Crimes of the Soul

Discusses the ties that bind gurus and their followers. Story of Luna Torlo, author of 'Mother of God' and mother of American guru Andrew Cohen; Human tendency to search for transcendence; Reason why Torlo stopped following her son; Reason why people turn to spiritual teachers or leaders; Characteristics of gurus; Different views on gurus.

By Jill Neimark, published March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Here's a look at the secret and potent ties that bind gurus and their devotees, and why they need us as much as we need them.

From Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate to the Dalai Lama of Tibet, from those who inspire suicide to those who inspire nations, gurus are a holy paradox--especially in America.

Far too often, they have been linked to a monstrous abuse of power--financial, physical, sexual, and above all, emotional and psychological.

It isn't often you invite the mother of God to drop by for a visit, but that's exactly what I did one wet morning last December, when the rain snapped on the pavement like popped guitar strings. She arrived at my home in a parka, leggings, and sneakers, shaking out her umbrella, an endearingly messy halo of bleached blonde hair around her face. After plunking a few playful notes on my piano, she sat down to tell her story--a peculiarly American story of the se,arch for transcendence and how it had gone awry, morphing into a gothic horror flick of abuse and betrayal. America, home of Deepak Chopra and O. J. Simpson, The X-Files and Touched by an Angel, the endless search for grace and the endless fall from it. And home of Luna Tarlo.

Luna wryly calls herself the mother of God (and has written a book by that name) because her son, Andrew Cohen, is an American guru with an international following, and for three and a half years she became his disciple. Today they are estranged and she believes they will never speak again. "I've been burned," she says. "I don't believe in the premise anymore that anybody can save you. And my son has become a monster to me."

Cohen himself is a boyishly attractive 43-year-old with thick, dark hair and a mustache, and a pensive softness in his eyes. He travels around the world offering teachings and retreats, and his foundations--Moksha, and Friends of Andrew Cohen Everywhere (FACE)--are headquartered on an estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. He produces tapes, books and a magazine called What is Enlightenment? in which he himself has addressed the question of purity and abuse in spiritual life.

In 1986, however, he was just another spiritual seeker who had broken up with his girlfriend when he met an Indian teacher named Poonja. Later that month he claimed that a "spiritual realization [had] transformed his life beyond recognition." He immediately began to attract followers, and brought his mother to India, where, she says, he told her that the son she knew was dead, that he felt like God, and that in his presence she was now enlightened. "At first, I felt I'd won some kind of cosmic lottery," recalls Tarlo, who was astonished by her sons new charisma and "silver tongue," and who was longing to be catapulted out of her own pain (she'd lost her husband, father, and mother in the previous four years' and had just left a second marriage). "Andrew said he felt he was on fire, that his body was like an electric generator. Poonja told me he'd been waiting for Andrew all his life." Andrew and Poonja wrote each other ardent letters. From Poonja, November 2, 1986: "You've occupied my whole mind day and night." From Andrew, April 13, 1988: "Master, I love you so! My each breath is only you and you and you!"

By 1989, Luna was sending similar adoring letters to her son: "Beloved: just as a leaf turns toward the sun, am I turned towards you." Surrendering to a spiritual teacher is, she says, as mysterious and shattering an act as falling in love. "Men and women fall in love with Andrew in this mad, hysterical way, as if he's their savior. I did, too. I believe he had reached this exalted state."

But the enlightened teacher, she warns, was not all love and compassion. She recalls him lashing out at his disciples--supposedly in an attempt to strip away the ego. Tar]o says he told her to give way to him or their relationship would end; he once ordered a regimen where she would cook one meal a day, meditate for two hours, and remain in silence except for talking to him, saying that "since I was SC! full of opinions and nothing but opinions, I was absolutely forbidden to express an opinion on anything."

Her son, formerly the "sweetest, sensitive kid, had changed into an unrecognizable tyrant."

Tarlo found her moods veering from ecstasy to self-loathing. "He thinks if you disintegrate the personality you'll find your true self. I think it's an extremely cruel act. I wouldn't have remained if Andrew were not my son, but I knew if I seriously objected to anything, I'd be kicked out." Finally, she returned to New York and burned all her writing as a gift to her guru: "I watched [myself], a remote, alien being, move to and fro, to and fro, from filing cabinet to incinerator, from filing cabinet to incinerator." When she called to tell him of this spiritual act of renunciation, his response, she says, was: "Show me how much you love me. Show me." When she returned to sit at his teachings, "I hardly dared look at him. He sat, backed by tiers of gorgeous flowers, looking like the king of paradise."

Eventually, Tarlo broke with her guru and son. "I've lost a child and I'll never get over it." But, looking back, she believes she knows why she followed him and why he is still so popular: "Everybody wants to be saved from their suffering, and the unique quality gurus have is that they seem so certain, so confident. Confidence is its own kind of magic."

Only Luna Tarlo and her son can know whether her story is an accurate rendering. But she does trace a topography of seduction and betrayal described by many American disciples of gurus. Something happens to that venerable, ancient tradition of teacher and seeker when it hits our shores. It mutates. There's simply too intoxicating a liquor of freedom and power here to keep it intact.

A while back, when I decided to write about this topic, we were a country mesmerized and deeply baffled by Heaven's Gate. In that tragedy we heard the eerie echoes of Waco, and of the massacre at Guyana, when Jim Jones' 900 devotees drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

Each of these stories is a message from a bottle from the heart of America. It may not be our gurus who are ultimately at fault, but the alchemy our society works on them. Our primal themes have always been writ large: God, freedom, power, possibility from sea to shining sea. We were founded by bands of the persecuted in search of religious freedom. "Spirituality in America has always consisted of large and small groups of spiritual communities permitted to live side by side," explains Eugene Taylor, Ph.D., author of The Psychology of Spiritual Healing. "That freedom is protected by the constitution and unprecedented in the history of any other culture."

But freedom has its discontents and dangers, because we also free up the devil--and, paradoxically--our need for boundary and authority. "Who are we now that we're free?" asks Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia and author of Nightmare on Main Street. "Angels perhaps, but maybe sadists, too. As a culture we've become nearly as obsessed by angels as by Gothic images of the serial killer. In fact, one often creates the need for the other." We've found both in our religious gurus.

One of the deeper ironies of a life committed to a spiritual teacher is that, though you may flee ten thousand attachments, you end up surrendering your entire existence to a single man or woman In the most extreme cases. that surrender leads to absolute powerlessness and death. "There isn't any power more absolute than the power of a `spiritually enlightened' human being over his disciples," points out Joel Kramer, co-author with his wife, Diana Alstad, of The Guru Papers. "That is as absolute as you can get on a psychological level." To Kramer and Alstad, gurus preach freedom but wear the mask of authoritarian power. "Gurus are actually a metaphor," says Kramer, "for any human being or system that establishes itself as fundamentally unchallengeable, presuming to know what's best for others. And that kind of authoritarianism is everywhere in our society."

Yet if gurus are contradictory straw men dancing to our own epic tale of good and evil, freedom and punishment, selfishness and surrender, it's because we are contradictory, too. As Eugene Taylor puts it: "The power, danger, and possibility of gurus lies in our projection. A simple human being can inspire you to spiritual ecstasy because of what you believe him to be Or you can end up totally bamboozled." We have met the guru, and he is us.

Just who is that, anyway?

"It's anybody who has ever been vulnerable, lonely, and searching," says New York psychotherapist Daniel Shaw, CSW "For me, following a guru was a way of relieving all my depression and emptiness."

For 12 years, Shaw was an ardent disciple of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, an Indian beauty who inherited the spiritual path called Siddha Yoga (SYDA) from her guru, Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa, nicknamed Baba. (Most gurus are crowned by the lineage they lay claim to. It's a rare one who's born full-blown out of nowhere.)

In 1981, when Shaw joined SYDA, he was a struggling New York actor. "I was enraged at my failure to achieve what I had wanted. I ended up trying to annihilate all that I had been, devalue everyone I'd known, take a new spiritual name and identity," he admits. "The idea that I could be the pure, devoted servant of a great master was very intoxicating." In addition, he had a sudden, fully formed, "loving" community. As Alstad and Kramer note, "Community is very hard to get in this world, and it's a powerful enticement to followers."

SYDA's claim to spiritual fame is an ecstatic state known as "shaktipat", a cosmic body orgasm that one experiences after connecting with the guru. Shaw remembers "a crescendo of sensation that goes from your toes to your head again and again in waves. It provided a kind of addictive substance, a kind of heroin, that seemed to completely allay all anxiety." Shaktipat is not unique to SYDA--many spiritual traditions honor ecstatic awakening. Perhaps its most striking image is Michelangelo's statue of Saint Teresa, stabbed through the heart by an angel and collapsing in his arms in agonized bliss.

For Shaw, the experience of shaktipat "was magical proof" of his guru's power, and he began a somewhat tortured apprenticeship. "Now I view what I went through as a dissociative phenomenon. In my private life I was depressed, exhausted, and quite unwell most of the time. But when I was at SYDA I literally put on a happy face." Like gunshots on window glass, he managed to overlook the scandals that have marked SYDA's history.

First of all, Muktananda was widely rumored to be a pedophile, initiating young girls in sex--apparently choosing them from a six-bed dormitory called the Princess Dorm. One young woman reported that the guru inserted his penis inside her, without an erection or ejaculation, and remained that way for an hour and a half, joking and talking, while she lay in a state of ecstasy.

Shortly before Muktananda died in 1982, he appointed a brother and sister (whom he had raised) as his successors. Both were children of an admirer of the swami's. Within three years, the sister, Gurumayi, took control of the organization, and in 1985 announced that her brother, Swami Nityananda, was stepping down. Nityananda, told the New Yorker magazine that before being forced out, his sister ordered him to be caned for three hours by four women followers with whom he'd had consensual sex. Gurumayi, in later reports, said the cane was a small walking stick, and that he was only slapped with it a few times.

Other rumors have followed in the wake of that disruption: ax-devotees suggest that Gurumayi has had her cheekbones, chin, and nose enhanced by plastic surgery; that although she claimed celibacy, she'd had a love affair with George Afif, an upper echelon SYDA member; and that she issued a 1990 edict to fire all gay and lesbian yoga teachers at SYDA ashrams around the country. One former follower says that when he tearfully questioned Gurumayi about her ouster of her brother, she walked away, and that evening publicly announced that she was offering a new course in "delusion" in honor of the questioner.

If the response sounds defensive and hostile, it may well be. According to British psychiatrist Anthony Storr, author of Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen, even though gurus may feel divinely inspired, "they are not as certain as they look. They need disciples to help them believe in their own revelations. Gurus tend to be intolerant of any kind of criticism, believing that anything less than total agreement is equivalent to hostility." And the gurus make sure to maintain that absolute adoration. When Amrit Desai, the now dishonored "guru" of the holistic facility called Kripalu, in Lenox, Massachusetts, was questioned about a new policy of silence at all meals, a poster went up in the dining room: "Never wound the heart of the guru." Most disciples signed their names to it.

It sounds as if these gurus are half mad, and maybe they are. When Storr examined the lives of ten gurus, he found that each had suffered a "dark night of the soul", an episode akin to a manic-depressive or psychotic illness, which ultimately seemed to resolve itself though revelations and religious insights. Take David Koresh: Storr notes that at age nineteen, his sixteen-year-old girlfriend got pregnant but refused to live with him. "He began to suffer from mood swings of pathological intensity, sometimes believing himself to be uniquely evil, sometimes thinking that he was especially favored by God."

MAD OR BAD OR SAD?

Yet gurus are not actually insane, says Storr. They may be frankly delusional in their beliefs about God and the universe and their exalted role in it, "yet they function very well as long as they have people who believe in them." Storr cites the intricate, many-tiered cosmologies of gurus such as Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff or Rudolf Steiner. "Gurdjieff stated that he'd invented a way to increase the visibility of the planets and the sun. Steiner invented his own history of the universe." These men, and other gurus, says Storr, were narcissistic, isolated, and arrogant, but they did not suffer from the thought disorders prevalent in schizophrenia or actual psychosis--buffered as they were by adoring disciples.

The cost of that adoration is, oddly enough, isolation. Kramer and Alstad note that gurus are deprived of real relational intimacy, and thus try to fill the need for genuine closeness with more and more followers: "The role of guru is a gradual entrapment. Power is seductive, and they don't realize what they're giving up--humanity, a normal life of horizontal rather than vertical relationships. When people succumb to the temptation to be a guru, they are often destroyed as human beings.'

As for the loving disciples, they reach out for certainty and transcendental meaning, but are asked to give unconditional love and selfless surrender in return. That's particularly hard for Americans, bred on independence. "That kind of idealism doesn't leave room for the needs of the self," says Alstad. "The guru blocks feedback. You need a way for dealing with issues of power, control, and self-centeredness, all of which arise in long-term relationships, even those with a guru." The disciple cannot surrender his human needs forever. Neither can the guru live up to his presumed divinity. Luna Tarlo echoes this in her own experience. "My son must be living under terrible tension," she says. "He has to maintain that he's enlightened all the time. I don't know what happens when he goes to bed at night."

The guru-disciple relationship is by nature unhealthy, believes psychologist Rachel Brier, who has worked with over a dozen former devotees of Kripalu's Desai. "When a relationship is based on the idealization of one and the submission of another, the system invites abuse. Disciples believe that the guru is godlike, and the disciple is lost without the wisdom, knowledge, and love of the guru. It is an emotionally fused relationship in which each needs the other to exist. There are no healthy boundaries, no checks and balances, no real `other.'"

KISSING FEET?

Yet religious teachers and their disciples are as old as recorded history. That relationship has long been regarded as a sacred and yet pragmatic path to God. And it can be, says Eugene Taylor. Some of our problems with gurus are our own: we don't understand the nature of the relationship we're importing, and we respond to it inappropriately at times. "Let's not attack the idea of a spiritual mentor before we understand that the definition is culture-specific. Americans interested in Tibetan Buddhism fall all over themselves to meet the Dalai Lama, while Tibetans can't understand why we'd want to meet him at all. They feel he's too busy, and it's enough to have his picture. In Bengali Tantrism, the idea of using sexuality as a vehicle for spiritual attainment is common, but that idea is almost incomprehensible to most Americans. And take the idea of kissing a guru's feet--in India this is common, but in America it gives us a completely different impression. What a religious scholar might see as Hindu devotion, looks to a typical American like guru worship." Before we rush to condemn, cautions Taylor, let's try to understand the roots of the guru's own culture.

John Perkins, the founder of the Dream Change Coalition and author of Shapeshifting agrees. "In their native cultures, shamans are looked at as ordinary people who happen to heal others. They milk cows, plant corn, and also perform healings."

But when a shaman comes to America, says Perkins, he's often idolized as a saint and guru. "To come from a culture where they are respected but not revered, and to be suddenly idolized, is difficult for them. A lot of women throw themselves at these men sexually. And because shamans tend to consider sex as an ecstatic experience that opens the door to other realities, it's a very confusing issue." Some gurus have championed what is known as "crazy wisdom" -knowledge gleaned from breaking boundaries and indulging in mind-altering drugs, alcohol, and group sex. Yet, imported to this culture, crazy wisdom began to look merely crazy. Consider Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, who appointed a successor he knew had AIDS and was having unprotected sex with the disciples.

A SAFFRON PARADOX?

For Americans in particular, the guru is an irreducible paradox. Here in the land of religious freedom, the guru is inevitable, often irresistible. How can we curtail his freedom, whether he's dreaming up bacchanals or penance for his flock? "We are the only culture that has enshrined within its legal system the expression of religious freedom in any form," notes Taylor. "We believe in the idea that the small sect can live and thrive next to the large sect." Even when that tiny sect is in Waco, Texas, or Rancho Santa Fe, California, we are reluctant to intervene--often until it's too late. And yet, as Esalen Institute's Michael Murphy says: "This is one of the glories of America, this freedom." Let our gurus fall. We'll hoist up new ones in their place. Land of the brave, home of the free.

I've never followed a guru. But, like a curious and slightly bedazzled tourist, I've stood at the periphery of the pack. I've invited shamans into my home, trekked with them up mountains, and listened with suspended disbelief as they told me about myself, the universe, and God. But I always shook myself out of the dream and went on my way alone, under the authority of nobody. An American in her sect of one. Wandering through what Mark Edmundson wryly calls our "spiritual lazy Susan", in search of transcendence, as Americans are wont to do.

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson long ago said that the impulse to believe in God is "the most complex and powerful force in the human mind...(and) an ineradicable part of human nature." When we funnel that force down to a single religious teacher, we rebel against the very freedom we fought for from the start.

Eventually, most of us wander free again. Luna Tarlo says she has given up the possibility of enlightenment; in its place has come religion with a small "r". "One has these moments of religious feeling," she says. "Sometimes I go birdwatching and look at the variety and beauty of these wonderful creatures, and whatever created us, and a sense of awe brings tears to my eyes. How can any of us presume to rise above it? I don't know where we come from. I don't think we ever can know."

PHOTOS (COLOR): The ecstasy of numbers (from top to bottom): Vietnam's Coa Dai monastery at midday mass; Indonesian prayers for the return of pilgrims to Mecca; and in America, masses of Moonies marrying.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Bhagvan Das, libertine-cum-guru (top); Aimee Semple McPherson, Pentecostal healer (right).

PHOTOS (COLOR): Left to right: Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard claimed to have visited heaven 40 trillion years before his tumultuous life began on earth; evangelical Christians gather in Washington as Promise Keepers; and guru G.I. Gurdjieff loved "shearing sheep," his term for fleecing rich Americans like the Frank Lloyd Wrights.

BY JILL NEIMARK