A Trip to India—to Learn the Truth About Hinduism and Yoga
By Caryl Matrisciana
Thirteen years had passed since my family had left India. Now I found myself on an airplane returning there. I was filled with excitement and nostalgic memories. Would I bump into old friends with whom I had lost contact over the years? Would anything have changed?
I was travelling with a small group of international cult experts. We had received a grant enabling our research group to travel around India, visiting gurus and their ashrams.
Our plane landed in Calcutta, the former capital of the British Indian Empire and the city of my birth—I was breathless with excitement. Yet my enthusiasm was tinged with fear and apprehension: I knew the India I would encounter over the next few weeks would be a very different India from that of my youth.
This time I would experience the hardships of living an ascetic life with gurus and their disciples, a lifestyle as foreign to me as it was to my companions.
We planned to examine various popular-in-the-West gurus. We would interview them as well as their disciples, trying to glean a basic understanding of their teachings, so that we could better educate our various organizations back home.
I anticipated hardships, knowing that many gurus hid themselves in the outbacks of India’s countryside. I knew that the diets and accompanying Hindu religious activities would be arduous and draining. If all this weren’t spiritually exhausting, it would definitely take its toll physically.
Any disappointments I expected certainly didn’t match up to the overwhelming reality, which I soon encountered. Calcutta is named after the frightful Hindu goddess Kali, the female counterpart of the male god Shiva. Both depict death and destruction, and the city clearly reflects this. Kali also has the benign title of Mother of Love. Calcutta, or Kali-ghat, “the steps to Kali,” embodies all the complex contradictions of the Hindu god-goddess makeup. Calcutta is also one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of nearly thirteen million. Its harbors and industries make it a key center of Eastern commerce.
The first thing to overwhelm me as I stepped into Dum Dum, the bustling Calcutta airport, was the wild confusion resulting from overpopulation. Being in the midst of shoulder-to-shoulder people was a sensation I had almost forgotten after spending years in the West.
I recalled a conversation with an Indian friend who had visited America. He had commented on the emptiness of American streets. “Where are all the people?” he had asked in bewilderment. “I see houses with cars parked outside, open shops, offices, and restaurants . . . but where are all the people?” That question might seem peculiar to those who have not experienced India’s swarming mass of humanity.
My thoughts were soon flooded with other unpleasant recollections. Besides the pushing and shoving, we had to deal with stealing and lying—almost-forgotten aspects of my childhood memories.
Upon swift recall of necessary survival instincts, I made immediate efforts to beat the corruption of “the system.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t fast enough to protect our little group from the first “criminal.”
One of our party was taken in by a fellow claiming to be a porter. Our naïve traveling companion had paid an up-front deposit. Without hesitation, the imposter had proceeded to put our collective baggage onto a trolley. He had then wheeled it off down the road toward points unknown.
Because I was fluent in Hindi, I was assigned the recovery operation. Eventually, I caught up to the thief and ordered him to return our baggage to the airport lobby. He did so, but, of course, we lost the deposit. He stubbornly claimed it had not been paid to him. After this incident, I quickly learned to stay on my toes.
The next minor incident (our last show of naiveté) was a deliberately elongated taxi drive from the airport. Since I vaguely remembered the surroundings enough to put our cab driver back on course, we were spared the expense of being driven around and around the city. But, oh, the streets of Calcutta we drove through. Pitiful shacks made up of sackcloth, rags, and sticks engulfed the sidewalks and spilled onto the streets.
When our cab stopped for a moment at a traffic light, I was able to peek into the dark interiors of some of those “homes.” I was still horrified, after all the years, to see the number of people living inside. Sisters and brothers were curled against each other like young gerbils in a cage. I saw one pathetically skinny child in tattered rags with cow-dung matted in her hair. She was attempting to soothe a wailing toddler. She cuddled and caressed him, with a comforting smile on her sweet, sad face.
How could the Western spiritual seekers I had spoken to in England, Europe, and America overlook so much tragedy? How could they bypass it to focus on the “wisdom and love” of the East? Couldn’t they see that it was the very aloofness and madness of India’s religion, her so-called wisdom and love, that created such obvious agony for the poor and such cruel apathy in the rich?
They had only to look at any of the ever-present beggars. As a member of one of the largest professions there, each beggar belongs to a master. He is assigned to a specific territory where he collects money for his owner. In return, he is provided with a cramped space in some hovel for sleeping and an occasional meager meal.
Some of these homeless derelicts are horribly diseased. Others are intentionally mutilated by their masters. Some children are maimed from birth in order to elicit sympathy from prospective donors.
Equally heartbreaking are India’s prostitutes. According to one government-commissioned study, there are three million prostitutes in India, with many of them between the ages of twelve and fifteen.1 Young girls are often recruited by pimps who tour rural villages, making wild financial promises to poverty-stricken parents. Male prostitution in India is on the rise too.
In Mumbai, there is an infamous street where young girls are kept behind iron bars. Cage after cage exposes scantily clad, heavily made-up teenagers. Some are extraordinarily beautiful. Others are barely ten years old. Many have been beaten and tortured into submission.2
How does the higher class Indian deal with all this cultural madness? With sure escape in mind, he does what any Westerner might do when stressed—he goes to the movies!
India has the largest film industry in the world, far surpassing the number of films made in the United States, and there are over 13,000 theaters. Every three months a billion people in India buy tickets to the cinema.3 Even in the poorest regions of the country, people would go short of food rather than give up their night with the movie stars.
In an impoverished, starving country some films cost their producers tens of millions of rupees. The controversial 1981 film, Gandhi, was all the rage in fashionable Indian circles. One-third of the film’s nine million pound (English sterling) budget was paid for by the Indian government.4 Such were India’s political priorities.
Meanwhile, alluring tourist propaganda puts out impressive statistics documenting India’s achievements. But these glowing reports fail to address the nation’s most sobering problems.
India is the seventh largest landmass in the world. Her population of over 1.1 billion makes her the second most inhabited country on earth.5
Yet, in spite of her size, a spectacular array of natural resources, and economic growth due to developing technological industries, India places twelfth among the economies of the world.6 And although India is rising economically, malnutrition, lack of educational opportunity, and overall poverty is still extremely high: nearly half of India’s children are underweight for their age;7 there are seventeen million child laborers in India; less than half of India’s children between the ages of six and fourteen go to school; more than one in three women in India and over sixty percent of the children in India are anemic.8
Ashrams of India
The first ashram our group visited was the Sivananda Ashram in Monghyr. Also known as the Bihar School of Yoga, it was founded in 1964 by Tantric Swami Satyananda Saraswati. When we arrived there, the powers-that-be required that we pay the exorbitant overnight accommodation fees in advance. We consented. We were tired and hungry and didn’t have the energy to complain over the high costs. We had had an exhausting overnight train journey from Calcutta. Jamalpur Junction, the train station nearest the ashram, was located six miles away. To make matters worse, we had arrived in the wee hours of the morning.
The station guard had warned us not to venture out of the station. “You’ll be robbed or murdered!” he had declared. He said that the State of Bihar was one of the most violent in all of India. Our kind friend felt it would be wiser if we stayed on the station platform until dawn. We did so, along with hundreds of other passengers.
Tired, but grateful for the sage advice, we settled down for a long night’s vigil. The gangways were festooned with sleeping bodies and the debris of luggage. The only place we could find to sit in was the filthy, dimly lit station restaurant. This was a far cry from the crisply clean and hygienic eating houses of my childhood I recalled so vividly.
A waiter appeared, wearing the same uniform of three decades past. It looked as though it hadn’t been laundered for almost that long! His faded red turban and cummerbund sadly reflected years of deterioration. It was barely discernible that his gray, permanently stained tunic had once been white. His gloves, once a colonial symbol of cleanliness, were almost too filthy to look at; the frayed seams at his fingertips exposed grease-stained nails.
I looked up into his face. “How many years have you been working for the railroad?” I asked him in Hindi.
“Since I was a child,” he smiled proudly. “Since the time of the British Raj.” His eyes looked back into the past and filled with sorrow at the reminiscence. “Things have changed a lot.” He looked around him, waving his arm slowly as if pointing out something. He glanced at the bedraggled uniform that he still wore with an element of pride, and shrugged. “Things have changed,” he repeated. Then he sighed and smiled in weary resignation, “What would you like to order, Mehemsahib?” His tiny, blunt pencil was poised above a pad that had been written on over and over again.
As dawn brightened the skyline, we collected our small bundles of luggage and hailed a rickshaw-puller. He took us a mile or so short of the Sivananda community. We walked the rest of the way.
The accommodations at the ashram were sparse; the spiritual tasks were arduous. All the disciples were Westerners who had to work hard for their keep. They did the most menial chores—cleaning lavatories, peeling vegetables, sweeping floors. All the jobs that my family’s untouchable servants had done in my youth were done by the residents there. Any Indians present were presumably the guru’s aides. They held “higher” responsibilities. The Westerners regarded their work as religious service. This fell under the category of Karma Yoga, the Yoga of “selfless labor” performed for the sake of “spiritual evolution.”
I slept in a large dormitory with about ten other girls. We were awakened at 4:00 a.m. each morning; some of the disciples gathered in meditation classes, while others involved themselves in private practice. On our first morning, the girl in the rope bed next to me woke me up. Her quiet alarm clock had sounded, making her sit bolt-upright. She then pulled her blanket over her head. She was getting herself poised in a lotus position, ready for her own brand of Yoga.
The girl sat still for quite some time, long enough for me to get comfortable and doze off to sleep again. Then she started an uncanny humming, low and monotonous. She hardly seemed to breathe in at all. She just kept blowing out one long, scary tone. It sent goose bumps up and down me. At last I could stand it no longer. I got up and watched the morning activities in the rest of the ashram.
There were those who practiced neti, the cleansing of the nose with warm salted water. The small container used could hold up to two cups of water and had a long spout. It looked rather like a strange teapot. The spout was shoved up the nostril. (It looked most uncomfortable to me.) The devotee breathed in and out, sneezing, choking, coughing.
Neti is said to cleanse the membranes inside the nose and to stimulate and strengthen the surrounding area, which includes the eyebrow center. To Hindus this is an important contact point for the anja chakra—the third eye.
Physical perversions are aspects of Kriya Yoga—the type Gandhi practiced. Perhaps it was part of the madness that had led him to administer enemas to his favorite female devotees. His weird sexual quirks had had him sleeping with nude teenage girls in an attempt to confirm his celibacy. And his extraordinary perspectives on fitness caused him to prescribe cow-dung pills for health!9
Gandhi had been a guru with his own ashram long before he became a political figure. Like a score of other god-men, he had believed that Kriya Yoga balances the psychic energies and awakens the chakras.
A young Australian girl sat next to a neti disciple as I spoke with him. Later that night she paid me an unexpected visit. Perched on a log with my rationed half-bucket of water, I was contemplating how to wash my face, teeth, hair, and underwear. Can I accomplish such a feat? I was wondering when I heard the cracking of a twig nearby. In a few seconds, I saw someone hesitantly come out of the shadows.
I recognized the girl and warmly asked her to join me. She did. There was probably about a minute of silence. Then she gathered up enough courage to say shyly, “You seem as though you have come from another planet. You’ve got such a warm and friendly glow of color all around you.”
I had learned not to laugh at such statements. I dipped my washcloth into the bucket and started wiping my face.
“You’ve got a different kind of life in you. Where are you from?” she questioned. We ended up talking for a couple of hours, until regulations caused the ashram to fall silent at 9:00 p.m.
I learned that Premananda was only twenty-one. She had been a disciple of Satyananda for five years, recruited while still at school. There are numerous branches of this guru’s ashram in many different countries. How quickly the different schools of Yoga are growing all over the world, I thought. That very morning I had read a large sign there at the ashram that said: “Yoga will emerge as a mighty world power and will change the course of world events.”10
“Do you practice all the methods of Kriya Yoga, such as Amoroli?” I asked the young girl. By that time, she trusted me.
“Well, I’m meant to do it,” she said apologetically. “But it tastes so terrible that it makes me feel sick.”
Poor girl, I thought. What a ghastly spiritual duty. Those poor devotees had to drink urine as part of their Yogic discipline. They had been taught that it contained redemptive qualities.
“Do you know what urine really is?” She shook her head. “Well,” I tried to explain, “it’s the body’s waste product. There’s nothing in it that the body needs anymore. So of course it makes you feel sick. And how can it possibly save you?”
Premananda went on to confide that one of her friends had been told to drink her guru’s urine. “I wouldn’t know what to do if that were to happen to me!” Her eyes grew wide at the prospect.
My research had shown that it was believed anything that touched the body of a guru was holy, from the dust of his feet to his dirty dishes. Drinking a guru’s bathwater is said to be enlightening. Should the guru desire sex, the disciple (whether male or female) is to look upon the act as a step up his spiritual ladder. So I knew that drinking the guru’s urine was a devotional duty of great significance.
All these specifics are spelled out in the Guru-gita, a Hindu scripture. “Meditate ceaselessly on the form of the Guru,” this ancient document commands. It also states:
[A]lways repeat his name, carry out his orders, think not of anything except the Guru. . . . Through service at the feet of the Guru the embodied soul becomes purified and all its sins are washed away.11
After a few days, we moved on to the next ashram, leaving behind many spiritual prisoners. I couldn’t help but pray for those poor victims. I also thanked God for the opportunity to speak to a handful of them. Some of the followers were closed, like the neti disciple. Others were open, like Premananda. Her guru, Satyananda, had demanded that his devotees cut themselves off from the outside world, but I had been able to encourage her to get in touch with her parents. I was able to activate her conscience regarding the rights and wrongs of some of her practices. Perhaps it would help her reconsider her commitment to a god of India.
Orthodox Hinduism teaches four stages of life: the learning stage of childhood, the stage of marital responsibilities, the stage of career obligations, and the stage of spiritual preparation for death. The Yoga disciplines teach how to cease the body’s functions, in preparation for death, or as Hindus believe, to enter into reincarnation. The traditional purpose of the Indian ashram had always been to teach people how to die through Yoga meditation.
West Goes East
It was only after the 1960s that young Westerners, inspired by the Beatles, began to flood India’s ashrams to sit spellbound at the feet of gurus. Initially, they used India’s spiritual communities as hostels. They provided cheap accommodations for the young seekers while they explored their mystical whims.
By the 1980s, their presence had changed the traditional atmosphere at many ashrams. Along with the youthful Westerners came children and a more family-oriented environment. The influx of Westerners also altered the ashrams’ structure: new requirements for ashram life and the practice of Yoga bypassed the ancient Brahmin qualifications; regardless of sex, nationality, caste, or creed, everyone was accepted. And what was once only available to elderly Hindus became available to all.
Although ashrams have been made available to outsiders, the message of the gurus and the purpose of Yoga remain unchanged. People in the West have been deceived into thinking it is the art of living; but to people in the East, it is the art of dying.
Many of the Western converts to Yoga have helped spread it in the West. One Westerner who spent time in a Hindu ashram and has had significant influence upon the Western world is Michael Ray, a Stanford University professor. Ray created the “Creativity in Business” course, which takes “much of its inspiration from Eastern philosophies, mysticism, and meditation techniques.”12 Ray describes his ashram experience:
I attended a meditation-intensive day at an ashram to support a friend. As I sat in meditation in what was for me an unfamiliar environment, I suddenly felt and saw a bolt of lightning shoot up from the base of my spine out the top of my head. It forced me to recognize something great within me . . . this awareness of my own divinity.13
Ray now tells his students they can get in touch with their “inner person” or “spirit-guide,” who will guide them through life.14 Since his visit to an ashram, Ray has passed on his Eastern wisdom to thousands through books and seminars.
Even Christianity has been indirectly affected by Ray. In 1982, Jim Collins, a speaker at Christian conferences, took Ray’s course, “Creativity in Business.” He was so inspired by the course that he wrote the foreword for Ray’s 2004 book The Highest Goal. Collins says he discovered “the path to my highest goal” by reading the book. What is this highest goal that Michael Ray speaks of? His “own divinity.” In The Highest Goal, Ray speaks openly about Eastern meditation techniques and quotes Hindu gurus such as Ram Dass, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Swami Shantananda.
Silence: The Only True Religion?
The influence of Eastern thinking and Yoga upon the West continues in many forms. In October 2007, television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey introduced fifty million viewers to a book titled, Eat, Pray, Love. The book, written by Elizabeth Gilbert, recounts how she left her husband and former way of life and found what she came to call the only true religion: the silence. Her journey took her around the world, and finally to India where she learned to meditate in an ashram.
Gilbert explained that the first step in her journey was to go on an eating binge in Italy:
I would not have been able to physically do the Yoga, the meditation, the hard rigor of spiritual work. So I went to Italy first and I ate my guts out for four months.15
From Italy, Gilbert traveled to India where she learned to meditate:
There was something about that Yoga path that really appealed to me—and you do that through silence and the discipline of meditation—and I really wanted to go pursue that full out.
None of this works without stillness . . . One of the great teachings that I learned in India is that silence is the only true religion.16
During her time at the ashram, Gilbert had a meditative experience in which she says, “the scales fell from my eyes and the openings of the universe were shown to me.”17
Interestingly, Gilbert related a story of how a newfound meditating friend experienced “colors,” “sounds,” “whirling,” and “twirling” during his meditation times.18 This is a description of the kundalini (meaning serpent power in Hinduism) effect experienced by Yoga practitioners. Kundalini is said to be lying dormant, coiled at the base of the spine. When it is awakened and encouraged up the spinal passage it ultimately achieves cosmic union with the third eye. The serpent’s journey passes through ‘chakras’ or psychic centers. And mystical powers are aroused as it progresses. A similar experience led to mystic and Catholic priest Philip St. Romain hearing the voices of other beings, which he called his “inner adviser[s].”19
Eat, Pray, Love was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over 200 weeks and has sold over ten million copies thus far. Sadly, a popular Christian writer and speaker, Anne Lamott, wrote an endorsement for the book, which sits on the back cover. Lamott is best known for her own book, Traveling Mercies. Of Eat, Pray, Love she says: “This is a wonderful book, brilliant and personal, rich in spiritual insight.”20 But the “spiritual insight” from Gilbert’s book is the same “insight” the Hindu gurus teaching Yoga in India have been passing along to the masses for centuries.
The aim of all Hinduism is to escape the hopeless cycle of reincarnation, wherein the soul passes on from body to soul, to body to soul, over and over again. The purpose of Yoga is to prepare a person to cut off the relationship between himself and the physical world, in preparation for death. He is trained to stop his life processes, to stop thinking, to stop the senses, to stop breathing. Hindus believe the escape from all this living and dying is through Yoga.
Returning to India after thirteen years as a Christian on a research team, I was able to recognize how complicated and contradictory the philosophy of Hinduism really is. Through Yoga, the practitioner trains himself to slow down and eventually stop his life processes. Even the breathing exercises taught in Yoga are not intended to be a health benefit. They are not designed to enable one to breathe more efficiently, but to control one’s breathing. The purpose is to enable one to slow the breathing down to a minimum in order to stop it one day altogether. Yoga’s gift is merely a form of suicide.
In contrast, Jesus said He came to give those who follow Him life. He is the antithesis of death—His resurrection is a powerful illustration of this:
I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. (John 11: 25, 26)
1. Upasana Bhat, “Prostitution ‘increases’ in India” (BBC News, Delhi, July 3, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5140526.stm).
2. Robert I. Friedman, “India’s Shame: Sexual Slavery and Political Corruption Are Leading to An AIDS Catastrophe” (The Nation, Vol. 262, No. 14, New York, April 8, 1996).
3. Central Board of Film Certification (Government of India, http://www.cbfcindia.tn.nic.in).
4. G.B. Singh, Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity (Prometheus Books, 2004), p. 76.
5. “Population of India,” from http://www.indianchild.com/population_of_india.htm.
6. List of countries by GDP (nominal): taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal), the CIA’s World Factbook for 2007.
7. “Work Among Children” (South Asian Council for Community and Children in Crisis, http://www.sac-ccc.org/2006/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16&Itemid=33).
9. Richard Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows” (“Commentary,” March 1983, published monthly by the American Jewish Committee, New York, NY, http://history.eserver.org/ghandi-nobody-knows.txt).
10. Quote by Satyananda Saraswati, accessed at http://www.7centers.com/10daytransformation.html.
11. The Gura Gita passages, accessed at: http://www.srinannagaru.com/articles/gurugita/gurugita.pdf.
12. Michael Ray, Creativity in Business (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc, 1986, 1st Edition), back flap.
13. Michael Ray, The Highest Goal (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004), p. 28.
14. Michael Ray, Creativity in Business, op. cit., p. 37.
15. Elizabeth Gilbert, quotes from Oprah Winfrey’s website: http://www.oprah.com/slideshow/oprahshow/slideshow1_ss_20071005_350/6.
19. Philip St. Romain, Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality (Crossroad Pub. Co., 1995), p. 39.
20. Anne Lamott, on the back cover of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.