New Zealand Herald * Saturday, March 8, 1997
AGITATORS AT THE ashram
The spectre of sexual exploitation overshadows the Siddha Yoga organisation whose spiritual leader is visiting Auckland. GILBERT WONG backgrounds the troubles while BERNADETTE RAE talks to a disenchanted former disciple.
ILLUSTRATION / BILL PAYNTER
As a ritual, it beats hollow others that have been staged at Aucklands Downtown Centre, venue for events as disparate as the Miss New Zealand beauty pageant and the Five Blind Boys from Alabama.
This weekend the centre will overflow with a predominately pakeha middle-class audience prepared to pay $400 a head for two days of spiritual guidance, known as an Intensive. The centre will resound with loud, rhythmic chanting.
A high point for many will be the ceremony known as darshan. The audience, one by one, approach the woman they have come to see, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda.
An Indian woman in her early 40s, with high aristocratic cheekbones, close-cropped hair and a bright smile, Gurumayi, as she is solely known by devotees, taps each follower on the head with a wand of peacock feathers.
Those who experience the touch report feeling galvanized, as if by electricity, overcome by Gurumayis blessing. Some enter a state of shocked bliss.
The magazine Hinduism Today has called Gurumayi one of the 10 most influential Hindu leaders of the last decade.
As spiritual head of the Siddha Yoga Dham (Home of Siddha Yoga) of America Foundation, otherwise known as SYDA, Gurumayi leads a major spiritual organisation with more than 550 meditation centres, 10 ashrams and tens of thousands of followers worldwide.
Like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi before here, Gurumayi can count among her admires a coterie of celebrities. Diana Ross, Isabella Rossellini, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson have all come to her meditation sessions in search of answers to spiritual and psychological questions only they and their therapist can pose.
Andre Gregory, the theatre director and actor, perhaps best known for his role in the Louis Malle film My Dinner With Andre, told a reporter for the New Yorker that he was grateful to Gurumayi and her swamis for showing him "a technique of prayer that is in the body ... a physical way of experiencing God."
Such is the sway that Gurumayi holds over her devotees that they are said to vie to sit in her dirty bath water.
When Gurumayi was last in New Zealand in 1992, her arrival was accompanied by a veritable media blizzard. The gurus handlers were only too happy to accommodate journalists and photographers. Articles duly appeared, lauding the sense of spiritual peace apparently provided by mere proximity to Gurumayi, who sat cross-legged in a transparent perspex chair, giving the illusion that she was levitating.
This week it was different. Gurumayis public relations person Helen Jones said the presence of journalists would interfere with the spiritual peace of those who had paid to attend Gurumayis sessions. For her part, Gurumayi has kept to her long-held policy of refusing interviews.
From a public relations perspective, there could be good reason for a low profile. Despite glowing endorsements from people like Gregory, there have also surfaced disturbing and well-documented reports of a darker side to Gurumayi and the SYDA organisation.
There first surfaced as long ago as 1983 in an article by William Rodarmor in the CoEvolution Quarterly. Rodarmor interviewed 25 members and former members of SYDA detailing sexual activities that Gurumayis predecessor, Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa, engaged in with young female disciples on a table in the sects Catskills ashram in New York state.
Yoga adherents refer to the practice called tantric sex, where gurus can pass on a spiritual experience in intimate circumstances. One women who told of such an encounter with Muktananda said he was not erect and did not ejaculate.
The then 26-year-old said of her experience with Muktananda: "All I know was that I was in a state of total ecstasy, and whatever happened had nothing to do with sex."
Muktananda had earlier decreed that residents of the Siddha ashrams were to remain celibate and SYDA officially maintains that Muktananda did not breach his own decree.
Perhaps the most comprehensive account of the recent trouble SYDA has faced appears in a 1994 New Yorker article written by journalist Lis Harris, who interviewed hundreds of present and former followers.
Harris account describes what appears to be a power struggle between Gurumayi and her brother, Swami Nityananda Saraswati, for control of the sect.
Originally the siblings were jointly anointed successors by Muktananda, whose health was failing in the early 1980s. His death in 1982 left the sect without the charismatic guru who had established SYDA in the United States.
In 1985 the conflict began. SYDA announced to its followers that Nityananda was only meant to be a co-successor for a term of three years.
Devotees were commanded to turn in videos and photographs of the younger brother and cut any reference to him in SYDA publications. Later that year SYDA said that Nityananda had broken his vow of celibacy and this was the reason he was stepping down as co-leader.
For his part, Nityananda has claimed in the Illustrated Weekly of India that he was abducted and forced to retire by supporters of Gurumayi. While captured he alleged that he was forced to give up access to a SYDA Swiss bank account that had been set up in both their names containing at least $US 1 million.
SYDA denies this and says the circumstances of his retirement were an attempt to let Nityananda step down gracefully.
Nityananda is no longer part of SYDA, though further reports say he and his followers have faced pressure from devotes of Gurumayi. In August 1989 the Ann Arbor News in Michigan described a religious protest that erupted into violence at a house where Nityananda was teaching.
Fifty picketers held signs with slogans like, "Rape and lying is your game, Nityananda aint your name" and "From monk to skunk."
Protesters eventually broke into Nityanandas house, reported the newspaper; shouting, "Hey, fatso, hey fake guru" and "Theres the son of a bitch!"
An insiders tale
It is Monday evening. I sit in the Downtown Convention Centre with several hundred people. Lines of chairs, nearly all occupied, cramp the whole space.
The traditional Siddha warm-up on these grand occasions is the heartfelt declaration of well-dressed and articulate devotees, giving witness to the deep and extraordinary benefits of the Siddha meditation programme.
Tonight this is followed by a talk from a red-robed swami. She is American, a former journalist, and she speaks very nicely.
Niceness is important to Siddha people: as in nice venues, nice flowers, glossy brochures, expensive clothes - and they call their cleaning roster "sparkle."
Gurumayi emerges from the wings, slight as a sparrow swathed in scarlet, to settle like a precious feather on the Siddha "throne."
The chanting begins, Gurumayi and a small group leading, the massed voices surging in response.
"Narayana ... Narayana ... Jaya Govinda Hare ..."
Eyes close in rapture, hands flutter haeavenward. Mass bliss.
At the conclusion the Guru departs, smiling serenely, her hands together at her heart in the gesture of namaste as she resites her signature line one more time.
"With great respect and love ..."
By the weeks end, I am face to face with the dark side.
For 12 years Dan, now resident of an Australian city, lived and studied with Muktananda, the previous leader of the Siddha lineage, and eventually took up the red robes of a monk.
Dans real name and details have been changed to protect his identity. He still feels threatened by the SYDA organisation.
On a pilgrimage to India three years ago, he says, a violent confrontation flared between his party, which included Gurumayis brother Nityananda, once co-leader of the sect, and a much larger band of Gurumayis supporters.
An Australian woman was punched in the face because she had a camera, and attempts were made to overturn Nityanandas car. Police intervention was required to break up the fracas.
"I had a personal relationship with Muktananda," says Dan. "He was extra-ordinarily compassionate to all his students and cared deeply for them. Because I was in such a close association with him over that time, I observed him with thousands and thousands of people. He always helped people to look at themselves and the consequences of their actions. He was only ever concerned to uplift their lives. He was loving, humorous mischievous. He was wonderful."
Dan was not aware of Muktanandas tantric sexual practices until two years before the gurus death.
"He asked me to be celibate and that was valid for me. If you are engaged in an advanced spiritual practice you must conserve your energy. Baba (Muktananda) was a celibate initially, until he had master of this energy. After that it didnt matter."
Dan also speaks of tantric sex as a valid, if secret, part of many Indian yogic traditions. He believes that Muktananda kept his own practice hidden in response to the scandal the contemporary Rajneesh organisation aroused with its open and indiscriminate sexual practices.
"I talked to many of the women who received Babas initiation in this way and never encountered anyone who had been disturbed by it."
More disturbing to him, says Dan, was the increasing rift in the organisation as Muktanandas health failed and his close personal control slipped away.
Followers began to side either with the "ambitious and dominant" Gurumayi or her younger brother Nityananda. After Muktanandas death elements within the organisation which had always troubled Dan - its sheer size, its emphasis on acquiring more and more money, and the relentless jockeying for power by some members - ran unchecked.
"Most people were only intereseted in being part of a powerful organisation. It became blatantly corrupt. It reached the point that there was no free speech any more. It felt dangerous and inhumane. Too many people were no longer even attempting to live the teachings - which simply, were to recognize God in everyone. It had become a cult."
Not long before he died Muktananda sent Dan to establish the organisation in an Australian city. He maintained contact with regular trips back to India.
Dan makes no secret that he always felt more empathy with Nityananda, previously called Subhash, than with the "sharp and controlling" Gurumayi.
In 1981, says Dan, Muktananda gave Subhash the name of his own guru, a move acknowledged as a great honour, indicating in the Siddha tradition that Subhash was being recognized as a reincarnation of the first Nityananda.
"It was clear Baba had tremendous respect for him and was tutoring him in a special way."
The announcement that Muktananda intended Gurumayi and Nityananda to take over the Siddha lineage together was made publicly in front of 1500 people, says Dan.
He was shocked but not surprised when, in 1985, Gurumayis announcement that the Nityananda had stepped down was followed by reports of a violent kidnapping.
A few weeks later six people from the American SYDA organisation arrived at Dans ashram in Australia. He is adamant they came to drive him out.
"I was locked in my room and no one was allowed to talk to me. They were very threatening. I escaped in the middle of the night because I feared for my physical safety."
Seventeen years of dedication to an ideal was over. He was alone and penniless.
"But I still had something inside that was real and precious, and it was real for me where ever I was. So I took that and had to trust and recreate my life."
Today Dan is still involved in teaching yoga and meditation, and he maintains contact with Swami Nityananda who, he says, has spent the last 10 years in diligent Siddha practice, has taken his robes back and continues the teaching with a small number of supporters.
Nityananda and his parents have made repeated attempts to speak with Gurumayi over the last decade, but without success, says Dan.
Nityananda admits his earlier sexual behaviour, which was cited by Gurumayi as the reason for his stepping down.
"But sex was never the real issue," says Dan. "I believe these people are intoxicated by the energy but it is distorted because their motives are wrong. A lot of people are totally innocent. But there is so much money involved. They took about $NZ 1.1 million in one weekend in Sydney in 1992.
"The potential is hideous."