Mar 9, 2018

Deferred Enlightenment: One man's wild journey from Ithaca to the ashrams of India

Nick Reynolds
Ithaca.com
March 9, 2018

“God was shorter than I thought he’d be. Even though it was quite a warm day for the end of March, he was bundled up as if he were on a visit to the North Pole. Over his orange silks he wore a bulky, bright red down jacket. His head was covered by a knitted orange woolen ski hat, and around his neck was a matching scarf. He was followed out of the limo by the siblings, Suresh and Anjali.

The chant reached a crescendo. Baba Rudrananda entered the building, flanked by his two young Indian disciples. With a wave of his hand, he motioned for the musicians to stop playing. Within a few seconds, the chanting ended. Rudrananda greeted the devotees with folded hands and the call, “Jai Gurudev!”

“Jai Gurudev!” cheered the crowd. Then there was silence, as if everyone in the lobby were holding their breath in anticipation of what the guru might do next.”

–Robert Schneider, ‘The Guru’s Touch’

Decades after leaving the Indian village of Ganeshpuri and his life behind the thick walls of the ashram at its center, Robert Schneider is still coming to grips with the events that led him two oceans away from Ithaca as a young man in search of enlightenment, only to find a trauma that would shape his life forever.

His parents deceased at critical junctures in his life – his father, in a car crash at the age of seven and his mother, of cancer, one decade later – Schneider admitted himself to be in a vulnerable place in 1982, depressed, depleted and in search of something to fill the newly dug hole in his life. A child of Bayside, Queens, Schneider was left in limbo in Ithaca – his home of about ten years – in melancholy and seeking purpose. It was around that time he started listening to his brother.

Some time in the late-’70s, his older brother had dropped out of Cornell University, spending his days on his sister’s farm on Etna Road in a haze of pot smoke and a mystic’s vision of the world painted by philosopher Alan Watts, the polarizing author some credit with raising recognition of eastern religions in the west in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There, he met a young woman who, in her time in the Catskills, had studied under thelegendary guru Muktananda – considered the chief envoy of thethe Siddha Yoga Dham Movement in America – and imparted in him the principles of meditation and the path to enlightenment, which inspired him to pursue his own path toward unlocking his spiritual energy and transcendence of self.

“At first I thought my brother had joined a cult,” Schneider recalls. “We all did, and kind of laughed about it.”

In his vulnerability and longing, however, his brother’s words begun to offer something Schneider felt he was lacking. And one day, Schneider made his first trip up Buffalo Street and into the City Yoga Center, looking to begin his path toward a higher state of being: whatever that might have been.

“I think I was really looking for some kind of father figure, because I had lost my own father and then, my mother,” Schneider said. “I was just desperately miserable, and this gave me this kind of hope that if I followed this path, I could attain a transcendent state of consciousness behind this small presence of Bobby Schneider. That was the appeal – to follow this guru and attain this exalted state of consciousness.”

Seeking more and with some inheritance to spend, he left the city and college for the Catskills – the start of a four-year journey that would take him a world away to  a small river town in India and theBhagwan Nityanand Samadhi Mandir, where in search of transcendence he, instead, found trauma.

***

In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the guru, or spiritual teacher, has existed as long as disciples of the faith have practiced. But the greater idea of the guru – as a phenomenon – first begun to gain momentum in the 1960s, spurred into popular culture by academics like Watts and embracement by popular figures such as The Beatles, whose guitarist, George Harrison, drew heavily from Indian influences following the band’s 1966 U.S. tour, where he and then-wife Pattie Boyd went on a pilgrimage to Mumbai where Harrison studied sitar and met several gurus, including Maharishi – the most holy and enlightened of the gurus.

It was around that time, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University notes, that the termguru, or spiritual teacher, became a household word. However, in some sense the word did not carry a similar weight to what it did overseas, where merit and a pre-established hierarchy determined legitimacy.

“In India, it is taken for granted that some gurus are more genuine representatives of their traditions of learning than others,” they write, describing a phenomenon known as the “rush of gurus” into the United States. “In America, all had a chance to attract a following. Some came and went quickly, sometimes amidst controversy. Others came and settled into the American landscape, where their influence is still felt today.”

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation and the eventual guru of the Beatles, was among the first to arrive in 1965. That same year, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada – the founder of the Hare Krishnas, arrived in New York City, spreading his message to passersby in Tompkins Square Park. There were others whose impressions were short-lived, like that of Guru Maharaj-ji (best known for hisembarrassingly sparse rally at the Houston Astrodome in 1973, which was supposed to set forth a millenium of ceaseless peace) and Swami Satchidananda, best known for his appearance at Woodstock in 1969.

And then there was Swami Muktananda, whose founding of the Siddha Yoga Dham Movement in 1970 inspired thousands of followers and numerous ashrams throughout the country, including the center of the faith in New York State with his facility in Walden, New York, which would influence dozens of practitioners across the state eventually serve as a home to none other than Robert G. Schneider, an impressionable teen from Ithaca, New York.

***

Where many modern gurus of the era dealt their message with flash and awe, Schneider’s first steps on the road to enlightenment – seva – were spent in the kitchen and dishroom of the ashram, where, he befriended another young man who grew up in the ashram. His parents were devotees of the guru there – Swami Rudrananda – and given his background, Schneider assumed he would be extremely spiritual; assuming that someone who was born into the group must’ve been in this evolved state of consciousness. Instead, Schneider was offered a window into a world he had previously not been aware of.

Over the McDonalds they would steal away to eat, Schneider learned of the guru of one ashram embezzling money, or the story of a disciple of another ashram in Oakland, California being kicked out for the statutory rape of a 16-year-old girl only to return elsewhere in a similarly influential role. But wanting to believe in the path, Schneider denied it all – despite the inner conflict over his faith.

“ And I thought to myself these gurus, who were supposed to be omniscient, would’ve known that these were bad people... So I started to have these doubts,” Schneider said. “But I  would look for ways to justify it, or rationalize things. I thought the gurus were so compassionate, that they would let these people stay despite them being really bad, in order to keep them close to keep them from doing what they’re doing. I constantly knew that there was something wrong, but kept finding new ways to rationalize it.”

Still empty in his search, he looked toward the source, to India, and the promise of eventually finding something greater and, just 18-years-old, he booked a flight to Mumbai, bent on starting a new life. But it didn’t offer what he expected, and he said he never obtained any sort of elevated sense of consciousness while he was there. And then, one day, the illusion he’d believed in for so long vanished, and the news came out that the guru he had invested years of his youth following was molesting a lot of the young girls and older women in the ashram, a similar story to so many gurus of the era.

“He preached celibacy, so in order to attain this state of enlightenment, he said we should be celibate and conserve our sexual energy – our spiritual energy,” said Schneider. “To find out he wasn’t keeping his vows, wasn’t doing what he was teaching… that was very devastating.”

For many, our modern understanding of eastern religion comes from a place of warmth and romantic intrigue. In the popular memoir-turned major motion picture, ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ we learn of the protagonist’s journey into the exotic depths of her own soul, “getting her groove back” via that “South Indian old lion” to find her inner self. Charming a story as it was, the truth, often buried behind the colorful spectacles and intrigue of the gurus’ public personas, was much uglier: the ‘old lion,’ like many religious leaders, was accused of hypocrisy, shadowed by allegations of child molestation and other detailed episodes of exploitation. Any combination of words in a search engine will give you a similar result – Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh,Bikram Choudhury, Asaram Bapu and even the great Muktananda himself – accused of similar crimes, their teachings mired in hypocrisy and scandal. Even Schneider himself – beaten for perceived incompetence or other motivations – said he saw a level of corruption to make him doubt his own beliefs to the point where he – now a Buddhist – left the way and the goal which once, had been his life’s work.

“I no longer have this goal of enlightenment,” he said. “I don’t even think I really believe in it anymore. For me, the most important aspect of Buddhism is ethical conduct and I certainly didn’t learn that in the first group. We were asked to do all these illegal things like smuggling, and there was a lot of exploitation going on, so I never learned ethics or kindness or compassion in the group.”

***

It wasn’t until 1989 and his application to New York University’s Film School – a continuation from his work as a cameraman in the ashram – that Schneider first thought to put his story to paper. First imagined as a screenplay, his pitch eventually gained him admission and was forgotten about, as he set to make a life for himself as a commercial filmmaker. Then something unique, that could only happen in the era of social media, happened: he reconnected with an old friend from his Ithacan adolescence, Manette Pottel, married her, and left Belgium, New York City and his previous pursuits behind to live with her, in Maine.

But he couldn’t leave the ashram behind. And, the story burning in his mind, Robert G. Schneider set to write a book.

He thought briefly to write a memoir and even, after the first draft of his novel, considered the thought further. But he had so much more to tell – Schneider wanted to capture it all, from the opulent hypocrisy of the worst of the mystics to bringing closure to his own trauma, reconciling his past with some sort of spiritual equilibrium that had proved elusive for so long. Most importantly, Schneider was in pursuit of a sort of deferred justice, an airing of wrongdoing and exploitation that, especially in the wake of events like the #MeToo Movement, seems all too timely. The final product is something remarkable.

Spanning more than 700 pages, Schneider’s book, ‘The Guru’s Touch,’ is a journey spanning from Ithaca and the campus of Cornell University to the deepest recesses of the far-east in a rollicking story that molds the best of bleeding heart memoirists with the hard-hitting social commentary most without first hand insight behind the scenes could ever hope to grasp at. Schneider’s book brings you as close as one can get to the purest image of the truth that can be distilled from a side of the Far East few of us ever have the opportunity to see, built largely on a caricature of the outsized illusions cast by the exploitative methods of the most shallow of the movement’s religious leaders. The process of writing the book – entailing five years since the couple’s 2012 marriage –  even took him back to India, to give Schneider the time to interview locals in Ganeshpuri, India, where the ashram was located.

But as thorough as the book is factually, the virtue of fiction actually allows Schneider to reach a more powerful of the truth: By casting a hybrid of himself and his brother as the protagonist and the antagonist – the fictional guru – as a mash-up of all the corrupt leaders to come before, Schneider sought to create the most accurate image of the phenomenon that was: a facade, appropriating a greater truth for selfish gains.

“What I found in so many religious groups, especially eastern religious groups, was the leader – the guru – tends to have these narcissistic, sociopathic tendencies,” said Schneider. “A lot of them are guilty of sex abuse and exploiting their devotees, and I wanted to write a whole indictment of this ‘institution of the guru,’ which I couldn’t have done with a memoir… since I was dealing with the successors, they weren’t guilty of the same crimes. They were guilty of others, though.”

In real-life, Schneider never got his revenge and for years, was left without closure. With this book, he said he sought not only reconciliation for his own confused past – the untimely death of his parents, his denied salvation, his missed chance for self enlightenment – and instead, wrote his story to share with the world, in the hope to not just reclaim lost opportunities of justice for himself, but others as well.

“Even though it’s a story that took place during the 1980s and even though Indian gurus may not be as popular in the west as they used to be,” Pottel said. “This book is really about men abusing their power and taking advantage of women in the ashram. It’s an indictment of rape culture, of a culture that privileged the powerful.”

http://www.ithaca.com/news/deferred-enlightenment-one-man-s-wild-journey-from-ithaca-to/article_fabb8644-2303-11e8-954d-672e2bc91aa5.html

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