April 27, 2010

Stripping A Chip Or Two Off Stripping The Gurus

I must admit at the onset, I do not have the time nor the inclination to read the whole book Stripping the Gurus:Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment by Geoffrey Falk. I have only read the Chapter on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and, so far, I am hardly impressed with the shoddy scholarship and tendency toward sensationalism.

Here is a short review of the section on Vivekananda:

The examples used in this chapter are largely based on the books Ramakrishna Revisited and Vivekananda: A Reassessment by Sil P. Narasinghe.

According to Narasinghe, Vivekananda (1863-1902), one of India’s most famous Swamis, visited a whorehouse in 1884. Apparently, he only spent time in the bar, and it took place a few days after his father died and two years before he became an ordained monk in the Ramakrishna order in 1886.

Narasinghe never bothers to check or comment on the chronology and state the obvious: Vivekananda, the famous monk, visited the bar in a brothel at the age of 21 with a group of friends. But not while he was a monk. No, two years before he became a monk.

Hardly news worthy of a chapter in a book about the wild sex lives of supposedly celibate monks, swamis and gurus. Indeed, it is hardly even a character flaw, at least not in the West, not to observe celibacy prior to life as a celibate monk. Moreover, Vivekananda did not even have sex at the brothel. He only had a few drinks.

So, why is Falk making such a big deal about an incident two years before the famous Swami became a monk other than for sensationalist purposes? Is that all the dirt he can dig up on Vivekananda?

He follows this incident up with an example of Vivekananda experiencing lust while a monk. Hardly a surprise, as if all monks must be free of such feelings and struggles in order to rightfully call themselves monks.

Becoming a monk does not mean you are free of human desires. What makes you a good yogic monk is your ability, through yogic practices, to channel these desires into creative physical, mental and spiritual activities.

What makes you a bad Swami or monk is your acting out those desires by having sexual activities with yourself, your students, or others. And Falk is unable to provide any such examples from Vivekananda’s life in his book.

Vivekananda admitted he had a few drinks at the brothel, then he was thrown out by his friends because he was not interested in having sex with the girls. This incident is then used to advertise the dirty content of Falk’s controversial book: VIVEKANNDA, THE GREAT INDIAN SAINT, VISITED BROTHELS. C’mon!  This hardly qualifies as good investigative journalism.

It is also known that Vivekananda smoked throughout his life. As odd as this may sound to us, Nisargadatta Maharaj, whose seminal book I AM THAT is considered one of the greatest books on jinana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) of all time, also smoked. Not much, but he did indulge in smoking a few beedis now and then, the tiny hand rolled Indian cigarettes.

Nisargadatta’s book I AM THAT is one of my favorite books for spiritual inspiration. It is based on interviews and conversations with the saint, and is clearly words spoken by a spiritual genius.  Just like many Tibetan Lamas, however, Nisargadatta, also ate meat when offered to him.

Meat eating may not describe a “perfect” yogi if you are a vegetarian yogi like me, and smoking a cigarette or two per day, may seem a bit odd to us modern, or post-modern, health-freaks. But these activities do in no way qualify as material evidence to tarnish the spiritual character, teachings or inner realizations of a saint.

These words of Nisargadatta’s experience of enlightenment gives us a perspective on how it is possible to smoke a beedi or two and still be considered enlightened:  “I may perceive the world just like you, but you believe to be in it, while I see it as an iridescent drop in the vast expanse of consciousness.”

So far so good. The saints would be in trouble, however, if they used the same kind of spiritual argument to engage in the abuse of others. It may be OK to wear your own lungs down, Mr. Saint, but not the bodies and minds of others. That is not crazy wisdom. That is just plain crazy.

In order to judge these oddball saints fully, as spiritual teachers and as human beings, one needs to have intimate knowledge of yogic psychology, mystical states of mind, yogic practice and behavior.

One also needs to appreciate and understand, at least intellectually, the essence of their teachings. Neither Falk nor Sil P. Narasingha may have such understanding or appreciation. At least they do not reveal such insights in the writings and quotes used in this chapter of Stripping the Gurus.

Rather they seem to have another agenda: to dig up the dirt on famous yogis. And when there is no real dirt to be found, they make it up for you. And they do want to make that dirt stick!

I find it curious to learn that Sil P. Narasingha, the author which Falk bases 90 percent of his information on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda on, reviews his own book on Amazon, not only once, but twice, responding to another negative reviewer and giving his own book 4 stars, twice! That is hardly an ethical, objective, or detached act from someone claiming to serve us nothing but the dirty truth.

That said, there is undoubtedly some merit to some of the cases presented in Stripping the Gurus. And I do agree with Falk that sexual or other forms of abuse are grievous matters in a teacher student relationship. Such abuse should be taken seriously, and alleged abusive teachers should be investigated and, if found guilty, should be asked to step down.

Finally, Falk did ask his readers to report possible flaws or mistakes in the book. Please make a note of the few mentioned above, Mr. Falk.

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