The whole "Eat Love Pray" movement-now the inspiration for a Julia Roberts movie-comes from a cult=like ashram that gained popularity in the early 1990s, guided by a woman named Gurumayi.
And it makes you wonder: has Julia Roberts, who now says she's a practicing Hindu-found her own Scientology?
Now 55 years old, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda - her real name is Malti Shetty-is the swami whom Elizabeth Gilbert went to meet in India in the book, "Eat Love Pray." Alas, Gurumayi wasn't there when Gilbert arrived. She was never anywhere as I recall. I wrote a piece about her and her cult-like ashram back in the early 90s. Her disciples - mostly young women- met in a church basement on the Upper East Side. There were dozens of them. They were glassy eyed. They were mostly white, upscale, and having trouble with relationships. Sound familiar?
Around the same time, the New Yorker also did a piece about Gurumayi, who'd inherited her platform from Swami Muktananda as a young woman with her brother. Their parents - the father was a restaurateur-had been his followers. But a civil war broke out between the siblings, and Gurumayi snatched Swami Muktananda's business from her brother. The way to inner peace is often not a pretty one.
Celebrities came, as they do: Meg Ryan swore by her. Raul Julia was reportedly a disciple. A well known New York actor and director, I was told, ended his marriage to a beautiful model because she'd gotten too involved with Gurumayi. The New Yorker article also noted Jerry Brown, John Denver, Andre Gregory, Diana Ross, Isabella Rossellini, Phylicia Rashad, Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, and Marsha Mason.
She is a real "Slumdog Millionaire." Her SYDA Foundation--about which it is hard to gain much information-is worth millions in real estate holdings. She also runs an international organization called Siddha Yoga, a business posing as a religion. Both organizations are tax exempt because they're regostered as churches. If you're thinking of looking for Gurumayi now, think again. A few years ago she closed the Catskills facility in South Fallsburg, New York, to strangers. She ended her big public relations push to get more disciples. She is rarely seen anywhere. But she is very rich.
Gilbert learned a lot from Gurumayi. She's turned her glossy spiritual experience into a money maker. Tonight she's hosting a special screening of "Eat Pray Love" at the Ziegfeld. Tickets are $25.
Marta Szabo knows all about Gurumayi. She worked for her for over 10 years. Now she's published her own memoir, called "The Guru Looked Good." Szabo has never met Gilbert, and her book was published before "Eat Pray Love." What she says is quite different than Gilbert's movie would lead anyone to believe.
"Gurumayi is not an enlightened being," says Szabo. "If she were really enlightened she wouldn't go around telling everyone. You'd know it."
Szabo has a lot to say about Gurumayi, and it can be found in her book and elsewhere on the internet. But one thing she told me was pretty weird-when the New Yorker article was coming out, Gurumayi used a form of brainwashing on her disciples. "There were secret rituals," Szabo recalls. "She practiced long distance Reiki"- a Japanese healing process. And there were "meditations" in "secret places."
Most of it didn't work, she says. "A lot of people left after the article." The New Yorker piece detailed the tug of war to own the ashram, violence enacted against Gurumayi's brother who eventually started his own ashram nearby in the Catskills, as well as accusations of sexual misconduct against Muktananda.
Julia Roberts would do well to read Marta Szabo's book.
By the way, I asked Marta, where was Gurumayi all the time? "She would disappear for short periods," Szabo said. "She was probably staying in a rich devotee's house."