Thursday, December 3, 2009

Weirded Out By Shaktipat

I'm on Facebook. One of my friends there is someone I knew pretty well in high school -- a classmate, who was for a quite a while also the girlfriend of one of my best buddies. As often happens, we had almost lost touch, until she popped up on FB and I started receiving her status updates.

Some of them sound a bit like this:


I had heard that she had spent some time at some ashram in the US, so I figured this must've had something to do with that. I got curious, and Googled Gurumayi, which led me to the Siddha Yoga website. After a while, I found myself fascinated by a spiritual snarl that tied in remarkably well with my musings about the problems related to finding good meditation masters (or, less ambitiously, avoiding bad ones).

Siddha Yoga is a new religious movement based on Kashmiri Shaivism (veneration of Shiva). It's pretty deeply rooted in Hindu tradition, and like many similar guru-centric movements it's based on the concept of shaktipat. (Mata Amritanandamayi, aka "Amma the Hugging Saint," and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Beatles fame are two better-known characters in the same line of business, as it were.)

As far as I understand, the idea behind shaktipat is that the spiritual seeker can find enlightenment (moksha in Hindu terms) through the intermediary of an already enlightened and spiritually perfected guru. The guru can trigger something called "kundalini awakening" in the seeker; the seeker will then focus her spiritual energies (through meditation, yoga, and suchlike) on the guru. The guru acts simultaneously as a guide, an object of worship, and a "mirror" for the seeker.

I have it on good authority that lots and lots of people have experienced kundalini awakening through shaktipat, and by all accounts it's a very powerful and often meaningful experience. I figure that like ki, karma, or kensho, it's a label for an experiential reality, although one that's hard to deconstruct or explain.

(Zen practitioners would certainly consider it nothing more than a particularly irritating makyo -- a pesky side-effect of meditation that distracts attention from the practice, and is therefore an impediment to enlightenment rather than a path to it.)

I have little doubt that shaktipat works more or less as advertised -- a sincere seeker completely abandoning herself to a talented guru who knows what she's doing will experience kundalini awakening, whatever that may be. Reading stuff written by Siddha Yoga practitioners, it's clearly given a great deal of... something or other... to a lot of them.

A bit too much, in fact, when it gets to "Everything I have, I owe to Gurumayi!" (Yes, that's a genuine quote from a Siddha Yoga follower, although not my acquaintance -- even if she has expressed rather similar ideas in different words.)

The obvious problem is that shaktipat will only work if the seeker puts himself completely into the guru's hands. You can't dip a toe in it, or attempt to make use of it while remaining skeptical about the guru. It'll only work if you worship the guru, as a representative of the Divine.

And that, friends, is playing with fire. Unless the guru is a true-blue saint, that kind of adoration will destroy her -- and when the guru is destroyed, the followers will go around the bend too. And even if the guru is a true-blue saint (I'm sure they exist, although they must be insanely rare), they can inadvertently do a huge amount of damage, simply because of the insane amount of power given to them.

What's more, it doesn't take much digging to discover that Gurumayi, nor her predecessor Muktananda, is probably not a true-blue saint, nor does SYDA -- the organization running Siddha Yoga -- look any nicer an organization than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. I won't recount the tawdry details; you can Google them up easily enough all by yourself -- the keywords "muktananda, nityananda, gurumayi, scandal" will get you started.

Siddha Yoga is clearly no Scientology or Jonestown: practitioners have lives outside the group; they don't break off contact with friends and family, and they seem like a generally cheerful and happy bunch of campers. For the most part. But it's definitely creepy enough to give me the major heebie-jeebies.

And whatever way you look at it, Siddha Yoga would come up with warning flags on most of my little checklist from a week or so ago -- you have a murkily-run corporate structure, a guru claiming unique spiritual status and demanding complete devotion, a variety of scandals about sex and money, and none-too-edifying descriptions of emotional dependency and trauma from ex-followers. From where I'm at, shaktipat is bad news.

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