There are many wayside stops on the road to nirvana. Balamuralikrishna Durairaj, a disciple of Jamaica-born Anthony Paul Moo-Young aka ‘Mooji’, is seated at one such stop, waiting for the phone call from the new-age advaita guru’s management. It’s for a transport to, well, not quite a state of heavenly bliss, but to the summery seaside haven in Lisbon. The international silent retreat at the Portugal capital is going to be an all-expenses-paid one. Making it on board requires a distinguished record of good deeds that Durairaj reckons he has, and loads of luck: it’s a bit of a karmic lottery, after all.
Disciples of other such spiritual orders aren’t quite leaving things to chance. For Niharika Pradhan, her guru Richard Alpert, rechristened as Guru Ram Dass after a spiritual journey to India, makes her world come alive in vivid technicolour with his talk of magic mushrooms and other such psychedelic substances. Alpert himself is quite a chromatically rich character: thrown out of Harvard, where he was a psychologist and psychedelic research pioneer, he went to Mexico, where he gorged on some potent mushrooms. “Guru’s psychedelic work was a prelude to the source of consciousness,” says Pradhan, with the lofty luminousness of one who had fed on honeydew and drunk the milk of paradise.
Israeli Tyohar Kasteil
Welcome to the world of new-age, firangi gurus: global citizens who flocked at some point in their flower-power lives to India in their quest for an epiphany, and, having drunk deep at the fount of salvation, have now become global peddlers of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. For their exertions, they have acquired quite a blind following, like the devoted Durairaj and Pradhan.
In almost every case, these foreign gurus offer a certain strand of spirituality free of any rules. No rigorous yoga and meditation routines for their followers, no complex list of rules for life and no elaborate teachings or chants. “With these ‘western gurus’, the spiritual formula is ‘simple, modern, rule-free’,” says rationalist Sanal Edamaruku. “It appeals to a lot of gullible people who want ‘easy awakening’.”
Yet, Durairaj’s spiritual awakening at the altar of Mooji wasn’t so easy. After a medical catastrophe that left him in coma for several days, Durairaj’s mind sought some kind of spiritual release, and he ‘found’ Mooji. “I have listened to the discourse of many gurus in India, but I found Mooji’s teachings to be the simplest. There aren’t any strained lectures, coagulated chanting, and strenuous meditation,” says Durairaj. Many others are drawn similarly to Mooji, now 63. But who exactly is this Mooji?
US-born Mooji was a street portrait artist and a teacher in Brixton, London, when a chance encounter with a Christian mystic changed his life. “His spiritual consciousness awakened, a deep inner transformation began which unfolded in the form of many miraculous experiences and mystical insights,” quotes his website. After six years of drifting in what Mooji calls “spontaneous meditation”, he found himself in India in 1993, where he met his master Sri Harilal Poonja, a devotee of 20th-century spiritualist Ramana Maharishi. After the demise of Papaji—that’s how Poonja’s followers refer to him endearingly—Mooji has been sharing the knowledge, ‘satsang’, with the many followers who seek him.
It was Mooji’s “simple pointings” that drew 45-year-old Christina Cornelison, a nurse in Massachusetts, to him. “Mooji has one simple philosophy, centred around the search for ‘I am’, unbiased of any religion or political influence,” says Cornelison. Well, life’s lesson can’t get simpler than that. She hasn’t had the chance to meet Mooji yet, but is planning to spend a big chunk of her savings on a trip to his ashram in upcountry India’s Rishikesh early next year. The guru doesn’t come at small costs for everyone and anyone, after all.
Ram Dass, who is known for his ‘psychedelic appeal
Likewise, Alpert’s search for spiritual salvation brought him to India in 1967, where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, otherwise known as Maharajji. Yes, the same Baba who blessed famed American entrepreneur-inventor Steve Jobs. It was he who rechristened Alpert as ‘Ram Dass’, which means “servant of God”. But for Dass, mind expansion via chemical substances became a catalyst for spiritual seeking. “His (Ram Dass’) intense ‘dharmik’ life started then, and he became an influence on a culture that has reverberated with the words “Be Here Now”,” notes his biography.
Ever since, he has pursued a panorama of spiritual methods and practices—from ancient wisdom traditions, Buddhist meditation, and Sufi and Jewish mystical studies. “But what is unique about him is his ability to reach to you through his own life experiences, and his journey of the use of psychedelics,” says Pradhan, who added Dass to her cart after shopping for many gurus. She has been to courses at The Art of Living Foundation and the Saibaba Sansthan. “Ram Dass is relatable, especially when he speaks about our reliance on psychedelics,” she says. No wonder it is this psychedelic appeal that draws a large following of youngsters from around the world to Ram Dass.
Mental health professionals explain this easy embrace of pop-spirituality in terms of need. Director of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Max Hospital, Sameer Malhotra, says, “Most people seek out gurus in bad times, when they are looking for answers and guidance. At their weakest, they begin to overly rely on them, and when the guru does not put himself on a pedestal, the bond is easier to form.” Even if the bond arises from use of chemical substances.
Or a shared taste for metal music, as with Tyohar Kastiel. Born in Israel, Kastiel travelled the world as a rave DJ, after his military service. During his tour in India, he met controversial mystic Osho in Pune. “The spiritual meeting with Acharyaji opened the doors to meditation and mysticism for me. I began to long for freedom, and endless days in the Himalayas awakened my sense of oneness with the universe,” says Kastiel. He has been travelling ever since, sharing his wisdom. He has since founded Pacha Mama, a garden of awareness in Costa Rica, where “people can live together while exploring themselves and realising their own inner stillness. Kastiel’s mantra: “freedom cannot be postponed”.
German Om Cedric Parkin
Cedric Parkin is yet another foreign guru whose spiritual journey began after he faced death so close that it “ended one life, and started another”. A direct disciple of Poonja (1910-97), Parkin, as the 55-year-old German is called now, was in coma for two days after a 1990 car accident, but came out of the tragedy raring to embark on a soul-elevating journey. He now merges the eastern advaita tradition with Christian mysticism and modern psychological methods at his “mystery school” in Hamburg. The Place of Silence is an old-style manor that is a home, seminar house, modern monastery and retreat, for all those who are “looking for themselves”.
American Merle Antoinette Roberson, 74, is another spiritual tributary that branched away from the ‘mother river’ Poonja. Unlike many others, Roberson was inclined towards the metaphysical from fairly early on in life in San Francisco. She took Bodhisattva vows, practised Zen and Vipassana. She also helped run a Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre in San Francisco. But none of this resonated with her, so as a final prayer for help, she left for India. On the bank of Ganga, she met Poonja, who named her ‘Ganga’. Says Jenji Lake, one of her disciples: “Papaji opened the floodgates of self-recognition for Gangaji, and she has been doing the same for us.”
Gangaji from San Francisco
Lake’s own troubled family history led him to Gangaji. His mother, who believed that ‘meditation’ was the devil’s work, broke all his Beatles records when she learnt they had been meditating in an ashram in India. She committed suicide later, and Lake’s brother died of a drug overdose. Lake says he has only Gangaji to thank for his spiritual journey. “In an era of commercialisation of spirituality, where many in America say ‘give me $1,000 and I will free you’, Gangaji comes across as balm for the bruised soul,” he says. So inspired was Lake that he decided to turn spiritual teacher himself! Fittingly, he calls himself ‘The Rogue Guru’. “It’s because I’m not looking for followers. I am not here to be worshipped,” he says.
If there is one thing that unites these foreign gurus, it is this element of no-frills spirituality they offer. And yet, Edamaruku sees much more in common. “What’s common to them, other than their outlook on rule-free spirituality, are their thick passports, and their even bigger travel budgets!” he says, only half in jest. “There is a big market for these gurus among the bigger mass of gullible folks who are looking to be “carried forward”. Just take your pick.” Yes, if life has recently dealt a couple of hard knocks, you can add as many gurus to your cart and check out.