Dozens of former disciples told the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon that Swami Chetanananda exploited them financially, sexually and spiritually.
Former Boston bartender Dana Swift's life hit bottom in February 1988 and it was then that the young woman found the "Nityananda Institute."
She attended a Sunday open house to hear "Swami Chetanananda"; an American-born guru originally named J. Michael Shoemaker from Bloomington, Indiana.
Disciples taped the swami Shoemaker’s Sunday talks and he even had a "tape-of-the-month club."
Swift recalled that back then she had a craving for the swami's touted "divine energy," which left her feeling euphoric, eventually she would surrender herself totally to him, though he would ultimately be a disappointment.
"The teacher takes on the student's tensions and processes it and gives it back to the student as energy." -- Chetanananda March 13, 1988
Shoemaker/Chetanananda's closest followers always occupied the best seats in the ashram and chanted in unison. They experienced something called "shaktipat," Chetanananda would put his fingers between their eyebrows to supposedly funnel energy into them.
Disciples would groan when the guru from Indiana touched them, some convulsed even screamed.
Shoemaker/Chetanananda at one time owned four houses near the Radcliffe College campus and a bakery in Boston. He attracted some wealthy members. There was a newsletter and a retreat center on Martha's Vineyard, the island off Cape Cod.
"You can continuously choose to discover and live in a finer realm than the one you travel in," -- Chetanananda March 13, 1988.
After one evening lecture Swift noticed that swami Shoemaker’s favorite followers went upstairs. She watched Sharon Ward, a lawyer who was his right-hand disciple and administrator, walk up to the guru’s third-floor apartment with her husband John Robert "Bob" Shoemaker, the guru's brother. Swift yearned to be part of the guru’s inner circle, which included his select followers that had money, looks or some useful expertise.
"A real spiritual teacher does not in any way need to control you or your thinking." – Chetanananda April 24, 1988.
Upstairs, according to some of those that entered Chetanananda's private quarters, they ate from a buffet on a glass table set below track-lit Tibetan artwork. Disciples sat on pillows arranged on the floor facing their leader. Shoemaker sat above them on a plush leather armchair. He liked to watch the movie "Repo Man," with Emilio Estevez. The swami would give "shaktipat" to a disciple who then fell backward and he would continue watching the movie. Disciples washed his dishes, car, cleaned his apartment and picked up his clothes.
"Literally I have, you know, 20 people in my room from 8 o'clock in the morning 'til 10 o'clock at night. It's continuously changing, but it's there." -- Chetanananda April 24, 1988
In April 1988 Swift finally got her turn upstairs, but it reportedly ended up with the Shoemaker propositioning her.
Other female disciples provided similar accounts about Shoemaker/Chetanananda, despite his purported vow of celibacy in 1978 he apparently sought sex frequently.
Eleven of his former female followers told the Oregonian that Shoemaker had sex with them. Each gave detailed accounts, which were later corroborated. Women claimed their sexual encounters led ultimately to both emotional and psychological damage.
"Sex is never appropriate for a person in the role of counselor, psychologist, doctor or teacher," said one of the women, who says the guru seduced her after they each drank a bottle of wine in his suite within the Portland ashram.
Women said that they felt they couldn’t refuse the swami they trusted with their souls.
Shoemaker/Chetanananda refused repeated requests for an interview with the Oregonian. But provided a typed statement that stated he had "sexual relationships with mature, adult consenting women." He further explained that he renounced former vows and is not now celibate. "Anyone who is offended by the existence of such relationships simply should find a practice and a teacher with whom they agree," the swami said.
In 1997, Shoemaker advised, "For me, purity has nothing to do with what you eat or don't eat and who you sleep with…If living in a bordello and doing whatever every night is what helps you do it, that's fine, too. For me."
"If you're going to do any kind of deep experiencing . . . the first thing you're going to have to get through is that piece of plastic in your head called the mind. It's just Saran Wrap." -- Chetanananda May 11, 1988
One woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Oregonian that she was once the guru’s lover and frequently submitted to him even after surgery while on painkillers. She believed that an omniscient being was making love to her.
But their sex was at times violent, painful and she came to fear Shoemaker.
In his prepared statement to the Oregonian the swami did not specifically respond to whether he had had violent sex with women, causing them injuries. "I am not violent," is all he said.
"Open yourself completely every day... Don't worry about the beauty or the pain of it...There's no growth without distress and disturbance." -- Chetanananda June 1988.
One woman says Chetanananda asked her to buy him a handgun for his collection. The last time she had sex with the guru was in 1996.
Another woman told the Oregonian the guru had sex with her twice while she was married. Yet another says she performed oral sex on him when he asked for it.
A Cambridge woman says Shoemaker/Chetanananda had sex with her about every six weeks for six years. The guru reportedly said that she should devote her energy to a spiritual path instead of having a boyfriend, and that he would try to be a boyfriend for her.
"I simply wanted him as a meditation teacher," she says. "I was incredibly naive and trusting and didn't know any better." The woman’s name was withheld in the press report.
"Being extra close to the guru means that you become extremely special," said one female disciple that had sex with Chetanananda three times. "You don't object. This is the guru, remember?"
Women described psychological and emotional scars from sexual relationships with the swami. "I honestly thought it was going to get me all the way…He led me to believe that he was the way to get [enlightenment], and if I didn't continue to participate there would be great harm to me."
Diane Asay, a current disciple of Shoemaker/Chetanananda told the Oregonian, "I've watched people climb all over people to get into his bed." She thinks all the women who shared information about sex with the swami are simply jealous former lovers out to hurt him.
"I don't get any points in heaven for all the people I brought in. I don't. It benefits you." -- Chetanananda July 23, 1988.
However, Swift was stunned when she found out her guru was not celibate in the summer of 1990.
Sex between gurus and disciples is common, sociologists and other experts say. The New Yorker magazine reported in November 1994 that female followers of deceased Swami Muktananda, the man who made Chetanananda a swami, had sex with them. Many devotees later left after learning about the sexual allegations.
One man told the Oregonian that his girlfriend’s revelation that she had sex with Chetanananda broke his heart. But the swami reportedly told him, "It's not a big deal…She made the advances; what was I supposed to do?"
"Now personally I think celibacy is total baloney. In India it's one thing. But here it's something totally different." -- Chetanananda, April 1992
Chetanananda was unhappy in Boston and wanted a new central headquarters. He learned that in Portland a place called Laurelhurst Manor, formerly a retirement home for sale at 1021 N.E. 33rd Ave. So in 1992 it was announced that the group would move to Portland, Oregon.
"Spiritual growth is about surrender, not about understanding. Whenever that part of you that wants to figure out, or know why, or what for, or so on or so forth, kicks in, kick it out. Kick it out." -- Chetanananda, in an April 21, 1993
Spring 1993, disciples loaded up the trucks and watched a crane hoist a stone Buddha out of their ashram, and they would follow Shoemaker now known as their "Swami Chetanananda" anywhere.
Note: This report was based upon an article titled "In the Grip of the Guru (part two) by Richard Read published by the Oregonian July 16, 2001