December 4, 2020

Pakhandi

(c) J. Singh, 2016

"If you follow me, I will ruin you! Ahahahaha!"

The chilling words emanated from the tiny speakers on the laptop on the table as a small group of people huddled around it, listening with rapt attention. After the YouTube clip had finished with the lingering laughter, everyone leaned back in their chairs with satisfied smiles on their faces.

"The sound of the masters voice!" one woman said, gasping with excitement.

"His voice!" others echoed.

It was crowded in the coffee shop where the small group was seated. Nobody noticed them at the table with the laptop. Perhaps they were doing research. Perhaps they were students, preparing for their exams. Or perhaps they were purchasing tickets to fly to California and join the Deo's.

The Deo's were fast becoming a popular organization. They had started out as an obscure, fringe group about a decade ago, holding regular satsangs in their small commune located in rural California, on land that had been donated by a dedicated follower of Hoom, the founder and leader of the movement. Hoom was an assumed name, his real name was Frederick Jackson Brown. He was in his early fifties by now, and his organization was at the height of it's power. He refused to give any interviews to the press, so all the coverage on CNN and other news outlets relied on interviews of his followers.

Hoom had become somewhat of a recluse in the past several years, spending almost all his time at the California commune, surrounded and doted on by his followers. He rarely, if ever, ventured out of the commune anymore. This in itself led to rumors and speculation by the general public about his physical health and his mental state. But his followers regularly traveled all over the nation, gave interviews to the press, and heavily promoted Deo and the teachings of Hoom. They were always immaculately dressed, hair perfectly done, nails carefully manicured, and a wide, beaming smile on their faces. Standing in the hallway at the airport with their small booth, they would lead weary travelers to a seat with a comforting arm around their shoulder, asking "Have you heard about Deo? Do you know about the teachings of Hoom? Do you want peace in your life?"

Baffled and unprepared for the surgical precision with which the Deo's dissected all arguments regarding the purpose of life, suffering, and all other existential questions, the unsuspecting passenger walked away with a pamphlet in their hand and an auto-suggestion surreptitiously implanted in the back of their mind to pay the utmost importance to this nugget of wisdom.

Their numbers grew. Spiritually starved people flocked to the Deo satsangs which were now being held with increasing frequency all over the country.  Deo was becoming mainstream. Their ambassadors were expanding and their influence was spreading to other nations. Canada, England, and Australia were the first. Then, as the writings of Hoom were translated into other languages, they also started visiting France, Germany, and China. They were becoming a worldwide organization. And it was all run from that tiny ranch in rural California.

Everyone wanted a personal audience with Hoom. The Deo's who had given up all their possessions in life and moved to the commune to live with him reported that they had found their reason for existence, and were happy to remain at the ranch as long as they could be close to Hoom. As more and more people came to live there, it became crowded, and they began to expand. From their humble beginnings with only eleven devotees, they now had over four thousand, with more petitioning to join them every day.

But the Deo's were not without controversy. There were a few ex-members of the organization who had given press interviews that painted a very different picture than the promise of bliss that the Deo's were advertising. The defectors talked of mind-control, brainwashing, forced servitude, sexual transgressions, drug use, all-night partying, and a general indulgence in materialism that seemed about as far away as one could get from spirituality. And yet, thousands still flocked to join the Deo's. Perhaps the isolated voices were drowned out by the constant barrage of the Deo propaganda. Soon, it became a common sight to see people wearing the tiny Deo logo as a lapel pin, or a sticker on their car or in their homes. It had become a movement.

Social media was abuzz with all things Deo. It was the new religion for the masses, something people in the digital age could relate to. "The Book of Hoom" earned it's place among the top religious texts referenced in online searches. The popularity of the Deo's was soaring.

With the media frenzy came increasing pressure to shed more light on the reclusive founder of the Deo's. But he was as adamant as ever that he would not give any interviews. So when the 45-minute documentary on the Deo's aired in the Spring, everyone was astonished. Where the large media conglomerates had failed to obtain an interview with Hoom, some local unknown news station had not only been invited into his compound, but had also interviewed him personally. It was a rare look into the personal life of the Deo leadership.

The public was ecstatic. Deo devotees worldwide caught a glimpse of their leader and master. The numbers at the rural California ranch swelled to over ten thousand. Surrounding areas began to be populated. The Deo headquarters had become a little town.

The documentary painted a picture of an idyllic life. The imagery was of beautiful flowers, green grass, water sprinklers, families out on a picnic, children playing, and Hoom himself walking through the gardens draped in a long shawl, surrounded by a group of his immediate followers, a young lady on each side of him, all with ecstatic smiles on their faces. They showed Hoom visiting with his devotees, patting their heads, and they in return bending down to kiss his feet an adoration.

Later in the documentary, they were seated in a great hall, with white marble pillars and floors. Every word spoken echoed in the vastness of the chamber. In the center was a sort of marble stage, with a few steps to the top, which was about four feet off the ground. There, amid plush cushions and silver platters filled with grapes and other delicacies, sat Hoom himself. His dress was an unusual as his demeanor. He was barefoot, wore a pajama of sorts, but typically went about shirtless. He had various necklaces and bracelets of prayer beads hanging around his neck and arms. He usually covered himself in a shawl when it was cooler. Sitting here in the marble hall, he had let the shawl slip off, revealing his round, beach-ball belly. He was almost fully bald, and had only a few wisps of hair left, which he grew long, so that they were hanging behind his head like some sort of strange attachment that had been glued on as an afterthought. Still, it was this image that people the world over fell in love with. Hoom sitting on his marble platform, half-naked, his piercing gaze staring at the camera, one hand held up. Iconic.

The camera crew for the local news station that had gone to film the documentary set up their cameras in the great hall to film the interview with Hoom, and a portion of the satsang that was soon to follow. The seven minute interview with Hoom became the most-watched video on YouTube in all of YouTube's history. Hoom was a worldwide phenomenon.

"We believe in Hoom," one lady spoke to the camera as she prepared to enter the great hall. "He cleanses us from our sins. We find happiness in Hoom and in Deo, yes." She nodded, smiling widely at the camera, "Yes, he is the Divine. He is God."

The camera panned across the great hall, showing devotees sitting cross-legged on the cold marble floor. Some were kneeling, some laying flat on their face. There was complete silence. A few minutes later, someone cried out, "Hoom!" The voice echoed. And then silence. Several minutes passed in silence. Hoom was seated on his platform, eyes closed, silent and still. He could have been a statue. Another cry, this one more urgent, "Hoom!" It was followed by others, with each successive one sounding more and more like a desperate wail. Until finally, everyone joined in a chant of sorts, although it sounded more like a series of grunts, squeals and moans.

Hoom held up his hand, and suddenly there was complete silence again. He opened his eyes, and surveyed the assembled crowd. His flock. Sheep. He focused his attention on one particular young woman, a thin brunette who had seated herself in the front, just a few feet away from him. She wore the traditional white clothes that had become the normal dress for people living in the commune.

He stared at her without blinking, seemingly without breathing. She sat with eyes downcast, feeling the intensity of his gaze, fearful of looking up. Finally, she raised her eyes to look up at him. When her eyes met his, she gasped and lost her breath. Her composure was disturbed. She breathed heavily, and her heart began to pound inside her chest. She struggled to settle herself as those piercing eyes looked right through her, right into her soul. She felt uncomfortable, but the steady, fixed stare was stronger than her. Eventually, she stopped struggling and she surrendered.

Hoom, satisfied, had the faintest hint of a smirk on his face.

"The wild dog of ego causes you to wander," he mumbled casually, looking off into the distance.

"Look within and you will see where the problem lies," said Hoom almost reluctantly, sounding bored and irritated.

It went on like this for many of the other devotees. Some were severely chastised, even humiliated. Others were given mild instruction. A rare few were praised. The camera crew filmed every interaction with growing interest. So this is what it was like to attend one of Hoom's satsangs.

But then, a strange and unexpected thing happened. There was a woman seated in the middle of the hall, halfway between Hoom and the door. She was different in that she wasn't wearing the traditional white clothes, and even though she sat cross-legged on the floor, she didn't seem to be focusing on Hoom or his activities. He noticed her for the first time. She was probably in her thirties, slim, and had long brown hair which she had tied neatly in a bun.

Hoom did not recognize her. He turned all his energies on to her, ignoring his disciples who were pining for a glance from him. He ignored the camera crew who were still silently filming.

Hoom stared at the stranger in his characteristic way. She stared back. He was unprepared and was taken aback. She didn't seem to be intimidated by him in the least. She met his power with her own. He could feel her inner reservoir of deep strength. He began to panic. Redoubling his efforts, he tried again, this time intent upon crushing whatever will she had so that she would submit to him. He was the lord and master in this domain, and he would make her prostrate herself before him. But the energy he assailed her with her was only thwarted. The raging fire was met with cool water and was extinguished, vanishing in a cloud of evaporating steam.

Hoom's eyes widened. He had never met anyone who was so powerful.

She spoke, slowly, calmly, peacefully.

"Hoom," she said, her musical voice filling the great hall, "Why do you call yourself by that name?"

"Hoom," he answered, his voice shaking, "Hooman. Hum. Human. Because I am only human."

It was a line he had practiced and rehearsed and delivered in his sermons for years. It worked very effectively. People loved the apparent humility. For many, this was the hook that convinced them to follow Hoom and join the Deo's. It was one of his favorite lines. But this woman seemed to see right through the farce. She shook her head, almost sadly.

"Oh, Fred," she sighed, "what has happened to you? You once held so much promise, but you squandered your blessings, and now there is only darkness in you."

Hoom fidgeted uncomfortably.

"Fred," she continued, with compassion, "give up this drama now. You can still redeem yourself."

"Silence!" Hoom was livid, trembling with rage. He stood up and pointed at the woman, hurling obscenities and abuse at her. From seemingly nowhere, the sound of running feet were heard. This is where the camera crew's filming was interrupted and abruptly cut off. The last image recorded was that of a fuming, out-of-control and frightened Hoom. The exchange with the woman that led to this was edited out of the final cut for the documentary. The public saw only the serene, smiling and wise old face of Hoom and his adoring disciples.

Many years later, after millions of followers had squandered their wealth and their time following Deo and it's practices, reports surfaced of Hoom's death. He had already been dead for several months before the world knew. His followers had, upon his instruction, frozen his body in a large freezer, in anticipation that he would rise upon the third day. But the appointed day came and went, and the confused followers did not know what to do. So they kept his corpse in that frozen state for several months until finally the decision was made to bury him. They did so with all the pomp and circumstance they could muster. They had a party afterward, in his honor. Drugs, dancing, and orgies were the order of the day. It was exactly in such a party that Hoom had met his demise, from a drug overdose. The official story was that he had gone for meditation and entered into a state of samadhi so compelling that he forgot to return. It made for a good narrative for the Deo collective and legend. The few that were privy to the truth of the matter were keeping silent, either through loyalty to Hoom or through fear of retaliation from other group members if they spoke out.

The Deo movement, which had reached such heights of popularity, slowly dwindled in numbers, until only a few scant followers remained. The popular media turned their attention to the latest teenage pop sensation and the current scandal caused by various politicians, all juicy items good for ratings. Hoom and the Deo's were forgotten, and they quietly faded into obscurity.

As the sands of time shifted, the noise and clamor was eventually stilled, and only the truth remained, eternal, unchanging, and unstained.

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