divine. And to support those hungry for such a connection in their journey to building there’s. And lastly, never will I ever, dress-up like a Saint.