2017-07-12
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.

These gatherings in the 1970s were much more intimate than the later auditorium-sized venues of Gurumayi's, with Muktananda having time to wander around touching everyone, and giving personal advice. "Everybody had their hair down to their waist and was 'going with the flow,'" Durgananda recalls. "Baba was teaching the disciplined life. You'd come to him with your fuzzy thinking and your spaced-out conclusions and he'd sort of force you to get one-pointed and clear. It didn't last very long because that kind of thing never does, but it was quite divine to be there because you got to see him interacting with hundreds of different kinds of people." After several trips to India, and a gradual adopting of a yogi's lifestyle, Durgananda took the vows of a sannyasin monk in 1982.

She has managed to keep to her path in spite of all the difficulties of the early 1980s. Of the charges of sexual abuse leveled against Muktananada, she maintains personal skepticism, though she did walk a razor's edge of interpretation when she spoke to me. ***

Currently Durgananda spends much of her time at both the Indian and South Fallsburg ashrams, teaching intensives on the basics of meditation. As for her decision to look for happiness-sparked by a conversation with a friend in 1972 in which she heard herself make the unorthodox remark, "I always thought you were supposed to be happy"-she claims to have found at least the variety of happiness that is separable from day-to-day ups and downs and reversals, primarily through meditating for at least an hour a day: "If you shake up a Coke bottle, it gets full of bubbles and fizz. But if you just let it sit for awhile, the fizz dies down and you can drink the Coke."

Of her sacrifice of romantic, and married, love-the very stuff of the traditional feminine mystique-she also claims to have become quite adjusted. "By the time I gave them up, I'd pretty much tasted them," she told me, almost nonchalantly. "I saw their limitations for me. Couple relationships are a great part of the path for many people. For me, they tended to be obstructive. Of course, any choice you make in life has its pros and cons. When you give up partnership relationships you also give up a certain kind of intimacy. But you gain a lot of freedom, and you also experience a wider, less exclusive form of love."



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