1955 (June 24): Gurumayi was born as Malti Shetty in Bombay (Mumbai), India.
1982 (April 26): She was formally initiated by the then-guru of Siddha Yoga, Swami Muktananda, as an ascetic in the tradition and renamed Swami Chidvilasananda (the Sanskrit title translates to “the religious teacher [swami] who is the bliss of the play of consciousness”); Gurumayi, “immersed in the guru,” is an honorific that is used less formally.
1982 (May 3): She was co-consecrated with her brother Swami Nityananada by Swami Muktananda to be his successors as gurus of Siddha Yoga.
1982 (October 2): Swami Muktananda died and Swami Chidvilasananda and her brother became the gurus of Siddha Yoga
1985 (November 10): Swami Chidvilasananda was installed as the sole guru of Siddha Yoga; she has held this status continuously to the present day.
Malti Shetty, born June 24, 1955, was the oldest child of a Bombay restaurateur and his wife. The very next year, Swami Muktananda (1908–1982), whose Sanskrit name means “the bliss of liberation,” in the culmination of decades of spiritual practice (sadhana), received permission to establish an ashram at Ganeshpuri, near Bombay (Mumbai) and to teach from his guru, Bhagavan Nityananda (“the venerable one who is eternally joyful”). The charismatic Swami Muktananda named his teaching “Siddha Yoga” and instituted weekend programs for the transmission of spiritual energy from guru to disciple, shaktipat or shaktipat-diksha (shaktipat initiation), a format that was distinctive from the classical full-time residence model of guru-disciple and that allowed for the participation of diverse devotees in ashram events. Shetty’s parents became disciples, and by 1960 they were bringing her, her sister and two brothers to the ashram on weekends.
The guru bestowed formal shaktipat initiation on Malti in 1969, when she was fourteen years old (Durgananda 1997:64), and she began to reside at the ashram by the time she was eighteen. Swami Muktananda “concerned himself with every detail of Malti’s diet and schedule, making sure that she ate food that fostered meditation” (Durgananda 1997:65). Malti was both like and unlike other devotees: Along with other devotees, she furthered her spiritual progress by her own devotional commitment to the guru as well as her engagement in intensive spiritual practices (sadhana) such as meditation. Yet to Swami Muktananda she stood out as special, as in his 1969 prediction that one day she would serve as a global beacon: “‘You know,’ he said, ‘that girl Malti is a blazing fire. One day she will light up the entire world’” (Durgananda 1997:65).
Swami Muktananda instituted world tours to spread the teachings of Siddha Yoga in what he envisioned to be a worldwide “meditation revolution.” In 1975, he appointed Malti as his translator during his second world tour in Oakland, California. During the years 1974–1975, Muktananda established many of the features of Siddha Yoga practice that were to remain core elements of the path for the next quarter century, including the guru personally bestowing shaktipat on devotees at weekend Intensive programs, establishing ashrams globally, and creating guidelines for teaching courses on aspects of Siddha Yoga practice and theology. Grooming Malti as a leader was part of these developments. In 1980, Muktananda decreed that Malti would deliver the public talks at the ashram on Sunday nights, and in 1981 she was made executive vice-president of SYDA Foundation, the non-profit organizational structure supporting the teaching program (Pechilis 2004b:224–29).
In April 1982, at the age of twenty-six, Malti was formally initiated into the ascetic lifestyle (sannyasa) by her guru and given the formal name of Swami Chidvilasananda (“the bliss of the play of consciousness”). Ten years later, she wrote of her transformative experience of identity with the universal divinity (expressed as He and as Brahman in the passage) during that ceremony:
At one point during the pattābhisheka, the ceremony during which Baba Muktananda passed on to me the power of his lineage, he whispered So’ham [I am He] and aham Brahmāsmi [I am of Brahman] in my ear. I experienced the mantra as an immensely powerful force which rocketed at lightning speed throughout my bloodstream and created an upheaval in my entire system. I instantly transcended body-consciousness and became aware that all distinctions such as inner and outer were false and artificial. Everything was the same; what was within me was also without. My mind became completely blank. There was only the pulsating awareness “I am That,” accompanied by great bliss and light.
When my mind again began to function, all I could think was, “What is Baba? Who is this being who looks so ordinary, yet has the capacity to transmit such an experience at will?”
I knew beyond a doubt that the mantra was God. I had never experienced a force so mighty, yet at the same time so soothing (Swami Chidvilasananda 1992:xxiii).
Two weeks later, Swami Muktananda consecrated as his successors both Swami Chidvilasananda and her brother Swami Nityananda (b. 1962). Formerly Subash Shetty, Nityananda had been resident at the ashram and initiated into sannyasa in 1980. This consecration of the two siblings surprised people because of their youthfulness, their familiarity to devotees since they had grown up at the ashram, and the fact that Siddha Yoga taught that one should devote oneself to a single guru (Williamson 2010:119). Five months later, the two actually became the gurus of Siddha Yoga, at Muktananda’s samadhi (“immersion in enlightened consciousness,” often used as in this case to indicate the death of a spiritual leader) on October 2, 1982.
Swami Chidvilasananda, who is more commonly referred to as Gurumayi (“immersed in the guru”), which expresses her continuing dedication to Muktananda, became the sole guru of Siddha Yoga on November 10, 1985. Gurumayi led the Siddha Yoga movement through a number of scandals, including that of her brother Nityananda leaving and then wanting to reassume the co-guruship ( “Former SYDA Co-guru Explains” 1986; Thursby 1991; Harris 1994:93–94, 101–04; Durgananda 1997:126–34; Healy 2010; Williamson 2010:118–21); and through allegations which emerged shortly after the guru’s death and have intensified over the years that Muktananda had sexually abused female devotees (Rodarmor 1983; Caldwell 2001; Radha 2002; Shah 2010; Salon Staff 2010; Williamson 2010:114–17).
Gurumayi persevered in her leadership of Siddha Yoga through her close following of traditions and practices that her guru Muktananda had put in place (ashrams, shaktipat, weekend Intensive programs, also known as Intensives), as well as her own star power, with disciples eager to catch a glimpse of her at the ashram and vying for seats close to her at official programs or Intensives (Williamson 2010:124). Gurumayi also established innovative programs, for instance a talk on New Year’s Eve that revealed the Yearly Message for contemplation throughout the coming year; such annual messages consist of short phrases that emphasize purity of mind, belief in love, and knowledge of the truth (“Gurumayi’s Messages and Message Artwork” 1991–2017). During the late 1980s, the ashram in South Fallsburg, New York more than tripled in size, and this period into the early 1990s has been called the Golden Era of the Siddha Yoga Movement (Williamson 2010:121). (For more about Siddha Yoga ashrams see below.) In 1997, Gurumayi established the Muktabodha Indological Research Institute (“About Muktabodha” 2017) in New Delhi, India, for the study and preservation of classical scriptures of India. There are many publications by the gurus, swamis, and scholars of Siddha Yoga on spiritual teachings and theology.
The teachings that Swami Muktananda designated as Siddha Yoga are understood by the organization to have deep roots in Hindu theology. The term “siddha” has been used for many centuries in Indian religions to refer to a “perfected being,” and it is often associated with secret teachings. South Indian Tamil tradition recognizes a remote lineage of siddhas (siddhars) who are distinguished by their achievement of powers of immortality and healing (Weiss 2009). The first guru in the Siddha Yoga lineage, Bhagavan Nityananda (1900–1961), is remembered as a great yogi who possessed miraculous powers of healing, and who had no need of ceremonial events because he could transmit shaktipat to a worthy disciple through the light of his gaze (Durgananda 1997:11–22, esp. 19). Drawing in part on formulations in the classical Hindu philosophical treatises, the Upanishads, Swami Muktananda’s understanding of the term “siddha” emphasized the power of meditation to effect the realization of the identity between the human spirit and the divine.
The true Siddha has realized his own true nature through meditation and knowledge and has obliterated his ego and become one with the Universal Spirit. He unites with Shiva and becomes Shiva Himself. He is a true Siddha, a genuine Siddha. Such a Siddha was Ramakrishna, such a one was Sai Baba of Shirdi, and such a Siddha was Nityananda Baba [Bhagavan Nityananda]; they all became one with Shiva and became Shiva (Muktananda 1974:173, cited in Muller-Ortega 1997:169).
In Siddha Yoga, there is a lineage of three gurus: Bhagavan Nityananda, Swami Muktananda, and Swami Chidvilasananda, and each are understood to be perfectly self-realized beings.
Inherent to the definition of “guru” is that she or he transmits the power of true self-realization to the disciple. This transmission is effected in multilayered ways, including: the transmission of shaktipat from guru to disciple, which is an expression of the guru’s intention (sankalpa) that often serves as an initial awakening; the guru’s bestowal of a mantra or sacred oral formula; the guru’s grace; the guru’s oral and written teachings; and the guru’s visual presence as beheld (darshan) by the disciple (Mahoney 1997). Through these practices, the disciple comes to recognize through the example of the guru that the divine is actually within him or herself.
The guru serves as a funnel for the disciple to encounter and understand teachings from the voluminous Hindu scriptures that point to the divine within—from revealed texts such as the Vedas (of which the Upanishads are part) to remembered texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, to treatises from the philosophical schools of Advaita Vedanta and Kashmiri Shaivism, to songs and oral teachings (Brooks 1997). In their publications and talks, Swami Muktananda and Gurumayi freely draw from this vast spiritual heritage: “Since the Siddha Yoga gurus are not proponents of any one form of doctrinal worship (siddhānta), they are not committed to traditionalist ‘schools’ of thought or particular philosophical identities” (Brooks 1997:291). Siddha Yoga devotees access the texts in several ways, including talks by the guru, study at retreats, and the Siddha Yoga Home Study Course.
One text in particular, the Guru Gita (“Song of the Guru”), features centrally since it is the text that Siddha Yoga practitioners recite daily. As described by Muktananda:
If anyone were to ask me which is the one indispensable text, I would answer, “The Guru Gītā.” This is so supremely holy that it makes the ignorant learned, the destitute wealthy and the scholarly fully realized. The Guru Gītā is a supreme song of Shiva, of salvation. It is a veritable ocean of bliss in this world. It encompasses the science of the absolute, the yoga of the Self. It gives vitality to life. It is a harmonious composition; its 182 stanzas in varied verse patterns beautifully describe the importance of devotion to the Guru, his role, his nature and his distinguishing characteristics. If a person who is devoted to the Guru sings this song, he easily attains all powers, realizations and knowledge, fulfilling the aim of yoga (Muktananda 1983:xiv).
The Guru Gita text as printed in The Nectar of Chanting may be eclectic itself; the origin of its 182 verses is to date unknown: “Said to be within either the Skanda Purāṇa, or, more rarely, the Padma Purāṇa. . .certain verses appear also in the Kulārṇava Tantra and other Tantric sources. . . .This status is similarly not unusual for sources belonging to traditions of mystical yoga. . .” (Brooks 1997:291). This key text that is the basis of daily practice in Siddha Yoga may have been compiled in this form by Muktananda himself.
Swami Muktananda influentially fashioned lasting features of the Siddha Yoga path. Motivated by a global vision, he established institutions and instructional procedures to effect the processes of transmission from guru to disciple in a “radical” making of shaktipat initiation accessible to a global audience (Jain 2014:199); his successor, Gurumayi, has maintained and enhanced these institutions and methods of spiritual instruction. The most prominent Siddha Yoga ashrams are large physical campuses founded by Swami Muktananda, including the first Siddha Yoga ashram, Gurudev Siddha Peeth, near the town of Ganeshpuri in the state of Maharashtra, India (est. 1956); the Siddha Yoga Ashram in Oakland, California (est. April 28, 1975); and the Shree Muktananda Ashram in South Fallsburg, New York (est. 1978–1979). He also created the weekend Intensive program, in which devotees gather in residence at an ashram to perform collective chanting, listen to teachings by the guru or credentialed Siddha Yoga teachers, hear testimonials by other devotees, engage in service (seva), and participate in workshops on the teachings; depending on the participant, these activities may inspire an experience of shaktipat. Although clearly rooted in Hindu tradition and actively deploying Hindu sources (for example, the Guru Gita is chanted in Sanskrit) Muktananda envisioned Siddha Yoga to be a universal path and Gurumayi has continued that approach. The Siddha Yoga vision statement describes the path as:
For everyone, everywhere,
to realize the presence of divinity
in themselves and creation,
the cessation of all miseries and suffering,
and the attainment of supreme bliss
(“Siddha Yoga Vision Statement” 2016).
In Siddha Yoga, the universality of accessibility frames the specificity of tradition: “Hindu-inspired” is thus a more apt characterization of the Siddha Yoga path than “Hinduism.”
Gurumayi has maintained the teachings and practices of Muktananda, including the centerpiece that is now known as the Shaktipat Intensive (“Questions and Answers” 2016). However, she has brought her own emphases and personal style to the established framework. Scholarly observers have suggested several ways to characterize her teachings; for example, service through unselfish action: “If one overall ethical teaching could be said to characterize her ministry, it is the teaching of unselfish action. The years since 1982 have seen an increasingly conscious attempt to mold the Siddha Yoga movement into a fusion of individuals and institutions that embody that message.” Gurumayi herself has said, “My message is ‘do it!’” (Durgananda 1997:136, 138). She has put increased emphasis on disciples performing practices (sadhana) on a daily basis on their own as guided by the teachings, as well as outreach services (“PRASAD Project” 2016; “The Prison Project” 2016).
Gurumayi’s focus can be contrasted with that of her guru Muktananda, drawing on a distinction made by Richard Gombrich: Muktananda was “soteriological” in focus while Gurumayi is “communal”:
Soteriological religions emphasize the practices and beliefs that are necessary for attaining salvation—and attaining it quickly. Communal religions emphasize practices and beliefs that ensure the continuity of social life. . . . Much of [Gurumayi’s] teaching is directed toward practical, everyday matters of living in the world. . . . Although the Hindu-based practices of chanting Sanskrit texts and performing worship (puja) still occur in Siddha Yoga, Gurumayi’s emphasis is discovering one’s own inner wisdom through contemplating ordinary daily experiences within the context of scriptural texts or Gurumayi’s or Muktananda’s words (Williamson 2005:154, 155, 156).
The practical, “communal” nature of the Siddha Yoga path today brings together spiritual knowledge and personal experience in the world, grounding the former and enhancing the meaning of the latter. One aspect of this emphasis on applying the teachings to practical, everyday living in the world is the Siddha Yoga Home Study Course program, which is “four courses designed to invigorate and support your sadhana” to “engage in active study and application of Siddha Yoga teachings” (“SIDDHA YOGA® Home Study Course” 2017).
What makes the Home Study Course possible is Gurumayi’s expansive use of technology (Pechilis 2004b: 233–36). Today it is a given that gurus have a website through which to explain and promote their teachings, but Gurumayi was a pioneer in the use of technology as a global medium, beginning in 1989, “when the first ‘satellite’ Intensives were broadcast around the world, [and] the term ‘global shaktipat’ began to take on literal meaning” (Durgananda 1997:150). As Swami Durgananda explains:
In 1994, an Intensive was broadcast by audio hookup to the tiny Siddha Yoga center in St. Petersburg, Russia. The next year, a French student took a trip to Russia and, toward the end of his trip, spent some time in a Russian Orthodox monastery there. The abbot there noticed the student’s photograph of Gurumayi. “Oh, you’re with Gurumayi,” the abbott said. Surprised, the student asked, “How do you know Gurumayi?” “Everyone knows Gurumayi,” replied the abbot, explaining that her name and photograph were widely circulated in the Russian spiritual community—no doubt by students who had taken that Intensive (Durgananda 1997:150–51).
By 2002, a visually-based global satellite broadcast was used for Intensives, the unveiling of the Siddha Yoga Yearly Message and the “first ever year-long global curriculum focused on the Siddha Yoga Message,” the Siddha Yoga Message Course. These were described as opportunities to “participate together as a global sangham [community]” (Pechilis 2004b:236). Through the satellite, the guru can be both in one place and in many places at the same time. It was and is a postmodern enactment of the simultaneity of the universal and the particular that pervades Siddha Yoga: The path as both Hindu and universally accessible; the guru as both personal and universal consciousness; the guru as both present and absent. The context is the very large role that images of the guru play in Siddha Yoga’s representation of access to the guru. “At South Fallsburg [ashram], photographs of the guru—with her thousand-watt smile, wide eyes, and elegantly chiselled cheekbones—adorn nearly every wall, cash register, shop counter, and shelf, as well as her devotees’ private meditation altars and many of their car dashboards” (Harris 1994:92). They saturate the ashram walls, they are for sale in the ashram’s physical and online bookshops, and they are tightly controlled as vehicles of contact with the guru. Live images of the guru during an Intensive or the unveiling of the Yearly Message, as situated in this larger context of the importance of the guru’s image, constitute an assertion of technological connection as intimacy (Pechilis 2004b). That images are increasingly tightly controlled is demonstrated by the discontinuation in 2013 of public access online to Gurumayi’s Yearly Message with accompanying artwork (“Gurumayi’s Messages and Message Artwork” 1991–2017). Now a devotee must log in to be able to view (“to have darshan ”) of Gurumayi’s Message Artwork (“Darshan of Gurumayi’s Message Artwork for 2016” 2016).
Currently, Siddha Yoga recognizes six ashrams and a host of meditation and chanting groups worldwide (“Siddha Yoga Ashrams” 2016). The ashrams have a special status, since they are a powerful “body” of the guru (Gold 1995), and they are expansive, often architecturally specific spaces for practice of the path; some of the ashrams have been constructed according to the norms of Hindu science of architecture (vastu shastra or vāstu śāstra). The six ashrams are in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia; Ganeshpuri, India; Oakland, California; Boston, Massachusetts; and South Fallsburg, New York. Meditation centers are designated organizational spaces, often in major cities. Chanting and meditation groups are held within a Siddha Yoga student’s home.
Online information from the Siddha Yoga website about the ashrams reveals several different models of ongoing practice apart from holidays. The Australian ashrams in Sydney and Melbourne routinely have community gatherings (satsang, enlightened company) and recitation of the Guru Gita on Saturdays and Sundays, seemingly an accommodation to the devotees’ work week. Also prioritizing weekends, the schedule at the Oakland, California ashram has a more elaborate ongoing program of chanting, welcome orientations for people new to the Siddha Yoga path, meditation and study gatherings. The Ganeshpuri ashram and the South Fallsburg ashram are both accessible only to committed members of Siddha Yoga, by application, for long-term daily service activities; and the Boston ashram is a retreat center. Long-term seva (devotional service) practitioners who reside at the ashrams would typically follow a daily schedule such as: Early morning meditation and chanting session at 3:00 in the morning, followed by another session at 4:30 in the morning, in which the Guru Gita is chanted; then breakfast; followed by a morning session of seva, during which one might help clean the ashram or perform outdoor work; noontime chanting; afternoon seva; and finally dinner, evening chanting, and lights out by 10:00 in the evening. Vegetarian meals are taken by sevites, and there is segregation between male and female staff in terms of accommodation and seating for chanting and meditation.
Such long-term residents are joined by residential participants in the Siddha Yoga Intensive, during which the guru bestows shakti (spiritual power or energy) on the devotees. Baba Muktananda held many one- or two-day Intensives during a given calendar year, and until 2005, Gurumayi did so as well. In 2006, she declared that there would be one Global Siddha Yoga Shaktipat Intensive per year, in October, to coincide with Baba Muktananda’s mahasamadhi or act of consciously and intentionally leaving his body (resulting in death). As explained by Siddha Yoga: “After mahasamadhi, the shakti of an enlightened being continues to be ever-present and all-pervasive, uplifting the world illuminating the lives of devotees. . . . [A] sacred occasion enhances the power of one’s practices” (“Questions and Answers” 2016).
The yearly calendar of holidays, when members of the community are expected to gather in large numbers, is constituted by such days of “sacred occasion,” the majority focused on the Siddha Yoga gurus, which provide an enhanced context for practice. The dates in 2017 were:
January 1: New Year’s Day (when Gurumayi releases her Yearly Message).
February 24: Mahashivaratri (the Great Night of Shiva, occurring in February/March).
May 10 :Baba Muktananda’s Lunar Birthday.
June 24: Gurumayi Chidvilasananda’s Birthday.
July 8 :Gurupurnima (the full moon day in the month of Ashadha (July-August); day to honor one’s guru).
August 8: Bhagavan Nityananda’s Solar Punyatithi (death anniversary).
August 15: Baba Muktananda’s Divya Diksha (the day Baba received divine initiation from his Guru, Bhagavan Nityananda).
October 5: Baba Muktananda’s Lunar Mahasamadhi (act of consciously and intentionally leaving one’s body).
“In addition to these holidays, Pitru Paksha is a Siddha Yoga observance. This sacred time from the Indian tradition is devoted to remembrance of one’s ancestors. In 2017, Pitru Paksha is September 6–19” (“Siddha Yoga Holidays and Celebrations 2017” 2017).
Discussion of whether female gurus today, and specifically Gurumayi, may be considered feminist has yielded different assessments for and against (Wessinger 1993; Sered 1994; Puttick 1997; Pechilis 2011). Much recent scholarship has illuminated the specific ways in which female Hindu or Hindu-inspired leaders change the historically male-defined categories of guru and sannyasin (ascetic), which may provide more concrete information for such assessments. A major issue is the ways in which the guru is set apart from ordinary social life. Traditionally, a significant element in women’s rise to religious authority has been their renunciation of marriage. Renunciation of marriage was a factor in the construction of male spiritual authority, which was based on renunciation of ordinary social occupations and concerns; however, male gurus were often married and a male renouncer could live with his wife in the forest, although the category of sannyasin was defined as an unmarried male wandering ascetic. For women, in particular, the expectation of marriage and child-bearing has been pronounced in the Indian context. As Meena Khandelwal explains, for a variety of cultural reasons the pressures on women are greater:
Given the importance of heterosexual marriage and procreation in South Asian cultures generally, a man’s decision to renounce householder life is likely to be met by opposition from family and society; this is especially true if he is either young and unmarried or married with dependents at home. Even so, there are scriptural, historical, and contemporary precedents for male renunciation at any age, and so it is considered a legitimate path for men even if discouraged by kin. Marriage is even more compulsory for women, and for this reason most research on South Asian women has focused on their domestic lives. While most women in South Asia aspire to obtain a good husband, kind in-laws, and healthy children, those who do not are likely to face intense pressure to conform” (Khandelwal 2009:1005).
What Sondra Hausner and Meena Khandelwal say about female ascetics applies to female gurus as well: “All have wondered whether to marry, remarry, or stay married, and have struggled with how to negotiate the unquestioned South Asian social value of having a husband and being a wife” (Hausner and Khandelwal 2006:3). Medieval stories of female gurus in Hindu tradition situate them as wives; in modern times, female gurus exhibit a range of stances on the issue (Pechilis 2004a:7, 15, 28–29, 34), including being married, being separated from a husband, or rejecting demands that they marry. For some, including Gurumayi, the issue of marriage does not come up in biographical accounts.
An emphasis on personal experience is another hallmark of female gurus in history and today (Pechilis 2011; Pechilis 2012), and can be seen in Gurumayi’s emphasis on sadhana (spiritual practice). Although it is clear that her guru Baba Muktananda saw something special in her, what Gurumayi emphasizes in her own accounts of the years before she became guru is that her intensive practice gradually attuned her mind to her guru’s (Pechilis 2004b:226–27). In terms of devotees’ sadhana, in the late 1990s Gurumayi effected an important shift away from her guru Swami Muktananda’s and her own practice of personally interacting with devotees, especially at weekend Intensive programs. The Intensives had been famous for always having the guru in residence, and devotees could approach the guru and receive a graceful touch with a peacock feather wand on their bowed heads. Instead, the guru began to be absent from Intensives; if she appeared, it was by satellite video transmission. Discussion of the change in Siddha Yoga publications encouraged the view that by her absence, the guru sought to encourage devotees to focus on their practice of the teachings rather than on her presence (Pechilis 2004b:229–33).
Gurumayi’s shifting presence and absence suggests an interesting dynamic between intimacy and distance in the paths of female gurus (Pechilis 2015). In terms of interaction with the guru, one model is an “event intimacy” cultivated through defined moments of the guru’s presence at scheduled gatherings, which often deploy technology to widen the reach; however, much of the spiritual work of the disciples is done away from the guru’s embodied presence, in contrast to the traditional gurukula system in which the students live with the guru. This event intimacy characterizes Gurumayi’s leadership. A different model is that many female guru-ascetics operate on a more local level, where they have personal experience with their followers on a daily basis; they offer opportunities for “everyday intimacy.” For example, a contemporary guru-ascetic in north India holds frequent small-gathering meetings with her devotees in which she narrates stories of everyday encounters that illustrate themes of duty, destiny, and devotion, which create a gendered “rhetoric of renunciation” that has at its center a concept of engaged, devotional asceticism (DeNapoli 2014). Of course, the number of devotees and organizational structure are factors here: Siddha Yoga is a global movement that has become a highly systematized, vertical organization constructed of hierarchies to manage various aspects of the institution, including spiritual instruction, finance, and research. It has made recent efforts to focus more directly on those who commit to the path, and to exclude others; for example, closing the Shree Muktananda Ashram in South Fallsburg to all but long-term students; enhancing the status of regional centers by holding more, including “global,” activities at them; promoting the home-study course; holding retreats for up to twenty-five students; and making some information on the Siddha Yoga website accessible only by sign in.
The most prominent issue in understanding the nature of the guru in a Western context is the deep-seated cultural suspicion of the category, based on the lack of a concept of a “perfected being” in Western tradition. Traditions that originated in South Asia have long histories of thinking about and asserting the reality of a perfected being, with the historical Buddha probably the most well-known example across the globe. Adoration of a living person can read as a “cult” in the Western contextalthough the culture of celebrity so prominent in the West displays many similarities. Traditionally in South Asia, surrender and loyalty are due to the guru, which amplifies the vulnerability of the devotee within a relationship that is in many ways comparable to a relatively common power differential (parent-child, teacher-student, employer-worker). Many female gurus offset this vulnerability of the devotee by embodying the nurturing persona of mother, evident in their titles (ma, amma) and behavior (such as Ammachi ‘s hugging), as well as by the public dimension they cultivate, such as visibility, accessibility, service, and teachings on their websites. Controversial aspects of the paths of the male gurus popular in the West in the 1960s, such as a closed and secretive residential campus, are outmoded. Still, to what extent a specific guru operates in an authoritarian mode and a specific devotee’s response to a guru renders the guru authoritarian for her or for him does need to be assessed, since there remains the potential for the devotee to be overwhelmed by the relationship (Cornille 1991:23–30; Kramer and Alstad 1993; Storr 1997). Even a cursory internet search reveals that there are vocal groups of ex-Siddha Yoga devotees who feel betrayed by Siddha Yoga gurus.
Significantly, there has been a healthy skepticism of the guru in Indian tradition, especially on the issues of the acquisition of money and sexual exploitation (Narayan 1989; Kang 2016). Also, it is worth remembering that, in the traditional model, study with the guru prepared a man to move into a healthy, socially meaningful life of work and marriage; it was not generally speaking an end in itself. These nuances, coupled with female gurus’ emphasis on life experiences, are now beginning to inform Western reflections on experiences of the guru path. What we see emerging are personal critical reflections that more calmly and less polemically reflect on areas of disappointment in or perceived limitations of the guru, written by former devotees who reflect on their experiences with the guru in the context of a longer view of their own evolving life experiences; I have called these a “discourse of constructive disappointment” (Pechilis 2012:127). Such reflections have emerged mainly around female gurus, including Gurumayi of Siddha Yoga (Caldwell 2001; Szabo 2009). It remains to be seen if the guru-disciple relationship, even in its breakdown, can lead to generative modern discussion of interdependence and human spiritual growth.
Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. 1997. “The Canons of Siddha Yoga: The Body of Scripture and the Form of the Guru.” Pp. 277-346 in Meditation Revolution: A History and Theology of the Siddha Yoga Lineage, edited by Douglas Renfrew Brooks, Swami Durgananda, Paul E. Muller-Ortega, William K. Mahoney, Constantina Rhodes Bailly, S. P. Sabharathnam. South Fallsburg, NY: Agama Press.
Caldwell, Sarah. 2001. “The Heart of the Secret: A Personal and Scholarly Encounter with Shakta Tantrism in Siddha Yoga.” Nova Religio 5:1–51.
Chidvilasananda, Swami. 1992. “Preface.” Pp. xix–xxiv in I Am That: The Science of Hamsa from the Vijnana Bhairava, by Swami Muktananda. South Fallsburg NY: SYDA Foundation.
Cornille, Catherine. 1991. The Guru in Indian Catholicism: Ambiguity or Opportunity of Inculturation? Leuven: Peeters.
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