The Serpent Rising
The Serpent Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction (paperback edition)
The Serpent Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction (Kindle edition)
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In 1973 I abandoned a promising academic career in Auckland, New Zealand, to spend seven years in India at the feet of such gurus as Bhagwan Rajneesh, Sathya Sai Baba and an enigmatic yogi in the Himalayan jungle – Swami Balyogi Premvarni. The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction is my story of the heaven and hell I experienced as I fell under the spell of self-appointed ‘god-men’, especially Premvarni who wielded incredible and destructive control over his devotees. Rather than someone who could guide me towards the light he turned out to be an unscrupulous psychopath who exploited me emotionally and sexually. I am grateful that I managed to wake up and escape, and survived to tell my tale.
The Serpent Rising was one of the first books to shine the light on the dangers of the guru-disciple relationship, especially for naïve Westerners. The book started out as a short story. In July 1981, I was seven months pregnant and looking for something to do while I waited for the birth of my first child. I decided to do several TAFE courses including one on car maintenance and another on fiction writing. The latter was a 10-lesson course conducted by Rolfe Bradley. For the second homework assignment we were asked to write a short fictional story. I wrote a story called ‘ripped off by ants’ – the story of my escape across India from the first godman I had grasped onto as my guru. I pretended it was fiction. This was the evaluation I got:
This is exceptionally well written and I believe you should write a full length book of your experiences and your detailed reactions to India. This could be straightforwardly factual or spiced here and there with a little invention. I’m sure this would find a ready market.
I couldn’t believe it. Me write a book! I hadn’t written a story since secondary school and I almost failed English Literature at university. I walked around in a daze for weeks. But when I came back to earth I realised I wasn’t ready to dig up my experiences in India, plus I was full of self-doubt about my writing ability. Maybe that story had been a one-off fluke.
But in the years that followed I’d sporadically scribble a few recollections on a pad of paper and leave them in a folder. The words of Rolfe Bradley haunted me. Maybe I should write a book. One day I just knew I had to get my story down. I sat in front of my type writer and wrote for 10-12 hours a day and sometimes got up in the middle of the night to work on it. I wrote on the dining room table in the centre of the open-plan house. I had two boisterous pre-school children so I was surrounded by noise and chaos. After three months I had a large pile of paper, no title, no chapters or headings, just a mass of words. A friend of mine, Dr Martin Duwell, a lecturer in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland, reluctantly agreed to have a quick look at it. I would then know whether to burn it, or whether it was worth publishing. He was surprised and one of the first things he said was “oh this sort of thing could sell well”. He agreed to work with me for a few hours each week. At the end of two months it was finished.
It was first published in 1988 and then revised in a second edition in 2003. For various reasons in the first book I attempted to make my story a work of fiction, even resorting to using a different name, Helena Pearson, for the main character. Regardless, readers and reviewers read it as a memoir. Now that many of those things I first wrote about have been brought out into the open, and there is much more interest in them, I decided to republish my book as the truth that it is.
Both editions attracted a lot of media interest. As well as reviews and articles, I received hundreds of letters (and more recently emails) from readers. Some of these letters were several pages long from people telling me their stories, their own journeys into guruland and cults, people thanking me for my courage in writing my story and some even thanked me for saving them a trip to India – they’d write that they had planned to go and check out this or that guru but I’d turned them off completely.
There were many interviews on radio and television, including Rachel Kohn’s The Spirit of Things on ABC, Steven Austin’s ABC Conversation Hour and Ray Martin on his midday show on Channel 9. And more recently on ABC Life Matters http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-12/life-in-a-cult-how-i-escaped/9641852
My own long-form feature ‘The Trouble with Gurus’ was published in 2003 in The Australian Financial Review in its Friday Review section. Move over from website - link to word document here). In October 2004, I presented a paper ‘The Potential for Abuse in the Guru-Disciple Relationship’ at the yearly conference of the American Family Foundation (now called International Cultic Studies Association) held that year at Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1990, Earthlight Films (Western Australia) bought the rights to adapt my book for a television drama. They wrote two treatments, but sadly nothing came of it. They could not get the financial backing.
Extracts from Reviews
There is no other book that I know of which reveals the addictive nature of the search for spiritual enlightenment better than this one. While it does not seek to be sensational, it is so, by virtue of its subject matter and the courageous honesty of its author. Mary Garden’s book may just stop you from falling into that vortex of group hysteria where discernment and commonsense are discarded in favour of dubious mysticism.
Sue Gough, The Courier Mail
This book starts out looking like an act of self-indulgence but it quickly becomes impossible to put down. It is a compelling and shaking account of an extraordinary journey that takes the heroine beyond the superficial religious manipulators of contemporary India to a thoroughly bizarre and sinister situation. It is best described as a spiritual thriller.
Dr Martin Duwell, The University of Queensland.
A courageous memoir and a salutary warning to all shoppers in the spiritual supermarket.
Robin Osborne, The Northern Rivers Echo.
I was fascinated by your book. I picked it up and I sort of looked at it and I thought ‘oh yeah’ but after I had read 4-5 pages I couldn’t put it down and I ended up reading the whole book in about the space of 4-5 hours. It’s an extraordinary story. I’ve learnt more from this book than I’ve learnt in a whole lifetime on this type of subject.
Ian Holland 4KQ Radio, Brisbane.
Received your book today, and started browsing it. Finally I couldn’t stand it and read the whole thing cover to cover. And this when I am only days from deadline. You have a gift for communicating, and after reading your experiences, I am not surprised. My hat is off to you, for having come through all your experiences with an improved view of life!
Duncan Roads, Editor, Nexus Magazine.
I read your fabulous confession on the plane from New York to Munich … If properly marketed you could make a mint with that little book.
Professor Agehanda Bharati, Syracuse University, N.Y.
Compelling reading. A frank and personal account of the search for ‘reality’. Leaves one uneasy about the traps that are there for the genuine but unwary seeker.
Grahame Defty, Anglican priest, Australia.
The book was absolutely fascinating and your story needed to be told.
Professor Ann Faraday, Sydney.
Gripping, interesting, very moving, beautifully written in parts.
Maurice Gee, acclaimed New Zealand author.
A vivid description of one person’s spiritual journey. Much of what the writer shows us of gurus, yogis and swamis may be disconcerting for the reader. This book teaches us to be mindful of spiritual power – and of its abuse.
Dr Don Diespecker, Australian psychologist & psychotherapist.
I read your book in one day, unable to put it down. Thank you for your honesty … it’s certainly refreshing.
Dianne Allen, Victoria.
What an extraordinary tale you tell in The Serpent! Spiritual seduction indeed. You caused me to read into the early hours of the morning.
Bob Walshe, Sutherland, NSW.
I compliment you on your frankness and honesty. As I read your book compellingly one night straight through I cried and laughed with you, wishing a the same time that both of us could find the means to lighten our acceptance of what life dishes out. I had once thought of doing the India trip but you saved me from that.
Helen Foster-Holland, SA.
Your book is powerful and profound. What you are voicing is a critical issue of these changing times. Everyone is trying out a multitude of different cults, paths, spiritual disciplines, etc until we find out that no one outside of us has the answers we seek. Your book bespeaks the fixations of an entire generation (or three). The immediacy was so special, both my boyfriend read it from cover to cover, barely pausing to eat, sleep etc because as a record of experience it was so passionately real and unselfconscious. I would like to affirm your work and its qualities of exceptional directness and revealing honesty.
Sue Booker, Bronte, NSW.
I saw ‘The Wizard of Oz’ the other day with my children and the lion reminded me of your courage. I think your book is very important simply because there is hardly a thing written to expose the bullshit, not to mention the lives that are destroyed. I hope you feel very proud of yourself.
Katia Dark, NSW.
I appreciate you telling your story …your agonising experiences and ecstatic periods I found totally absorbing. I read your book in one afternoon, hardly stopping. Jonathan Hurding, Mapleton, Qld.
I found your book fascinating, could not put it down once I started reading it. What really impressed me was your courage in putting pen to paper.
Sue Delaney, psychologist, Sydney, NSW.
I just finished reading your book early this morning. I bought it yesterday … and found it to be totally absorbing and at times un-nerving. The inclusiveness of your search seems to reinforce my belief that no one or no religion will take you to enlightenment.
Peter Boman, Brisbane, Qld.