Paul Clarke is glueing together a small, porcelain statue of St Francis of Assisi, smashed into a hundred pieces. It is painstaking work and Paul, 35, is absorbed in the delicate operation. It is likely Paul, who has gentle, green eyes and a thinning mop of fair hair, smashed the figurine in a moment of frustration, something that has become a common occurrence. This is almost the last thing Paul will do with his life. In the next few hours he will write letters, including one to his parents, one to the foundation and one to his nine-year-old son. Then he will take the cord down from a Velux blind and, some time on the evening of the 14 October 1998, hang himself. In the ensuing hours, Paul's body will be found, the police will be called and his parents informed. Paul's valedictory letters, in parts rambling and inchoate, will be dissected by those who loved him as they try to piece together the fragments of his life: a futile attempt to understand his disturbed mental state. Eight years on, one phrase, in the letter to his son, will continue to echo in the void: 'Find a man who can teach you.'
Paul, like scores of other dreamers, idealists and drop-outs, found such a man.
Bethesda, a small, isolated town on the edge of the Snowdonia national park in northwest Wales is the sort of place you drive through rather than to. To the west, beyond the town on the A5, lies Bangor and beyond that Anglesey and the ferry to Ireland. Nestling in a sepulchral valley, Bethesda's rows of grey, stone-clad houses hugging the hillside have seen better days. Several of the shops lie empty, a visual testimony to the area's struggling economy.
Many passing through might not pay Bethesda a second thought if it wasn't for the burning flame standing 8ft tall outside a motel on the outskirts of the town. Surrounded by a pool of water and enveloped in a glass box etched with declarations of peace in a multitude of languages, the flame seems incongruous, its ultra-modern casing clashing with the forbidding backdrop of Snowdonia. A sign tells the curious that if they want further information about the flame they should ask at the motel which adjoins the main retreat of an obscure organisation called the Life Foundation.
Here, they will learn about the benefits of Dru Yoga, the foundation's physical activities programme. There is little mention of the foundation itself, for these days the pacifist organisation, based around Hindu teaching, tends not to trade on its name. Some of the locals have taken against it. Graffiti warning 'sex cult ahead' is daubed on the road outside.
Colin Douglas, 59, a small man with an appealing face and a shock of white hair, spent 10 years with the Life Foundation, one of thousands who has passed through its doors since it emerged in the mid-Seventies.
A musician, Colin lost his ability to perform in the winter of 1988 when he suffered a nervous breakdown. Suicidal and on antidepressants, Colin stumbled across the Life Foundation during a conference at one of its centres in the West Midlands. Instantly he was mesmerised by the foundation's charismatic leader, Mansukh 'Manny' Patel, who was trying to raise funds to build an alternative cancer care centre.
'I was hooked, I shook my wife Anne awake and said "This is it, this is what I've been waiting for all my life,"' says Colin. Within days he had signed up to a meditation weekend at the foundation's retreat in Wales.
'At the retreat someone came up to me and said, "Do you want to talk to Manny?" and I said, "Yes please." He said, "Tell me all about it," and so I did. He said, "I can't do much about your trumpet playing, but I can do a bit about the other." He looked me in the eyes and I saw the whole of creation flash before my eyes. He said, "Go away and be happy," and that was it. I was in a magnificent space. I went home to Anne and my kids and said, "I'm cured." I threw my pills away.'
Colin's story is typical of those drawn to the Life Foundation. Many are teachers or nurses; clever, caring people who want to make a difference by supporting its campaigns for world peace. They are often emotional people, some suffering depression or recovering from breakdowns, searching for something to complete themselves. They are intrigued by the claims made for Dru Yoga and the weekend retreats in Snowdonia with their promises of inner peace. After a few courses many look to spend more time at the foundation's retreats. A number opt to stay and work for the Life Foundation.
In Patel, a tall, handsome 51-year-old, they see a way forward. With his numerous self-help books and belief in providing 'a safe and nurturing environment for each and every individual to express their natural joy and creativity', he holds out the hope of earthly salvation.
Once inside the foundation, followers enter a world of ceremonies devoted to the Hindu god, Krishna. 'You just get pulled in,' says Anne. 'The spiritual part is really strong. It's really attactive if you're searching for something.'
The diet is vegetarian and ex-members claim Patel advocates followers should choose celibacy while living in the foundation's headquarters. For this reason Patel recommends husbands and wives should not live together when they join the foundation. Instead they are taught to focus on Patel, their guru.
'Patel urges his followers to fall headlong in love with him so they could receive the unobstructed flow of his transcendental love and blessings,' recalls Bridget Ancel, a former follower. The foundation maintains Patel has never claimed to be celibate, merely that he says periods of sexual abstinence are part of the yogic tradition.
For many years the foundation has enjoyed a favourable image, with Patel often referred to as the 'young Gandhi' in the local press. The Life Foundation has presented miniature peace flames to Pope John Paul II and Tony Blair. It has made well-publicised attempts to raise money for war victims.
In his publicity brochures, Patel preaches emancipation. 'Each one of us is born to be free. So walk towards freedom; keep heading in that direction; and may that smile that knows all things finally appear across your heart, across your face and in your beautiful eyes...'
The cynical may wonder how people could be drawn to such platitudes. But Colin and Anne, like many others, were hooked. They sold their house in the West Midlands and moved to Bethesda so they could devote their lives to the foundation. Colin did odd jobs at the centre and composed much of the background music for Patel's audio tapes, self-help guides which promise inner peace. Anne helped clean the headquarters and prepared meals. The day they graduated to wearing white robes - a sign that they had risen within the foundation's hierarchy - was a proud one.
The last time Margaret, 69, and Richard Clarke, 70, saw their son alive was the spring of 1998, six months before he died. They took their son and grandson to Anglesey.
On a bitterly cold day, father and son skimmed stones across a lake, trying to find a connection as Margaret and Richard watched from afar, hoping the reunion might drag Paul out of his torpor. But something was very wrong. Paul was displaying signs of acute agrophobia. He had ripped his eyebrows out in frustration. 'He was little more than a shell, like a zombie,' Margaret says. Paul had suffered panic attacks before joining the foundation but his parents had never seen him as bad as this.
Four years previously, Paul had briefly left the foundation and returned home for a few months' respite. He would march up and down ranting, clutching his head and screaming, 'What's wrong with me? I don't want to feel like this,' Margaret says.
Part of Paul didn't want to return to the foundation in Bethesda; part of him felt compelled to go back. It was an ambivalence he had felt from the outset.
In his diaries, Paul talks about his doubts about the foundation. In one entry, he writes: 'Strange feelings have begun to arise about the Life Foundation. I am not sure about it at all inside.' But like many, Paul had seen enough to find something to hold on to.
A bright, gregarious teenager who went to a good school, gained a degree and travelled the world, Paul grew up to become a disaffected twentysomething, profoundly troubled by the times he was living in. 'He was always concerned for others,' Margaret says. 'That's what attracted him to the Life Foundation; they appeared to care for others.'
Soon Paul was dividing his time between his girlfriend and son and the foundation. Paul tried to persuade Lucy to join him, but she was wary of Patel. 'The first time I was invited to speak with him he kissed me full on the lips.
I thought, "You're no guru,"' Lucy says.
The tensions triggered by the competing attentions of his family and the foundation were palpable. Within months, Paul's parents say he went from being a leader to a submissive follower. 'He would make arrangements to see someone outside the foundation and then obstacles would be put in his way,' Margaret recalls. 'He was torn between the duties to his son and family and the foundation, and it tore him apart.'
Over a four-year period, Paul gradually broke the links with his son and Lucy, opting to devote himself to the foundation. 'He would keep wanting to come out,' Lucy says. 'But they were told they had to stay in or else their energy would be diluted.'
For a while there would be the odd, rambling letter to Lucy in which Paul tried to explain how the foundation was helping him 'find' himself. And then nothing: Paul was subsumed within the foundation. This is not surprising. Those with him in the foundation say Paul - like many others - was given no time for a private life; there was simply no space for it.
The foundation maintains its followers are free to come and go when they want. But those who have left paint a different picture. They tell how Patel urges his followers to produce mountains of books, audio cassettes, teaching guides and yoga manuals, most of which are credited to him and sold in new age stores across the UK. Followers organise conferences, sponsored marches and charity fundraising events. Sleep deprivation is a common complaint; ex-followers claim they were expected to perform tasks at all hours of the day. Many grab a few hours' rest on floors, several to a room, wherever they can find space. Paul's home in the weeks before he died was often a caravan next to the foundation's capacious lodge in Yr Ocar, a couple of miles down the valley from its headquarters.
The foundation denies its followers have a punishing workload. But it is clear from those who have left that they felt under pressure to meet Patel's high expectations.
Jenny Clapham, who joined the foundation when she was 17, struggled to find the courage to leave for many months. According to her diaries, which she has shared with The Observer, the foundation made it clear to Jenny that leaving would jeopardise her relationship with Patel and, ultimately, her hopes of finding herself.
'According to Life doctrine, leaving the path of yoga would undo many lifetimes of hard spiritual work and there would never again be such a good opportunity with a guru,' Jenny writes. 'It was expected that the path would not be easy and to be a good devotee meant being strong enough to get through the "challenges" and hard times. To leave would be to admit you were weak and not committed, even though you might be nearly at enlightenment.'
A Life Foundation follower, Dr Allan Forsyth, who was with him shortly before he died, maintains Paul was treated as 'off sick'. 'He felt that the Life Foundation was a refuge that provided fellowship support and a roof over his head,' Forsyth says. 'He had all the symptoms of serious depression and was receiving sympathetic support and encouragement from his friends and colleagues.'
Paul's parents question why the foundation didn't try to contact them as his mental health deteriorated. Those who saw Paul tell of his increasingly disturbed state. One of the foundation's elders, Rita Goswami, would hold Paul in her arms and try to rock him to sleep. 'He would get to the point where he desperately needed to talk to somebody but he couldn't get the words out,' one person who was with him recalls. 'He was very isolated. He was living virtually on his own. He had become a very vulnerable character.'
Goswami says Paul was encouraged to seek outside professional help, and that the foundation put him in touch with a range of therapists including an acupuncturist and a psychiatrist. A letter written by a foundation member, shortly before Paul killed himself, suggests many within the foundation knew he was in deep distress. 'My observation is that his condition is deteriorating... and it will continue to do so unless something dramatically changes,' the female follower writes. 'Can we really sit by and just let him rot? I will not be able to handle it myself (helping Paul) as I am on silence and trying to conserve energy in an attempt to heal my own body.'
By the end, Paul's beliefs had become so confused he could not see how to resolve his increasingly corrosive relationship with the foundation. In a suicide note to his fellow followers he talked about his anguish at taking food that could go to them.
'Love is the way I know,' Paul writes. 'Gurudev [the guru] is the way I know. I feel tortured because I am unable to serve with the ability I know I can. Gurudev please free my mind.'
After Paul's death, Patel told his followers that the Clarkes were grateful to the foundation for looking after their son for so long. 'Paul's life was extended many years longer than he should have been on earth,' Patel told his followers in a recorded speech. 'On my part I have nothing to grieve about, I have already given him an extended stay on earth, and already an extended opportunity. On my part, it's not a problem... I invite you to say that yes, it's an incredible blessing and joy. Paul himself is surrounded by light, you don't need to worry about that, that's not your job, that's my job because he's been ordained by me.'
Whatever the truth, many of those who have left the foundation say Mansukh Patel is not the salvation they were led to believe. They claim he is in fact a sexual predator. Far from observing celibacy within the confines of the foundation, ex-followers claim Patel has his own harem of women often comprising the wives and girlfriends of his male followers.
'My guru and I were alone in a room, I had total trust in him,' recalls Jenny Underhill, now a Franciscan sister who left the foundation in 1987 after two years as Patel's PA. 'He asked me to give him a massage and he stripped naked. He then suggested I become more comfortable by taking off my clothes as well. He told me that I could do anything I wished to him... so I massaged and caressed his face.
'His next move was to suggest that if I wanted to be his 'Radha' I would have to complete the sexual act. At this point I gave in, believing he was doing it for my spiritual progress - after all, he was my guru.'
'I woke up one night to find him climbing into my sleeping bag,' another former female follower says. 'We had sex, I was half asleep. I was confused, I saw him as my guru. I thought, "What's going on here?" He just said, "Trust me."' She felt this was his stock answer to every-thing. To refuse Patel's demands risked isolation, a withdrawal of the love and attention which his followers craved.
Sue Turner left in 2003 after learning of Patel's sexual relationship with other female devotees. Only recently has her daughter, Heather, now a grown woman, confided to her mother that Patel started kissing her when she was around six or seven years old.
Heather says. 'One time I slept in his bed. He told me he was going to take me to Disney World.' Although Patel did not have sex with Heather she became angry at the way her parents devoted themselves to him. 'Dad wouldn't stop smoking, but as soon as Patel asked him to he did. Then he asked him to become a vegetarian and he did. Whatever he said, they jumped. It was very frustrating as a child because they seemed to think more of this guy than me.'
Goswami says the sexual allegations levelled against Patel are 'simply not true' and are 'distasteful'. But many of Patel's followers have left as a result of the lurid claims. They say others want to break away, too, but have, like Paul, found it impossible. 'Some people want to quit but they can't because they don't know how to survive in the outside world,' one former follower recalls. 'It's so sad. We were swept away by love and a thirst for his attention.'
Other former followers, however, defend the guru. Peter Legge, a devotee, wrote to The Observer saying,'In my 64 years I have encountered no better living example of noble behaviour and conduct than Mansukh Patel... In my experience his selfless commitment to the welfare of other people is unfailing.'
Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre sees things differently. 'We have been concerned about the activities of the Life Foundation for many years,' he says. 'I have received lots of calls from people concerned about the group, many of whom are ex-members.
The concerns I have regarding this group are the same as those I have about much larger groups, such as the Moonies.'
Margaret Clarke's face tells her own story. There is a sadness in her eyes that speaks of a mother's loss. And there is an anger as well, at the way the foundation treated her son, someone who was searching for answers, but instead received what she feels was only a relentless diet of gimcrack mysticism when he really needed urgent psychiatric help.
It is only now, eight years since Paul's death, and now that his own son has become an adult, that Margaret and her husband have decided to break their silence. They hope that by telling Paul's story they can highlight how vulnerable people continue to be drawn to an organisation whose promises of inner peace are often at odds with the experiences of its followers. 'If we can just make one person aware of what happened then telling Paul's story will have been worthwhile,' Margaret says.
Last month, as the Clarkes packed up their belongings to move to a new home away from so many bad memories, remnants of Paul's life emerged from the attic: the packet of seeds he sent his mother when he couldn't afford flowers; a letter to his father on his 60th birthday. Among the glossy brochures for the Life Foundation there are Paul's diaries and notebooks and tapes - lots of tapes - of his music. And there is one object the Clarkes packed more carefully than most. A porcelain statue of a saint, its shattered pieces glued back together with reverential care.