A long time ago, in the 70s, when I was very young and very naïve, I decided that I wanted to work in a vegetarian restaurant for a time so that I could learn to cook well. There was one large restaurant in the city I lived in, run by the devotees of a certain famous Indian teacher whom I shall leave nameless. So I applied for and got a job working there. I started off making melon balls and washing a lot of dishes. But before long, I was doing most of the cooking (without any training) because this was an incredibly spaced-out and disorganized group of people.

I got along very well with all of them, even though I was an “outsider” and they would tell me about meditation, Bhakti Yoga and so forth. In the course of things, I became curious about what it was that they did, so I started going to the local centre to attend meditations. I found that of the 60 people who were members there, only two had managed to penetrate the circle of people surrounding the Guru and had actually been able to speak with him; the rest received instruction from them.

At the centre, people sat on cushions, did some chanting and then meditated for an hour or so. There was an altar in the middle of the room, a rather gaudy lacquered box, which featured a photograph of the esteemed teacher, a flower vase, and an incense bowl. It took me a little while to get the hang of all of their little ceremonies, dressing in a sari and the like, but I mastered the “flower offering” fairly quickly. The flower offering was made before we began meditation and involved lining up in single file, each of us holding a flower, placing it in the vase on the altar and finishing up with a bow to the Guru.

After about six months of this, I arrived one day and took my place in the line clutching my daisy. But when I reached the altar, I found that I was looking at two pictures instead of one. So I turned to someone and asked, “Who’s the woman?” to which she replied “Oh, that’s Durga” (that wasn’t really her name, of course.) When I asked who “Durga” was, they told me that they didn’t actually know who Durga was, but the teacher had sent this photograph and told them to put it on the altar, so there she was.

Accepting lot, these people.

The Guru lived in New York at the time, so I decided to go see what was up. It was a 17 hour drive and I arrived just in time to attend a celebration the New York group was holding. It was held in a huge Unitarian church. On a stage, they’d set up an enormous dais, decorated with painted paper maché lotus blossoms on which the Guru sat. He talked for a bit (that’s another story) and then we all meditated. I was both fascinated and horrified as I watched his eyes alternately flickering back and forth and rolling back into his head. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it didn’t seem like a good thing to me.

After the meditation, there was something akin to a cocktail party with people all dressed in saris and funny trousers milling about telling each other very poor jokes. I set about trying to get some information about the mysterious “Durga” but I found everyone was tight lipped about her. Toward the end of the evening, however, she put in a personal appearance. After she’d done the obligatory greetings and the crowd around her thinned, I walked over and introduced myself. She said “Hello” and scanned me from head to foot. Then she said, “I like your sari. I want it.” I replied, “Well, you can’t have it.” She gave me an odd look, turned away and began speaking to someone else.

I wasn’t able to find out anything substantial about her that night, but the next day, I was granted permission to go to the Guru’s house. It was a fairly small house and full of people, all milling, milling, waiting for the Guru to show up. I walked down a hallway and noticed that there was a metal security gate barricading the staircase leading to the second floor.

There was someone there who looked thoroughly bored, so I him asked why the staircase was blocked off.
He said, “Oh, that’s so Guru and Durga can have some privacy.”
I said, “Ohh, I see. Could I ask you a really direct question?”
He said, “Sure.”
So I asked, “Who the hell is Durga and why is her photograph on our altar?”
He started to laugh and said, “Durga’s Guru’s girlfriend. She’s an incarnation of somebody, I can’t remember who. But Guru’s got her fucking photograph all over the place and she’s driving us fucking nuts.”

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