Sexual Abuse and Lies on the Spiritual Path
I have received a heartfelt request to write, from a woman’s perspective, about the child abuse and rape testimony against senior Swamis in the Satyananda Yoga lineage. The testimony involves both proven and alleged incidences dating from the 1970s onward at the Mangrove Mountain Ashram in Australia and the seat of the lineage in Bihar, India. My deep sympathy and love goes out to all those affected. I hope that this piece, as inadequate as it may prove to be, will be in some way be useful to those who long for and seek a helpmeet on the path to waking up.
As I write this, Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is conducting public hearings involving a number of survivors and witnesses.
Many of the abuse charges are not new. In 1989, the senior Swami at the Mangrove Mountain Australian Satyananda ashram, Swami Akhandananda, was convicted on 35 counts of abusing four ashram girls. The High Court overturned the conviction on a technicality in 1991, and the Swami died six years later.
The testimony being heard before the Royal Commission involves child abuse, rape, gang rape, coercion and physical abuse such as beatings and at least in once instance, the knife cutting of a young girl by Swami Akhandananda. They involve Swamis deploying spiritual “teachings” to manipulate young people into having sex with each other and with adults.
The testimony points toward a pattern of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, carried out by numerous Swami’s against numerous children and young adults. The current testimony before the Royal Commission also implicates in various ways Swami Satyananda, the founder of Satyananda yoga who died in 2009, and his successors.
Testimony is also being given about the inadequate response of the lineage when, over the years, disciples have attempted to get help and bring the issue to light. The degree to which victims have been isolated and unsupported is heartbreaking.
The Royal Commission is live-streaming the hearings and posts transcripts of the testimony every day on its website. I encourage all interested parties to watch the hearings or read the transcripts in order to gain more clarity. You can also read the depositions which contain some different information.
Update January 2015: I strongly encourage people to read the resource files on the Facebook page Satyananda Yoga: Reveal the Truth. Many survivors have contributed their personal accounts.
What can we do?
What I want to speak to today is the question of how we, as practitioners and disciples of any teacher or lineage or stream of teachings, can most skillfully relate to the fact that some spiritual teachers and Gurus are going to lie and abuse and indulge in manipulative or even criminal behavior.
As humans, we are all together in the same boat crossing the ocean of samsara. When the boat violently rocks, we should of course try to find the cause and address it. But if we expend too much time and energy on outrage and complaint against others, the next time, it may be one of us who threatens others with capsize.
We need to put more focus on our own behavior and realization if we want to be of most benefit.
First: Commit yourself 100% to honesty and integrity. Those of us who grieve and are deeply dismayed and angered when we learn of, or experience, the abuses of our teachers have something very important to offer in response. We can offer our own honesty and integrity.
We should strive to hold spiritual teachers accountable for crimes, abuse and self-serving lies and manipulation. However, because sexism and patriarchy still run so deep in our cultures worldwide, we will rarely succeed in this 100%.
What we can have 100% success in is cultivating and demonstrating our own honesty and integrity. This will do more, in the long run, to heal us than court decisions.
Let us be practical and compassionate. Let us take strong action to protect children from abuse and, as adults, remove ourselves from the reach of abusers. Let us remember that all people are children of God and treat perpetrators with understanding and skillful means.
But with the goal of Self-realization in mind, let us use the lion’s share of our energy to focus on cultivating our own honesty and integrity as practitioners and teachers.
If you long so deeply for honest teachers with integrity, then you must know about honesty and integrity. You cannot miss what you do not know about. Dive deeply within yourself and find that wisdom. Then strive to embody it in every aspect of your life. Be the yogi, disciple or spiritual teacher you want to see.
Second: Commit yourself to recognizing and acting on your clarity. As the yogini poet Lalleshwari wrote in 14th century Kashmir, when ashes fall on the mirror, use them to polish the mirror.
We can, if we choose, use even very disturbing circumstances such as these to “polish” the mirror and examine our own condition.
Almost everyone finds it difficult to face or digest the reality of an abusive teacher even when we can see clearly in some moments. We so yearn for assistance from a spiritual friend, denial is often a poignant measure of our spiritual longing. We override our clarity so as not to have to walk away from our guide.
Then, we women in particular are more conditioned to suppress our clarity. We often lack the confidence to go against social conditioning and give voice to our direct insight. Many times we are afraid of losing approval, or of experiencing retribution. And it is often the case that when we do speak and act with clarity, we are met with great opposing force.
Finally, abusers, including spiritual teachers, threaten with dire consequences those who might reveal the truth. Spiritual preceptors, particularly in Tantrik traditions, have an arsenal of spiritual “teachings” that they can misuse to purposefully misdirect and attempt to nullify the clarity of their victims. This is certainly the experience of the women who are testifying before the Royal Commission.
Clarity grows as you continue to do sadhana and wake up. One of the main methods for increasing clarity is to begin to follow your clarity whenever you do encounter it.
This requires great courage for the reasons outlined above. But clarity is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger and more reliable it becomes. Taking the leap and just following your own wisdom even in the midst of socially conditioned doubt and push back is one of the most empowering things you can do.
When we allow ourselves to have clarity about our teachers, despite the consequences, we regain our Shakti and can make better choices and be less vulnerable when instances of misconduct do occur.
When women exercise clarity together, we can collectively effect great change.
Let’s take this opportunity to commit to talking more honestly to each other and to taking collective risks to share what we see within our lineages and spiritual communities. It is necessary to share what we know to be true if we want to undermine the impunity with which some, mostly male teachers, abuse, manipulate and dominate their students. But on a more ordinary level, speaking aloud about what we clearly see is necessary if we want to change the sexism that affects nearly all spiritual communities in some way or another.
Third: You are the ultimate proof of the value of the teachings. One of the most disheartening effects of allegations or revelations of abuse by a Guru or Swami is that students of the abusers question the value of the teachings they have been given.
After hearing the testimony of Bhakti Manning and others before the Royal Commission, and after reading independent accounts online, my opinion is that Swami Satyananda was indeed involved in the abuse of students. But I also know that many of his teachings have been of great value to me. I know this because I have practiced those teachings for more than twenty years and have come to embody some of the fruits of those teachings. I have proved the teachings in myself, and anyone else can do the same with teachings they have been given if they have the desire.
Find out for yourself the value of teachings by putting them into practice and gaining the fruits of practice.
If you do this, you can have a much more sober and nuanced view of your teachers. You can appreciate their teachings even if they turn out to not be as realized as your projections at an earlier stage led you to believe.
I am a student and teacher of classical Tantra. I am a householder, not a Swami. Most of my teachers have been householders. I have never expected my teachers to be celibate, and I do not profess celibacy.
Abuse, rape, violence, lying, and manipulation are an entirely different story. If the leaders of the Satyananda lineage are real yogis, real sannyasins, they will meet this crisis with honesty, openness, compassion, transparency, and humility. If they do not, regardless of what ultimately comes to light, it is my opinion that the lineage does not deserve to continue in its present form.
But we should not worry about anything continuing in a particular form. Wisdom is wisdom. Teachings will always be available. And Guru Tattva will prevail. The Divine Mother is always victorious.
Whatever we discover about our teachers, our job is to wake up. Protect your own practice. Try your best to embody honesty, integrity, and perseverance. Listen to your clarity and follow it. Love everyone. Be bold.
Love to everyone,