Photo by Yoshiko Kusano
Are you afraid of death? Feeling unfulfilled? Do your attempts to grasp meaning from the universe constantly fall short, encasing you in an eternal chasm of emptiness? Does that despair force you into deep, ponderous thoughts, like, 'Woah, dude, what if my blue is, like, your yellow?' Well, next weekend Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev will fix all your spiritual woes. He's holding a mini yogic retreat – a kind of pop-up ashram – at London's ExCel Centre for a mere £650 a ticket, because fuck spending £3 warding off existential nausea with a pint of lager like everyone else.
Sadhguru's Isha Foundation boasts over two million followers who believe that its program of “Inner Engineering” is as scientific as it is religious. Watch any of his YouTube videos and you’ll see why people love "The Mystic" so much – he's intelligent, non-threatening, charismatic and funny, which I'm guessing is everything you should look for in a spiritual guru. Hinduism provides the perfect framework for his teachings because it absorbs any problematic criticism into its thousands of communities, leaders and ideas, like a wriggly, amorphous spiritual amoeba.
Make no mistake, though; the Isha Foundation is an exploitative cult and The Mystic deserves his fair share of atheist vitriol. He makes his members swear to secrecy, charges a small fortune for their enlightenment, brainwashes them and dupes them into free work under the guise of volunteerism. One follower described being forced to work ten hours a day, seven days a week, given nothing but a straw mat to sleep on. Which sounds neither spiritually enlightening or particularly legal.
“Things came to a hilt when I was eve-teased (sexually-harassed) by a sanyasi (senior monk) when I was alone in the dining room,” the follower complained.
Sadhguru was also charged with murdering his wife. You might think that would put people off following him as a near-deity, but don't worry, he has explained his wife's death as a case of "Mahasamādhi" – leaving one’s physical body during meditative enlightenment – which makes it totally OK.
“If you spent enough time in Isha, you'd witness a lot of fake, and perhaps real, delusional states of bliss,” one ex-member said. “The believers go into bouts of spasms and unconsciousness. People go really crazy. Sadhguru encourages the 'madness' as a way of reaching bliss. In fact, he often brags about the number of people who go into altered states just by being in his presence and then have to be carried out of the hall.”
“We're told not to divulge any information on what goes on during the programs. We're told that revealing it can lead to a variety of issues for ourselves, stuff like health problems, spiritual problems and cheating the newcomer from his or her spiritual experience,” said another ex-follower.
Other accounts suggest signs of brainwashing in the centre: “I went to a three day intensive with Sadhguru and it was the worst experience of my life," the ex-follower told me. "My mind was questioning everything. I felt so alone and wondered many times if this was brainwashing. I feel I haven't been the same since and have persistent anxiety and worsening depression. I refused to go back the next day and they were at my hotel door knocking to come in. I talked to Sadhguru and said I was OK, not to fear and that I didn't like change. I could tell he knew that I didn't believe in anything he was selling.”
But it's difficult to truly attack something as nebulous as the Isha Foundation. Sadhguru has proven that he's more than capable of parrying any complaint or question with murky spiritual truisms and charming humility. “The only thing I know is this piece of life,” he says. He claims he hasn’t read the Bhagavad Gita (a 700-verse scripture that's part of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata). He’s been a delegate to the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit, sat on the World Economic Forum at Davos and seeded numerous successful charities through his organisation, but this is all masquerading PR.
The Isha Foundation is a very 21st century kind of cult. Despite the fact that attendees bow down before Lingams, sing songs about Shiva and faint when their leader enters the room, Sadhguru claims that it’s all a science with no religious affiliation. Like Scientology’s Dianetics, Isha’s “Inner Engineering” sells itself as a spiritual “technology” for well-being. Of course, it’s an expensive technology: £650 for premium seating at a Shambhavi Mahamudra program (like the one next weekend in London), plus £95 for the pre-requisite “online enlightenment course.”
Psychiatrist Robert Lifton of Harvard Medical School gives three defining characteristics of a destructive cult: a process of coercive persuasion or “thought reform”, a charismatic leader who becomes an object of worship, and economic, sexual, or other exploitation of group members by the leader and his/her in-group. Isha hits all the marks, but the extorting guru game isn’t anything new. Forty years ago, “Orange People” were a common sight in Totnes, Devon.
They were the followers of Osho, a guru who established a colony in Oregon, where he housed a fleet of Rolls-Royces and committed bioterrorist attacks against locals who opposed him. This video of Sri Swami Vishwananda – a guru living in Germany – “vomiting gold” in front of an ashram of crazed Western devotees became even more horrifying when it came to light in 2008 that he had been using his brahmacharis (novice monks) as personal sex slaves. Despite all that, both Osho and Vishwananda still have large followings, so Sadhguru killing his wife and ruining people's lives probably isn't going to be too much of an issue for him.
We never hear about scandals in Hinduism, but it’s got all the sex, death and intrigue that you’d find in any run-of-the-mill Abrahamic religion. The Isha foundation has yet to make headlines, but it’s treading a familiar path – "The Mystic” on his way to being the Osho of our times.
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