AN OPEN LETTER ABOUT SIDDHA YOGA
Also see the Leaving Siddha Yoga website, where dozens or articles and testimonials are archived.
This letter is from a group of people who have left Siddha Yoga and who were, at one time, very deeply involved with its activities. For most of us, it was Lis Harris' November, 1994 article in The New Yorker that helped us to acknowledge that SYDA and its leaders are quite different from what they claim to be and what they appear to be. Many of us had known the facts in Harris' article to be true for years, and had ignored or denied them. We had invested our faith and trust, our idealism, and our time, energy and money, in Siddha Yoga.
We had devoted ourselves and made Siddha Yoga our life. For this reason, facing the facts about SYDA has been and continues to be a painful process. We break our silence now because we believe that Siddha Yoga is deceiving its participants and we hope, in this letter, to explain how this is so. We came to Siddha Yoga because we wished to enrich our spiritual lives. At first, some of us had extraordinary meditation experiences; others felt they had found at long last a community of understanding seekers. As we got more involved, we came to believe that Gurumayi and Muktananda had valid claims to "full enlightenment," "perfection," and "sainthood". In fact, we believed them to be living deities.
With the awakening of the kundalini through shaktipat, we felt that we had reached the final stage of human evolution before divine perfection. All we had to do is love, believe in, and worship the guru, no matter what, and enlightenment would be ours. Our faith in these concepts led us to make Siddha Yoga the most important part of our lives. Yet, as we drew closer to the guru, we discovered that both Muktananda and Gurumayi had private personalities that were in sharp contrast to their public personas. We soon learned that our status as "disciples," our being "close to the Guru," depended on how well we could learn to keep the secrets we came to know, and how skillful we could be at whitewashing and damage control.
At great cost to our own integrity, we learned to ignore or derail the natural flow of our thoughts and feelings -- so that we could reconcile to ourselves and others the discrepancies between the gurus' claims to perfection and their actual behavior. Time and again we were told -- whether by swamis, hand picked lay teachers, or Ram Butler's Correspondence Course -- that "surrender" was the path of a true disciple; that "gossip" would only lead us to destruction. This meant subordinating our thoughts, feelings and subjective experience in favor of a supposedly greater truth and higher purpose, represented by the guru. We know now that we were selling ourselves short. We are no longer willing to give others control of our reality. We were frightened at first when we began to question and doubt; we feared we would lose everything if we didn't keep suppressing our thoughts and feelings, if we didn't blindly obey. But we have found exactly the opposite to be true: by finally telling the truth to ourselves and to others, we are regaining the precious freedom we had lost.
We are aware that most people who are inspired by the outer beauty of Siddha Yoga and its practices and teachings will find it hard to believe what we have witnessed. It is not our intention here to attempt to explain the apparent benevolence at the surface layer of Siddha Yoga. The authors of this letter have spent a great deal of time beneath the public facade, and we have seen a more complete picture of the secret Siddha Yoga and the double life of its leaders than most people ever see. We believe the corruption at SYDA should be exposed, even though a former SYDA trustee once stated in a staff meeting, in ominous tones, that critics of Siddha Yoga who make public allegations of misconduct will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Clearly, it is worth a great deal of money to SYDA to try to hide the facts.
What we present here is what we know to be true. It is our hope that those who read this will be open to hearing the truth, and to making an informed choice about their participation. These are some of the secrets that we can no longer, in good conscience, keep in silence:
- Through the years, there has been extensive sexual abuse and exploitation of young women, often minors, perpetrated by Muktananda, and later by George Afif. Hundreds of women were seduced, sexually harassed and abused in the ashram by these men. Many of the women involved look back on the experience as a traumatic violation. Some women sought help from swamis, staff or from Gurumayi herself. They were told that they had brought their mistreatment upon themselves and to be silent and tell no one. Thus, when ashram staff and swamis are not officially denying that such things ever happened, they switch stories and claim that Muktananda's sexual activities had a divine purpose. With Afif, they simply blame his victims. We emphatically reject this denial. And we reject the justification, on the basis of tantric scripture or on any other basis, of this grotesque abuse of power which exploits and degrades women.
- Muktananda's mastery of the abuse of power is an enduring legacy. For years after his death, it was not just Gurumayi but also George Afif -- a man who in 1983 pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of statutory rape -- who ran SYDA. We even witnessed Gurumayi taking orders from him. Afif's compulsive lust for young girls and women, his taste for the world's most expensive clothes and objects, and his cruelty to those who cross him, is well known to many. What is his power over Gurumayi that his notorious behavior in the ashram was condoned and unchecked for so many years? Afif himself was recently heard to say that he expects to return to Gurumayi's side eventually. The party line at SYDA is that such a reunion is out of the question. But the history between Afif and Gurumayi is not being acknowledged openly or honestly. When that is the case, history has a way of repeating itself.
- At Afif's and Gurumayi's command, staff members - or the local devotees they organize - have traveled all over the world since the late '80s to follow her brother, Nityananda, and to physically attack, harass and threaten him at every opportunity. The swamis and staff who routinely deny this are simply lying. A devotee therapist in one city was persuaded by SYDA leaders, with Gurumayi's blessings, to hire a professional thug to harass and threaten Nityananda when he came to their city for a public speaking engagement. Devotees who display their loyalty by joining in these attacks elicit praise, gratitude and special attention from Gurumayi. It is notable that these attacks have ceased, at least in the U.S., since they were exposed in the New Yorker article.
- Many courses and many of the public talks given in the ashram were dictated mostly by George Afif, but also by Gurumayi, into earphones worn by the speakers. These include the Fire Courses, No Ego Courses, Month Long Courses, and numerous Intensives. Many of these courses included verbally abusive assaults on participants, which sometimes included the public disclosure of confidential information they had written in personal letters to Gurumayi. Afif had access to this information because he routinely read personal mail addressed to Gurumayi.
- There are hidden video cameras in various places around the ashram. Many guest rooms and public areas are bugged, with hidden microphones picking up the conversation while Gurumayi and her assistants listen in. These areas include the Amrit, the Global Communications Office, the Meditation Hall, the Programming Office, public in-house telephone areas, and reception desks. In addition to this surveillance by microphones and cameras, the ashram staff know they can gain favor with Gurumayi by reporting any and all gossip to her at once, whether about visitors or about each other.
- Ashram policies and attitudes discriminate against homosexuals. At Gurumayi's insistence, same sex couples who are known to be lovers are not allowed to be housed together in ashram rooms, although every effort is made to conceal this policy from those it affects. While Gurumayi surrounds herself with many gay and lesbian staff members, she encourages them in various ways to conceal and disavow their orientation. Gurumayi also insisted, starting in 1991, that every gay and lesbian Hatha Yoga teacher in SYDA Ashrams and Centers be fired by the local managers and steering committees. They were instructed to make up some excuse but by no means to reveal that the teachers were being fired because of their sexual orientation. Gays and lesbians are routinely excluded from many positions and activities in Siddha Yoga institutions, unless they happen to be wealthy and influential.
- The ashram staff is overworked and mistreated. Endless days and nights of work are required of ashramites for barely any pay or benefits; crowded, substandard living conditions with no privacy are typical; and sudden banishment's of people who worked hard and served faithfully for years are common. A number of these people who were thrown out of the ashram by Gurumayi were then told by her that they owe her thousands of dollars for their time with her. Sadly, there are people who are sending her the money she has demanded.
- Many of Gurumayi's staff suffer from depression, eating disorders, addictions, and other serious emotional disturbances. Gurumayi has been quietly sending numerous staff members and devotees to therapists and long-term treatment facilities. What is not acknowledged is that long-term exposure to the unhealthy dependency of ashram life and to the relentless emotional and physical demands Gurumayi makes of her staff plays a major role in their ill health. Ashramites usually ascribe this to the never-ending purification process they believe they must experience in order to better serve their guru.
- Gurumayi has sent many ashramites to therapists who are devotees. Some of these therapists violate their professional ethics and the confidentiality of their patients by reporting the contents of these sessions to Gurumayi, at her request. Some of us have witnessed Gurumayi, on numerous occasions, laughing derisively with these therapists at the clinical material being presented.
- Gurumayi claims to be a renunciate. We did amazing mental gymnastics to overlook or rationalize her expensive taste in jewels, silks and hats; her need to be associated with people of wealth, power and high social status; and her need for whatever she touches to be the finest and most expensive of its kind in the world. We even overlooked the plastic surgery she had to improve the appearance of her cheekbones and jawline. Much of the luxury surrounding Gurumayi is donated by devotees who quickly learn that expensive gifts can buy Gurumayi's attention, or at least get a staff member assigned to pay attention to them.
- The project to rebuild Lake Nityananda in the South Fallsburg ashram, which was masterminded by George Afif, has proven to be a fiscal and public relations fiasco for SYDA. They need more money than ever now because they must pay enormous fines for the extensive environmental damage the project caused in Sullivan County, N.Y. SYDA must also deal with a half-million dollar lawsuit from the construction company they contracted with, which was later told by SYDA that they would not be paid for the work they had done. Making convenient use of Afif's "disappearance," they justify their refusal to pay by claiming that Afif was never authorized to hire them in the first place. This is just one of the many ways that SYDA is not honest about its financial dealings.
- Mixed messages are ubiquitous in Siddha Yoga in the disguise of spiritual truths. "Respect, love and honor the Self," but remember: you owe everything to the guru, you can call nothing your own, only the guru matters, and you are nothing without her. "The Guru is a perfect mirror," so remember: any complaint, criticism or question you have is simply a reflection of your own impurity. Though of course, the Self is pure, and you are the Self, you're just not pure enough, yet. These and many other crazy-making messages create mind-numbing states that teach people not to trust their own truth.
The above points, just some of the aspects of Siddha Yoga we deplore, begin to suggest the pervasive exploitation, manipulation and disempowerment of devotees that we wish to address. This is what we consider to be the real corruption in Siddha Yoga. Even if Gurumayi were perfected or enlightened, which is certainly not the case, her "mission" would never justify the secret deception and cruelty at the core of her ashram. If we close our eyes and ears and mouths to this deception and cruelty; if we retreat to an idealized, magical realm of consciousness and refuse to see and hear those who have been abused and betrayed; if we keep saying "that wasn't my experience," "it didn't happen to me," and "I've never been involved at that level"; or perhaps worst of all, "I know about these things, but I have found a way to accept them;" then we ourselves are perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
It is painful to realize now how we were seduced, step by step, into sacrificing our truth, our values, our morals, our reality, and our very sense of self to protect and defend Muktananda and Gurumayi. They preyed on our longing and our vulnerability and we tried to mold ourselves to be what they required of us. We thought if we just chanted more Guru Gitas, gave more money, did more seva, slept less, ate less, smiled more, took one more Intensive, dressed this way instead of that way, dyed our hair, grew it back natural, cut it all off, gave the right gift, told the right joke, did the right trick; then maybe the guru would grace us with her approval and validate our existence. When we finally caught our breath, we were amazed to discover how many lies we had told, how Siddha Yoga had taught us to let fear, shame and guilt run our lives.
We no longer need to betray our own integrity, trying to get love from a guru whose love is tainted by her need to control and exploit others. After many years, we've learned that our healthiest response to Siddha Yoga has been to leave it. We now know it is not in Gurumayi's or anyone else's power to grant enlightenment. Grace is in each of us to do that for ourselves, each in our own way. Had the climate for telling the truth existed in the ashram, perhaps this letter would not have to be written. But Gurumayi and her swamis are not telling the truth about sexual abuse, about the harassment of Nityananda, and about many other matters. It is sad to witness senior members of the Siddha Yoga community lying. While we recognize the importance of examining the weaknesses in ourselves that led us to become entrapped, this in no way diminishes the fact that Siddha Yoga is fraudulent at the core.
As we continue to free ourselves of Siddha Yoga, we are getting back in touch with a fuller range of our feelings. This has been difficult, because we worked so hard to limit ourselves only to the narrow range of feelings considered acceptable on the "spiritual path." We are becoming reunited with our intellect, which we were encouraged to still, focus and numb out of existence, at least in part so as to blind ourselves to the deception and hypocrisy we found in the ashram.
We are learning again what it means to have free time, to have friends, to play, to be intimate with others. We are learning again what it feels like to take pride in our work, our creativity, our families, our selves, and our spiritual growth, without having to pay what are virtually extortion fees for the guru's "protection." We are free of the guilty need to "owe it all to the guru."
This is an anonymous letter because SYDA, represented by its powerful law firms and supported by the personal fortunes of numerous wealthy devotees, can harass its critics not only with expensive lawsuits, but have in the past violently assaulted their critics and attempted to discredit them with malicious lies. They demonstrate a belief they hold in common with other totalitarian systems: that their agenda justifies any kind of behavior, no matter how destructive. We have learned that we can speak no criticism of the guru without instantly being shunned, avoided and labeled mentally unbalanced by those who remain loyal to SYDA. We are hurt, angry and sad about this. We mourn the loss of friends and family we still care deeply for. We hope they will someday allow themselves to know the truth about Siddha Yoga, and that they will cease to allow themselves to be deceived and silenced.
Some People Who Have Left Siddha Yoga
P.S. This letter is an independent publication which is not sponsored by any organization, or any group or person associated with any other teacher or guru.
March 3, 2007 - This note was originally published anonymously on an AOL forum about Siddha Yoga in Aug. of 1995. Today, I am not concerned, as I was at the time I wrote this letter, with anonymity. Although others contributed to the letter, it was primarily written by myself, Daniel Shaw.