Conny Larsson’s most recent autobiographical book ‘The Beatles, Maharishi and I’ reviewed
(Note: so far the book is available only in Swedish: ‘The Beatles, Maharishi och jag’)
by Robert Priddy and Reidun Priddy

The Beatles made the background music to the love, and ‘flower power’ generation’s self-empowering social revolution of the 60s and beyond. Its influence pervaded many lives across the globe (if not exactly across the universe). This was a heady mixture of tearing away from the old into a quite new and intoxicating way of life, inspired and spiced - yet also allured - by Eastern mysticism with its fantastic promises of experiencing new dimensions of pure love and peace. Quite a different cup of tea to the humdrum goals of social democratic dreams of equality, work and housing opportunities for all etc., so prevalent in Sweden at the time.

This latest book by Conny Larsson reflects this slice of social history in what is also his intensely personal account of a life of being abused, overcoming huge hindrances and becoming famous in Sweden, only to fall into the clutches of first one then another major sect. The Beatles’ song titles function as a framework for the various chapters in this story of his life, thus making it easy to time events. They expressed and reflected ideas and longings and were idols and examples in Sweden just as strongly as in the UK.

Alongside the Beatles was Conny’s deep involvement with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, for whom he became the closest secretary for a long period until disillusion finally set in. Well before the Beatles’ famous defection from Rishikesh, he had felt like a close companion to Conny who had become a Transcendental Meditation (TM) leader in Sweden and was in increasingly close contact with what was happening in Maharishi’s inner circle in Rishikesh.

Cults are becoming increasingly international in their appeal and manipulations, and many who get disaffected from one guru or cult tend to seek further and get absorbed in another. Yet Conny Larsson is something of a phenomenon even so, as he eventually saw through Maharishi and his set-up but then became a figure in the even more flawed and subtly deceptive sect of Sathya Sai Baba, to whom he also came very close.

Conny Larsson has thus been very close indeed to two of the very most popular Indian gurus of the modern age. He was an integral part of their administrative machinery for many years in each case, 30 years in all. His book must therefore be unique for its depth of penetration of two major world cults and the true nature of their figureheads, exposing their many close similarities and differences. We learn how he could jump from the frying pan into the fire so completely through his soul-searing testimony about the intensity and far-reaching nature of his childhood sex abuse traumas and how his consequent weakness was exploited by these heartless gurus, and also sexually by Sathya Sai Baba in the false name of ‘healing’! Not only was his earliest childhood filled with terror at the drunken battles between his alcoholic father and long-suffering mother, but he was for years also systematically sexually abused by his father’s male boss and drinking companion … which caused him to lose the power of speech for many years. That he eventually overcame the huge disability of being mute to become one of Sweden’s most-loved and best known actors in his youth is remarkable in itself.

Conny has developed an unusual talent for describing subtleties of behaviour and relationships seldom so well captured in words. His irony is subtle and always hits the bull’s-eye. His openness and frank expressivity convey the convincing impression of sincerity and honesty in revealing his world for the sake of making known the many snares and delusions into which he fell… so as to help warn others. One seldom comes across such illumining subject matter as to the many-sided insidiousness of sectarian indoctrination through positive ideals, which yet serve largely to entrap and exploit. How self-programming indoctrination works and how extremely difficult it is – after many years of devoted engagement – to see through or get free of brainwashed doctrines and practises is elucidated. The number of painful wounds from blows needed to crack open the mind of a believer are seen to the full in Conny’s self revelations. Thus, he becomes a truly victorious survivor against all odds – and through his experience and liberation it enables us to see through the labyrinthine ins and outs of the manipulated mind, the covert needs, self-deceptions and ambitions that big gurus are so successful at exploiting for their various nefarious and selfish ends.

The Maharishi turned out to be an extremely ambitious person with delusions of grandeur – concentrated on obtaining for himself the Nobel Peace Prize. His meetings with Scandinavian royalty and Olof Palme did not help. Maharishi rode rough shod over everyone when he had no longer any use for them, including George Harrison for whom Conny had to act as a go-between to Maharishi because the yogi would not speak to him or accept his offers to serve him in any way he could. Maharishi said, “Tell him we don’t need him, tell him to meditate regularly for a year and then come back to me.” After much humiliating treatment by Maharishi, whose feet Conny massaged night after night, the last straw broke the camel’s back… and Conny realised fully that Maharishi was absolutely not the monk he pretended to be. Even early on Conny learned that the mantras the Maharishi sold at an exorbitant price as ‘individual mantras’ amounted to 15 in all! The mantras would be individualised through the individual using it, replied Maharishi! After Conny left him he remained in close contact with Maharishi and TM people and observed the increasingly absurd ‘siddhi miracle’ programme with bogus ‘yogic flying’ and much more.

Conny’s last words to the Maharishi were, “Maharishi! You know that I love you. You know I should never do anything to hurt you or the TM movement. I only say this to save you and the organization from that catastrophe I fear if you continue on this course.” From all those years Conny took away the ability to meditate, which he has done ever since to aid his inner balance and peacefulness. Maharishi had also helped him regain the full power of his speech instructing him to train through reciting aloud on his own in the jungle every day.

Soon after he came to Sathya Sai Baba in India, Conny gave away a major fortune he had amassed in Sri Lanka in property investments because he was told to do so by Sathya Sai Baba. He intended to settle at the Puttaparthi ashram from then on and pursue a spiritual life. It was not to be, for Sai Baba soon told him he must return to Sweden and devote his entire life to helping the poor in his country by starting a treatment centre for criminals and drug abusers... something in which Conny had absolutely no experience or qualifications and which seemed absolutely beyond him. Sai Baba had ensured that his money was forfeited and, having sexually abused him many times, he then gave him his marching orders from the ashram. Not only that but Sai Baba jealously denied Conny the right to get married to his fiancé, Ania, who the supposedly pure and puritan Sai Baba gave as a mistress to his besotted translator, Professor Anil Kumar!

Conny's world crashed yet again, but eventually he decided to try his utmost to follow Sai Baba's seemingly impossible command and, despite all odds, he managed to start just such a treatment home, using the training of horses as a medium for treatment. The Swedish authorities soon supported his efforts and his centre became larger and was recognised as a success story, which caused various prisons and other institutions to send rehabilitation cases to him. Conny accepted only those who came voluntarily and who would fully accept a vegetarian lifestyle and the program he had developed. Many came from prisons, which were allowed to release convicts under approved conditions for residence at such rehabilitation institutions. Some were even murderers.

The stable grew as the horses were successful in winning trotting races, and several patients became winning jockeys.Conny based his programme on Sai Baba's so-called 'five human values', a positive moral doctrine which has appeal to many due to its simplicity. Based largely on anecdotal examples, this is a vague doctrine, which can therefore be interpreted in many ways depending on the person and situation involved. Conny managed to use it to help his patients accept themselves and change their ways, apparently to a considerable extent. He naturally told them about Sathya Sai Baba and many got interested, not least when a trip to India to the ashram was a possibility.

Conny describes in graphic detail his problems with the young men who had come under his care at the treatment home in Sweden. Some of them accompanied him to visit Sai Baba and were granted private interviews. The drama that followed on these visits was intricate to track, but Conny came to know that both boys had been sexually molested by Sai Baba. Later, independently of one another, both these boys took their own lives!

Gurus can make it literally unthinkable to those truly hooked by their doctrines to doubt them or to exercise common sense, let alone critical thought, concerning their much vaunted but hollow compassion, truth and purity. That this is a fact can be seen from the often horrendous fates of a number of Conny’s original friends and contacts within both the TM and the Sai Baba cults. As Conny relates, suicides through self-immolation were among the many awful consequences of ‘surrender to the guru’ Maharishi, while two of his young male patients took their own lives (they were also ‘privately interviewed’ by Sai Baba!). The layers of narcissistic grandeur with which those two pretenders to holiness enveloped themselves – not without the massive help of blinded followers - are stripped away convincingly. One of Conny’s young patients had used to repeat a sentence, without further explanatory comments, which later seemed to Conny to sum it all up: “It seems to be what it is not”.

There is something wider to be learnt about humanity itself, how attached people become to beliefs and commitments they have embraced so that – when truth intervenes – few are fortunate enough to realise it or have sufficient strength of character (or personal courage) take the necessary steps.

Conny Larsson’s previous work, entitled ‘Behind the Mask of the Clown’ (in Swedish and English) – a self-biographical tour - supplements the present book. Read excerpts from that book and a review of that book by a Swedish psychologist