Quotes from Ram Dass That Fit the Pattern of Spiritualizing Sexual Abuse in Yoga
Not long after the glowing obits for Ram Dass started packing my feeds, Karen Rain, a trusted friend and colleague messaged me:
“Did you know that Neem Karoli Baba was a sex offender too?” No. No I didn’t.
Neem Karoli Baba was Dass’s guru. Bhagavan Das introduced them. (Falk has the rundown here.) Karoli Baba is essential to the bios of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal as well.
Rain pointed me to a book that I was able to download and search in a few minutes. Miracle of Love (Dutton Publications, 1979. ISBN-13: 9780525476115). It’s a hagiography of Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass.
Dass has an entire chapter in the book called “Krishna Play” (loc. 4661). Here’s how he introduces it:
IT SEEMS AT ONCE surprising and obvious to note that Maharajji was quite different in the quality of his relationship with men and with women. With men he hung out and gossiped, scolded, and guided—as friend, father, and sage. With the women, on the other hand, in addition to those roles, he seemed frequently to assume roles like that of Krishna, as child and playmate and lover. Such play on Maharajji’s part of course created some consternation and confusion among devotees and also grounds for criticism on the part of people who did not like or trust Maharajji. But for the women devotees who were directly involved with Maharajji in this way, his actions served as a catalyst to catapult them to God.
Here are some of the testimonies that Dass compiles for this section:
We’d be sitting outside and Maharajji would pull my hands under the blanket and make me massage his legs, almost pulling me under the blanket. I loved touching him, but I was not sure how far you can go in touching Maharajji. I’d be working on his feet and calves, and he’d grab my arm and pull my hand up to his thigh. So I’d do his thighs for a little bit and then my hands would start wandering down to his calves again, because all of a sudden I’d look around and see all these people staring at me. An Indian woman would be gasping, and I’d get real embarrassed, so I’d start working on his feet again. Then his hand would come sliding down and grab mine and pull it up again. He would often perform this puzzling ritual with me. And if I tried to explain it to myself, no sooner would I have the thought than he’d turn to me and yell “Nahin!” and then go on with his conversation.
One Indian widow who had no children came to Maharajji, worried about who would take care of her. Maharajji said, “Ma, I’ll be your child.” She started to treat him like a child and then he said, “You know, Hariakhan Baba used to suck the breasts of women. I’ll sit on your lap.” And he sat on her lap and he was so light and small, just like a child. He sucked on her breasts and milk poured out of them, although she was sixty-five. Enough milk came from her to have filled a glass. After that she never missed not having children.
I felt a great deal of fear of Maharajji and experienced a kind of awkwardness with him, wanting so much to do the right thing yet afraid that I wouldn’t know what that was. He called me into his room in Kainchi one day. (Of course it always happened on the days when you really needed it.) He had me close the doors. He was up on the tucket, I was sitting on the floor, and he leaned down to hug me. I reached out to hug him back and he meant for me to come even closer. He said, “Come closer, come closer, you’re not close enough.” And he just lifted me off the ground, onto the tucket, and into his arms. He put his arms and his blanket all the way around me. He absolutely covered me with his blanket and with his being. He swallowed me whole! I melted—all my fears, all that stuff totally vanished into the sea of Maharajji. I was completely out of my body, totally immersed. So that’s how he answered all those questions: Just by one hug!
I was kneeling before Maharajji when he grabbed at my sari and started pulling at it. Then he was holding my breasts and saying, “Ma, Ma.” I felt for the first time as if I were experiencing an intimate act free of lust.
There are stories about gurus doing things with women. But somehow around Maharajji there was a feeling of such purity that people could tell me anything he had done, and it never shook my total trust in him at all. It was clear that he needed nothing; he had no desires of his own. I believe that he would do things with women for whom the sexual part of their lives was not straight. In retrospect, it looks as though it served a very direct function for them.
In the introduction to the book, Dass explains that the material comes from interviews with over one hundred devotees. He writes:
These stories, anecdotes, and quotations create a mosaic through which Maharajji can be met. To hold the components of this mosaic together I have used the absolute minimum of structural cement, preferring to keep out my personal interpretations and perspective as much as possible.
Any Stanford psychology PhD should know that it’s not that simple. Inclusion choices are also exclusion choices. Dass put together the book by either cherry-picking statements that frame experiences with Karoli Baba as transformative, or, most likely, by not having interest in or access to survivors’ narratives in the first place. There is a difference between cult literature and survivor literature.
Interestingly, the most visible time Dass displayed a critical eye in relation to sexual abuse in the guise of spiritual intimacy was in his vicious take-down of “Joya”, a female spiritual teacher living in Brooklyn in his 1976 Yoga Journal essay “Egg On My Beard”.
Then there’s this bit from Dass’s obituary in the New York Times:
Mr. Leary accused Mr. Alpert [Das] of trying to seduce his 15-year-old son, Jack, whom Mr. Alpert often took care of while Mr. Leary, a single parent, traveled.
I’d like to know more about that. Can’t find much.
There’s an entire genre of male writing that mystifies, rationalizes, or spiritualizes women’s experiences — especially of sexuality — within modern global yoga and Buddhist cultures. I believe it has both blessed and reinforced a misogynistic pattern that has prevented survivors’ stories from being heard.
Consider these two passages, both written by men, glorifying Chögyam Trungpa’s relationships with women:
For those of his fortunate female students who wished it, his love could manifest in the most intimate physical manner. Those who did take up his invitation almost always remembered these times as some of the most precious of their years with Rinpoche. They were felt as times of profound teaching — though rarely was there any formal dharma discussion between them — as well as times of lightness, freedom from care, and playful humor. At the same time, of course, anyone in any similarly intimate situation with Rinpoche was pushed to the edge of their little ego games, pushed to be open and genuine; and, for many of us in the West, sex provides one of the deepest entrenchments for ego.
— Hayward, Jeremy W. Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa. Wisdom Publ., 2008. 48.
A measure of his compassion can be gleaned from the reports of a number of female students who experienced spending intimate time with him as a very precious communication. Some women reported that, even when there was no sexual intimacy involved—as was often the case in the last years of his life—they experienced spending the night with him as the greatest kind of intimacy.
— Midal, Fabrice, and Ian Monk. Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision. Shambhala, 2012. 153.
Hayward and Midal obviously didn’t ask Leslie Hays about her experience of Trungpa.
I’m left with uncomfortable questions, given how wall-to-wall the praise has been for Dass. The way he was mourned over the holidays positioned him as some kind of unimpeachable saint. I started to notice that every single portrait of him captured exactly the same overwhelming beaming smile.
But this is the yoga world, and I’m skeptical of single-toned portrayals.
So I’m wondering if he also benefited from the mythologization of his guru. And if that mythologization depended upon the suppression of abuse stories.
I’m wondering how many bystanders to abuse in the yoga world felt consoled — for decades — by that enormous, unfailing smile.
I’m wondering if he was the guy who somehow made it all okay.