The Night Rudi Died

By Swami Chetanananda


In the time I spent with Rudi, he only called me once on the telephone. It was in February 1973 to tell me that he was leaving, that he was going away and he wanted me to come and see him off. I thought he was going to Europe, where he had just opened ashrams in Paris and Rome, although the truth is that he didn’t have a ticket to Europe. I didn’t know that until later. He didn’t really have a plan, and he knew what was about to happen to him.

Following a trip to India about six months before, Rudi had had a series of very powerful experiences. I saw him about once a month during that time, and each time he told me that it was possible he would pass away shortly. Since he was in the habit of saying things just to see how I’d respond, and to see what things he could say that I would embrace or react to, I didn’t pay any attention to him.  I just said, “Okay, okay.”  Inside myself, I totally suppressed and denied that information.  

I got there to New York a week early but late in the day. Usually Rudi was happy to see me and I was certainly happy to see him. On this occasion, however, I walked in to his shop and he jumped on me so hard from the get go that I was spinning. I think I slept an hour and a half a night for the whole rest of the week. So I remember this week very well. Up to that point, I had been the star student and couldn't do anything wrong. There was suddenly an enormous reversal where it seemed like everything that I had done that  I thought was right was actually wrong, and I was being called to task for it all in a week.


On February 21, Rudi was going to upstate New York to start yet another ashram in Albany. Rudi was  a phenomenon at that point. He had gathered so much energy, that things were just spontaneously happening around him. People were coming in from everywhere to meet him. When he died he probably had 6 times the number of students he had when I met him in 1971. Participating in this expansion was exhausting, and getting pounded by him that week was even more exhausting.

He was flying up to this place in a light plane piloted by  a guy who had never carried passengers before—it was his first flight with passengers. I was supposed to go with him on that trip.   Scott Hanley and I had flown him and flown ourselves all over the Midwest and all over the east coast in a light plane, and we knew when you don’t fly, where you don’t go, and in what weather you don’t fly in small planes, if you don’t have the right experience. This pilot didn't think anything of taking off in the weather that night because he knew we had done it.

It was a cloudy, rainy, cold February night. The moisture in the air went right through you, as it can only do in New York or Boston. Rudi looked over at me late in the day, and he said, “You look really tired, I think you should stay here and rest.”  He gave me the key to his room, which I never had before. So I was off the flight and walking to the door with Rudi, as he was about to get into this red Buick station wagon that the pilot had. We stopped in the doorway of the store, which was not a wide doorway, it was just one glass door. We were standing across from each other, face to face,  and my face was very close to  his, when a wave of sadness came over me and I started crying. He just stood there looking at me, and I said, “ Rudi, I feel like everything that is you inside of me is being pulled out,” He said, “Michael, you are no longer my child, you’re my brother.”

That ‘s the last thing Rudi ever said to me in this physical world. After that he got in the car and left, and I went around the corner to his house, went upstairs and lay down on his bed. The really weird thing is that at exactly the minute that the plane crashed, I sat straight up on that bed and snapped my fingers and said, “Son of a bitch!” I knew exactly what had happened, and I went downstairs to tell the guy who was in charge of the house at the time, a man named Richard Smith. I went down and told him, "Rudi isn’t coming back." He said, “Michael, you’ve slipped a tread, you know you had a really hard week.” So he took me for a walk through the West Village and he tried to talk me out of it, but we waited and waited and waited, and then sure enough, we knew. It wasn’t confirmed until the next day when we got the official phone call, but I knew. 

Rudi went on that plane, that night, knowing full well what was in front of him.  Reading the dictation that he had given as he was flying, it’s very clear.  It’s hard to say he went courageously, because for him it required no courage.  Certainly he went fearlessly, but that was almost beyond the question too, because the depth of his dedication, even after so many years, continuing to deepen his practice and deepen his teaching and to grow as a spiritual human being at whatever cost was appropriate, that was his life.  The experience that he had in India in October 1972 confirmed both the potential and the danger of the intense period of practice that he went through during those months and that we shared with him.  Yet there was never any issue.  He went on the plane perfectly peacefully to face the total uncertainty that was in front of him full of incredible peace and sweetness. 

Michelle Valentino