From India with 'Shakti,' a Swami Lights Up His Disciples' Lives
Now embarked on his third U.S. tour, Muktananda has been sought out by such upscale truth seekers as California Gov. Jerry Brown, former astronaut Edgar Mitchell and singer Carly Simon. Since his first visit here, in 1970, about 300 small meditation centers have been established in his name in this country. Retreating from the onset of winter, and hoping to reach an area yet untouched by his message, Muktananda recently moved his 800-member meditation community from New York's Catskill Mountains to a hotel in Miami Beach. "Despite their abundant material wealth," he maintains, "Americans are hungry for truth. They will do anything for an unchanging happiness."
The guru's vision has not gone unheeded. Actress Marsha Mason remembers her first meeting with Baba (the affectionate Hindu term for "Holy Man" used by his disciples) five years ago. "When he walked into a room, his shakti was definitely very there," she says, "and you felt it, as if a great fan were blowing somewhere behind him." Mason, who has since made a pilgrimage to his Indian ashram, now meditates daily and carries tapes in her car of the swami's chants and prayers. (Her writer husband, Neil Simon, is supportive and respectful.) British actress Olivia Hussey is equally dedicated. She first met Baba in the mid-'70s, when her marriage to young Dean Paul Martin was on the rocks. She was overweight, unemployed and depressed. "When Baba touched my face, I felt great inside," she recalls. "I perspired, sat down and closed my eyes for what I thought was five minutes. When I awoke, I had been meditating for three hours."
Baba's own search for truth began early. At 15 he left the home of his wealthy landowner parents in Mangalore, intending to devote his life to spiritual practice. Several years later he became a monk, and spent 20 years wandering through India. Then, in 1947, he met his own Siddha guru, Swami Nityananda, who first transmitted shakti to him. "A white flame arose from within, illuminating the whole world," Muktananda remembers. "It was wondrous. I felt astonished and afraid." Nityananda asked him to establish an ashram and eventually picked Baba to succeed him as a Siddha guru. His followers now number 200,000 in India and some 100,000 here.
Very few of his U.S. disciples have taken vows of celibacy or renounced worldly attachments, but Muktananda does not insist on this sacrifice. "Once the state of shakti is attained," he declares, "the mundane and spiritual worlds are not different." His own world, of course, is more rigorously spiritual than that of his disciples. Waking promptly at 3 a.m. every day, he lies alone until nine, meditating and "thinking of God." ("In the world, everything has to be punctual," he explains, and says he has never been late for an appointment.) He then begins his daily meetings, breaking for a vegetarian lunch served precisely at noon. Afternoons he writes or dictates in his room, followed by meetings with disciples and visitors for two hours before dinner at 7:30. "Then no more meetings," he says. "I sit quietly or I read until 9:30. Sometimes I watch the news on television. Nothing else. Just the news. I always want to know what is happening in the world."
In this decade of Moonies, Jonestown and Hare Krishnas in every airport, Muktananda is accustomed to encountering skeptics. "The false guru business is booming," he admits. "But," he adds, "the false disciple market is booming too. People must be discriminating in choosing a real guru. At first they must be mistrustful and learn about him. A true disciple will never be trapped."
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