A Personal Story of SYDA Involvement
by Margaret H. Parkinson
It has been almost sixteen years since I first heard of Siddha Yoga. Over that time, Siddha Yoga has absorbed my time, energy and financial resources as I joined its ranks, worked in and for the organization and slowly and painfully left in order to regain my own life and identity. Leaving Siddha Yoga was the best thing I could do for myself and for those closest to me. It has been a difficult but life affirming process and I am glad to be nearing the end of it.
One of the basic tenants of Siddha Yoga is to honor oneself. It has been my understanding and appreciation of that tenant that has lead me to examine the real activities of this group - the real activities which, to my sorrow, I have found to be very different than the publicly stated tenants and teachings. After many years of involvement and dedication to Siddha Yoga, I find that I can no longer honor my own self and live an ethical life without leaving what I now understand to be a destructive cult.
How I Got Into Siddha Yoga
I was first introduced to Siddha Yoga by a casual acquaintance I meet in a business type setting. Our business was such that we saw each other every day for a period of about a month and often took lunch together. During casual conversations he told me that he followed a spiritual path based on the teachings of an Indian swami by the name of Muktananda who himself was the disciple of Nityananda. We discussed the Bhagavad Gita and he recited some of the teachings of Siddha Yoga. It was all very foreign to me at the time. For a long time I thought he was saying City Yoga and I thought it was something to do with contortionistic type exercises! As for the long and exotic sounding names - I thought they could be fun names for one's pets if only one could remember them! Little did I know at the time that those names would become as familiar to me as my own.
After some prompting from my acquaintance, I went with him to the Siddha Yoga center. We got there at a meal time and I was invited to eat with a group of very warm and welcoming people. To my amazement, one of them was a woman I had known briefly years before, again in a professional setting. She was dressed in orange and wore a red dot on her forehead and she talked of a philosophy that was unfamiliar but interesting. She was friendly and welcomed me with attention and kindness. I stayed for a chant - again unfamiliar - and left with conflicting feelings.
On one hand I was invigorated. I had met some interesting people who seemed to be happy and comfortable with themselves. I had been exposed to practices and beliefs that were different and exotic. Although the chanting was discordant to my ears (evening arati) and the English translation did not make a whole lot of sense to me, it was also intriguing. I felt energized and excited by the experience.
At the same time, I was uncomfortable with the obvious adoration the people there had for the person of Muktananda. I was told that he was God and that he was currently in Santa Monica. I was told that the best thing I could do for myself was to go to California and met him. I heard about events called shaktipat and intensives - things that would change my life for ever and insure perfection for whatever followed this life. I noticed people looking at the many photos of this man in adoration and I heard them tell of personal directions they had received from him and their commitment to follow them to the letter. The most uncomfortable of all was observing people bowing down to a photos of Muktananda, placing their heads on a pair of his shoes and in some cases kissing them.
I did not go back to a Siddha Yoga program for many months. However the person who was my original connection delivered a calendar of events to me every month. Some time later the same person wrote a note on a calendar saying that he was giving a talk in a program on a particular night and he would really like me to be there to hear it. I felt flattered and for some reason imagined that he needed my presence to do what I thought might be a difficult activity. So I went along.
This time I was greeted like a long lost friend by everyone I had met there months before. They seemed genuinely pleased to see me and warmly included me in what was going on. After the program, several of them paid me a lot of attention, discussed the program with me and told me stories of being with Muktananda (who they called Baba) in person. Again they told me of the wonderful benefits of going to be with him in person.
After that I continued going to Siddha Yoga programs regularly. I was often asked to do what I thought of as very special things like waving the arati tray to photos of Baba while a chant was being sung. I was flattered. Looking back on it now, I can see that in many ways flattering was the basis of my increasing involvement and commitment to Siddha Yoga. This commitment was sealed by going to South Fallsburg in September of 1982 when Baba sent Swami Chidvilasananda (who he had appointed his successor along with her brother, Swami Nityananda) to do a Labor Day intensive. I fell in love with her and through a series of events it seemed that she knew and cared for me too. I was naive. I thought the fact that she seemed to know me was a sign of her omnipotence. Now I know better, but it impressed me at the time. The honeymoon continued as I went to Ganeshpuri that Christmas just six weeks after Muktananda had died.
What Happened Then
For the following seven years I was a disciple of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda's. I was heavily involved in my local center, several times a year I went to wherever Gurumayi was on tour and I went to the South Fallsburg ashram for at least some part of most summers. Visiting Siddha Yoga teachers often stayed at my house, I was included in the inner circle at the center and was privy to some of the information that was not distributed to many others. When at the ashram I was given seva that took me into circles I would not other wise have been exposed to. For example, I saw the very palatial office complex used by George and Kanteya under the less than luxurious dorms in the South Fallsburg main building.
In 1983, The CoEvolution Quarterly published The Secret Life of Swami Muktananda that revealed, among other things, Baba's sexual involvement with young girls. Any clear thinking person would have left an organization associated with such behavior immediately. However, by that time I was indoctrinated enough to imagine that there might be some acceptable explanation. I talked with an old timer at my center who told me an elaborate story of how the people he thought were the primary instigators of that article were embittered folk who felt Baba did not give them enough attention. In addition, he said that the descriptions of sexual improprieties on Baba's part could not possibly be true because Baba was so powerful that if anyone had sex with him they would self-destruct!! (What makes this story even more shocking to me now that I have my own brain back is that the person who said this to me is a psychotherapist who should of known better.) Incredible though it now seems, I fell for it. Besides, it was Gurumayi I was committed to and since Muktananda was now dead, I thought his immoral behavior, if there was any, was also dead with him. I put the information aside as irrelevant - but the knowledge of this horror lay dormant in my mind.
A few years later, Swami Nityananda (named for Muktananda's guru) resigned his position as guru - or at least that is what we were told at first. Through a series of elaborate and videotaped ceremonies, we were told that Swami Nityananda was the perfect disciple and that he was following Baba's instructions to remain on the guru's chair for only three years in order to help Gurumayi. He declared himself a disciple of Gurumayi's and committed himself to serving her. Once again I fell for the hype and believed what I was told. It was a different story a few months later however, when Nityananda, having fled from Siddha Yoga during Gurumayi's tour to Hawaii, claimed his right to the position of a Siddha Yoga guru once again. Now we were told a completely different story. Nityananda was described as a fallen monk who exploited his position as Baba's successor sexually, financially and ethically. Panels of Siddha Yoga teachers traveled the world informing devotees, in minute detail, of the terrible behavior of Nityananda. Yes, once again, when they were at my city, some of these teachers stayed at my house. I spent several very long evenings with them hearing of even more terrible stories than those that were told in public meetings. I do not doubt that these stories were true - but they were not the whole truth. This was not a black and white situation. Gurumayi was behaving in equally distressing ways that we did not know about at the time.
I was not sorry to take the photos of Nityananda off of my walls. I did not really relate to him. It was Gurumayi I was committed to. What did bother me though, was that (a) we were told two different stories to explain Nityananda's departure and (b) after he left, history was vigorously rewritten in Siddha Yoga circles. It was an insult to the intelligence of devotees to firstly be told that Nityananda was the perfect disciple who was resigning on the erstwhile unrevealed instructions of his now dead guru and then, just a few months later, to be told stories illustrating his shocking behavior that caused the shakti to throw him out. The two stories just did not, and do not, mesh. All mention of a co-successor was eliminated from Siddha Yoga public presentations, publications and videos. One significant video was recalled. The Passage of Power had been made at the instruction of Muktananda and was touted as the greatest of all Siddha Yoga videos. It supposedly illustrated the guru lineage from Shiva through to Bhagawan Nityananda to Muktananda and then to the brother/sister team of Chidvilasananda and Nityananda. I owned one of those videos and I received a letter from SYDA instructing me to return it to South Fallsburg so that they could make some additions. Those additions were never made and months later I received another letter from SYDA stating that I would not be getting the video back, that it would be used within the ashram only and that as compensation I could have a free intensive provided I traveled to South Fallsburg to get it. It is quite clear to me that the removal of this video was related to the fact that it showed extensive footage of the elaborate and ceremonious way Baba indicated to the whole of Siddha Yoga that Chidvilasananda AND Nityananda were his successors. At one point, through Chidvilasananda as translator, Baba says that the installation ceremony was being held so that the whole world would know that these two swamis were his successors.
Once again, all this information was stored away in my mind but I continued to worship and follow Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. So far I had not heard anything about her that was able to disrupt my faith. The, oh so subtle, mind control I had been subjected to was strong enough to block out the inconsistencies in the `Nityananda resignation stories that I knew Gurumayi herself was a part of because I had seen and heard her tell them on videotape.
There is another incident that occurred at that time that has bothered me through the years and concerns a statement made by Gurumayi to a group of Center Leaders. At the time that the stories of Nityananda's behavior were being systematically told to all devotees, many Center Leaders were called on an emergency basis to South Fallsburg. I was not a Center Leader at the time, but I was close to a person who was. On arrival at South Fallsburg, the Center Leaders were treated as VIPs and were told the Nityananda horror stories in a number of seminar type sessions. Later Gurumayi herself met with these Center Leaders. I am told that at one point one of the Center Leaders told Gurumayi of his continued love and devotion and asked her if there was more information to come. He reassured Gurumayi that all the people there could take it but asked that they hear it ALL now. Gurumayi said that yes there was more information but that she would talk about it at a later date. To my knowledge that additional information has never been told by Gurumayi or anyone else.
In the mean time I continued to do my sadhana at my local center and visit with Gurumayi very often. However the honey moon was over. I think the beginnings of my own personal disillusionment happened during a management type meeting when instructions were being handed out in a very heavy handed and authoritarian way. It dawned on me like thousand light bulbs being turned on that THIS IS NO DEMOCRACY!! I checked this insight out with a few old timers who confirmed with pride that it was true - we did what we were told either directly from the guru or from her representatives! WOW! How did I, a life long liberal who believed in democracy and freedom above anything else get involved in this? Even more WOW how come I stayed even after learning this truth?
I know the answer to some extent. By that time I believed Gurumayi was an enlightened being (a Siddha guru) who could and had awakened my kundalini (spiritual energy) and, provided I continue as her disciple, had the ability and will to take me eventually to her own state. My karma would be taken care of and `with a little bit of luck' I would not have to come back to this earth for any more lives and I would spend eternity merged with God. Pretty appealing don't you think? In addition, along with other SYDA devotees, I chanted the Guru Gita every morning which told, among other things, of the terrible consequences of disobeying the guru or making her angry. One could make God angry and get away with it but never the guru. Even God cannot intervene if one makes the guru angry. Powerful stuff. I fell for it.
In the meantime I was becoming more and more depressed. My self-esteem was falling and I found myself unable to do well things I had been good at all my life. It had been my nature to carry out management activities with confidence and efficiency. Now I was finding myself needing the confirmation of others and an underlying anxiety arose that I may not be doing things in a manner that would please Gurumayi. I was put in positions of more and more authority at the center and in my seva when at the ashrams but my sense of self was not growing. I now understand that this was because there were others who had more authority than me who consistently and in a very passive aggressive way undermined what I did. Such was the mind control I was being exposed to.
For example, I was the manager of the bookstore at our center. It was my job to keep the bookstore stocked with items from the main bookstore in South Fallsburg. However I did not have a budget to do this. I had to get a check to cover the orders from the Center Leader who refused to tell me how much money was available to purchase bookstore inventory. (In those days there was NOTHING more secret in Siddha Yoga circles than the finance!) So time after time after time I took a whole day off of my own work to make out a bookstore order only to be told in the sweetest possible way to redo it because it was too much money. When I asked how much money WAS available so that I could make an order to fit the finances I was denied that information and told to make the order and the Center Leader would decide if it was appropriate. This all came to a head when a group of Siddha Yoga teachers (Mandali) arrived in our city prior to a visit from Gurumayi. They ran many introductory programs as a means of gathering more and more people into the fold for when Gurumayi came. It was my job to take the bookstore to these programs. Of course there was a very small inventory because of the crazy making processes I have just described. The Mandali was furious that there were not a good supply of bookstore items available to sell at their introductory programs and I was in deep water! I was angry enough to tell the truth about the reason for the limited stock and a rush order was received from South Fallsburg for the remainder of the Mandali visit.
This is only one example of the subtle, psychological abuse that went on at the center level. Power was exerted constantly from those with it to those with less of it. Innumerable meetings were called that started late and ended late because the chairperson was late and slowed the agenda. Many ridiculous seva projects were started only to be canceled and another one begun. The point of seva I was told was to give selflessly - never mind if the project was ill thought out or if it had to be redone or disbanded part way through. The main thing was to get rid of our own egos! So many hours spent on these projects to the detriment of my own family and my own business and social needs. Yet I thought I was working for Gurumayi and that that was the greatest calling of all. Through all of this everyone (myself included) went around with sweet smiles on our faces, encouraging others to join the organization and speaking only of positive experiences and positive emotions.
Gradually, at the instigation of authorities in South Fallsburg things began to change. I became particularly aware of this through a Center Leader's training course I attended in South Fallsburg. The appearance of the center became more yuppie and a great deal of emphasis was placed on the style of dress worn at programs. Women were supposed to wear skirts and men were to wear shirts and ties. The style of clothing was to be upgraded and Center Leaders were to set an example. I recall an amusing incident when I was told by a woman wearing a sari that although my outfit was very nice it was too ethnic to wear to the center (I was wearing a beautiful embroidered skirt). Greater emphasis was placed on selling from the bookstore and paid courses and intensives were pushed in a way I had not seen before. We were trained to do this at Center Leader's training courses and through instructions from South Fallsburg. Only specially trained musicians could participate in playing musical instruments or singing in lead chanting groups. Elaborate trainings were held for sevites who greeted newcomers, those who spoke at programs and any other seva that involved interaction with new people. Community meetings were called to teach us how to talk about Gurumayi and Siddha Yoga with friends and family. All talks were tutored to the point that experience talks and public announcements all started to sound the same. I had been a public speaker at my center for many years but stopped doing this when my talks was molded through tutoring into something that were not me and express experiences that were not mine.
A greater emphasis was placed on money. Bookstore items increased in price as did paid courses and intensives. While in the past it had always been said that it was Baba's instructions to never ask for money in his name, dakshana (donations) was asked for more and more often. On one occasion, a community meeting was called to ask for money for a specific project. I was asked by the person organizing the meeting to prepare a short statement describing the benefits of giving dakshana and to present it, as if spontaneously, at the meeting. In other words I was a plant.
My depression continued. I went to a physician (also a Siddha Yoga devotee) who told me I was wrong about the psychological abuses I described and put me on antidepressants. I thought it was likely that my depression was a result of my poor sadhana and I increased my daily practices and the time I spent at the center. I was exposed to more and more psychological abuses in the name of Gurumayi and I observed them happening to others around me. Gurumayi came to our city which is another whole story of abuse and rudeness. I (and others) worked to the point of illness and neglect of our families and work responsibilities to prepare for her arrival. When she came, Gurumayi was just plain rude to the community that put out so much to accommodate her. This was the first time it truly entered my mind that there was something wrong with the adoration of this person. The power she has as the controller of the lives and destinies of her disciples is tremendous. I doubt anyone's ego could retain any humility when awarded such power. I now know that Gurumayi has not been able to.
How I Left Siddha Yoga
Some time later I went for my last visit to Ganeshpuri, India. That was a fateful visit for me - and one I am very grateful for because it was the beginning of the return of my senses. I saw many abuses there and many things that are against my basic sense of decency and honor. I saw homophobia, elitism, psychological and verbal harassment, illegal activities, abuses of the rights of animals and just plain meanness and unkindness.
A few examples. Gurumayi was coming to the Guru Gita every morning at that time. She came each day in what appeared to me to be a very grumpy mood. The lights were off until she arrived and no-one was supposed to look at her during the chant. (People, such as I, had traveled thousands of miles and great expense to see her and were now denied all but a brief sight of her. The only other time one could see her was during darshan time in the mornings at which time we were to stay only five minutes and leave.) After the chant was over and daylight had come, Gurumayi called one person after another to stand up and she verbally harassed them in as cruel a manner as I had ever seen in my life. This happened day after day after day. I was stunned and very disturbed by this display of mistreatment. I knew that in ANY other circumstances and by any other person, this behavior would be seen by me and any rational person as inappropriate and unacceptable. In any other circumstance I would of left and/or spoken out about what I was seeing. In the context of spirituality we accepted it as grace and sat by as people were tormented.
During that stay in Ganeshpuri I was asked to participate in an illegal activity. As a part of my seva I was asked to type wording on a governmental document over an existing signature thus changing the governmental approval that was given by the document. I certainly got the feeling that this was a very common practice in Siddha Yoga.
By the time I left I knew that Siddha Yoga would never be the same for me again. I had observed enough over the years to feel really uncomfortable with the organization and I had a unsettling feeling that there was much more that I did not know that was not right. I came home and left all my seva at the center and stopped going regularly to programs. I kept Gurumayi in my heart as a concept - as a symbol of spiritual practice but I was disappointed in the person.
Soon after that came the November 1994 issue of the New Yorker magazine with that now famous article by Liz Harris entitled O Guru, Guru, Guru. I devoured that article. In some ways it represented a relief for me as it confirmed my sense that all was not right with Siddha Yoga at the core. At the time I read that article there were many things in it that I knew from my own experience to be true, there were some things in it that I did not know whether they were true or not but there was nothing in it that I knew for sure was not true.
For example, I knew that Gurumayi had her brother, Nityananda, harassed by devotees because I had a friend who was literally involved in doing it. In fact, I was asked to carry a gift from Gurumayi to someone as a thank you for what the person had done in harassing Nityananda. I knew that there were bugs in the ashrams as one such bug was pointed out to me by a very old-timer and staff member when I was in Oakland. I knew that Gurumayi really liked expensive and real jewelry as a friend of mine had given her a piece of jewelry and was told by Gurumayi in disgust that it had been checked by a jeweler and it was fake. I knew that Gurumayi had people spy on others and report to her as I over-heard two people speaking to each other behind me at an ashram in which one person told another that he had been instructed to follow and watch Meg Christian and report to Gurumayi on what she did. I knew there were lists of Special Consideration (VIPs) people who were given special treatment as I had seen such lists myself as part of my seva at the ashram and I was on one such list at one time and was given a great deal of special attention by a specially appointed staff person. I knew that George Afif had been convicted of statutory rape because I was friends with a person who was involved in management at the Oakland Ashram when it happened and I had previously been told about it.
In addition, the same stories that were described in the CoEvolution Quarterly magazine resurfaced, this time with greater emphasis and more concrete evidence to support them. So I reexamined the information I had received all those years ago - this time with a more open mind.
Since the publication of the New Yorker article I have been able to confirmed every single piece of information that is in there for myself from reliable sources. I now know that EVERYTHING that is reported in that article is true. In addition, I have made contact with many people who have, like me, had the courage to examine this big business Siddha Yoga organization that has captured our hearts and minds for so many years. While unique, I have found that their stories are similar to mine and that they have gone through the same painful process of separating from something that we all thought gave meaning to our lives. In addition, I have read and heard the personal testimony of people who have been more overtly abused than I have and I believe them. When a woman says she has been raped or sexually abused I believe her. There is nothing in it for her to make up such a story. I am appalled at the hundreds of Siddha Yoga psychotherapists who also know that and seem willing to take the side of the abusers in this instance. This is scary and horrifying.
I have undertaken an exhaustive study of published literature about cults and I have learned that there are certain characteristics of abusive cults many of which describe Siddha Yoga as I have experienced it. One of the most powerful characteristics is the unquestioning allegiance to a central personage. This is certainly the case in Siddha Yoga.
While Siddha Yoga may not be a Jonestown or a Waco, there are enough overt and covert abuses going on in there for me to leave. The final leavings have been slow and painful. I would not have chosen to leave Gurumayi. I loved the person I thought she was. However, I love my own inner Self more and I have to stand by principles that say abuse - sexual, financial, environmental, psychological, physical - is NOT OK and I cannot support it.
Even if only one young woman was raped by Baba, even if only one person was coerced into given large checks to the guru, even if there was only one incident of electronic eavesdropping at the ashram, even if Gurumayi only once physically harassed her brother, even if only one person was verbally belittled in public by Gurumayi ..... it would be enough for me to say that I cannot stay connected with this organization and retain a sense of integrity and honor. These things, and others, happened many more times than once and I am out! The remaining bonds I had with Gurumayi and SYDA came down with her photos from my walls. My depression has completely lifted without chemical aid and I am happier than I have been in my life.
I have learned many things in Siddha Yoga that are valuable. The basic teachings are marvelous principles to live one's life by. It is just too bad that Siddha Yoga does not live by them. I value the teachings and I value the practices. I expect meditation to be a daily activity for me for the rest of my life and I hope that chanting will once again become available to me without the Siddha Yoga strings attached. None of these teachings or practices are the property of Siddha Yoga. They are universal teachings and practices that come to us from many spiritual traditions. It is fortunate that one of the most powerful teachings of Siddha Yoga is to honor one's own self. It was by imbibing this teaching that I was able to see the unpleasant truths in this path and get out. I have confidence that I am not alone in this and that taking responsibility for oneself will enable many others to leave and reclaim their own sense of self.
With best wishes to all who read this in the spirit of seeking the truth. May you find what you are looking for.
Submitted: August 1996