This month, the ‘greaseball guru’ who fooled Mrs Thatcher checks out and the psychedelic alchemist behind Timothy Leary’s favourite acid takes a final trip
Chandraswami was born in Rajasthan, the son of a moneylender. The family moved to Hyderabad, though Chandraswami would claim that he had spent his youth meditating in the jungles of Bihar, where he acquired ‘tantric’ powers. By the 1970s he was a globetrotting mystic and self-styled “godman”, regarded by his devotees as an avatar of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. To many others, however, he was the “greaseball guru”, a modern-day Rasputin who exploited his role as spiritual adviser to a host of international film stars, senior politicians and businessmen for financial gain and had a walkon part in a string of scandals, including financing the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi.
The bearded and portly holy man, addressed by his followers as “Your Holiness”, claimed miraculous tantric powers and was said to have dispensed spiritual advice to, among others, Elizabeth Taylor (who claimed he had brought her breast cancer under control), the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, the Sultan of
Brunei, the presidents of Kenya and Zambia, and Ferdinand Marcos (who credited him with once saving his life). In her book Gurus: Stories of India’s
Leading Babas, Bhavdeep Kang wrote that Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic dictator of Zaire, would invite Chandraswami to Kinshasa and ask him to hide behind a curtain during an important meeting, then ask his advice on whether the visitor could be trusted.
Chandraswami (who spoke only Hindi) was adept at such apparently supernatural feats as mind reading. Often he would ask a new acquaintance to write questions on scraps of paper, crumple the scraps into balls, and then repeat each question as they unfolded the paper. “He closed his eyes and went into a trance,” said K Natwar Singh, a former Indian deputy high commissioner in London. “Suddenly he asked my wife to pick up any of the paper balls. She did so. Opened it. Chandraswami then told her what the question was. He was spot on.”
According to Singh, Chandraswami met Margaret Thatcher in 1975, shortly after she had become leader of the Conservative Party. The swami, Singh recalled, “prophesied that she would be prime minister for nine, 11 or 13 years” and “Mrs Thatcher began to look at Chandraswami not as a fraud, but as a holy man”. When he took off his chappals and sat on the sofa in her Commons office in the lotus position, “Mrs Thatcher seemed to approve.” Mrs T was so impressed, said Singh, that she asked for a second appointment, and even agreed to the godman’s request that she wear a red dress.
Chandraswami played a shadowy role in the battle between Mohammed al Fayed and Lonrho’s chief, “Tiny” Roland, over the control of the House of Fraser, owners of Harrods, during which he played both sides for financial gain. He was also implicated as a middleman in the Iran-Contra arms-running scandal.
Back in India, he rose to prominence on the coat-tails of Narasimha Rao, who was sworn in as India’s prime minster in 1991 on an auspicious date picked by the canny swami, who soon afterwards built a multi-storey ashram in New Delhi where he held court sitting on a large tiger skin. For the next five years, he breezed in and out of the prime minster’s residence, becoming his chief astrologer, fund manager and power broker.
Chandraswami’s luck began to turn in the run-up to the 1996 elections, when Rao was defeated by the right-wing BJP. In 1995 his followers were accused or orchestrating a wave of “miracles” as a distraction from investigations into the swami’s affairs, including several days in which statues of the elephant god Ganesh were believed to be “drinking” milk fed to them, a craze that spread within hours to Hindu communities worldwide [ FT84:16-17]. In 1996 Rao and Chandraswami were arrested on charges of defrauding Lakhubhai Pathak, the British-based “pickle king”, of $100,000 back in 1983. Rao won bail, but the godman spent 10 months in jail. Both men were later acquitted. In 1998, asked if he would keep silent over his past, Chandraswami replied: “I have to. If I open my mouth, an earthquake will result.” He was cremated on the banks of the Yamuna River in a ceremony attended by a handful of mourners, none of whom were VIPs. Nemi Chand Jain, aka Chandraswami, tantric charlatan, born Behror, Rajasthan Nov 1948; died 23 May 2017, aged 69.
Sand was the son of Clarence Hiskey, a chemist and (since his college days) a committed Communist. Clarence was recruited by Soviet intelligence during World War II while working on the Manhattan Project, from which he was expelled after he was seen meeting a Russian agent. His wife Marcia divorced him and reverted to her maiden name, Sand, passing it on to her son. Nick Sand embarked on his “chemical career” after taking mescaline as a student in Brooklyn College in 1962, but it was his first experience with LSD in 1964 (when it was still legal) that turned him into an acid prophet. “I was floating in this immense black space,” he recalled in The Sunshine Makers (2015), a documentary by Cosmo Feilding-Mellen. “I said, ‘What am I doing here?’ And suddenly a voice came through my body and it said, ‘Your job on this planet is to make psychedelics and turn on the world’.” Like Moses receiving the tablets, Sand took this commandment to heart.
Encouraged by Owsley Stanley, America’s premier acid chemist, and financed by Billy Hitchcock, heir to a banking and oil fortune, Sand and computer expert Tim Scully (Owsley’s lab partner) set up a lab in Windsor, California, in 1968. Within a year they had made 10 million tabs of “Orange Sunshine”, touted by Tim Leary as the finest acid available, which was distributed by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love from their base at Laguna Beach, California. (One source states this was the first step in a planned production of 750 million trips.) Sand made sure that Orange Sunshine was available to American soldiers in Vietnam, whose minds he hoped to bend in the direction of non-violence and brotherly love. The goal was simple: “If we could turn on everyone in the world, then maybe we’d have a new world of peace and love.”
When the supply began to run out, a certain Ronald Stark turned up with a large quantity of pure LSD and took over the financing. Stark, however, turned out to be an informer; Sand and Scully was given 15-year sentences in 1971; Sand was let out on bail pending appeal, and slipped into Canada, where he lived for two decades under the assumed name Theodore Edward Parody III and continued with his psychedelic alchemy. He was unmasked in 1996 and sent back to the US where he served six years in jail, after which he moved to Ecuador. He remained totally committed to the beatific vision granted to him on his first trip. Gina Raetze, his long-time companion (and sometime partner of the situationist Chris Gray,
FT252:26), said he died of a heart attack. Nicholas Francis Hiskey, afterwards Sand, acid chemist, born Brooklyn, New York City 10 May 1941; died Lagunitas, California, 24 April 2017, aged 75.