The Nightlife of a Great Yogi
A sex scandal involving an Indian guru revives worries about Eastern spirituality
Eva Vrbová felt there was something wrong with the atmosphere in the room. It wasn't often that the Indian guru Swami Maheshvarananda, on his occasional visits to the Czech Republic, would invite someone to his room after the evening meditation. But it felt like an honor to Vrbová to be close to a man considered by his disciples to be an enlightened master. Only the dim lighting and the fact that she found herself in his bedroom disturbed her.
Her suspicions grew after the bearded guru, stretched out on his bed, asked her to take off her T-shirt, but her mind still responded with a feeling of trust. The thought, "What sort of test do I need to pass now?" went through her mind. Years spent in the Yoga in Daily Life (YIDL) community, with all its conditioning regarding the guru's infallibility, made Vrbová obey his words. She also obeyed when Swami Maheshvarananda told her to "charge her heart from his". Half-naked and stiff, she lay on top of Swami Maheshvarananda's body. It was only when he started to feel her private parts that what was left of her common sense snapped into action. "This is divine bliss," he whispered in her ear, while incense sticks burned in the dim light. "No, it isn't," she said. Finally, she found the strength to refuse his commands, and even when he insisted she repeated forcefully "No, it isn't".
It has been 15 years since that night in a Prague apartment, and throughout that time Vrbová has hardly spoken about what happened. It was only this year that she discovered, via the internet, that she is far from alone in having experienced something similar. Since spring, there have been more accounts of the sexual escapades of the enlightened guru, who is officially celibate, and the scandal is picking up speed. In Austria, the home of YIDL's international headquarters, the national cult bureau is investigating the organization, which has 30 centers around the world. In the former Yugoslavia, many local leaders have left their spiritual master and in Australia the organization is practically falling apart. However, the Czech Republic, one of his main bases, with several thousand followers, has so far remained silent.
This case has a broader context. At a time when exotic spiritual trends are becoming ever more popular in the West, this story acts as a signpost, helping us navigate the confusing terrain of postmodern spirituality, so that, instead of spiritual development, followers don't suffer traumatic experiences. This scandal is even more surprising because, among Asian spiritual trends in the Czech Republic, YIDL has the longest tradition and has been considered very trustworthy. It organizes yoga lectures for Charles University students, its actions were endorsed by the foreign minister, and movement founder Swami Maheshvarananda gave speeches at UN peace summits. "For me, the saddest discovery was how easy it is to take advantage of the trust and effort of people who are full of good intentions and just want to develop themselves," says Vrbová, who only this year found the strength to leave the organization.
Drunk and enlightened
The concept of an enlightened master blessing his disciples feels somewhat suspicious in the religiously indifferent Czech Republic. However, the success that Eastern gurus have enjoyed in the West since the 1960s is quite logical and natural. Western Christianity has been going through a deep crisis in modern times, while traditional Eastern spiritual teachings offer fewer dogmas, and focus mainly on powerful meditation techniques, which are very useful for personal development in everyday life. The masters, visited in Asia in their ashrams or Zen temples by Western youth since the second half of the last century, charm visitors with qualities you rarely find in post-war Europe or America.
The attractiveness of the eastern gurus can be illustrated by a story from the early '70s, recorded by the biographers of the Indian master Sri Dhyanyogi. When he was almost 100 years old, most of which time he had spent meditating in the seclusion of a Himalayan cave, the old yogi was persuaded to come and teach in the USA. Once, on a trip, his car pulled into a parking lot and one of his disciples carelessly slammed the door, trapping Dhyanyogi's fingers. Sri Dhyanyogi reputedly turned a little pale but a peaceful expression never left his face. "Could you please open the door?" he kindly asked the disciple.
When the door opened, he was bleeding profusely, his bones had been crushed and his fingers were hanging by their skin. The guru's expression remained happy and balanced, however, and the only thing the 100-year-old guru was concerned about was that the person who had caused the injury didn't suffer too much guilt.
Inner peace, all-encompassing compassion and practical techniques for finding harmony in this grim earthly existence have become the currency of Eastern masters. But the masters also brought with them Asian cultural norms that require the disciple's surrender to the master. This, in a Western context, leads to many forms of abuse. It's not simply that among the "real" gurus a few manipulative con-men have also sneaked in, it's more often that the master simply cannot cope with the temptations of the West and his followers' uncritical admiration. "The Eastern masters grew up in cultures that helped them maintain ethical boundaries," explains the British Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Rob Preece, who has 40 years' experience working with Tibetan and Nepalese lamas. "They have their elders to make sure that they stick to the principles as their control mechanisms. When they come to the West, they are on their own and fail much more easily."
The gallery of Western gurus is full of controversial figures who abuse their position for sex and the accumulation of wealth, and who turn their disciples into dependent mental wrecks. It's interesting that a large number of them could be best described as contradictory characters rather than as wholly negative influences.
Indian immigrant Osho has become famous in the USA as the owner of the largest Rolls-Royce collection in the world -- financed, of course, by the cult members -- but his dynamic meditation is still practiced by hundreds of thousands of people. The Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa was famous for being a womanizer and ultimately drank himself to death, but his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism remains a critical insight into the meaning of spiritual practice.
"The problem is not just the masters, but also the naïveté and immaturity of the disciples," says Preece, who has written a book on the psychological aspects of spirituality, The Wisdom of Imperfection. "In the West, we are starved of masters. We have a tendency to idealize them as people who will finally solve all our problems and therefore everything is allowed to them."
If the Western spiritual seeker is hungry and submissive, what about the average citizen of normalization-era Czechoslovakia? Because it was here, in the spiritual desert of 1970s Communism -- at a time when Communist leader Gustáv Husák's regime was fostering friendly relations with India -- that Swami Maheshvarananda arrived like an apparition, a charismatic 20-year old with a beard and orange robes.
YIDL was never a closed sect in the classic sense. It reminds one more of a pyramid. The further up you go, the more it changes into a cult. At its lower levels, there are classes and yoga exercises open to the public, and an uncommitted practitioner can attend these for some time without noticing anything suspicious.
But those who want more, and officially become Swami Maheshvarananda's disciples, increasingly find themselves in a world of strict rules and manipulation. "At first it looks like it's a very nice environment," says Vrbová, recalling her introduction to YIDL at the start of the '90s. "Everybody is peaceful, gentle, they are against violence, they don't eat meat. It was exactly what I was looking for. I had a violent father, so this was like a balm for me. Only over time have I realized that aggression is merely repressed within this community." For this young woman, dissatisfied with her life, the organization became a substitute for her family and friends, and Swami Maheshvarananda, who would come to the Czech Republic a few times a year to conduct yoga seminars, became for her a perfect master, who would guide her on the path of life. She tirelessly worked for the community and eventually accepted its principles as her own. The principles were explained to her by the older generation of yogis, who helped to build the community during the Communist era in Czechoslovakia, when it was tolerated by the regime.
Without a guru and selfless service one cannot reach enlightenment. No one should ask questions. Any doubts about the master, who is regarded as knowing what's best for the disciple, indicate a low level of spiritual development and should therefore be kept to oneself. It is advisable to avoid bad company -- and that includes people who eat meat. If the guru needs money for one of his many humanitarian projects, the disciples will collect this money. To drink water that was used to wash his feet is considered a blessing.
It is probably no coincidence that this auto mechanic from Rajasthan, India found the strongest support for his organization in post-Communist countries, where people were accustomed to obeying the authorities. All seven of the women who decided to speak out about their sexual abuse this year came from former Communist countries and their statements created a storm in the community. (It's highly likely that more women will come forward -- there are dozens of indirect testimonies.) It should be mentioned that, with the exception of Austrian law, which forbids spiritual authorities from having sex with their followers, this does not violate the law. The women whom Swami Maheshvarananda invited to his bedroom over the years were adults and he didn't use violence against them, only his power as cult leader.
Along with Vrbová, a woman from the former East Germany, also in her 30s, has spoken out about her experiences. She didn't want to use her real name because of the fear of repercussions but in a Skype interview she described how Swami Maheshvarananda repeatedly forced her to perform oral sex on him during her stay in India, telling her that she was swallowing "blessed offering". "It was disgusting, but I kept telling myself that he wouldn't do anything bad to me," she says. "I was totally brainwashed." According to psychologist Ulrike Schiesser of the Austrian cult bureau, this is typical: "The women understood that they were being sexually abused but their emotions contradicted their belief in a loving guru. Confused, they would blame themselves first."
It took 15 years for Eva Vrbová to fully understand that her treatment by Swami Maheshvarananda was simply abuse and that all the spiritual talk was just cover for his true intentions. "Today I know that I didn't have any alternative in my life [or anywhere] to go if I left and therefore I couldn't allow myself to accept the whole truth," she says. In the last few months she has heard many times from her ex-colleagues that they are not interested in her experiences, that she is lying and/or that Swami Maheshvarananda's actions were actually a show of trust and a form of blessing. She understands their reaction: "Of course it hurts me but, on the other hand, I understand that if they believed me, their world would collapse. I experienced it myself."
The organization's official position remains the same, even at the end of a stormy year that's seen the departure of many members around the world. "These are all just lies," says Jindra Dohnalová, one of the key figures at the Czech branch. "This is a campaign against him and their goal is to destroy his work and the work of many other people."
Psychologists who focus on spirituality now hold the opinion that the best way to prevent this form of abuse isn't simply to reject lustful masters and/or Asian spiritual paths in general but to carefully evaluate what the Western students themselves could change about these relationships. "Our naïveté was part of the problem," says Rob Preece. "We were not able to say no to them, to retain our own autonomy. But that is important for the future. How yoga and Buddhism will look in the West is our responsibility."
Eva Vrbová remembers how at one seminar she happened to be the translator sitting next to the guru, and how people in the hall spontaneously asked the master for his blessings. He was sitting on a pedestal, in the spotlight and a long line of students was falling at his feet expressing their devotion for over an hour and a half. "All those expectations, needs and projections which were radiating from people had incredible power," his former disciple recalls. "I don't want to make any excuses for what he did, but it was clear to me at the time that it must be incredibly hard to control this and not to misuse that power."
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