Indian guru Swami Satyananda Saraswati is celebrated in the yoga community as the founder of the international yoga movement Bihar Yoga and the purveyor of popular Tantric-based meditation techniques.
But few know that his Mangrove Mountain ashram in New South Wales, Australia, was a cloistered den of systemic sexual and physical abuse in the 1970s and 1980s—and is now at the center of a Royal Commission inquiry.
Most of the alleged abuse occurred at the hands of Satyananda’s disciple, Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, a convicted pedophile and sadist who was masquerading as a peace-promoting, celibate leader of the Mangrove Mountain spiritual community.
Akhandananda was sentenced to prison for more than two years in 1989 for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl follower at the ashram, but the conviction was overturned in 1991 due to legislative changes at the time. He died from excessive alcohol consumption in 1997.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse will hear testimonies through the end of this week from eight women who were children when they were allegedly sexually assaulted by Akhandananda (many testified in the trial that led to his 1989 conviction).
At least four of those women claim they were also physically abused by Akhandananda’s consort at the time, a woman known only as Shishy, who has admitted to having sexual relations with a minor at the ashram and covering up Akhandananda’s sexual assaults.
The plaintiffs are now seeking compensation from Mangrove Mountain, which remains a vibrant community for Satyananda Yoga devotees.
Spiritual gurus who use their power to facilitate sexual encounters with their students are something of a cliché. Indeed, sex scandals have been plaguing the yoga community long before the practice was Lululemon-ized in mainstream Western culture.
There was Romanian-born Swami Kriyananda, a monk who founded the worldwide Ananda spiritual community in 1964 and, after seven women sued him for sexual harassment in 1994, admitted to having sexual relationships with students.
That same year, Amrit Desai, former leader of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, paid a $2.5 million settlement to students of who had accused him of sexual abuse.
Siddha yoga founder Swami Muktananda, who was featured in a 1994 exposé in the New Yorker, and Integral Yoga founder Swami Satchindananda were both accused of sexual assault in the mid-’90s. (During a 1991 conference that Satchindananda attended in Virginia, protesters outside the conference center waved placards that read “Stop the Abuse” and “End the Cover Up.”)
Much of this abuse of power is chalked up to the cult culture that was de rigeur in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when many gurus brought their movements to the West. But the abuse continues at the hands of some of the most prominent “Western” gurus today.
Hot yoga pioneer Choudhury Bikra, whose multimillion-dollar Bikram yoga empire has more than 650 studios around the world, is currently embroiled in several sexual assault lawsuits, accused of raping two former devotees during teacher training camps in 2010 and 2011.
But the alleged rampant child sexual abuse by Swami Akhandananda is especially insidious: young women groomed—groped and solicited for massages, then verbally praised or rewarded—by their spiritual leader, who then forced them into penetrative and oral sex.
Alecia Buchanan was 12 when her mother, then a drug and alcohol counselor at Gosford South Wales, became interested in yoga as a form of therapy and took an interest in the Satyananda Ashram in the late ‘70s. Buchanan testified last week that she was 13 when she became one of the children of Mangrove Mountain, living there under the supervision of Shishy and Akhandananda.
Buchanan, who also testified against Akhandananda in 1989, told the Royal Commission she was 16 when he began regularly abusing her (“he would order me into his quarters on a regular basis and direct me to pleasure him exactly how he wanted”) and would frequently ask her “if it felt good and whether I was devoted to him.”
She recalled that, often before or after he molested her, “he threatened me with his hand hovering near my face, mimicking a slap” and told her he would beat her if she told anyone, especially her mother.
Jyoti, another young woman who moved to the ashram when she was 16, told the Royal Commission that Akhandananda regularly sent her to a chemist in Gosford for pregnancy tests and threatened her life if she discussed it with anyone (“You’ll be killed if you do”).
One woman who testified under the pseudonym APR claimed she moved to the ashram with her father when she was four, who then left her there under the guardianship of Shishy.
She recalled attending an ashram ritual when she was seven, during which she was “held down” by other “male swamis” while Akhandananda had sex with her. She says she still has a scar from where Akhandananda “cut the skin between my breasts with a knife and then licked the blood” that night.
Equally troubling as these horrific claims are the adults who abandoned their children to live at the ashram and—worse—the adults like Shishy who lived there but did nothing to stop the abuse. Shishy admitted to knowing about Akhandananda’s abuse of the girls in front of the Royal Commission on Friday (she claims she was also physically and sexually assaulted by him).
“It was not just the times, or it’s not just the ‘70s. The adults need to own the choices they made,” said APR. “They were the ones who put the kids in that situation and they were the ones who stayed and by staying made it impossible for us to leave.”
The hearing finishes at the end of this week and will determine whether further charges will be administered against Mangrove Mountain, which has so far refused to financially compensate the plaintiffs.