I honestly don’t where to begin with this blog, but I’m brimful with outrage. Once again, I feel plunged into a maelstrom of radicalizing revelations and I’m somewhat off-balance as a result. This last month in particular has delivered one devastating reality check after another. Along with our collective, burgeoning awareness of the extent of institutionally sanctioned police violence (one of several operations of the institutionally sanctioned “New Jim Crow” policies of mass incarceration and oppression of people of color), I find my world is also rocked by a case currently under consideration by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
This case concerns an institutionally sanctioned collection of predatory rapes and abuses of children and teenagers at the Mangrove Mountain Satyananda Yoga Ashram in Australia, circa 70s-80s. The predators named so far are Swami Satyananda Saraswati (d. 2009), founder of what’s known as the International Yoga Fellowship and Bihar School of Yoga, and Swami Akhandananda (d. 1997 or 98), who was the head honcho of the Mangrove Mountain ashram. Both men used their status as spiritual leaders – supposedly infallable gurus – to sexually prey upon children as young as six. However most of the known victims were in girls in their teens. Many boys may have been raped as well, but this is typically less acknowledged and even more underreported. Other forms of physical abuse, violence, and neglect were also visited upon both male and female children of the ashram. There are eleven survivors testifying to the Australian Royal Commission, and it’s possible that more victims will emerge, as Satyananda apparently travelled widely. The testimonies are posted online, in their entirety.
Akhandananda was tried and convicted in 1989 and later died of alcoholism after serving less than two years in jail. In 1998, Satyananda left the organization he founded and lived “as a paramahansa sannyasin” (a high status title) according to the bio published in Kundalini Tantra (2003 edition), a book he originally wrote in 1984. This means Satyananda was protected by his organization for at least another ten years and by his special status until the end of his life. Did he stop raping little kids after Akhandananda was jailed? Did he understand his own crimes at that point, or was he just more careful to not get caught? I wonder if either man ever felt remorse. Or did they just use their own self-proclaimed guru-ness to justify it all? I unfortunately suspect the latter.
According to the testimonies, there were a lot of complicit females as well – slightly older women, some also of “swami” rank, who slept in the same room while youngsters were raped. And there are worse things to be found in the testimonies… A survivor known only as “APR” said, ““The ashram was the kind of place where, if you scream, noone comes.”
Matthew Remski, a therapist, author, and yoga practitioner, has called for a boycott of all Satyananda materials and methods until reparations and other conditions are met by the global organization. In his blog he summarizes and discusses the implications of the investigation into this case, which continues through much of January. I strongly recommend that you read it. Remski then makes a strong statement addressed to everyone in the yoga (and tantra) world.
Remski says, “… the lesson for other schools and lineages should finally be clear.
Your lineage doesn’t matter now. The history of your school doesn’t matter now. The name, purported attainments, cultural heritage and robes of your guru are no guarantee of integrity or safety. Even if you feel you stand confidently as part of a long line of ethical teachers, the well of faith in global yoga institutions has been irretrievably fouled, and the best way to prove your integrity as a practitioner is by showing what you do, exactly. You have to demonstrate the difference between communication and mystification. You have to demonstrate the difference between charisma and intimacy.”
Yes, and you have to demonstrate your commitment and ability to protect students and residents from abuse and predation.
This cases touches me in a weirdly direct way, as the tantra methods I have learned (and now am apprenticed to teach) include the lineage of Sunyata Saraswati, who studied in Satyananda’s organization at one point. (I don’t know how close the two men were, or if they even knew each other.) And two days before I heard this news about the ashram child sexual abuse case, I had actually taken that same Kundalini Tantra book off my shelf and was going to dip into it again, as I’m in the middle of reading or re-reading all the books I have on tantra. The book had been given to me years ago by a Kundalini Kriya Yoga teacher, a woman friend I love and respect. I even took the book to a copy center to have the book’s spine removed and replaced with a spiral binding, so I could open it and have it stay flat!
Now, in my copy, the page with Satyandanda’s bio and picture has “rapist and child abuser” scrawled over it. I couldn’t leave it untouched. It didn’t feel honest to simply rip the page from the book and pretend I could just relate to it like any of my other books. As for the other bios and pictures of other Bihar swamis – I wonder which of them knew? One woman is shown – a woman who “travelled ceaselessly with her guru.” And I wonder, was she one of the women who procured the younger girls, who slept or was present when rapes occurred?
I doubt I’ll be using the book now, even if there are some stainless methods and valuable spiritual techniques inside it.
So ugly. So ugly. And I feel for the survivors, who were subjected at such an early age to a kind of double rape – both of body and of spiritual trust.
So why do I want what I’m calling a “Shakti Liberation Front?”
Because rape, sexual abuse, and sexual shame are effective ways to enact violence and exert control over people – either individually or collectively. If you want to conquer a people and take their country and resources, first you gotta shame ‘em! (Missionaries have always been agents of colonial and imperial powers.) If you want to create a climate of fear and violently mess with the core authenticity of any person, and have the effects last for years or even a lifetime, rape is sure to work. If you want people to obey your authority and follow your cult’s rules, ditto.
Because I believe that a personal sense of sexual authenticity and sovereignty can be a shield against acts of tyranny. I believe that the conscious invocation of kundalini energy can serve as an inner fuel for acts of resistance.
Because I’m tired of knowing that human beings – of whatever gender – are being drained of their shakti kundalini forces by energy-sucking predators who are institutionally sanctioned and protected. And because I know that the human beings who encounter these predators are too often reviled, silenced, cast out – or worse! – when they try to get help and speak their truth.
Because I want progressive political analysis and action to remain an active part of my spirituality (and vice versa) and because I want to find others who are not afraid to critique and dialogue about all kinds of privilege and injustice. Because I’d like to be in cahoots with people who are determined to create profound and lasting change. Because solidarity can be a force for healing.
Because I’m sick of misogyny and sexism. I’m fed up with finding it everywhere I go.
I want a Shakti Liberation Front because I want to be with others who are willing to draw upon their own spiritual energy and agency to resist and transform all forms of violence and injustice, including those forms of institutional violence perpetuated by police, grand juries, priests, prison guards, politicians, corporations, bankers, and even gurus in yoga schools.
I want a Shakti Liberation Front to promote truly compassionate action on behalf of all sentient beings.
So who’s with me?