Maharaji's Ashrams

After his arrival in the west in 1971, and until 1983, Maharaji actively encouraged his followers, where possible, to live in ashrams. Although every person's experience of living in an ashram was different, there were common features, such as the ashram vows, the ashram daily schedule and rules (The Ashram Manual), and the documented speeches by Maharaji, that are not open to interpretation. Joe Whalen's account below accurately describes the history of the ashrams, and the experience of living in an ashram.

I am one of probably thousands of people who lived in one or more of Maharaji's ashrams. Just to set the record straight, Maharaji's ashrams were monastic institutions that Maharaji, himself, promoted as his gift to his followers as a means to dedicate our lives to him. The basic structure of the ashram was poverty, celibacy and obedience. We also lived by a schedule, starting with
Arti, along with prostration before a picture of Maharaji in the morning, and again in the evening, followed by meditation. We also had satsang every night, and "service" all day. All the money ashram residents earned was turned over to Maharaji's organization and much of it went to Maharaji personally. There was also a set of "ashram rules" which Maharaji claims to have personally authored. All of Maharaji's Initiators (Instructors) and Elan Vital Administrators were selected from among the ashram residents, as were Maharaji's servants and personal staff.

As an ashram premie and devotee, you were available to be transferred to any place you were needed to do anything deemed necessary. You owned nothing; you did what you were told, and relationships, career, and any worldly interests, were verboten, unless directly related to your "service." Our lives belonged to Maharaji, who portrayed himself as the living incarnation of God, the living Perfect Master, and who exhorted us to surrender our lives to him. Many of us believed him and tried to do that, by means of his ashram. Physically, we lived in large, overcrowded, rented houses with no furniture; we slept on foam mats on the floor, ate vegetarian food, and mostly had underwear with holes in it.

Many people, including me, spent their 20s living in Maharaji's ashram. I lived in the ashrams from 1974 to 1983. During that time, I mostly worked jobs out in "the world" and turned over every cent I earned. Part of the time I did "service" in Elan Vital, as either a bureaucrat at Elan Vital International Headquarters, as part of the army of unpaid workers on Maharaji's Boeing 707 plane that we were revamping with gold toilets and other luxuries Maharaji wanted, or as a "Community Coordinator" in three different cities. In fact, I lived in ashrams in seven different cities in the USA, not by my choice, but because I was sent to each one. In 1981, I was sent from the Miami ashram to the ashram in San Francisco, a city I love and where I have lived ever since (with a few years in nearby Marin County). In 1983, I left both Maharaji's ashram and his cult.

As can be said about any living situation, no matter how repressive or bizarre, I had some good times in the ashrams, and some terrible times. I met some wonderful people in the ashrams, most of whom sincerely believed Maharaji and wanted to dedicate their lives to him. Living with people who are sincerely seeking truth, no matter how misguided that search might be, can be a very nice experience.

For the most part, however, I hated living in the ashrams partly because sex and romantic relationships were forbidden, partly because of the lack of having any of my own money, partly also because of the almost total lack of privacy, and partly because the ashram system allowed some rather sadistic and unsavory people to inflict their psychological abuse on people who were very vulnerable to them. That has been talked about quite a bit on the Internet by former ashram premies.

Also, I am a person who has always been very interested in the world. I love to read, I love theater and movies; I love politics and current events; I love the wild outdoors and I love my family, an Irish Catholic/WASP combination of wonderful, loving people. Involvement with all of those things was either forbidden or frowned upon in Maharaji's ashram. Indeed, all "worldly" pursuits and relationships were considered distractions from the true purpose of one's life, which Maharaji said repeatedly was to devote one's life 100% to Maharaji. In return, Maharaji promised, through his grace, to take care of us as if we were his children. He repeatedly said that it was HE who knew what was best for us, and not the ashram premies and their "confused minds." Little did I know at the time that not only did he have no intention or capability of caring for us, he likely did not even know that most of us were even alive, and he couldn't have cared less.

Of course, in the ashram there was no career development, no education, no forming romantic relationships and no sex allowed, and these are normally the very things one is engaging in in one's 20s. For me and many others, because we entered the ashram to devote ourselves totally to Maharaji, we missed all that. When the supposed "ashram experiment" (which is the current revisionist spin that the Maharaji cult and its current PR mavens call it these days) came to an end, we were then in our 30s, with little or no advanced education, no career, no relationship, strained relations with family, and an extremely truncated set of life experiences and skills with which to start life over, years behind everyone else in our age group. I am sure that if we had known it was all just some temporary "grand experiment" as Erika Anderson dismissively calls it, we would have thought differently about entering the ashram in the first place.

The damage to my relationship with my family was also severe. On one occasion, I was forbidden in the ashram from attending the funeral of my grandfather. On another occasion, I was forbidden from attending my little sister's wedding. In addition, I missed most of the holidays, birthdays, and special occasions my family held without me. They also felt very rejected, and for good reason. Maharaji told us on many the occasion that we really HAD no relationship with our family. He told us the ashram, and Maharaji, were our REAL family, and that "the only tie you have to your family is the one they gave you for Christmas" (actual Maharaji quote).

All of those things, including the terrible waste of time, talent, and energy, that occurred in Maharaji's ashrams are things you can't ever get back. So, to be told that the ashram was a "failed experiment" that just sort of happened because of some kind of cultural misunderstanding, and that Maharaji really can't be held responsible for any of it, makes my eyes glaze over. And has been typical of Erika Andersen's rationalizations and revisionism, she also blames the ashram premies for getting it wrong, or coming into the ashrams for the wrong reasons, and that they were the real problem, not Maharaji. This is particularly unfair, cruel and dismissive, and just plain false. And yes, I regret having wasted those years following Maharaji, especially the nine years I spent in the ashram, and the damage it caused to me and those I love. Indeed, it is the biggest regret I have in my life.

Here is what Erika says on her website:

I see Maharaji's ashrams in America as having been a grand failed experiment. And I really enjoyed the time I spent living there.

The main problem, I think, was that the ashram was transplanted whole from India to America, like some exotic plant... There was no cultural context for it here; we didn't know what to make of it or how it fit into the practice of Knowledge. In the absence of that context, people came to it for all kinds of odd reasons. Perhaps some people's motivations were simple and sincere wanting to practice Knowledge and be fully available to help Maharaji. Some of us, though, came to avoid starting a real adult life in the world (like lots of other college-age kids), some out of personal ambition ("I'm going to be the BEST devotee") and some out of religious zeal ("this is the only reality and everyone else is doomed").

While I don't dispute that Erika might have had a good time in the ashram (although I personally recall times when Erika didn't seem to be very happy in an ashram where we lived at the same time), I don't think that addresses the issue. And the list of motivations of the people who entered the ashrams she suggests, leaves out the main one, and that's Maharaji himself.

Maharaji, repeatedly, stressed the need to move into the ashram and to stay there. Since he also preached that we should surrender and devote our lives to him, that was the major motivation for many, as it was for me. I believed Maharaji was the Perfect Master who knew what was best for me. I believed he was the living incarnation of God, and I believed him when he said the purpose of my life was to devote it 100% to him, and that he provided the ashram as a means to do that. And, at the time, when I was allowed to enter the ashram, I was happy, excited, and I felt privileged for the opportunity he, the Perfect Master, gave me.

Maharaji said on many occasions that the ashram was a life-long commitment. Once in the ashram, Maharaji instructed his Initiators to tell us that leaving the ashram was not an option, and he emphasized it himself, in no uncertain terms, in numerous ashram meetings he had with us over the years, (which Erika Andersen also attended but seems to have conveniently forgotten), almost right up to the very time in 1983 when he summarily closed the ashrams without explanation.

For example, I have a copy of a tape of Maharaji speaking to his devotees in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in December, 1976, when Maharaji said following:

"The ashram is for people who have dedicated their lives for their lifetime. When you understand that the purpose of your life is to understand knowledge and to devote your life to Maharaji, then ashram makes sense and is really required.

Ashram is intensive care provided by Guru Maharaj Ji. Guru Maharaj Ji knows how to operate on us and he is the surgeon. See, you have a disease, and you have been given medicine for the disease, and that's good, which is knowledge. But we need intensive care to recover from the disease because we can fall back into the disease. And the ashram is Guru Maharaj Ji's hospital. Ashram is the place we all need to come from but some people can't be there because they are married."

Later, Maharaji reiterates that the ashram is always for a lifetime. In fact, Maharaji said you have to be there a long time for ashram to have the effect on you it is supposed to have. He said it was like you were in an accident and hit glass that wasn't safety glass, and many splinters of glass have to be pulled out of you slowly and painfully.

Of course, none of that should be a surprise to Erika. She heard all the things Maharaji said, and she knows she can't explain it away. [Although Maharaji has attempted to destroy all evidence of the incriminating things he said in the past, that hasn't been very successful, and if anyone you like to hear this tape, I can make it available to you.] Under these circumstances, Erika's bizarre suggestion that the ashram was just one of a number of "options" that a premie had, is disingenuous in the extreme.

But wait, it gets worse. Later, Maharaji took questions from premies. A premie asked Maharaji about whether it was okay for him to leave the ashram and "to have a wife," since he felt he needed one. To this, Maharaji said:

"Do you need a wife, or does something else need a wife? A wife is not a human necessity. It is desire. It is just an extension of mind. Right now your mind is saying you want a wife, but if it's just a wife, why do you want the second thing, you say I want a child, and I want this and I want that. Somehow mind traps you at the weakest spot. That's the way mind taps into you. Do you want a wife, but this is really just an extension of mind. "

Then another premie asked Maharaji about people who had moved out of the ashram and got married, which a number of ashram premies had done earlier in 1976, and he asked Maharaji what they should do. Here is what Maharaji says:

"This is what you should tell them. If you take a stick of dynamite, and stick it down your throat, and light the other end with the fuse, what's gonna happen? (laughing) Who would you blame that on? The point is, who's gotta pay for that?

Look, they are married and it's ridiculous for them to get divorced. ...It was an irrational and wrong move to get married. It isn't the answer, knowledge is the answer. [Maharaji proceeds to talk about marriages that 'aren't working' and how they are worse than hell.] He continues: Whatever you sow, you reap it yourself and if it isn't working out, you are gonna reap that too....Service to Guru Maharaj Ji is personal self-dedication. Moving out of the ashram and getting married was a flip-flop move and it's a sad sight, why did they do that? Why, because it's an extension of mind. "

Could this be any more unequivocal and clear? Setting aside for a moment the psychological damage these kinds of sick statements could cause, Maharaji clearly said that not only was the ashram a life-long commitment, and was required, marriage and relationships as alternatives were "just extensions of mind" (not to mention equivalent to blowing your brains out with dynamite). In this light, is the drivel Erika Andersen is putting forth on this subject infuriating to those of us who know the truth of what really happened? You bet it is.

Maharaji also issued lots of threats about what would happen to an ashram premie were he or she to leave, let alone the dire calamities that would befall someone who chose not to practice knowledge anymore (variously, that one would "go to hell," that one would "smash into a thousand pieces," that one would have "tons of rotten vegetables rot inside of them," etc.)

Indeed, as late at the 1980s, Maharaji instructed his Initiators to encourage every premie possible to dedicate themselves in the ashram. I know this, because as Community Coordinator for Elan Vital, I was obligated to assist in this nefarious mission. In Miami, Elan Vital lawyers processed numerous divorces for premies so they could become "unattached" and move into the ashram, often to work as unpaid, slave labor for one of Maharaji's pet projects, like his personal luxury aircraft.

Just the year before the ashrams were closed, there was a notorious ashram inquisition, in which people like Initiator David Smith psychologically harassed and tortured the ashram residents to double their commitment or to get the hell out if they weren't 100% devoted and surrendered to Maharaji. This was, according to David Smith, at Maharaji's personal direction.

Of course, many of us in the ashram really believed, because Maharaji told us so, that he was taking care of us, because we had dedicated our lives to him. That, of course, was a pile of crap, the falsity of which was exposed when he whimsically decided in 1983 to just shut down the ashrams with no preparation whatsoever. We are told by people on the inside of the cult that he did it because he was worried about the ashram premies being a liability as they got older. Because most of the ashram premies didn't have established careers, good health insurance, and retirement plans, their needs were increasing, and the ashrams weren't the cash cows for him that they used to be. According to those same reports, Maharaji didn't really care how the closings were carried out. It just wasn't one of his concerns. He just wanted it done.

When the ashrams were closed little or nothing was done, financially, psychologically, or in any other sense, to help the ashram premies make the transition into the real world. Some of these people were true babies, if you know what I mean. Some had lived in the ashram for over a decade. There were in most cases great people, in fact, who just made the terrible mistake of trusting someone as deceitful and uncaring as Maharaji.

A large number of the ashrams were in debt almost all the time, mostly because of the cost of going to programs, the cost to donate money to Maharaji himself, the cost to support Elan Vital, the cost to support Elan Vital personnel and Initiators who didn't work, and, very significantly, the cost to donate to various expensive toys Maharaji wanted, like that Boeing 707 monstrosity that cost (and wasted) millions and millions of dollars.

Most of the ashram debt was on credit cards. When I was ashram housefather in two different cities, it was always a struggle to meet all the financial commitments, because the ashram premies usually had relatively low-paying jobs, which they often lost because they had to take off for programs, and because Elan Vital moved people around a lot for 'service.' It was always a financial struggle to make ends meet. We had the advantage of living communally, but, besides debt, many of the needs that the ashram premies had, like medical, dental, clothing and other needs, were not adequately met, because there just wasn't the money due to the almost constant demands to donate to Maharaji. For example, I never had any dental work done the whole time I lived in the ashram because there wasn't any money for that. Many premies lived in ashrams without adequate medical care, all in the name of surrendering to Maharaji.

But the truth was, Maharaji didn't even know who we were, and cared less. I lived in his ashrams for nine years, and I never even spoke to Maharaji, not even once. He never stepped foot into any ashram I ever lived in. I'm sure he never even knew my name. He certainly expressed no interest or concern whatsoever about how the ashram premies lived, of whether they were being properly taken care of. He cared even less when he dumped the ashram premies onto the streets in 1983, and even stuck them with the ashram debts, for some people as much as $20,000, individually. Again, these were people who had given Maharaji their lives - absolutely everything, and had sacrificed years of their lives to serve and support him, and yet this is how Maharaji responded to them. Clearly, that says something loud and clear about the kind of person Maharaji is.

The cavalier way in which Maharaji related to the ashrams is something that will dog him for the rest of his life. There are too many of us out there who aren't about to forget the rotten, uncaring things Maharaji did to us, and how little he seemed to care about us as fellow human beings. And this is magnified by the fact that to this day, Maharaji has failed to even admit there was any problem, and certainly that he had anything to do with it.

Erika does admit, in her usual passive voice method of deflecting any responsibility on Maharaji, that the closing of the ashrams, at least, wasn't done very well. But Erika engages in rank intellectual dishonesty when she, like the good cult member she is who cannot bear to criticize her cult leader, excuses Maharaji from ever having to admit, let alone atone for, the damage he caused people, because, according to Erika, people might not be able to accept his apology.

I'm speechless. It's about justice, Erika. It's about damage done to real human beings. Since when is it acceptable to flake out on an apology or taking responsibility for your actions unless there is some kind of guarantee that the apology will be accepted? This is culthink in the extreme.

But I'm sure Erika expects more from other people in her life and only gives such bizarre dispensations to her cult leader. Hopefully, her kids have figured out that exception and won't learn from Erika's retreat from the expectations one would apply to any other human being.

Joe Whalen
October, 2001

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