J. Michael Shoemaker became a controversial figure almost immediately after the former Indiana University student from Connersville dropped his given name in 1971 to become Swami Chetanananda.
Some saw the Rudrananda Ashram he established at Eighth and Washington streets not as a spiritual center and living commune, but as the home of a cult that exploited seekers of spiritual guidance for sex, money and labor. Others saw the swami as a true spiritual master capable of enriching the lives of others through his unique melange of meditation, kundalini yoga and Eastern religious practices borrowing from Buddhism, Hinduism and Kashmir Shaivism.
The ashram and its related businesses - the vegetarian Tao Restaurant and Rudi's Bakeries - thrived in Bloomington. And the Rudrananda Ashram Foundation contributed significantly to the cultural life of Bloomington by underwriting lectures and arts performances. But allegations of exploitation dogged the ashram community until Chetanananda announced in 1982 that the group would leave Bloomington and relocate in Boston. The swami blamed negative press coverage as a major reason for the move.
The group operated with less publicity in Boston and continued to oversee satellite operations in several other U.S. cities. But after a decade, it announced that it needed more physical space to expand its operations and had acquired the once-opulent but rundown Laurelhurst Manor in Portland, Ore.
The group restored the manor and grounds as the Nityananda Institute and continued with its pattern of community outreach combined with an intensive spiritual component for people willing to forgo many worldly amenities for the discipline of study in the ashram.
But controversy continues to swirl around Chetanananda and his spiritual, sexual and financial practices. Last Sunday, The Oregonian newspaper launched a lengthy and in-depth four-part series that paints an extremely unflattering picture of Chetanananda and his associates.
Titled, "In the Grip of the Guru," the series by investigative reporter Richard Read invokes the ghosts of the Northwest's disastrous experience with the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and chronicles the evolution of Chetanananda's group from its Bloomington beginnings to the present.
Read spent three years working on the project, interviewed more than 100 people and reviewed thousands of pages of property, bank, court and police documents. He also listened to dozens of hours of Chetanananda's taped lectures and participated in introductory meditation training at the institute.
The series is summarized by an editor's note that "dozens of ex- disciples accuse the guru of financial, sexual and spiritual abuse." In one installment, "A Broken Trust," 11 women described as "ex-disciples" say the swami betrayed their trust by seducing them. They describe severe personal and spiritual disillusionment because of their relationship with Chetanananda.
Another story in the series, "The High Price of Enlightenment," seems to suggest that some followers have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in failed investments in the Nityananda Institute and its enterprises. But some who defend the swami and his practices also are included in the stories. Pat Tarzian, described as a 13-year member of the group, says, "Nobody worships him; he's just a very, very fine and extremely caring person."
And Daniel Eyink, who became the subject of intense media scrutiny when his parents abducted him from the Cincinnati ashram in 1978 and claimed he had been brainwashed by the swami, is described as a physician who continues to attend meditation classes with the group in Portland.
Read, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who conducted the investigation and wrote all of the articles, says he's proud of both the content and scope of his investigation. "This was such an interesting challenge," he said late Wednesday. "It was investigative reporting with narrative journalism. Putting the two together was really interesting."
He refused to characterize what conclusions the reader might draw from the piece. Nityananda Institute spokeswoman Sharon Ward had not returned a call asking for comment by press time, but Chetanananda, who refused to be interviewed for the series, submitted a five-page written response to questions last week, strongly repudiating the newspaper's questions regarding possible abuses.
Chetanananda last visited Bloomington in 1999 to take the Dalai Lama's sacred Kalachakra Initiation. There is some irony, therefore, in Read's sidebar story about the rise of "cottage cults" in America.
Read notes that the leader of Tibetan Buddhism cautions all spiritual seekers to review a guru's qualifications before following that person's advice. "Whenever exploitation, sexual abuse or money abuse happen," the Dalai Lama says, "make them public." The Oregonian's series, "In the Grip of the Guru," can be read on the Internet at www.oregonlive.com/special/guru/.