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
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
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
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
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: