TO THINK TOO long about someone’s suicide feels like trespass. To imagine the moment’s tableau with any kind of colour (caps returned to their bottles, tightened) or to dwell on the arrangements made ($30,000 a year left for the Jack Russell) feels like taking a torchlight to the final darkness, the last silence of the mind. Kate killed herself when I was thirteen. Now, thirteen years later, I find I am beginning to question the details. I can’t help but unpick her resolve. Was a life without her guru too unbearable? Did he advise her to do it? I almost have to coax these questions out of hiding. Asking them feels defiant, rebellious – they ring like insults. My natural state is an old loyalty. Respect as reflex.
Kate was the second wife of my parents’ spiritual teacher. She was forty-one when she killed herself; she did it only days after her husband died of cancer. Vijay was seventy-five by then. He had implied over the course of his life as a yoga teacher and spiritual guru that he could cure cancer. I’m told his death certificate reads heart attack instead. Most stories about Vijay are often, in reality, rumours in triplicate, different retellings of the same event. His death was no different. The third account: he died of complications from an old spider bite. This is what his community of followers were told when we first heard he died.
In her suicide note, Kate pre-empts diagnosis: ‘This is something I have willingly and intentionally done. I am not depressed or disturbed in any way.’ The suicide note was addressed to her cousin. ‘I’ve had the most wonderful and happy and precious time with Vijay. You could not meet a more compassionate, kind and loving man. I could have had fifty years married to him and it may not have been so good. So please, don’t be sad; I feel so blessed.’ There’s no distress, only calm: This is something I have willingly done.
The question of will catches me. Her words suggest full intimacy with herself, with a sturdy, inviolable mind – no holes where the water can get in. But is your will ever fully yours? I think how strange it must have been to marry your guru, to bring the pedestal so close. But then I wonder if her words hold an admission of sorts: I could have had fifty years married to him and it may not have been so good. This does not sound like the be-all and end-all logic of the brainwashed. It seems to recast Vijay as fallible, imperfect. Or perhaps that is too strong, and rather she is hinting at the possibility of one day seeing his imperfection. ‘I have a belief,’ the note continues, ‘that you don’t die, that you pass on to another stage of life.’ Perhaps, in this logic, she found the sense she needed. She had followed him for this long; she would simply continue to follow.
I GREW UP in a community of Vijay’s followers – a group called The Total Health and Education Foundation – in Warwick, Queensland. The Foundation owned a four-and-a-half-hectare block of land on the northern edge of town along with a larger farm property in a valley twenty minutes further out. Living in the Foundation as a child meant growing up with eighty or so adults as aunt- and uncle-type figures. Since everyone had left their friends and relatives behind in Melbourne, the community within the Foundation became a surrogate family. There were no fences between our houses; as children we spent most of our free time roaming in the bushland on our property before the teatime call. The school that was at the heart of the Foundation – The School of Total Education – was a mere two hundred metres from my house. Most teachers were also family friends (or they were your own parents – mine still teach there). The lines between home and school naturally blurred.
It was early 2005 when we found out Vijay had died. We held a memorial for him in the auditorium of the school. There were vases full of birds of paradise arranged around the podium, great splashes of fire, and on each seat a sealed envelope. I remember looking around at the few other children there, feelings of pride and humility at war inside me. In each envelope was a final letter from Vijay to his remaining followers. How worthy I felt, merely to be remembered, to have my own letter purposefully printed. I pressed my finger to the ink of Vijay’s signature at the bottom of the page. In writing to say goodbye, he had offered his followers a final piece of advice:
Either you grow in your body, enjoy its sensualism with its ego manifestation or you grow in your mind or in your spirit. Keep this in mind while progressing.
I did keep this in mind; there was never any risk I wouldn’t. For the next four years at the school this quiet ultimatum followed me. Even when I’d left home for university in Brisbane it presided over any decision I made, any path I chose.
Like most groups that border on New Age, the Foundation borrowed from a broad grab bag of philosophies and traditions – Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, mostly – and developed over time its own vernacular of vagueness. Vijay was enlightened. Or he was realised, awakened, arrived – these were the interchangeable terms that formed part of a spiritual shorthand in the Foundation. You prayed to God or the Absolute, the One or a higher power. Vijay was not only a yoga teacher, he was also a visionary, an educationalist, a philosopher and poet. He wrote books on personal development with titles such as Mind-Made Disease: Is Your Sickness Real? (Yoga Education Centre and the Helen Vale Foundation, 1977), Life Problems (Centre Publications, 1978) and Overcoming Negative Feelings (Foundation Press, 1994).
But there are other, smaller details that have stayed with me. He invented his own tea and called it ‘Vijay’s Special Blend’. I would drink it as a child, grow stroppy when we ran out. He made himself available to anyone who needed his counsel, devoting himself to their journey of self-understanding, never charging a cent. In his presence even frivolous issues seemed significant. Struggling with chocolate addiction? Go see Vijay – he could always help. Over the years Vijay’s advice acquired, in the eyes of his students, the patina of settled science.
I ONLY MET Vijay twice. This is close to nothing compared with older Foundation children, who might have bumped into him in the playground or had counselling with him after school. My childhood in the Foundation was marked by this mystery – not knowing who Vijay really was and not knowing where he was. By the time I was at school, in 1996, he was already more myth than man. He was a blessing and he was the end of an argument. Eventually, he became a voice in my head. Follow the right path, I would tell myself, channelling him. Keep your ego in check.
The first time I met Vijay we visited his office in Brisbane. I was young, maybe five, sitting with my family in the waiting room. The receptionist handed me a jellybean from the jar on her desk. Look her in the eye, Mum had said. Say thank you. (Reproach always carves out more than its rightful share in my memories.) Dad told my brother Jamie and me to stop kicking our legs on the couch. His face was expressionless and his voice quiet, marooning us in our silliness.
My memory falters here, before we see Vijay. Why were we there at all? A family counselling session, maybe, my brother and I fighting? I have a sense of being in his office, sinking into caramel-coloured couches with large buttons. But this isn’t a memory of Vijay at all, I realise now. It’s a memory of waiting for him. And it’s a memory that my mum doesn’t agree with. No way that would have happened. She tells me Vijay would often pull parents up if he caught them imposing their idea of courtesy on children.
At what age does devotion enter your constitution? It caught me at just the right time. At the end of 2003 my family visited Vijay and his second wife, Kate, at their new home in Port Douglas. We visited over Christmas and for a present Vijay and Kate gave Jamie and me envelopes with a $50 note inside. (Vijay and Kate are sooooo nice, I wrote in my diary, as though I were nursing a crush.) On Christmas Day we all watched as Vijay played my dad and brother at table tennis. Kate stood to the side with Mum and me, plying me with questions about school and sport. She struck me then as practical and caring; I felt she was orchestrating it all, bringing Vijay to see us, sensing when he was tiring, knowing the right time to leave. On our last night in Port Douglas we all went to dinner. Kate drove, Vijay in the front seat and Mum, Dad, Jamie and me squeezed into the back. Sitting on Dad’s lap I gripped the back of Vijay’s seat as we turned corners, tense and thrilled, knowing I would always want to remember this.
I was twelve when we visited Port Douglas, poised at the edge of puberty, where you might expect the rigid morals of childhood to crumble and give way to rebellion, something closer to cynicism. But I didn’t lose my footing. Not yet, at least. Pre-teen and pious, I invented rituals instead: in the months after our Port Douglas holiday, I recited Vijay’s poems aloud before school and prayed to him before bed. If he was enlightened, I reasoned, omnipotence wasn’t such a stretch.
My two encounters with Vijay, because of their scarcity, acquired a special weight. His absence only fastened the devotion to me; I wore it like a second skin. I knew not to say his name too loudly. Out of respect for him or fear of others I was never sure. I knew this because I had witnessed it: my mum talking through the kitchen flywire to our neighbours, invoking his name quietly and shrugging her shoulders. She would use his name in a sideways indictment of the Foundation’s direction: That’s not what Vijay was on about. Or she’d invoke him, like an oracle: Have they asked Vijay?
I would fall asleep terrified that I wouldn’t reach enlightenment in this lifetime. I never confessed this ambition to friends – it was a thing so sharply desired but, I feared, too embarrassingly out of step with their concerns – though in my diary I posed questions that betrayed my obsession. Dear Diary, I wrote, how can youth live more spiritually while balancing the demands of Western society? I read the diary now – this vast, weary question – stunned. I show it to friends as evidence of the person I used to be.
In explaining the Foundation to the friends I have made since leaving Warwick, I can’t help but skim the sides of melodrama. I hear myself call it a ‘cult’, and see their looks of curiosity, awe, of pity and indifference – I see shifting understandings in their eyes. Inevitably, though, my chorus of caveats rushes in: Well there were no rituals, I say. We could always leave and he never actually called himself a guru. But each retelling slickens the story. I leave these encounters at war with myself, yet again having failed to find the right words.
I knew I had come of age in a community that was self-consciously shrinking – that was, in the words of many of its members, not what it used to be. I knew that when I was born in 1991, Vijay had already retreated from the school and had started dividing his time between his Warwick house, where his wife at the time, Jill, still lived, and his house in Brisbane, where he had opened another office from which to counsel people. Eventually, he left Warwick and Brisbane altogether, though I was never told why. At the same time, neighbours of ours – whole families – moved away. I would wake up to discover a close friend had left with his family – small mutinies in the middle of the night.
Recently, I began contacting old friends who also grew up in the Foundation, Foundation members who still live in Warwick, and also ex-students of Vijay’s, a large number of whom wished to remain unidentified. Speaking with these ex-students in particular – former friends of my parents – felt both illicit and clarifying. Reaching out to them felt like a kind of pushback, in some small way, against secrecy, seriousness, all that silence.
THE ORIGINS OF the Foundation can be traced back to Bombay in 1916. This spiritual lineage begins with a young schoolboy, known then as Mani, studying at St Xavier’s College in Bombay (now Mumbai), who found himself drawn to a picture that hung in his friend’s hostel room. It was a portrait of renowned yogi, Paramahamsa Madhavdasji – a tall, stately man, one long stroke of muscle. In the few pictures I find of him his chest flares, dark robes falling freely to his knees. Veins run like rivulets across his hands, gently clasped at his front. There’s an expression of calm (there always is), white beard pluming all around. Most portraits of gurus seem to catch them in the dawn before a smile cracks, that look of eternal benevolence. Madhavdasji is cited as the yoga master responsible for bringing yoga down from the caves, where it had been the sole practice of yogis and mystics. He adapted the principles for the ‘householder’ so they could be practised alongside family and work and the material world.
Mani attended a public lecture where the yoga master was speaking. At this point Madhavdasji was said to be 118 years old; he had, by then, spent decades in solitude in the Himalayas and had emerged to pass on his knowledge. The story goes (and all I have is stories) that a single glance was exchanged between Mani and Madhavdasji. It was all that was needed for the guru-student bond to form. Until Madhavdasji’s death in 1921, Mani learnt all he could from the master. He went on to found The Yoga Institute – now recognised as the oldest organised centre of yoga in the world. Mani took the name Shri Yogendra (the title ‘Shri’ denoting reverence), although my whole life I’ve only known of him as Founder. There was a portrait of him hanging in a small corridor between two staff rooms at the Foundation’s school in Warwick.
In 1929, Founder and his wife Sita Devi Yogendra gave birth to their first son, Jayadev, on 27 April (we share the same birthday, a coincidence I treasured once as some kind of proof – of what I’m not sure, perhaps some diffuse sense that I was destined to be different). Jayadev completed his Masters and PhD at the Bombay University and succeeded his father’s position as president of The Yoga Institute. He is described as a ‘true guru’. Their second son, Vijayadev – Vijay – born a year later in 1930 – was a teacher and registrar at The Yoga Institute when Jill, a young woman from Melbourne, arrived for training.
It was tension headaches that brought Jill to the institute in Bombay. In the newspaper clipping from 1963 where I read this, she is pictured in a sari, her hair combed and pinned into a smooth beehive, eyebrows thin and arched. She wrote to the institute asking to study with them. They wrote back asking her to answer certain questions: How long can you sit with your eyes closed? It was a matter, she said, of gauging her willpower. She studied there for eight months: anatomy, physiology, Eastern philosophy, psychology, basic Hindi, yoga principles and ancient texts. She was the first Australian awarded The Yoga Institute’s certificate of training.
Vijay and Jill became engaged during her stay at the institute, Vijay promising to follow her to Australia as soon as his visa was organised.
These stories from the institute – all stories, really, to do with Vijay – are so misshapen with age that they bend to the will of whoever can be bothered to tell them.
One retelling someone gives me: Vijay was sent to Australia, had to get out of town. He was ‘a bit of a playboy’ and saw an opportunity to marry an Australian, to get, as one former student says, ‘the hell out of Dodge’. In Bombay, Vijay had come to be known as the rogue son of the revered Yogendra family. Another former student tells me that the family considered him ‘a loose cannon’ and referred to him, derogatively, as the ‘businessman of the family’. I am told that Founder, Vijay’s father, once said: ‘Vijay is not a yoga teacher, he’s a social worker.’ I can’t help but laugh at these peculiar insults. Where Jayadev is decorated in terms of humility (the institute’s website calls him ‘silent and sincere’, dedicated ‘to a life of discipline and simplicity’), Vijay is bound in dirtied shackles to this earth – decried for his business savvy and damned for his people skills.
WHEN VIJAY ARRIVED in Australia in 1964, he and Jill would rearrange the furniture in their apartment, put the folding bed away and teach yoga in their living room. Soon, Vijay taught yoga at the universities too – Monash, Melbourne and La Trobe – as well as at Pentridge Prison. Over time, he accrued a small following of devoted students. It wasn’t a fully formed thing yet, the Foundation, but soon this hum of constant activity – yoga classes, public lectures, seminars and workshops – demanded a name. In November 1970, an inaugural congress was held at Monash University, where a committee identified ‘a need in the community for a system of personal education based on guidelines for living’. They established the Foundation, with Vijay as its chairman, and set up their headquarters at The Yoga Centre in a turn-of-the-century mansion at 25 Chapel Street, St Kilda.
It’s tempting to place the Foundation neatly into the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. It was animated by the same desires: a rejection of that pesky parent culture, an undeniable pull towards anything with an Eastern ring. But the Foundation wasn’t freewheeling hippie love, crystals, hallucinogens or trekking through Nepal. It was discipline and service, and it was structured hope. No drugs, no alcohol. A friend of mine who also grew up in the Foundation, who was two years above me in the school, tells me this was the appeal for her dad: no robes, no chants, no pictures of Vijay. It was devotion unadorned, a pitch perfectly calibrated to a certain type of person: alternative but not hippie, intelligent but disillusioned. This was more than yoga for the householder, it was yoga for the Melburnian – mid-twenties, middle-class and adrift. The friend who tells me this has almost completed her PhD in Germany. When she visits, she is surprised I steer the conversation towards our childhood. None of my questions had occurred to her and I can’t help but feel slightly envious of her nonchalance, the spaciousness of her thoughts. My curiosity has only deepened with the passing years, growing out of small cracks in my devotion that first appeared when my brother, five years older than me, would return home from Brisbane for the weekend and tell me stories I thought were improbable: that Vijay always insisted on seat 1A whenever he travelled, that he leased Range Rovers and Jeeps and Volvos until he tired of them at which point he would call a student, gift them the car and the remainder of the lease. It is partly entitlement, my curiosity – I resent being the result of an experiment whose interiority I don’t fully know – and partly a rebellion against my own naivety, always the last of my friends to hear the rumours, and certainly the last to believe.
For the Foundation’s first ten years in Melbourne, from 1970 to 1980, it was a never-ending roster of self-development: seminars, lectures, symposia and workshops ran almost every month of the year. Their titles were ambitious: ‘Towards a Total Education’, ‘Guidelines for Healthy Living’ and ‘Total Relaxation Workshops’. The Foundation’s every activity sprang from the fundamental belief that ‘a person’s ability to serve the community is in direct proportion to his personal refinement. This process of refinement develops through a practical philosophy of serving, giving and caring for the needs of others.’ When Vijay gave public lectures on Friday nights it was hard to find a park on Chapel Street. They would set up a speaker system to reach everyone who had come to listen, people overflowing from the main hall sitting on stairways and in corridors.
The Foundation opened a ‘cultural department’, charged with promoting ‘those aspects of art, music and culture which reflect a more spiritual outlook on life’. They organised film festivals and held concerts in the Great Hall of the National Gallery to audiences of nine hundred. They formed a ‘department of health’ and opened a counselling centre staffed with psychologists and medical practitioners. They organised international congresses on ‘Mind-Made Disease’ and ‘Mind-Made Health’. But Vijay wanted most to open a school to implement his philosophy of ‘total education’. So he toured Japan and South-East Asia to observe similar institutions and to find scholars for their guest-teacher program.
It’s not until I find some old journals of the Foundation’s in the State Library of Queensland that I realise the true ambition of the Foundation when it first began. It was meant to be, in its own words, ‘a social welfare blueprint that rivals the Red Cross’. One journal is titled Background Information and another simply stamped Private & Confidential (with details of membership and financial structure, it fails to deliver on any promise of scandal). I spend a day with them, researching my own origin story, looking up at intervals out past the river to the cars shooting across the expressway. How strange, I think, to find this official account of the Foundation in such a public place. It always felt to me as though we existed outside of society, or within it but somehow separate. This us-and-them mentality came not from the illusion of the outside as enemy but from the feeling of being chosen.
Almost by accident, an old friend who also grew up in the Foundation describes this feeling when a few of us have dinner together. We’ve all moved to Melbourne now – the return trip our parents didn’t make – and when we catch up it feels nourishing, something in me relaxes. ‘I never thought other kids who weren’t in the Foundation were lesser than me…’ He pauses, as if unsure where he’s going. ‘But I did think I was better than them.’ The whole table laughs at the knot he’s created. But that’s exactly it, I think.
It was in the air, all the cues coming from our parents. Over dinner I tell the story of how I bumped into a former Foundation member at the cinema I used to work at in Brisbane. It took a few moments before we recognised each other; Greg had left when I was young. We reached for the obvious, talked about what it was like to leave. He told me he was surprised, in retrospect, that he didn’t leave sooner. We didn’t acknowledge the differences between us, that he chose to renounce Vijay and leave the Foundation while I left Warwick to go to university – a disavowal not so clearly articulated. When he was young, Greg chose to study yoga under Vijay and to move from Melbourne to Warwick. I was born into the Foundation, inheriting the decisions of my parents. ‘We were the vanguards,’ he told me that night, voice raised over the coffee grinder’s churning. ‘I can’t believe I really thought I was different to anyone else. Vijay made us feel chosen.’ His words caught me off guard. I’d heard something similar from my mum: they had felt like pioneers in a sense, prepared to work for less to make the school accessible to all. Though I’m told if Vijay sensed this quiet pride – any hint of superiority to the wider community – he would cut it straight down.
Growing up, my parents told stories from the early days in Melbourne like folklore. I heard about games of cards running late into the night at Vijay’s house, bushwalking and tennis on the weekends. I would imagine my parents and their friends (or does friends overstate it, especially back in those first years when they had simply been thrust together in thrall to the one vision?) sitting cross-legged and straight-backed with eyes shut, thin tartan blankets folded beneath them. I imagined wiry men standing on their heads and women in skivvies with their legs in the air. But I also understood from my parents’ stories what a commitment it was, how enormous the sacrifice. Working bees every weekend, I was told. Donating money if you could spare some. Endless gardening, cleaning and child-minding. This is how it was: Vijay put you to work. In the Foundation all time translated to service. And service was the route to spiritual refinement.
Because I’m the same age now as my parents were in those early years, I find the urge to draw parallels between our lives hard to resist. I spend my days working casually in a café and my weekends seeking brief transcendence. The texture of my life seems loose and lacklustre in comparison. I see the appeal in ready-made direction, a rigid structure corseting my days, purpose so colossal I’d have to submit to it.
I HAD HEARD about marriages in the Foundation, not arranged so much as suggested. People would see Vijay privately to request a list of people he thought they might match with. He was chairman turned clairvoyant. When I speak to former students of Vijay’s, they tell me similar things. One version: Vijay would tell people who to marry. Not in every case. But a lot of times people would go to him to ask for a yes or a no.
Another ex-student tells it this way: He would control people’s marriages. Control when you had kids and what names you gave them. The people in his inner circle gave him the remote control to their lives.
My parents were no exception. They had been dating for six weeks when they sought Vijay’s blessing to marry. They had both joined the yoga societies at their universities – Monash and Melbourne – then trained under Vijay before starting as teachers at the school. When the Foundation purchased another mansion at 12 Chapel Street in St Kilda, they helped transform the rundown premises into the Foundation’s new headquarters. ‘During the space of nine weeks,’ I read, ‘over twenty-thousand voluntary man-hours were expended on renovating the thirty-room Victorian mansion.’ This space would accommodate the Foundation’s headquarters and its various departments as well as the School of Total Education, which opened its doors in February 1977. Beyond the regular training under Vijay, teachers were given special training through his teacher development program to ‘increase their determination and capacity to sustain such qualities as patience, consistency and responsibility’, which was the essence of Vijay’s ethos of total education. The school had a student–teacher ratio of five to one ‘to enable full care and attention to be given to the children’. Parents volunteered in the school kitchen cooking hot lunches every day of the week, and the school only closed for one week in the year. Most importantly, though, there were no school fees. Its costs were ‘kept down with voluntary labour’.
I would beg to hear stories of the early days over and over again before bed when I was a child, thrilled to be let into my parents’ lives before I was born, just as I imagine they were humbled then by their closeness to Vijay, grateful to be lit and warmed by his flame. Photographs from this time are still stored in my parents’ hall cupboard in Warwick. In them children are draped over the wooden balustrade of a cubby house, or hang smiling from monkey bars, hands turning red. I feel a connection to those small faces in the brown-and-white chequered smocks that I wore too, years later. I wonder where they all are now, what they look like – nearly forty, even fifty years old – a random collection of people tossed into the world, the gamble of one man’s spiritual experiment.
Living now in Melbourne, I can’t help but indulge this invented connection. It possesses me at times. My boyfriend visits and we catch the tram out to St Kilda; I want to have something to show him, some proof. I have a vague idea of returning to where it all began, performing a kind of pilgrimage in miniature. Except I don’t know what I’m looking for, walking along Chapel Street with no feeling of return rising inside me. The weather today is confused, sunlight vying in patches with rain, so we find shelter in a bus stop where I think the old school mansion should be. But it’s high fences all around. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place, I think, and apologise to my boyfriend. There is nothing to see.
The journals I find in the library stop just before the Foundation migrated to Warwick in 1981, although they show me all the detailed plans for this new rural base. As I read my excitement falters; behind these journals hides a second document, a kind of ghostly twin. I see it in the plans that never eventuated, the elaborate sketches of the thousand-seat convention centre they intended to build. There are diagrams with red and brown and mustard texta filling different areas: an auditorium, offices, lecture rooms and a fully serviced dining room (‘which will be managed by well-qualified caterers who will be selective and careful in the preparation of the meals’). There was to be accommodation for seventy-five people, ‘a swimming pool, tennis courts, barbecue area, sauna, gymnasium, volley ball, putting green, squash court, table tennis, badminton, reading room and lounge room, horse riding’. But this centre would only be one part of a larger, sprawling rural development which would be home to the Foundation’s international headquarters, a school, a university, a rehabilitation unit, community housing projects, a healthcare centre and a hospital to treat psychosomatic disorders, and the headquarters for the World Federation of Life Sciences (a project that was in the works with the World Heath Organisation, according to the Foundation’s journals).
I’m floored by what could have been, these grand hopes, dutifully typewritten and bound. They wanted to put Warwick ‘on the world map’. With their development, they write, Warwick ‘will no longer be the Cinderella city of the Darling Downs’. This promise was so ambitious it was, from the outset, haunted by its inevitable breaking.
I CALL MICHAEL, a former student of Vijay’s who now lives in Brisbane. I am given his phone number by another ex-student of Vijay’s who intimates that if I’m looking to discover other stories about the Foundation, Michael will be happy to talk. We’ve never met: Michael left the Foundation in 1991, the year I was born. I have put off the call for as long as I can because I am worried my curiosity will seem quaint, my seeking childish. But on the phone I learn I’m not the only one: other people from the past have called him over the years, asking simply what really happened. He is brash, which is a relief, with none of the usual delicacy and sidestepping I’m used to. Throughout our conversation, he refers to Vijay as ‘Yogendra’, wielding the last name alone like a schoolyard taunt. His stories of the early years tumble out with a life of their own; my prompting is barely needed. It feels funny, at first, speaking with a stranger and yet sharing an intimate history. He is quick to tell me that by the end of his time with the Foundation he considered himself Vijay’s ‘number-one enemy’. Like all those who fell out with Vijay, he was known as anti – an almost-slur.
Michael got involved the way most people did – through the yoga society at his university. But in 1974 he left to travel overseas for four years, and visited Vijay’s father at The Yoga Institute (something Vijay had always warned against without providing reason). ‘In Bombay I had Founder’s books and I carried them with me and studied them and wrapped them up in some Indian cloth to teach myself about yoga and do practices.’ He asks me if I’m familiar with Cat Stevens, but before I have time to answer, he says, ‘Well I was on the road to find out.’ This portrait he’s creating is almost a caricature – a cliché of the 1970s – but he knows it and there’s fondness in his voice, a tenderness towards his younger self.
When he and his then wife, Kris, returned to Melbourne in 1979 they found their friends gone. They hadn’t moved away but had moved up – now with houses and careers. They’d spent those four years differently, leveraged themselves. ‘We had no roots,’ he tells me. So they visited Vijay at The Yoga Centre on Chapel Street. When they told Vijay about visiting the institute in Bombay, both Michael and Kris were sent straight to Vijay’s first training group. There were three training groups in total, which became a rough outline of the rings of hierarchy that formed within the Foundation. The training wasn’t just yoga and meditation. Far from just anything, it strove for ‘total integration’ for the individual: mind, body and spirit. Students would attend weekly sessions where they could ask questions of Vijay, dipping into his extraordinary knowledge. It was a privilege for Michael and Kris to go straight to the first training group. (No doubt feathers were ruffled, he admits, but who would ever say anything?) Vijay was taking them under his wing, keeping them close.
With the school at the centre of the Foundation’s focus, and with Vijay’s insistence on no fees, the Foundation needed to fundraise. They started a small bakery called the Old Style Bread Centre in Ashburton. Certain individuals, those with more money, would also ‘regularly contribute some portion of their earnings towards the Foundation’s needs’. I learn from Michael that the wages within the Foundation were more controlled than I thought: married couples only got one wage (the wife, I’m told, would forfeit), though with each child you got a ‘boost’. Aside from that, everyone who worked in the Foundation got the same amount – from the principal of the school to its cleaners, from the doctors to the bakers.
Not all the plans went smoothly. There were wrong turns and false starts. Vijay tried to establish another School of Total Education in Mount Eliza but, in the end, there wasn’t enough support or funding to keep it running. In these dead-ends I can see the outline of a different legacy: a constellation of schools working with the same ethos of total education perhaps afforded legitimacy in numbers, something more akin to Steiner or Montessori. The school wouldn’t have been a one-off experiment. Eighty people moving to a remote location fifteen hundred kilometres away from their families might have raised fewer eyebrows.
IT WAS DURING one of the Monday training sessions with Vijay that he made the announcement. He had been on a Ferris wheel at the Royal Melbourne Show, he told the group, and had had a vision of Melbourne in flames. They would start looking for a new base for the Foundation in case of nuclear war. In April 1978, they purchased 834 acres at Leongatha in South-East Gippsland (and named it Gaurishankar, meaning ‘hillock of peace’), though they later sold the land owing to ‘the obvious distrust within that community of the Foundation’s objectives and motives’. I had discovered this reading the journals. It is not a story I’d been told before; it cedes too much ground to the outside. When I ask Michael about the property he offers another version of this story: during one Monday evening training group, a student alerted Vijay to the presence of an aerial close to their Leongatha farm. The aerial, called Omega and standing at 432 metres, was the largest man-made tower in Australia. It was popularly believed to be a transmission navigation system commissioned by the US government. In the event of nuclear war that area would be hit first, the Foundation reasoned. This strikes me as fantasy; I’m struggling to meet this logic with seriousness, but Michael is quick to remind me that the threat of nuclear war was felt then by everyone. So they sold Gaurishankar, and looked around for other rural bases. In another Monday night meeting, with meditation done and the lights back on, Vijay made the announcement: the Foundation would relocate to Warwick in Queensland. The general reaction, I’m told, was: Where?
Vijay and Jill and their three children moved first in 1981 along with a few select families. The remaining students kept the school going in Melbourne, waiting for their invitation to join. It was a matter of patience. But everyone wanted to be close to Vijay in Warwick and once he had made the move they couldn’t help feeling as though they were missing out on the action, as though they had been left behind. My parents finally got the call in October 1986. They drove up that Christmas with Jamie, who was just four months old at the time.
‘But why Warwick?’ I ask Michael, telling him that I thought the Foundation had moved to escape the distractions of inner-city living. He tells me Vijay had a connection with a man named Colonel David Hackworth. Not a friendship exactly, but a line of communication. Hackworth was a highly decorated war hero, and later a critic of the Vietnam War, who was said to have come across some US military intelligence – ‘busted into the Pentagon’, Michael tells me – that pointed to South-East Queensland as the safest place in a nuclear holocaust, and had moved to the Gold Coast himself. There’s incredulity in Michael’s voice, but he assures me this is what they were told at the time. I hear some movement in the background and Michael trails off. He has to go, he says. ‘My wife just came home and she doesn’t want to hear me talk about this stuff anymore. Call me again tomorrow and we’ll finish the story.’
I WAKE UP to a text from Michael. ‘Call me back if you would like to hear the rest of the story.’ I sense it is early; the light around the edges of my curtains is weak. I wait an hour, and call.
Development of the Foundation’s rural base in Warwick began in 1981. On their new land – a hill on the outskirts of town – they built the school, at first just one hexagonal building (as it stands now, the school is six buildings arranged in a hexagon). On the same property they started building three enclaves of houses: Chapel Court, Freestone Court and the East Street units. Next was the farm, twenty minutes out of town, where Vijay and Jill and their three children would live in the big house (it needed to be large, my mum explained to me once, to accommodate international dignitaries). Those closest to Vijay – a sort of unofficial inner circle – bought into the farm property and joined him there. Families on the farm would often share houses, and be moved around at Vijay’s whim.
But the school couldn’t run on vision or sacrifice alone (the teachers were already working for less than minimum wage). Again bakeries were set up, as well as MediHerb, a supplier of herbal supplements. A friend of mine who grew up on the farm recalls how he would set his alarm for 6 am so he could join the adults picking echinacea for MediHerb before school. To him it wasn’t work; it was a special privilege.
Michael runs me through these early developments in one long breath, but stops abruptly – starts laughing – as he remembers something. They had established a deli in downtown Warwick and Vijay had a magnificent dome built into its roof. It was made of stained glass, tessellating triangles in mauve and turquoise and royal blue. No matter the angle of the sun, Michael tells me, it would stream through the glass dome and turn the inside of the deli into a small furnace. The tubs of ice cream underneath stood no chance. But of course – he’s relishing this, I can tell – no one was willing to question Vijay’s design. It was easier to run the air-conditioning twenty-four seven to stop the melting, which – his voice cracking with disbelief – is what they did.
The school struggled. The economic depression of the 1980s winded the businesses the Foundation had set up to fund the school. When, in 1988, the receivers came in and took over a number of them, Vijay enlisted Michael to restructure the Foundation’s finances and resurrect the school. Michael had ‘money-making genes’ according to Vijay. (Vijay had even once said that having Michael around was ‘better than someone giving him one million dollars’.) Vijay passed his secretary over to Michael to help with the restructure. ‘I wrote down a list of thirty-six things,’ Michael says, ‘that needed solving and if we solved these things we’d survive.’ He turned first to the school. Five hot meals a week became two. The student–teacher ratio became twelve to one and school fees were introduced for the first time. Perhaps, Vijay reasoned, only those families from outside the Foundation would pay fees. Michael insisted that everyone pay, but that they would consider exceptional cases. He also made sure that teachers were on award wages. He even had Vijay agree to a wage.
‘What was he doing before that?’ I ask.
‘What do you think?
I’m embarrassed that I have to ask. Of course I get the implication, but I want to be told. I want to make someone tell me. In that moment Michael becomes a stand-in for every adult in the Foundation. I feel my usual warmth curdling into something bitter, an entitlement. An urge I didn’t know existed – to hold someone accountable.
‘Just dipping into it whenever he needed.’
Only once in his twelve years in the Foundation did Michael witness a more vulnerable side to Vijay. Vijay called him one day from a pay phone. He had pulled over at Aratula on his way from Warwick to Brisbane, struck with a need to confess his feelings of failure. The community he had envisioned wasn’t thriving, as he’d promised his students. He felt like a disappointment.
Michael seemed grateful for this glimpse of the human – it was the only time it happened, he said – but hearing this stirs a discomfort in me. It’s an image I’d rather not have. (Like a parent, drunk.) But isn’t this what I’ve come looking for? A moment of humility, a snapping of the sacred into something real?
There was still the issue of staff wages. Seeing a surplus of doctors in the group, Michael and a group of other Foundation businessmen suggested establishing a 24-hour medical practice in nearby Toowoomba. The plan was for the profits from the medical practice to go into the account used to pay the school wages. Vijay told him, though, after the practice began making money, that the funds were going into another account entirely. ‘That’s when I found out Yogendra had opened another account,’ he says. ‘It was for him to spend as he wanted. And that’s when I went toe to toe with him.’
But there is no going toe to toe with a guru, not really. The dynamic thrives on imbalance; there is simply no room for criticism or feedback. Vijay told Michael that no one was to know about his account; the impression would remain that the money was still going to the school. As soon as Michael challenged this, he was no longer needed. ‘I got the chop,’ he tells me. This breach was too great for Michael; it betrayed his idea of what Vijay was meant to be – a true guru.
‘When you leave you become pariah-ed,’ Michael says. ‘People wouldn’t talk to you. You could be walking the headland at Noosa National Park and pass some of your best friends from the Foundation and they wouldn’t look at you.’
Michael knew there was no easy proof that Vijay was in control of the Foundation’s money; he wasn’t named as the legal owner of any of the accounts. Instead, he had nominated those closest to him to act as discretionary trustees of accounts where he was the beneficiary. Frustrated that his efforts to resurrect the school had been thwarted, Michael used his access to Vijay’s office to photocopy documents – trust deeds for the farm property on which Vijay’s name was listed – and ‘stashed them away for a rainy day’.
That rainy day came when two former Foundation members claimed Vijay had promised them 10 per cent of MediHerb, which was by then worth a lot money. In 1992, this claim went into court-ordered mediation in the Federal Court.
Michael and his secretary produced sworn witness statements describing their time in the Foundation. As a former director of MediHerb, Michael’s statement corroborated the claim to 10 per cent equity. These statements were presented at mediation for Vijay to read. Knowing they would be made public if the matter ever went to trial, Vijay offered to settle. The Foundation paid a large sum equivalent to the value of the equity as well as legal costs. The whole process took almost eighteen months.
It was the first time a complaint against Vijay couldn’t be dealt with in-house, couldn’t be countered with claims of spiritual misunderstanding. The closed world of the Foundation was no longer intact; it had been infiltrated by outside forces. Vijay’s defence: he didn’t have the right to give anyone 10 per cent because he wasn’t legally an owner of MediHerb. The idea was, Michael tells me, that ‘he was a simple guru and didn’t own anything’. There’s a satisfaction, and a sadness, in seeing the logic of the group exposed
to the harsh light of the outside world. No one – not gurus, not yogis – is above the law. Michael’s witness statement included the documents from Vijay’s office that he had stashed away that tied Vijay to the farm property and to considerable wealth.
Michael was on a crusade. By way of explanation, he says to me, ‘I’m not someone who lets things go.’ Vijay was now living in Brisbane, running parenting-education workshops from an office in Taringa. ‘We’d go and follow him around. We’d stake out where he was and try to find out where he lived. He was a paranoid man and I fed his paranoia. I’d send letters to everyone in the street saying he’s an evil man.’ Michael confesses that he graffitied the side of Vijay’s office building. We both laugh at the image of a grown man with a spray can, but I think I hear a self-consciousness.
‘When you’re up against one hundred people that hate you,’ he says, ‘and are trying to destroy you in other ways…and that was when my marriage was ending…’
I cut him off, tell him I understand. And in some ways, I do – that urge to muddy the pristine, to yell back out into the silence, choose obscenity over euphemism.
TO REACH WARWICK I drive inland from Brisbane, winding the window down through Cunninghams Gap to feel the air sharpen, to hear the whipbird’s call. Whenever I cross the range I remember Warwick’s distance from city and sea. The sense of being geographically estranged, of living deep within the dustiness of the country, returns. Once I’m on the other side of the range, mountains shrink in the rear-view. I leave the wet snap of the rainforest behind and almost instantly fields of dry grass close in on either side, bristling in the wind. Dust appears on the windscreen as I drive into the sun. The last moments of sunlight stain the whole land.
I drive all the way up to my parents’ house, the house that I grew up in on the Foundation’s property. From our hill, the small town centre is a patchwork of red and cream roofs by day and a brush of dim lights in a valley at night. I park on a patch of land where there was once an above-ground pool and where the grass now grows unevenly. This visit home is long overdue, but I steal a moment to myself before going inside. Our house is one of the units built as accommodation for Foundation members back in the early ’80s. The houses were scattered around the school, forming a sprawling, fenceless community. All the units were built to be mirror images of one another: every kitchen dressed in timber, lino and laminate; each a different shade of brown; each with walls of russet brick, rattan ceiling fans and cast-iron fireplaces. But over the years our homes have sunk into idiosyncrasy. One neighbour whitewashed her bricks and fireplace to chase the dark from her house. Another laid imitation parquetry all throughout. Some grew gardens to eke out a portion of privacy. Mandarin, lemon and orange blossom trees run the lengths of would-be yards, waves of jasmine wedged between homes.
I look out to the gazebo and basketball court, the cubby houses and the old gums, all nested inside this fortress of houses. I try to fend off my nostalgia but it’s as if I’m under siege. Small memories ambush me: the hose waiting serpent-like in the sandpit, filling with water, its head rearing in angry dance. Or the wisteria falling onto the green shade cloth, doubling like contagion and slowly rotting. I remember the pool and the deep wobbling groan as we swung ourselves over its flimsy sides, how we would race to lie down on the nearby basketball court. I remember the silence as we pressed our ears against the hot cement, the sound of our own insides, hearts as frenzied as the ants on the cratered surface. With one eye we would watch their vanishing tricks, dipping in and out of cracks unfazed. Patches of wet would bloom like inkblots underneath our bottoms and chests, and we would laugh at these large, busty versions of ourselves.
Mum is clearing the table and Dad is re-stoking the fire when Paul, my parents’ neighbour, drops in. ‘You can always hear when Rosie’s home,’ he says, not to me, but to the whole room, sliding the door shut behind him. My whole life neighbours would arrive like apparitions at our front door, one foot already inside. Knocking was a formality done away with long ago. Paul’s blue jumper is faded and spattered with white paint. I know he finished painting his bedroom last year, but I imagine he doesn’t mind the way his jumper looks. Over the years I watched his singlets shred slowly in the wind on the clothesline between our adjoining houses. I imagine he still wears them in silent protest against the material world.
‘Lasagne?’ Mum asks from the stove. ‘There’s a bit left.’
‘No thanks, Jude.’
Tonight food is an afterthought. Paul has a way of making everything seem frivolous. His body is wiry, shrinking from his clothes, but there is a warmth to him, and I am always glad to see him. He sits across from me at the table and curled in the dip of his torso is Max, his Maltese with small, weeping eyes.
‘So you want to know about Vijay?’ he asks. I realise now that Mum has already mentioned to him my renewed interest in the Foundation. Maybe it was a forewarning, I think, giving him time to consider his answers.
I backtrack instantly. ‘Well, there are certain gaps I’d like to fill.’ I think about where to go from here – how to start over, my way. ‘I just want to know more about how you got involved.’ I gather the last bits of lasagne on my plate together on my fork, adding, ‘Or, why you got involved.’ This is far harder than I had imagined, broaching it all so directly; I can’t help but feel that my curiosity is a reproach.
Paul smirks and I realise he enjoys this. He senses his value to me has newly tripled. ‘You know, I think I was depressed in my early twenties,’ he says, taking off his glasses and rubbing the corners of his eyes. ‘We were all fumbling in the dark, even though I didn’t know it then.’
‘We weren’t all depressed, Paul,’ Mum jumps in. She walks over to us from the kitchen, spoon in hand, ready to play umpire.
‘No,’ Paul says, ‘but I think Vijay helped get me out of my head, stopped me from being so introspective by putting me to work.’
I hear this from others, that he had a job for everyone. And that if you had come to Vijay for a specific reason – whether it was to quit gambling or stop drinking or to get out of your own head – you felt obligated to him. But it didn’t feel like a burden, you wanted to give back. As soon as he’d put people on the right path, Michael had told me on the phone, ‘he had some sort of hold over them’.
Dad crouches by the fire. I hear him exhale slowly over the small flames. He relaxes into sitting cross-legged, his back turned to us, and begins sweeping old ash from the fireplace trim with his fingers. Perhaps he’s glad to have an excuse to avoid another Foundation conversation.
‘But you don’t really consider yourself a part of the Foundation anymore, right?’ I ask Paul. Without even realising it I’m balancing my chair on its back legs and gripping the lip of the table with one hand, summoning a teen brashness to diffuse the moment.
‘Well, you’re right. I just found that there were certain people who took the Foundation in a different direction after Vijay left,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to be a part of that.’ For a moment Max comes to life, his frail legs navigating a new position on Paul’s uneven lap.
I remember Paul showing Mum the letter he’d written to the Foundation board outlining why he was leaving. He still followed Vijay, he made sure to note, but no longer wanted to be part of the Foundation. He wouldn’t be coming to the meetings anymore. The two of them talked it over for hours – Mum on a stool behind the kitchen bench and Paul leaning his thin frame against the door, opening and closing it for the dog to pass through. The only conversations worthy of eavesdropping – I knew this as a child – were had by the door. There was something about that threshold, a sense of urgency with Paul forever on the cusp of leaving, that turned conversations candid.
I’M TRYING TO figure out what makes a cult. It’s a term I’ve never felt comfortable applying to the Foundation. When do altruistic movements or support groups tip over into something else? When do hierarchies harden? When does the chairman become guru? It has something to do with charisma, but also reverence and its silent shift from ideal to person. And it’s about a balance of power so lopsided that balance becomes a misnomer. These are hints but their presence alone is no guarantee. I start to think of it as a style of attachment: dependent, narrow and sacrificial. But it is also a logic so elastic it never breaks. Cults don’t say sorry, they explain away. They’re about conviction; they’re about certainty.
At night I gorge on cult content: podcasts, documentaries and TV series that each map the lifespan of a different cult, their heydays and grizzly ends. Sleep thins when I need it most. But I emerge from my binges almost nauseous. Bored, too, by the same formula: charismatic leader with a vision, remote location, abuse of power, whole lives derailed. I play a kind of bingo as I watch. See how bad, how scandalous these gurus were? I’m picking my way through the wreckage of cults and trying to hide my relief at how different the Foundation was: there was no Kool-Aid, no matching outfits. At the end of these stories there is usually a moment about the cult as it exists now – its second life. In some other remote area, core membership has either dwindled or been largely replaced. Injured, they limp on.
I discover that some former Foundation members commune in corners of the internet. One of these blogs is called Guruphiliac, a site dedicated to ‘Revealing Self-Aggrandizement and Superstition in Self-Realization since 2005’. I find in these comments – written between 2007 and 2017 – a slow war waged between the damaged and the slightly less damaged:
4/02/2011 6.41am: …I do not believe that anyone should set themselves up as higher than everyone else. And this man did, as I know to my personal and sorrowful cost.
4/05/2012 6.37am: …just because someone likes quality products doesn’t make them greedy or corrupt.
7/02/2015 5.11am: I see clearly now and breathe relaxed away from the insular community… But oh there is life on the other side and there are great people living honestly and spiritually great and all the rest that that community arrogantly think only they do. Silly people who would be ok if they left others alone but they affect badly and are judgmental so I here relieve myself of upset that lingers and dump on those foundation members back.
This breathless phrasing enters me and does not leave: dump on those foundation members back. I say it to myself, slip briefly into borrowed rage.
I TAKE MY parents’ dog for a walk, winding through the units, across the oval to the school and up to Chapel Court, which has by now been mostly gutted of Foundation members. Non-Foundation members now live in a majority of these houses. Although the Foundation still exists, it no longer has the same solid physical presence or wide reach it once had. The school has undergone a similar process of reorientation. It’s still running, but its teachers aren’t all associated with the Foundation, and a majority of the children are also from the outside. Personal development and spiritual refinement are still the Foundation’s focus, with lectures and yoga retreats running every now and then, but as the core membership ages, their energy and commitment has waned. The Foundation doesn’t monopolise people’s lives as it once did. My mum tells me, the Foundation doesn’t really mean what it used to mean.
Growing up, though, I knew the names of every family in every house; I knew each dog by its bark. As children we would roam this whole block of land, the houses, the school, the ovals, the scraps of bushland in between, sensing in our periphery a circuitry of adults looking out for us. It was safe, untouched by the outside. What we had was wonderful, unique. In these moments I echo Kate’s final letter: I feel so blessed. As a child, I planned to never leave the Foundation. If I thought of a future outside, I felt all meaning leach from my life. Our little world was suffused with importance, illuminated from within, and by comparison life on the outside seemed dull and pointless.
I walk and I look and I tally my losses: tree houses barricaded and a wooden swing set without swings, its ropes tied high. Hedges shorn back and bushes pruned to attention. Everywhere I look monuments from my childhood have been ransacked by time. Coming home means meeting my memories in their new, gnarled forms. Today I am tender and I do nothing to stop it. I want the Foundation to remain frozen in time before the split between Vijay and Jill, before Vijay left with Kate for Port Douglas, and before their deaths. I want to cordon it off in my memory, make a time capsule of it. I feel something close to nostalgia. But it’s different still, I think: it feels as though I’m mourning something that wasn’t what I thought it was.
I stand still in the middle of the road, hoping the dog will emerge from one of the bushes. Somewhere in the distance a twig snaps. I smell smoke in the air, first fire of the evening. How can the arrangement of a peach tree, a slab of cement and a bush of basil make you want to cry? And the smell of rain on sun-soaked bitumen, how can that claim a whole afternoon of your thoughts? This place is so potent it summons old devotion. I entertain it for a while; it’s easy comfort. A car drives past me into the cul-de-sac. It’s going too fast, I think; it’s disturbing the peace. My nostalgia makes a nark of me.
I ALWAYS VISIT Brian, another neighbour, when I return to Warwick. He lives in a house about ten metres from my parents’. He’s been many things to me over the years: a teacher, neighbour and friend – he was even, for a brief stint, my driving instructor. He’s sitting alone at his table eating honey chicken from a takeaway container when I arrive. He beckons me inside before I have a chance to knock. ‘Good to see you back, Rose,’ he says, pushing a chair out from under the table with his foot.
I ask him about the early days of the Foundation, back in Melbourne. ‘In those days Vijay didn’t tell people what to do,’ Brian tells me. Behind us, someone closes the door to the hallway. Brian raises his eyebrows. Maybe his housemate is tired of these conversations. That’s the overwhelming feeling I get, that people here are done talking, that I’ve arrived years late to the scene. Brian lives with two other single men – all in their sixties and still working in various ways for the school, as cleaners or groundsmen or teachers. Their household, I realise, is a vestige of the early days before most students coupled off and began families, when the men and the women all lived in separate ‘yoga houses’ scattered in the orbit of the Chapel Street school in Melbourne.
‘Before the Foundation started, before 1970, he wasn’t like a leader in the way that people found him down the track,’ Brian says. ‘He’d only ever suggest stuff. His knowledge was unreal.’
So many times I’ve heard this or something similar – how tremendous Vijay was at speaking, how you couldn’t help but stand when he entered a room. Even those who have left admit: he had gifts. Perhaps it’s firsthand witness I’m after, so that I might have something more than my experience of living inside the architecture of devotion that rose around him.
I’m visiting in my pyjamas and I’ve brought my mug of tea from home. This is what I miss, I think, the sense that every house is an extension of your own.
‘Why do you think people were so attracted to the group back then?’ I ask.
‘Different reasons,’ Brian says. ‘You joined the Foundation for service. But you were also there to develop and experience your innateness.’ Brian calls this the ‘double message’ of the Foundation. ‘The majority of people who came to the group were in need of something,’ he says. ‘Reassurance, guidance, to work on insecurities.’
‘What were you in need of?’ My voice catches on the bluntness of my question.
‘Well, I was struggling with my guitar playing,’ he says. ‘One of my flatmates said, “Go to this Indian guy and he’ll teach you how to relax.”’ We both laugh, shocked at how something so offhand could so radically alter his life.
Brian tells me that Vijay wanted to show people a middle path. Some place in between a yogi’s ascetic ways and the materialism of the West. ‘And that’s what’s ironic,’ Brian laughs through a mouthful of rice, ‘because we attracted a group of fanatical people to a middle path.’ Having grown up around them, it’s easy to picture the types Brian’s referring to; thin beardy men in poses of listening, walking slowly, hands held behind bowed backs. Or the women, demure in their many beiges, baking brownies for the suppers.
I confess to Brian my small envy, how I can’t help but feel a footnote in all this. Melbourne for me existed as a kind of fabled motherland. He doesn’t rush to comfort me.
‘Well Vijay was a magnet,’ Brian says, ‘an absolute magnet, Rose. In the ’70s idealism was still fashionable and the Foundation was still on an upward trajectory.’ He wipes his hands on a serviette and leans back in his chair. ‘All that other stuff – people having negative experiences and things like that – that happened much further down the track.’ His eyes are small and they stay fixed on me the whole time we talk. Really, the stories I seek lie loaded in his parenthesis. Negative experiences and things like that.
I wonder, though, if he even knows these stories, if my parents do. I imagine them caught between the inner circle and those who were anti. Never falling out over money because they never had any. Never close enough to be burnt by the flame. For them it wasn’t about knowing, it was about not needing to know; it was about trusting all the same.
BRIAN CALLS THE next day to arrange lunch. I look up to his house, searching for movement behind the glass. We arrange to meet downtown at the Cherry Tree café.
We order the same thing – a Hawaiian open sandwich – and both comment on how very Warwick the order is. Even after almost twenty years, Brian hasn’t shed the feeling of being an outsider. I feel the same even though I was born here. I’ve never felt like a local. I remember walking around town as a teenager aware that everyone knew from my uniform that I came from ‘the community on the hill’.
‘I feel like the Foundation was crumbling right in front of me as I grew up,’ I say. ‘I had a sense of its shrinking. Families would leave without saying goodbye, but I had no idea why any of it was happening.’
Brian nods his head exaggeratedly as if to say, no one knew. I tell him that I want to find out what really happened. I want to overlay it with my childhood and note the points of asymmetry.
‘Why did Vijay leave Warwick?’ I ask.
‘We were told,’ Brian says, leaning in as though he’s about to deliver a punch line, ‘it was part of his tradition. You know, he had to leave his wife and children so that he could meditate alone.’ He rolls his eyes and then, for a second, looks around the café. I think how hard it must be to leave behind the habit of cautiousness: the fear of being overheard and it getting back to Vijay.
Brian tells me that the third stage of life in Hinduism is Vanaprastha, or the hermit in retreat. ‘You renounce all material and worldly endeavours and go into the forest to be in prayer and meditate,’ he says.
‘Right,’ I say. I have a faint memory of being told Vijay needed to be alone for the next part of his life. This was in 1999. Those left in the Foundation were told he was retiring; they weren’t told where he was going. It was custom; it wasn’t questioned. Then, Brian explains, someone saw an ad in the Yellow Pages for a new wellbeing centre in Port Douglas. ‘Slowly people found out Vijay was behind it. That’s how I found out he was in Port Douglas,’ he says. I hear other versions later: an electrician who worked at Vijay’s Port Douglas home reported back to the Foundation. Or Vijay’s former right-hand man simply went searching for him online.
‘Then at the school graduation later that year, Vijay sent each student a copy of his new book.’ Brian wipes his lips with his hands – he’s taking his time with this. ‘The book was dedicated to Kate, his new wife.’
Everyone knew of Kate. She had started working as Vijay’s secretary at his Brisbane office. After two years of mediation, the settlement, and with Michael’s crusade against him, Vijay had moved to Port Douglas and Kate had gone with him. The dedication to Kate in the book was, Brian tells me, how they found out about the split between Vijay and Jill.
‘And that’s when people started taking sides,’ Brian says. ‘Jill wasn’t seen around the school after that.’ A friend later tells me something different: once those left in power knew Vijay had divorced Jill, they asked her to leave.
I SPEND MY last evening in Warwick at another neighbour’s house. I’ve known Vicky my whole life – but when we sit across from each other on the couch, my usual sense of ease vanishes. I had imagined us chatting over tea, sitting on stools maybe, the incidental nature of the set-up somehow giving way to new depth. I had imagined my little roster of questions unspooling into a great tell-all. The type of encounter I had in mind seems possible with these surrogate-aunt figures, connections that are familial without being fraught. Of course it doesn’t happen this way. I am seized by something, my whole body blushing, and the lone lamp in the corner with its stubborn circle of light makes the nature of my enquiry feel like an interrogation.
Vicky tells me Vijay’s death in 2005 set the Foundation adrift. Even though he had been physically absent, the Foundation still deferred to him unquestioningly for guidance. She describes the following years as ‘a wandering’. ‘It wasn’t clear what the future was going to be,’ she says. ‘We’d lost the guiding light and the firm hand on the tiller.’ She runs a hand through her hair as she talks. ‘Nobody knew what to do or where to take the work. It was a time when people were tired – burnt out and tired.’
Vicky tells me she was invited to join the Foundation in Warwick the same year my parents were. Like them, she is one of the few Melbourne originals left. Most original members who came to disavow Vijay returned to Melbourne; others simply made new homes in Brisbane or Toowoomba. Michael had told me that his family’s home in Brisbane became a kind of halfway house for people who had left – even the people that were once ‘real hard-core rusted on’. They’d come around and apologise for ignoring them years earlier.
To my eyes, my parents and Vicky and Paul and Brian are buckling under the growing weight of their past, and also under the heaviness of what was meant to be, the Foundation’s future that never quite was.
I want to know if there was ever the expectation that the children would continue the work of the Foundation; I ask Vicky this question directly.
‘I think there certainly was at the beginning,’ she says. ‘I think it was partly expectation and partly hope.’ Almost no Foundation children stay in Warwick or return after university. There’s a sliding scale of sympathies among us. Some make the trip back to Warwick every so often, eat lunch at the school and help in the kitchen, attend lectures or yoga retreats. Though others – the bulk of us – don’t. I wonder if this feels to my parents and their friends like a failed investment.
Vicky tells me how attractive the ideals of the school seemed to her back then. ‘But I had no idea at that time,’ she says, ‘what else I was getting involved in.’ We both laugh; it feels like a laugh you allow yourself once safe on the other side. I wonder if she’s talking about shifting her family from Melbourne to Warwick, but also unwittingly involving herself in the culture of fanaticism that grew around Vijay. ‘I think a lot of us were looking for a father,’ she says, the edges of her mouth dropping back into seriousness. ‘Because a lot of us had distant fathers, or not very involved fathers.
We all want to be inspired by people doing amazing things.’ She shakes her head slightly. ‘But,’ she speaks as if she’s interrupting herself, ‘that sense that somebody could read you, somehow I find that really reassuring. I can remember Vijay saying in my interview, “I can see that you really care about your children,” and I thought, “Oh nobody’s ever said anything like that to me before. He knows who I am!”’
What a blessing: to be seen, your true essence glimpsed and accepted. But this blessing holds within it a small store of sadness. It’s the sadness of giving in to this measuring, giving over every part of yourself. No more patches of darkness.
I ask Vicky how she first found out about Vijay and the school. ‘Through a friend,’ she says. Her answers are matter-of-fact. I let the silence linger, hoping it will coax something else from her. ‘I wanted to send my kids to the school, but you had to persist because lots of people made enquiries but didn’t follow them up,’ she says. Vicky made phone calls whenever she could, patiently waiting to be seen. It took a couple of years of calling and calling before she even got an interview. The waiting, Vicky tells me, was a way to weed out the people who weren’t serious. She smiles, leaning forward: ‘That was a very typical Vijay strategy.’
Vijay had a knack, many people tell me, for finding people’s sore spots. An ex-student tells me, ‘He would interfere in your life and then see how you react and reflect.’ On the Foundation’s website an anonymous post explains the role of spiritual teacher, and why those who left had failed to understand their own ongoing role as students:
A teacher tests a student in many ways to find out his or her true motivation, and to knock off some of the sharp edges of their personality. The student who perseveres or endures being humbled in this way, will eventually blossom, being freed from aspects of their own egotistical desires… But in some cases Vijay’s challenge to a student’s egoism alienated them, despite his devotion to their spiritual progress.
Humbling and blossoming, egoism and spiritual progress: familiar phrases (I’ve heard them my whole life) now emptied of all sense. When I read this passage I feel as though I have lost my mother tongue. This is the crux of the guru–student relationship: this great imbalance, this one-way dialogue. If students questioned something Vijay had done or said then it reflected back on their own progress. It revealed a misunderstanding on their part. Inside this logic Vijay could do no wrong. It can accommodate everything. It asks for total surrender. Over time it sank in so deep it infected people’s self-evaluation: I’m still missing the point, you tell yourself, I still have so much to learn. Perhaps trusting so totally in him and his devotion to their spiritual progress meant, for a lot of Vijay’s students, losing faith in themselves. As if their sense of self, or at the very least their self-esteem, had been eroded.
Even writing this I feel something tighten around my authorial freedom – a sense of duty, still. To some I imagine this essay of mine is bitter, missing the point, anti even. How hard it is to purge this thinking, to finally lose the logic of the Foundation. Over everything I say or write hangs a paranoia that they will give me a diagnosis of misunderstanding. I worry they will claim to see me more clearly than I see myself. This is the wonder of feeling seen, flipped. Their truth smothering yours.
I am trying to find the borders in my thinking: where the devotion ends and independent thinking begins. This feels impossible. How do the paranoid ever find steady footing? I either worry I border on harshness (neglecting the true altruism at the core of Vijay’s vision) or that my treatment is still too generous. This is the final stronghold the Foundation has on my thinking.
IT’S MY LAST day in Warwick and Brian comes to say goodbye. He sits on a wooden stool as I potter around the kitchen. I tell him the story of bumping into Greg at the cinema. I tell him how easily Greg talked about leaving and how he couldn’t believe he hadn’t done it earlier. Brian’s tone sounds defensive.
‘When Greg talks about the group, it’s going to be coloured by his negativity,’ he says. ‘All these people who have had bad experiences, I feel sorry that they haven’t been able to stay the course long enough to get a deep conviction about what their lives are about in relation to the group.’ And there, in Brian’s response, I think I can see it: after devotion, after resentment, some middle ground.
‘So they’re blaming Vijay for misleading them,’ he says. ‘They’re accusing him or they’re damning him, which can lead to bitterness. And that’s not a good place to be.’
I want to say that Greg didn’t seem bitter. He seemed incredulous. He seemed like someone who had finally realised how far off course he’d veered. Brian and Greg are bound still by the same belief – that they are the more enlightened ones, that they are following the right path.
‘It’s much better to step back from it,’ Brian says, ‘to try to take your own ego out of the picture.’
‘What were you told when Vijay died?’ I ask. I move to open the fridge, as if this will somehow distract from the seriousness of my question.
‘Well, we were told it was to do with the spider bite,’ Brian says. In his voice I think I hear understanding.
I remember Mum telling me Vijay had died. A week passed before she told me that Kate had died too. I was thirteen and my notion of suicide was narrow, so when she explained that if two souls died within days of each other they could reunite in the afterlife, I followed her directly to the poetry in the act and justified, like her, its necessity. But now I’m trying to understand if you can revere someone so much that you kill yourself. Not out of heartbreak, or despair or depression, but a reasoned reverence. Is it a logical end to the pursuit of selflessness?
When I ask Mum nowadays about how Vijay died she won’t commit to any of these stories. ‘Vijay had done all the work he needed to here,’ she says. She sounds tired, as though I’m asking questions that no longer hold any heat.
She tells me Vijay once said he wished he’d never started the community, which only reminds me how much more intricate her experience is than mine. ‘Cancer or no cancer,’ she says, ‘his body had become irrelevant to him by that point.’ I can see she’s doing the work for him, trying to reconcile it, trying to find the words that can carry it all.
Some names have been changed in order to protect privacy.