It appeared in the newspaper more than 20 years ago and has been largely unavailable for years.
Frank Report republished Part 1: Securing a Spiritual Empire.
Today we republish Part 2—a Broken Trust.
Richard Read, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote the series. His style is superb and content absorbing.
The Oregonian series on Swami Chetanananda is almost impossible to find online. Had these articles been continuously available, some victims might have been spared.
Spared or deterred. Aware of the Swami’s deceptive practices.
FR hopes people will avoid the Swami’s grip through Read’s powerful words published 21 years ago. How many victims have suffered at his hands is impossible to know.
Had Read’s work been more widely available, perhaps this rascal swami would have been shut down by now. To stop him from posing as a spiritual teacher to lure in people for his sick sadism is the goal.
It may give comfort to some who suffered at his hands to know that you are not alone. This man is a master at deception and abuse and has escaped thus far into old age untouched.
But even he may be unable to avoid the thing he threatened and tempted others with – karma. His day of reckoning may be coming soon. And it is an honor and pleasure to post the fine and true words of Richard Read, then of the Oregonian, to speed this along.
The arrow is sharp and plunges deep, and the boomerang returns from whence it came.
Swami Chetanananda has attracted educated people as followers, but dozens of ex-disciples accuse the guru of financial, sexual and spiritual abuse
A broken trust
Eleven women, all ex-disciples, say Swami Chetanananda’s seduction of them was an abuse of the revered spiritual teacher’s profound power over them as they sought enlightenment through him
Monday, July 16, 2001
By Richard Read of The Oregonian staff
“Every authentic teacher you ever meet will also be a total rascal. I’m worse than that.” — Chetanananda, in a Jan. 24, 1988, tape-recorded talk.
Dana Swift’s life hit bottom one day in February 1988. She warmed herself by an open oven door, watching roaches climb the kitchen wall.
At 24, the Boston bartender had done drugs, done boys, done everything that interested her. Please God, she remembers thinking, in her apartment near Cambridge, Mass., there’s got to be more to life than this.
She reached for the Yellow Pages.
Manicures. Massage. Mattresses.
Swift says she hated her boss at another job, who sexually harassed her. She was mad at her boyfriend, who was mean. Severely traumatized as a child, she felt worthless. She says she just wanted to withdraw from everything. On some level, she knew she needed help.
Swift wore black, her standard uniform. The outfit, set off by hostile gray-blue eyes and red hair, warned people off her path.
There it was. Meditation.
Swift dialed a few numbers for meditation centers. Then she hit upon one. “Nityananda Institute,” said a woman’s cheery voice.
The woman invited Swift to a Sunday open house to hear Swami Chetanananda field questions. Chetanananda, an American-born guru originally named J. Michael Shoemaker, had moved his group of about 60 followers six years earlier to Cambridge, Mass., from Bloomington, Ind.
Swift attended a talk by the orange-robed guru, who sat cross-legged on a wide wooden chair above Shiva, an attack-trained Rottweiler named for a Hindu god. Disciples taped the swami’s Sunday talks and other lectures and sent the cassettes to members of a tape-of-the-month club.
Swift recalls soaking up the teachings, thirsting for the swami’s divine energy, drinking in his every word during evening lectures. She felt euphoric, as if she were deeply in love.
She worked to surrender herself completely.
“The teacher takes on the student’s tensions and processes it and gives it back to the student as energy.” — Chetanananda, in remarks recorded March 13, 1988 — the month after Swift first saw him — for the March tape-of-the-month.
Swift remembers a meditation class that March. She dropped her black jacket on the floor and sat on it. Chetanananda’s closest followers took choice seats on pre-placed pillows. They chanted in unison.
Swift closed her eyes in meditation. When something touched her forehead, she jumped. It was Chetanananda, holding two fingers between her eyebrows.
The guru was giving shaktipat, funneling energy into her.
Some disciples groaned at his touch and keeled over. Others convulsed. A few responded with loud screams that struck Swift as primal, they were so eerie.
The guru’s institute owned four houses near the Radcliffe College campus. According to a later chronology published by the institute, followers opened Rudi’s Bakery, named for his late mentor, in Boston in 1982. The next year, the chronology said, they launched Rudra Press, a publishing company.
Chetanananda recruited editors who say they produced books from his lectures. He attracted some wealthier members. The institute’s newsletters repeatedly thanked donors for helping with expenses in Cambridge and on Martha’s Vineyard, the island off Cape Cod where the institute owned a retreat center and some acreage.
On this day in March 1988, Swift’s knees began to hurt. She strove to breathe into her chakras, the seven internal energy centers recognized by yoga practitioners.
She fought the urge to shift her knees. She thought she could feel the energy flowing, dissolving crystallized tension deep inside her. She felt the sense of euphoria fill her.
“You can continuously choose to discover and live in a finer realm than the one you travel in,” — Chetanananda, in a tape-of-the-month recorded March 13, 1988.
After an evening lecture that March, Swift noticed that as usual Chetanananda’s favored followers disappeared upstairs.
She watched Sharon Ward, a lawyer who was the guru’s right-hand woman and administrator, walk up to the swami’s third-floor apartment. She saw John Robert “Bob” Shoemaker, the guru’s brother, whom Chetanananda married to Ward in a ceremony that month, head up the stairs.
Swift remembers feeling secure in the self-contained community, where disciples renounced meat and alcohol. Without venturing outside the group, followers could see lawyers, homeopathic practitioners, massage therapists, computer experts, a tax accountant or jewelry and carpet dealers.
To Swift, it began to seem normal that people asked the swami what clothes they should wear, whether they should dye their hair, what style of eyeglasses to wear, whether they should date another disciple.
One day, she says, the swami told her not to wear black. She bought a new wardrobe full of colors.
Swift says she yearned to feel close to Chetanananda. But she felt that the inner circle consisted only of chosen followers with money, looks or useful expertise. She wondered what happened in his inner sanctum.
“A real spiritual teacher does not in any way need to control you or your thinking.” — Chetanananda, on the tape-of-the-month, recorded April 24, 1988.
Years later, two followers who climbed those stairs recalled how special they felt. They described the guru’s routine in his private quarters, on condition that their names not be used.
In his suite on several evenings that spring disciples filled wooden bowls from a buffet on a glass table set below track-lit Tibetan artwork. They sat on pillows on the floor facing their leader. The followers noticed the appetizing smell of brown rice and vegetables filling the room.
Chetanananda settled into a plush leather armchair, a former member of the inside circle recalls. More than once, he turned on the movie “Repo Man,” watching Emilio Estevez play the street punk who began repossessing cars after his parents gave his college money to a televangelist’s cult.
One of the ex-followers recalls Chetanananda beckoning a student to sit just below him. He gave the man shaktipat. Soon the disciple fell backward.
Casually, the guru returned to the movie.
At the end of the evening, disciples quietly competed to gather dishes for washing in the apartment’s cramped kitchen. Disciples also cleaned the swami’s suite, picked up his socks, washed his car. The point was to serve the guru and keep him happy, no matter what it took.
“Literally I have, you know, 20 people in my room from 8 o’clock in the morning ’til 10 o’clock at night. It’s continuously changing, but it’s there.” — Chetanananda, April 24, 1988, talk.
Finally in April 1988, Chetanananda invited Swift to his room.
But she says she thought it odd that he led her upstairs by the hand. She pulled her hand away.
In his room, he sat on a small couch and patted the seat next to him. She says she concluded he was propositioning her.
Other women disciples said years later that, despite Chetanananda’s vow of celibacy during his 1978 initiation as a swami, they were accustomed to sexual advances from the guru.
In all, 11 women told The Oregonian that Chetanananda had had sex with them while they studied with him. They provided detailed accounts corroborated in multiple cases by people they told at the time.
Given the swami’s profound influence over them then, the 11 women say the sex was damaging.
“Sex is never appropriate for a person in the role of counselor, psychologist, doctor or teacher,” said one of the women. She was a medical student in 1997, when she says he seduced her after they each drank a bottle of wine in his suite inside the Portland ashram.
The women said that far from being consenting adults, they felt they could not say no to a spiritual teacher they trusted with their souls.
Chetanananda refused repeated requests for an interview with The Oregonian. Last Thursday, he responded to questions with a typed statement in which he acknowledged having had “sexual relationships with mature, adult consenting women” during the past 30 years.
The guru wrote that the last vow he took during his initiation in India was to renounce all other vows and to return to teach. He is not celibate, he wrote.
In 1997, Chetanananda said during a talk that his spiritual practice had evolved.
“For me, purity has nothing to do with what you eat or don’t eat and who you sleep with,” the swami said then. “If living in a bordello and doing whatever every night is what helps you do it, that’s fine, too. For me.”
In his statement last week, Chetanananda said that while it was inappropriate for high-school and college instructors to have sex with their students, his situation in a long-standing community of “consenting adults” was different.
“Anyone who is offended by the existence of such relationships simply should find a practice and a teacher with whom they agree,” Chetanananda wrote.
Swift says she never had sex with the swami and didn’t dwell on his conduct that day.
She says she chose to sit apart from him in his room that day in 1988 and searched for a safe subject of conversation. When you stay with your parents, she said, do you attend Catholic church with them?
The swami glared at her. My father is a . . . bigot, she recalls him yelling, pounding the arm of a chair.
Swift sat in confused silence. The swami asked after a romantic interest of hers.
He’s fine, Swift said. But the swami shook his head.
No more, she recalls him saying.
So, when the guy phoned a couple of days later, Swift cut him off cold. Swift felt that if the guru had asked her never to talk to her best friend again, she would have cut her off, too.
“If you’re going to do any kind of deep experiencing . . . the first thing you’re going to have to get through is that piece of plastic in your head called the mind. It’s just Saran Wrap.” — Chetanananda, May 11, 1988, in a talk the month after Swift visited his room.
Another woman — then one of Chetanananda’s closest disciples, and now one of the 11 who say he had sex with them — says she bounded up the back stairs to his apartment May 19, 1988, eager to see the man she considered God.
The woman, who spoke on condition that her name be withheld, remembers it this way: They stepped into his bedroom. His orange T-shirt, baggy black sweatpants and bikini briefs fell to the floor. They made love.
The woman says they had been lovers since Oct. 12, 1987, when she submitted to him while groggy from pain medication and tranquilizers that she took following surgery. She says Chetanananda, who was staying for three nights as a houseguest of her and her then-husband, said that her troubled marriage was destined to fail.
The swami told her, she says, that she had been his princess in Germany during his last life and would be his queen in this life. She recalls the swami saying that she had been sent to him by Rudi, his late mentor, and Nityananda, Rudi’s guru.
She believed that an omniscient being had fallen in love with her.
Yet, she says at other times, when the swami became distant and withdrawn, she felt a sense of dread bordering on fear.
She says he had violent, painful sex with her, and her fear grew.
In his statement last week, the swami did not specifically respond to a question about whether he had had violent sex with women, causing them injuries.
“I am not violent,” he said, however. “I have always tried to act in the best interests of everyone who practices here.”
The woman says she woke from a nightmare several nights later, terrified.
She told the guru that in the dream, she stood at the intersection of four corridors.
She looked down the corridor ahead of her and saw a black dog. She looked down the right passage and saw another black dog. Down the hall behind her, she saw a third black dog.
Along the left corridor stood a man with a gun. She had no way out.
She says the guru told her to remember what Rudi had said: The only way out of Dodge City is straight up.
“Open yourself completely every day. . . . Don’t worry about the beauty or the pain of it. . . . There’s no growth without distress and disturbance.” — Chetanananda, tape of the month for June 1988, less than a month after the second woman of the 11 says he had had painful sex with her.
The same woman says Chetanananda telephoned her a few weeks later. He asked her to buy him a handgun for his collection of firearms.
The woman felt sick. She never bought the revolver. She felt the guru’s attention and affections diminish. She felt that the request for the gun had been a test.
She says Chetanananda had sex with her most recently in 1996. Ever since the violent sexual encounter, the woman felt isolated. She faulted herself for failing somehow.
But she was not alone. A third woman says the swami arranged in Bloomington for her to marry a follower she barely knew. She says the guru had sex with her twice while she was married.
A fourth woman says she performed oral sex on the guru at his request after she gave him therapeutic massages. She says that in 16 years of giving massages as a nurse, she had never had sex with other patients. She says she believes that her desire for a strong father figure led her to submit to the guru.
A fifth woman says Chetanananda seduced her in Cambridge and continued having sex with her about every six weeks for six years. She says he told her that she should devote her energy to a spiritual path instead of having a boyfriend, and that he would try to be a boyfriend for her.
“I simply wanted him as a meditation teacher,” she says. “I was incredibly naive and trusting and didn’t know any better.”
The women spoke on condition that their names would be withheld, saying they feared retribution and deserved anonymity as victims of sexual abuse.
Women said the guru linked sensuality with his spiritual practice. They felt the swami establishing a special bond during open-eye meditation, when he stared into the eyes of advanced students.
“Being extra close to the guru means that you become extremely special,” said a sixth woman, who said that she had had sex with Chetanananda three times. “You don’t object. This is the guru, remember?”
A seventh woman described lingering psychological and emotional scars from an intensive four-year sexual relationship with the swami. “I honestly thought it was going to get me all the way” to enlightenment and God, she said. “He led me to believe that he was the way to get there, and if I didn’t continue to participate there would be great harm to me.”
Diane Asay, a current disciple, said students bear responsibility for choosing to have sex with the guru.
“I’ve watched people climb all over people to get into his bed,” Asay said. She says jealous former lovers are going public to hurt the swami, who is helping to lead a grand spiritual reformation that will make their complaints appear trivial a century from now.
“I don’t get any points in heaven for all the people I brought in. I don’t. It benefits you.” — Chetanananda, at his birthday retreat, July 23, 1988.
Former disciples say the sexual conduct described by the 11 women affected a wider circle of people.
Swift says that a distraught young man, one of the swami’s most committed students, came to her apartment in the summer of 1990.
She says he told her that his girlfriend, also a disciple, had told him that Chetanananda had had sex with her. His girlfriend said it had happened a few times two years before.
Swift was stunned. She was hearing for the first time that her teacher was not celibate. She tried to console the young disciple.
Yet sex between gurus and disciples is common, sociologists and other experts say, due to some gurus’ absolute power over devoted followers. The New Yorker magazine reported in November 1994, for example, that some women who followed the late Swami Muktananda, the man who initiated Chetanananda as a swami, said the guru from India had had sex with them.
Muktananda, who died in 1982, preached celibacy. Scores of devotees left his organization after hearing of the sexual allegations, The New Yorker reported.
Swift says that in 1990, after the young man left her apartment, she paced around swearing about Chetanananda. She felt the guru’s students were lost beings seeking help and that he was taking advantage of them.
The man says he stewed for a month. Then a college graduate in his 20s, he had studied under the guru for six years. He spoke on condition that his name not be used, because he says he still has affection for the community. He says his girlfriend’s revelation broke his heart.
He confronted the swami on the ashram’s back porch.
It’s not a big deal, he remembers the guru saying. She made the advances; what was I supposed to do?
“Now personally I think celibacy is total baloney. In India it’s one thing. But here it’s something totally different.” — Chetanananda, April 1992 tape-of-the-month.
Disciples recall Chetanananda speaking repeatedly in Cambridge of his frustration over the ashram’s cramped space.
They say the Boston area had proven a more difficult place than expected for Chetanananda to woo recruits and gain stature.
Key disciples searched the nation for a new site, almost buying a former alcohol rehabilitation center in Florida. Then a disciple’s relative in Portland mentioned Laurelhurst Manor, a former retirement home for sale at 1021 N.E. 33rd Ave.
One evening in late 1992, disciples recall, Sharon Ward announced in the crowded meditation room that the institute would move to Portland, Oregon.
“Spiritual growth is about surrender, not about understanding. Whenever that part of you that wants to figure out, or know why, or what for, or so on or so forth, kicks in, kick it out. Kick it out.” — Chetanananda, in an April 21, 1993, talk.
Swift says she felt numb and indifferent. People outside the ashram sometimes asked her whether she had a feeling or opinion about anything.
She had overcome the anger of her old life. The only thing that moved her now was her devotion to the spiritual practice.
In the spring of 1993, disciples lined up amid snow flurries to pass hundreds of boxes out of the Cambridge ashram to trucks. They watched a crane hoist a stone Buddha from the ashram over the street.
Swift joined the move to Portland. Wherever the swami went, she would go, too.