My own ideas of what it meant to have a guru were based on what I had read in SRF publications as well as what Vedanta members had informed me, which is, the guru is the one that I was to talk with whenever I had any kind of questions, whether it was from the books that I was reading, personal problems, or questions on meditation. I was also told by swamis and members that they talked with their guru twice a week for a half hour at a time, and during that time they brought him their problems, etc.
So when I was initiated, I asked my guru how often should we communicate, and he said every other week. So I wrote him letters since he lived far away, but I noticed that he seldom answered any of my questions but just wrote to me about the pujas, etc. I had received around six letters in all during the 1 ½ years of my having him as a guru. Whenever I couldn’t get an answer by mail, I would call him. I often found myself calling and talking with other swamis in order to get my questions answered because I didn't want to bother him, and whenever I did call him, which was once a month, he would say that he was busy.
I found myself asking other swamis why he didn’t write, was this common, etc., but they would not explain things to me. One said that he didn't know how to teach. I began to feel hurt and disappointment that this guru/disciple relationship was not going the way I had it explained to me, and I recalled how Christopher Isherwood would get his own guru to explain all the teachings to him. It made me wonder if I was not important enough to have the same teachings? Perhaps if I were a man, or if I were in the ashram, I thought. Basically, the only way I was able to learn anything was to just read their books or ask another swami.
I was going to the San Diego Temple during my first 1 1/2 years or so. The swami there was not very approachable. People were having problems with him because he was verbally abusive and harsh. I did not see this for the first year because I was not an insider. After I was initiated, one woman took me aside to tell me how hurt she was over this swami. She had stood too close to him without realizing it, and he screamed in her face in front of everyone there, "Get away from me." or something to that affect. She was so hurt and embarrassed that she only came to the pujas where she could hide in the crowd. Then she said that the swamis all have their shaktis, women who escort them everywhere. I knew what she meant by the implications, but I didn't really know if I should believe her. I talked to my guru about this, and he said that she had emotional problems, but her worth was that she was a doctor to the nuns. At the time it felt strange to me that a person’s worth was built on what they could do for the organization, but I ignored this.
I went to the swami in San Diego in regards to her comments to me. He said that she had mental problems and that I should not talk to her again.
Next, a new person came to Vedanta, and I made friends with her. She began having problems with the same swami. She was soon initiated, and one day she asked to have an interview with her own guru who usually only gives people 5 minutes of his time. On that day she couldn't remember how to pronounce her mantra, but he had no time to spend with her even though she had an appointment. He rushed her out without helping her and then spent the next half hour or more talking to another devotee. She left Vedanta that day.
Then my other friend, a woman that was a long time member, left Vedanta. I asked her why but she would never talk about it. I talked to the swami there about her leaving, and he said, "I am just glad that I had nothing to do with it." I knew he had everything to do with it. He told me that she had emotional problems. (I was beginning to see a pattern: If you have a problem with the swami or leave, you have emotional problems.) I saw it coming. She had been really stressed out due to all of the volunteer work that she was doing there, and she blew up at a young Indian man who lived at the ashram but who never helped with the work. Finally, I was able to her to say, "I will come back if the swami leaves."
I had gone to this same swami earlier with my issues over Yogananda—questioning how he treated others. I was met with anger. I was told that I should just forget him and that I had come to the best religion. I didn't know that the way Yogananda treated devotees was the same as Vedanta's way, so the reason for his anger. Later, I went to him with my problem over my own guru’s lack on interest in helping me on the spiritual path. He blew up and said, "Forget about him. Quit calling and writing him letters. Leave him alone. Just pray to Ramakrishna!"
The following Sunday, after my questioning him about my guru as to why he doesn't write, etc. he walked by me and in front of another devotee, said, "Grainne is too emotional. She should be more mature like you. Just come, serve, and leave." I was hurt and embarrassed. I told him so later, and he apologized. But he continued to make cutting remarks to me in front of others, and I was finding myself even more embarrassed. Still, I tried to let it all go.
Later, I asked him if I could re-arrange the library, and so I was given the job. One day I was taking the toys off of two library shelves, just as the swami had told me to do, and I was putting them in tote boxes, which he had asked me to buy. We needed more room for books. Then I got this strong feeling that someone was going to walk into the room and ruin it all for me. A while later the mature woman that the swami so admired walked in and said in a harsh manner, "Grainne, I hope you saved the receipts from those boxes, because I want the toys back on the shelves!" I kindly told her that I was asked to do this, and she said, "Well! We'll see about this, I will talk to the swami and get it changed."
The following day I wrote an email to the swami, telling him that I was not going to continue with the volunteer work in the library. Then I wrote back and saying that I had changed my mind, that I am just too sensitive. I never mentioned the incident with this devotee because I knew that he would chew her out. He wrote back and said that he was glad to see that I was growing up, that I was becoming more mature by considering it all as my fault. That is when I lost it because I didn't consider it my fault, and he had nothing to go on because he didn’t ask me why I didn’t want to volunteer. Plus, I had done nothing. I wrote back and said as much, and then told him that I was hurt over what he had said to me on a few occasions, and also when he said to come, serve, and leave, it felt like he wanted a servant. He wrote back and told me to not come back until I was over my anger towards him and that I could never do volunteer work again. He also had said that he never talked to anyone about what was going on between us. I even added, "Whenever you scold, put down, or criticize me, you are doing what Holy Mother said not to do, you are finding fault with me." I thought that rather clever at the time and still do.
In the meantime, I had told my friend that he said that he had not talked with anyone there about our problems, so she told me that he had been gossiping about me in front of other devotees. So I wrote him back and told him in so many words that he was a liar. He never answered that e-mail. I finally went back but I showed up with support of this same friend. When he saw us he looked very angry. He never spoke to either of us. I left the San Diego Temple and went to the Ramakrishna Order in Orange Co., which is still the Vedanta Society.
I began to notice that even the most loving of the swamis there had a mean streak. I tried to ignore it. I recall one Indian woman asking the kindest swami a question, and he didn't answer it. So she and I went up to talk to him because it was also something that I wanted to know. I said, "She and I have a question." He snapped, "She always has questions!" I felt bad for her. It was as if too many questions were wrong. Our question was never answered.
One day I was sitting in the discussion group where this same swami was the leader. The group began talking about the Muslims. I was sitting next to a Buddhist woman that came to visit that day. This swami said that he hoped that we would go into Iraq and kill all the terrorists. Then he added, "Kill anyone who says, 'My religion.'" I was shocked, so much so that I burst out laughing as I have often done in such situations in my life. The Buddhist woman dropped her jaws and stared at me. I was embarrassed for my religion that day. The Buddhist woman told me later that she would never return that she didn't believe in violence. I said, "Maybe he was just joking." But it really is nothing to joke about.
I missed the people in San Diego so I tried talking to another swami about the situation there. He asked me to touch the feet of the swami. So I went back and did. It was not easy, but when I finished he had a big smile on his face, and so I felt it was over with, I was forgiven, and so I was relieved. Then someone asked me to help in the kitchen. I started to help, but a devotee went to tell the swami and next thing I knew I was asked to stop helping. Again, I was embarrassed. I knew the swami had not seen me working, so I knew that others knew that I was being punished. I called him later and he affirmed that he didn't want me to do volunteer work there.
I had traveled to see my guru earlier in regards to this all. I told him that five women had left Vedanta because of this swami. He gave me an askance smile and said, "I know." I talked to other swamis to find out how to deal with it, and all I received was, "Walk away quietly. Go where you find peace and joy." Only one swami was on my side. I knew that he did not care for this swami in the least because he, too, had been hurt by him. He would not say much to me other than to offer what support he could. And one woman had said that he didn’t ever want to see this swami again unless he passed him on the freeway.
One day I was reading a Vedanta book and in that book I began to see that all swamis scold, put down, and verbally abuse the devotees. I called my guru and told him that I was reading, "Six Lighted Windows" and that I was upset over the instances of scolding and wanted to understand it. He said, "We are all adults here. I don’t have time for this," and hung up the phone. My thought at the time was, "Yes, we are adults, so why are we treated like children?" I learned whenever I asked questions that they didn't like I was treated harshly in an attempt to stop me from asking such questions. I was beginning to realize that this is how they try to control devotees. I also realized that the scolding and other punishments were also used to gain control, to get you to conform.
The swami who asked me to touch the feet of the swami in San Diego finally explained to me why they scold. He said that it was done to rid you of bad karma, to get rid of bad tendencies, and that you learn to “roll with the punches.” I knew better. I knew this swami in San Diego did it because he was angry, and he continued to be angry up to a year later. This same swami in Portland, Oregon gave me an example of a woman who had lost her son and husband all in one day and was grieving. She came up there to a retreat. He said, "The swami scolded her left and right and by the end of the week she was a different person. You would not believe it." Actually, I think this traumatized her.
Weeks later after my last embarrassment at Vedanta over my trying to volunteer, I received an e-mail from the swami in San Diego. He wrote: "We are having a puja. I would like you to come and serve." The sentence was longer than that. I was glad that I was finally forgiven again, and yet I knew I had done nothing wrong. I just wanted to be able to attend there some times because they had a great schedule of out of town swamis coming to give lectures. Then his next sentence said, "But never write, call, or e-mail me ever again." I sat there and laughed. I never answered the letter, and I never went back.
I went to the Hollywood Puja instead, but I found that he had come up from San Diego, and he didn't speak to me. (He was there because the San Diego puja was on another day.) I sat at the dinner table across from a male devotee, and he asked me where I lived. I said, "San Diego." "Oh, you go to the San Diego temple?" "No. I go to Trabuco." He said, "You are the sixth person who has hinted about problems in San Diego Temple." I said, "Were they all women?" “No, half were men” he stated. He asked what was going on, I said, "I stood up to the swami. He told me I couldn't volunteer anymore. Now he said I could, but not to call or write to him." He laughed. He said, "You know they are treated like Gods in India." Later he wrote me an email and said that there were others overhearing everything I said, and if it got back to my guru it would embarrass him, and he would then distance himself from me.
I found this to be true. While my guru was always short on the phone to me, he was now even shorter. And there were no letters in the mail. One day I called him with a problem. My mother had just died, and my sisters were being verbally abusive towards me. I wanted a spiritual way to handle the situation, but he said, "We believe in individual thinking.” I thought about it for a couple of days and called him back. I asked, “When you said, 'we believe in individual thinking' did you mean that I am to solve my own personal problems?” He said, “Yes,” laughed and hung up on me. I thought about how he said two months earlier that he would not explain the teachings to me, and how after that when I asked him a meditation question, he wasn’t interested in helping me. Personally, I felt that he was fed up with me for the problems that I was creating with the San Diego swami and for having talked about him to other swamis and devotees.
I was very stressed out when I went to bed that night. When I awoke in the middle of the night my first thoughts were that my relationship with my guru was all a fantasy that I had created in my mind, that I also was trying hard to accept the teachings and the ways of that religion, but I couldn’t struggle to do so anymore. I knew I had to leave. Something deep inside of me would not allow me to return, and I found that there was no pain in leaving Vedanta. I wrote my guru a goodbye letter, and he never answered. I wondered what he really thought, but I knew that he would never say, but what was more important was what I thought: I knew I just had to do what was best for me. by Grainne