Citizen Swami: Launching a New Guru from Queens

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Citizen Swami Launching a New Guru from Queens

    Pinto/Tae has been working a form of spiritual apprenticeship for years. He is a handsome, bearded man in his late 40s. In person, your attention is drawn to the abundance of hair growing from his ears?not old man's hair from inside the ear, but great, catlike hair spread on the outer lobes themselves. You're also struck by his nervous ambition.

    This is a guru who really wants to be taken seriously. It's there when he shows off his new temple?a bright, primary-colored home on the site of the small farm where he was born and raised. "We hired only the best," he keeps repeating, like a Manhattanite showing off a new loft. "This is known spiritual ground. The people have been saying for 3000 years that this place was important."

    Shri Tae has spent the morning undergoing Sathyanarayana Pooja, an excruciating five hours of cross-legged ritual during which his gurudom is confirmed with numerous chantings, the burning of much incense and mighty blasts from a Tulu-speaking brass band. I'm on hand, with five other Americans, to help the launch. We're pulling material for the new holy man's planned website.

    Shri Tae's inauguration is a big event partly because it's made possible with the help of the young guru's neighbor and would-be mentor, Shri Shri Shri Niranjan. Niranjan is a 70ish swami with a great deal of popularity here in the progressive state of Karnataka, as well as in booming Bombay, where his posters can be seen all over the sprawling city. He has brought in hosts of local dignitaries for the event, as well as major press interest, and he's lined up other gurus from the region's older holy centers to back the new swami.

    It's not every day that there's a new temple launched in Karnataka, let alone the manifestation of a 3000-year-old prediction. It's also not every day that gurus share the same stage: by and large, they tend to stick to their own fiefdoms, even when the big money that backs them is from the same sources. This part of India is renowned for the holy men it produces, from Muktananda to Si Baba, and in a region where religion is entertainment, the idea of a younger guru striving for independence from his older, more flamboyant mentor is a good draw. So's the sight of Westerners?the source, not surprisingly, of much spiritually directed funding in India.

    I am walking by the private home and reception rooms of Shri Shri Shri Niranjan after watching folklore orchestras practice inside the holy man's sprawling and apparently ancient Abika Annapoorneshwari Temple. It's stiflingly humid and the red bindi dot on my forehead is running, drippy with sweat. I've just ripped the inseam of my white South Indian pajama suit and am being very careful how I move. Women with saris and their beautiful doe-like children watch me intently as I walk by.

    Shri Tae bustles around in his orange robes and prayer beads. He announces that he's come to lead the people with his ability to bypass "lower spirits" and maintain direct contact with Moses, Christ and a wide variety of Hindu gods?including Lord Narashima, the Lion God destroyer of Evil, who many Karnatakans have predicted would return in the form of a man named Khalkey.

    "Twelve pillars, 12 apostles," Tae told us on first entering his temple. "I wanted to build a temple in Bombay first, but it was so expensive, so crowded. This seemed the right place to start, where I was born and raised." He shows off green marble floors. We all sit on plush red-velvet cushions. Tae tells us how "The Oracle" has told him which gods to revere, how to build his temple. He shows us grand plans for colleges, hostels, hospitals.

    "I had the best artists do my work. This painting is already seen as a masterpiece." Tae gestures toward a gaudy portrait of a man with a lion's head. I check out the image's ears to see if they're as furry as his. He points out the paneling of Alaskan pine, the boombox next to a stack of tapes of Native American flute songs, stacks of bathroom amenities and Christmas lights everywhere. Pictures of him in American social settings fill one wall. He looks alert and wary as a deer.

    Shri Tae had hired a group of us?videographers, photographers, Web designers, a writer?through his friend Teresa Ross. She had first met him in the late 1980s when she went out to Queens to see some other holy man who was in town for a visit. Someone mentioned that there was a mystic from South India living across the hall. When she entered Paul Pinto's apartment, she says, she noticed a power in his presence. They struck up a friendship; she got to know his kids from the marriage he left behind when he decided he was on the path to gurudom. Over the years, Ross had helped Pinto when he published a book of his teachings; helped him with self-doubts when he would phone in the wee hours from meditative retreats in India or Queens; and had now agreed to help him launch himself as a full-fledged guru.

    I first met Pinto in Ross' West Village apartment. Seated on her couch in orange robes and wearing heavy eyeglasses, he'd excitedly told me about his plans for his temple. I asked about financing, and he said there'd be plenty. I asked about his teachings and mentioned my need for background materials. He assured me that all my p.r. wishes would be met. His speech was accompanied with lots of little signals of supplication?folded hands, bows. I remember noticing his black wingtips. I liked the guy I was being hired to help transform into Shri Tae. He told me he had a small coterie of local devotees, some with money. There was a doctor with a limo, another investor who would supply a van when needed. But I gathered that his big work still lay ahead, in Mangalore and Bombay, where, he said, his preparatory meetings with other swamis had been most successful. He mentioned a Bombay p.r. firm hired to promote him over there, and also claimed access to funding and powerful politicians. He talked a great deal about feeding thousands.

    The background materials I'd asked for weren't what I'd expected. I never received the promised press clippings from Mangalore's local newspaper or the dailies in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka. Instead, Shri Tae sent me a bit of autobiography: It started at the age of eight after my Holy Communion. The next day before sunrise, before my mother and me were going to my Grandmother's for my blessings from my Grandmother and uncles and older members of the family. It is a custom in the society.

    On way to my Grandmother, close to my house I saw a person standing with Lion face and sacred thread on his chest to hip and wearing a dhoti brown in color. He was seven feet tall, I say very very tired and worn-out. He was looking right into my eyes. I kept on watching and kept on walking.

    During my young life Angels use to wash my body, while taking bath. I played with them while sleeping and many Indian Gods visited me in dreams and visions. Even when I was in America sometimes they talk to me like a man talks in my ear with sweet voice?

    In 1984 began the higher teaching, teaching Or Nirvana?Higher Law. One day in my spirit chamber or alter, during my prayer at 4:30 a.m. I was transformed. Mean God came and touched me on my head (Blessings) and I was in a different mind, I cannot explain. Since then angels from God of Moses and Jesus are with me. They come in my body and talk to me, like actually another man is talking to me...

    It ended with prophecy:

    A book in Marathi Language, in Bombay translated from the Nostradamus, predicts a man will be coming from South India with curly hair and beard. They are expecting him in this year. Millions are waiting. In South India, we believe in Oracle, in spirit communication, and therefore most of the people are intelligent, disciplined and holy. They are followers of the Great Spirit (ORMAZD)-Great Light and the teaching of Capilla Muni. God of Moses brought him up in the former Peace cycle. Highest degree. Spirit communication says I am Punya Purusha and Punya Pursha comes once in 3000 years and in this cycle of Peace as Khalkey (like Moses, Capilla and Chin from former Peace Cycle).

    Here's what else I know about Paul Pinto: he and his sisters were born and raised on that farm where the new Temple of Knowledge is sited. He went to a Jesuit elementary school, they to nuns. He left home at 10 to stay at an older sister's home in Bombay. At 15 he got a good job with a pharmaceutical company there. It paid $50 a month, and he sent all his earnings home. He'd return and talk about creating better times with his old school chums (most of whom now work for him as drivers or in similar positions). He came to the U.S. to attend Boston University and get an engineering degree. He married and had two sons, who are in college now. When he decided a spiritual career would require celibacy, he left the family and a job on Wall Street, and moved to Flushing, eventually taking rooms next door to a swami he had gotten to know in Richmond Hills.

    Much of this I culled from a patient, Seattle-based Indian named Vernander, who was with us in Magalore. He'd first met Pinto at a cocktail party and was fascinated by the process of launching him as a guru.

    "I want to buy the chicken farm there," Shri Tae told us as he showed us around. There's a flat part with wide views away from the house, littered with what looks like lava. That's where he wants the really big building. He takes us back toward the new temple, pointing to the rubble of stones he says is the site of the house he grew up in. As we walk around, his mother and sisters keep watch from his private quarters. "I'm sorry about the chickens. It's a bit smelly today," he says.

    We are in a shaded garden of coconut palm, black pepper trees, papayas. Tae leads us to a circular stone wall and urges us to toss rocks into a very deep, very old well. The new guru explains that this place has been grounded to what amounts to a spiritual aquifer.

    I once found myself alone with Shri Tae in the back of a cab, and asked if he had any doubts about his guruhood.

    "There are different reactions to different realities, but no doubt," he answered. "Does the tree doubt its fruit? No. It is sweet or it is sour."

    It is steaming hot inside the Temple of Knowledge, where we've been crowded all morning with the bright lights of Indian television teams, our own videographers, a bevy of the region's religious scholars and an intent crowd of new believers and old supporters. After a lunch for several thousand?a fast, efficient serving, on banana leaf plates, of coconut-flaked rice, okra dal, naan, cardamom-flavored dessert gruel and sugar-lime water?Joe the photographer and I grow tired of watching the orange-robed Tae blessing the lines of simple, eager-looking men and women who've traveled miles for this occasion. We go over to Shri Shri Shri Niranjan's neighboring temple to catch preparations for the afternoon's big processional.

    "Swami wants you," a middle-aged man says as I approach Niranjan's house. It's a big, simple place. Niranjan is known throughout India as the guru who channels Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of riches. She has clearly been good to him. He displays a grinning pride as he shows off bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms and photos of his three boys, one dead. Accompanied by family and followers, he shows us his whole compound, and it is impressive: elementary and high schools, a hostel, a polytechnic college, workshops and fields, kitchens and dining rooms that feed about 1000 local orphans a day.

    I suddenly realize he's the one whom Shri Tae had referred to as The Oracle in his bio. And it's his highly successful compound that provides the model for Tae's ambitious plans for his own temple and property.

    Niranjan has given everyone in our group musty-smelling, gold-woven Lakshmi robes. Now I wade through the crowd in the swami's courtyard, making sure to take off my shoes before I enter.

    "Ah-ha-ha-ha!" Swami Niranjan exclaims as I enter his home. "You good today!" He makes a scribbling motion with his hand and smiles like a schoolboy. "Here, here..." The clean, marble room is filled with important-looking men in formal Indian wear, all seated in plush armchairs along two walls, the third lined with four thrones. They all stand as I enter. A short, older fellow in glasses introduces himself: Dr. K.K. Pai, owner of South India's powerful Syndicate Bank, founder of more than a dozen major hospitals and universities, and one of his nation's more powerful men. He takes my hand and starts talking about America, Bill Clinton, former (but still beloved) Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He introduces me around the room to members of Parliament, Karnataka state officials, a wall of regional holy men. "Sit, sit," he entreats me, motioning toward the throne next to his. I sit between Swami Niranjan and my new friend. Someone hands me a green coconut with a large straw in it. I know by now that this is a special treat. Shri Tae told me a few days earlier that it's good for heat, the fruit's liquid being of the same consistency as brain fluids. A watchful but smiling man stands near me, eyeing the coconut.

    As I chat with Dr. Kai and the Mangalore region's MP (both invite me to their homes the next day), I notice that Swami Niranjan is getting restless and starting to perform a little magic. He's not given to doing his Lakshmi-channeling act anywhere outside Bombay, where he performs to earn income for his philanthropic activities here in the boonies; here he's simply pulling coins from his armpit and making half-English jokes about money. He's in a relaxed mood. There's a feeling in the room like the anticipation of a 10-year-old's birthday party.

    Suddenly there's a flurry in the courtyard and Shri Tae sweeps into the room in his orange robes. He looks quite serious as he's introduced to the gathered guests. Our website team straggles in his wake, looking knackered from the heat, humidity and crowds. Swami Niranjan motions Tae to the empty fourth throne at his right hand. Feeling uncomfortable in my own throne, especially when two more swamis enter, I sidle off to a seat among the members of parliament.

    What follows is an archetypal power meeting. Our host motions to me with his scribbling hand gesture and starts acting out, mischievously grinning and speaking in pidgin English?evidently dissing Tae in a flurry of three languages that includes the English words "America," "Internet" and "money, money, money." The crowd is delighted. I'm told that there's a ritual aspect to this?that it's expected for the old master to harangue the younger upstart a bit (though Tae will later complain to me about his doing it so publicly, playing it for lowest-common-denominator laughs). Tae shifts in his throne uncomfortably, mumbling. A couple days earlier I'd seen Shri Tae grow similarly uncomfortable and start mumbling when yet another older swami had expounded about the new guru. One of our party told me that the mumbling was also a ritual act?he was uttering chants to protect himself from the sometimes awesome power of the older gurus.

    Shri Niranjan's diatribe is over soon enough, and we're waved outside for the processional. Hundreds of local cabs and auto-rickshaws have been painted in the primary colors of the new guru and festooned with his declarations of the coming of the Father's Kingdom, "One Great Spirit," "Peace, Love, Wisdom, Industry," "In God We Trust." They line our walk down a lane to the Temple of Knowledge, horns blaring to accompany the marching orchestras and several drum corps. Camera crews trip over one another as we all walk?swamis, politicians and six Americans?in a crowd of maybe 5000.

    At Shri Tae's temple we're led to a flower-decked stage lined with thrones and motioned to seats of honor. Everyone in our party is presented with great wreaths draped ceremoniously over our shoulders. Three hours of elaborate speeches follow. Tae's statements, in English, betray nervousness and a poorly typed manuscript.

    The few women in the audience sit rapt. The predominance of men may be because a woman can't enter a temple a week before or after menses. I notice Swami Niranjan's daughter-in-law, a former Bombay interior designer now serving as his temple's caretaker. She's been for us an able interpreter and commentator on the South Indian swami scene, but today she's quiet and near-invisible. She sits near Shri Tae's mother, the aged, horn-rim-glasses-wearing little Mrs. Pinto. Earlier that morning, I'd seen her son repeatedly press a finger to his lips when she'd tried to interrupt his proclamations to the crowds about how the United States would return to its holy role as a world religious leader following 32,000 years of quietude. When I'd asked her about it she'd smiled at her great-niece, who was interpreting, and simply said she was proud.

    "Niranjan's losing his powers," Shri Tae tells me after the ceremony. The celebration stretched until dawn, with a host of India's top devotional singers playing under a flurry of twinkling Christmas lights, neon devotional sayings and rows of fluorescent lamps stretching miles in all directions from the temple.

    "You only have powers a certain amount of time. They depend on which angels are speaking to you," he continues. "Niranjan is in contact with lesser angels. I have a direct connection to the higher ones. That's why he supports me."

    Devotees come and go. A woman interrupts to crawl across the floor, crying, asking the swami for something I can't understand. She kisses my feet after kissing Shri Tae's. This had been happening a lot in the past few days.

    "Tae's mission is in America," one of Niranjan's interpreters explained to me a few days later in Bombay. "Money is God there. It comes, it goes..." The inference was that the new guru was being supported so that he could go to America and bring back money.

    With another American I take a wild cab ride through harrowing Bombay streets to find Swami Niranjan's temple, which is located in a back alley constantly packed with worshippers there to hear their fortunes. Niranjan introduced us to his mother and wife, and gave us piles of powders and other spiritual goods to bring luck to our homes. When we asked him what we should see in Bombay, a cabdriver was instantly produced and told to take us everywhere but the Parsee Towers of Silence whose "sky burial" funeral rituals are looked down upon by most Hindis. We drove that evening through India's great city of imperial ruins, teeming with people and easy entertainment under dim street lights. Our driver kept stopping by hole-in-the-wall temples notable for their clusters of cows and old women. At one point he ran across a crowded street to return with a young boy carrying a silver tray with three tall lassis?warm, clotted yogurt on top, cooler liquid below. At an intersection, I presented two beggars with the flower garlands Niranjan had passed on to me. Later, we realized our driver had double-charged us.

    "South India has always been of importance to our nation," Dr. Kai, the philanthropist and educator, tells me. "Karnataka has a healthy mix of peoples and languages. We are leaders in computers and education. We feed our people."

    Kai speaks about the importance of swamis. He points out that they provide education for masses and feed thousands on a daily basis. Religion is not only entertainment, but welfare. Any money that seeps into India from the developed world is auspicious, an important sign of the world's largesse.

    On the way to Kai's university, we pass through the ancient holy town of Udipi, home to scores of temples worshipping Krishna, Ganesh and a host of lesser deities. Cows crowd narrow corridors. Crippled pilgrims line a fetid temple pond overlooked by icons, watching carp feed on a surface sheen of dead and decaying fish. The scent of incense hangs thick in the air. By contrast, here in Manipal, home to Kai's modern university and hospital, everything seems Westernized?except the posters, billboards and truck marquees announcing Shri Tae's new temple, Swami Niranjan's local preaching days and the imminent arrival of the Rambo Traveling Circus.

    I accompany Shri Tae on a visit to the home of a local rice merchant, who is donating to the new temple enough to feed 15,000. We meet a young local couple who now live in Silicon Valley: he's a computer engineer. They are excited to be buying their first home, a $500,000 ranch house in Palo Alto. The husband explains that he started his schooling on Niranjan's ashram and moved on to Benares University for an engineering degree. From there he got a job with Texas Instruments in Bangalore, India's "Silicon City." He later moved on to Motorola in Singapore, and then Hal in San Jose. Now he's working for a heavily leveraged start-up. The young man and his wife, who hails from Udipi, have two children who split playful talk between their three languages: English, Hindi and Tulu. The parents come back to their home state several times a year to keep up their roots and a sense of the spiritual.

    As we leave, Tae asks the family to come to his temple; they say they'll try, like suburbanites ducking invitations to a neighbor's party. "They don't like me," Tae admits in the car afterward.

    The next day I visit Mangalore's centuries-old St. Aloysius College, where students sit through years of Victorian-style classes in old classrooms filled with long wooden benches and desks. They're really there for the school's new computer classes. The dean asks me why I'm visiting and I explain about Tae's new temple. "Another temple!" he exclaims. I explain my job helping to launch Shri Tae. "Oh, Paul Pinto," he nods. "He's been working toward this for years. That's why he went to New York. Is he an American yet, or does Niranjan just think he's one?"

    Both swamis now want the team I was working for to help them launch American visits in the coming months. Shri Shri Shri Niranjan wants to move beyond his Bombay and South Indian successes and try to match some of the other legends who've come out of his area, like Muktananda or Srila Prabhapala, of the Krishna movement. Like with all swamis, he says the money will come if he doesn't actively seek it. Then he adds that he wants a website of his own. He's planning to visit New York and New Jersey, the latter seen in India as a major spiritual destination.

    I'm awaiting word on the next steps from Tae, who has yet to start teachings at his new temple. Maybe he's searching out real estate in Bombay, or booking time with the New York area's extensive Indian population, who he feels are ready for his coming as Punya Purusha, as Khalkey, as Lord Narashima. He wants to establish a New York temple, and plans to publicize his mission to found the "Father's Kingdom" in the new-age magazines?as well as in the National Enquirer, Star and Weekly World News, copies of which are treasured in his and other swamis' households throughout India. He talks about renting out Carnegie Hall.

    The last time we met, a couple of weeks ago, he picked me up in a black Cadillac on W. 21st St. and whisked me to a friend's restaurant on Columbus Ave. for dinner. He seemed edgy, but also full of a humor I'd missed during the Mangalore events a few weeks earlier. He was meeting with Bollywood producers, having his picture taken on Wall Street. He told me his mission is to initiate a new "Peace Cycle" in the Earth's history, that we're on the verge of World War III and other cataclysmic events. But then he also mentioned something called the Guru Network?a way for swamis to monitor the incomes of potential donors among India's major film stars, as well as big industrialists and politicians.

    "I have a power to make money," he says, before the photo shoot. "It's a power most people have to be careful with..."

    I still can't follow everything he or Niranjan says about my or anyone else's soul. Then again, I don't really care. I'm sure all swamis find their markets.