The Fall of the 1970’s Yoga Gurus
I’m enjoying Stefanie Syman’s entertaining book chronicling the rise of Yoga in America, and one of the joys about it is the rich appendix, filled with references for further reading. One subject she discusses is the (sexual) scandals that engulfed the 1970’s and 80’s gurus, who at the time, were attracting legions of followers and donors. For convenience, I tracked down the articles she cites that are still available online:
- O GURU, GURU, GURU: A 1994 New Yorker article about Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa and his organization Siddha Yoga Dham of America Foundation (SYDA).
… 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.
… 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.”
… 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.
- When Betsy Met Sally (Two ‘It Girls’ Face The Material World): Speaking of Sally Kempton, here is a 2002 NY Observer article that came out just when she re-entered civilian life. There were damaging quotes attributed to her in the New Yorker article from 1994, I was unable able to find follow-up articles articulating her side of the story. Perhaps she stills stands by the quotes from 1994?
… 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 (a.ka. Sally Kempton) 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.
… 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.”
[Update (2/9/2011): Sally Kempton talks about her introduction to Muktananda and her decision to disrobe. ]
- Yogi Bhajan’s Synthetic Sikhism: A 1977 Time article about the controversial founder of 3HO (“Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization”).
Bhajan has repeatedly been accused of being a womanizer. Colleen Hoskins, who worked seven months at his New Mexico residence, reports that men are scarcely seen there. He is served, she says, by a coterie of as many as 14 women, some of whom attend his baths, give him group massages, and take turns spending the night in his room while his wife sleeps elsewhere. Colleen and her husband Philip, Bhajan’s former chancellor, who quit last year, say they could no longer countenance Bhajan’s luxurious life-style when so many of his followers had to scrimp along.
- Egg on my Beard: Ram Dass’ 1976 Yoga Journal article on his short-lived experience as a follower of (the still controversial) Ma Jaya Bhagavati Cho (Brooklyn-born Joyce Green).
- Brother-Sister Gurus Now Lead Yoga Movement: A 1983 LA Times article on Swami Muktananda’s immediate successors. Unfortunately I couldn’t track down a free copy of this article.