Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s was a hotbed of New Age philosophers and do-it-yourself swamis. 

Popular then was a magazine called New Frontier which covered the waterfront when it came to New Age esoterica. This was well before the alternative press reading public adopted atheistic humanism as their intellectual badge of honor. In New Frontier, one could find about reincarnation and Edgar Cayce, the healing power of crystals and holistic foods, the power of Reiki, ads for visiting yogis or Indian godwomen (they usually made appearances at the Unitarian church at 21st and Chestnut Street), and so on. 

The editor and founder of New Frontier was Swami Nostradamus Virato, formerly Joseph Bacanskas (some bios list his last name as Banks) but also known as Slimy Tomato. Born into a Lithuanian family in Brooklyn in 1938, Slimy was a smart kid with an introspective and scholastic bent. He first realized that he was able to tap into mystical realms at the age of nine while praying in a Catholic church in Brooklyn. At that time he said that he saw Jesus Christ come to him in “spiritual physical form.”  

After completing college, the future swami entered the corporate world, married, and had three children. His biography states that he was even a member of the local Junior Chamber of Commerce. This is all solid citizen stuff; it certainly has the makings of a future Philadelphia City Council member. But then something happened.

Banks walked out on his family in 1972 and adopted the life of a cosmic drifter. In 1976, he recalled how he was struck by “two flashes of light from above” while walking in New York City. The experience, he says, allowed him to enter into a “fulfilled state of consciousness” where his intuitive abilities and his attitudes towards life changed. The experience caused him to leave the corporate world in 1979, after which he traveled to India where he studied meditation and eastern philosophy. A year later he was initiated by the famous guru Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) and accepted the new name of Virato. 

The name Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was also making the rounds in the city at that time. One could go into the homes of city astrologers — like famed Daily News columnist Jacqueline Bigar — and see his books displayed on the coffee table. Many people were also chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo at Buddhist centers around town. For a while I tried this myself, practicing the chant at home and then going to meetings but in the end gave it up because, as the French poet Arthur Rimbaud once noted, we are all slaves to our baptism — and my baptism happens to be Catholic Christianity. 

Osho’s Ten Commandments can be summed up at follows: 

  1. Never obey anyone’s command unless it is coming from within you also.
  2. There is no God other than life itself.
  3. Truth is within you, do not search for it elsewhere.
  4. Love is prayer.
  5. To become nothingness is the door to truth. Nothingness itself is the means, the goal and attainment.
  6. Life is now and here.
  7. Live wakefully.
  8. Do not swim—float.
  9. Die each moment so that you can be new each moment.
  10.  Do not search. That which is, is. Stop and see.

Osho’s biggest teaching tenet was tantric sex but he also emphasized meditation, mindfulness, love, celebration and humor. In his tantric sex workshops around the world his followers engaged in psychotherapeutic orgies where everything was permitted. Incidences of brutality, rape, and death sometimes marred these sessions although when a devotee died in a workshop, their body was quickly cremated to get rid of the evidence. 

Osho was famous for his luxury cars and lush lifestyle and he often said that if he couldn’t supply the world or his followers with luxury he could at least make himself happy with luxury. In 1984, Osho predicted that three quarters of the world would die from AIDS and advised his followers to wear latex gloves and condoms when having sex and to refrain from kissing. Osho did not subsist on meditation and sex alone but was known to have taken 60 milligrams of valium a day; he was also addicted to nitrous oxide. 

Virato was also involved in EST and Lifespring, major consciousness raising movements of that era that demanded large sums of money upfront.  Although not specifically categorized as religions, EST and Lifespring adherents often did covert missionary work in the city, even going into gay bars and posing as gay men so that they could make “dates” with people they thought would make good followers. When it came time for the “date” in question, the man who was asked out would not be driven to a bar or restaurant, but to a Lifespring meeting. 

Virato liked to say that there was “no tantra school,” that tantra was just a matter of waking up and learning the art of letting go. He once told an interviewer that one could be falling from a tall building and heading past the 32nd floor and if he let go in the tantra fashion it would be a wonderful experience. 

Tantra could also be eating plant-based foods and its meditation techniques, he claimed, could cure addictions to food, alcohol, and heroin. He was against the wearing of colognes or perfumes. He did a lot of work in Russia where he met and married a much younger, slender, long-haired girl.     

He often said that there were four kinds of tantra. White tantra was the Sikh traditional; yellow tantra was Tibetan or Buddhist tantra; black tantra was the worship of death, sado-masochism and voodoo; and red tantra the tantra of sensuality, taste and smell. Vitro said that he was a red tantra fellow, adding, “Most of the work I did was very sexually oriented for thirty years.” 

“Tantra doesn’t tell you to control your sexual urges to reach God,” Virato wrote, “but rather the opposite. It supports the development of this vital energy to achieve union with Divinity. The essence of Tantra is the full expression of existence… a merging with, rather than a withdrawing from. It is the ultimate yoga which is Sanskrit for union…” 

“What about God?” Virato asks in one online video. “I do not believe in God! All beliefs for me are mechanisms by which people are controlled unconsciously or are self controlled because they are mentally dysfunctional.”  Then he adds: “How does one believe in the sun? How does one believe in a little puppy dog or a flower? There’s nothing to believe. Belief is the blasphemy of truth.” 

Virato lived on South Street before his departure to Asheville, North Carolina in 1994. His work at that time included the management of a holistic detoxification and meditation retreat 20 miles outside of Asheville. He felt that Philadelphia was overcrowded and that the region in general was falling victim to dangerous “sprawl.”  

While he seemed to find some peace and comfort in Asheville, he once complained that he had a car stolen one block away from the public access television station where he worked as a producer. He was afraid that Asheville, now that it had been discovered as a rustic mountain hide-away, would in time be ruined by its own popularity. In 2007, he complained that “you can’t even walk the streets of Philadelphia or New York City.” He hated crack-smokers and was not a fan of smoking marijuana in the street, so he probably wouldn’t be happy with today’s Philadelphia where you can’t go anywhere without smelling the brain cell destroying odor of the death plant.

“We should continue to support AIDS,” he said in 2007, “not AIDS research but support getting AIDS [as a method of population control].” 

Virato died on February 2, 2013 in a hospice in Asheville with his wife Dhiraja Luda by his side. In one photograph, he is shown lying in repose with a feather in his hand, a happy expression on his face. In one online obituary there were comments both pro and con about his life and legacy.   

“Virato was the first person to open my eyes about tantra back in Philly in the 70’s,” one woman wrote. “I loved the New Frontier magazine… He was a bit fake with his approach to tantra and women including me…he just wanted to seduce whatever he could and pretend to show what tantra really was. Still, I am grateful that he opened my eyes to it… it was actually the beginning of my path…” 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

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