A few days ago I talked about how I came to have doubts about the guru-centered faith, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), that I followed diligently for over thirty years.
One of the commenters on that post asked a question about why I was so gullible in accepting teachings that, in retrospect, seemed so unlikely to be true.
I responded that all of us believe things which we're mistaken about. Discarding worn-out beliefs and accepting new ones is part of life's maturation process. I also said that to attempt to answer that question I'd need to tell the tale of how I came to be initiated into the RSSB fold.
This is a strange story. I don't think I've ever shared it on the Internet, though I've told it verbally quite a few times.
Satsangis (which is how RSSB initiates describe themselves) like to talk about how they came on "the path." You get bonus points for the unlikeliness of the events that led to applying and being accepted for initiation by the guru.
For example, moving in to an apartment that was completely vacated by the previous owner except for a single RSSB book, which, when opened, instantly speaks to the eventual initiate.
I've heard many stories along these lines, as have other satsangis. Yet often when I've finished telling my own, I hear: "Wow, that's the strangest initiation story ever."
Not having made much progress in losing my ego, that gives me a certain satisfaction. Guess I'd rather be strange than nondescript. So I'm pleased to retell my tale, attempting to be as brief as possible (always tough for me, given my writing style).
I can justify the likely rather considerable length of this post by the lesson that it may hold for others. However, I can't say what that lesson is, since people will look upon this story in idiosyncratic ways.
A RSSB true believer, which I no longer am, will probably think, "Ah, the guru works in such marvelous ways." A skeptic's thoughts will run more along the lines of, "Fooled once, fooled twice."
Whatever. I'll just tell it like it was. You can decide what to make of the telling. Read on, if you like.
San Jose State College, south of San Francisco. 1969. Flower power era, but on the declining crest of hippie-dom. I was heavy into marijuana, psychedelics, reading Zen, and shunning anything remotely religious.
One day I was walking across campus and saw a guy standing on his head. Some other Yoga devotees were with him.
That was who I later came to call "Yogiraj." I won't share his real name -- no reason to. He was an intense Greek in his early 30s or thereabouts who drove around San Jose in a VW bus with "Christananda Ashram" and the Sanskrit Om symbol emblazoned on the side.
Before too long my girlfriend, Sue (whom I later married), and I were riding around in the VW. Curious about Yoga, the on-campus demonstration led me to pick up a flyer.
Sue and I started taking classes in hatha yoga and meditation. The "ashram" was in Yogiraj's home. He was married to a younger American girl. His mother lived with them. She'd make terrific baklava and other Greek goodies.
I became one of Yogiraj's lead students. And definitely acted the part.
The Christananda ashram was a close-knit group. Most of us had some connection with San Jose State and were about the same age, late teens or early twenties.
In 1970 we opened the second health food store in San Jose. That also was the year Yogiraj married Sue and me. Outside. Accompanied by sitars and such from the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music. I wore the same shirt as in the photo above. Very hip.
Then things started to get weird. Well, let's say even weirder -- but at the time our connection with Yogiraj seemed normal by 60's standards. Meaning, comfortably far out.
We and the other students were used to mind-expansion through drugs. Yogic meditation looked like another way to enter a higher state of consciousness. Gradually we tapered off psychedelics and marijuana. Meat also, as Yogiraj was a vegetarian.
He also was a collector of initiations.
Ever eclectic. he'd proudly speak about the numerous yoga teachers he'd studied with and, briefly, become a disciple of. Then he'd move on, incorporating what he'd learned into his own Christian/Yoga blend (Yogiraj's religious background was Greek Orthodox).
In 1970 (I'm pretty sure it was) another guru came to his attention. Charan Singh, leader of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas organization, came to the United States on a tour.
I'm vague on the details of how Yogiraj learned about him. Or whether he heard Charan Singh talk in the Bay Area. Regardless, Yogiraj followed him to his next stop in Los Angeles, as I recall.
There, somehow he got himself accepted for an on-the-spot initiation by Charan Singh. This was unusual. At the time the standard RSSB operating procedure was for someone to apply in writing for initiation and then wait several months for the application to be processed.
Yogiraj was a persuasive guy.
Greeks are good salesmen, something I saw every time I worked in the health food store. I recall that he said he got an interview with Charan Singh and talked him into the initiation.
Anyway, Yogiraj returned to San Jose with a new yoga wrinkle: the teachings that he'd picked up from Charan Singh's initiation and some RSSB books.
Per usual, he wasn't much into crediting the source. Yogiraj simply presented those teachings as his own. Even though he'd only recently been initiated into the RSSB system, he apparently felt that he had it down (to my knowledge he never went to a RSSB meeting, or "satsang," after his initiation).
I'd arranged a Christananda ashram weekend at a (broad-minded) Catholic retreat center in the town where I'd grown up: Three Rivers, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
During the retreat Yogiraj initiated a bunch of us into his meditation system. Which, as you can probably guess, bore more than a coincidental resemblance to that of Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
Yogiraj set himself up as the "perfect guru" instead of Charan Singh. He used RSSB books to teach us about the philosophy. I remember opening up the one he'd given me when I reached my room at the retreat center (first volume of "Philosophy of the Masters" by Sawan Singh).
The first few pages I read made me feel, "This is for me." It sounded so real, so authentic, so mystical.
It never dawned on me, nor the half dozen or so other people Yogiraj initiated, that we were getting an imitation of RSSB's Sant Mat teachings, not the real thing. Yogiraj had his own "five holy names" mantra. Except, they were Greek words, not Indian.
And after the initiation ceremony I was given a rosary and told to do a Christian sort of thing: repeat the mantra so many times (Catholics do this after confession with the Lord's Prayer).
So we Christananda disciples left Three Rivers, went back to San Jose, and kept on doing what we'd been doing -- including working in the ashram's health food store.
There we spent some of our time following after Yogiraj, repricing items that he'd marked up excessively (tip: if you ever feel like going into business with a Greek Yoga teacher with a black beard and crazed dark eyes who blends Christ with Krishna, don't.)
Eventually our true believing minds started to wake up to what was going on. A core group, six of us, read more RSSB books. We talked among ourselves about the difference between what Yogiraj was teaching and RSSB's Sant Mat philosophy.
One day, after the store closed, we got up the guts to confront Yogiraj. What a scene it turned out to be. I still remember it well.
We were standing near the back of the store, us six in a semi-circle facing Yogiraj. We told him about our doubts -- that what he was teaching at the ashram had been copied from RSSB and wasn't the real deal.
Yogiraj's reaction was fiercely intense.
Those Greek eyes blazed with anger. "Charan Singh isn't my guru!" he yelled. "Christ is my guru! He talks to me! He tells me what to do!"
That was enough. With those words it all became clear. We knew that Yogiraj went on his own retreats down in his basement, doing god knows what. What it was, we now realized, was him getting face time with Christ.
More accurately, what he imagined to be Christ. (Christians, of course, would disagree with my skepticism.)
So that's how I came to be initiated into Radha Soami Satsang Beas. All six of us, in fact.
We broke off with Yogiraj after that illuminating encounter in the health food store. Initiation applications were sent off to India and we were accepted. In the spring of 1971 the "Christananda Six" were initiated by a Charan Singh representative, Roland de Vries.
Until recently, I looked upon this strange story in the aforementioned "guru works in mysterious ways" fashion. I assumed that Yogiraj's initiation by Charan Singh was part of a divine plan intended to lead the six of us into the RSSB fold in a round-about way.
Well, maybe. Who knows?
Now I can also wonder: Why would a supposedly omniscient guru/god-man, Charan Singh, agree to play along with a plan by Yogiraj to essentially defraud his yoga students? And if he didn't know about the plan, how can Charan Singh be considered a "perfect master"?
There's more that can be said about all this, but I've done enough saying. It's a story with a lot of question marks. I don't know what it means, like life itself.
For me the satisfaction is in the telling, not in the understanding.