Tiruvannamalai attracts all types, from serious Indian pilgrims who will go for days without sleep to walk around a holy mountain, to ecstatic Western hippies with their chakras vibrating perhaps a little too high on the Richter scale. It’s a stunning array of characters, many of whom could inspire entire whole new definitions in the DSM. I think this week we may have met a reincarnation of Rasputin.
Matthew had been invited to some guy’s satsang (spiritual gathering) by a French woman he’d chatted with, and she hadn’t said much more than “he helps you get rid of your beliefs about yourself” and something about soul records. It sounded hokey and not really our thing, but harmless enough, and it gave us a chance to check out a new café in town. We picked up our friend Carola and headed out.
The French woman was so pleased we’d come. She told me, “It’s so transformational. You’ll see, it’ll be so good for you. If you’re here, it’s because you need to be here.”
I suggested, “Hey, what if it’s just one of the three of us who needs to be here? Like Matthew here – he’s our ride, so maybe it was necessary for him to come, but only one of us will get anything out of it.”
She stared at me, uncomprehending, and declared, “No. You will all get something out of it.”
One follower started handing out info sheets about the session, while another scattered flower petals about. The sheet was titled something like
where S.A.C.R.E.D. stood for “Surrender, Awareness, Consciousness, Releasing, Eternity, Dharma”. I immediately had a sinking feeling because contrived acronyms have, for me, been a reliable indicator of bullshit. Further down the page, the acronym F.L.O.W. urged us to “Follow Love – Otherwise Worry”. There was a lengthy background in which he claimed to be in the spiritual lineage of Sathya Sai Baba and Ramana Maharshi (the latter of whom never accepted disciples, so all this means is Rasputin was influenced by him). There were promises of profound impacts of the night’s proceedings, and some cautions on how to integrate the aftereffects into your life. The write-up also had some firm instructions and restrictions for attending the event: No caffeine or sugar or nicotine during or after the event (“We have to finish eating before he arrives,” said one follower with an uncertain wobble in her voice). Phones off, not just on vibrate (airplane mode OK). Not a social event, don’t come here to chat. Men sit to his right side, women to the left.
I tend to favour a more relaxed attitude in meditative and spiritual environments, but I was willing to be respectful and give it all a try – worst case scenario, we could always leave early. I picked a spot and ordered an herbal tea.
Rasputin arrived, an imposing European man with wild grey hair and a fierce beard, the meanest, leanest Santa you ever saw. He sat in a special chair at the head of the group, which was up to about 20 people. He furrowed his brow, looking around grimly, and asked a few of us to move further away from him on the sides. It was a small café, but it seemed anyone within eight feet of him was going to be an issue. “That’s too close. Maybe you could sit back over there on that cushion?” He arranged some of us thusly in a way that seemed to make him more comfortable, and began to speak in slow, methodical sentences, punctuated with profound pauses for the Russian translator. He warned us about guru-shopping and the importance of sticking with your guru for the long term to see things through. He pronounced that all the great masters take action to bring out your problem areas; the importance of raising your difficulties, your defences, your conditioned patterns into the light to be seen. Of course there was also the quiet implication that obviously he is also a great master and would be doing these very things with us here tonight.
A waiter tried to come in and deliver tea and water to those of us who had ordered them. Rasputin glared at him and he shrunk and left the glasses of tea on a table at the back, hurriedly dropping off a few bottled waters to a few people at the front of the group and scurrying away again. If an audience member wanted to pick up their tea, they had to pass Rasputin’s chair along the way, and he would purse his lips and pause in frustration.
Rasputin told us to close our eyes, and to arrange our hands in the heart mudra: index finger on the base of our thumb, third and fourth fingers against the tip of our thumb, pinky outstretched. He announced the benefits of this mudra, which included, among other things, opening our heart chakras and preventing heart attacks. A few latecomers came in, which obviously irked him but he tried to hide it; he would first make sure they didn’t sit within his preferred safe zone and then instruct someone to make sure the new person knew how to hold the heart mudra as well. I held it for a while, until my hands got tired.
A friendly dog bumbled in, enthusiastically wagging its tail and snuffling at the people on the floor. I couldn’t help grinning at the dog’s enjoyment. Someone tried to usher it out but it came back and tried to sit against the women. I commented, “At least he should sit on the men’s side,” which got a few chuckles but not from Rasputin, who took a pillow and smacked it out of the room, muttering “Strange energy tonight”. A different dog wandered in several minutes later and was similarly dismissed.
I alternated eyes open and closed at stretches. I caught Matthew’s eye across the room and we briefly made faces at each other. We were clearly on the same page about things so far: this wasn’t our scene, but we were sort of enjoying watching it play out anyway. Carola next to me was fidgety and restless. I wondered, was Rasputin planning to expose my deep-rooted skepticism to the light? Because it was pretty noticeably rising up. It certainly seemed that he had noticed our glances, and I caught a dark scowl from him.
Attempting to center us all in our bodies, Rasputin began asking us to repeat lines after him – silently, but also moving our lips. Not seeing enough of us moving our lips, he reminded us about this being a group energy and the need to participate.
I am on Planet Earth right now. I am on the continent of Asia. I am in the country of India…
working our way down to:
My body is in this café. I choose to be with my body right now.
Because nothing helps embody the mind better than telling your mind you’ve embodied it, right? We went through this twice for good measure, possibly because someone came in late partway through the first time so perhaps the momentum had been lost.
Rasputin decided he would lead us in the meditation which had allegedly been channeled to him directly by Ramana Maharshi in a dream ten years before. It actually wasn’t bad – an interesting variation on self-inquiry. Who knows, maybe I would have gotten some benefit from it, except then someone’s cell phone started loudly playing a merry tune in their backpack. Rasputin was furious, called the person up, made them dig it out and turn it off, and was now even more visibly frazzled and aggravated. Most of his followers sat in stiff silence, not daring to react, holding their heart mudras obediently. Carola started giggling uncontrollably.
We tried to continue the meditation. I closed my eyes, assumed the position with my fingers, and listened. And at some point I opened my eyes to see a massive mosquito parked squarely on the inside of my wrist, having its way with me. Startled, I smacked it, and it squished all over my other hand, and then I was trying to shake it off of my fingers but it wouldn’t drop, and Carola gasped and made a face.
Rasputin swivelled to face me, exasperated, and said flatly, “You two don’t really want to be here right now, do you?”
The whole time, I hadn’t been able to pretend, and I wasn’t going to start now. “Not especially, no,” I said frankly with a smile, and got up. “Goodnight.” Carola popped up as well. “Thank you guru,” she chimed as we walked out. Matthew followed us out. We went home and spent the next hour marvelling and dissecting what had happened.
It’d be easy – and a hell of a lot of fun! – for me to paint Rasputin as a total madman. It’s hard to resist the desire to make him into a ridiculous caricature. But what I saw was a human being – with some significant neuroses, and some awe-inspiring control issues. Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not he may be in touch with the Akashic soul records or whatever intuition he claims to have, as I am, shall we say, not qualified to judge things on that particular plane of existence. He had something to offer, but in order for him to be comfortable offering it, he tried (and failed) to micromanage his environment to prevent anything from happening that could possibly bother him. He required absolute conformity from his audience; he could not function without everyone in the room agreeing to be submissive – not simply quiet and respectful, but actually subservient. There’s a big difference between setting the tone of a group with a few ground rules and intentions of what sort of space you’d like to create, and having a sense of threat hanging over a group to ensure they act as if that space has already been created.
The spiritual teachers I’ve respected are people who could just roll with whatever happened, who didn’t take mistakes personally, who didn’t punish or threaten their listeners for failing to behave in a particular specific fashion. Or – if they should happen to react to something – they didn’t hold onto it long, build it up into an issue, or try to pretend they didn’t have their own shit. They’re human, and they know being human is difficult. They’re aware they react in neurotic human ways, and they acknowledge it wryly and laugh at themselves and try to catch it a little earlier next time. It’s part of the dance.
Rasputin’s satsang was a shining example of spiritualizing neurotic behaviour, taking someone’s deep-rooted psychological issues and portraying them as profound, as an excuse to mask his own anxieties and uncertainties and parade them around as powers. The word “energy” is so wildly vague, so open to interpretation, and so easy to abuse that it can be used to justify just about any action or behaviour. And for the sake of “energy”, an entire roomful of people was willing to completely ignore the cognitive dissonance of a man claiming to be able to free you of your failings and limitations while his own neurotic behaviour runs rampant.
And why should I be so surprised? Cults form all the time.