By Linda Johnsen 2007
“Justin O’Brien is a fraud! He doesn’t have any academic credentials at all!
It was unbelievable news. Literally, I didn’t believe it. “Are you sure?” I asked.
“He lied about teaching at Loyola University in Chicago! He never taught there at all,” my fellow resident at the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale whispered breathlessly.
“But I graduated from Loyola,” I tried to explain. “Dr. O’Brien was one of my professors.”
“No, I’m telling you he was never at Loyola! I have it from the highest authority!”
“But I took his course in Indian Religion there,” I tried to explain. It was useless: my friend was already racing down the hall to spread the rumor to everyone in sight.
The “highest authority” who had revealed this shocking story about Dr. O’Brien (now Swami Jaidev Bharati) was none other than Swami Rama of the Himalayas, Dr. O’Brien’s own guru. Swami Rama was the master of maya, and now in a spirit of fun he had created a false history of lies and intrigue that, for the moment at least, totally destroyed my former professor’s reputation. Dr. O’Brien and his wife Theresa had served Swamiji’s Institute with complete selflessness for years. Now they were being run out of town in disgrace.
Yoga students who’ve never actually had a guru often fantasize how wonderful it would be to live with a spiritual master. In reality the experience can be harrowing—the guru eats your ego. Many of us veterans can tell you from personal experience, feeling the bones of your being crunching between the guru’s teeth is no pleasant sensation. But once egotism is gone, there’s no obstruction to the inner flow of pure spiritual guidance.
Swami Rama knew Justin and Theresa were completely committed to the Institute and the graduate program in Eastern Studies he had founded there. So he invented this silly but painful scenario to help them break their attachment to the work there. Then he sent them out to help with other projects he was cooking up in Japan, Europe, and Nepal. Eventually, of course, everyone learned that Justin O’Brien had indeed taught at Loyola and that his academic credentials were impeccable. But for the moment Justin and Theresa were caught in the jaws of the guru’s grace!
East Meets Midwest
Those were the days! Just serving a realized sage is a graduate program in itself, and sometimes the tests are really hard. But what a grand headmaster Swami Rama made. As the decades wheel away and the events of that era in the late 1970s and early 80s roll backward into history, I’d like to put on record a few of the other things that Swami Rama, Swami Jaidev, and Ma Devi were up to back then.
Let me start with one of the most pivotal moments in my life. With about twenty other students, I was fulfilling a theology course requirement at Loyola University by taking Justin O’Brien’s course on Indian Religion. The course that many of us had signed up for because it was the only one we could squeeze into our schedules, turned out to be the best class we’d taken in our entire college career. Dr. O’Brien’s tales of his experiences in India and his meetings with remarkable yogis had all of us mesmerized. On the last day of class I went up to Dr. O’Brien and told him wistfully, “I wish I could go to the Himalayas!”
“You don’t need to,” he answered. “The Himalayas have come here.” And he gave me the address of the Himalayan Institute where I could actually meet an enlightened yogi—Swami Rama—for myself.
Visiting the Institute, I soon learned that something absolutely marvelous had just happened. Swami Rama was starting a graduate school where students could come to study the history and philosophy of yoga; learn hatha and meditation techniques; and explore comparative religions. This incredibly exciting and unique program—inaugurated in 1976—was based in Glenview, just north of Chicago, and offered a master’s degree. The genius in charge of developing and administering the program was none other than my own Professor O’Brien. If I said it took me two full seconds to decide to sign up for the program, I’d be exaggerating by two seconds. I knew instantly that PES, Swami Rama’s “Program in Eastern Studies,” was for me.
Till my dying day I’ll remember that fabulous first year in Glenview as the closest to heaven I’ll probably ever experience in a physical body. Swami Rama personally taught several courses: Yoga Sutras and the Upanishads. Dr. Usharbudh Arya (Swami Veda of Rishikesh) taught us classic texts like the Yoga Vasishtha. Dr. L.K. Mishra taught the six great schools of Indian philosophy. And Dr. O’Brien gave us the Western perspective, teaching us about great Greek thinkers like Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle.
Swami Rama was adamant that we grasp the practical applications of all this material for the modern Western world. So Swami Ajaya taught us Western psychology, Dr. Rudolph Ballentine taught us anatomy, physiology and nutrition as they applied to yoga, and Dr. Phil Nuernberger taught us biofeedback.
Anyone from my generation who was interested in holistic health would recognize most of these names instantly. These were the very men largely responsible for starting the holistic health movement in America. They were the authors of classic books like Yoga and Psychotherapy and Diet and Nutrition and Freedom from Stress and The Wellness Tree. Young people today can hardly imagine how hostile the medical establishment was toward the innovative work Swami Rama’s faculty was doing. Yet today if you call up your HMO to make an appointment, they’ll put you on hold and a tape will start telling you all about their stress reduction and hatha yoga and meditation and vegetarian cooking classes. It was Swami Rama’s disciples at PES who pioneered this path, along with a very small number of researchers at other American yoga centers. I remember the day our faculty drove into downtown Chicago to appear on the Phil Donahue Show—the equivalent of Oprah in those days. The phones didn’t stop ringing for days as excited viewers called in to find out more about Swami Rama’s teachings.
Swami Rama wanted us to meet the groundbreaking scientific and religious leaders of our time. So he brought in visiting faculty like Dr. Barbara Brown, who virtually single-handedly popularized biofeedback back in those days. Other visiting faculty included Rabbi Gelberman representing mystical Judaism, Lama Jamspal representing Tibetan Buddhism, Chitrabhanu representing Jainism, and the immensely popular Pir Vilayat Khan who taught us about Sufism. Christianity of course was represented by our very own Dr. O’Brien, an expert in this great tradition. Swami Satchitananda, founder of Integral Yoga, was a regular visitor to our campus, and delighted us with his humorous yet amazingly profound presentations about Eastern spirituality. There wasn’t a bad apple in the bunch. The quality of the teaching was so uniformly excellent, I felt like I’d died and gone to paradise. Truly this was Yoga Heaven.
Books from the Himalayas
At that time Swami Rama’s Himalayan Press was one of the most important and influential publishing houses in the United States. One book after another, like those I’ve already mentioned, were having a huge impact on the national zeitgeist. Eastern spirituality was ceasing to be simply “eastern.” It was becoming our spirituality too—as not only American yoga centers but American medical centers and American religious centers opened their doors to the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of a yoga lifestyle.
But even greater books were rolling off the Himalayan Press. The best of them was Living with the Himalayan Masters, Swami Rama’s breathtakingly inspiring autobiography. One book after another by this enlightened author from the cave monasteries of the Himalayan mountains instantly joined the publishing industry’s ranks of classics: Lectures on Yoga, Freedom from the Bondage of Karma, The Path of Fire and Light, and on and on.
It’s incredible to think now, but Theresa King (now our own Ma Devi) was the Himalayan Press. She helped take dictation, edit, and then sat day and night at the typesetting machine, typing and printing out the pages of the books. I vividly remember the room in which so many brilliant and influential volumes took shape. It was smaller than many people’s bathrooms. If two people stood in the room, it was crowded. Yet what magic happened there! How many people’s lives were transformed by the words that poured out of the pages produced there.
There was one major problem: The graduate program expanded so rapidly that by the end of its first year it had outgrown the facilities. I remember studying yoga philosophy with Dr. L.K. Mishra out on the lawn under a shady tree because there wasn’t any more room in the building. Something had to be done. Swami Rama inaugurated a search for a much larger campus, and the program eventually shifted to Honesdale, Pennsylvania. There was a several year hiatus while accreditation issues were being sorted through. And then in 1981, to my great delight, the Program in Eastern Studies started up again in Honesdale, with Dr. O’Brien at the helm. He had negotiated brilliantly with the Jesuit administrators of the nearby University of Scranton, gaining our graduate program instant full academic accreditation through their Psychology Department. It was miraculous!
But by the time I rejoined the program the following year, Justin O’Brien and Theresa King were gone. Swami Rama had pulled the little joke I described earlier and packed them off for adventures on other campuses around the world. The graduate program thrived for another four years, but it wasn’t the same without them.
Those were truly glorious years when one of the greatest masters of our time, the mahasiddha Swami Rama, walked among us in a physical body, attracting the finest teachers from every religion and science to work with us students who were so eager to absorb everything they had to share. Much of their revolutionary wisdom has worked its way into the American mainstream over the decades since then, but there’s so much more the yoga tradition has to offer. Most of the insights yoga science can provide into physics, biology, psychology and spirituality remain uninvestigated here in the West.
As I drive past the IHT center in St. Paul, MN surrounded by a host of colleges and universities, I dearly wish the Program in Eastern Studies would rise again, and a new generation of students could learn as I did, from the largest and best yoga faculty in the Western world. In the meantime, we’re so fortunate to have Swami Jaidev and Ma Devi among us, carrying on this unsurpassed tradition of wisdom and excellence.
Postscript: Ma Devi, editor of The Himalayan Path and owner of Yes International Publishers, was reluctant to publish this article because she felt it spoke too kindly of herself and Swami Jaidev. I had to use all my clout as an author at Yes Publishers to coax and cajole her into printing it. I really feel new students at IHT should learn about Devi and Jaidev’s pivotal contributions to yoga, the holistic health movement, and Western spirituality.