On predatory gurus

By Guest Blogger, Cult*ural In$ergent

Once upon a time there was a Satyananda Ashram some 15-20 mins drive out from Nimbin. It no longer exists as such – the property has been renamed Kaivalya Meru, a place where Kirtan Camps are held.

In the early 1980s one of my sisters took me to a retreat which was held at the Satyananda Ashram in the Mangrove Mountain region. My sister was exploring rebirthing, psychotherapy, reiki and various other philosophies/disciplines here and there. I was not. Still, it was a beautiful place and while my sister immersed herself in the daily ‘spiritual’ activities I wandered around the grounds with my eldest son who was a toddler at the time. The permanent residents and some of the visitors had created luxuriant garden beds around and about. I particularly remember the rockmelon vines which were running riot at that time of year. Yes, it was a gloriously verdant environment.

What wasn’t so glorious was the abuse of power by the then head of the Mangrove Mountain ashram, Swami Akhandananda. Coercive manipulation was employed as a means to an end – that end being to ensure that ‘earthly desires’ were met. This involved the sexual abuse of minors. He was charged and did time in prison. Satyananda Yoga Mangrove’s facebook page offers an “apology to the children and adults whose lives were affected by the abuse [by] and misconduct of those in charge of the ashram in the late 70’s and early 80’s.” That’s a great start but no amount of Hari Oms will completely heal the deep wounds that were inflicted upon those affected by the abuse. Nor can chanting even the most heartfelt kirtans.

Satyananda Yoga Australasia’s website describes their Mangrove Yoga Ashram as being “the largest residential yoga retreat in the Southern Hemisphere… providing a haven of peace for people from all walks of life since 1975.” Huh, really? I hardly think that any of those impacted by the abuse at Mangrove Mountain felt that they were provided with any sort of haven at that time.

Satyananda Survivors have a facebook page. Their story is tragically similar to case after case of abuse the world over. There’s an exceedingly heavy toll exacted and a virtually immeasurable impact upon victims and their loved ones regardless of the how, when, where or why. It seems that some attempt was made to address the past damage done to the Satyananda Survivors by allowing comments (about the abuse they were subjected to) to be posted on a web page but apparently the comments disappeared/were removed. At least this is what I’ve gleaned from my reading. That just seems like abuse upon abuse. Silenced again. History repeating.

mangrovemountainashramAn offer of free attendance to the 40th anniversary celebrations was extended to those who previously resided at Mangrove Mountain. This, I’d imagine, was done with the best of intentions as a path to healing. It would be understandable, though, if some of those who suffered abuse may never want (or even be able) to set foot on that soil again.

Some people and places, although they may appear lovely and peaceful, have a past (or, in some cases, a present) that is sordid and fetid. This needs to be publicly acknowledged so that those who have been abused and then subsequently silenced or ignored are finally able to speak and be heard. That’s empowering and goes at least some way to a kind of healing.

Satyananda Yoga Mangrove Mountain Ashram under Child Abuse Royal Commission scrutiny – resource page links to Royal Commission inquiry web page and news reports.

18 thoughts on “On predatory gurus

  1. And this one: http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/has-the-yoga-community-enabled-predators-20140205-32145.html

    Reading over details of the cases, it’s alarming to see how much power was given to the perpetrators. The complainants in the Bikram cases were deeply invested in the community both spiritually and financially, and it’s not difficult to imagine the hurt and confusion the women involved must have felt in coming forward. But abuse can flourish when a community unquestioningly hand power over to a teacher…

    But where does responsibility lie with the students? ‘Tim’ a senior teacher in the Anusara lineage…told me that there are circumstances that allow it to happen from both parties. “While it’s up to the teacher to recognise the power differential – if a student is vulnerable, if there’s a lack of self-worth, that can be played upon – but students can be very quick to hand their power over to someone else,” he says. “Students need to recognise that all teachers are human, and not be too quick to attach a god-like status…”

    Which is one thing in yoga study, but in UM we have bloody doctors endorsing Serge and enabling abuse.

    Sure the students have some responsibility, but in UM there are often also patients, who rely on medical professionals to ethically provide health related guidance.

    In this case, UM’s health professionals are culpable for abuse that takes place.

  2. “Ramakrishna was a homoerotic pedophile.His chief disciple, Vivekananda, visited brothels in India.Krishnamurti carried on an affair for over twenty years with the wife of a good friend. Chögyam Trungpa drank himself into an early grave. One of Adi Da’s nine “wives” was a former Playboy centerfold. Bhagwan Rajneesh sniffed laughing gas to get high. Andrew Cohen, guru and publisher of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, by his own reported admission sometimes feels “like a god.”

    These are typical of the “wizened sages” to whom otherwise-sensible people give their devotion and unquestioning obedience, surrendering their independence, willpower, and life’s savings in the hope of realizing for themselves the same “enlightenment” as they ascribe to the “perfect, God-realized” master.


    Is it for being emotionally vulnerable and “brainwashed,” as the “anti-cultists” assert? Or for being “willingly psychologically seduced,” as the apologists unsympathetically counter, confident that they themselves are “too smart” to ever fall into the same trap? Or have devotees simply walked, with naively open hearts and thirsty souls, into inherent dynamics of power and obedience which have showed themselves in classic psychological studies from Milgram to Zimbardo, and to which each one of us is susceptible every day of his life?” – http://www.strippingthegurus.com/

    Not to mention Crazy Wisdom Rinpoche C. Trungpa, another Sham-balah Teacher, crashing his car into a joke shop. (Seriously)

    Serge Benhayon founder of Universal Medicine, found his enlightenment on the toilet. (Seriously) Endorsed by doctors…

  3. Here is another quote concerning Shambhala teachers:

    “But Campbell shows also in her confessional book Traveller in Space that the sexual misuse of women is not only a blameable attitude but that it is a central part of the Lamaist Tantric religion.  The sexual magic practice exercised by a Lama with a woman has the specific goal to transmit the erotic and female energy into the spiritual and worldly power of the male partner. Such sexual rituals are the core of Tibetan Buddhism. Also in the secret higher initiations of the Kalachakra Tantra sexual magical rites take place. The ritual texts can be interpreted symbolically or real (!). Both are possible. The originals say that eleven-year-old girls may be used as sexual partners.” http://www.trimondi.de/EN/interv03.html

  4. In the Nimbin region a few people have heeded the call/the calling to become Buddhist monks and nuns. Some of these people are very close friends of friends of mine. Over the years I’ve heard various bits and pieces about their spiritual life. One of the things that I’ve found most disturbing is the evidently not uncommon practice by certain monks (hopefully NOT my friends’ friends) of using young boys, residents of various Buddhist monasteries, for sex. What I’ve also found upsetting is that these westerners who’ve taken vows seem to be somewhat accepting of the situation as it’s so widespread. Almost normalised. It’s the underbelly of Buddhism that few westerners who romanticise the religion, or the philosophy behind the religion, ever really want to address. Also, women – even nuns – hold a very lowly position, of course. Unlike UM, where men seem to be peculiarly ostracised overall.


  5. There is a lot going on in Tibetan circles these days, if it comes to certain issues which simply have to be addressed.
    Tibet used to be a particular closed society before the Chinese took over, and even if many of us adopted the Tibetan belief system, what do we really know about the real meaning behind the Tantra’s?
    The issues and questions raised by the Trimondies (link above) IMO are of great concern for many reasons; and are raised by two people who do have a lot of knowledge as well as a lot of experience in the field.

    With all the fuss since the nineties about the Great Mother, Goddess and the return of The Sacred Feminine represented as ageless wisdom; I often wonder how far certain believers of the Goddess are willing to take this. If they are power hungry, kinky, and explore this the same way the ancients did. The problems in the Tibetan circles around the secret Tantra’s is a good example of this, because the Trimondies explain the traditional meaning of the Kala Chackra in detail, which is very revieling and directly related to Serge’s (and/or Alice Bailey who channeled the Tibetan) Shambhala myth.

    Ritual magic is very common in Tibetan circles and deeply rooted in Tibetan society, based on the fact that Tibetan Buddhism has been built on the Bon tradition. What this might implicate is something that has been completely overlooked by the Western world and is coming to the surface, these days, for all the right reasons IMHO.

    1. Tantra is dangerous. A lot of abuse has taken place in its name.

      Some extremes of Hindu tantra has included human sacrifice as a demonstration of detachment. Justified with the doctrine of ‘karma’.

      1. I fully agree. It’s a snakepit:a breeding ground for sexual inadequate people, as well as malignant narcissists, which is a spectrum. But reach this side of the spectrum and we’re talking homicidal and more of these things. I never even joined group spirituality but have been targeted many times and could write a guest post on this one. Maybe I will some day.

  6. The lesson is the desire for humans to give their power to others is immense. And when you do, the exploitation is inevitable. The fact is, for someone to claim ultimate knowledge they are by definition a messed up unit and the result is foregone. What human- for that is all they are- can not be corrupted by worship and adulation even if their original intention was, for sake of argument, pure.

    These type of people are drawn to by that desire that is in us all, like a magnet to iron. They turn it against us for their own advantage, drawing a veil around our normal senses so they can get away with things normal witted people would not allow.

    What is clear with all of these guys (and the odd lady) is that they believe themselves above the law and normal human responsibility. They don’t care how people are affected, provided they benefit. Financial, sexual, psychological abuses abound.

    Look at our cult leader- Serge. Rather than dealing with regular integrity, he just renames it ‘energetic integrity’ and then he is free to do what he wants. Take a loan then call it a donation? Why not. Borrow money then not repay it? Sure. Break up families without raising a sweat? No issue. Shack up with a girl coached as a teen? Yep. Attack critics with baseless accusations and call it “truth”. Absolutely.

    And other stuff.

    That magnet metaphor goes further. The members become so polarized that they resonate at the frequency of their exploitative leader- their very being trapped in that flux- fused to them. And getting clear of the fields of influence is not easy. While they trapped there, they cannot see how things look outside it.

    The lesson is, it’s hard to be a self-actuating human. We’ve got deep inbuilt desires for group think, to follow leaders, for black and white and magical thinking. Being truthful to yourself, because of yourself, really is the path less traveled.

    And unfortunately, when the bubble bursts it is others that are left dealing with the mess that these self-serving groups and leaders leave, often escaping the punishment they deserve for their woeful exploitation of often well-meaning people.

    Every story of these groups is a tale of heartbreak. Very sad.

  7. Yes, unfortunately wherever there is a power imbalance there is potential for abuse and exploitation – regardless of whether the abusers are portraying themselves as pure or holy or soul-full.

    Sexual abuse can happen anywhere – within families, educational institutions, workplaces, sporting teams, churches, cults…

    What our mates at UM and those overly enamoured of Eastern traditions don’t acknowledge is despotism and archaic hierarchies merely perpetuate power imbalances.

    UM would like to do away with free speech and transparency and have expression controlled by their corrupt rules.

    Liberal democratic politics arose from mass discontent with corruption and inequality – and the abuses and suffering that went with it. Much of the second and third world is yet to catch up. UM would like it abolished and have Serge and his bitches rule the world.

    The liberal democratic system has given us is a decent and more equitable justice system and ways to address inequality and hold those in power to account – but we must exercise it, and out the abusers for that to work toward protecting others.

    It’s sad to see Eastern groups resisting full transparency and acknowledgement of abuse.

  8. thanks Esther. I love the way you have written this piece. You are right.. we have been blocked from comment on all ashram related sites and our comments removed. They have been panicking since the RC started up and have handled things badly ever since. Its caused much trauma and reopening of wounds. I am one of the kids that lived there in the 80s and, well, everyone knows the rest. If you do any more writing on this feel free to contact me for any info.

  9. Hi Esther,I would have been a child living at this ashram when you came to visit.It was a beautiful place,but underneath was a very dark side,which I also experienced as I grew up in this ashram the comment by Lord of Form above,sums up this kind of existence very well. At last these people are being heard and Satyananda Ashram will be forced to acknowledge the darkness of their guru and his close friends and advisors who allowed him,Akhandananda and others to deceive many good people for their own gain.

  10. Hi Savitri and Yinkarra, it’s such a pity it took so long for these stories to be heard and disappointing the Satyananda establishment has responded so poorly – showing themselves to be no better than other organisations where abuse has taken place.

    I should point out I didn’t write the above blog post. It was submitted by one of my readers, Cult*ural In$ergent. I wasn’t aware of the Satyananda situation until she wrote this, and I’m very glad she’s drawn attention to it.

    You are welcome to submit a post of your own if you like. I would like to look into this further, but it’s a question of when.

    Best wishes to any Satyananda survivors reading.

  11. There will be a public hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse on December 2, 2014.

    The Commission is taking applications until November 21 for leave to appear at the hearing. http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/media-release/1733/royal-commission-to-hold-public-hearing-into-satyananda-yoga-ashram

    The hearing will be streamed live for the duration from 10 am to 4 pm. http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/bc75afe3-4a12-41be-983d-f9db256f6260/case-study-21,-december-2014,-sydney

    To all those who will appear, congratulations on your courage in making this very important issue heard.

  12. Sydney Morning Herald news report on the upcoming Royal Commission hearing into child sexual abuse at the Satyananda yoga ashram: http://www.smh.com.au/national/paradise-lost-satyananda-yoga-ashram-is-the-subject-of-royal-commission-hearing-20141127-11v3rl.html

    From the article:

    For Sanatan, now 63, the ashram presented a utopian ideal. Days were spent practising and teaching yoga, constructing communal buildings and tending to the ashram’s organic farm. The 120 adults and 30 children living in the community had no money, no news, radio or television. Alcohol and smoking were banned and everyone adhered to a strict vegetarian diet.
    “It was an incredibly different life,” he said. “There was a lot of devotion. It’s very hard to describe to someone who has not experienced it. It was something out of the ordinary and definitely a cult but those who were in it didn’t see it as such.”
    Dr Alec Pemberton, an honorary senior lecturer at Sydney University with expertise in cults, said spiritual seekers were often intelligent but vulnerable to exploitation.
    “A charismatic leader can quite easily take advantage of them, especially in an environment which is physically and geographically isolated,” he said. “Unfortunately, these leaders can and do take advantage of their followers and often their authority is never questioned by other members of the group.”
    Allegations of financial impropriety surfaced in the 1990s, when former ashram member Paul White claimed more than 100 people lost most of their life savings through donations to the centre, a registered charity.

  13. The public hearings for the Royal Commission are underway, and so far the testimonies have been horrific. Children were subjected to sexual abuse, threats of violence, beatings, neglect, separation from family and society, starvation and forced labour. Live streaming of the hearings is available over the next week and half from 10 am to 4 pm, and transcripts are available on this same page. http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/bc75afe3-4a12-41be-983d-f9db256f6260/case-study-21,-december-2014,-sydney

    Congratulations and best wishes to the survivors who have endured decades of gruelling victimisation and denial, and are now courageously making themselves heard.

  14. I’ve posted a resources page for the Royal Commission with links to the RC web page on the Satyananda Inquiry and a comprehensive selection of news reports. It will be updated as the hearing proceeds.

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