Book Review - The Serpent Rising A Journey of Spiritual Seduction

Cultic Studies Review, 4, (3), 2005

The Serpent Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction

Mary Garden

First Published in Brisbane, Australia, in 1988 by Brolga Publishing. Revised edition published in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003 by Temple House Pty Ltd, T/A Sid Harta Publishers.

Reviewed by Marybeth Ayella, Ph.D.

Department of Sociology

St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA

This is the revised version of a book published in 1988 as a fictional story. In this revised book the author has “decided that it is time to present this story as the truth that it is and Helena as myself (vii).” The book is based on Garden’s experiences over seven years in the 1970s with a number of gurus/holy men in India. She left India in 1980, settled in Australia, married, and had two children. At present, she spends much of her time writing.

My expectations of what the book would contain were based on the front and back of the book, and thus I was somewhat disappointed. The back cover describes how Garden “abandoned a promising academic career to spend seven years in India at the feet of such gurus as Rajneesh, Sathaya Sai Baba and an enigmatic yogi in the Himalayan jungle – Swami Balyogi Premvarni.” The cover photo also shows a Garden in an “Energy Darshan” with Rajneesh in November of 1979. From cover and back, I had assumed Garden’s account would include a detailed description of her time with Rajneesh, which was apparently about a year. Instead she covers this experience in four pages of the epilogue. This, however, could have been a questionable marketing decision of the publisher, rather than the author’s intention.

Most of the book, chapters 4 through 10 (or 7 of the ten chapters, plus epilogue), is focused on her experiences with Swami Balyogi Premvarni, who headed a small group of three “boys” and two other “girls” at his “International Academy of Yoga” in the Himalayan jungle at the time of Garden’s entry. Garden comments on being called “boys” and “girls” when they are in their late 20s.

This is Garden’s second experience with an Indian guru, the first being a three-month stay at Sathya Sai Baba’s Brindavan Ashram outside of Bangalore. Here about 300 attended Sai Baba’s daily darshans. Garden is not specifically recognized by this guru during her stay. Her belief in Sai Baba is instantly shattered by the comments of an American shop owner (married to an Indian man), who asked if she’d left “that cult.” The woman tells her that Sai Baba is “just a magician,” who “cons rich Americans for their money…not only that, he’s a homosexual. And a hermaphrodite (pp 43-4).” The shop owner also mentions the guru is sleeping with young boy students. Although she had had no direct experience that the accusations were true, Garden instantly believes the woman and immediately leaves the group.

In contrast to the large size and Garden’s anonymity in Sai Baba’s group, Swami Premvarni’s group remains small over Garden’s time, although the members change, as people come and go. Each afternoon, visitors, mostly Westerners, come during the 2-5 visiting hours to seek entry; most are refused. Sometimes servants are hired, but most leave after a short stay. In this small group, the leader, Swamiji, seems to have a hierarchy of followers: the women seem to fare better than the male followers, and servants are treated worst of all.

Life is strictly regimented, beginning at 4:30 am, and proceeding through various activities: chanting, meditating, reading passages, listening to Swamiji, doing “kriyas” to purify oneself (which sounds difficult, especially the one where she swallows a bandage-like cloth, to regurgitate it), doing chores, doing the type of yoga Swamiji preferred, keeping out of sight of the afternoon visitors, participating in evening activities. Food is also highly regimented, and food preparation is closely monitored by Swamiji. The ashram does not have electricity at first, and there is little connection with the outside world (no phone, radio or television) at Garden’s entry. In this group “working and serving the guru” is said by Swamiji to purify the ego more than the other branches of yoga do.

Although this is a group where the leader preaches celibacy as necessary to “maintain a strict yogic way of life,” within three weeks, Garden is summoned to Swamiji’s bedroom where he has sex with her. As birth control is not practiced, the inevitable consequence, pregnancy, eventually occurs. This is when Garden learns that the other remaining women also had a pregnancy by the guru and an abortion.

How does Garden eventually leave Swami Balyogi Premvarni? This is a very long process. She leaves and returns several times over her years there.

At the end of five months at the ashram, Garden leaves to get money wired to her and to test her new transformation. During her time away, she loses faith in Swamiji, and decides to return to get her things. She again leaves and wanders around Delhi for several weeks, finally encountering a former member, who asks her to go back. She does. Shortly after returning, on the third of March, 1974, Swamiji tells her he is giving her all the answers she has been looking for, to resolve her confusion. During this experience, Garden has many different physical sensations and experiences a sense of ecstasy. She feels that she has “Awakened, I felt that I myself was god-like, a divine being (p 182).” She realizes that “My intellect with its doubting and questioning had been my greatest barrier (pp. 185-6). Afterwards, Swamiji explains that “I just plugged you into the centre of the Cosmos, into your own divine creation. I took the risk of doing this to prevent you from running away again and playing into worldliness (p. 188).” Eventually Garden concludes that Swamiji “had (through his yogic powers) connected me directly to the Cosmos, which is exactly what he said he had done (p. 194).”

After this extraordinary experience, Garden writes to her parents and tells them what happened, and that she will be spending the rest of her life at Swamiji’s ashram. This powerful experience binds Garden to Swamiji, reminding her over the following months that “Swamiji was not a madman when I watched him in one of his fits of rage, his Rudra dance of destruction. I now believed that he was in a permanent state of high consciousness and always blissful and that his body and mind were instruments only, to be used for the purpose of waking us up. People losing faith or running away no longer disturbed me. I was convinced that I had finally come home, that I had reached the end of the journey and there would never be any need to leave the ashram again (p. 189).”

In the following months, Garden took over much of the day-to-day running of the ashram. The other woman follower, Saraswati, planned to return to the ashram at the end of the year and Garden says “I was not looking forward to her coming back as I had become used to being the chief disciple. I enjoyed taking over the running of the ashram whenever Swamiji shut himself away in his bedroom or whenever he had to leave the ashram to give lectures and talks in Hindi at other ashrams in the district. When Saraswatii returned, she would no doubt try to usurp my new position. Neither was I keen on the idea of Swamiji sharing his bed with anyone else (pp. 199-200).” Exactly what Garden feared came true when Saraswati returned. To alleviate conflicts between the two women, Swamiji assigns the women different daily chores, became “more discreet about our bedroom liaisons” (p. 201), and tells Garden he is no longer sleeping with Saraswati.

Shortly after the two women settle into an amicable relationship, Garden discovers she is pregnant. By the time she sees a doctor, she is beyond the early stages of pregnancy. She is excited initially, but the reactions of Swamiji and Saraswati unsettle her, as Swamiji tells her “It’s just your bad karma catching up with you. An ashram is not the place for a screaming baby (p. 204)” and Saraswati tells her to have an abortion. Garden eventually decides to have an abortion, and during the procedure she felt that “if I didn’t hold tightly onto my faith in Swamiji mainly based on what happened on the Third of March, then there was the possibility of my losing my mind altogether (p. 209).” Returning to the ashram, Garden thinks life will return to usual, and that Swamiji will be even fonder of her, but he is not and life is not the same. Instead, Garden experiences intense feelings of anger and hate, which culminate in her telling him publicly that “You’re a murderer, Swamiji. You killed my baby. You’re a sex maniac (p. 217).”

Two years after the Third of March and about a year after the abortion, Swamiji calls her to his room “to give me another cosmic experience like the Third of March.” But when she goes to his bedroom that night, he yells at her to leave and, assisted by a female devotee, proceeds to beat her when she refuses. He stops only to cry for help from this devotee, because Garden is “trying to destroy me.”

Garden “creeps out of the room,” and the next morning on her way to the gate passes Swamiji, who is instructing the “boys. “He tells them that Garden had fallen down the steps of the veranda. She waits several hours for the gates to be opened, and leaves for some nearby caves she knows of. She spends several days there, all the while accepting the justification of the beating she has received for her “betrayals” of Swamiji.

Given that she has accepted Swamiji’s definition of the situation, Garden returns to the ashram several days later. At her return, Swamiji was in a terrible mood that lasted for weeks. He is mad at everyone, even the one devotee he allowed to serve him. This was the same woman to whom he had called for help while beating Garden. One day, this woman runs away, after stealing his key to unlock his safe, where her passport and money were stored. Swamiji appears unconcerned at the departure of this most faithful devotee, telling his other Western disciples that he wished they would leave, that his teaching time is coming to an end.

Over the next few months, Garden vacillates between the desire to leave (as she loses faith in Swamiji) and a feeling of being trapped. Above all it seems she desires to regain his attention as a central love interest. She finally leaves when he “takes another consort,” an American woman—this is about one year after Garden’s abortion. The next morning, Garden departs, hoping that Swamiji will care enough to send someone after her. He does not.

Garden then visits the Hare Krishna ashram in Vrindaban, where she stays about two weeks, leaving after she hears a partner for marriage has been selected for her. She next revisits Vipassana for two more courses in Buddhist meditation, where she supposedly releases “mental blockages” from her unconscious mind from this life and past lives. Eventually deciding that Vipassana lacks something, she again leaves, and over the next year visits numerous swamis and yogis:

Alas, Vipassana was not able to cure me of my need or addiction to gurus. During the next year I traveled thousands of miles across India’s endless plains and up and down Himalayan mountains and valleys to visit numerous swamis and yogis in their temples, ashrams or caves. Away from Swamiji, it was easier to love him and blame myself for not being worthy of him. I was determined to change myself so I could be Archana in Swamiji’s divine creation (p. 229).

Garden says of most ashrams: “they were masquerades for harems. Gurus high in the Himalayas and down on the plains preached but did not practice celibacy and restraint of the senses (p. 230).” She tells us how she resisted their advances—not because she recognized that these were common and hypocritical actions of gurus, but “because Swamiji had said he would curse me if I slept with another man (p. 230).” Thus, we see that she remained attached to Guruji, in spite of what she has learned about the common abuses of guru authority.

Moreover, despite what she had heard about holy men seducing female disciples Western “girls” having abortions in Indian hospitals, Garden does not give up her attachment to Guruji and idealized view of India’s “god-men.” She feels some ambivalence toward the gurus, but, as is common in cultic groups, other seekers (many of whom may have had their own doubts) encouraged her to suppress the ambivalence.

[Gurus were] compassionate ego-less beings who merely wanted to raise the kundalini of world-weary females in order to erase some of their bad karma. When I was in a negative state of mind, however, I wondered whether they were hypocrites and obsessed with sex after being repressed for so long. Whenever I shared my doubts to other Western devotees I was quickly reassured by them that I was not in a position to judge. The level these gurus were operating at was at the level of Truth where there was no morality and one transcends good and evil. (p. 231).

During this year-long journey to various gurus, she writes occasional letters to Swamiji and receives letters in return (apparently written by the new consort, Padma) urging her to return to her “true” home. She finally does return, and “it was the same story,” with mostly new disciples, although Padma remains. She learns that Padma had an abortion five months earlier. Swamiji had become more materialistic during her absence, receiving many items requested from returning disciples.

Garden’s long absence does not seem to have really altered her strong attachment to Swamiji, as she bursts into his room at night after a few days there “to catch them at it (p.232).” Swamiji tells her to return to the West, that her “cycle” had finished. After she flings a criticism at him for his sexual performance, which enrages him, he tells her to leave in the morning. And she does. It is as if she has received permission from Swamiji to leave. Yet, as she is leaving she says that “it was I who felt triumphant.” She vows that

never again would I be dependent on anyone else’s energy field, whether guru or teacher. I would wean myself from the drug of Eastern mysticism and the power of those who say they have arrived. I would learn to live without the ecstasy, the bliss and the peace that can be found in temples and ashrams and at the feet of those who call themselves avatars, Bhagwans, yogis. (pp.233-234).

The ecstasy, bliss, and peace that she says she will have to learn to live without do not translate well to someone who has not experienced them, because my reading of the book is that such moments were scarce in Garden’s Indian experience. Much of the experience sounds very far from blissful, and it is difficult for me to see the attraction of many of the experiences. In particular, it is very hard to understand why any of the “boys” stayed with Swamiji, as their experience seems predominantly abusive. Unlike the “girls,” who all seem to have developed sexual relationships with Swamiji, the boys are celibate, they are yelled at and beaten regularly by Swamiji, they always seem hungry and eager to sneak food when they leave the ashram on errands (for which they get yelled at and beaten, as Swamiji inspects all bundles). I presume that the psychological dynamics must bear some similarity to those found in spouse or child abuse, but Garden does not offer satisfying explanations. As with other personal accounts from former group members, she mainly tells us what happened, not why it happened—certainly useful and interesting, but not fulfilling to the reader.

As Garden finally prepares for departure to her New Zealand home, she is a physical wreck. She is plagued with intestinal parasites resistant to Flagyl and has large abscesses breaking out all over her body. One in particular delays her departure, as she waits to recover from the lancing of a very large abscess on her buttock (which lancing apparently gave her hepatitis).

Once finally home, she takes the time to physically recover from her experience, although psychologically she is between social worlds, and she felt “like an alien from another planet, and indeed was treated as such as I was still wafting around in white robes, mala beads and a spaced-out look in my eyes (p. 239).”

For those readers hoping this is the end of Garden’s Indian spiritual journeys (as I was), it is not. She became involved with Rajneesh devotees in Auckland. Eventually she goes to Rajneesh’s ashram in Poona, India, where she is initiated as Ma Prem Sagara, and where she lives for a year. This year is described as her happiest ever in India. She learns to express her feelings, heals from her childhood wounds and from her abortion. She attributes the psychotherapy that was a part of this group to changing her life for the better, to “help me overcome my need for gurus, including Rajneesh himself (p. 240).”

She returns to Swamiji, at Rajneesh’s urging, to discover that she has indeed lost her attachment to him as guru. Returning to Poona, she stays there, on the periphery of the Rajneesh group, until she says that things became bizarre—suicides, murders, rapes, and armed guards posted at the gates.

Garden finally leaves India for good, after reading an article her mother sent her about the Jonestown mass suicide, which she believed could happen with the Bhagwan and his group. Rather than return to New Zealand, she returns to Brisbane, Australia, where she settles down, and within the next several years she marries and has two children. She says: “Even though motherhood and marriage provided my life with stability, an anchor previously not experienced, it was a long and slow process to wake up and see Swamiji for what he really was and is: a dangerous and violent megalomaniac” (p. 243).

The book was published thirty years after Garden’s first foray into India. At that point, she can hardly recognize herself as the main character. Yet, “this is also the story of thousands of others who have gone searching for something better, some of whom have still not woken up” (p. 244).

In the end, it seems as if Garden “aged out” of her Indian spiritual experiences, as she married and had children within a few years of leaving India for good. It also seems as if it took the instruction/permission of one guru (Rajneesh) to finally leave her long-term relationship with another guru (Swamiji). I am also struck by how alone Garden seemed to be during all her Indian experiences—which may have contributed to her being so enmeshed for so long with Swamiji. She does not seem to have developed a single close and enduring friendship. The relationship with Swamiji is what is most important to her, and this is a lover relationship, rather than simply a guru/follower relationship. A close friendship over time (rather than a semi-close transitory friendship, which is what she developed at various points) might have allowed her to gain more perspective on the relationship with Swamiji.

Though she knows that “it was a long and slow process to wake up and see Swamiji for what he really was and is,” (p. 243) I was disappointed by the lack of explanation about what helped her to come to this realization? Other than to say she attributes a part of her actual separating from the yogi to Rajneesh, she does not explain. I think telling more about how she came to this realization would have added to Garden’s story, perhaps to act as some cautionary hints to other spiritual seekers to avoid the “seduction” she experienced. Garden concludes that:

The guru-disciple relationship is probably the most authoritarian in its demand for total surrender and obedience and hence potentially the most destructive of all relationships. And so, far from achieving the freedom and “enlightenment” that many of us wannabe spiritual pioneers of the 70’s went looking for (and indeed were promised), we experienced mental imprisonment and confusion….We were seduced by yogis and swamis telling us what we wanted to hear: that we were special and that they were God-incarnate. Our need was our downfall. In the final analysis the authority of the guru is bestowed on him by the disciple! (pp. 243-4).

How to avoid or escape such destructive authority as Garden experienced is thus not answered to my satisfaction. Nevertheless, this is a well written account of someone who really seems to fit the category of “seeker” over a period of years. Throughout the book, we also see how gurus’ definitions of the situation reshape the reality of participants, as they come to accept the new definition, and let go of previous interpretations of reality and self. We don’t learn a great deal, however, about why followers put up with gurus’ abusive authority.