O GURU, GURU, GURU
The spiritual movement known as SYDA boasts a glittering clientele
and a multimillion-dollar Catskills retreat. But behind all the serenity lie some
uncomfortable, ill-kept secrets-and a less than blissful struggle about succession.
BY LIS HARRIS
On a damp day last fall, some three thousand people from all over the world gathered in a huge glass-and-marble pavilion in a rundown pocket of the Catskill Mountains to chant, meditate, and dance in rapt circles under the beneficent eye of their revered teacher and spiritual guide, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. The singsong Sanskrit chanting, the saris of the (mostly Western) women devotees, and the thick, sweet scent of incense lent the scene a hint of the sixties and early seventies. Gurumayi, as she is usually referred to, is a beautiful, energetic thirty-nine-year-old Indian woman who was named by the Honolulu-based monthly magazine Hinduism Today as one of the ten most influential international Hindu leaders of the last decade. She is the spiritual head of the Siddha Yoga Dham (or Home of Siddha Yoga) of America Foundation, known by the acronym SYDA-the dominant American arm of a thriving organization that maintains five hundred and fifty meditation centers and ten ashrams scattered around the world. In one way or another, tens of thousands of people, ranging from live-in devotees to occasional visitors and mediators, are involved in SYDA's activities. Its five hundred-and-fifty-acre Catskill ashram, near the village of South Fallsburg, New York, serves as its headquarters. At South Fallsburg, photographs of the guru-with her thousand-watt smile, wide eyes, and elegantly chiselled cheekbones-adorn nearly every wall, cash register, shop counter, and shelf, as well as her devotees' private meditation altars and many of their car dashboards. There are also plenty of photographs of SYDA's founder and Gurumayi's predecessor, Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa. Swami Muktananda, who died in October, 1982, at the age of seventy-four, was one of the most prominent of the numerous Indian spiritual teachers who flourished in the United States two decades ago. Devotees still refer to him by the honorific nickname Baba, or Father.
South Fallsburg started out, in 1976, as a modest operation run out of the rented rooms of an old hotel; its sprawling complex now has an estimated market value of fifteen to seventeen million dollars. Muktananda disapproved of loans and debt, and SYDA reportedly paid mostly in cash for three dilapidated prewar Catskill hotels-the Brickman, Gilbert's, and the Windsor. They have now been sleekly modernized, in country-club-glitz style, as Anugraha (Descent of Grace), Sadhana Kutir (House of Spiritual Practices), and Atma Nidhi (Treasure of the Self). Around the ashram's main building, the neatly landscaped grounds are scattered with Disneyesque painted-plaster likenesses of Indian gods, reflecting the scope of the Hindu pantheon.
Nobody knows how rich SYDA is: as a nonprofit religious organization, it is not required to declare its income or pay property taxes. Most of the devotees who work at the ashrams are unpaid; many pay rent to live there. During a summer weekend, several thousand people may visit the South Fallsburg ashram, and SYDA can raise more than a million dollars from the sale of food, books, tapes, and memorabilia and from "intensives" a type of spiritual initiation program, usually lasting two days and costing four hundred dollars. (The intensives follow a format similar to that of many self-help programs of the seventies and early eighties, especially the est program, a profitable self-help movement founded by Muktananda's friend Werner Erhard.) Some years, intensives are held all summer long. In 1989, revenue from the South Fallsburg bookstore alone was well over four million dollars.
Over the years, SYDA has attracted a number of well-known admirers, including Jerry Brown, John Denver, Andre Gregory, Diana Ross, Isabella Rossellini, Phylicia Rashad, Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, and Marsha Mason. Most of Gurumayi's followers are college-educated people, who may have been attracted to meditation for spiritual reasons but are just as likely to have sought out one of her ashrams for the psychological and health benefits that the meditative process is said to confer. The pop-culture image of the ashram visitor as dazed flower child or potential Manson groupie is outdated. Long after the Beatles took off their kurtas, and the last string of love beads was tossed in the trash, many serious students of Eastern meditation in this country continued to find in the practice riches that had eluded them in the mainstream religions of the West. Doctors, lawyers, artists, business people, and religious-leaders of many denominations are among the five million or so Americans who practice yoga, and many of them can be found on what is sometimes called the New Age religion scene-a peculiar name, really, since the traditions these groups draw from are among the oldest in the world.
The occasion for the gathering that fall morning was the last day of a yajna a (pronounced "yagnya"), an ancient Vedic fire ceremony, which was presided over by sixteen Brahman priests who had been flown from India to South Fallsburg to help commemorate the eleventh anniversary of Swami Muktananda's death. The yajna was held in the pavilion, which has blue neon-lighted pillars that make it look (especially at night) like a cross between a mother spaceship and a small sports stadium. Kathy Nash, the SYDA spokesperson, a chipper woman with light-brown hair who used to work as an anchor for a Monterey, California, TV station, steered me to a cushion on the women's side of pavilion. (Men and women traditionlly sit apart in ashrams.) The sixteen orange-robed priests, who all week had been chanting and casting offerings of spices, and flowers into a blazing fire sunk into the pavilion floor, were being garlanded and enfolded in long shawls as a gesture of thanks. About fifty feet from the firepit sat a red-robed figure wearing a raffish-looking, high-crowned, unadorned red hat, whom I took at first to be a beautiful boy, perhaps an acolyte. But when the figure's face appeared, hugely magnified, on two closed-circuit screens suspended from the ceiling, I could see that I had in fact been looking at the startlingly glamorous Gurumayi.
Gurumayi remained a distant presence, but that evening I was introduced to her at darshan-a ritual in which devotees and visitors receive a blessing from the guru in the form of a tap on the head with a wand of peacock feathers. Sitting on a throne, she beamed her powerful smile a me, tapped me with the feathers, and gave me a frank once-over, followed by another generous blast of smile. A nimbus of electricity seemed to surround her. She asked if I had seen the yagna ceremony. I said I'd caught only a bit of it at the end, because I'd lost my reading glasses earlier, and that had delayed my arrival. "You think so much," she said, smiling again.
I nodded, though I had no idea what she meant. Then, sensing impatience in the long line behind me, I started to edge sidewise, away from the throne. I was detained be a regal movement of the guru's hand as she signaled to a young attendant on the floor beside her. The attendant quickly rose and draped a garland of gardenias around my neck.
SEVERAL months later, at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, a rather less beatific scene unfolded. On the evening of February 1, 1994, a car pulled up to the Lufthansa section of the international terminal, and a tall, bearded, powerfully built Indian in his early thirties got out. He was dressed in a swami's traditional orange robe, and he was accompanied by two women, both Western in appearance. As the three were making their way to the terminal, five men, waiting at the curb, approached them menacingly and began shouting "You're dragging Baba's name in the mud!"
The main object of this attention, the man in the orange robe, was the younger brother of Gurumayi. Born Subhash Shetty, in Bombay, he had, like his sister, been given a new name-Nityananda. Like Gurumayi, Nityananda is a meditation teacher with an ashram (though a tiny one) in the Catskills. And, like her, he claims to be an inheritor of Swami Muktananda's spiritual mantle. Indeed, Muktananda had named him his sole successor in July of 1981, and about a year later, a few months before he died, changed the decree to name him and his sister his official co-successors. But Nityananda stepped down under mysterious circumstances in 1985, and today his picture is conspicuously absent at SYDA ashrams. The women accompanying him, Inge Fichelmann and Kimberly Cable, who use the Sanskrit names Nirguna and Devayani respectively, were his principal assistants.
The five men doing the shouting were all known to Nityananda, and all were active devotees of Gurumayi. Among them was a member of SYDA's three-person Executive Management Council, which oversees the day-to-day running of the South Fallsburg ashram. According to Nirguna, another of the men, a longtime devotee named Ganesh Irelan, put his face right up to Nityananda's and said loudly, "I'm going to follow you till the day you die!" Devayani ran inside to the ticket counter to call for the police, but by the time they arrived the men had been chased away from the Lufthansa ticketing area by an airport security guard. The guard, Joseph Mee, later told me that he'd never seen anything quite like the scene that followed. Lufthansa stowed Nityananda and Devayani, who were scheduled to depart for Germany on the first leg of a trip to India, in the first-class lounge, though they weren't traveling first class. When the flight was announced, Mee and other guards formed a human wall around them and started walking them to the departure gate. But the five men had managed to slip through an unguarded door to the departure area "They all looked the same, to put it bluntly. They looked like clones," Mee said. "They were saying that he was a cult figure …and meantime they're acting like complete fools." Nityananda and Devayani managed to board the plane but not before being followed to the boarding gate by the five men, who, Mee added, had to be "pushed aside" to clear the way.
This incident, with its mixture of slapstick and menace, is only one of the more recent in a long series of curious and sometimes disturbing events, and it is a reminder that behind the vision of Catskill bliss lies a more complicated tale, one that traces its roots to a bitter family schism and, before that, to SYDA's founder.
SWAMI MUKTANANDA PARAMAHAMSA, Gurumayi's-and Nityananda's-predecessor, began his spiritual searching's at the age of fifteen but didn't find his own guru until he was thirty-nine, in 1947. According to SYDA's ecclesiastical constitution, "the Siddha Yoga lineage of Gurudisciple … goes back … in time thousands of years beginning with the primordial Guru, Shiva." Historically, though, Muktananda's lineage goes back no further than to his guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, an ecstatic, mostly silent renunciant who, it is said, was born a Siddha (Sanskrit for "perfected one") and claimed no physical guru of his own. Other students of Bhagawan Nityananda also claimed to be his disciples, but they attracted far fewer devotees. There have been Siddhas in India since time immemorial, and numerous other Siddha lineages are represented in India today, but none has a global following to rival SYDA's. In Siddha Yoga, a central goal is the awakening of cosmic energy, or Shakti, which is said to be coiled at the base of the spine, in a form called Kundalini, and which, when activated, manifests itself as bliss. And it is through a guru that the Shakti is awakened-by word, touch, look, or thought. As a matter of creed, this is the role that Bhagawan Nityananda played for Muktananda, and it is the role that Muktananda would play for thousands across the globe.
After coming to the United States in 1970, Muktananda traveled frequently around the world, published more than thirty books, gave lectures, and founded numerous ashrams and meditation centers. SYDA's official histories say that he believed it was his mission to create a "meditation revolution" in the West, and the hundreds of enthusiastic devotees who filled jumbo jets-chartered by SYDA-to join Baba in India on two of his "world tours" (he went on three, in the nineteen-seventies) must have seen that as a real possibility. Most of Muktananda's devotees revered him as a saint, and many students of his who shied away from that kind of vocabulary nonetheless considered him the most impressive man they had ever known. Even diehard rationalists who met him thought him a man of great charisma and charm.
Two apparently contradictory themes thread their way through Muktananda's writings. On the one hand, he urges seekers not to be too credulous or to yield too easily to the demands of the guru. "To love a Guru does not mean to follow after him saying, 'O Guru, Guru, Guru,' " he writes. On the other hand, he maintains, the only way to escape the bonds of ego is to surrender to a guru-not by worshipping his physical form but by following his path and teachings. "The Guru is absolutely necessary for one's life as necessary as the vital force," he writes. A true guru, he adds, is "not an individual, but the divine power of grace flowing through that individual. That power is the Shakti that creates and supports the world." To sustain such awesome powers, a guru "always practices the teachings he imparts to others. He never breaks his own discipline. He follows strict celibacy." In fact, Muktananda advised his devotees to refrain from sex, too. "For mediation," he told a South Fallsburg audience in 1972, "what you need is not dollars, not eggs, not sweets, nor chocolate or cakes. What you need is this strength, this seminal vigor. Therefore I insist on total celibacy as long as you are staying in the ashram." On such bedrock principles are communities of belief grounded.
SEVERAL hundred people were living at the South Fallsburg ashram at the time of my visit, but the vast majority of Gurumayi's devotees lead conventional lives interspersed with weekend and summertime interludes at the ashram. Even for them, the power of SYDA's practices is undeniable. Some told me that the practice of Siddha Yoga had been more useful to them than therapy; some that it had helped them to reconnect with their own religions. And for other, whose involvement is less casual, it can be completely life-transforming.
One such person is Sally Kempton, a long-term American devotee of Gurumayi's. In 1974, she left a promising career as a journalist to join the ashram. Kempton, the daughter of the Newsday columnist Murray Kempton, had a reputation as an acerbic essayist for such publications as Esquire and the Village Voice. In April, 1976, New York published a piece of hers, entitled "Hanging Out with the Guru," in which she described Muktananda holding court in a mansion in Pasadena, California, in 1974, with a big crowd of people paying tribute to him with flowers and fruit as he touched their heads with a wand of peacock feathers. Dressed in his customary orange robe, ski cap, and sunglasses, the sixty-six-year-old guru seemed to her to radiate a boyish insouciance, and to be "the least spaced-out person in the room, a practical, solid presence." Kempton sat around listlessly as devotees asked questions about visionary experiences, until one woman asked a question that seemed to apply to her own life: "What do you do about negative emotions?" His answer-"Let them go"-and his subsequent elaboration of this approach to difficult problems had for her the force of a depth charge, not because of the idea, which sounded like any number of pop philosophies, but because of the spiritual authority and power she felt behind it:
I felt as if a huge pool had opened in my heart (Oh God, I thought, it's all true what those creeps were saying), and the pool was full of soft air, and I was floating in it. It was the most intensely sensual feeling I had ever had. It felt so good that my first reaction was a sharp pang of guilt, a feeling that I had stumbled into some forbidden region, perhaps tapped a pleasure center in my brain, which would keep me hooked on bodyless sensuality, string me out on bliss until I turned into a vegetable.
Soon, she wrote, she stopped enjoying cigarettes, even though she had been a smoker since the age of thirteen and had had no particular wish to quit. She also began needing far less sleep, and she rarely got annoyed at things that would have bothered her a lot in the past. A couple of weeks after that first encounter, she was formally introduced to Muktananda, and three months after that, in Denver, she joined his tour.
The New York article on Muktananda was one of Kempton's last pieces as a popular-magazine writer. By the time it came out, she had joined Muktananda's entourage; she has been a full-time member of his organization ever since, and in 1982 she became a swami and was given the spiritual name Durgananda. Her defection was a minor cause celebre in the small world of New York journalism. Ross Wetzsteon, a former editor of hers at the Voice, told me that he believes that her immersion in Siddha Yoga diminished her. "Sally was a wonderfully gifted writer, and when she got involved with that place she lost all her wit, all her irony, and all her perceptiveness," he said. "It was as if her brain had gone completely soft. There was a vacancy. She seemed hollow. People use the word 'brainwashed'-I know that doesn't really apply, but it was as if her center had disappeared, not got stronger."
Durgananda, who is fifty-one years old now, is a slim, fine-featured woman with cropped dark-blond hair and large, intelligent pale-blue eyes. When I met her, she was wearing a red robe and ski cap. Though she did not remotely conform to the bliss-blob image the woman I sat with over a vegetarian Indian lunch in the ashram's snack bar had a ready laugh and a quick wit she did talk about the guru, as do many devotees, in somewhat abstract terms. For example, she told me that a distinguishing feature of Muktananda and Gurumayi, compared with other, run-of-the-mill gurus, "is that they're fully enlightened. They've reached the goal."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"You know it ultimately by your experience. You know it ultimately by the state which you attain. But there are a lot of ways; that you can test or that you can understand the state of the guru. One of them is that a master is in a state of total equality awareness, and you see this cropping up. In other words, without being spaced-out or out of this world, they really do see everyone as equal. It's something that's so rare that we're not aware of how much inequality we experience. … Things like, you're too hot, you're too cold, you're comfortable with this, you're not comfortable with that, you want this, you don't want that. It's like the whole universe is made up of better and worse and more and less. What you find with these masters is not that they don't get cold or hot, and say, 'Turn down the heat.' It's not like that. But you see them time and time again in different situations and you see that there is this genuine unendingly joy and equanimity."
When I asked Durgananda a few questions about Gurumayi's routines and habits, her responses were guarded. All I could glean from them was that Gurumayi ate alone, that she had a good sense of humor, and that she thrived on helping people.
Some devotees to whom I spoke attested to life-altering visions they had had of Gurumayi-sometimes before they had even met her-or talked of prophetic dreams about her. Mainly, though, the powers attributed to Gurumayi are in the realm of helping people to feel more "centered"; her powers may also rest in an ability to attract well-educated, relatively worldly followers. Gurumayi, by all accounts, is a cool, calm, confident leader. Even so, I was firmly turned down each time I tried to find a way past the barriers around her. Her policy, I was told, was not to grant interviews to publications other than SYDA's own. By contrast, Muktananda used to give interviews liberally, even appearing on numerous TV shows (including one in Santa Monica in 1980 on which he gave the interviewer shaktipat, as the transmission of spiritual power from guru to disciple is called, during the commercial break), and in Gurumayi's early days as guru she herself gave several. Moreover, I found, I could never amble around the ashram's grounds on my own, or even sit in the lobby, without having a smiling man with a walkie-talkie or some soft-spoken facilitator swoop down on me. Many of my inquiries about SYDA's history seemed to be met by an air of secrecy. And after I'd had what I thought of as a private conversation with a devotee, the contents of that conversation were reported to the SYDA staff by someone who had been standing nearby. Perhaps experience had made them chary about the risks of making their affairs public.
SYDA'S first taste of scandal came when, shortly before his death, Swami Muktananda was accused of failing to live up to the principles of celibacy by which he set such store. The accusations saw print in a 1983 article by William Rodarmor, published in CoEvolution Quarterly (now the Whole Earth Review). Rodarmor's article was based on twenty five interviews with members and former members of SYDA, and it detailed sexual activities Muktananda was alleged to have engaged in with female devotees, many of them fairly young. According to the article, members of Muktananda's inner circle had overlooked his behavior, or tried to rationalize it, for years. Then, in 1981, a swami named Stan Trout publicly distributed a letter in which he accused the then seventy-three-year-old guru of betraying the trust of young ashram women and causing their families anguish by extracting sexual favors from them in the name of spiritual enlightenment. Though Trout's letter troubled many in the SYDA community and sent shock waves through the Yogic world, Muktananda chose to respond by circulating within the fold a "Message from Baba," in which he quoted from the fifteenth-century poet-saint Kabir ("The elephant strides at his own gait, but the dogs do trail behind and bark"), and by telling devotees that they "should know the truth by their own experience, not by the letters that they receive."
Ex-devotees told Rodarmor that Muktananda used a specially built table at the South Fallsburg ashram for his sexual encounters, that in India he had a habit of visiting the girls' dormitories at night, and that it was his custom to bestow gifts of money and jewelry on young women whom he summoned to his room. (If a young woman suddenly appeared wearing new jewelry, the ex-devotees said, it was understood that she had been tapped by the guru.) Michael Dinga, an Oakland contractor and a former SYDA Foundation trustee and devotee, who was in charge of construction at South Fallsburg for many years but became disillusioned and left SYDA in 1980, told Rodarmor that "it was supposed to be Muktananda's big secret, but since many of the girls were in their early to middle teens, it was hard to keep it secret."
Investigating these claims, I tracked down approximately a hundred ex-devotees, ex-trustees, and ex-swamis, all but a handful of whom either so feared reprisals from SYDA or were so anxious not to be entangled with the organization that they would talk to me only if I promised not to use their names. A great number believed that the allegations about Muktananda's behavior were true, and found it hard to believe that Gurumayi could not be aware of it. A few former devotees told me that many people considered it a signal honor to have been tapped by the guru; one said those who had long-term relationships with him were known as his "queens," though some families and guardians of the young women sexually involved with him had become very upset. Several people pointed out to me that, whatever had happened, it was in a context of reverence so great that devotees used to drink Muktananda's bathwater and worship the trimmings from his haircuts, just as, soon enough, Gurumayi's attendants would vie to sit in her dirty bathwater.
"A Siddha master can juice up the Shakti with sex," one longtime devotee who left SYDA in the mid-eighties told me. In his book "Where Are You Going?" Muktananda writes, "It is through the power of the upward-flowing sexual fluid" that the guru "is able to give Shaktipat." In context, this appears to be part of an argument for celibacy. But it may shed light on a detail common to all accounts of sexual encounters with Muktananda: that he did not ejaculate. Two women I talked with who were in their twenties when Muktananda approached them said that they had considered their experience to be "loving," and that it was "not exactly sex." What, exactly, was meant by "not exactly sex" was clarified by another ex-devotee, a writer, who sent me an unpublished account of what she described as a sexual encounter she had at the age of twenty-six with the then seventy-one-year-old Muktananda. After talking to her for a while in his room one evening about the power of Kundalini, she reports, Muktananda told her that "the pleasure we gain out of having sex also has a higher counterpart." Her account continued:
He told me that when the Kundalini is fully realized, the body exists in a state of permanent ecstacy. "It ever changes and is ever new."
He asked me to lie down on a table. He stood close to me and placed himself inside of me. We stayed for about one and a half hours in that position. During that whole he never had an erection or ejaculation. He never even moved. We talked all the time. He joked a lot, and told me stories about his childhood. At a certain moment he said: "Whatever happens now cannot be understood with the mind. Don't think about it a lot. This is just happening, that is all. Just know that this is the greatest day of your life."
It was a very extraordinary experience. And he was right, I could never understand with my mind what happened that evening. All I know was that I was in a state of total ecstacy, and whatever happened had nothing to do with sex.
In a letter that the woman sent me not long ago, she urged me to view her experience, as she has, in a context of moral relativism. "The beautiful example that the (true) Siddhas give us, which always touches me so deeply, is their quality of non-judgment and total acceptance," she wrote, and added, "The Grace of a Guru like Baba is something very mysterious." Muktananda may well have considered his sexual encounters in a similar light, and his wish, however hypocritical, to conceal them from public view, and even from the majority of his own followers, may have been a matter of public relations. A good number of those I spoke with, though they were troubled by his double life, found spiritual explanations for his behavior. Few considered the time they had spent with Muktananda to have been mainly a destructive experience, or felt that his sexual activities negated the spiritual gifts he had given them. Some speculated that the sexual activity might be construed as goddess worship; others pointed to precedents in Yogic history where sainted masters flouted conventional mores because they themselves lived on a more esoteric plane. Two people suggested that Muktananda's alleged preference for very young women, whom he was said to have regularly chosen from a six-bed dormitory known as the Princess Dorm, bespoke a need to borrow "extra energy" from them after he had suffered three heart attacks. Finally, some devotees have speculated that Muktananda was actually conducting Tantric spiritual initiations. (The Tantra tradition is derived from a number of sixth-to-twelfth-century mystical Hindu and Buddhist scriptures that describe a range of practices-including a form of sexual congress in which ejaculation is controlled-for attaining exalted states of awareness and enlightenment.) But the Tantric scholars I spoke to dismissed such explanations. "This kind of behavior should not be legitimized by calling it Tantra," Robert Thurman, the chairman of the Department of Religion at Columbia, told me. "The occasional shocking incident, even in legends, demonstrates exactly the degree to which such behavior stands against the tradition."
The closest Muktananda ever came to explaining his behavior, some say, was in the oblique form of a talk given by Pratap Yande, a longtime Indian devotee, shortly before the guru's death and published after it, in the October, 1982, issue of Siddha Path, the sect's monthly magazine. The talk, entitled "Never Go Too Close to a Saint," was about a great seventeenth century saint named Ranganath, who lived his youth as an ascetic but at a certain point had a vision instructing him to accept the worldly things he might be offered. By and by, the vision came true, and he was given a beautiful horse, servants, and elegant clothes, and proceeded to live in a luxurious way, which many people around him found "confusing." One day, the story goes, a pious king came upon Ranganath (who was still supposed to be a renunciant) lying in bed with two beautiful women who were massaging his feet. When the king saw Ranganath thus disporting himself, "a little doubt about his saintliness" entered his mind. Sensing this, Ranganath dismissed the women, called for a silver bucket, "closed the door, and in the presence of the king he ejaculated his seminal fluid into the bucket, filling it to the brim." Shortly thereafter, calling upon an esoteric Yogic practice called mahavajroli mudra, "he reabsorbed all of the semen within himself and went back to sleep," and the two women returned and continued their foot therapy. The moral of the story: "It is impossible to understand a Siddha." As it was, there remained some devotees who could not accept a spiritual explanation of any sort, and reluctantly concluded that, though Muktananda's spiritual power was undeniable, their teacher was neither as enlightened nor as infallible as they had believed; still others felt revulsion and shock when they learned of his behavior. Scores of active devotees eventually left SYDA after hearing about the allegations against Muktananda; some never resumed their practices. "My personal opinion is that it's not OK, regardless of whether it's a time-honored tradition," I was told by a female ex-devotee who had spent much of an anguished year trying to find a satisfactory explanation of the whole business. "It was sex and it was abuse." The same woman, who had been a member of SYDA's inner circle, was informed that she was unwelcome at the ashram after she found that she couldn't deal with Muktananda's alleged sexual activities; she told Durgananda that she was leaving because of issues of personal integrity. "And what she said-I'll never forget it-was 'Well, you have the luxury of integrity. People who are committed don't have that luxury.' It just raised the hair on the back of my neck." Durgananda says that she does not remember making this remark.
SYDA has steadfastly stuck to the position that Muktananda never strayed from celibacy, and its swamis have taken pains to teach ways of handling questions about the issue in role-playing training sessions with its meditation teachers. One American swami to whom I spoke-Kripananda, an ex-college professor who had lived and traveled extensively with Muktananda-vigorously denied every allegation. Kripananda said that at SYDA's Indian ashram, in Ganeshpuri, about fifty miles from Bombay, her room was adjacent to the stairs between the girls' dormitory, above, and Muktananda's room, directly below. The walls and doors were so thin that she could hear him sneeze or cough, and she had never heard anything suspicious. Nor did any of the girls complain to her about sexual molestation, she said, though they constantly came to her with their problems.
Durgananda called the accusations "laughable" and "ridiculous." Had they been true, she said, Muktananda would not have been able to go on giving shaktipat and the organization would not have continued to be as healthy as it was. Recently, however, I spoke with two longtime SYDA meditation teachers with well established academic and professional careers as psychotherapists, who say that Durgananda sounded a different note with them. They told me that last winter they had investigated some of the allegations, had sadly concluded that they were true, and, in May of this year, confronted Durgananda and another swami, demanding to know why the truth had been kept from them for so many years. The confrontation occurred away from the ashram, and this time, according to the therapists, Durgananda did not say that the allegations were false. Durgananda told the therapists that she knew a number of the women quite well and was convinced that whatever had happened had been beneficial to them, but that the swamis had never talked about it, because they thought it would be more appropriate to be "discreet." The therapists have now left SYDA. When I phoned Durgananda and told her what they had said to me, she said, "My memory is that I did deny it to them," and she added that, whether the allegations were "true or not, it doesn't really change our understanding of Baba."
As disturbing as the sexual allegations were, Michael Dinga, the former SYDA Foundation trustee, and other ex-devotees gave Rodarmor equally disturbing descriptions of strong-arm tactics used to hush up ex-devotees or punish them for disloyalty. Over the years, the ex-devotees said, various "enforcers" confronted and threatened those not in SYDA's favor. Dinga and his wife, Chandra, told Rodarmor that they were subjected to months of harassment. Through a message left on another ex-devotee's answering machine, Rodarmor wrote, the Dingas were warned that if they didn't keep quiet "acid would be thrown in Chandra's face and Michael would be castrated." In the early eighties, ex-devotees were especially fearful of David Lynn, a Vietnam veteran. (Joe Don Looney, a famously colorful N.F.L. running back known in the sixties for his eagerness to infuriate coaches, became briefly involved in these activities as well.) Rodarmor also reported that Muktananda phoned Michael Dinga while he was still living at the ashram to complain about the swami Stan Trout; he told Dinga that "Trout's ego is getting too big," explaining that he was sending Lynn to set him straight, and that Dinga was not to interfere. (This incident preceded and was unrelated to Trout's open letter.) Dinga told Rodarmor that Lynn went to South Fallsburg, got into a fight with Trout, and punched him. (Lynn confirms that he punched him, but says that he went on his own initiative.) According to Rodarmor, Lynn and Looney visited another ex-devotee and told her that Muktananda had said that Chandra Dinga had only two months to live. The harassment, Rodarmor wrote, stopped only after the Dingas hired a lawyer and the local police paid a visit to the Oakland ashram.
It is this element in Rodarmor's account-the intimidation of those who leave SYDA and who appear to threaten it-that has carried over to Gurumayi's SYDA and has continued to shadow the organization, especially in connection with allegations about the treatment of Gurumayi's brother and co-successor, Nityananda.
LONG before Gurumayi and Nityananda were born, their father, a Bombay restaurateur named Sheena Shetty, was an admirer of Muktananda's. They first met in 1944, and for a while Shetty, a deeply religious man, provided Muktananda with living space above his restaurant. Eventually, Shetty and his wife, Devaki, sent two of their four children to live and study with Muktananda. Malti-the future Gurumayi-arrived in 1973, when she was eighteen; Subhash, the third child and Malti's junior by seven years, followed in 1978.
Subhash Shetty, who was known as a sweet-natured, somewhat shy boy, received the name Swami Nityananda Saraswati when he took vows of monkhood in October, 1980. The name was a significant honor, since Muktananda's own guru had also been called Nityananda. At the end of a huge public program in South Fallsburg on July 17, 1981, Muktananda, then seventy-three and in failing health, announced that Nityananda, who was eighteen, would be his successor. Nearly everyone was surprised by the news-including, it is said, Nityananda himself. While many welcomed the announcement, others worried that he was far too callow to take the guru's place. One person who seemed to be unprepared for the news was Malti, whom some people considered a far better candidate, because of her greater maturity, discipline, and experience.
Then, sometime the following winter, Muktananda began referring to his successors-plural-without clearly explaining himself. Finally, on February 25, 1982, several swamis interviewed him for Siddha Path, and he said that, since there were two sexes in the world, it seemed right to make a man and a woman his successors. On April 26th, in Ganeshpuri, Malti was renamed Chidvilasananda, was shorn of her radiant black hair, and took vows of monkhood. (Gurumayi, or "One who is absorbed in the guru," is an honorific.) Two weeks later, sister and brother, both of whom, ex-devotees say, had been in equal measure spoiled and kept on a tight leash by Muktananda, were installed as co-successors. In a video of the ceremony; both of them look awed and vulnerable. Gurumayi was then a couple of months shy of twenty-seven, Nityananda just nineteen.
From the start, their styles differed. By most accounts, Nityananda was informal, accessible, chummy with the devotees, somewhat self-mocking, and preferred chanting, meditating, and drumming to giving talks, while Gurumayi enjoyed ceremony and took the task of guarding SYDA's public image-and her own-more seriously. Usually, when there were two darshan lines, hers was longer. Nityananda, for his part, seemed content to let his sister play a more dominant role in the running of the ashram.
Muktananda's death, five months after he installed the two as cosuccessors, deprived SYDA of its principal drawing card. It also left something of an organizational vacuum. In naming his successors, Muktananda apparently never said that either was "enlightened" or gave them specific instructions about running the organization. To make things worse, in the years that followed, many of the senior swamis, and about half the swamis altogether, left, because without him they felt less of a tie to the organization, or because of what they felt to be an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere.
Some devotees who in later years became disaffected left SYDA to follow another well-known female Indian spiritual leader, Mata Amritanandamayi, and a number of those who visited her while they were still part of the SYDA world were shocked to discover that their names were being written down as they arrived at her programs. SYDA denies that it has ever assigned the task of writing down the names of known followers or ex-devotees who attend programs of other spiritual leaders, but an ex-swami I talked to told me with considerable embarrassment that she herself had participated in one such sortie. Over the years, a large number of people have been told that they are no longer welcome at the ashram because they disagree with its policies. Although I spoke to at least a dozen such people, SYDA says that the only people not permitted to visit the ashram are those who have "a history of disruption of the peace and quiet of the ashram."
The task of attracting new devotees, clearly, was taking on a greater urgency. Though there had been tutoring of public speakers and a certain amount of institutional streamlining under Muktananda, he had allowed his swamis a fair amount of freedom. After his death, though, managers gradually took over many more of the swamis' functions, and almost every facet of the presentation of the ashram's religious and outreach programs fell under the control of the Programming Department, which came to rely on rehearsed talks, and even rehearsed audience responses, to smooth out SYDA's public programs. In time, swamis were occasionally even asked to wear little earphones when they gave talks, so that Gurumayi or George Afif, a Lebanese-born devotee and close aide, could make suggestions to them as they spoke.
EVEN true believers were sorely tested by a series of bizarre events that took place in Ganeshpuri at the end of 1985, when it was suddenly announced that Muktananda had named Nityananda as co-guru for only a three-year period, that the time was up, and that Nityananda was therefore stepping down both as co-successor and as a swami. To many in SYDA's ashrams back in the United States-especially those who had had powerful spiritual experiences through him-the announcement was baffling. Devotees were told to turn in photographs and videos that included Nityananda and to excise all pictures of him and information about him from their books; one former center leader remembers being given notice that pictures of Nityananda should be burned, because they would bring bad luck. Then, five months later, SYDA modified its previous announcement: now the reason Nityananda had left was that he had broken his vow of celibacy. Nityananda, once Muktananda's honored successor, had become not just a non-guru but a non-person.
Some people say that the seeds of conflict had been there from the beginning. Shortly after Muktananda's funeral, Gurumayi and Nityananda gave speeches about their new roles. In a video of the event that I watched recently (it had been saved by a resistant devotee during the great purge), Nityananda, his eyes filling with tears and his voice choking with emotion, clasped his sister's hand, held it up in the air, and said, "People have already started creating a split between us: she is better and he is bad; he is better and she is bad. I want you to know one thing. Many of you all know that we were both born to the same family, and we have been united since childhood. No matter what you may do, no matter what you may think of us, we won't split."
But three years later, in the fall of 1985, after the two gurus arrived, separately, in Ganeshpuri for ceremonies commemorating the third anniversary of Muktananda's death, this unity was already severely strained. Given the tensions, in fact, Nityananda told friends that he thought it might be a good idea for him to take time out and embark on a tour of the holy sites of India. That trip never took place. Instead, Nityananda ended up embarking on an odyssey that would ultimately take him to exile at his own small ashram, a place called Shanti Mandir (Temple of Peace), situated in the Catskills not far from the SYDA complex. Nityananda was initially reluctant to talk to me, but eventually he agreed to meet me at Shanti Mandir on a snowy day last winter. His ashram turned out to be a modest brick-and-wood house on a back road. Nityananda had a large round face, a dark beard, and a gentle, unassuming manner and was wearing the orange robes of a swami.
He readily admitted to me that, as SYDA charged, he had broken his vows, and that between the ages of nineteen and twenty-three, before his departure from SYDA, he had had sexual encounters with six women; he said he has admitted this to anyone who has asked him about it. He added that one of his lovers had been Devayani (now his principal aide). He said that he regretted his past lapses, but that he believes the essential gift he was given by Muktananda is eternal and that he is and will always be a successor. Nine years ago, however, Gurumayi made her disagreement on this score abundantly clear.
HERE is Nityananda's version of his downfall:
At about 10:30 P.M. on October 23, 1985, while thousands of people were chanting elsewhere in the Ganeshpuri ashram as part of the commemorative ceremonies, there was a knock at the door of Nityananda's apartment. When his attendant opened the door, seven or eight people pushed their way in and began shouting at Nityananda, "You've lost all your power! You're no longer a guru!" When he protested, his visitors told him that they were speaking on behalf of Gurumayi, and continued berating him. Nityananda says he tried to speak to his sister-he called her over the ashram's intercom-but she was unresponsive, saying only that they would talk in the morning. If that's how things were, he told her, he'd have to leave. About an hour later, however, he was told by his driver that three men on his sister's staff had slashed the tires of all the ashram cars.
The next morning, he met his sister in the vestibule of Muktananda's apartment, where she had been joined by George Afif. His sister asked him, "Well, what do you want to do?" And he replied, "Well, you don't want me here. I'd better leave, but since all the people have come for this ceremony I should probably stay until the end of it." When Gurumayi asked her brother to come to her room "to talk further," he found himself surrounded by the same group that had come to his room the night before. "These people are here to help you get out from within you what it is you want to say," his sister told him.
Afterward, he was led to Muktananda's study, where for the next eighteen days his only visitors were those Gurumayi permitted him to see-mainly, the same people who had come to his room and who now each day subjected him to lengthy harangues. He was taken out for two visits to the cafeteria and two public announcements, both of which he says he was forced to make: first, that he was taking a vow of silence, and then, five days later, that he was no longer a guru. The Mahamandaleshwar, the same ecclesiastical official who had overseen Nityananda's taking of monastic vows as well as many of SYDA's sacred ceremonies, was persuaded to give his blessing to ceremonies that stripped Nityananda of his monkhood, his spiritual name (he was officially renamed Venkateshwar Rao), and his guru status. On November 10th, Gurumayi was installed as sole successor.
Nityananda was then allowed to return to his rooms, and over the next week, he says he signed papers relinquishing his power as co-ecclesiastical head of the SYDA Foundation, several blank sheets, and a document ceding access to a bank account. "Baba had put a million dollars for Gurumayi and myself in an account in Switzerland," Nityananda told me. "The ashram had its own accounts, and then there was a private account that Baba had his name on and that he transferred to us. He'd told me that if ever anything was to happen to the ashram-if people decided not to come, or any other misfortune happened-he had left enough for the two of us to live comfortably in the ashram."
On November 24th, a few days after Nityananda signed the papers, Gurumayi and Afif arrived in his room and summoned Devayani (the person in the ashram he was closest to) and eleven others, including six additional women Gurumayi accused him of having "abused." (Nityananda says he had had consensual sexual contact with four of the six, and none with the two others.) When they were all assembled, Gurumayi struck him and Devayani with a bamboo cane and then gave the cane to the six women and urged each in him to continue striking him. The caning went on for three hours, Nityananda says, and throughout, he claims, Gurumayi kept urging his assailants to hit him more vigorously. Nityananda says, "At one point she said, 'Maybe I should beat him on his penis. That's the cause of all this.' " He also claims that after the attack had gone on for quite a long time, Gurumayi turned to an aide and said, "He's not going to break down, is he?" Then she turned toward the devotee Ganesh Irelan-who had once been a close associate of Nityananda and, a decade later, would turn up at the Lufthansa terminal at J.F.K-and asked him if he wanted to do or say anything. Ganesh responded by punching Nityananda in the face. Before Gurumayi left, Nityananda says, she asked him, "You're not going to report this to the police, are you?"
WHEN abbreviated accounts of these events appeared in January and March of 1986 as cover stories in the Illustrated Weekly of India, a large circulation news magazine, SYDA responded with a packet of statements from SYDA's trustees, from a group of unnamed swamis, and from Gurumayi herself. These statements, coupled with SYDA's written answers to queries I have posed in recent months, produce a different version of the Ganeshpuri events, which confirms a number of Nityananda's contentions and disputes others. SYDA has been at pains throughout to prove that Nityananda is an inveterate liar; at one point they even showed me a videotape in which he talks about learning to lie as a schoolboy.
Gurumayi stated that, because she was concerned that if Nityananda left the ashram "harm would befall him and others," she ordered the ashram gates locked. When she was told that he had keys to all the gates, she decided that "we'll have to do something more drastic; well have to slash the tires." She acknowledged his relative isolation in Muktananda's study but insisted that he was there of his own volition-"to contemplate what he lacked and why he had lost what he thought he had had"-and that he could come and go as he pleased.
Gurumayi also confirmed the caning, though she described the cane as "a small walking stick" adding that "in my presence, he received a few slaps with it from the women he had abused, in addition to a few slaps from me." And while SYDA insists that Gurumayi never said anything like "He's not going to break down, is he?," Ganesh Irelan has confirmed to me that his frustration built to a point where he punched Nityananda; Gurumayi also noted that another man, a swami, was so frustrated he had to be restrained.
The main point of contention is whether Nityananda submitted to all this of his own free will or was subdued and coerced, and if so, to what degree. SYDA maintains that he could freely come and go from Muktananda's quarters (if not from the ashram itself). Several ex-devotees recently told me, however, that they saw Nityananda escorted by an armed guard. In addition, the mother of Gurumayi and Nityananda, Devaki Shetty, who was in Ganeshpuri at the time and was allowed to prepare Nityananda's lunches, repeatedly approached Gurumayi to express her concern over Nityananda's treatment; Gurumayi, Mrs. Shetty says, eventually told her to "go jump in the river." She was so upset that she left the ashram, and for nearly a decade neither she nor her husband has been permitted to return there or to communicate in any way with their daughter.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Nityananda himself was an active participant in the very ceremonies that defrocked him. His public announcements in 1985 seemed plainly to express a desire to step down. And he later wrote out a note in which he thanked Gurumayi for a "most amazing and revealing eighteen days"-those he spent isolated in Muktananda's study.
Nityananda now says that he felt that he had lost his power to resist. His second oldest sister, Rani, whom I spoke with recently by phone, told me that when she and her husband were allowed to see him, on October 30th, he seemed unable to respond to them. "He wasn't acting like a fully conscious person." Even the Mahamandaleshwar, the cleric who gave his approval to Nityananda's ceremonial expulsion, is now of the opinion that Nityananda was forced to participate against his will. And although SYDA plays down the intensity of the caning, two people who caught a glimpse of Nityananda over the next two days recall that he had bruises on his arms. Several weeks later, when he spent time with leaders of a SYDA center in Germany, they saw scars on his arms, chest, and back.
Still, in an interview Nityananda gave several weeks after the event, he denied that he had been mistreated. Shortly after the interview, Nityananda says, he slipped away from Gurumayi's entourage in Hawaii and got on a plane to California. As he was leaving, he wrote Gurumayi another note, in which he thanked her for her "patience and compassion" and for taking "great care" of him, and asked for her blessing. Nityananda now says that he was grateful that Gurumayi and her followers no longer seemed interested in berating or abusing him; moreover, he says, he hoped that the note would keep them from pursuing him any further.
I have seen similar notes from other people who left SYDA in states of considerable distress. The overriding wish of the authors was to acknowledge gratitude for what they'd found in Siddha Yoga but also to stave off further trouble. An ex-swami named Paul Constantino, whom SYDA assigned to participate in a series of panels denigrating Nityananda, and who is now a teacher in Nityananda's programs and serves as an officer of the Shanti Mandir Corporation, told me recently that he, too, had written an appeasing note when he left. "I left because of the growing stultifying atmosphere of fear, of informers, of public confessions and Big Brotherness," he said. "But when I left, in 1987, I wrote Gurumayi a letter in which I asked for her blessing. I did it to keep her and George Atif off my back-absolutely."
AFIF seemed to play a central role in the SYDA experience of many of the ex-devotees I spoke with. A thin, wiry man with an Omar Sharif mustache, he became a devotee of Muktananda in 1974, and was a regular at SYDA's ashram in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "He was a charming man in many ways, with a strong devotional bent, and he had some talent as an artist," one of the people who knew him in his Ann Arbor days said. "He did a nice sketch of Baba, and went on to do quite a bit of decorating for SYDA later on. But there was always a mysterious quality about him, a sense of something dangerous, even duplicitous. He was always talking about loyalty; it was a sacred word to him." Afif hung out with University of Michigan students, although the school's records do not show that he was ever registered there.
Almost all the ex-devotees I spoke with consider Afif a man to be feared, and the most powerful person at the ashram after Gurumayi. Last winter, I attended an "exit counseling" session of an ex-SYDA devotee in which Afif's name came up repeatedly in a context of intimidation and sexual coercion. When the counselor, Steve Hassan, asked the young woman if Afif had been considered a kind of No. 2 in the organization, she responded, "It's more like a point five." When I asked Kathy Nash, the SYDA spokesperson, about Afif, she told me that for several years he had the "highly visible" job of helping people during darshan with Gurumayi, but that his only official role in the organization had been supervising some construction projects. She added, "Mr. Afif's perceived position was more the result of his personal charisma and high visibility than of actual authority invested in him." In 1983, Afif, who was married to a woman who also lived at the ashram, was charged with statutory rape and burglary in Santa Clara County, California. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of statutory rape, and was sentenced to a suspended six-month jail term and three years' probation. Under California law, the conviction was expunged after he served his probation satisfactorily. The teen-age girl involved was the daughter of prominent SYDA followers, who afterward left the organization in disgust. A friend of the girl's family, William Carter, a well-known photojournalist and fine-arts photographer, also left telling Gurumayi in a letter that he had been appalled by the organization's treatment of the family and its tendency to resort to "dis-information" in times of crisis, and that he was cutting SYDA out of his will.
Over the years, others have raised questions about Afif's sexual behavior. A couple who in 1982 closed the SYDA center they were running later discovered that Afif had been having a sexual relationship with their teen-age daughter. An Australian ex-devotee I talked with alleges that Afif had sex with her in Ganeshpuri, in the spring of 1982, when she was thirteen years old and theoretically under the supervision of an ashram guardian. Her experience had been similar to that of the woman whose exit counseling I witnessed: Afif, the Australian woman said, had got her alone under false pretenses and intimidated her into silence.
SYDA says, regarding the California case, that it did not "condone Afif's behavior" and notes that he moved out of the ashram during the court proceedings. Others recall that during the months prior to his court appearances he was kept out of sight at the homes of various SYDA devotees. Nityananda says that he argued with his sister at the time that SYDA should dissociate itself from Afif he believes that Afif been his enemy ever since. Certainly Afif played a prominent role in the events surrounding Nityananda's removal as co-guru. He was present during the caning and, Nityananda says, warned him afterward that if anyone interfered with what was happening there would be dire consequences. During this period, various witnesses saw Afif carrying a gun.
In light of the drastic reaction to Nityananda's broken vows of celibacy, Gurumayi's relationship with Afif invites scrutiny. Not long ago, I located an ex-devotee named Andrea Skeen, a psychiatric nurse, who in 1981 and 1982 served as Gurumayi's personal secretary and confidante. Skeen alleges that Gurumayi and Afif spent a night together just before Gurumayi took her vows and again after she had taken them. On the first occasion, in Ganeshpuri, Skeen says, she was asked to wait all night outside a one-room bungalow in which the two were staying. On the second occasion, according to Skeen, she and Gurumayi were sharing a room during an intensive at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. Gurumayi, she says, left after Skeen fell asleep, went to Afif's room, and didn't return until the next morning, when she confided to Skeen where she had been. Skeen, who had previously had several conversations with Gurumayi about her relationship with Afif, was aware of private letters that Afif and Gurumayi had sent to each other, and says she was eventually asked to collect all of Gurumayi's letters to Afif and destroy them.
Whether the relationship was sexual or not only they can say, but it was close enough so that during late 1982 and early 1983 SYDA devotees began talking about it. Patti Kuboske, a family therapist who was a SYDA devotee for eighteen years and a swami for eight, and worked closely with Gurumayi and was deeply devoted to her, told me that she decided to inform Gurumayi about what was being said. Kuboske recalls that when she did bring the matter up Gurumayi stared at her in silence for a moment and then said, "You should know that nothing I could do would affect what I've been given." When I asked Kathy Nash if the relationship between Gurumayi and Afif was personal, she replied, "If by 'personal' you mean 'romantic'or 'sexual'…the allegation is wholly false; it does not contain even a grain of truth." Last spring, Kathy Nash told me that Afif was working on an ashram construction project. Several months ago, however, when I expressed interest in interviewing him, I was informed through a SYDA lawyer that he had "no present relationship at all with the foundation"; when I asked for his telephone number, I was told that "when we last heard from George Afif he advised us he was going to be traveling in the Far East, and we have no other information." Efforts to locate Afif independently have proved unavailing.
In late March of 1986, five months after the Ganeshpuri events, a series of Nityananda-bashing panel presentations, presided over by swamis and inner-circle devotees, took place at a number of ashrams, including South Fallsburg. One former longtime devotee dates his decision to leave SYDA on the day he and his wife attended the first of the South Fallsburg panels. After each panel, devotees went back to their rooms to discuss what they had heard, and when he expressed doubt about what had happened-he had been especially dismayed by a swami's lurid description of Nityananda's sex life and by a video in which self-deprecating or foolish remarks made by Nityananda were edited together to make him look bad-he found himself "turned in" for having "negative feelings." He says it was fairly routine for those who expressed uncertainty about the whole Nityananda affair to be told solicitously, "We hear you're having problems."
"It was always put in terms of you having the problem," this man said. " 'Wrong understanding' was the phrase they always used. There couldn't be anything wrong with what was happening. If was always, 'You have some sort of mental misfunction.' " Another ex-devotee, an artist who lives in Massachusetts, never returned to SYDA after attending a panel. When she got home, she wrote Gurumayi a letter objecting to what she had seen and heard. Gurumayi never answered her, but not long afterward the artist learned that George Afif was telling people that she was a cocaine dealer.
EVENTUALLY, Nityananda decided that it was his vocation to be a spiritual teacher after all. He began giving programs both in India and abroad, financing his travels and expenses through donations from a few well-to-do followers and through the fees that he charged for his programs. In 1989, he renewed his vows of swamihood under the supervision of the Mahamandaleshwar, who gave him his blessing to continue his work. He says he also resumed a life of celibacy.
In the spring of 1988, he moved to a small house in Livingston, New Jersey, which became his first residential center, two years later, he moved to the house in the Catskills. The house is rented to him for a dollar a year by one of his devotees. Its proximity to South Fallsburg may seem surprising, but after refusing the offer of the house for that reason for several years Nityananda became convinced that SYDA would be unlikely to bother him in its own back yard. (In fact, he has been bothered there only once: the day he gave his first program, about twenty picketers stood outside, carrying signs, taking photographs, and writing down the names of attendees.) Nowadays, Nityananda has a mailing list of two thousand friends and devotees, many of whom regularly take part in his programs. Those who attend the programs understand that to do so invites permanent banishment from SYDA. SYDA believes that Nityananda has never publicly accepted the consequences of his lapses from celibacy. Devotees who have continued to feel strong ties to both Gurumayi and Nityananda and have tried to visit them both have been ejected, often in a quite intimidating way, from SYDA's ashrams.
Ever since Nityananda resumed his teaching, he has faced well-organized, aggressive picketing-similar to what greeted him at J.F.K.-throughout the United States, in Europe, and in India. Local press accounts and police files registering complaints against over enthusiastic picketers mark the trail of his travels. I have talked to dozens of witnesses who have attested to the harassment; it has included disruptions of his meetings by groups of people shouting obscenities, a physical assault on one of his followers, stalking of his devotees, reports of his supposedly bad behavior to the immigration authorities of two countries and the police of a third, and, on one occasion outside Boston, a murder threat.
One of the nastier of these episodes took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on August 3 and 4, 1989. That Sunday's Ann Arbor News described it as "a protest against a religious leader that started Thursday night" and "erupted into violence Friday night." While Nityananda was teaching, the story went on to say, one of his followers was pushed down and kicked outside the house by four demonstrators. The four of them then kicked in a door to enter the residence, assaulted the swami and another follower, and threw bottles of skunk scent against the walls." A day earlier, according to witnesses, about fifty picketers had demonstrated across the street from the house where the programs were being held. The picketers had brought along large signs: "WE LOVE ANN ARBOR, KEEP YOUR FILTH OUT OF HERE," "FROM MONK TO SKUNK," and "RAPE AND LYING IS YOUR GAME, NITYANANDA AIN'T YOUR NAME." That evening, three men interrupted a program and shouted, "Hey, fatso, hey, fake guru!" and "There's the son of a bitch!" and then left, pouring skunk oil over the heads of two people standing by the door. The next night, sentries were posted; even so, two of the men from the night before, one of them wearing a wig, broke down the door. They kicked Nityananda's driver in the chest as he tried to shield his boss; once inside, they threw skunk oil on the guru and several others, and knocked down a disabled man with a cane who was trying to stop them. Earlier, devotees from SYDA's Ann Arbor ashram distributed leaflets that read "Warning!!! The man you are about to see is a fraud. We know-he deceived us and ruined our lives."
SYDA has steadfastly maintained that those who demonstrate against Nityananda do so on their own initiative-out of a sense of betrayal-and at their own expense. It is certainly true that many devotees felt and continue to feel betrayed by Nityananda. But a former devotee who participated in the Ann Arbor picketing told me that he did so at George Afif's request. He was told that he should use his own car and money, and assumed that he'd be paid back for some expenses, though he never was; he added that when he returned to South Fallsburg afterward, Gurumayi smiled at him and said, "Skunk oil, ah!" Another ex-devotee said that while she was at the South Fallsburg ashram she was summoned to a meeting with a swami, an ashram official, and some eleven other devotees, and was pressured to participate in the Ann Arbor event.
Since July of 1986, Gurumayi and Nityananda have neither seen nor spoken to one another. A few months ago, when I asked Nityananda why he thought his sister had turned against him, he took a while to answer. Finally, he said, "I just think she wanted the whole thing for herself, and she tried to come up with a way to do it-to have the whole organization, the devotees, the money, the power as a guru, solely, without having to share or have anything to do with me. If somehow we could have talked to each other, we could have worked it out-she could have had it. But I think that the fear that she had and still has-and so do her people-is that by Baba giving me the name he did, no matter what they say or do, somehow people will never forget me. And they haven't, because he gave me the name of his own guru."
Nityananda claims to hope that some sort of familial reconciliation might still be possible. After the Ann Arbor encounter, he wrote his sister an impassioned letter, begging her to talk with him and help put an end to the violence. The letter said, in part, "Different disciples of the same Master have become Gurus [and have] remained friends and live in harmony. Why can't we do the same? … I hope that you will read this personally and acknowledge that you have indeed received it. I pray so we can communicate with each other soon." Nityananda signed his letter "With all my love." Gurumayi didn't write back Instead, Nityananda received a letter from SYDA's general counsel, Mark Cohen, a lawyer based in Austin, Texas, protesting Nityananda's "irresponsible and characteristically inappropriate" accounts of harassment by people associated with SYDA.
"An Indian will listen to his guru, nod his head, and go home and, even if he's a deeply religious person, ignore fifty per cent of what the guru has told him, because his own sense of the world tells him to do that," an Indian man who is well versed in Yogic culture said to me recently. But Westerners who jump heart first into a cloistered Indian subculture do not always find it easy to distinguish what is spiritual from what is Indian-or merely the whim of the guru.
A couple of years ago, in an attempt to help SYDA run more efficiently and improve morale, an Australian devotee and organizational-development expert brought in one of several popular team-work problem-solving tools used by big corporations in the last decade. His was named Working Together, but is mostly remembered for the part of the program called Team Data Handling. According to several people who were around then, the program succeeded in giving staff members more input into the day-to-day decision-making process but did not address SYDA's more deep-seated problems, largely because, as one ex-devotee said, about the organization in general, "so many people are afraid of offending the guru and being dispossessed of their Shakti."
It is obvious to anyone who spends much time around SYDA's devotees that the vast majority of them are far removed from the more hidden and controversial aspects of the organization's history. They chant, they meditate, they attend programs, they volunteer their time at the ashrams, and they work hard, in accordance with Siddha Yoga teachings, to push beyond their own particular limitations toward some experience of transcendence. The film director Andre Gregory told me that he is deeply grateful to Gurumayi and her swamis for showing him "a technique of prayer that is in the body..a physical way of experiencing God." Michael Karlin, a SYDA trustee who is a senior partner in a large, successful accounting firm in Los Angeles and recently flew to New York to express the foundation's concerns about this article before it went to press, was undoubtedly speaking for thousands of his fellow-devotees when he said that "the greatest personal experiences in my life I've had through Siddha Yoga." Karlin, an attractive, soft-voiced man of forty, spoke with pride of the quality and integrity of his fellow devotees and the integrity of the organization he has been connected with for twelve years. However, when the conversation tuned to the subject of Nityananda (whom he has never met), his voice became charged with anger. Asked why, nearly a decade after the break, SYDA devotees still dog Nityananda's tracks, he said, "These people have been deeply, deeply hurt by his actions." But even if one accepts SYDA's own version of its history as a tale of two perfect beings whose tradition has been sullied by an all-but-demonic transgressor-one has to wonder why so little effort appears to have been put into the task of overcoming the rage directed toward Nityananda and moving on. In other contexts, that is what SYDA teachers advise devotes to do all the time.
In fact, my own experience with SYDA has in a modest way confirmed some of the things ex-devotes complained about. I have been told repeatedly of the harm I would cause by writing negative things about a "pure path"; quiet efforts were made to discredit me with my editors; a barrage of accusatory letters arrived from a SYDA lawyer questioning, before he had even read the story, my integrity as a journalist and the motives of this magazine; and, this summer, the co-chairman and co-founder of a well-known Madison Avenue advertising agency visited the magazine's offices to express his displeasure and to warn that there were "many prominent, many powerful people who are going to be hurt by this piece."
The righteous rage of defenders of the faith is, of course, a familiar theme in the history of religion, as are the endless battles over questions of legitimacy when charismatic spiritual leaders die. If the traditions upon which SYDA draws are ancient, so too is the sort of animosity it has spawned. Several months ago, I asked SYDA in a letter how it was possible for so farseeing and enlightened a leader as Muktananda to have made such a bad mistake (from their point of view) in his choice of successor. The answer was "Would you consider asking a Catholic priest the question: 'If Jesus was who he said he was, how could he have picked Judas Iscariot as a disciple?'" SYDA insists that Gurumayi is the sole repository of Muktananda's wisdom and power. Nityananda, excommunicated from SYDA guruhood, nonetheless stakes his own, nonexclusive claim to successorship, and believes that, despite his youthful transgressions, what was given to him cannot be withdrawn or lost. Thus are schisms born.
But belief in a perfect master or an incontrovertible spiritual dogma is always fraught with danger. Michael Karlin's assertion at our meeting that "the Siddha Yoga teachings cannot be challenged: the truth is the truth" goes to the heart of religious belief itself. If, over the centuries, the longing for a world in which, as Blake put it, everything would be perceived as infinite once the doors of perception were cleansed has enlarged countless lives, it has frequently left behind as a casualty a prudent acknowledgment of ordinary human fallibility.
From the New Yorker, November 14, 1994