Alice McCleod met John Coltrane in 1962, and the next five years could not have been more full. Alice, a jazz pianist, was 26. Coltrane, a tenor and soprano saxophonist, was 10 years older and already a jazz great.
The couple’s friendship quickly turned to love. They married and had four children. Alice became the keyboard player in Coltrane’s jazz quartet. Through him, she learned to play the harp.
He also introduced her to Eastern philosophy, religion, music and meditation.
Then, at the age of 40, John Coltrane died of liver disease. Alice Coltrane was a widow with three boys and a girl to raise. The blow could have turned her away from her new-found religious faith, but it did not.
Today, 20 years later, she is known to a religious community in Agoura’s Triunfo Canyon as Swami Turiyasangitananda, a name that means “transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss.” Coltrane owns the Shanti Anantam Vedantic Center, a 48-acre compound that is home to a racially mixed community of about 20 adults and 15 children.
Although she lives in Woodland Hills, Coltrane visits the center twice a week to teach and lead services. Residents call her “a holy person” and show their reverence by kneeling at her feet.
The evolution from grieving widow to spiritual teacher was a painful one, Coltrane said. Her husband had died at the peak of his musical career and left a considerable void. She termed him a “legend in his own lifetime,” and few critics would disagree.
Visions of Husband
Alice Coltrane said God soon sent her visions of her husband. She said the visions confirmed her religious trust. In 1968, inspired by what she called an “initiation from the Lord” that grew out of these visions, she began a period of spiritual testing in the Yogic tradition of austerity, known as “tapas.”
“Tapas” are self-imposed physical and mental tests. Coltrane said that it was under God’s direction that she was led to take them. At first, she said, they were easy. But step by step, they grew harder.
She fasted, just for a day at first, then for longer and longer periods.
She went without sleep. At the beginning she stayed awake just overnight, but later she went for months on only two hours of sleep a night.
Coltrane moved well beyond the tapas practiced by traditional yogis. She cut her skin and inflicted burns. Her family intervened by having her stay with them, but Coltrane’s severe asceticism continued. In her autobiography, “Monument Eternal,” (Vedantic Books Press, 1977) she wrote that her weight dropped to 95 pounds. Her mind filled with phantasmal dreams and visions of God.
Even today she does not question that the ordeal, which lasted two years, was divinely inspired.
Speaking of the tapas, Coltrane said: “They gave me tolerance, patience, stamina, strength of mind--so many good qualities.”
Directed by Visions
During that time, she was told through her visions that she must become a religious teacher, and that someday she would have her own religious school.
She also was told to move from New York to California with her children--which she did in 1972, to San Francisco, where she began giving religious instruction.
To those who express skepticism at her testimony about her religious initiation, Coltrane, a tall, soft-spoken woman who has about her a calm authority, responds with quiet, unshakable conviction: “It would have to be divine guidance.
“You have your own conscience, your own intelligence, and you know your own mind.”
In 1975 Coltrane moved to Woodland Hills and opened the Vedantic Center. In 1984 she moved the center to Agoura, settling in a peaceful, oak-studded valley with a wide creek bed cutting through its heart.
Residents live in homes dotted across the steep hills. The adults take religious instruction from Coltrane. Studies include Indian Vedantic scripture, the Bible and Islamic and Buddhist texts. Although commune members rise at 5 a.m. to pray and meditate, they do not practice the tapas that Coltrane inflicted on herself.
Coltrane does not recruit disciples. “I have absolutely no directive from God to proselytize,” she said.
The ashram attracted attention in April, 1986, when one of its members, 6-year-old Miguel Antero, was stabbed to death. The boy’s body was discovered in brush about seven hours after he had gotten off a school bus. The case remains unsolved; no arrests were ever made. The child’s parents have moved away, according to commune members.
Coltrane spoke at the funeral, saying, “This boy told me very lucidly, ‘I’m very happy in heaven.’ Let’s not let this event destroy our faith and our trust in God.”
Her students consider themselves a group of individuals who, in searching for spiritual truth, have chosen to live together. Adult members hold regular jobs outside the center, including ones involving the operation of a natural-food restaurant. They pay rent to Coltrane, but declined to say how much. Wages earned by each individual or family belong to that person or family, not to the whole community.
The swami, they said, does not seek to control them. Rather, she teaches that free will is crucial to genuine spiritual growth.
‘Just a Loving Giving’
Whether members stay or leave “doesn’t matter to her either way,” said a student called Purushattama, who has been a follower of Coltrane for 12 years. “It’s like a selfless love. And that’s beautiful. It’s just a loving giving. She pushes you from dependency.”
In the search for God, Purushattama said, “The swami provides spiritual guidance. But the work, we have to do for ourselves.”
Members often wear Indian clothing, usually all white, sometimes orange. Their conversations are laced with the blessing “Om Shanti,” or just “Shanti.” At night chanting comes from the Mandir, a worship room equipped with a shrine that includes pictures of Coltrane and Indian gods.
Music occupies a large role at the ashram. Coltrane plays the organ at services, leading members who chant, sing and accompany her on a variety of Eastern instruments. The music is a means, Coltrane claims, of expressing thoughts.
Until recently she rarely performed in public. However, this year--the 20th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death--she has played the keyboard in several concerts with her two sons, Oran and Ravi, also jazz musicians. She has done this, she said, for two reasons:
One is to give her sons and other young musicians the experience of playing in concert; the other is to honor John Coltrane’s musical genius and pay tribute to her God.