Swami Muktananda (1908 - 1982) arrived in the West: 1970
There are gurus who sit in perfect silence and stillness, who speak as if their wisdom arises from a peaceful ocean and whose words drop carefully from their perfectly composed lips. Swami Muktananda was not one of those. If you saw him on the street without his robes you'd think he was a street person. His face and hands were constantly twitching, his fingers touching, rubbing and squeezing and with his weathered face, unkempt beard and wearing sunglasses day or night you'd think he was crazy. There are spiritual groups in which everyone appears perfectly composed, still and deep in meditation and initiation is only for people who have done years of spiritual practice and service. Siddha Yoga was not like that, at least not in the beginning. There was chaos, dancing, singing, chanting and movement. The initiation sessions were chaotic. In 1974 they were regularised as weekend long Intensives - pay for enlightenment and get a profound transformation - or your money back. I'm kidding. There were no refunds but people with the maturity and character to demand their money back weren't eating Muktananda's baloney. Muktananda was brought to the West by a home-grown, self-proclaimed guru.
Muktananda reiterated many times the value of celibacy for the practitioner (sadhaka). He advocated restraint, even for those married, to convert sexual energy into spiritual energy. Muktananda oversaw the initiation of sixty-five monks (sannyasis) between the years of 1972 and 1982.
For at least some of his career in India and the West, Muktananda secretly fucked many of his female devotees, especially young ones using the pretence of his tantric powers and their spiritual development. Despite the fact that the gurus of Siddha Yoga have twice been publicised in scandalous behaviour completely unworthy of anyone purporting to being a Spiritual Master the organisation went from strength to strength and attracted famous figures who dabbled in it's exotic claims. The simple explanation of Muktananda's behaviour is that he was just another phony "fallen guru" who used his reputation and power to sexually abuse women. True believers say the accusations are false or he was practising secret Tantric sexual practices that were hidden from the public who were "not ready" to understand these Tantric practices.
Some admirers of Muktananda who have been involved in Siddha Yoga have even fabricated a special explanation for their belief in his powers and their acceptance of his sexual abuse of women and young girls. They believe that his despicable behaviour began only when he was 68 after he had health problems culminating in a major stroke which severely affected his persona. This is an unacceptable explanation to his disciples as it presupposes a materialistic view that the condition of the brain overrides any spiritual transcendence. There is of course no evidence that he only began his sexual deviance in 1976. According to his followers he continued to inspire and instruct others in meditation and to invoke intense "spiritual experiences" in those around him as he always had. His effect on his followers were the same before his documented sexual abuse and during his pretence, lies and attempted rapes. His temper tantrums, occasional violence and the use of stand-over men to attack disciples who became concerned about his behaviour was accepted by those close disciples who knew of it. There is nothing unusual about this, nearly every successful guru has acted in this way and nearly all their disciples try to ignore and hide the unacceptable behaviour.
In 1981, one sannyasin devotee (monk) named Swami Abhayananda (born Stan Trout) publicly accused the 75 old guru of fucking young ashram women in the name of "spiritual enlightenment." It seems needless to say that Muktananda's behaviour was disturbing if not catastrophic to the young victims. Muktananda responded with smug insults disguised as eternal truths, "The elephant walks as the dogs bark." His minions also quoted another truism, "they should know the truth by their own experience." These ripostes have been used by nearly every guru accused of misbehaviour. As no-one would join SYDA if they hadn't been inspired by the hoo-hah around Muktananda these were effective rejoinders for many devotees. The full extent of Muktananda's behaviour was publicly revealed in a well-researched article in the Co-Evolution Quarterly in 1983 in the well-respected alternative Co-Evolution Quarterly. Copies of the article are available on this site and elsewhere and give many salacious and contemptible details including Muktananda's gifts of jewellery to his current teenage lover in his Indian ashram. These revelations damaged the SYDA organisation at least for a time. People coming to SYDA for the first times were naturally not informed of this behaviour.
A long time Indian devotee had sent 2 of his children to live with Muktananda in the late 1970s. A teenage girl Malti Shetty and her younger brother, Subhash. In 1981 Muktanada decided that Subhash should be his successor. 6 months later he announced Malti and Subhash would be joint co-successors. At the Ganeshpuri Ashram near Bombay in May of 1982, Brahmin priests performed elaborate yagna rites and Sanskrit chants filled the air as the 74-year old Muktananda passed his spiritual mantle to Swami Chidvilasananda, 27, and her brother, Swami Nityananda, 21. To all concerned, they were co-gurus until death.
Six months later it was announced that Nityananda was stepping down. This shocking news was explained as giving blissful grace to devotees by SYDA spin doctors. This is another standard way phony gurus explain away events that shock their devotees. Nityananda had had at least 6 sexual liaisons with women in the preceding years. Chidvilasananda took control and after much pressure and some violent, physical beatings Nityananda gave up his role and membership in SYDA. The whole sordid story was documented in an article called "O Guru, Guru, Guru" by Lis Harris, published in the New Yorker in November 1994. As documented in "The Guru Looked Good" SYDA administrators attempted to stop the article being published with black magic but Ms Shetty was up against women stronger than she. Nityananda was left with no means of support so he tried to restart his career as an empowered guru but without the finances of SYDA he has struggled and was a distant second to his sister.
Chidvilasananda broke all contact with her family and her career as the glamorous Gurumayi (it is rumoured that plastic surgery helped to create her cheekbones) went from strength to strength. She is not a great beauty but carefully lighted and posed photos of her are ubiquitous in SYDA and certainly she is the most beautiful of all (in)famous gurus. SYDA writers wrote Gurumayi's speeches and her entourage and luxury was similar to that of a movie star. Shetty was the unnamed but glorified guru in the chick lit romance "Eat, Pray, Love" which was made into a Hollywood movie. Naturally no mention of the SYDA scandals was made. By the time the movie was released in 2006 Shetty had disappeared from public life and the centrepiece of SYDA, the South Falls complex was a forlorn shadow of it's former bustling self. Ms Gilbert's marriage to the true love of her life she wrote about in her best seller also ended in divorce.
Very few people who write of their times devoted to a scandalous guru who has been publicly disgraced are able to look back dispassionately on those heady times of their conversion into belief. While Gurumayi's career has lapsed some of her former disciples who learnt the important techniques of cheat and deceit of a successful guru at her feet, so to speak, are out making careers of their own as 3rd wave home-grown gurus. John Friend is the most successful with his Anusara Yoga franchise but by 2012 he was already caught up in a sex, drugs and money scandal. Why am I not surprised?
- The Guru Looked Good - Marta Szabo
- The Gurus Of India - Sujan Singh Uban
- Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion - Lola Williamson
- Gurus In America - Thomas A. Forsthoefel & Cynthia Humes (eds)
- American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation - Philip Goldberg