Failures of Swami Nithyananda’s Organization
Hindu tradition separates three kinds of varna (skills), each representing a form of social capital, and these three were never supposed to be concentrated in a single person, thereby preventing too much concentration of power. I use the terms Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya not as birth based “caste,” but as merit based social capital and areas of competence. The Brahmin job description focuses on spirituality and research; Kshatriya on governance, politics and leadership; and Vaishyas on commerce and financial capital. Swami Nithyananda had persons with Brahmin qualities performing duties that demand Kshatriya and Vaishnav skills. This was counterproductive. The ashram leaders were selected and trained for skills and roles that are very different than this situation demands. Too often their bhakti and spiritual practice substituted for professional competence in managing a rapidly growing global enterprise. The sole emphasis was placed on traditional Brahmin qualities, and none on what would be considered Kshatriya qualities.
For example, there are a large number of white devotees who do have Kshatriyata - leadership expertise, courage and commitment. But even after this attack the ashram organization has blundered in its failure to leverage and deploy them. I met some of these Westerners at the Kumbh and found them remarkably willing to stand up for their guru, but nobody had bothered to organize them and take advantage of the fact that Swami Nithyananda has a global following. Instead of such initiatives to deal with the crisis, his organization was in utter chaos, reacting to each “hit” by the other side. Its leaders were running scared, driven by one rumor after another. Decisions were being made in desperation and panic. The group was cognitively disoriented and many of its members were psychologically breaking down.
The organization was too much of a one-man show with the leaders operating like children dependent on the swami for every decision. The swami had become the iconic object of the ashram’s inner circle. Their proximity to him became their measure of personal power and identity. This is classical cult-like behavior that cannot survive the onslaughts that are inevitable nowadays. Such a concentration of varnas into one man not only makes an enterprise incompetent, but it also can also get into the leader’s head and make him power hungry. Especially when the guru has siddhis, this power can easily become co-opted by his ego into a dangerous mixture. The result is that he surrounds himself with sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear, and this feedback loop of self glorification turns into group delusion.
I noticed this in the form of the inner circle’s inability to make common sense judgments, and their misrepresenting the facts to their leader by giving him too much “good news.” The result was that the honest truth did not come out fast enough to allow pragmatic and realistic planning. I had a difficult time to get dependable information, and the stories kept changing not only over time but also between one person and another within the group. I could not tell if there was a cover up and if new lies were fabricated to cover prior lies. In such an atmosphere one cannot tell which individuals might have a separate stake and vested interest from the group. Lacking competent Kshatriyas, the swami had not anticipated that such a crisis was ever possible, despite the fact that outsiders (including myself in my 2-day talks at his ashram) had explained to them the threats facing every prominent Hindu mahatma today.
While on the one hand I blame those in positions of responsibility at the ashram, ultimately Swami Nithyananda bears the responsibility as he selected them, defined their roles, evaluated their performance, motivated and supervised them very closely. In this regard, his spiritual capabilities had failed to evaluate those very close to him as well as the external reality. An enlightened master must do better than this, or else he must not try to control everything so personally.
I acknowledge that being a global guru is very demanding today, given that one has to represent a very old tradition authentically and yet in a manner that appeals to modern people. This is why Hindu leaders need a crash course on matters that are well beyond the traditional education in their own sampradayas (lineages).
Swami Nithyananda’s own support base in India has started to distance itself out of self preservation amidst all the rumors and slander. His closest supporters were not approached soon enough with his side of the story, and by the time they were approached the damage was done. They did not want to risk being associated with a “fallen guru.” Many Hindu gurus have started to publicly lash out against the “fallen godman”; others became silent or neutral publicly, while offering private sympathy but refusing to stick their necks out.
One factor is that the swami’s approach was too conservative for some and too liberal for others. It is too filled with deities, symbols and rituals of a very orthodox kind for the aesthetic taste of modern global gurus who propagate a whitened, Westernized “clean” Hinduism that is abstract and metaphysical but devoid of imagery associated with “primitive paganism.” At the other end of the spectrum are orthodox Hindu leaders who find his idea of youthful dancing, celebration, and liberal atmosphere to be not “real” Hinduism. A couple of shankaracharyas interviewed on NDTV lashed out against “false” gurus and claimed that only the shankaracharyas had the authority to certify who was qualified to be a guru. So Swami Nithyananda fits neither end of this spectrum.
Many of the gurus I met have told me in confidence that they fear that similar attacks are coming to more Hindu gurus, but that there is no central Hindu mechanism to deal with these episodes along the lines of various church mechanisms that intervene when Christianity faces a scandal. I sent feelers to the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha as to whether it should offer to step in and take over the ashram and its related organizations, thereby bringing new management to clean up matters and bring stability to the enterprise. I was told that while this was a “good idea in principle,” it was not practical because HDAS is simply not set up to deal with this.