Thanks to Fairgamed Educo Victim, we located In the Grip of the Guru, the four-part series published in the Oregonian more than 20 years ago.
Much of what was published about Swami Chetanananda in 2001 is ongoing today.
Richard Read wrote the series. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he was a senior writer and foreign correspondent for The Oregonian, working for the Portland, Oregon newspaper from 1981 to 1986 and 1989 until 2016.
The Oregonian series on Chetanananda is hard to find online. FR is republishing the series as a public service. Had these articles been continuously available, perhaps some of the current victims of the swami might have been spared.
Swami Chetanananda has attracted educated people as followers, but dozens of ex-disciples accuse the guru of financial, sexual and spiritual abuse
From Indiana to a Portland manor, Swami Chetanananda, once named J. Michael Shoemaker, has attracted educated people as followers, but dozens of ex-disciples accuse the guru of financial, sexual and spiritual abuse
Sunday, July 15, 2001
By Richard Read of The Oregonian staff
An architect, a computer science professor and a doctor gather with friends on a sun-dappled evening in a brick manor in Portland’s leafy Kerns district.
For them the stately 1910 manse radiates a benevolent calm that be lies its location just steps from a seedy stretch of Northeast Sandy Boulevard, where a Jiffy Lube screens the house from passers-by.
The Movement Center
Inside the building lives their teacher, Swami Chetanananda, a 52-year-old self-styled spiritual leader. A heavyset, shaven-headed man draped in orange cloth, the Kentucky-born guru claims to transmit a divine energy so powerful it can knock over a disciple or provoke shrieks of ecstasy.
The sprawling Gothic structure houses about 75 devotees of the swami — raised Catholic in Indiana as J. Michael Shoemaker — many of whom hold respected jobs ranging from lawyers to business managers. The swami’s followers also run a yoga school, The Movement Center, that offers classes to hundreds of members of the public, ranging from professionals to expectant mothers. Sometimes, yoga students go on to meditate and become disciples.
Yet periodically, traumatized people emerge from the gated compound of the Rudrananda Ashram, or spiritual center, saying they surrendered their hearts, minds and souls at the behest of the swami. In return, ex-members say, the swami abused them and other followers sexually, spiritually and financially, from the 1970s to the present.
During the past three years, former disciples of Chetanananda slowly have summoned courage to describe their experiences. The Oregonian interviewed 59 former followers and 17 current members of the Nityananda Institute, the tax-exempt church that runs the Portland spiritual center.
The former followers of Chetanananda — pronounced chay-tahna-NAHnda — include a 44- year-old owner of a Massachusetts sheet-metal company and a 75- year-old healer from India. A New Mexico chiropractor, a Portland psychiatrist, a Tennessee home maker and a Boston cook also came forward to tell their stories.
Many of these former followers say Chetanananda controlled their lives and threatened people who tried to leave him, inflicting severe psychological and spiritual damage. One woman says he persuaded her to give him more than $400,000 that vanished in failed investments. Eleven ex-disciples say that despite his proclaimed vow of celibacy he had sex with them — sometimes violently. They say their awe of him as a spiritual being, father figure, teacher and counselor left them incapable of true consent.
Chetanananda repeatedly refused requests for an interview. Last Thursday, he sent The Oregonian a five-page typed statement in response to a letter summarizing the allegations.
“I have never abused any women or children or men,” Chetanananda wrote. “I have never threatened any person who wanted to leave our community. I have never coerced anyone, period.”
Chetanananda wrote that he long ago renounced his “supposed” vow of celibacy and has had sexual relationships with mature, consenting adult women over the past 30 years. He said his conduct was appropriate in his community.
He said that he had made mistakes, and that he and his organization had changed during 28 years. He denied trying to control his students and said they were free to come and go.
“I find it incomprehensible that people could say these things,” Chetanananda said. “It breaks my heart.”
Alexis Sanderson, a professor of Eastern religions and ethics at Oxford University in England who has lectured at Chetanananda’s ashram, says the swami is a “generous-hearted and pleasant individual” who leads an open and tolerant group. “Accusations of sexual malpractice are the standard way of attacking religious practitioners,” Sanderson says.
Like the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose followers built a Central Oregon commune during the 1980s, the swami appeals to educated people from middle- or upper-class backgrounds who yearn for deeper meaning in life. Unlike the Rajneeshees, who perpetrated assassination conspiracies, poisonings, buggings and fraud, the guru and his followers are not accused of such crimes.
Kent Burtner, who directed the former Cult Resource Center in Portland, has counseled several former disciples of Chetanananda. Burtner says the swami’s organization exemplifies the kind of smaller group that is becoming more prevalent than the large organizations that once made public pitches at airports and bus stations. Sociologists, therapists and authorities on cults say smaller groups can recruit more dedicated members privately through yoga and meditation classes, for example.
City records show that the swami’s followers have held top positions on the Kerns Neighborhood Association board since 1994, when Sharon Ward — the institute’s executive director and the guru’s sister-in-law — began her first term as chairwoman. Ten other disciples have held elected positions on the board in the neighborhood of about 5,500 residents.
Inside the big house at 1021 N.E. 33rd Ave. on that sun-mottled evening, the architect, the professor and the doctor enter a meditation hall with other followers.
Devotees prostrate themselves toward Chetanananda’s empty, spotlit couch. They chant to get controlled their lives and thr er. The guru’s languid, disembodied voice addresses them through ceiling speakers.
The practice isn’t always easy, says the swami’s recorded voice. You must bring your attention inside.
The disciples fall silent. The sound system hisses, then clicks off. The only reminder of the sunny day outside is the faint rumble of traffic on Sandy Boulevard.
“I graduated from Connersville High School. . . . My favorite hobby was the hereafter test — that’s when you take a girl out in the country on Friday night and say: ‘Honey, if you’re not here after what I’m here after, then you’re going to be here after I’m gone.’ “
— Michael Shoemaker, Indiana Daily Student article, July 25, 1975.
[FR note: He brags about threatening to leave a woman without a ride, miles from home, if she does not have sex with him.]
Michael Shoemaker, an Indiana University dropout, changed his life forever when he walked into an Asian-art store in New York in 1971.
Years later he would repeatedly enthrall his followers with his own life tale: In those days Shoemaker was a seeker himself. The cocky 22-year-old with wavy dark hair was a former football player and swimmer powerful enough to boast of winning barroom scraps.
The son of a pharmacist and a nurse, both devout Catholics, he studied yoga in Bloomington, Ind. Someone gave him a photograph of guru Albert Rudolph and the address of his Greenwich Village art and antiques shop.
Shoemaker introduced himself to Rudolph, a plump man with gentle brown eyes set below bushy eyebrows and a bald pate.
“I looked at him, and I felt my heart shatter into a thousand pieces,” Shoemaker said during a 1997 lecture. “From that moment on, I never had one second’s doubt about the power of the experience into which I had entered.”
Rudi with young Shoemaker and another lad.
At 42, Rudolph prospered from importing antique Asian religious statues and paintings. The Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants welcomed a constant stream of spiritual seekers to his store and home. They knew Rudolph as Swami Rudrananda.
Rudi, as he was nicknamed, traced his lineage of enlightenment to the late Bhagawan Nityananda, an Indian guru whose name is translated as “eternal bliss” in Hindi.
Shoemaker moved for six months into Rudi’s ashram, in Big Indian, N.Y. There, as many as 200 disciples labored on weekends to refurbish two ramshackle hotels the art dealer owned in the Catskill Mountains town. Members of the ashram’s full-time community of about 50 people opened a bakery, a restaurant named Rudi’s, a construction company and an advertising agency.
Shoemaker returned to Bloomington in August 1971 to begin a satellite ashram for Rudi. Before he left New York, the budding spiritual leader raised an awkward subject with his mentor.
“I said to him, ‘Rudi, I’ll need some money to do this,’ ” Chetanananda said during the 1997 lecture. “And Rudi looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Michael, any schmuck can do it with money.’ ”
Shoemaker, it turned out, was no schmuck.
Swami Chetanananda about the time of the Oregonian series.
Rudi died two years later in the crash of a plane piloted by a disciple. Former disciples of Rudi’s say Shoemaker beat out rivals for the title of successor. By the late 1970s, the kid from Connersville, Ind., who told disciples he once aspired to be a Catholic priest, had built a spiritual empire.
Bloomington’s newspaper, The Herald-Times, ran prominent stories at the time about Shoemaker, reporting that he held majority shares in the Rudi Group, Inc. The stories said the corporation included five bakeries called Rudi’s and the Tao Restaurant, a natural-foods eatery that moved Bloomington beyond chicken- fried-steak fare.
Shoemaker founded the Rudrananda Ashram and helped run a related foundation, both tax- exempt organizations, the newspaper said. And he owned an antique store, Rudra Oriental Art, the paper said.
More than 100 followers inhabited five houses in Bloomington. Shoemaker claimed hundreds more students nationwide, with ashrams spread from Massachusetts to Ohio, Michigan and Colorado.
Swami MuktananandaIn 1978, an Indian guru named Swami Muktananda initiated Shoemaker as a swami, as Hindu spiritual masters are called. He went through a ritual in India, to be reborn as Swami Chetanananda. The Hindi name is translated as “the bliss of pure self-awareness.”
Disciples say Chetanananda told them he was initiated as a sannyasi, which — as he said, and experts agree — is a spiritual master who abandons all worldly desires. Eastern religions scholars say these desires include wealth, status and sexual gratification.
Some people came to the guru after Western religions failed them.
Ruth Knight, who as a girl ducked out of the family pew in Catholic church, says she wanted more out of life than a small-town Midwestern existence. Knight sat up and listened one spring day in 1978 when an Indiana University extension professor of psychology urged his students to leave Fort Wayne and do something significant.
She moved to Bloomington. One day Knight attended one of Chetanananda’s retreats. She clutched flowers in a sweaty hand while lining up in “darshan,” a ceremony in which the swami greeted disciples individually in front of a room full of followers facing him cross-legged on cushions.
Knight was so nervous that she said in a 1986 talk that she couldn’t remember handing the swami her flowers or receiving his gift, usually a piece of sweet food that he blessed. But she vividly recalled the reassuring look she received from Swamiji, as she called him, using a respectful title disciples describe as a term of affection.
“It became clear that I wasn’t the shy person I thought I was,” Knight, who is still a devout follower of the swami in Portland, said during the talk. “It is said that simply to sit in the presence of a teacher brings great benefit and judging from stories about Nityananda and from our own experiences with Swamiji, that is true.”
For Knight, meditation felt completely natural, a way to explore the depths of her soul. She dropped out of college and ran the ashram’s kitchen.
Others came to the guru shattered by trauma. They had endured incest or other sexual abuse, illness or injury, suicidal tendencies or drug use, the death of a parent or divorce.
Gunner Anderson says he was a college dropout, depressed, confused and doing drugs, in 1974 when he heard Michael Shoemaker speak at the Ann Arbor, Mich., ashram.
Shoemaker quoted Rudi. Life is a shit sandwich, he said. But you don’t have to eat it.
A year later, Anderson reached his lowest point. Then he remembered Rudi’s sandwich.
Anderson moved into the ashram.
Shoemaker taught Rudi’s breathing techniques, designed to draw divine energy into the body. He told students to “surrender” the mind, shedding thoughts and emotions so that dormant energy coiled at the base of the spine could rise and eventually bring enlightenment. The energy, recognized in yoga and tantric teachings and known as kundalini, may be awakened by a guru’s word, touch, look or thought.
“The force enters between the eyes of the student as he sits before his teacher,” Rudi wrote in his book, “Spiritual Cannibalism,” published in 1973. “It works down through his chest, into his sex organs, then up the spinal column.”
Anderson says he stopped doing drugs. He took Shoemaker’s advice and returned to complete his architecture degree and attend graduate school. He started a de sign business.
By 1978, Anderson sat each day at 6:30 p.m. in the meditation room of the Ann Arbor ashram, a former fraternity house, gazing at towering oak trees outside. He took his attention deep inside. Tension began to melt away.
Sometimes the meditation frightened Anderson, it was so intense. At other times his heart, which felt leaden like a rock, began opening with an incredible, euphoric sensation.
People talked about love and sang about it, but he says he felt love actually surge through him. He couldn’t explain it to people who had not tried meditation.
Years later, he left the swami, feeling that the spiritual practice had drifted from its Hindu roots and become rigid.
Still, Anderson says, the ashram probably saved his life.
Former followers say that Swami Chetanananda demanded obedience.
A 47-year-old marketing executive says she recalls every detail of an encounter with the guru in 1978 that changed her life. The former disciple spoke on condition that her name be withheld, because she still feels she could be drawn back into the group if members knew how to find her.
Back then, she was a college student from a small-town working-class family. She approached the guru’s elevated chair in the dining room of his Bloomington ashram as disciples finished eating. Large air-brushed paintings of Rudi and Nityananda loomed above rich Oriental carpets.
The swami listened to her attentively, his smooth brow fur rowed below a shaven scalp.
She was learning to surrender. She gave him her complete trust. He held that power over a growing number of disciples, who would gladly take his word on which colors to wear, whom to date and what career to launch.
The woman told him about the break-up with her boyfriend, her abortion and her loneliness. She felt vulnerable and lacked direction. But she was excited to be departing on a college year abroad, and relieved to find someone who could make decisions for her.
Shoemaker paused, she recalls.
No, he said. You should stay here.
The woman left the room and canceled the trip.
She says that Chetanananda told her not to date anyone, and to focus on her spiritual work. She says that later he orchestrated her marriage to a fellow devotee and conducted the ceremony, as he did with other marriages between disciples.
The swami now says: “I have never conducted a fraudulent marriage ceremony.” He also says that while he has occasionally given advice, he has never forbidden anyone from doing anything.
The woman says she didn’t hesitate to do his bidding. Any doubts, she felt, were mere expressions of ego.
But some relatives and friends saw their loved ones’ transformation differently.
Lawrence Eyink, a Cincinnati building contractor and ex- Marine, and his wife, Mary, a former teacher, told reporters in 1979 that their 24-year-old son had been brilliant, a top runner and vice president of his high school senior class, before joining the swami’s group.
The couple said that four years before, Dan Eyink had dropped out of college, moved into the Cincinnati ashram and begun working as a dishwasher. He had cut himself off from his family and former friends, they said, calling home for money and cursing out his mother.
“It seemed like his eyes were dead,” Lawrence Eyink told a reporter. “He had a mechanical smile.”
Family members had abducted Eyink in 1978, but he escaped. So, the couple got a court order granting them temporary guardianship over their son.
Three men helped family members grab Eyink again late on March 15, 1979, as he left work as head chef at Cincinnati’s Mecklenburg Garden Restaurant, an ashram-linked business. But ashram leaders fought the parents in court. Headlines turned ugly.
“Fear Backdrop in Cult’s Fight for Ex-Member,” the Pittsburgh Press said. “Cult Case ‘Captive’ Freed by Judge,” said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Eyink, now a Portland doctor who says he still sometimes attends classes in the big, brick manor, was allowed to return to the ashram.
Dr. Dan Eyink, a medical doctor and acupuncturist, moved from Bloomington to Portland to follow the swami.
“In terms of the audience for Eastern spirituality, there is no one like me. I will automatically become the dean of Eastern spiritual figures on the East Coast.” — Chetanananda, quoted in Bloomington’s Herald-Times, Dec. 13, 1981.
Some followers grew disenchanted. Craig Benson, a student of Rudi’s who had moved with his wife into the Bloomington ashram in 1976, said years later he felt Shoemaker’s initiation as a swami had been a mistake.
“I don’t mind if someone says, ‘I am God, and so are you,’ ” said Benson, who quit the ashram in the early 1980s after he says meditation sessions turned into lengthy devotional chants. “But when they say, ‘I am God, and you’re not,’ that indicates a spiritual limitation that I do not agree with.”
Chetanananda told followers that he longed to move from the college town to a place where he could make a national mark.
By 1982, Chetanananda decided on Massachusetts.
“What surrender means is that you open yourself deeply: that you suspend your feelings of fear, resistance, doubt and misunderstanding. . . . In this way you become a manifestation of the teaching.” — Chetanananda, spring 1982 issue of Rudra, an ashram publication.
You can reach Richard Read at 503-294-5135 or email@example.com.
Researchers Lynne Palombo and Gail Hulden contributed to this report.