Recently someone sent me a message saying that it had been quite a while since I'd written about Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), the spiritual organization based in India that I was an active member of for 35 years.
This person wanted another RSSB post.
Well, though usually I write about what's on my mind (I have three blogs that represent different parts of my mind), and RSSB rarely makes an appearance in my psyche unless there's some news about the RSSB guru being reported in the Indian financial press, responsive blogger that I am, here's a RSSB-related post.
The theme -- Technicolor people in a black and white world -- popped into my head for a couple of reasons.
One is that when I've talked to journalists in India who want to learn about my history with RSSB and how I view the current guru, Gurinder Singh Dhillon, I try to convey to them the "magical thinking" that permeates ardent RSSB devotees and their gatherings, especially when the guru is present.
Here's how I tried to describe that feeling in a 2005 post, "Bursting belief bubbles."
I used to believe in belief. It felt good to believe that my religious beliefs were better than other peoples’. I recall standing in line at a movie theatre, feeling exactly like someone standing in line at a movie theatre, when I remembered to do my guru-given mantra.
Instantly I thought to myself, “I’m special. I’m unique. I’ve got a spiritual practice known to only a few.” I stood straighter. I looked at the spiritually impoverished human beings around me with proudly compassionate eyes. “Ah, I have something they don’t. How fortunate I am not to be them.”
Now I pray, “God, whatever or whoever the hell you are, burst my belief bubbles and lead me not into self-righteousness. Blessed be reality.”
My believing now is centered around the notion of pressure. This isn’t something I believe in as much as I feel. I no longer like the feeling of being inflated more highly than the surrounding world. It takes too much effort to keep my ego-pump running all of the time.
Once I read on the Internet how members of my spiritual group, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, considered themselves Technicolor people in a black and white world. That’s a telling and accurate image. It is true for virtually all types of religious people, though, not just a few.
That last line still rings true for me, but from my current perspective I'd enlarge it beyond religious people.
Sure, I still think religions encourage their followers to believe that they possess a certain vividness that those who belong to other religions lack. However, so do political parties, sports teams, colleges/universities, corporations, and so many other examples of how we humans collect ourselves into "tribes."
Religiosity really turns up distinctions, though, since true believers have so much at stake. Notably, life after death, heaven and hell, all that sort of stuff.
I'd try to explain to the Indian journalists how devotees of the RSSB guru create an atmosphere of blind faith that makes it very difficult for ordinary reality to break through their thoroughly indoctrinated minds. I speak from experience, since I used to be one of those devotees.
Every little thing that happens in a gathering where the guru is present can take on an importance that seems ridiculous to those who don't share the RSSB belief system. OMG! The guru looked me in the eyes! OMG! Did you see how he smiled at that lady's question! Etc. Etc.
The thing is, though, that sort of We're so special mentality isn't founded in any sort of objective reality. My wife, who wasn't a RSSB initiate, attended a meeting in Palm Springs where she got to sit in a front row just a short distance from the guru. After the meeting was over, I asked her what she thought of Gurinder Singh Dhillon.
He just seemed like a regular person, she said. Which is true. For most people. But to those who are RSSB devotees, the guru is a hyper-Technicolor person in a black and white world. Otherwise, he's just an ordinary person, as I noted in "Did I see God in first class?"
I may have seen God in first class. The first class section of an Alaska Airlines flight from San Francisco to Palm Springs, to be exact. Or, maybe I didn’t.
In the early ‘90s I was traveling from Portland to attend a “bhandara," or spiritual gathering, of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) devotees in Palm Springs. After changing planes in San Francisco I found myself in a right side aisle seat in the coach row directly behind first class, idly watching other passengers board.
A middle-aged Indian gentleman caught my eye. Bearded, he was wearing a white turban and blue jeans. His first class seat was across the aisle and one row up from mine. Before sitting down he glanced around the rear of the plane and our eyes briefly met. Then he took his seat and I returned to perusing a magazine. Nothing special seemed to have happened.
But it had, to quite a few other people sitting near me. For they were Bay Area RSSB members who also were heading to Palm Springs for the bhandara where the satguru (true guru) was to speak. And that Indian gentleman sitting a few feet away from me was the satguru—Master Gurinder Singh.
I began to hear whispers. “That’s him.” “The master is sitting in first class.” “I don’t believe it.” I hadn’t recognized Gurinder Singh, even though I’d seen him before at a bhandara in Vancouver, B.C. Fervent RSSB devotees consider the satguru to be God in human form, much as Jesus is regarded by devout Christians.
The difference being, Jesus is dead and Gurinder Singh was sitting alive and well in an Alaska Airlines first class seat. Imagine that a Christian gets on a plane and sees Jesus seated a few rows ahead of him and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the atmosphere on the flight to Palm Springs—among the RSSB disciples, at least.
I got mildly caught up in the excitement. However, even back then, when I was much more involved—psychologically and otherwise—with RSSB than I am now, I didn’t consider that seeing the satguru was a big deal. And until I made the connection between “Indian man wearing a turban” and “Master Gurinder Singh,” seeing him wasn’t even a small deal.
For I didn’t feel a hint of anything special until the disciples around me started up the “It’s him!” whispering campaign. Wouldn’t you think that if a person truly is God in human form, such would be obvious? Not just to those who already believe in the person’s divinity, but to everyone—believer and unbeliever alike. Jesus, of course, suffered the same lack of recognition. If his purported godliness had been transparently apparent, impossible to deny, by the time he died Jesus would have had a lot more than a handful of followers.
Psychedelic researchers speak of the importance of set and setting in determining the nature of a LSD (or similar drug) experience. “Set” includes the personality of the individual; “setting” includes cultural views about what is real. If someone with a devotional frame of mind joins a group like RSSB that affirms the divinity of a guru, then this person may very well see God sitting in first class. I, on the other hand, just saw an Indian man.