Lessons from The Swami Nithyananda Saga

When the sex scandal of Swami Nithyananda suddenly erupted on March 2, 2010, I was already in Delhi as part of a group to go to Kumbh Mela. I was also finalizing my new book which deals specifically with Tamil Nadu religious politics, and in particular with the role of various nexuses based overseas. So I decided to jump into the eye of the storm of this scandal in order to investigate whether similar nexuses were at work in this case. Naturally, at one level I have seen this scandal through the framework of a civilization encounter in which Vedic culture is pitted against the Dravidian divisiveness that is being backed by Christian evangelism. At another level, I found that the sensationalized media reports were too one-sided, and none of them had a single statement to report from the swami himself. Furthermore, there was chaos and mismanagement of the crisis from Swami Nithyananda’s inner circle. In hindsight, things might have turned out differently had they managed more sensibly and faster – which I will elaborate later in this article. Given this, another interest of mine has been to extrapolate important lessons from this episode for other Hindu organizations, which I predict will face similar scandals as and when their weaknesses become understood by those opposed to them. This article highlights my findings at these multiple levels and issues.

During this 2-week investigative period, I have been loyal to my pledge to give Swami Nithyananda’s organization the benefit of doubt and to report their side of the story. Besides wanting to balance out the one-sided media depictions, I wanted access to the ashram’s core group for my own research on the broader subject of civilization encounters. I respect the sensitivities of that organization consisting of many decent and dedicated devotees who have sacrificed a great deal and stand to lose a lot.

But I have concluded that the situation is now beyond repair for Swami Nithyananda and that his continued involvement can only damage the broader interests of dharma as well as jeopardize the ashramites. Along with two other sympathizers who are not ashramites, I have personally recommended to Swami Nithyananda that the best course at this stage would be for him to resign completely from his organization. He should turn it over to a small team of senior Hindu mahatmas, so that the assets can be used in the best interests of dharma. Further, under the guidance of these mahatmas he must live a quiet life as a sadhu devoid of any institutional responsibilities. Because the head of any organization must accept responsibility that “the buck stops here,” only such a move can salvage the organization and the reputation of dharma at large. Over several years, this resignation would hopefully reduce the massive pressure that has built up against him personally, and enable him to live peacefully as a sadhu. It is up to him to accept or reject this advice. The basis for this conclusion becomes clearer once the reader has gone through the rest of this article.

I want to begin by examining some principles about the relationships between siddhis (extraordinary yogic powers), morality, Tantra and sex. This will provide the framework in which to interpret what has happened. Then I will turn to my initial interest in pursuing the challenges facing Hinduism in south India from a variety of forces.

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