Hu Are You?

About twenty years ago I had a spiritual awakening. Actually, it was more like a little chat. I was lying on a hospital bed, staring out the window. “Okay, I’m willing to believe you’re out there,” I said to the steam coming out of the sewer in front of St. Mary’s, “if you’ll help me quit heroin and get me out of this place.”

The sun came out from behind a cloud and on a bitter winter day in Minnesota, three thousand miles from home, I felt something… I don’t know… something big come over me. I felt something even heavier lifted off of me. I didn’t want to disappear completely so I quickly tacked on, “and please don’t make me a Jesus freak.”

I still think I’m pretty spiritual. I was baptized in the Catholic Church, and officially converted to Judaism when I was ten. Our family did Transcendental Meditation, Dad did EST, and in the last twenty years, I’ve gone to four different synagogues and attended St. Joan of Arc, the South Minneapolis Catholic church with a gay pastor and a liberal pulpit. I’ve also chanted “nam yoho renge kyo” with Buddhists, taken numerous Zen classes, prayed with Sufis in Morocco, and done a few sweat lodges and Wiccan ceremonies. I’ve haven’t gone through any rebirthing rituals in the mud, but I like my friends who have.

I know about cults, too. I lost a brother to one in California. I mingled with the Heaven’s Gate people when they came to Minneapolis to spread the word about aliens and Jesus, something I never really did figure out. They didn’t stick around to help explain it, either.

Then there’s the sect that I actually belong to—the one I’d leave, but they can’t kick me out. Once it dawned on me that I had gotten on my knees for a lot less than what a twelve-step program had to offer, I realized I had no more excuses. I’ve been going to meetings for a long time now. I spent the first few years poking at AA with a stick, waiting for something to crawl out. Nothing ever did. I’m not saying this as an official spokesmodel for AA, because there aren’t any. My observations are simply my own, based on meetings I’ve been to. I haven’t paid anything, I haven’t met anyone in charge, and there’s no mecca to which we all flock every year. People with a few hours of sobriety go to the exact same meetings as those with decades. Most detractors point to the G-word up on the wall, but I’m an agnostic (maybe a Deist) and I’ve been clean and sober for some time and no one has come to take my secret decoder ring.

When I read that Eckankar was having its worldwide seminar here in Minneapolis this month, I was curious. I had seen Eckankar stickers back home, usually on humble old Datsuns. Eckankar and I, it turns out, were both born in the early sixties in the South Bay Area. I grew up in the backwash of Joan Baez, Neil Young, Ken Kesey, Charles Manson, and Jim Jones. Right after I moved to Minnesota, my dad and his wife bought a house in the foothills above Palo Alto, in a pretty enviable neighborhood. The seller was a guy called Sri Harold Klemp, a name I didn’t easily forget. I was impressed that the leader of a religion had such good taste and resources. Klemp had sold the house so that he—and his church—could follow me to Minnesota.

Or was it just a coincidence?

The basic teachings of Eckankar are virtually identical to Hinduism: Students (“chelas”) strive to rid themselves of the karma that keeps their souls from going directly to heaven for good. This involves reading, meditating, chanting, dream interpretation, and soul travel. Chelas can advance through a numbered series of initiations that correspond to the level of their self-knowledge, “god-consciousness,” and mastery of Eck principles. High Initiates (or HI’s) get special privileges and act as mentors and leaders to first and second “circle” members. The initiation rites are secret, but you can’t be a HI without paying your dues on time for at least two years.

Eck has no rules. The official party line is that they are a group that studies spiritual principles. The group is not exclusive, and joining doesn’t cost much. You don’t have to change your clothes (no saffron robes), your religion (Jewish, Lutheran, or Catholic Eckists are simply supplementing their own religions with Eck principles), or your diet (unlike their Hindu predecessors, Eckists can and do eat cows). Sexual orientation doesn’t matter, and there’s no hanging out at the airport. In other words, Eck is not a cult. It doesn’t require much of its practitioners, at least on paper. There’s a recommended twenty-minute daily incantation of a single syllable, “Hu,” which members do together at seminars and regular gatherings.

There are twenty-six thousand Eckists in the U.S.; there are no numbers for Minnesota members. Every state has at least one local-branch “Satsang Society,” or study group. Satsangs all over the world host identical programs for both the public and for members, from studies of the Eck “bible” (the Shariyat Ki Sugmad) and other Eck religious tracts to talks like “Discover Your Greatness as a Soul” and “How to Have More Love in Your Life.”

Members and seekers can also get the Eck message on local cable stations, which usually feature videotaped talks by Harold Klemp, whose image is ubiquitous in their materials. Master Harold is the “Mahanta,” the highest human incarnation of “god-consciousness.” Klemp is just the latest of thousands of Mahantas, but there can only be one on Earth at a time. “Mahanta,” like “chela” and “Sri,” is a common Sanskrit word used in Eastern religions. (Today many of those words are trademarked by Eckankar.)

Chelas are encouraged to look at a picture of Klemp when they meditate. The official portrait can be had for twenty-five dollars, unframed or in wallet-sized versions. Nearly every photo of the Mahanta is the same: A simple, professional head shot of a bespectacled Klemp, dressed in a blue leisure suit and tie. I’d be more tempted to ask him about Roth IRAs than I would about the nature of my soul, but Eck likes that conservative image and many Eckists model their dress after him.

The slightly dated picture and the deification of his image led me to believe that Klemp no longer walked among us. It turns out he’s alive, though no one I spoke to seemed to know or care where he is or what he does for a living. But they do gather to revere him in the flesh occasionally; this month, five or six thousand Eckists will fly in from all over the world to see Harold Klemp in person as the Saturday-night headliner at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Klemp’s whereabouts aren’t the only secret in Eckankar. There are no public records for Eckankar’s finances because it is tax-exempt and qualifies as a religious organization under IRS rules. Local Satsangs that take in less than $25,000 a year don’t have to file tax returns, and nearly every Eck Satsang falls into that category. But there are no records for the headquarters, either. No one knows how much is spent on salaries or on the new building being constructed for office staff, who are currently housed in New Hope. There are, however, records of numerous properties owned and sold by the Church, some of them in spiritual and real estate hot spots like Sedona and Hawaii.

Yet members pay only $120 a year to belong ($50 for other countries). Their websites do list cover charges for many classes, workshops, and seminars, which range from $25 to $150. Those numbers don’t add up to much. But some Eckists who have left the organization say money plays a big role. One of them, Elizabeth, says the pressure to donate is constant. Elizabeth was a member from the age of thirteen, when her parents, siblings, and grandparents signed up. She recently left Eckankar and was “disowned.” Only one sister risks the rare conversation with her. When I asked Elizabeth about interviewing her parents, she said I would get nothin
g more than canned responses and outright denials. After she told me that her mother told her “never to contact her again,” I dropped it.

Elizabeth says Eck’s family rate is $160 a year, but that’s just the beginning. She says the Satsangs need donations, as do the discourse/Satsang classes, book-discussion classes, workshops for training, and regional seminars. Donations are requested from those who attend all Eck functions. Then there are books, videotapes, music CDs, pictures, posters, recruitment materials such as reply posters with tear-off information cards, business cards, bumper stickers, and fundraiser items like T-shirts, jewelry, and coffee cups, all of which can be bought by Eckankar tax-free.

Paul, who was a twenty-eight-year veteran of Eckankar and a High Initiate before he bailed out five years ago, told me that he feels his life was wasted on the organization. “I spent thousands of dollars on Eckankar,” he said. Paul believes now that it was a “fraud and illusion” designed to profit the people at the top.

Paul Twitchell, Eck’s founder, was born in Paducah, Kentucky. Like his friend L. Ron Hubbard, he published a few science fiction novels and in 1964 or 1965, after studying under a couple of Indian yogis, Twitchell introduced Eckankar to the world from his home base in Menlo Park, right near the place where my family once played miniature golf. Twitchell declared himself a “Living Eck Master” and said that he had been given the “Divine Rod of Power” by Rebazar Tarzs, a hundred-year-old man who today “still lives in a hut in Hindu Kush Mountains,” according to Eck publications.

Eck’s detractors have a hundred complaints, but most agree that Twitchell was a plagiarist. The most vociferous critic and documenter is David Lane, who says Twitchell simply cut and pasted text from books like Julian Johnson’s Path of the Masters. The 1939 book is widely considered among religious scholars to be the pioneering account of a Westerner’s interpretation of Eastern religion. Anti-cult advocates in particular cite Johnson’s first and foremost declaration that “Real Masters never charge for their services,” a passage Twitchell neglected to crib. Less academic are accounts of Twitchell’s questionable relationships with his spiritual mentors, peers, wives, and near-wives.

Twitchell died in the early seventies, around the time I was blacking out on Mogen David after my bat mitzvah. He had named Darwin Gross the next “Living Eck Master,” and he reigned until 1981, around the time I left California in search of a simpler life. It is said that Gross then handed the “Rod of Power” to Harold Klemp and soon after, Master Harold brought Eck back to the Midwest, near his Wisconsin hometown and beginnings as a Lutheran minister.

Gross, however, says that the Rod wasn’t handed to Klemp at all and that Klemp and his associates, including the current president of Eckankar, Peter Skelskey, wrested it away in what Gross calls a “coup.” Gross maintains that he is the true Living Eck Master/Mahanta and heads up his own religion, called Ancient Teachings of the Masters (ATOM). The overthrow of Gross—who looks like a guy who has a nice Mac Davis collection—doesn’t strike me as a South American bloodbath so much as an eighth-grade slap fight in the computer lab; then again, I’m an immature, superficial snob who can’t read any Eck material without thinking of a bunch of kids in a tree house fighting with foil swords stealing names from Mad magazine.

Of course, I didn’t blink when I bought pot from a guy named Gogo Garfinkel, so I decided to drop by the Eck temple out in Chanhassen and keep an open mind, at least for as long as I could go without a cigarette on their 174 acres of smoke-free grounds. It’s probably the only place in this country where you have to specify which pyramid-topped building you’re looking for, but basically the white one is Prince’s, the gold one, Eck’s.

I pass by a basket of paper slippers offered to protect the carpetand chat for a minute with the host and hostess on duty, Burdoc and Esther. Esther is really happy to see me. She’s wearing a sharp suit in a confident shade of red. Her jewelry, hair, and accessories say, “Have you had your luggage in your possession the entire time?” I like her, she’s peppy. She’s enthusiastic. Now she’s getting a little too
excited, so I ask if I can just look around for a while on my own. She tells me the official tour won’t start for another forty-five minutes. That’s fine, I say. I’ll just wander around. There are excellent walking trails outside. I’ve been out there before with my dog. Esther and Burdoc exchange looks. “How about if I show you the library?” she says brightly, while Burdoc picks up the phone.

Esther tells me that an inordinate number of moving vans were appearing in her life. She calls these coincidences “waking dreams.” First there was one on her street, then another on the way to work, and, well, you get the picture. “What does it mean?” I ask. She looks so excited. “Well, it means I’m going somewhere.”

“Really? Like a vacation?”

“Oh no, as soon as I get home I’m packing everything up. I’m going to be moving soon,” she says, with the same assurance one would use in saying that the sky is blue. I squirm out of her suggestion that we do a “Hu chant” together by asking for directions to the ladies’ room. When I return, Jennifer Exsted, Public Information Coordinator, is waiting for me. She looks out of breath. I feel terrible that Burdoc had summoned her from a picnic she was enjoying nearby at Lake Ann on this beautiful Saturday afternoon. “Oh, no, no, it’s no problem at all,” she reassures me. She shows me around the empty temple, opening doors, flicking lights on and off as we peer into one immaculate and dull classroom after another. The whole place looks like a hotel conference center. Most classrooms contain a bunch of chairs, a vase of fake flowers, and a silver dish with a doily in the bottom, presumably to muffle the sound of donated change. On the walls hang faithfully rendered paintings of visions by various Eck members. There is a preponderance of castles in clouds and vast natural settings with solemn human figures standing under stars with extra-long rays.

When I ask if the temple was built with security in mind, Exsted says that the building was designed for longevity, not defense. Neither of us mentions the vandalism—including bullet holes—that the temple suffered in the early eighties, some even while it was still under construction.

At the back there is a windowless room with a few rows of theater seats, a miniature chapel. It’s meant for smaller ceremonies, Exsted says, like weddings or rites of passage for youth. Eck has no position on gay marriage. In fact, when I ask about the usual hot topics—abortion, divorce, gay rights, polygamy, plus a few curveballs I make up on the fly, such as can you be a porn star and still be a member in good standing?—she bats every one out of the park. They abide by the laws of the state. They don’t do anything outside of the law and don’t encourage anyone to do so.

I keep her in the chapel a little too long. I’m entranced by the ten pictures of Eck Masters on the wall behind the podium. One in particular looks like a roadie for Siegfried and Roy. He’s got long blond hair and blue eyes and is clearly Caucasian. Exsted tells me I’m looking at Gopal Das, “from Egypt.” There’s the famous Rebazar Tarzs, who looks like Jim Marshall, the Vikings Hall of Famer. There’s Peddar Zaskq (Paul Twitchell), Yaubl Sacabi, and the guy with my favorite name, Fubbi Quantz. The most recent addition, Kata Daki, is the only female Master. She doesn’t look as if she’s been painted by the same artist as the others and I wonder if she’s been tacked on to the lineage to show gender sensitivity. Exsted doesn’t know much about her.

Je
sus, says Exsted, was not an Eck Master. Many of the Masters were just simple people who “appeared” to those in need of guidance. You don’t even need to use one of Eck’s Masters; “it could be someone who you would say you love,” says Exsted.

“Okay, so can I just worship the Quaker Oats guy?”

“Well, uh,” she says, almost missing a step, “I guess you could, but Harold’s picture has a strong vibration.” The secrecy around Klemp, says Exsted, is intentional. He is a celebrity, and the sheer numbers of followers—reported at fifty thousand worldwide—simply makes it impossible for the Master to be available to everyone on the phone or in public. When Eck first began, the leader would wade among his students, but those days are gone, says Exsted, gazing at the Master’s picture.

When I ask Exsted if Harold Klemp is actually alive somewhere, she says, “That’s a good question. You’d have to ask him.” So people can just pick up the phone and call him? “There isn’t really the need to do that,” she explains.

She’s right. Talking to Eckists, I find that they are perfectly comfortable referring to recent discussions they’ve had with Harold even though they have never personally met him. They converse with Harold in their minds. Exsted agrees with my conclusion that Harold Klemp is in many ways like the pope. Still, for this guy whose human form is insignificant, five or six thousand people are flying in from all over the planet, paying $130 to get in ($155 at the door), and I’ll bet they won’t be expecting to hear their Master’s voice from a TV monitor.

The seminar, to be fair, is also a chance for Eckists to hang out together, to visit the temple, and to attend workshops specifically tailored to their initiate level. The theme this year is “the Year of the Eck Missionary,” and attendees will go home equipped with suggestions like “be sure to mention Eck to at least one new person a week.” I’m curious about how these “missionaries” work in an organization that claims a non-proselytizing platform.

Exsted says that these and other questions about the Master should be taken up with Eck’s president, Peter Skelskey. Uh-oh. Isn’t he one of Harold’s bouncers who snatched the Rod of Power from poor old Darwin? Then again, he is like a founding father: It would be like asking Thomas Jefferson why he kept slaves. Fortunately for us both, Exsted calls me later to say that Skelskey doesn’t want to talk to me. I bet she told him about my Quaker Oats question.

Exsted finally knocks me off the log when she tosses out a second invitation to do a quick Hu chant. I stumble. I get all embarrassed and say no. At that, she leads me out of the chapel, triumphant and ready to show me the new kitchen.

I thought very, very hard about Eck during the drive back home. I mean, there are coincidences in life that I just let go all the time. And I do have dreams that leave big footprints on most of my days, which I normally kick onto the “maybe I’ll figure it out later” pile.

Just to prove I wasn’t chicken, I tried chanting the Hu. I start with “Hoooooo, hoooooo,” and then I remember that it’s pronounced “hew,” so I start again. “Hewwww…hewwww…” Oh, no way. This isn’t going to work. All I can think of is David Sedaris’s boyfriend. Then I start wondering why David Sedaris’s voice sounds so much like Klemp’s. I give up.

In September of 1991, two thirty-four-year-old members of Eck committed suicide, one near Syracuse, New York, and one in Kansas City. Eck spokesman Kent Livingston* told a New York paper in an official statement, “These things happen with members of all sorts of religions,” he said.

Now, I’m willing to allow that two suicides might be considered an acceptable loss of life—even better than average—for a worldwide congregation of fifty thousand. But last month a small news item appeared in the French newspaper, L’Express: Ten bodies were discovered in a house in French-speaking Mauritania. The news never got picked up by English-language outlets, and the only subsequent details provided were that two of the probable instigators (the ones who died last) held Eck medallions in their pockets. The others, it was reported, had been followers of the religion who had become entangled with the pair in various money-lending scenarios. In other words, this little group of Eckists was a cult, at least by one definition.

Most Eck practitioners don’t seem to hear, know, or care about the charges being lobbed over the walls of their castle. Only a few esoteric anti-Eck books have been published, people don’t protest their meetings, and there are no instances of dramatic deprogramming rescues.

Online, however, it’s a different story. After slogging through thousands of debates ranging from the philosophical to the juvenile (“Hey, Doug, do you still cut your hair using a salad bowl?”), I’m frankly relieved to simply walk away from the cacophony and call it a draw.

What sticks like a JuJube in my molars, though, is Klemp’s apparent power to amend Eckankar’s sacred texts and official history. His job, in fact, is to interpret the texts and update members with the latest from Fubbi Quantz and Co. Sadly, Klemp and others have simply erased or taken out of print those publications that disrupt the current image of the organization. Not only does Eck have a very short history; it seems to be written in pencil. A few troubling citations do remain:

“…the mission of the Mahanta on this earth is to stir the millions of non-initiated into revolt against all orthodox religions. It also means that anyone who opposes the Mahanta in any of the worlds is foolish for the ECK will work swiftly in retribution.”
—Book I, p. 181

“But once the chela has become a member of the inner circle, he cannot resign. Those few have found that spiritual decay sets in immediately, affecting the health, material life and spiritual life, and brings death more swiftly.”
—Book II, p. 197 (p. 166 in older editions)

Since neither Klemp nor Skelskey wants to talk to me, I’ll assume that these citations are still in play.

One recent morning my partner’s stomach was growling and it sounded exactly like the intro to “Dreamweaver.” Clearly, all this Eck stuff was starting to get to me. What did this mean? Was he merely hungry or was Harold trying to talk to me? Maybe Harold was hungry. I read somewhere that he may be suffering from environmental illness. What could I possibly feed him? Maybe he was trying to tell me to give away my Aveda products?

I didn’t get it.

Admittedly, I was ready to have an encounter with Eck like the one I’d had at St. Mary’s more than twenty years ago. To be honest, writing full-time in rural Wisconsin does get a little lonely. I looked for a parting of the clouds, for a ray of sunshine that may have led to a fellowship like the one I have enjoyed in a variety of twelve-step programs.

In the end, I realized that the true guiding light in my life is right in front of me every single day that I am fortunate enough to open my eyes. I’m happy as a spiritual amoeba; I’ll continue gravitating toward warmth and light and avoiding cold, pointy things. It’s just a tad too noisy there among the Eckists and anti-Eckists. Besides, I tend to feel at home with loners and survivors, not joiners and believers. Out here, among the crickets and coyotes, I can hear God speaking pretty clearly. Most of all, I guess I’m no longer in the market for the surrogate sense of belonging I once got from dope and those first uncomfortable AA meetings. I am surrounded by infinite proof of a universe that has a place for me right here, right now. Besides, my God doesn’t mind if I smoke while we pass the time.

*Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the speaker. We regret the err
or and hereby correct it.—Eds., 11/11/04