Moving on – former followers of the swami tell of their journey to become free

September 1, 2005
By Rick Ross

Debi Moore apparently began to lose faith in Swami Chetanananda in Nepal during 1999. She remembers being uncomfortable on a trip to Katmandu accompanied by her boyfriend and led by the Kentucky-born guru from Indiana originally named J. Michael Shoemaker.

Swami Chetanananda/Shoemaker now lives in Portland with about 75 followers and has been repeatedly accused of financial and sexual abuse.

At the time of her trip to Nepal Moore was a 46-year-old data analyst who had spent 26 years following the swami. But she had heard of his sexual encounters with female disciple’s and reports of violence that caused a crisis of faith for the long-time believer.

Chetanananda repeatedly declined requests for an interview with The Oregonian concerning any allegations that have been made. Instead, he provided a prepared typed statement, which included, "I am not a sadist and I am not violent."

In 1999 Moore found her guru in a lavish Katmandu home complete with marble floors, porches, manicured lawn and guarded gate, in striking contrast with the general poverty of that city.

Shoemaker/ Chetanananda also had a caretaker, a driver, two cooks and women to do his laundry. One night a barber even came to cut his hair.

When the swami from Indiana reportedly joked about "getting laid" it shocked Moore.

Later Shoemaker and his entourage went on a photo safari in a Nepali tiger reserve.

"I promise you, Shree (sic), the people who stand against me will be crushed, and their children and their grandchildren." -- Chetanananda, autumn 1998

Ten longtime devotees, including Moore, left Chetanananda’s ashram in spring 1999.

One former follower Dana Swift quit on April 29, 1999 after eleven years of devotion.

Not long before these departures Chetanananda and Nityananda Institute made an out of court confidential legal settlement with Portland-area lawyer Melinda Mandell, another one of Shoemaker’s former followers. She claimed he was guilty of breach of contract and racketeering.

The Oregonian found that the lawsuit was once before Multnomah County Circuit Judge David Gernant, but the records had been sealed. Mandell's lawyer successfully argued that the information could damage the reputations of those involved.

Mandell, a Portland attorney, refused to comment for The Oregonian article about Chetanananda and was unhappy that the newspaper identified her.

Boston cook Marty Keady, an ashram chef and follower of the guru for four years, says he left in disgust during 1996 due to the swami’s rumored peccadilloes.

Jim Hassan, a Massachusetts resident who began following Chetanananda in 1989, said he also left due to the swami’s sexual encounters with his female followers. Hassan said that the guru once threatened him. He was told, "‘if you leave, you'll be dead within a year.' "

Moore recalled that her boyfriend advised her that Shoemaker forbid his followers to talk with anyone that left.

But the swami denied this within his prepared statement and said that he has never threatened anyone.

Moore still insisted that her boyfriend was given the ultimatum: her or the guru.

Former followers of Shoemaker expressed common fears when they attended a meeting of an informal support group. They feared the guru’s temper and threats. Swami Chetanananda/Shoemaker denied this in his statement, "No harm has ever happened to any person who has left our community as the result of any action by me or anyone associated with me."

But at least one former member complained of nightmares and many got unlisted phone numbers after leaving the ashram. Some reportedly asked local police to watch their homes.

Ex-devotee Aurelia Navarro recalled how angry the swami became when confronted about his sexual liaisons.

"If this were India, I would be found floating facedown in the Ganges" River. "Generating a vision…That's having a very, very deep and profound commitment to something bigger than you. For me, it was my teacher..." -- Chetanananda June 14, 2000

Former members had created the site -- [no longer working] -- that features anonymous statements about Chetanananda by 11 people.

"If you want to really understand who we are, come and meet me, meet us. You may or may not want to practice yoga and meditation here. But in either case, know, from within yourself, who we are." – Chetanananda, September 18, 2000.

"He told us the only thing we had to surrender was our tensions, when in fact we were expected to surrender everything to his program: our families, our girlfriends if we were men, our bodies if we were women…our money, our former religious beliefs and morals, and our sense of belonging in the society at large," states one entry within the Web site.

The Web site also has results of a survey taken of several ex-members; many described abusive behavior in the group.

Swami Shoemaker denied everything. "A small but vocal circle of former members who regularly meet to distribute malicious gossip via the Internet…The allegations that are not outright lies are distortions so gross as to be impossible to respond to," the guru from Indiana said.

"Interpersonal experience…while full of caring, may also be full of chaos and clutter. Many religious rules, such as celibacy, are established to save us from that clutter." -- Chetanananda, Institute newsletter, January 2001

Dana Swift, who spent 11 years with Chetanananda, moved to another state to begin a new life. She still meditates and does Tibetan chants at times, but doesn’t seem interested in some new guru.

Hone Ames, who spent 10 years devoted to Shoemaker and was something like his bank left Portland and became an author. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the eleven women that told The Oregonian about sexual encounters with Chetanananda became a medical practitioner.

Debi Moore and her boyfriend managed to stay together and bought some acreage in a rural area near Portland. After Moore read about cult psychology she eventually lost her fear of the guru.

Sharon Ward, the institute's executive director and general counsel, dismissed former members' fears and allegations.

Within the 2001 article published by The Oregonian several followers of Swami Chetanananda/Shoemaker voiced strong abiding support for their guru despite repeated reports of abuse by their former ashram friends.

Pat Tarzian, a 13-year member strongly supported the swami as did Carolyn Morgan a member for more than 20 years.

Ruth Knight, a teacher at the group’s center in Portland had this to say about former members that had become detractors of her guru, "I think they've created a hell for themselves that they can't get out of."

Note: This report was based upon an article titled "In the Grip of the Guru" (part four) "Breaking the swami’s hold" by Richard Read published by the Oregonian July 18, 2001

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.