From "Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America," by Brad Gooch. Excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf

Perhaps the most compelling present-day spokesperson for Siddha Yoga is Swami Durgananda. Her profile seems to some that of a female, late-twentieth century Hindu version of Thomas Merton.

The afternoon I visited with Durgananda (her thundering name means "Bliss of the Divine Mother") in a very functional conference room at the South Fallsburg ashram, she was dressed in an orange robe; her sunglasses were set to the side, and she wore a fashionable wristwatch. Her blond hair was cut straight, and her pale blue eyes were clear, focused, and appraising. When she spoke, she had control of the sorts of ironic edges, the invisible quotation marks, mastered by other women who, like her, graduated from Sarah Lawrence or had become equally engaged in the ambiguities of the Play It As It Lays terrain of Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But her sophistication was ventilated by an apparent directness and openness about her own pursuit of ultimate joy and happiness.

Durgananda had recently reappeared on the radar screen of the New York literary world on the occasion of the funeral of her father, the iconic Newsday columnist and New York Review of Books writer Murray Kempton. Both Durgananda and her brother David, who'd also been devoted to Siddha Yoga for twenty years, came down from the ashram to take care of their father in his last months. Their devotion, clarity, and healthy demeanor were much commented on. And of course the mystery of "Whatever happened to Sally Kempton?" was tantalizingly raised again, if not exactly solved.

Among those at the funeral who'd been a friend in Hollywood was the writer John Gregory Dunne. "When I knew her in the late sixties, she was bright, extremely attractive, tall, lissome, and lithe," he commented to me. "As a job category, monk is not one I would have picked out for her. She just didn't seem the type. When she went off, I thought it was just a phase. I was obviously mistaken."

"There was a whole group of people for whom my becoming involved in Siddha Yoga had been a sort of mythological event," Durgananda said. Somebody in your world leaves everything and goes off to a monastery. And then there were people who had issues about spirituality, especially involving a guru, with all the ideas the uninformed have about that. They tended to think it was about giving over freedom and autonomy to someone else."

As the daughter of a famous journalist, and possessing an intellect given to perfectionist standards, Kempton struggled with her own writing. She became more and more concerned with the outposts of suffering in her own head, describing the painful contours of which had proved her strongest subject as a writer.

She was convinced by friends in 1974 to meet Baba Muktananda (website). She walked in skeptically, in the planning stages for an article that she eventually published in New York magazine in 1976 titled "Hanging Out with the Guru." However, by the time the article appeared she'd already passed through the looking glass, having changed her point of view from that of observer to believer, moved as she was that day, and on subsequent days, by her experience of Muktananda. Whatever her problems with father, boyfriend, and husband, here was a male figure with a different sort of authority eliciting in her a quite different response. And in place of dwelling on negative emotions in the fashion of psychoanalysts, he simply advised: "Let them go."

"There were about a hundred people there, sitting on the floor," she recalled of that first evening. "At first glance it seemed like the usual early-70s spiritual scene-American boys in orange lungis passing bowls and chocolates and this little group of girls in saris who'd just come from India. In the midst of it all sat Baba in his orange clothes and dark sunglasses, radiating this huge field of loving energy. For a minute I could actually sense him taking in all the scattered energy in the room, all the feelings people carried-the cravings, the desires, the irritation, the sadness, the excitement-filtering them through his own body, transmuting it all so it flowed back as love.

My own inner state-by which I mean my ability to be aware, to be present, to feel love, to feel connected to my own energy-accelerated from zero to sixty in fifteen minutes. There was a feeling of vast energy and protection. I walked away from there with an open heart, and the feeling didn't go away." Her reaction in bed that night was "Oh, God, it's all true what those creeps were saying." She described the experience as "filling my body with the feeling I associated with intense romantic love," and described Muktananda as "the least spaced-out person in the room, a practical, solid presence." Three months later, she joined Muktananda's tour in Denver, taking on the work of press liaison.

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