Swami Vishnu-Devananda is not like you and me
No, he has a resort in the Laurentians, a retreat in the Bahamas, a farm in California, a dude ranch in the Catskills, a brownstone in New York, property in Spain — plus an option on perfect peace
In the hush of a Laurentian dawn, the mists rise ghostly over the valley, the mountains heave up green-grey on the horizon, sullen and still. But here on a wooden platform nestled into the side of a small muddy man-made lake, rows of pale bodies in leotards and swim trunks are already stretched out on grey army blankets, punctuating the silence with the sound of bone struggling against bone. Crack! A lumbar disc snaps as one spine rolls up from the ground and arches parabolic into the cobra posture. Groan . . . The ache of gravity triumphant registers as two feet push into a headstand, up, up, strike wildly in midair for one brief second of beatific bliss, then topple back to lumpen mortality. Up and down the rows, grim torture and blank concentration are clearly etched on the assembled faces as frail flesh stretches and strains for the ultimate pretzelization.
But suddenly a voice comes wafting down out of a maple grove halfway up the hillside. Distant, disembodied, it seems to be coming from a small saffron mound suspended under a tree. “Okay, just carry on, I’ll be there in five minutes,” calls out Swami Vishnu-Devananda reclining on one elbow in his hammock of many colors clearly marked RESERVED FOR SWAMFS USE
Five minutes later he is indeed hopping to earth, his orange robes hitched around his loins, and descending to his waiting multitudes — the guru at whose feet we have traveled to squat. Mailmen and real estate salesmen, secretaries and grandmothers, computer programmers, accountants and one lady journalist, we have all come pilgrimaging here to Sivananda Ashram yoga camp outside the tiny village of Val Morin, 45 miles north of Montreal, freely paying $15 a day to forswear meat, fish, eggs and coffee and undergo this exquisite agony of muscle and tendon — all come seeking an answer, any answer, but preferably the one that will lead us victorious in the battle over the bathroom scales to bliss as advertised in the swami’s brochures.
There are other easier paths surely. But at the moment there is none quite so trendy as the way through VishnuDevananda, Canada’s self-styled Flying Swami, founder and president of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre corporation, North America’s largest yoga organization, 40,000 strong. From his international headquarters here at Val Morin, the swami has ventured forth to shake hands with the Beatles, rub shoulders with Peter Sellers and pilot his personal peace mission, dropping flowerpetal bombs over Cairo, thereby promptly landing his picture in Time and himself behind Egyptian bars.
“Oh, Swamiji — he a very holy man,” I have been assured upon arrival by David, a black former short-order cook for Floward Johnson’s, New York, who tried the Socialist party, the Communist party, Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers before first catching sight of the swami’s picture and feeling “the divine love shining right through.”
Barefoot, the swami stalks the rows of struggling bodies, barking out his orders for each new posture like a boot camp sergeant. I am midway into the shoulderstand when I realize that there might be better advertisements for the yogic way: at 46, the swami is a small brown butterball. Shoulder-length grey locks frame a beaming moon face, an extra chin disappears into the neck of his orange sport shirt and beneath the folds of his matching dhoti there is a bulge to indicate something other than a 32-inch waist. At not quite five feet, three inches, the swami weighs in at nearly 160 pounds.
“Oh, that’s all over-developed muscle,” proclaims Patrick, one of 300 unpaid staff disciples who has been assigned to answer my questions. A day later the swami himself will wave away the whole matter with lofty scorn.
“Ah, fatness itself is nothing to do with yoga,” says the swami, cradling his middle and snorting back a wicked postnasal drip. “For me, health is absence of disease. I never am sick in my life, no
cold, no headache. I eat only once a day, sleep maybe five hours. I conquered the external world long time ago. I am more going to the inner world now.”
Exactly how one gets to make the transition is never quite clear. For now, I am consigned with other mere mortals to a searing public scolding from the swami whenever one of us fails to make a posture, attend a lecture or rise right on the stroke of the 5.30 a.m. gong. Attendance is taken with a zeal and rigor reminiscent of a home for delinquents. The only place the roll is not called is at the two daily vegetarian meals where we line up, shoes off and plates outstretched, while a heaping tray breezes by on its way to the swami who takes supper in his private quarters served up by Shyamala, one of his four secretaries.
A pretty, former English advertising coordinator, Shyamala first came to yoga camp with her husband, Gopala, also known as Christopher, but now they are going their separate ways. “I mean Shyamala’s very into Swamiji as a person, very into wanting to be near him all the time and serving him,” Gopala confides one night.. “And Swamiji’s a male, right?”
Shyamala carries in the swami’s second meal of the day which he never fails to attack with vocal gusto, soup disappearing down his throat with staccato slurps, a plateful of chapati patties, ground hummus paste and beans packed away in a wink with loud smacking noises of content.
For the rest of us back in the dining hall there is a mound of watery rice flecked with tomato, a deep-fried dough patty stuffed with curried mashed potato, green salad and a mess of fried zucchini oozing oil.
“Migawd, this is practically pure starch,” a Boston mother of five marvels in the line behind me. “He must be making a mint on us.”
The swami does not take such cuts kindly. “Hah, they can all talk,” he fumes the next day, reclining with his tray in front of his color TV. “But you know, to run this organization I need
“Swamiji — he’s such a smart businessman,” marvels one unpaid follower. “His mind is on a different plane than ours”
$2,000 a day. This is a nonprofit organization — we got a charter. We got no money in the bank. Maybe just a little in my travel account. As soon as we get some money, we buy another place or build a hall or send to a leper colony. See, we got a big organization going on here.”
Indeed, for one who renounced the
world and arrived on San Francisco’s shores nearly two decades ago with only his robes, the swami now finds himself presiding over a real estate empire that would do any crass Western entrepreneur proud.
The 60 rolling acres of prime resort land here in the Laurentians where he spends his summers unroll in rugged
beauty, the slopes graced with a swimming pool, sauna, ski tow and small stable to house the swami’s three thoroughbreds. Bought for $25.000 12 years ago, the camp — with five extra acres just snatched up across the road for a yoga hospital — is now estimated to be worth $400.000 or more. Come winter, he flies off to his bougainvillea-covered retreat in the Bahamas, five acres that spread from sea to sea on Paradise Island just across the bay from Nassau, where a colonial-style mansion sleeps 54 and another 30 can be accommodated on a 46-foot twin-engine diesel cabin cruiser, the Yogini — “our floating temple” as the swami likes to call it.
Between seasons, there are flying tours of his 40-acre farm ashram sloping down out of the Sierras in Grass Valley, Calif.; another 40 acres currently being donated by the little northern Spanish town of Palencia for development as a yoga ski resort; and the swami’s newest acquisition — a 50-acre dude ranch in the Catskills of upper New York State with two large pools, 200 rooms and 18 self-contained apartments which he plans to rent out to city-weary New Yorkers.
On his cottage walls a pastel chart details the weekly cash flow from each of his 40 centres around the world — from Toronto to Vienna, from Tel Aviv to Dunedin, New Zealand, from a fully owned brownstone in New York City to a $90,000 building just bought in Washington two blocks from the White House.
“Swamiji — he’s such a smart businessman,” marvels Patrick. “A lot of things Swamiji does are hard to understand but it always works out. Swamiji’s mind is on a different plane than ours.”
The swami, however, does not care for this image of himself as wheelerdealer. “I see something. I make up my mind; somehow 1 never care about the money,” he says. “Always the money comes somehow. God provides.”
God seems to have provided his Nassau retreat on a miraculous 99-year annual lease of $12,000 — with a little help from a wealthy American widow named Natalie Boswell.
“God actually drives me to various places,” says the swami. “I went to Nassau to lecture one winter and after a girl of 18 comes up and says, ‘What a beautiful lecture. Come to our private beach to swim.' This girl is delinquent, she never stay anywhere till she come and study with me here. So in this way 1 established a friendship with her mother. One day her mother says to me. ‘Swa-
“It is alright to have wife, love her, but you must not be attached to her,” the swami warned
miji, how can 1 thank you?’ Now I saw people are running all the time in winter to the south. So I say. ‘Mrs. Boswell, if only I had some land to spread the yoga. Why not a 99-year lease?’ ”
As it turned out Mrs. Boswell’s neighbors and business advisers were less than enthusiastic about the prospect. The swami says they offered her
$500,000 for the land so she wouldn’t go through with the deal. “But 1 go to her, I say, ‘Mrs. Boswell, I have already spent much money advertising a winter yoga retreat.’ After 45 minutes she comes out of a meeting and says, ‘Okay, I give my word to Swamiji.’ ”
There are other tales of Providence’s economic intervention. But now tonight,
after supper, the swami has his mind on higher things. In the hushed blue bowels of the yoga hall, he sits swathed under his layers in lotus position on the stage like some dumpling Buddha, his countenance caught in the flickering halflight of a single altar candle as he delivers the evening’s lesson. For his subject the swami has chosen self-discipline.
“Eat a little, drink a little, meditate a little. This is the way to perfect peace,” he chants singsong, his parables sprinkled with gems of experience gleaned at the Exorcist or the Ali-Frazier fight. He warns against the dangers of worldly attachment, whether to one’s gold watch or one’s wife. “It is alright to have wife, love her, but you must not be attached to her,” cautions the swami.
Respectful distance is then accorded him as he exits and pads down the petunia-lined path to his cottage, paces briefly under the lamplights — “talking to his flowers,” Patrick solemnly informs me — then promptly disappears inside on the dot of 11 p.m. “Swamiji never likes to miss the news on TV,” Patrick reports. Outside, a long gleaming green Lincoln Continental Mark IV with a plastic statue of Krishna on the dashboard begins to gather the evening dew. “That’s Swamiji’s car,” points out Patrick with a certain note of pride that is momentarily jarred when I do not seem to understand the logic of Lincoln Continentals and renunciation. “Well, Swamiji tells us he’s not attached to it.”
The next morning, in the swami’s cosy five-room cottage, crammed with books, stereo cassette players and assorted electronic gadgetry, he echoes almost the very same words. “Ah, it is all how you look upon it,” says the swami, “Luxury is a state of mind, renunciation is a state of mind. I can leave all this tomorrow and go back to the caves of the Himalayas, eat grass, without a thought. Though I am sitting in a Lincoln Continental or on a sofa, I am not affected by it. I am not attached. It is something you will never understand at the stage you are at, no matter how hard you try.”
The swami reclines in his vinyl La-ZBoy. his feet up on a wicker footstool, a bowl of fruit beside him and his voice booming into an electronic amplifier that saves him the tiresome trouble of holding the phone. “Gopi!” the swami bellows for his confidential secretary.
Gopi, a pale and acned 23-year-old Indiana college drop-out, plods in exhausted, bringing him a mug of milk. As he gulps it down, a drop spills onto his stomach bulging in the chair. “Gopi, something spill here,” admonishes the
swami. Instantly, Gopi reacts with seasoned dexterity: suppressing the glimmer of a tired sign, she snatches a Kleenex from the box beside him and wipes away the offending spot.
Later Gopi will admit that the swami is “very difficult and demanding to work for. But I’ve been fortunate — Swamiji has had some real screaming and yelling matches with his secretaries in the past.” Still, Gopi does not waver in what is sometimes a 24-hour devotion to duty. “In this organization I’ve never once been lonely,” she says. “I’ve discovered my talents and my personality. From the first, people have treated me with respect. Someday Swamiji says it’s my karma to become a swami.” Someday perhaps. But for now Gopi is being banished from the cottage. “No more interruptions, Gopi,” the swami says.
The swami proceeds to unfold his autobiography in peace, the story of how an Indian boy named Kuttan Nair born into the biggest high-caste household in Kerala State survived the fall of his family fortunes to find himself here today surrounded by corporate accoutrements, credit cards, mutual funds and a membership of devotees so large that he has just ordered an IBM 1437 printout computer to handle his mailing list.
“It is God’s will,” says the swami, summing up his life. His was a boyhood spared much suffering except having to walk nine miles to school and refrain from playing with the neighborhood untouchables. Even active duty was denied him during his teen-age army service when, rummaging through a wastebasket one day, he came upon a pamphlet by his master Swami Sivananda and discovered the world of yoga. By 18 he had taken the vows of renunciation and become a swami himself. It was a little more than 10 years later that he set foot on Western shores, bringing the master’s good word.
In fact, he was driving around in his 1952 Packard and setting up world headquarters on Broadway when a small misunderstanding with the American immigration department found him suddenly switching his base to Montreal. “There was a mysterious energy and light pulling me here,” says the swami with a wave over his domain. And certainly the price was right.
Now the swami counts himself as “a pioneer with the yoga in the West. Maharishi Mahesh and Guru Maharaj Ji, everybody comes and sees what is happening with my organization and they copy me.” It is a petty annoyance to the swami that he introduced himself first to the Beatles in Nassau with his own autographed book, “then Maharishi caught him,” as he says. As for the teen-age guru, the swami dismisses him as “all
Wheezing, the swami attempted some yoga positions but toppled to the ground
mass publicity. Guru Maharaj Ji is just a stupid boy.”
The apotheosis of the swami’s own publicity career came with his celebrated 1971 airborne peace mission to Belfast, Tel Aviv and Cairo, dropping flower-petal bombs from his psychedelic twin-engine Piper Apache especially decked out for the occasion by pop artist Peter Max in pastel stars, flowers and astral swirls. Although some of the publicity wasn’t quite what the swami had foreseen. Just as the peace mission was about to get off the ground, his finance company foreclosed on the plane. Thanks to a rapid $15.000 donation from certain disciples, the swami was able to go on to tales of high adventure.
“Ah. that three and a half months was the most difficult period in my life,” he reminisces. “Just crossing the Atlantic — sitting in the same cold place without going to the bathroom 16 hours. Crossing all those deserts and so forth, getting shot . . .” Actually the swami was never shot, but certainly, when he disobeyed Israeli ground control and flew out over the Suez Canal to Cairo, he thought he had been for a moment. “The bombers, they are right on the tip of my wing. I say, ‘Alright, let us pray. Our time has come.’ I take a flower and throw it at them. What can I do? Actually they only give me a jet blast.”
Since then the swami has confined his efforts to the less flamboyant expansion of his empire — in Europe, New Zealand, Israel and now Africa, a first step to infiltrating world politics.
“This is just the beginning.” says the swami. “All over the world I’m going to have spiritual embassies to train world leaders. Maybe some day they enter into politics. Politics needs some discipline.”
That night the swami does not appear at the lecture because he is asleep. The next day dawns overcast and gloomy. But when a photographer arrives to snap his picture, the sw'ami emerges scrubbed and radiant. “Come. I will do most difficult posture for you — peacock pose.” he bubbles, leading the way down to the water where the camp is gathered, expectant. The swami leans out on the yoga platform rail to balance prone on his arms like a human diving board, but only for a second. He topples to the ground. “Ah. I eat lunch too soon.” he says, ripping off his shirt to reveal a swell of brown stomach. He tries again and topples once more. Frantically wheezing, he tries the crow, balancing his knees on his elbows, but he cannot hold that either. Finally he settles for a few simple ankle-to-ear stretches 1 had
mastered only that morning. He disappears up the hill into his garden where he is last seen munching in turn on a cucumber in one hand and an ear of corn in the other, raw. “Well, he didn’t do badly considering that he hasn’t been practising,” says a devotee on the platform, splitting the silence that hangs thick and awkward in the air.
That night is the last for the swami in yoga camp. In the morning his presence is required at his dude ranch. In one corner of the dining hall, a couple sits sipping camomile tea and contemplating becoming disciples, a procedure which is usually speeded along by a donation to the centre. But in another there is weighty disillusion.
“Fook,” cracks a New York police social worker, “if I had a Fincoln Continental, a cabin cruiser, a plane and a house in every country, I’d renounce my worldly goods too.”
Behind the counter, Patrick grows impatient with them. “You can’t question.” he keeps saying. “One question just leads to another. It disturbs the peaceful balance of the mind.” That morning Gopi has invoked almost the very same words. “Sure I had questions.” she said. “But you come to the point where if you accept Swamiji as your teacher you have no right to question him. Swamiji has his reasons even if you don’t know what they are.”
Át midnight, two of us finally droop back to the dormitory in the rain, the camp darkened, deserted. Suddenly on the path behind us we hear the sound of wracking sobs. It is a wail of anguish quite unlike any I have heard before. A small shoeless figure stumbles through the night, unseeing, spitting violently along the path as if to spew out some ineradicable bad taste, crying out. “Oh. Swamiji, how could you?” It is Gopi, I realize with a start. Discovered, she is suddenly quiet, will take only my blanket to shelter her. She stays there, huddled under a tree alone in the rain.
Hours later at dawn as the swami prepares for his departure, she is at the wheel of the Fincoln to chauffeur him. white, glassy-eyed, begging not to drive. But the swami sits up front impassive in the passenger's seat, where he prefers to meditate and see the sights, waving good-bye. I leave the camp at the same time with a record of the swami’s Yoga Home Exercises bought in the boutique for six dollars. At home, I put it on the record player but I can never seem to listen to it. Against the chanting wail of the stringed veena, I keep hearing the sounds of sobbing in the night./?