In 1977, I was an 18-year-old freshman at Yale, studying Philosophy, Psychology, and Religious Studies. Academic study wasnt enough to satisfy my Big Questions -- What am I? Why am I here? -- and I was ready to try any other method I could find. I began to attend weekly meditation programs led by followers of guru Swami Muktanandas "Siddha Yoga." Many of the teachings and meditation techniques were extraordinarily helpful. I was told that in order to advance in this practice, I should go follow the guru. Eventually, I quit school, saved some money, and spent over 2 years living and traveling with Swami Muktananda during his "Third World Tour" of America, followed by over 2 years at his Ashram in India. Like most of Muktanandas other followers, I got many wonderful inner feelings during this time.
One day during my years "on tour," I heard one of Muktanandas attendants casually talking about Chandra, a former devotee who had recently left the ashram. The attendant said that Chandra was going to write a book saying nasty things about Muktananda. Muktananda had sent two of his most physically imposing followers to visit Chandra and intimidate her from writing the book. I assumed that the book would have been based on lies anyway, and ignored the whole incident.
I was in India in 1983 when reports reached the ashram of an American magazine article chronicling Muktanandas "secret life." Several underage girls told the magazine that Muktananda had had sex with them. The girls had been stunned when he first told them to undress (he had frequently preached celibacy), but Muktananda always taught that obedience to the guru is absolutely necessary to spiritual advancement. In addition to his dubious sexual practices, Muktananda had used deception to kept his actions secret, and violence and intimidation against anyone he thought would expose him.
None of my friends who had been personally close to Muktananda expressed surprise at the article. None of them said, "This couldnt possibly be true!" Those who didnt make light of the allegations ("If a man his age could still have sex, more credit to him!") mostly chose to ignore them ("Ive felt so much love and bliss in my heart here that I dont want to be distracted by whatever else is going on.") For those who hadnt been in Muktanandas "inner circle," the most common reaction was along the lines of "I dont think that he had sex with 14-year-olds but if he did, it must have been for their spiritual upliftment."
The reactions of those in the inner circle suggested that the allegations were probably true. The reactions of the rest of us were equally disturbing. Muktananda had taught that the guru is perfect, could always answer all our questions and tell us the right thing to do. We devotees clung to this belief so tightly that it overshadowed any natural sense of compassion and fairness towards those Muktananda had harmed. All of the wonderful feelings that the ashram offered were not worth this loss.
Muktananda was dead by the time all this came to light, and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda was a guru of Siddha Yoga. Gurumayi had colluded with other close devotees to keep Muktanandas secrets; in the years ahead, numerous accounts of her own misdeeds would be reported in the media and on the internet. But regardless of whether the guru actually misbehaves or not, my experience in India convinced me of the dangers of the Siddha Yoga teaching and organization. By encouraging followers to give up clear thinking in favor of grandiose ideas of perfection, Siddha Yoga makes abuses practically inevitable. Though I have no right to condemn anyone for being a fallible human being, I want nothing to do with someone who claims to be an infallible God.
It was difficult for any of us to leave the ashram. It was our life. When I left, some of my friends worried that spiritual practice would be impossible "outside," and that I would lose all the "spiritual energy" from my 5 years of effort.
Its now been over 10 years since I left India. I do sitting meditation with a school of Zen Buddhism. The Zen Masters and other teachers in this school are skilled people committed to helping others in their practice. Unlike Siddha Yoga, however, they do not present themselves as more "perfect" than ordinary people. If the Zen Master does something harmful, he is surrounded by students willing to tell him, "Youve done wonderful Zen teaching, but now youre doing bad actions!" Our direction in life is to understand ourselves and to help other people, and we try to let nothing overshadow this direction.
It is terribly comforting to think youve found all the answers (or at least found someone else with all the answers). Perhaps this is why so many Siddha Yogis continue to refuse to address the well-documented bad actions committed by Muktananda and Gurumayi. But it IS possible to throw away the idea that there are gurus who are more "enlightened" or "spiritual" than the rest of us. Giving up this false comfort saves us from the type of dangerous situations that have plagued Siddha Yoga. In my current practice, I havent lost any of the joy I once got with Muktananda. If we continue to keep our Big Questions and make a sincere effort, we dont lose anything.
Submitted: November 1996
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Updated: January 1997