Swami Chetanananda: An Open Letter from Former Nityananda Institute Members
This letter was compiled by a group of eleven former members of the Nityananda Institute based in Portland, Oregon. Another fifty-three former members contributed by sharing their experiences. We left the organization after realizing that Swami Chetanananda was abusing his role as guru and Abbot of the Institute. In light of the Dalai Lama’s 1994 proclamation that students should speak out publicly when spiritual teachers abuse their leadership roles, we feel it is our duty to ourselves and others to tell the truth here. The authors of this letter must remain anonymous because Swami C has threatened his ex-students and their families.
Why did we become involved with Swami Chetanananda? Some of us were drawn in by the public yoga classes offered by the Institute. Some of us were searching for ways to enrich our spiritual lives and become better people. We were attracted by Swami Chetanananda’s charisma and humor, by our "spiritual" experiences in his presence, by the meditation and chanting programs, and by the friendly and attractive Institute members who treated us like brothers and sisters.
At first we were blatantly courted and made to feel chosen and special. Swami Chetanananda cleverly disguised his control tactics with Asian philosophy. He made enlightenment sound like a noble and realistic goal. He disarmed us with poetry, music, and sumptuous parties. Many of us fell prey to Swami Chetanananda’s charm because we were in painful life transitions or naively assumed that spiritual teachers don’t lie. We accepted Swami Chetanananda’s claims that he was a person of integrity who loved us unconditionally and had only our best interests at heart. We trusted and believed that if we followed his advice in every way, that we would eventually reach our highest potential.
As dedicated students we sacrificed a great deal to stay close to the guru: we relinquished close ties to family members and old friends, changed jobs and degree paths, ended marriages and partnerships or entered into them at Swami Chetanananda’s suggestion; we sold homes and delayed planning for our own financial security in order to pay for his programs and community projects. In his position as Abbott, Swami Chetanananda encouraged these sacrifices and life changes both privately and in his class lectures.
What finally made so many of us leave our revered teacher, the people we considered our best friends, and the community to which we had given so much? Are we all deluded, pathetic, insane, vengeful, and headed for disaster or death as Swami Chetanananda describes students who leave him?
We entered into our practice with Swami Chetanananda in good faith. Most of us left the ashram after discovering the truth about Swami Chetanananda: his lying, cheating, and manipulation; his rampant sexual misconduct with female students – including adultery, and, having sex with the daughters of his students; his secret use of alcohol, cocaine, and prostitutes; his behind-the-scenes displays of violence and anger; the egregious fundraising manipulations by him and his staff; his luxurious life-style attained at the expense of devotees; his terrifying threats to students who spoke openly about his private life; and the endless cover up of all the above abusive behaviors.
Freeing ourselves from his control was not easy. For years we had avoided looking at the truth for fear of destroying our spiritual growth, betraying our guru and being ostracized by the community. Our critical thinking was blocked with platitudes like, "The mind is the slayer of the soul," and "Doubt is your worst enemy." He instructed us not to energize problems by giving them our attention. He made us anxious and confused by alternately bestowing and removing the "honor" of being in his company. We were encouraged to inform on one another as the price for "closeness" to the guru. This bred an environment of fear and mistrust in which we did not dare discuss sensitive issues with each other. The implicit message was that loyalty to anyone else in the community equaled disloyalty to Swami Chetanananda. We learned not to trust ourselves, our former moral and ethical standards, and our intuitions that something was seriously wrong. We grew accustomed to accepting blame for his problems. We learned to lie to ourselves and others to "protect Swami Chetanananda’s privacy."
Due to the dysfunctional environment created by Swami Chetanananda’s abusive behavior, the supposedly transformative practices he taught proved damaging to our bodies, minds, and spirits. Because he consistently denied the validity of our problems and emotions, they were suppressed. Our repeated attempts to "rise above" our doubts and fears resulted in chronic health problems that only cleared up after we left Swami Chetanananda. Many of us were depressed while inside the ashram even though we did our best to believe that we were happy and growing. His staff and closest devotees were often callous and mean-spirited due to all the extra tension around him. A number of our former friends, current Institute members, even considered suicide.
Once we became free of Swami Chetanananda’s influence, many truths became clear and self-evident: Someone who puts himself in a position of spiritual leadership should not indulge in behaviors that need to be lied about. No interaction between a guru and his student is an interaction between equals, and, as a student’s role is one of total surrender and devotion to the guru, a sexual act between them can never be consensual. If a guru commits a harmful act, then the harm is in the act itself not in the disclosure of that act by his students. To convince students that speaking the truth about the guru is an act of betrayal is a warping of moral integrity.
There are too many examples of Swami Chetanananda’s manipulative and duplicitous teachings to list here, but the following are typical of his methods:
He claimed not to be in the religion business, but he arranged the ashram environment to support him in luxury and periodically announced his financial need to recruit new students.
He told us the whole show was about our growth, not about him, but instead of helping us gain self-empowerment and independence, he manipulated us to crave his presence, his approval, and the "spiritual" energy he insinuated came through him.
He told us not to park our brains at the door of the meditation hall – to be critically watchful of him and his senior students, but he publicly ridiculed and distanced himself from any of us who dared doubt or question the practice, him, or his inner circle.
He told us that the only thing we had to surrender was our tensions, when in fact we were expected to surrender everything to his program: our families, our girlfriends if we were men, our bodies if we were women, our daughters’ bodies if we were parents, our money, our former religious beliefs and morals, and our sense of belonging in the society at large.
He taught us that he relates only to his students’ highest nature, yet he took great pleasure in pointing out our faults, sometimes in public and sometimes behind our backs. This caused us to feel unworthy and beneath him and caused others to feel superior by comparison.
He boasted about living on a modest income from the Institute while he also secretly received a top managerial salary from Productivity, Inc.
For many years he told us that he was celibate even though he was having sex with most of his female students from the beginning of his career as a spiritual teacher. Even now he conceals the extent of his predatory sexual exploits from the ashram community.
He reassured us – in his best country accent – that he was just a regular guy who made mistakes, but his overriding message was that he was God’s "gatekeeper," the omniscient guru, a "liberated being who found it difficult to live among humans."
He disguised his students’ lack of true spiritual growth by telling us that enlightenment was a life-long process, but the covert message was that if we had sex with him, gave him expensive gifts, sent him on first-class vacations, and surrendered totally to his every wish, then we would be welcome in his "inner circle" and our liberation would be accelerated.
He told us that our spiritual practice was not about suppression or denial, but out of loyalty to Swami C we learned to block the natural flow of our thoughts and deny damaging information about his private affairs to both ourselves and others.
He reassured naive Westerners that yoga was simply a "strategy for liberation" and not a religion, yet the primary vehicle of learning turned out to be devotion to him and the practice of Hindu and Buddhist rituals.
He gave the impression that being touched by him (shaktipat) was uniquely purifying and special, whereas the "spiritual" experiences of his true believers are commonly produced by power-wielders in every religion, sect, and cult.
His public message was that the Nityananda Institute was not a cult because we were all free to leave, but his overriding message was that it was disastrous to leave your spiritual teacher.
He took credit for his ostensible acts of generosity: in the gifts he gave, the people he helped through college, the training courses for his staff, and the Asians he supported, whereas all these were funded by the generosity of devotees.
He preached about the unconditional love that flows from the guru/disciple relationship, and derided ordinary love between people as being primarily contractual – "You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours." However, his bottom line on how we should treat him was clearly quid pro quo: "You must treat your donkey [guru] well if you want him to work for you."
He told us he was selling us art and gems way below their actual value, however according to estimates from reputable dealers Swami C overpriced these objects by between two and twenty times their current values.
He told the press that he had admitted his mistakes and redressed any imbalances caused by his errors, whereas he has never made amends to any of us. His egregious behavior continues and his only apology has been that he is sorry to have "trusted the wrong people."
He bragged about his students’ outside jobs and attainments, but he constantly belittled the real world, family, and friends not connected to the ashram.
He said he was not against therapy, but he frequently scorned the role of therapists and other health or personal discovery programs that we might have turned to for help.
He denied using manipulation, but numerous health professionals – not connected to the ashram – verify that ex-members are recovering from both trauma and brainwashing.
Once ex-students began speaking honestly and openly together, we discovered how extensive and consistent Swami C’s manipulation had been. He told us all, privately, things about ourselves that were bound to keep us attached to him and the community:
Swami Chetanananda regularly told his young women students that they were not destined to marry or have a fulfilling relationship in their lives (aside from the one with him.)
He told numerous young women that they should not have children or that their children would be born deformed in some way.
He told women students that sex with him was safe and would advance their spiritual lives.
He regularly broke up relationships that ashram members formed with "outsiders."
He separated students from parents, spouses, and children who were not part of the group.
He told many of us that if we left him that we would become violent, or crazy, or die.
He told others of us that if we left him then he would commit suicide.
He attempted to control ex-members with threats and by using his current devotees to deliver manipulating messages, emotional blackmail, and accusations of betrayal and vindictiveness.
When confronted with the above, he denies ever saying or doing any of these things.
We are saddened and angry to have been betrayed by Swami Chetanananda. We mourn multiple losses: marriages denied, delayed or broken at Swami Chetanananda’s suggestion; failed marriages and relationships arranged by Swami Chetanananda; the opportunity to bear children destroyed; professional careers delayed or missed; important family events unattended; talents and passionate interests ignored or dropped; morals, integrity, health, and finances compromised.
We also mourn the loss of friends and family still inside the group. We know that they are loving people and that their intentions are genuine. We know that the good they see in their guru is only a reflection of their own goodness. We feel sorrow knowing how they are being controlled, manipulated and used. We understand how they deny the truth and retreat into an idealized, magical realm of consciousness as we once did. We mourn their loss of compassion for estranged family members, former friends, and the world at large. We are dismayed that they are not allowed the freedom to speak to ex-students. If there is nothing wrong with Swami Chetanananda what is the danger in an open flow of communication? Is the enlightenment that the guru offers so fragile and egocentric that it cannot withstand the light of truth, critical thinking, and open discourse?
Since leaving the Institute, we are no longer willing to give Swami Chetanananda, or any one else, control over our reality. We are reclaiming the full use of our minds, intuitions, emotions, and self-reliance. We rejoice in the freedom we are discovering to be open, truthful, and honest people. We understand that real growth is nurtured by self-love, self-confidence, and the ability to freely choose for ourselves, not by an unhealthy dependency on a self-proclaimed guru. We are discovering richer and fuller spiritual lives than anything we experienced inside his ashram. We have found true relationships – not ones dependent on the guru’s approval or our place in the ashram social hierarchy. We are learning to appreciate and care for our parents, grandparents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews. We have discovered the rewards of service work in the wider communities in which we live. We are learning again what it means to have free time to play, to pursue hobbies and creative gifts. The real world, while challenging and difficult, is not the "Bellevue (insane asylum) of the Universe," but an extraordinary place filled with remarkable people leading interesting and fulfilling lives.
It is the truth that ultimately liberates people, not lies. We hope this letter helps to free and heal students caught in Swami Chetanananda’s web of deception and manipulation, and that it prevents others from suffering as we have suffered.
Contact LNI at firstname.lastname@example.org