Swami Satchidananda

Swami Satchidananda made it big in the USA in the lates 1960s when he was flown in by helicopter to be the opening speaker at Woodstock Music Festival. He went on to found the Yogaville ashram in Virginia and Integral Yoga institutes across the country and, with thousands of devotees, including Lauren Hutton and Carol King, was somewhat of a ‘Yoga superstar’.

But by 1991, the situation had changed:

Protesters waving placards (“Stop the Abuse,” “End the Cover Up”) marched outside a Virginia hotel where he was addressing a symposium.

“How can you call yourself a spiritual instructor,” a former devotee shouted from the audience, “when you have molested me and other women?” New York Times

Satchinanda always denied the accusations against him of sexual misdemeanors, but many of his followers are reported to have left his ashrams and institutes after at least nine women claimed he had sexually abused them.

A Survivor’s Story

August 31, 2002, by Susan Cohen

As an ex-disciple of Swami Satchidananda, I would like to speak about what happened to me as a disciple from 1969-1979. The supposedly celibate Swami involved me and other students into secret sexual affairs. The Swami and us, his students, worked in a type of father-daughter relationship. When he used his authority to demand sexual favors from us, we were unable to say “No” forcing us into a type of spiritual incest. This left many of us hurt and confused.

Here is my personal story:

I began studying yoga in Newport, Rhode Island at the folk festival in 1969. Barbara and Christopher Kralls, 2 disciples of the Swami, were there singing about truth, non-violence and peace. I was a sponge soaking up eastern philosophy and their love. Then I became a student at the New York Integral Yoga Institute and continued to enjoy intensive study of Patanjali, the Gita and the written works of Mahatma Gandhi and Sivananda. Primarily service, non-violence and music was why I went to live in the IYI instead of attending college. I was 17 years old when the war in Vietnam along with Biafran starvation was distressing to me. I wanted to make a difference and hoped that through yoga I would become empowered to make a contribution to the world.

My mother noticed that I stopped making my own decisions and she was concerned. I seemed to become a follower whereas previously I was a natural social leader. My brother noticed that I became an introvert and was not relating in a natural persona — I began to use the mantra given to me by the Swami. It was as if the Swami’s will overtook mine. The IYI philosophy was orthodox and said that to be a disciple; one must practice poverty, chastity and 100% obedience. I did not know then how detrimental this can be when one allows another person’s will to overtake their own and how after a short time, it is no longer voluntary. The mindless mantra repetition creates a hypnotic mental state where the inner voice is no longer in charge. Then externally in the IYI, I was told to give all my time and energy to the service of the Swami.

My family was cut off of communication, I was not allowed to visit them for holidays and as soon as the Swami heard of friendships I was beginning with boys, he told me not to speak to them, as it would distract me from my practice of yoga. Then in two instances Swami sent the young men to other IYI centers. So I never wanted to become a renunciation or a concubine of the head honcho. However, it became clear that in order to keep my job as his personal traveling secretary, I would have to be available to satisfy his sexual needs in secret from the rest of the community. We all thought he was a celibate monk. This was 1977 in Hawaii.

There had been other female disciples before 1972 and especially in 1972 (see NY: Village Voice articles) that had spoken up about this problem. However, we were encouraged to discount their dilemma and to stay with the mantra – “Don’t Think, Don’t Question Authority” Is this truth-knowledge and inner bliss? In 1977, the Swami showed me that he was going to use another secretary for his sexual and personal servant. At that point, after eight years, I woke up out of my trance and saw the situation as it was. He could do as he pleased. He was beyond community accountability and he also denied my right to a normal relationship with a man who is presently my husband since 1978!

Was it spiritual to have a double standard for oneself and a deprivation policy for the underlings? Is it spiritual to stop communicating with ones’ family? Is it fair for another person to make decisions that in a democratic society are the human rights of each individual? Was it ethical for the Swami to have private money and for the rest of the ashram full time employees to have no salary and no medical insurance or dental care?

This is important to look at for the next generation of yoga teachers and students, children and women:

  • How are they being treated today?
  • Is there a democratic process at Yogaville or is it still an autocratic cult?
  • Will anything good come out of the death of the American Hindu Swami?
  • Who will help this community heal?

“The guru is not the body, not even the mind. The real guru is the teaching.” Then, why are the body and the image of the Swami Satchidananda treated as a deity?

Contrary to the Swami’s supposed status as a celibate Hindu monk and despite the requirement that many of his devotees not marry and refrain from sex, Satchidananda sexualized contact with his female secretaries for many years. In 1991 numerous female followers stated that he had used his role as their spiritual mentor to exploit them sexually. One of Satchidananda’s former personal secretaries and survivor of sexual abuse said, “I feel betrayed.” The Swami never admitted any wrongdoing nor agreed to marry and have one partner as was proposed by the IYI community in 1972 when one of his secretaries appealed to the community for help. He refused to answer these allegations by saying, “Don’t judge me.”

In 1991 numerous female followers stated that he had used his role as their spiritual mentor to exploit them sexually. After the allegations became public many devotees abandoned Satchidananda and hundreds of students left IYI schools, but the Swami never admitted to any wrongdoing. As a result, the Integral Yoga organization diminished by more than 1/3. An organization called the Healing Through the Truth Network was formed and at least 8 other women came forward with claims of sexual abuse. Today, there are less than half as many people living in Yogaville than at its peak.

Another scandal more recently rocked IYI and Yogaville in 1999. A young woman attending a 30 day program at the ashram suddenly quit law school, dropped her fiancée and married a monk there; who was 30 years, her senior. The woman’s distraught family said she was “brainwashed.” That family later detailed their allegations on a website: http://www.freecatherine.com

You may have heard Swami Satchidanda as a spiritual teacher who taught obedience, poverty and celibacy. However, for his victims, Swami Satchidananda was simply a cult leader who left behind a legacy of personal pain. Like many cult figures, Satchidananda drew followers through his personal charisma. IYI and Yogaville were largely defined by his personality. Swami Satchidananda taught obedience by asking his followers to kiss his feet and bow before him while sitting on a throne while forcing others into performing sexual favors. Is this really a Holy Man and a celibate Saint? Or was the Swami really a scandalous guru who used his authority to deceive and abuse his followers?