By F.W. Atchison/Pindar
It has been many years since I last attempted to recall the details of those final days in Escondido, primarily because any benefit for me to do so vanished long ago. But at the request of others who were kind toward me back then, and in the spirit of healing which they promote, I offer the following as my experience of the events that unfolded in September of 1978 in Escondido. Let me apologize, in advance, to anyone who finds this recollection painful; it certainly was for me.
For the sake of brevity, I have omitted the details of how I came to be part of Morningland. It should suffice to say that I was attracted, like everyone else, to the community of light-bearers who constituted the rank-and-file of the organization. I have never, nor will I ever, regret the hours of communion we shared and the music we made in those magical days. I have chosen, instead, to begin this narrative on the morning of the day that the Escondido temple would close its doors. Though I had no idea of the events that would unfold in the hours that followed, I woke that day with a certainty – unlike any I’d ever known – that I would never again return to Morningland.
Sipping slowly from a cup of strong coffee, what immediately came to mind was that the drive home from Long Beach the day before was oppressive. Benares, Change, Moon Wolf and myself were uncharacteristically quiet, and it was obvious that something serious was brewing below the surface for each of us. The concert the night before had gone well by all appearances, but the band was definitely not in synch and we all knew it; the music never lies.
I personally found it unbearable to be around Sri any longer than I had to, and the others felt much the same way I did; which was why we arranged to ride home together and find alternative transportation home for Sri. It was impossible to sleep that night with the sense of foreboding that enveloped me concerning what lay ahead.
Come morning, all concerns soon evaporated like the steam from my coffee, and I knew in my heart-of-hearts that I could not go back to the hypocrisy that had control of Morningland. Come morning, all concerns soon evaporated like the steam from my coffee, and I knew in my heart-of-hearts that I could not go back to the hypocrisy that had control of Morningland. I could point to the legal problems that included allegations of bribing public officials (I was present at several functions with the lawyers and Sri where this was discussed in a way that made you understand it as being a fact not to be discussed, including a fundraising dinner for the candidate in question); the blatant manipulation of Sri by Melikia, Mahanta & Orion (it was pretty easy to do, as I soon learned); or the fact that I was fairly certain Melikia and Mahanta were more than intimate on an ongoing basis (forbidden – according to “the Plan”); but these were symptoms – not the disease. It no longer mattered that I might be reduced to dust (which is what awaited anyone who left the temple- according to Sri), I simply knew that I could no longer reconcile what I saw privately with what was being taught publicly.
A single cup of coffee helped me resolve that I would head for the coast and hope that the vast Pacific Ocean would somehow comfort my despair. Chang woke and joined me on the sofa with his own cup of java (Benares, Chang, Moon Wolf and myself -maybe others- shared a house at that time). Chang immediately recognized that something was very wrong and proceeded to question me in a gentle fashion until he learned of my decision to head for the coast and not return to the temple. It was at that point that I believe he offered me a joint, and since I no longer had any sense of what was correct behavior under the circumstance, I accepted the offering as an attempt to ground the hurricane of emotions and insights gathering force behind my calm exterior (it wasn’t very effective).
With each occupant who woke and joined the discussion, more and more missing pieces of the puzzle were brought into the open, and it quickly became quite clear that we all shared a similar vision of what Morningland had become: corrupt and unsupportable.
Someone mentioned that we should contact Melikia and Mahanta to let them know of our intentions. I was well beyond caring about such matters at that point – my perception had begun to phase-shift. The only way I can describe the sensation in retrospect is that everything and everyone was slightly out of synchronization with reality. I could see and hear perfectly; it was just that I had to force myself to maintain balance, as if I were on a carousel.
Mahanta did arrive soon but I don’t remember Melikia being with him (under the weather or something). The others took the initiative to fill him in on our observations, and he proceeded to confirm everything we suspected.
It was at this meeting that I learned about the sexual relationship between Donato and the Gopis, as well as the use of drugs and alcohol among them. I remember Mahanta joking about Donato having intercourse with a Gopi when he had his heart attack and died (maha samadhi?).
I was deeply suspicious of Mahanta’s credibility on these subjects since he also admitted that he and Melikia had been intimately involved for some time which they had repeatedly denied (Melikia later confirmed everything in even greater detail). Mahanta admitted that he and Melikia believed Sri had gone round-the-bend after Donato’s death, and that it was the Gopis (and after them, our inner circle) who kept everything running smoothly on the surface.
While a part of me struggled desperately to deny what I was hearing, a deeper part of me knew instinctively that everything he said rang of truth.
Mahanta left to discuss the developments with Melikia and promised to get back to us within the hour. When he did, it was decided to have a face-to-face confrontation with Sri on neutral ground (the hotel room of Andrew Zanger, one of Morningland’s attorneys), and that we would each have the opportunity to present our concerns.
Andrew brought Sri to the room without prior knowledge of our intentions (supposedly), and she was visibly shocked for a moment when she entered the room and saw us assembled: Melikia, Mahanta, Benares, Chang, Moon Wolf and myself. (Choran appeared from Long Beach at some point in the day, having been contacted about the circumstances, but I don’t remember if he was present for this meeting). Sri quickly sat on the bed with her arms folded across her chest and asked the intent of this gathering. I believe Andrew started the discussion by framing our concerns, which soon became heated as those present let loose the restraint they’d maintained.
Sri sat silent most of the time, though she occasionally denied what was said, and even expressed once that we were simply too un-evolved to comprehend the reasons behind the plan and her behavior. I remember Moon Wolf being particularly eloquent about his pain and sense of betrayal; which, from her reaction, was effective at piercing her practiced facade. I listened quietly, concentrating on the tonality of everything spoken; my state of mind still being such that, aside from the essence of the interrogation, all I could focus on was the truth of the tones. I don’t remember asking any questions, since the woman before me had lost all credibility and I no longer cared about what she thought. What I do remember is being asked by her where my allegiance lay, since I had been quiet the entire time. I recall that the spontaneity and force of my response surprised me, “All I’m sure of is: wherever you’re going, I’m heading in the opposite direction.” Sri said nothing and turned even more stone-cold, as I was probably the last hope for an ally that she had in the room.
We left the hotel soon after and decided to call a general meeting at the temple later that evening to explain our actions to everyone. We began a telephone tree that eventually spread through the entire membership, some of whom had not been allowed on the premises in months. The period of time between the confrontation with Sri and the general meeting at the temple is a blur to me now; probably several hours transpired and members began to arrive with all manner of questions as each in-turn heard of the trouble brewing. It was during this passage, however, that my phase shift ended: as if locking into place – my mind became crystal clear.
I know for certain that the temple was full to overflowing that evening. Melikia, Mahanta, Benares, Chang, Moon Wolf, and myself explained to those gathered that we were closing down the temple due to the offenses we’d witnessed and unwittingly been part of (I’ve probably forgotten others, I think Choran might have been present).
Reactions ranged from stunned belief to outright hostility (Duraka – a very formidable man – flung a chair so hard that it stuck in the wall on impact). Many cried and refused to believe allegations about the sex and drugs; all we could do was assure them that these charges were not based on here-say but personal experience. Some choose to blame us (which was perfectly understandable), but in-time most of those gathered began to understand the truth of what we were saying, and started putting bits-and-pieces together for themselves. Many began looting the alter (souvenirs?), and momentum gathered as more disciples learned of the news; it was a truly surreal space.
We all spent hours answering questions both in person and over the phone. Many disciples simply camped-out because they didn’t know where to go. Melikia and Mahanta left at some point to talk with Choran about notifying the Long Beach disciples quickly, as well as arranging the closure of accounts and property distribution with Andrew Zanger. I answered a steady stream of questions until the sun began to rise the following morning. It was then that I found myself in Sri’s old front office, listening to a disciple on the other end of the telephone who I knew quite well. She was extremely distraught at the news, and demanded to speak with Melikia or she was in all likelihood going to commit suicide on the spot. Though exhausted, I dug deep for the last ounce of empathy in my being, and explained quietly to her that Melikia was not available and we didn’t know where to reach her. The disciple said that wasn’t good enough and she wouldn’t survive the night unless she spoke to Melikia. I quite mechanically informed her that she was going to have to deal with that on her own. As I heard myself unable to offer any hope to the frightened soul on the other end of the phone, I began to weep uncontrollably while staring through the faces of the people sitting against the far wall of the office. In one of those moments of primitive communication, I simply held the phone out for someone else to accept, and wept as my head dropped on the desk. Some of the people present comforted me, and I was driven back to our house for rest. I have no recollection of how long I slept of if I ever went back to the temple.
Probably the next day, I heard that Sri had called Seravati to gather loyal troops as soon as she’d returned to her apartment. They informed those assembled of a ‘take-over’ by the “dark forces”, then fled to Long Beach and barricaded themselves inside the temple; patrolling the halls with weapons and challenging everyone who approached. I also heard through Melikia that Choran had stopped on the way back to corroborate the facts with Pathena that he’d learned from us, and was unable to reach the temple in time to alert the Long Beach disciples to the facts.
Sri negotiated a settlement with Melikia & Mahanta throught the lawyers for the Escondido group to retain all of the band equipment and resources of the Escondido temple on the condition that we leave the state. Two trips to Tucson of equipment and personnel were made within the next week, but it became clear to me upon our arrival that the situation there would not be a healthy one for me; the last place I wanted to be just then was anywhere Mahanta & Melikia were in positions of authority. I bid everyone peace and god-speed, then returned to Escondido and began the process of healing which would consume the next several years.
Only after years of wandering was I able to look at the harm I’d caused and the deep painful suffering experienced by everyone with a modicum of detached objectivism. I saw quite clearly how easily we deceive ourselves when we want something badly enough, and the extremes to which we willingly go.
I tried to write music for a while, but everything that I received was depressing and spiteful. I eventually released it from my life with full understanding that it was welcome back, should it ever choose to return in a better mood. [For those of you who care, you’ll be glad to know that it eventually did return – like a thief in the night]
Many who did not have access to the inner circle of those days have asked me over the years if the deceit was -in fact- intentional? I have not a shred of doubt that Patricia was/and continues to be a charlatan to the core (having never known Donato I am not qualified to comment on his motivations). She has no more claim to spiritual authority than every other being who possesses the divine spark of creation, and probably less because of the damage she continues to willingly inflict upon seekers after truth.
My original impression of Mahanta and Melikia was that they found themselves victims of their own manipulations without any recourse but self destruction. The Gopis were made scapegoats for the problems that Sri & Melikia were unwilling to accept as being of their own making: proof of this is the fact that the problems didn’t end because the Gopis left, they only intensified. The intervening years have allowed me to view the circumstances and the players with more detachment, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Melikia and Mahanta did act with more malice than I admit. I am, after all, a light-hearted soul who only ever wanted to play good music and share it with friends.
I sincerely believe that we all entered discipleship with the best of intentions (probably even Patricia), but lost our way when we abdicated our critical faculties to a what we believed was a “higher power”.
As for returning to dust… Since leaving Morningland, I have produced music that garnered myself voting membership status in the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (the Grammys), published a collection of songs & wanderings from the first 25 years of my creative life, founded Legendary Press – which will soon publish a second volume of work under the title “Stories from the Springs”, and been a staff member of the University of California at San Diego for the past fifteen years. I relate these statistics not out of pride – since I am confident in my abilities beyond needing approval from external judgements, but rather to dispel the fears of many who still entertain the possibility that maybe – just maybe – Sri was telling the truth. If it were only the worldly successes that I claimed, then you might rightly question whether it wasn’t just dust in the end after all… Oh no, I have been privileged throughout the years hence to witness miraculous events both cosmic and personal beyond anything Morningland ever imagined, and these are the source of an unshakeable faith in goodness by which I conduct my life.
I know beyond doubt that there are no conditions of acceptance before the creator; no group privileged above another; no cost of admission; no intermediaries required. The divine plan is far more elegant and infinite than any one’s imagination is capable of encompassing, though many will attempt to convince us of the contrary. We inhabit a universe of great beauty, wonder and potential; no more distant than our next breath.
Abiding peace & joy to all who read these words,
Fred William Atchison
February 10, 1998
©1998 F. W. Atchison