Ashram Politics

Babulnath Temple by B. Silver, Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Babulnath Temple by B. Silver, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Why do gurus play favorites? How come the rich and famous get so much attention in the ashram?

I was reminded of ashram politics when the ex-monk emailed me. We both had lived in the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) Monastic Order.

My ex-monk friend’s email mentioned the injustices and wrongs that he saw in the ashram; he blamed them all on bad leadership of the SRF President, the reverend Sri Daya Mata. The devotees considered her to be a perfected soul, an infallible channel of their deceased but ever-living guru, Paramahansa Yogananda. Ma was the guru’s representative on earth.

Daya Ma, this former-monk speculated, was determined to make as much money as possible so she could spread her guru’s teachings to as many people as possible. Follow the money and follow the guru-Yogananda. Ma, the ex-monk wrote, “knew how to hit [up] the millionaires for dough”. While the average-Joe monk, who had neither fame nor fortune, seldom got attention from the reverend holy mother, Ma.

The irony is that I entered the ashram believing spiritual leaders, revered holy persons, would be different–that they would not be indifferent. My starry-eyed ideals and naiveté was shattered. Why should I not think that the ashram was different and that it was not full of politics?

In her irreverent book Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East,Indian-native Gita Mehta wrote:

“I left the ashram because it’s so corrupt. The guru never stops playing favorites.

I thought this ashram was going to show me the way. No more politics. Only philosophy and salvation. I should get so lucky. There’s more politics in one Indian ashram than in the whole Western Hemisphere!

It’s rather sick really. The people who are rich get closer to the guru than those who are poor.

In the end I stopped caring about guru contact. I just got tired of having to do all the dirty jobs, while the rich powerful guys sat around being holy.

Disenchantment in the cloisters.
Is it justified?
Can the gurus be dismissed as con men, manipulating their way to great fortunes? Or is the plot in fact thicker than cash?

Notes

Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East by Gita Mehta. Vintage Books. Paperback. 1994.

Creator of Skeptic Meditations
9 comments
  1. I’m not sure why anyone is surprised by this. Money makes the world go ’round, so the rich and famous tend to get preferential treatment wherever they go. Few restaurants name a speciality meal after “Homeless Joe,” but any sane restauranteur would have an item on the menu named “President Clinton’s Chimichanga Special” if he or she could.

    Unless instructed otherwise, any normal leader of a church or synagogue is going to let it be known, at least by word-of-mouth, that that woman who happened to look like the famous US rep who was seen in Temple last Friday night really WAS the famous US rep, even if they don’t put it in the newsletter.

    TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was always upfront about his willingness to use celebrities to further his goals, but the official TM organization has done a pretty good job of not acknowledging celebrities in their midst unless permission is granted (one does not eat the golden goose, nor does one alienate potential Donors to the Cause).

    For every Prime Minister or President or Senator or MP who is willing to admit that they practice TM, there’s likely 2-3x as many who have kept it private. Likewise with famous musicians and actors. They get treated like royalty if they indicate they’d like that, or treated like everyone else if they say they want to remain anonymous.

    Of course, the TM organization has gone further than most in making their relationship with the wealthy explicit. After teh Deepak Chopra fiasco, the old monk raised the price of TM instruction to the point where only the wealthy could afford it, and declared that no more would the TM organization provide financial incentives to entice people to serve. Instead, he required that anyone who wanted to help run the TM organization would have to purchase an hereditary seat at the table for $1 million, or get some wealthy patron to do such a thing, and designate them as their representative.

    And so, all the highest level of TM administrators are either vastly wealthy themselves, or are good friends with someone who is. Of course, being wealthy doesn’t guarantee that you are an able administrator, but it DOES suggest that 1) you aren’t “in it for the money” (as Deepak Chopra and his wife made clear to Maharishi when they first started working for him) and 2) you probably know lots of rich and powerful people and can leverage your social network in service of the cause (for example, Luis Alverez, “Raja of Latin America,” is responsible for negotiations with the government of Brazil to have 48,000 TM teachers trained in Brazil, negotiations with the government of Lima, Peru to have 500-1000 TM teachers trained for the city of Lima alone, got the Minister of Education for the state of Oxoaca to preside at the opening of the first “Yogic Flying Hall” in Mexico a few weeks ago and was apparently instrumental in having several cabinet-level ministers in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak at a TM-sponsored conference on how to revive “Vedic India” held in New Delhi a couple of months ago).

    And of course, getting celebreties to make endorsements is a time-honored way of promoting causes, but when you can get Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney to sing a duet of “With a little help from my friends” at a benefit concert in Radio City Music Hall, it does a lot more than just raise a few million dollars.

    The TM org shamelessly exploits their celebrity connections at all levels, but interestingly enough, the old monk’s attitude permeates things: a tribal elder from an obscure tribe in Oklahoma is treated with just as much respect as the former Prime Minister of Japan, when they chose to visit the TM university in Iowa, because said old monk declared that “Heaven on Earth” could only be created once teh status of the Indigenous Peoples of the world had been restored to its rightful place as “Custodians of Natural Law.”

  2. @saijani: Is not “money” portrayed in the holy scriptures as worldly? And, giving to the poor and needy more important than accumulating wealth? I’m not a literalist, though I was an idealist when I joined the ashram.

    Greed and desire for money, power, celebrities (fame) is no different in the ashram. Are you arguing that the “exploitation” is acceptable? Even sanctimonious? If ashrams are as corrupt as everywhere else, why join or follow a guru?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. My grand mother was WWI widowed Veteran Nurse, who had little funds. She was always treated with great respect by Sri Daya Mataji, who initiated her into the sacred Kriya Yoga. I have disabled for 35 years, and have always been treated with dignity and respect by all of the SRF Monastics, and regularly corresponded with Sri Daya Mataji. I consider this lifelong friendship to be sacred and the small as well as large group Satsangas with Sri Daya Mata to be some of the most precious blessings of my life, only surpassed by Kriya Yoga ceremonies with appointed direct disciples of Yogananda and by her personal prayers. Yogananda drew the greatest Saints to his organization from the highest causal planes, and Sri Daya Mata would never put money making above the individual needs. I know this for a fact because when I received a large Work Comp award, I wanted to give a super large donation from it. She refused and it only accepted a much smaller donation because I might have need of those funds in the future. Before my serious test in 2010, I asked one of the monastics to please hold my savings for me (which was in the form of gold and silver), which she did. After 4 surgeries and months of chemotherapy, SRF offered to return it to me saying, “Yogananda always the individual comes first.” So, this is why I am writing you. I am sorry that your experience was different than mine. But I am here because of the prayers of Sri Daya Mata, her loving support, and she is definitely a liberated soul. This I know because when my brother was dying I wrote her a little note to please help him ascend into the Astral planes, and she gave the next morning at the end of my meditation when I was praying for him, I could feel soul’s freedom, perceive his sense of awe of the beauty of the Astral Heavens, and knew beyond any doubt that Sri Daya Mata helped him to ascend into the higher realms. 20 minutes later my younger brother called to tell me that my older brother had passed on. “When the disciple is ready”, the Guru appears. I am so sorry that you were not receptive to the divine blessings that were presented to you by Self-Realization Fellowship. Perhaps in your next incarnation you will realize what a blessing it is to experience the unconditional love of a true Sat (World) Avatar Guru and the Darshan of him through his great Saints.

  4. @Sharifah:

    Sorry to hear that you’ve had many difficulties and health challenges during your life. I wonder if those crises lead you to earnest, yet desperate desire to find answers from SRF and Gurus?

    I too was driven to seek comforting answers of the SRF.

    When I was age 10, my father had brain surgery to save his life. He was left paralyzed, partially blind, and had regular seizures and paranoid episodes for the remainder of his life. Our family appeared financially stable, normal, but on the inside we all held emotional trauma, fears and uncertainties–we sought meaning in our suffering. SRF was my answer — so I thought.

    Have you heard of Confirmation Bias?
    As long we hold unquestioning faith in authority we have little chance of progress as human species and will be sure to be tricked and fooled. I don’t know how anyone who worships gurus without question can ever objectively discover, let alone admit, the dark-side of their blessed saints or gurus. We humans will come up with all kinds of rationalizations to keep on believing whatever we want.

    How do you know the extraordinary claims of Yogananda and SRF are in fact true? Outrageous claims of: next incarnations, “highest causal planes”, astral planes… is there any way to determine if these so-called guru “truth” claims are in fact true?

    Our personal anecdotes, prayers, and feelings are the least reliable methods for discerning truth how our universe actually is. Our planet looks, feels, and behaves as if its flat. I prayed that it was flat, went outside and see the ground is flat. There’s even a Flat Earth Society who insist the world is flat despite scientific evidence to the contrary. I could chose to feel or believe the world is indeed flat. Such are the reliability of feelings, blind trust in authority, fringe groups, and wishful thinking.

    Respectfully.

  5. I do wish you would distinguish between large corporatized organizations and the mystic practices themselves. I am not naive or blind to the politics of ashrams and big spiritual organizations, which is why I never got sucked into one like you did.

    Then I met my guru. He does not have an ashram. He doesn’t have a press packet for the media. He’s a householder yogi living in a normal house with his family, and teaches selectively. He’s real, he’s truly God-realized, and he has changed my life without seeking to control it.

    This website does make it seem like you and the others who write here just swing between extremes – from blind, unquestioning devotion to blind, unquestioning cynicism. It’s irresponsible of you to turn around and castigate an entire tradition, including its legitimate parts, because you happened to have to deal with the assholes.

  6. Thanks, Priya, for taking the time to comment.

    We see big religious organizations, small ashrams, or anyone who submits to the guru-disciple relationship as at high risk of manipulation and control.

    We see submission of one or many disciples to a so-called “god-realized” guru, organization, or leader as the fundamental danger–the giving over of one’s authority to magical thinking.

    Having once been a disciple of a “god-realized guru”, indeed a whole line of avatars, I find the extraordinary claims to have little substance other than a believers willingness to submit to some special class of superior human who is believed to have “god-realization” or special wisdom.

    There’s too many extraordinary claims and gurus to believe they all can be true or real. How does one then go about judging if any are worth their salt? By exercising critical judgement. And, the realization that the desire for saviors who will solve humanities complex problems was a childish desire that I outgrew.

  7. So…once again, when you talk about “manipulation and control” and “giving over of one’s authority” and “the desire for saviors who will solve humanities complex problems”, you’ve demonstrated that you actually don’t know the guru-shishya tradition. At all. What you know is the Self-Realization Fellowship, which is a corporate spiritual organization and possibly a cult, where they closely monitor their PR and even heavily edit Yogananda’s original books. They don’t reflect the actual Hindu tradition of guru-shishya lineages that Yoganandya comes from – lineages in which

    1) Gurus do not solve the world’s problems
    2) Gurus teach their disciples to eventually find the inner guru
    3) Gurus never allow their disciples to be overly reliant on them

    You simply don’t know what gurus are, or what it means to be God-realized. If you’re an atheist, that is FINE. There is NOTHING wrong with that. You don’t have to agree with the dharma religions. You don’t have to agree with yoga as a philosophy. You don’t have to want a guru in your life.

    But if you don’t understand a tradition, then you have no business writing about it as if you’re an authority. Years in the self-realization fellowship clearly left you with a very, very inaccurate understanding of what gurus are.

  8. @Priya: I still don’t believe you. What exactly or why should anyone believe you or your god-realized guru(s)?

    I wonder if you read my post Duped by Meditation?. Not that I think it will change your mind. But you may at least get a glimpse into some of the reasons I no longer believe nor desire what the god-realized gurus try to sell.

    Your missionary posts are a turn off. You profess to know (and that I don’t) about god-realization and guru-traditions. Plan on giving evidence or good arguments why we should believe what you do. Otherwise, don’t bother. We’re not interested in unsubstantiated claims.

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