India’s ashrams: Havens for spirituality or scandalous snake pits?
The Indian web-series “Aashram” has created a stir after showing sexual abuse by Hindu holy men. Religious activists say depictions of sex and drug abuse by holy men discredit Hinduism, but is that true?
“Let go of everything, your attachments, your wealth, your desires. Then you will experience eternal bliss.”
These words are spoken by the guru Baba Nirala, the main protagonist in Aashram, a Hindi web series currently being streamed in India. Despite his spirituality, the guru’s ways are often immoral. He treads the gray zone between crime and justice, sin and morality when his love for a female devotee turns into sexual abuse — and while using his power over his followers to break the law.
Directed by veteran Indian filmmaker Prakash Jha, Aashram is fictitious yet has been criticized by many who say it wrongly depicts Hindu spiritual leaders as drug peddlers and sexual predators. Meanwhile, a lawyer in the northwestern city of Jodhpur has filed a petition against the series claiming it “hurts the religious sentiments of Hindus” and summons have been sent to Jha and his lead actor, Bobby Deol. The case will be heard on January 11.
Ashrams, gurus and scandals
Scandals in religious organizations, Hindu or otherwise, are not uncommon. But of late, Hindu spiritual retreats and yoga institutions have been riddled with accusations of sexual misconduct. Asaram Bapu (pictured above), a guru who was based in Jodhpur, was convicted of rape and sent to prison in 2018. Another guru, called Swami Bhakti Bhushan Maharaj, was arrested last year in July for raping several minor girls in his ashram in a city close to New Delhi.
In the West, arguably the most publicized reports of sexual promiscuity and exploitation circled around Bhagwan, or Osho Rajneesh, notorious for sexual orgies on his ashram premises in the 1960s. In a recent Netflix documentary called Wild Wild Country, witnesses speak about possible psychological damages they suffered while living with their parents at his retreat in Oregon in the United States and in the Indian city of Pune.
Reports of abuse also came up in Australia in the last decade, when many victims testified against Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, who sexually abused minors and women in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yoga gurus also assaulting students
Recent scandals related to Hindu spiritual practices in the West have related to yoga teachers and their schools. Although these are not ashrams by definition, many have cult-like followings and hierarchies that often enable sexual abuse.
Indian-American Bikram Choudhury, a celebrity yoga teacher who created “hot yoga” (a form of yoga performed in hot and humid conditions) and opened his first studio in Los Angeles, has been accused of rape and sexual abuse multiple times since 2010. Lawsuits against him describe a cult-like atmosphere whereby followers helped Choudhury find young women to assault.
Similar complaints have emerged against Pattabhi Jois, an iconic teacher of the Ashtanga yoga method who has legions of international followers, especially from Europe and the US.
Speaking to DW, Karen Rain, an American writer who learned yoga under Jois for several years, said the guru used the pretext of adjusting yoga postures to sexually assault his students.
“Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted students under the guise of asana adjustments or affection, such as kissing women on the lips and squeezing their buttocks when saying good-bye,” she said. “On one level, it’s a tautology, Pattabhi Jois was able to sexually assault so many students because he was able to blatantly assault them in class, in public. Bystanders did not hold him responsible and enabled him to continue without experiencing consequences for his abuse of power.”
Marion Goldman, professor emeritus of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, who spent some time as a researcher in Rajneeshpuram, a religious community in Oregon led by Osho Rajneesh, explains why such religious set-ups enable sexual abuse and why victims take so long to report the abuse they have endured.
“Full membership in an alternative religion involves deep emotional attachment to both the leader, and also other followers,” she says, adding, “In some ways the group represents a second chance family and women endure emotional and physical abuse and deprivation because they don’t want to leave their family.”
The end of spirituality?
Meanwhile, Karen Rain’s experience of abuse in an unethical yoga circle has left her devoid of any desire to pursue spirituality. She has given up yoga altogether and prefers to stay away from holy groups because of “pervasive abuse and corruption.”
But does this mean that victim testimonies, news reports on sexual abuse and critical television series on ashrams — even fictitious ones — discredit Hindu spirituality altogether?
Far from it, says Om Prakash, an actor who plays the role of a police officer in the Aashram series. Contrary to hurting religious beliefs, the show is meant to warn people against gurus who claim to represent God and solve their problems.
“There are some hypocrites in the Hindu religion whose activities give religion a bad name. This series has been created to caution people against such characters,” he said.
“We need such series to expose people who use religion — be it Hinduism or any other religion — for their selfish ends.”