My times with Swami Ambikananda and the Quintessence ashram
(I write this as a true personal record though it may offend some people's beliefs, but no ill is wished towards any of those involved. I try to give an accurate account of my involvement with this guru as I have since learned how similar it is in many respects to that of other Indian swamis and 'masters' and may be educative for those unacquainted with the exotic Hindu guru culture traditions. Robert Priddy 2016.)
In 1971 I first heard of Swami Ambikananda from friends in London. He was an Indian mystic and monk of the Ramakrishna Math who hailed from Mauritius. It was said he had been brought up from childhood as a yogi and had done many unusual things, even became a boxer when he got to UK and later worked as a reportedly tireless and much valued hospital cook and bottle-washer, doing the work of 3 men, charing away all hours and often singing the while. I was 37 (and the swami was 2 years my senior) and I had lost interest in much of Western philosophy in which I was teaching at university in Oslo, and had branched out into many other activities. I had studied the entire literature concerning Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and was much intrigued by it. I had heard a good deal about this most unusual person who had become the guru of a very successful progressive rock group, the Quintessence. A year later, I was involved with a charity called ‘Release’ and at a meeting was asked if I could help provide housing for a week for a spiritual band performing charity concerts in and around Oslo… it was none other than the Quintessence. I jumped at the chance and my then wife and I hosted them at our home beside the Oslo fjord. They had heard about the swami as being a much loved and spiritual person, so the members of the band and their circle sent him an invitation to visit them. A central person in the group leader (call him R&R) had some experience of Indians and later told me he had dreaded that the man would turn out to be one of those self-effacing humble, ingratiating types. When he opened the door to him, his worst suspicions were confirmed. The swami imitated to a T the type R&R had dreaded. He was tall, strongly built and light brown-skinned and balding and he spoke English with a bit of a French brogue and often a strange rising intonation.
Once inside the door, he had immediately transformed into a very self-confident and charming person with a magnetism that bowled them over. He straight away set about giving each of them spiritual names, inaugurated the ‘Quintessence ashram’ on the spot, and chose R&R as its president. He had brought food including chicken and set about providing a sumptuous meal, singing spiritual songs in praise of divinities the while… they were gob smacked and yet were charmed as he took them over saying at last he had come! He told them that he had left Mauritius to retreat to a Himalayan cave where, after some weeks, he had a revelation that he was awaited in London and that his karma was not for caves any more.
The swami was always the focus of all present. He did not publicize himself and was not boastful or self-promoting. He made no special efforts to increase his circle, yet people who heard about him and much wanted to meet him were often made to wait, some for a year or so or until they gave up. His circle never grew beyond about 25 families plus a few dozen single people. He lived as inconspicuously as possible and without money while fasting. Eventually the group realised he was close to death and unrelenting in his austerities (tapas) and were so perturbed that they persuaded him with much difficulty to accept their support and break his 40-day fast. Thus the ashram became a fact. One afternoon the swami brought on his back a huge wooden Buddha sculpture he had found in a junk yard and it was installed in R&R's garden. I later heard many accounts of his most unusual behaviour and abilities. At a burial of a devotee who died, for example, I was told that he urged a young man there to look at the corpse and said, ‘See, Hari Bol, the face of death’. That young man (Harry Ball was his real name) died a few weeks later from an overdose of heroin in his bath. On another occasion when a lady devotee was about to give birth in hospital where a doctor had advised a Caesarian operation, the swami had hurried there and confronted the doctor, The swami had reportedly told him in front of his staff that he knew nothing about the case and that the child would be born naturally the next morning. The mother-to-be agreed with the swami and doctor complied. A child was born without complications the next morning. That incident was taken by devotees as a strong boost to their faith in him.
In 1973 I was invited to a spiritual get-together with him and his circle while I was visiting London with an American musician friend. We arrived somewhat late and were welcomed warmly, had 'holy' water to sip onto our hands from a tiny ladle, and shown to spaces on the carpet in front of the swami. Among his first words to me were ‘You are very nice’. I responded in kind by quietly saying ‘And so are you’. He asked what I said and I repeated loudly. He beamed and looked down and mumbled 'thank you'. He lit a candle and asked me to take it around the group, his version of the arati ritual. then asked R&R what the programme was. Then he began to read from the writings of 'M' ('The Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna') and gradually this reading grew quite strange, ignoring the book and digressing into his own thoughts and lapsing into semi-intelligible sentences, also proclaiming “Mother Kali is here. He repeatedly looked at me as if talking to me but his eyes seemed glazed and began to roll upwards then back at me and my musical companion. Sometimes whispering, or shouting as if into the air, he began to rail against the intellect as a hindrance to knowing truth also against 'all your reading'. His looks at me were distant yet I felt he was referring to me I always was a voracious reader and he and other knew about me and that I was a teacher of philosophy, so I interrupted his apparent trance saying ‘We are doing our best’. He immediately came to and said his words had nothing to do with my person. He spoke about Christ being the son of the father, also obliquely indicating himself. At one point he leaned on the shoulder of a devotee beside him and uttered a heart-piercing cry and shed tears. Shortly he recovered and laughingly proclaimed, 'Back to normal'. Some told me that he had been in samadhi, which they accepted it to be.
During his subsequent talk in which he answered questions from R&R. About whether hell existed, he was rambling about but at last said neither existed. Then he added rather contradictorily 'for the one who is really there'. He joked that they play harps in heaven, which is cloudy, guitars are like harp, they also have cymbals, trumpets and trombones. he shouted about ‘many are called but few are chosen’, ‘I am a gambler I risk everything against nothing’ and ‘I am a fool’. Looking at me he said ‘he will see my neck on an alter and sever it, looking away as unable to stand the sight.’ (This probably alluded to Ramakrishna's despair after endless devotions asked Mother Kali deciding he would take his own life with a ritual dagger if she would not appear to him). This may give some idea of how unconventional and startling he was at times.
Then he said that God has both form and is formless and asked me directly if I understood. I answered 'no' because the formless was inconceivable to me. He said something about my having an idea of the thing, as we have a idea of Christ as something other than his body. I asked how could one have an idea of the formless if the mind has nothing (or no form) to grasp (or words to the same effect). He ignored this until another follower asked him to answer that. He skirted around the problem until saying that it was like being in a room with walls, then removing the walls. I said that I did not understand that, but he retorted ‘One day you will’, which much pleased his captive audience. I hold that one may say that the empty space remains, but this still does not answer how it can be perceived or known without a mind (its perceptions and ideas - 'forms') which are required to know and make sense out of anything. Later, questions about this were put to the swami, and an involved exchange took place which I record and discuss in Appendix 1 below.
A meal was served where we sat on the floor. With the food, the general atmosphere loosened up considerable (as did my and reportedly many others’ bowels too, later on). Music was played by several of us. The band’s lead guitar played a beautiful piece. I was asked to play and sing, which I did and the swami was later very flattering about my 'artistic sensitivity'. It is hard not to like praise, so I was pleased, but I was never one to let it overwhelm me. In retrospect, he went out of his way to make me feel at home, and he also
Afterwards, he addressed me in a very quiet voice to draw me closer. He confirmed a thought I had long held, that when I had tried to visit him a few years before and decided the time was probably not ripe, saying that I would not then have been able to accept the group. Then he told me I was a 'lonely Ramana' (seeker of God) who lives alone in his own world, saying 'for example, in your last life you were a hermit in a Himalayan cave'. Having absolutely no memory of that it was hard to digest this. He said I was writing a book (which was true), that it was deeply spiritual and would be published and well-known. That book - a semi-utopian novel - was never published, though two decades later I wrote another spiritual book which was published and became somewhat well-known. He warned that a big change was coming in my life next February (which I cannot say I noticed, though I began a divorce the July after that). Then, seemingly falling into a trance, he proclaimed that I was being looked after by 'a very powerful person, an Indian master far away... maybe a deity'. He said I was learning about the inner world and had done a lot already but not enough and held I knew all about the outer world. That sounded like sheer flattery to me. He went on more or less to enroll me in the group, not that I had considered or asked for that. I did not know what to make of it then, but I have since come across several instances of other gurus who use initial flattery as a tool to disarm questioners. He also said that he thought my wife (i.e. who I later divorced) did not have a deep spiritual interest whereas I did. He went on to say I should have a shrine in my house but added 'I think your wife would not accept it'. I replied honestly that I did not think she'd make any difficulties about it. Apropos this, when the Quintessence was visiting us in Oslo, I was asked if my wife was a 'full believer', which I said she was not at all. Thinking about all this later and that the swami never referred to having been told this added to a growing suspicion that he may have been trying to impress on me that he knew things through psychic power.
During that satsang I was surprised to see that he had a teenage daughter visiting from France where she lived with her mother. The swami spoke to her quite briefly while I was there. I had no idea that he had been married, as I had understood he had been a sannyasin (i.e. a chaste monk) since childhood, when it was said he had been trained to meditate so long and deeply that he did not notice when buckets of cold water were thrown over him. He definitely had a very kind and loving way about him. Yet it was striking how devotees treated him like a lion among mice, hardly able even to squeak. He held long monologues and took a few questions of the subservient kind Alcibiades would put to Socrates, but seldom more. On his home ground with a captive audience there were few who really questioned anything he claimed. He insisted always that, essentially, everyone is God and to realise that was the sole worthwhile aim in life. His teachings were largely those of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (i.e. Hindu doctrines leavened with doses of Christian values and other supposed saints and avatars, shot through with passionate mysticism). They were therefore not original, though the way in which he presented them was quite often new and surprising, and not least confusing and often evidently inconsistent. The spiritual methods he taught were to concentrate in everything only on God, through meditation, mantras, prayer, singing, music and even by reciting the names of holy rivers etc.
He had told me to take my time and think about it all. The next night back at my house in Sutton I had a dream in which the swami appeared clearly and declared himself my fully enlightened guru! It was obviously convincing at the time. (Interestingly, years later when I was a member of the ashram he said to me, "I am not enlightened, you know, I'm like you too!"). In future years I had over 300 such dreams in which Sathya Sai Baba figured (all of which I wrote down upon awakening). It is not possible to explain this phenomenon fully, though after decades I have come to a very likely explanation of how the mind works to produce these experiences. If dream interventions do genuinely take place, however, there is no lucid explanation how this may occur. This phenomenon need not imply any divine power, or provide proof that God is real etc., for it is well known that many persons experience dream (and waking) invasions of many kinds of entity, deceased persons or disincarnate spirits (both good and evil), succubi, aliens and much more, these being considered to be products of a cognitively disoriented or disturbed brain or even the condition known as narcolepsy. (See here)
After my first few visits I only had sporadic contact with him by letter or through various members. Though I was intrigued by him, his regime did not really suit me and I stayed away until, after 7 years still in occasional touch with R&R and others, he warmly invited me to visit him again. At a kirtan (communal singing session) he made a fuss of me and gave me the spiritual name ‘Baba’ which was considered auspicious as Shirdi Sai Baba was ever to the fore in his talks. The swami gave spiritual names to all he accepted, often like their own names - he renamed Dave, Maha Dev, so my nickname Bob became Baba, and members called me that thereafter. I was at that time much concentrated on the almost mythical Babaji and whether he had really existed and could be contacted. He asked me how old I was, and I said forty-two. "Oh well, I am forty-four, two years older then." His expression showed he seem to think this significant. I had sent him some poems I had written at his request and he questioned whether one of them was copied from Vivekananda. It was mine, though inspired by Vedantic ideas from similar sources. I had titled it 'Inescapable Enigma' and it went: "If timeless bliss is more than just a passing love; If each of us is its mortal instrument, not just a note that fades away; if we also are the players, hearing only what we choose to play; then we are in the presence of the One!" He said it was "spiritually very deep", and kept mentioning it, finding it deeper than his own thought... adding that he was not educated, not of great worldly experience as I was, but on the other hand he was a child of God, pure in feelings and chaste in body. Later he took me aside and said all of it was true (as I thought he would believe). He asked what was meant by the "then" in the last line, which 'then', which time did I mean? I had to explain the logic of 'If... then...' as he had no conception of hypothesis. I said I could not claim to know if it was true, though perhaps he did. He then asked that if the first three lines were not true, would the last be untrue too. It was evident that he had no idea of logic, which brought home to me the huge cultural gap between his life experience and that of his devotees.
At that meeting I suddenly saw in the swami's eyes the most intense and moving bliss. I had never seen a similar powerful, mysterious look before or since, it was not directed towards me but was simply like a veil lifted momentarily. When I mentioned it to others, they all agreed that most had experienced much the same glimpse of his bliss (which they referred to as ‘intense burning eyes’). He was ever saying that selfless service was an essential for a spiritual life and his own contribution included being a devoted host and cook for the guests he regularly invited to stay over at the cottage rented in the Devonshire countryside, a retreat which he called Kedarnath. There he would entertain and make reportedly delicious meals for the guests, always intensifying their awareness of divinity through all he did and said, as well as by singing songs of praise he composed to his own accomplished harmonium playing. The reasonable cost of paying the rent and keeping things going was borne by the members’ donations (though never quite enough) while those who stayed there paid a really minimal charge. He drove a car and was clever mechanically, now and again also fixing up devotees’ vehicles which had broken down.
Against the swami's written advice, I had divorced my 10-year-old son’s mother and moved together with Reidun, remaining in Norway. Several years later I took her to see the swami at a kirtan in July 1979. We arrived before the swami came, whereupon he began to try out a new harmonium. He said to us, 'it's not professional, we are amateurs here'. Before the kirtan started he took me into a private room and asked if I could read. 'What, music?' I asked. He meant read aloud. He asked me to read a text he had written for the kirtan "only about 13 pages" he said reassuringly. It included about 50 chants in between. I was to project the material loud and clear so the devotees would understand and be gripped, meanwhile I should meditate on Shirdi Sai Baba. Reidun should help with the chanted mantras. A very full 13 pages of spiritual advice and illustrations including diverse Sanskrit words (fortunately I was fairly acquainted with the vocabulary). It went off well apparently. At some point, with him playing and chanting, he looked at Reidun and said - as if an aside - 'It's no good going to gypsies, they can't tell you anything." This amazed us as days earlier we had been at a fair in Newcastle and she had her fortune told by one who has said there would be a very joyous event in the family very shortly. We could think of no possible such event.
He got me to stand up facing him and asked if Reidun was my girlfriend and was I really formally divorced. Then he tried to persuade me to marry her. However, she had several times ridiculed marriage as unnecessary if love was constant (not least since I had earlier got through a tricky divorce). So I disagreed with him and we had an extended friendly mental confrontation in front of the group, who were evidently not used to this kind of scene. When we got back to the house of my old friend James where we were staying, we had hours of intense discussions about all that had taken place, especially his insisting that being married when living together was a condition of being accepted as devotees. We could still see him if we didn’t marry, he said, but just on a friendly basis. I did actually want to marry Reidun and so I set out to convince her. She said yes, and to us both marriage was also a commitment to explore the spiritual path together. James, who had met the swami, agreed to be my best man.
So we decided and he was very taken by this. We married by a blind lady pastor with whom we planned our own ceremony, at a Unitarian chapel in Hampstead (he had insisted we marry in a church). Several of his devotees were present, while the swami and other devotees were together meditating at the same hour at his retreat in Devon. Shortly afterwards one of them rang us up and questioned us about the proceedings and then said the swami had given a running commentary of what happened (all accurate, and some things no one could have guessed, including that someone knocked over the 'obligatory' bunch of incense sticks by mistake, causing a small disruption).
I was then asked to phone him in Devon. He said he was 'extremely happy', also 'overjoyed' and ‘knocked out’ that we were now formally married since no one else had ever followed his instruction like that. He asked us to meditate sitting on reindeer skins (believed to insulate from bad earth influences). I said o.k., though we soon decided it was not important for us. He said he would arrange for a spiritual marriage ceremony in the ashram and then we had a discussion of which day he thought best for the wedding, my birth chart, what colours we should wear, what our diets should be in future. The day we had chosen turned out to be that of the new moon (auspicious in Indian culture). He also said we should be celibate until the marriage (a bit late for that, we thought. But anyhow, why not? He was known to impose periods of celibacy, as well as non-smoking (and non-toking) on his devotees... always a subject of discussion among them as to who was supposed to not be doing what.
The spiritual wedding was a most unorthodox and exotic ritual of his own devising with a large group present. During that colourful and weird ceremony he put drops of sandalwood oil (essence) from a small bottle on our tongues, an overwhelming taste which burned itself into memory. At one point he literally commanded us loudly to lie flat on the carpet to worship an image of Shirdi Sai Baba, which we did, not that we would have demurred if simply asked, since we both then thought of Shirdi Baba with great respect. A visitor just returned from India was present who produced some very fragrant vibuti (‘holy’ ash) received on his visit to Sathya Sai Baba in South India. Not long after that, the swami suddenly said ‘Ohhh…’ and adopted a strange pose (that of the The Magician figure of one of the traditional Tarot cards, one arm pointing straight up towards heaven the other to the ground) and exclaimed ’Sathya Sai blesses you!’ Meanwhile, it actually rained a fine rain which was supposed to be auspicious for a wedding (I can now conclude that it has turned out excellently, all in all).
At that ceremony he asked that we should meditate sitting on reindeer skins. He said he’d visit me in my dreams and give inspiration for my studies and work. (I did dream of him quite often but never recalled any inspiration for my work). He said we may have two children. I said we wanted none. He said he would not worry me about it at present. He told me that I was one of the few who came to him other than through music, like nearly all his devotees (sighing). This was only partly true, for though I visited out of spiritual interest, I had come via my contact with the Quintessence band. He said “You will live here later” (All knew of my desire to return to UK to live. However, I never did - except for one year. He asked that we should meditate sitting on reindeer skins and said he’d visit me in my dreams and give inspiration for my studies and work. (I did dream of him quite often but never recalled any inspiration for my work). He predicted, “In later years you will travel about, then you will be a mendicant, you know”. He considered such as a meritorious fate, but I am still a married householder and anything else seems highly unlikely.
Things got very intense and being part of such a fascinating ashram (on average about 50 persons, some spread around the world) was most absorbing. I practiced the precepts, meditated regularly and seemed to have some extra-mental contact in coincidences and dreams in which he figured. We corresponded quite a lot between Oslo and London, and Reidun wrote to him too. He would write back at length but it was hard to make head or tail of much of it. Communicating was frustrating and was rather too ’one-way’ rather than any kind of dialogue. Most of our information about him and what he might have meant came from those around him. He would frequently invent ceremonies for worship of certain gods, or the ashram children… something with flowers and incense, ‘holy food’ (prasad) and something for every occasion. He held puritan and rather victorian views typical of religious Indians. He would not accept that lovers should remain unmarried, nor that couples should divorce (and though disapproving, he did not refuse me on that ground). He would try to impose restrictions for specific long periods, such as being sexually chaste, not using cannabis, not smoking or doing what else he saw a vice.
Some things he said, combined with his apparently capricious behaviour and non answerability on diverse matters, plus various claims he made, began to look decidedly shaky compared with what I could observe myself or was informed about frankly by some devotees. Many of his followers were sure he was prescient to an unlikely degree. For example, he would tell people things which turned out to be untrue. He told one prominent devotee, who suffered a lot from repeated intense migraines, that she had a brain tumour. She therefore went through great anxieties until a specialist carried out intensive diagnosis and declared she had no tumour. The Swami was vindicated by saying he had at least made her act to clear up her worries by making them more extreme. But also it was for her own good so that she would be more trusting and confident in future. No one pointed out that the whole dance was more than likely an unnecessary aggravation due to his lack of medical insight. Another incident among many similar took place at the Kedarnath retreat: A devotee was worried that a dog there might bite a baby who was with its mother. The swami assured her that the dog was completely harmless and would never bite the baby, so just relax. The next day the dog did bite the baby! What kind of spiritual lesson was that supposed to be, I wonder. That he was naive about his own abilities was shown when he claimed he could dowse for water at his retreat rather than have a bore well drilled. Several very deep holes were dug here and there without finding a drop, so a well driller finally had to be engaged in 1979. Such repeated incidents did not seem at all to shake the faith, especially of the female devotees, in his supposed near-omniscience or that he could simply do no wrong. They could always find some saving explanation to such awkward matters, from extenuating circumstances to them being sheer (spiritually strengthening) tests of faith.
Many of the Quintessence ashram used cannabis and also occasionally LSD-25. The swami disapproved strongly, but one day he happened to catch them out with a packet of LSD tablets. He asked for them, took a number which exceeded any normal dosage and tossed them into his mouth. They were desperate to stop him, knowing how shattering the result could be. But he also made them take a tablet each, which they did. They could not really say what they had experienced other than some fragmentary and extraordinary incidents, such as seeing the swami standing and pressing his foot on R&R's chest repeatedly while shouting ‘You bastard!’, which R%R told me felt like a cleansing out of lots of his problems and anxieties. Later the swami told them that the effect of LSD was not worth seeking compared to religious transcendence. However, another incident which I was told about in detail called the swami's alleged supreme imperturbability and apparent invulnerability into doubt. I am now unsure who had called his bluff, but it was an initiated member of his circle who, in some connection uttered the name Lord Yama, the Hindu God of Death, believed by some to be the ruler of ‘naraka’ (spheres of purgatory and hell). The swami reacted by commanding him never again to let that name pass his lips. To do so was to invoke the God and it caused death. The offender said that was sheer superstition (or the like) and called out the name again. The swami became more and more despairing and agitated. He angrily shouted that whole worlds were wiped out of existence each time. This only caused a long string of repetitions upon which the swami wept, seemed berserk and ran off. No one knew where he had gone and hours later he was found lying asleep outside, maybe it was in some back alley. It was clear that his bluff had been called and he had lost at least the one follower. Naturally this had an impact on my view of him; it confirmed what I had wondered... whether he was indeed as illumined and secure with his protective Mother Kali as he had given all to understand.
He continued to dispense his often incomprehensible wisdom in all circumstances. He would tell how he would go to bed and pray to God like a helpless trusting child, a model of the kind of attitude of humility to emulate. I was once also sent a quote of what he wrote in a letter to a US follower: "When you have emptied yourself and accept my packet of un-understanding confusion and delusion, yours is the hand to share the heavenly stars" and "The right is to learn, not to know. Don't breathe in knowledge but live in learning." Due originally to LSD 25, I had long been aware that little is as it appears and as it seems and was very open to learning. I could accept that irrational ideas can turn out to be valuable, but came to draw the line at the wilder speculations or investing my future in the existential chaos of vague hopes, anti-reason and the absence of verifiable facts. On the other hand, I fully appreciated that one cannot know whether the doctrines would hold later and lead to the goals variously claimed for them (e.g... realisation, freedom from suffering, unending bliss, final liberation). Having left Ambikananda, I later became deeply involved heart and mind in the spiritual quest, following the precepts and practices of Sathya Sai Baba after I had inexplicable experiences in relation to him, which I did more or less for the next two decades. It ended up by my being liberated from all such spirituality, doctrines, sects or cults, as can be seen in depth from my work (recorded in my books and on-line) as regards Sathya Sai Baba, first in promoting positive support for him and his claims, then in disclosing the negative facts about virtually all of them.
When I asked one of his followers what he thought of the swami I found his reply most apt, 'He's a spaced-out guy!' Though I never set out to challenge Ambikananda, I came to feel strongly that I had no alternative but to question him so as to clear up my doubts about his inconsistencies and ambiguities, which had become more and more troublesome. He insisted on devotees having faith in God and in himself, but his behaviour would repeatedly make it too difficult. He said they must live in truth, without really being able to explain how… disregarding the fact that I for one had always striven to do so to the best of my ability. The extreme otherworldliness that was the focus of the swami’s strivings and teaching was off-putting. I was more concerned in getting it right in this world than preparing for the next one, if any. In the Hindu tradition he was very ambivalent to the body and I was told how he hated certain bodily functions. He once said: "And after you come out of that state of light to find this ugly body, defective, sickening, a dustbin of karma – who wants that?" At the same time he said: " The body is a temple, so be good to your body." This paradoxical attitude is inherent in much Hinduism, which most often holds a dualistic (vishtadvaitic) theology setting the divine being, soul, spirit up against matter and body. The tendency in Hindus asceticism is frequently to regard the worldly body and goods more as unavoidable ills that must be accepted because they are believed to be creations of God necessary for life and our own spiritual testing and education.
Reidun felt I must ask him about issues that none others seemed to dare to raise with him and, though I suspected he would not give any satisfactory replies, we both hoped he might after all. After all, he had once said ”I think that greater than prayer is to challenge divinity: “Either You are or You are not, once for all!”, truthfully, honestly, sincerely, with all your faults and incapabilities…”. So I wrote him a letter expressing some of my concerns about his teaching, and that I was in doubt about the meaning or validity of certain things he had said and done... but I wrote nothing very sensitive or challenging. Instead of any aid to me in regaining full faith, I received a very pointed censorious letter of rejection - like the reply to a challenge - which ran on into peculiar irrelevancies and at last petered out in half-intelligible wanderings and illegible scribbles! It exhibited his lack of understanding of me and consideration for my concerns. Not least, he showed how stung he was by my mild questions - not cynical - or the fact that I even dared to ask them! He had understood that I was not so amenable to the usual subservience of opinion and behaviour accepted by his closest followers. He saw that I would be a disturbance, if not a threat, to his community because I (unlike most of the others) occasionally stood up to him, yet without having any special ego feeling or wanting to assert myself, but in the interests of trying to get answers and understand. Instead he seemed only able to reply with bamboozlement and smokescreens (more like a swami Ambiguananda). His unfulfilled promises and predictions - combined with his outwardly capricious behaviour and non-answerability on most matters, brought me to the conclusion that I had to break off the contact. My lifelong interest in and meetings with some Indian gurus has since taught me that his reaction - to reject me - was fairly typical, and Sathya Sai Baba later turned out to be a replete example of authoritarian non-approachability and imperiousness and rejection once anything he said or did was questioned or even remotely doubted. The obscured side of a guru's personality is often only learned after a great amount of contact or perhaps via privileged information from impeccable sources, if then.
The swami was fundamentally respectful and circumspect towards everyone, being very much against gossip and back-biting of any kind. However, his fervour would lead him into what was felt by those he sometimes singled out for his religious outbursts against the ills of worldly people to be directed at them personally. I was present to such a powerful diatribe in front of a central member which I would have spoken out against had it been me. Afterwards I commiserated with the target person, who was truly shaken by it. That person eventually gave up his role in the ashram and left the swami thereafter. The occasion of his defection was the insistence by the swami that all members of the group should worship Jesus more and hence must join the Roman Catholic church and attend services and whatever. This was no doubt due to the example of Ramakrishna, who had successively worshipped intensely all the great religious figures of whatever religion until he was granted transcendental visions of them. Also like Ramakrishna, the swami did not usually judge anyone, certainly not out of hand. A follower who was dealing in drugs and supplying members of the group, having accepted him and given him a spiritual name because he professed devotion. That dealer turned up at a group party with not only cannabis but cocaine and reportedly more dangerous substances. He confidently spoke quite a lot of drivel and, when I questioned some absurd thing he said, he made some most threatening gestures. He seemed a jumble of pseudo selves and projected himself as a spiritual tough guy who knew a lot... not exactly a savoury devotee! Unless one thinks I considered the swami a bad person, let me add that he was unique and had many positive sides, a high-minded and moral renunciant in many ways.
There were not a few persons who came and went, including some of his long-standing central supporters who became disillusioned and could no longer accept the swami's occasional diatribes, or those who found another guru who appealed more. Many who remained still smoked a lot of dope and took psychedelics (despite the swami's disapproval and there was endless gossip back and forth (not back-biting, though) about every new doing and saying of the swami and others. Seeking protection from the harsh realities of the world and preferring physical and mental comfort to self sacrifice is only human, though I am reminded of a phrase of Siegfried Sassoon “comfort loving people are obliged to avoid self-knowledge”. And out of the blue one time he said, ‘Don't go to India!' I had long since dropped all plans of that. I did not anticipate that I would be drawn there despite myself by Sathya Sai Baba several years later. Was the swami far-seeing or was he trying to keep me within his orbit? Had I heeded his advice, I could have saved my wife and I a great deal of energy, time, money and disappointments, but then we would not have had the extraordinary experiences of such a culture, of meeting unusual people from all over the world in a unique setting and, not least, of learning through personal experience how the mind works to envelop oneself in hopes, beliefs, activities and commitments which test one's qualities and advances the understanding of human nature in ways almost unimaginable without having undertaken that quest.
After heart attacks followed by long and great physical trials he died amid close followers in 1997 (aged 63). He was himself until the last and reportedly seemed mentally unaffected by his illness. No doubt the network of friends and its mutual support was very comforting and helped keeping things going, and especially after his death, which clearly affected the inner circle deeply. I kept in touch with two of the central members until around 2000 and nothing I heard changed my basic attitude to the swami. In retrospect I think a main reason for the continuation of the ashram and its meetings was social, the mutual enjoyment of music, sharing in rituals (and not least always delicious meals). The swami was a fascination for all, a combination of a best friend and helper with a quite imperious preacher of his strong beliefs who could become overbearing. I do not know, of course, what spiritual benefits devotees felt or how far they practised his precepts, such as selfless social service to people in need (other than those who were already within the group). At one time he wanted the very successful Quintessence to save for funds to build a hospital. Such social projects never came about and the Quintessence split up after their manager absconded with all their equipment and was never tracked down.
The swami would openly express his praise for followers, which felt to be genuinely meant. As I can only speak for myself, while things were going well he made a lot of fuss of me verging rather much on flattery, saying I was a very good philosopher (though he knew no philosophy other than Hindu spiritual thought) and said what he called my 'mastery' of guitar improvisation showed concentration which could take me far in other things. I liked his appreciation and encouragement, which is all to natural to do, and this kind of supportive relationship some find hard to give up and probably somewhat the same goes for the guru. However, in our case we both broke the connection and without antagonism. He was of course a product of the pantheistic Hindu religious culture and, whatever his inner life truly was, who can say that he was not under a lifelong set of religious delusions, reinforced by inner experiences which can become very powerful after years of intense concentration but which are nonetheless subjective experiences.
The human mind can produce the most amazing phenomenal experiences of visions, dreams, hallucinations, inner revelations beyond all imagining and the means which induces them also vary enormously. The brain somehow subliminally always works its ways to realise what is at the focus of the mind and the experiences it can produce, from vast imaginings, astonishing theories, amazing dreams to visions, are legion. The unconceivable effect that narcotics like morphine or the most powerful mind-altering substances like LSD 25 and DMT can have full are proof of this. A social group that has been bound around a belief system and an inexplicably impressive person to believe in over so many years becomes a dependency and a palliative against many of the ills of life and the world. To relinquish all that and regroup requires an autonomous personality secure in the world with a flexible mentality. Their ashram was like a cosy microcosm of the vast Sathya Sai movement, its ashrams and the worldwide organisation into which Reidun and I enlisted some years later. The local Sai Baba centres and groups around the world served much the same social and emotional purposes as ever for those who attended. The same spiritual aims, hopes and delusions were prevalent throughout, and the lack of definitive and visible effect on personal progress also gradually became evident once the labyrinths of doctrine and supposition, belief and denial, rationalisation and unfulfilled hopes and longings were explored virtually to their human limits.
The Quintessence's bass player brought up the question of 'formless' again with the swami which led to further debate with him. From my extensive notes made soon afterwards, I summarise the swami's answers as follows:-
1) The formless becomes form, such as ideas about things.
2) It is the mother who creates form.
3) Everything that is is form, the rest is void, nothing.
4) Don't worry about the formless until you experience it.
I had wanted to say, but refrained out of politeness, why then did he ask me if I understood it or, for that matter, why should he even try to tell us about it? One cannot say what it is since he said it was nothing and void. Doubtless none of us had experienced that either, so - though he claimed he had - it was still nothing to speak of. During this discussion he repeatedly urged that we should all single-mindedly seek only God (i.e. the reality beyond form). I asked him if worldly duties which are many and seem endless should not be fulfilled. He said by all means, even if it takes 10 lifetimes to fulfil them, but that it was not enough of itself. I could not see how to separate God from all the rest, all that is, so I suggested to him a tentative definition, that God is 'everything that is', so was that where we should seek God? He agreed! His subsequent enthusiastic tirade, too rapid and jumpy to follow properly,ended with a few Ramakrishna-like gems, such as 'the formless is nothing, it is in the mind', which was applauded by some present (in relief for him?). His lack of verbal clarity and simple logic was a hindrance to his being able to enter a genuine two-way dialogue. It seemed that he he compensated by trying to convince through the dominance in being their guru, one who had experiences and wisdom that no one else there had. (I have since penetrated the meaningless of my definition, and have come after decades of 'spiritual seeking' to reject the quest of 'finding God within oneself' as futile... literally seeking nothing, void).
I am still unconvinced of this claim that the formless can be known. An axiom in Vedanta and Advaita is that, to experience God (the Void) the mind must die or be overcome. There is no active mind without perception of forms (whether sensations or ideas), but there is 'formless consciousness'. ). However, this claim has been investigated most intensively and convincingly by Jean-Paul Sartre among others and found to be entirely unempirical (non-factual) and rationally insupportable. The closest most people can come to such an experience is with the aid of psychedelics or through extreme behaviour (blood-letting, drastic fasting etc. The ego-sense can seem to dissolve as the brain is energised to a maximum extent and awareness expands in a manner impossible to understand or describe without actually experiencing it. Yet one's body and brain are still there and functioning fully, so it cannot be said that it a 'nothing' or nor is God apparent other than still as a conception. The alleged mindless, bodiless state is a key figment of much Hindu doctrine and is used to justify that life as formless awareness continues after death and prior to eventual reincarnation, all of which is not scientifically viable, nor does the paradoxes and contradiction is leads allow of any consistent philosophy. The classic argument against this is that, though you cannot experience formless being-bliss-awareness (even though 'null and void') you have to have faith... faith that you some day will, that God exists and will endure you do. Gurus who are confronted with the speculative and hopeful nature of their doctrines, the contradictions and lack of sound evidence, always insist on having rock-solid faith and ignoring doubts of any kind.
After the denouement I was not very amused and I wrote a little ditty to summarise how I felt about it:-
You find you've enrolled in the set-up
before you've said more than "Maybe..."
Perhaps it's a hoax, can you ever find out?
Well, enjoy it and see what you see.
For perfection just follow the leader
to keep off the wrath that may come
while many do fall by the wayside
'poor souls' who have hardly begun!
He gives names to bind you to follow
for as long as you utter no doubt
but what he's about you have no right to ask
or else he will see you thrown out.
Yet you question the spiritual mystic
to clear up some issues for you,
but all he will answer is gabbledegook
and abracadabra to you.
However, I have since come to the conclusion that this ditty was overstated and also that swami was not at all revengeful (as some might think), but simply only acted as best he knew how, considering his ultimate criterion of seeking God constantly and his not understanding my actual life and what my 'worldly' development of reason, knowledge, sensible critical thinking and so on required. The abracadabra was simply the tradition he grew up in and the gabbledegook came of his otherworldly and unsystematic mind. He was probably prescient in some degree as it transpired that Sathya Sai Baba - who was a 'powerful Indian master' and was widely acclaimed in India as a deity and more (whatever else he was) and had already long been entering my world in various ways (unrecognised by me at the time). I was drawn to him by extraordinary means and stayed in his huge fold for 18 years before a major denouement came making it unavoidable for me to believe in him, despite many inexplicable events I experienced in relation to him.
Please note: One reason for my putting this account on-line is also to counteract the vile on-line accusations of one of my mentally-disturbed libellers (Gerald Moreno - deceased since 2010), who claimed that Swami Ambikananda 'lambasted' me. The swami never did any such thing to my knowledge as I believe he was too upright to have done so behind my back. That was merely in the twisted imagination of that major defamer of all critics of Sathya Sai Baba and numerous other gurus, including some convicted of horrendous crimes including multiple rape and murder.