Not so long ago I published an interview on Vrindavan Today with Karen Jonson that was timed to coincide with the opening of the Prema Mandir in Vrindavan. Karen has been outspoken and eloquent and her book, Sex, Lies and Two Indian Gurus, promises to be another important addition to the growing literature on the psychology or psychopathology of gurus who engage in abusive activities.
It should be noted that the article was by far the most read ever on VT, accumulating several thousand hits. As always, sex and -- better yet -- sex scandals are the subject that attracts the most attention of the public.
The article was followed by the expected outcries from disbelieving disciples of Kripalu, who find it impossible to imagine that one with the personal charisma and ability to create a monument like the Prema Mandir could be anything other than his publicity machine states. Long experience with the phenomenon of sex abuse makes us quite familiar with such reactions. There are two short articles on this blog that were written in the wake of "sleazy sadhu" incidents (here and here) as well as another discussing the work of Henri Jolicoeur (Hanuman Das).
There are a good number of gurus who have engaged in sexual liaisons of one kind or another with their disciples and the list seems to grow longer day by day. Searches on the internet reveal that there is a growing body of popular as well as academic work related to cults and cult leaders. In one of the excerpts Karen has published on line from her book, she writes about the psychopathic personality, and indeed one sometimes wonders whether all such mass movements are not led by people with a tendency or susceptibility to psychopathic delusions of grandeur, extreme self-centredness and ambition, a utilitarian approach to other human beings, a complete lack of ability to truly empathize, and a devastating ability to act and dissimulate their true nature. And they don't have to be engaged in sexual abuse for this to be so.
Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians is the result of fairly recent research, but the subject has been of great interest ever since the Nazi phenomenon in Germany, which led to Eric Hoffer's influential post-WWII work, The True Believer. These books, available on the internet, should be required reading for anyone involved in religious or political action. They describe the gullible person who easily accepts and unquestioningly follows authority. Altemeyer's contribution is to show how those with a "social domination orientation (SDO)" exists in a symbiotic relation with such "authoritarians" to create destructive and regressive social dynamics.
Altemeyer's primary interest is the political arena, especially that of right-wing conservatism in the United States, but his findings are easily applicable to religion as well. Indeed, the American right wing social dominators have their packs of authoritarian followers culled from the fundamentalist Christian churches. But the phenomenon is certainly wider and can manifest in other circumstances, especially religious cults. All of which seems to fit the model of "a society of the cheaters and the cheated" (andhair yathāndhā upanīyamānāḥ) as neatly expressed by Srila Prabhupada.
I do not wish to rehash all the material related to Kripalu here. Karen has done a good job of that. What I would like to do, however, is relate this phenomenon to the fundamental meaning and evolution of the Radha Krishna theme as an evolving archetype of romantic love or divine love. It is my feeling that Kripalu so neatly fits a particular model of the "Sahajiya" as critiqued by orthodox Vaishnavas in general and Srila Prabhupada in particular, that it is necessary to inquire into the phenomenon of sexual abuse in and ask whether it is a necessary consequence of Sahajiya sādhanā as I believe it is meant to be understood and practised, or whether it is inherently inimical to the very principle of prema, which is the stated goal of that practice.
Kripalu exploited his female disciples by using the euphemism prema-dāna, "the gift of love," to describe his various kinds of sexual activity. Touching a devotee is mentioned in numerous places in the Bhāgavata and elsewhere as a powerful devotional act, and certainly to be touched by one imbued with the spiritual power of divine love should be considered a blessing. But as even the Devil can quote scripture to further his own ends, so do unscrupulous persons in the guise of spiritual guides misuse even the most perfect teachings.
Kripalu is now 90, but still uses the pretext of caraṇa-sevā to solicit genital massaging. Other reported activities he engages in include touching and digital penetration, etc. Many of the accounts indicate that such activities took place in almost anonymous silence, in the dark. When younger, though, he would engage in complete genital intercourse with disciples with apparently superhuman stamina, which some attributed to various herbs and treatments, and later to Viagra.
An account from 1991, when he was accused of rape in the Nagpur court, an investigative article in Hindi appeared that contained the following passage:
Kripalu learned tantric knowledge, gave eloquent speeches, got a reputation for miracle working. made a following. But apparently his usage of his position to elicit sexual services started very early. He announced himself to be the descension of Bhagwan Krishna and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. "I am every man’s father and every woman’s husband," he said. "Whatever I order, you have to accept. Otherwise it will be meaningless."Kripalu created a team of enablers. In another account, one former disciple tells how she was solicited by one of Kripalu's senior women disciples:
While giving this lecture he saw a beautiful girl in lecture hall. He told his servant to take that girl to his bedroom. When she was in his room, Kripalu closed the door. He ordered the girl to take off all her clothes. She got scared and asked why. Kripalu said, "I am giving you prema-dāna. All your disease, misery and pain will be gone." She said, "No, I will not do that."
Kripalu said, "If you don’t do it, something bad will happen to you. Think about it. Whatever I’m ordering, you do it." Then she got scared and took off all of her clothes. He raped her. This was in 1970. In this way, Kripalu gave prema-dāna to many young girls. (Rangeen Mizaz Sadhu an article from Sept. 1991. Dead link)
A Didiji whom I was very close to came to me with a "divine proposal." To meet Kripalu in absolute privacy, and if he were to touch me, take my clothes off or even kiss me, I was to let him do so. At that moment, I was completely shocked but managed to hold myself together, concealing my reaction and simply asked her, “Didiji, wouldn’t that be wrong?” To which she replied, “Of course not, what is wrong about that?! He is Lord Krishna himself! You better think about it quickly as Maharajji is here only for a few more days.” (Testimonial by Maya Kapoor)Of course, it is almost impossible to get an accurate picture of everything that went on since there are no public accounts or testimonials of women who are willing to state the positive or beneficial aspects of intercourse with Kripaluji and defend his actions on that basis. No doubt those Didijis who became enablers for the guru could cast some light on the prema-dāna, but they seem to have decided to either dissimulate or remain silent. Nevertheless, in private it would appear that plenty of women were complicit and even welcomed the chance to be touched sexually by this "saint or avatar." One American woman said, “The only excuse I have is that I honestly believed he was a God-realized saint and in my mind at the time I convinced myself to feel lucky that I was able to be that close to him.” (The above citations were all linked from Karen Jonson’s Facebook page, but these have since gone down)
Though it appears that there is a great belief in the potency of the sacred touch, the first impression is that it would be much vitiated in the circumstances described by the various informants. Groping in the dark? Doesn't sound much like prema. Were there any value to the act, it does not seem to have been accompanied by any specific teaching in either precept or example, no attempt to show married couples how to have satisfying, sacralized sexual lives through which their own loving relationships and spirituality could be enhanced. Indeed, the impression is of acts that are emotionally impersonal and sexually mechanical. No wonder so many of the "blessed" women felt distrust and betrayal.
More importantly, if this is what Kripalu and his followers believe is the most intimate gift of divine love, then why are they not open about it? Most of the disciples are completely in the dark and scream with indignation when they hear the victims make their accusations. I know people who were longtime disciples who had great faith in Kripalu until they came to learn of these abuses or were directly affected by them, completely surprised and devastated at discovering something of which they had had no previous inkling.
Somewhat facetiously, I wrote to Karen's FB page imagining how Kripalu should really advertise himself as "a sacred sexual stud with magical erotic powers, capable of performing eighteen different Kāmasūtra postures in one marathon session!"
It is said that Kripalu charges 500$ for an 2-minute darshan, so why not charge 1000$ for a sacred grope and 2000$ or more for a sacred penetration. And even more if he should impregnate you! Why not have all the women disciples pay astronomical sums to give birth to Kripalu Junior I, II, III, IV... ? Now that would be prema-dāna! If you are going to be brazen, why not go all the way? God-men gigolos for the good of humanity! After all, if Lady Gaga can charge two million$ and Kim Kardassian 125,000$ just to show up at your party, it seems like it would be an incredible bargain to have sex with God Himself and have his baby for a mere five or ten thousand.What unfortunately seems to be lacking is any self-aware commentary by Indian women on this phenomenon. But most of all I would also like to hear from Kripalu's enablers who justify this behavior is alright when the repercussions are so damaging to disciples' faith and consequently destructive to the society itself.
Nothing new here
Though it is my assumption that sexual abuse is as old as humanity, it is certainly something that Vaishnavas were particularly known for. I have heard of Brahmins so convinced of their own sanctity that they could visit prostitutes and believe that the woman is spiritually benefited. The Vaishnava gurus of the Vallabha sect made their disciples' brides "prasadi" by deflowering them, leading to the notorious "Maharaj Libel Trials" in Bombay in 1862, exactly 150 years ago, and creating scandal across India.
The defendant was one Karsandas Mulji, who edited a newspaper in which he wrote a number of articles, exposing the abuses that, according to him, prevailed in the Vallabhacharya sect. It seems that something akin to what was known in Roman Law as Jus Primae Noctes, was claimed by or accorded to the religious heads of the sect; and their blind votaries, in their ignorance and credulity, sacrificed young women at the altar of a foul superstition. The articles created a great stir in the community, and threw the parasites of their temples, and the worshipers of the "holy" religious head, into consternation and fury. The hold of spiritual superstitions was so strong upon ignorant people in those days, that it demanded great courage and determination to expose and denounce practices which, if essentially lewd and repulsive, were sacrosanct in the eyes of the ignorant and orthodox classes. Bombay Libel Case of 1862, or see here.And of course, Bhaktivinoda Thakur had his episode with Bishikishan on the opposite coast of the Indian subcontinent only a short ten years afterwards. As Srila Prabhupada put it with justifiable contempt:
And there are many rascals. He says that "I am Krishna's incarnation, and rāsa-līlā." This rascaldom is going on, rāsa-līlā. And people are so foolish that they send their wife and daughter for performing rāsa-līlā.And many more such statements can be found in the literature of the Gaudiya Math.
Akinchan Krishna Das in his Bibartta-bilāsa, a Sahajiya classic from the 18th century, glorifies his guru towards the end of his book, in the course of which he relates the following anecdote:
rūpera lābaṇya tāra bāḍaẏe śarīre ||
hāsi pāẏa kānde mukhe balaẏe kiśorī |
asthira ha̮ila sthira ha̮ite nā pāri ||
tāɱra goṣṭhī kahe eṭā pāgala ha̮ila |
bātika baliẏā bahu cikitsā karila ||
tāra pare tāra prema kāḍiẏā la̮ila |
pūrbba prāẏa yathā rūpa śarīra ha̮ila ||
nijaguṇa sabākāra biśbāsa lāgiẏā |
eteka kahilā nija śarīra dekhāiẏā ||
One day [my guru] gave prema to a girl, which made her physical beauty increase. She was simultaneously laughing, crying and talking, completely uncontrolled. She could not calm herself. Her family said she had gone crazy and took her to a doctor to cure her of a wind disorder. The cure also took away the prema and thereafter her body appeared as it had before. In order to make everyone believe in her virtue, she also said only this much, showing her body. (Chapter 4)Although the passage is admittedly a little obscure, it is not hard to read between the lines. Putting the most negative slant on it, which unfortunately seems the most likely, the much older guru was given a young girl – of what age we can only estimate, in her early teens or even younger – to engage in his sexual sādhanā. She was in a state of shock afterward, which the guru and his partisans called prema. The family did not fall for it completely and had her treated. When she calmed down and the prema subsided, she went back to her previous physical and mental state.
The last line is somewhat difficult, what did she have to make people believe? What was she showing her body for? And what does that mean? We can only speculate, but it could perhaps mean that her virtue was intact. At any rate, it looks to me like a case of abuse that was legitimized by Akinchan Krishna Das and, very strangely in my view, given as evidence of his guru’s greatness!
At any rate, what is the value of a prema-dāna that can be so easily lost, simply by the administration of some Ayurvedic medicines? It seems that if one is giving "love" that the receiver should have some knowledge and recognition that love was indeed received. And if they cannot, then what is the meaning of prema-dāna?
The Victorian British and the Christian missionaries were appropriately horrified by these and this resulted in a reactionary movement in Hinduism, which made attempts to root out such behavior. Much of modern Hinduism has been affected by this reaction, and part of that is the current imbalance toward a sannyasi leadership of the Indian religious world, which I feel only leads to more hypocrisy.
Whether it is prema-dāna or something else, the use of God as a tool to manipulate children, the weak or the innocent, is a time-honored ploy of the psychopath, no matter what the tradition. So one witness in the trial of a priest accused of child abuse recently reported that he was told "God loves me, this is what God wants, and it was time for me to become a man." And a former Dallas Gurukula student gave an account of his sufferings which included being told that Krishna hated him and being beaten with a "Nrisingha ring." Such examples could no doubt be multiplied thousand-fold. The young, the gullible, the weak are preyed upon in the name of God.
In most cases where accusations of abuse arise, the same sad pattern arises: there is either denial of the wrongdoing and demonization of the accusers and blaming the victim (e.g. "She is only seeking to enrich herself by blackmail."). For those who have been trained to accept the divinity of the guru, it is exceedingly difficult to disbelieve him.
Even when the guru's defenders admit the wrongdoing, they attempt to minimize it by highlighting the good he has done, either by building schools and hospitals or by giving spiritual guidance that has benefited the disciples. They legitimize or rationalize his actions in other ways, characterizing him as beyond worldly morality and acting for some greater good that no one with mundane eyes is capable of perceiving, "humbling their stubborn egos to help them reach enlightenment faster."
For instance, Kate Tonnesson, one of the accusers in the trial of Prakashananda Saraswati, said that she was told "an act could not be sexual if there were no sexual thoughts in the mind of the person committing the act," and that Kripalu was on this level.
Muktananda's followers found ways to rationalize his bizarre abusive behavior by saying he wasn't really penetrating his victims, or he wasn't ejaculating - an important distinction to some, since retaining the semen is supposed to be a way of conserving the kundalini energy. In Swami Rama's case, one person made light of his guru's abusive activities by equating his abusive act with the sexual activity of his parents, "My father certainly had sex, and that's why I was born, so will I lose faith in my father?"
One commenter and supporter of Kripaluji, Stephen Perino attempted a defense in the thread to the above-mentioned VT article, with regards to the rape accusations leveled against his guru in Trinidad. He wrote, "There was no denial of an intimate relationship between the two girls and Sri Kripaluji. The two [underage] girls admitted they had felt as if they’d been intimate with Lord Krishna. It was the girl’s father that brought the accusation of rape. What we may find as objectionable and 'morally reprehensible' in the West is quite customary in India."
Then in another post,
If Ms. Karen Jonson believes she was once part of a dangerous cult, and now has the authority to condemn people who still follow this path, then perhaps Ms. Jonson could write a commentary on the Mahabharata, and condemn nearly one billion Hindus that follow a path of devotion to Sri Krishna (who, as we all agree, lived on this earth and had 16,108 wives and a multitude of offspring)? Why does Ms. Jonson not condemn the entire Hindu religion outright? After all why does Ms. Jonson stop with condemning His Saints? (VT thread)Of course, this argument is complete drivel, but it is useful nevertheless in pinpointing errors. By equating Kripalu to Krishna with his 16,108 wives, Perino places accusers of Kripalu in the same box as critics of Krishna, as though there were no difference. Moreover, in a tour-de-force of bad faith argumentation, he and others equate criticism of Kripalu to an attack on Hinduism itself. More and more of India is being converted to what has become common sense in the West, but clearly in this area work is to be done.
Perino equates the sexual acts of an aged man in his 70's with teenage girls to normal sexual relations in marriage. Kripalu was not married to the girls and women he coerced into sexual relationships. Even should some of the women have found the experience pleasurable, for others it was displeasurable enough to have become publicly vocal about it despite the inherent difficulties in doing so; for yet others -- probably the majority -- it was too embarrassing and confusing to say anything.
It is easy to understand why. Katherine Webster writing in the Yoga Journal (1990) on the “case against Swami Rama”, refers to Peter Rutter’s book Sex in the Forbidden Zone, where he explains that
...a sexual relationship between a man in a position of power-doctor, psychologist, mentor, or priest-and a woman who is dependent on him-as patient, student, client, or troubled soul-almost always involves an element of coercion and a betrayal of trust. Such a relationship, instead of giving the woman the healing or validation she seeks, reinforces her feeling that the only thing of value she has to offer a man with worldly power is her body.Indeed, this is the crux of the matter: In nearly all justifications of such sexual abuse, there is a diminishing of the woman as a person. Indeed, the very essence of all abuse is the depersonalization of the other, the objectification and marginalization of the person as a disposable source of selfish gratification. It is sex in the mode of ignorance. Those who justify such behavior, for any reason, perpetuate that same dynamic.
Now most devotees are familiar with the Bhāgavata verses that conclude the Rāsa-līlā, and this appears to be a text book case for its citation:
manasāpi hy anīśvaraḥ
vinaśyaty acirān mauḍhyād
One who is not a master (īśvara) should never, not even mentally, behave in this way. He will be quickly destroyed if he foolishly does so, just as a non-Shiva drinking the ocean of poison. (SB 10.33.30)The word īśvara can be interpreted to mean the Supreme Controller, or merely a master of yoga or any other powerful person. For instance, an “Oriental potentate” (īśvara) would have had a large number of wives in his harem as a proof of his independence from the norm. Nevertheless, the warning against an overly liberal interpretation is the standard in the sampradāya for good reason. What disciple would wish to be saddled with the need to repeatedly defend his guru against repeated accusations of this sort, or have to close his eyes to them?
Chapter 16 of the Bhagavad-gītā is about the demonic nature, which might reasonably be called that of the psychopath. There Krishna characterizes the psychopath describing himself with the word īśvara:
I am Lord and Master, I am the enjoyer. I sm successful, powerful and happy. (16.14)Clearly, when one becomes convinced of his own invincibility, and manages to escape unscathed through whatever combination of good luck and expert manipulation, then he feels as though he has the right to behave as though above the law. This is precisely why antinomianism can never be acceptable or practicable even though it is repeatedly confirmed philosophically in both the Gītā and Bhāgavata: it is always going to be misused by the psychopath. It is easy enough to say, "Love and then do as you will," but you really have to have genuine prema first. A psychopath is an expert dissimulator. He gives in charity, performs rituals, does good works; in short, acts the part to perfection. (dāsye yakṣyāmi modiṣye).
But I would like to take the argument a little further. I have written before (here and here and here) about the two Rāsa-līlās: that of the Bhāgavata that of the Gīta-govinda. My point is, as always, that Krishna in the Bhāgavata Rāsa dance is still īśvara. That is why the name Vishnu is used in the last verse.
There, it is said that Krishna played with the gopis as a child plays with his reflection in a mirror.
reme rameśo vraja-sundarībhir
yathārbhakaḥ sva-pratibimba-vibhramaḥ ||
And so the husband of Lakshmi enjoyed with the beauties of Vraja, with embraces, affectionate touches and glances, making unrestrained amorous gestures and laughing heartily, just like a little boy confused by his own reflections. (10.33.17)This is the īśvara-bhāva. Since all are a part of his energy, they are simply extensions of himself. Their individual personality seems inconsequential. It is all his līlā, they are but his energies. Of course, this requires a sophisticate theological understanding, but clearly for an ordinary mortal to have the solipsistic mentality of omnipotence is clearly psychopathy.
Whatever the theology of the Bhāgavata, Jayadeva has Radha make a “man” out of Krishna in the Gīta-govinda! That which was a positive quality in the Bhāgavata, namely his ability (aiśvarya) to make out with an infinite number of adoring beautiful women suddenly becomes a defect in the Gīta-govinda. The Bhāgavata talks of Krishna's nara-līlā, but does not fully demonstrate it.
The acharyas, i.e., Rupa Goswami, then followed the evolution of Krishna's human pastimes as revealed to Jayadeva and not, strictly speaking, the Bhāgavata. For Rupa, the concept of rasameans mādhurya, love and love alone, to explain which he follows and develops the best concepts from the rasa acharyas.
Rasa means that Krishna is committed exclusively to Radha.
rādhādhisavyam iha dakṣiṇataś ca rādhā |
rādhā khalu kṣiti-tale gagane ca rādhā
rādhā-mayī mama babhūva kutas tri-lokī ||
I see Radha in front, Radha behind; I see Radha to my left and Radha to my right. Radha is on the ground and Radha is in the sky. How is it that I see the three worlds all filled with Radha alone? (Vidagdha-mādhava 5.18)As our acharyas have said: There is no Krishna without Radha. There is no Krishna without the full manifestation of his separated Self, who is not only his equal but his superior in love, in whom he is exclusively absorbed.
So now if we look at what Kripalu may claim – and one of my principal objections is that he does not defend his actions, but dissimulates them – that he and his disciple Prakashananda are bestowing their blessings on the women they touch sexually, these women are never in a position of true freedom. They are never equal. Even in the best acceptance of their word at face value, whatever it is, it is not truly prema. This is not rasa but rasābhāsa, even according to the poetic tradition. They, like those of modern sensibility, called it anaucitya, or impropriety.
aucityopanibandhas tu rasasyopaniṣat parā || iti |
There is no reason for interruption in the relishing of rasa other than impropriety. The Upanishad that speaks of rasa (raso vai saḥ) is an oath to propriety. (Dhvany-āloka)Rupa Goswami calls it an uparasa (BRS 4.9.13) (a variety of rasābhāsa) when only one of the lovers has feelings of love, or if one of them has an attraction to many objects, or if they are mismatched in some way, such as one being old and ugly when the other is young and beautiful, etc.
yānekatra tathaikasya sthāyinaḥ sā virūpatā |
vibhāvasyaiva vairūpyaṁ sthāyiny atropacaryate ||
Although Rupa Goswami accepts the Bhāgavata version, his own writings show a Krishna who is committed uniquely to Radha. Can anyone honestly say that the kind of activities engaged in by Kripalu have any semblance to this? In the Gita, Krishna holds even the perfected soul to exemplary behavior so as not to mislead the ignorant. Has Kripalu followed that standard?
To answer the question which is given in the title to this article, I have to answer yes, Kripalu has incarnated the perfect “Sahajiya” bogeyman, not because he claims to be a Sahajiya or espouses its doctrines, but because he fulfills the need of critics of the pure Sahajiya path for a Shadow to personify the caricature and immoral abuse of the concept of sacred love.
But this is doubly sad for me, because those who oppose the path of prema and yugala-bhajana use such aberrations as the misuse of Krishna to justify sexual abuse or licentiousness to dismiss the potential of sexuality in love and spiritual culture, which is the real meaning of Sahaja sādhanā. As such, they in fact perpetuate the cycle of mystification and obfuscation, for the critics of the Sahajiyas also objectify women, depersonalize them by labeling them agents of Maya instead of seeing them as the only hope for man-kind.
The deeper a sādhaka couple goes into the practice, the greater becomes their power as a generator of love. Love, like electricity, can only be generated between two poles. When it is dissipated through contact with multiple partners, it becomes weak and distorted.
There is indeed a state of oneness with the beloved similar to that described in the Bhāgavata verse cited above. It is true that one can never really be totally one with anyone else. The difference is an essential element in the phenomenon of love itself. But the closer one gets through sādhanā, the more one becomes a mirror of the other person, just like expert ballroom dancers, or like the concentrated light of a laser. But if you are always dancing with someone new, what is the power in that? Could you ever reach the same level of harmony? The sādhaka-sādhikā couple reflect the energy of their love back into each other and that is called the generator of love.