At 5:30 a.m., I decided to leave the prayer hall early and go back to bed.
Maharaji had just arrived yesterday and the ashram was already charge with his kinetic energy. Caravans of devotees had descended on the ashram in the far southwest corner of Austin, Texas, to spend the month with our guru, who lived in India.
As I walked down the hallway, Carla approached, carrying a small notebook.
“Would you like to press Maharaji today?”
Of all the questions Carla could have asked me, this was the last one I would have imagined. I’d never been asked to press him before. In fact, I didn’t even know it was an option.
I was thrilled. Until then, I’d only spent time in his bedroom when I was spending money on seva, like the afternoon “coffee sevas,” where devotes watch him have a snack for about 15 minutes. That seva fee was $250.
Now, I was being given the opportunity to actually touch his body. This could finally be my chance to experience his divinity, I thought. Because so far, despite being a “faithful devotee” for many years, I had not yet felt the “bhao” (ecstatic happiness) many devotees say they feel around our guru.
“Yes,” I blurted. “Thank you so much for asking me.”
I was gushing, partly because I could not believe my luck, and partly out of fear that she would rescind the offer if I didn’t show the proper level of appreciation.
Carla studied her notebook. Using a pen as a pointer, she said, “You can either press him at six this morning or at five this afternoon after arti.”
“I’ll take five o’clock,” I said. But immediately reconsidered. That was a long way off.
“Or maybe this morning instead.”
“I’ve got four women already, and a couple more to ask.”
I glanced at the page she was studying. The words “Charan Seva” were written at the top. Underneath it were lists with of times and women’s names.
“Five is fine then,” I said. She seemed satisfied.
“Meet me in the hallway outside of his bedroom fifteen minutes early. Take a shower, cut your nails really short, and don’t wear any jewelry. Oh, and don’t tell anyone.”
“Okay,” I concurred, as if making a blood pact.
She looked up at me, her eyes narrow, as if second-guessing her decision to invite me into the precious seva. “Do you have a firm grip?”
“Yes,” I alleged, not sure if I did and fearing I didn’t.
She put her arm out. “Here. Press my arm.”
I gripped it and pressed as hard as I could.
“That’s good,” she declared. “Press him really hard. The harder the better. That’s how he likes it.” She pivoted and walked away.
In the bhakti tradition, pressing (or massaging) a guru is a sacred honor for a devotee. However, few actually get to press their gurus, because either the guru’s following is too large or he’s no longer alive. So, the idea of pressing a guru is more a concept than a reality for the average soul.
My guru was alive and had a relatively modest congregation. However, some devotees had much more access to Maharaji than I did. I didn’t orbit in that realm of our master’s existence. I was in the outer regions, several rungs outside of the inner circles. After fifteen years of struggling on this spiritual path, I thought, I must have finally achieved a significantly high stage of devotion to receive such an exquisite blessing.
All five women in the 5:00 p.m. session showed up on time. The other women in my group were all Indian, ranging in age from twenties to fifties. Carla directed us into a small hallway with two doors, one of which led into Maharaji’s bedroom via his bathroom. The space was about six feet by three feet.
“Wait here until Neelu opens the door,” Carla instructed. “Maharaji will be back soon. Keep quiet. We don’t want anyone to know you’re here, especially the men.” Then she disappeared.
As we waited silently for several minutes, I tried to savor the moment. But as the seconds ticked by, I grew increasingly nervous. Plus, the hallway was stuffy, and with five bodies crowded together. I began to sweat. I broke the silence to distract my mind from my nerves and physical discomfort.
“Have you ever done this before?” I asked one of the women in a low tone.
“No,” she said softly shaking her head.
I looked at the others.
“No,” said two.
“I’ve done it many times,” said the fifth and the oldest. “I press him all the time. I travel with him a lot.”
I was relieved to have at least one experienced person among us.
“What do we do?” I asked. All four of us looked at her for guidance.
“Each of us has to take a position on his leg or foot, but only his right foot, because the left one hurts from an old injury. You have to be very careful while massaging his other foot. It is very delicate. And use the palms of your hands, not your fingertips, so you don’t hurt him.”
“I don’t want his foot,” I said, fearful of causing him pain.
“I’ll do it,” she offered. “Who wants to do his thighs?”
None of us answered. Then I said, “I will.”
Another woman said, “I will too.”
“Okay, you two take a thigh and you two take a calf. If you’re wearing any jewelry, take it off.” Two women removed their rings and put them in their bags.
The door finally opened. Neelu, Maharaji’s main assistant, waved us in briskly, “Come on, come on. Maharaji is waiting.”
We hurried through his bathroom into his bedroom. The air-conditioned coolness was a relief after the stifling hallway. The air was laced with the strong smell of foreign perfume.
Maharaji was lying on his bed against a neatly positioned pile of pillows. He was wearing in an orange short-sleeve shirt and dhoti. His legs were spread open in a diamond shape. His arms were spread, resting on pillows positioned on both sides of his body.
Each of us hurried to our pre-determined spot, climbed onto his bed, and kneeled on his mattress. I placed my hands on his left thigh and grabbed the muscle. I started to massage, but it was more difficult that I imagined, because he was so skinny. His leg was all skin and bones. There wasn’t much meat to grab.
Within a minute, Maharaji said something in Hindi, and Neelu barked at us, “Maharaji wants you to press harder.” Then she flipped a switch to dim the lights, and left the room through another door.
I was shaking, but concentrating on massaging him as firmly as possible without digging my fingertips into his flesh. I moved my hands up and down his thigh, gripping whatever muscle I could find. The fabric of his thin dhoti kept bunching up under my fingers, threatening to spread open at his groin. I paused a few times to quickly straighten the fabric to preserve his modesty.
After about five minutes, he touched my hand with two of his long, bony fingers and nudged it toward his groin. I assumed he was indicating for me to massage higher on his thigh. I moved my hand a few millimeters higher, taking pains not to come into contact with his private parts. Then he touched my hand again, pushing it still closer to his crotch, but with more force. I couldn’t imagine what he was actually suggesting, and kept my hands just short of his genitals. He didn’t try again.
Lost in the thrill of being so up close and personal with my guru, I pushed the strange incident to the back of my mind.
After another few minutes, my legs started shaking from squatting in a kneeling position. I started sweating despite the room’s frigid temperature. Fearing that a drop of sweat would fall on him, I quickly wiped my face with the edge of my sari.
Finally, after almost fifteen minutes of massaging, he abruptly indicated the charan seva session was over with a curt “Jao!” which means “leave now” in Hindi. He rang a buzzer on his night table. As we scurried out through the bathroom door, Neelu entered from another.
I walked around the ashram all evening in a daze, which I assumed was devotional euphoria.
Not only had I finally shared an intimate experience with my guru, but also I was now privy to this secret seva. Now I understood why some female devotees acted like they had an inner-circle secret. Now I had one, too. It was like being initiated into a super-secret club—the kind where people say, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
That’s how secret charan seva was.
But I would soon learn there was another seva experience that was even more hush-hush than charan seva. It was called “private time.”
Karen Jonson has been a writer for 30 years, primarily writing marketing content for companies. She also runs the widely read RishikaXcult blog and Facebook page to educate the public about her ex-cult. She recently launched the The Inner Wisdom Project blog, where she promotes living a healthy spiritual life—free of dogma and abuse.
Illustration by Jim Cooke