The Excesses of Compassion: A Reading List on Fallen Gurus

Stories about spiritual teachers who lose their way.

By Blair Glaser

Stories about gurus can be as seductive as the swindlers they profile. Even though they are entirely predictable — charismatic leader offers a solution to life’s hardship, makes millions off of enthralled followers, and careens into an alternately titillating and deeply tragic scandal — they’re still irresistible. Perhaps it’s the mystery of how a guru steps into their magnetism, and how someone like your otherwise sensible best friend can fall for their logic-defying doctrine. Perhaps it’s the schadenfreude of watching a powerful person fall, or even a cautionary reminder of how vulnerable we are in our longing. But my near obsessive fascination with longform culty stories stems from something far more personal: The first one I read laid bare the hypocrisies of my own trusted guru. 

I was 25 years old. At the time, I’d been part of Siddha Yoga, a community centered on an enlightened teacher who guides students toward their own self-realization through meditation, chanting, and selfless service. I’d gone so far as to move into the community’s headquarters, Shree Muktananda Ashram in New York, but after being immersed in spiritual life for over a year, I’d had enough. When I left, I’d been warned that an impending “big article” — as the ashram’s PR department had referred to it for months — contained some pretty brutal rumors. But nothing prepared me for the shock of seeing those rumors in print, in the November 14, 1994, issue of The New Yorker. My guru, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, was on the cover. 

I didn’t recognize the cartoonish descriptions of the ashram I had called home, but my heart pounded and stomach churned while reading the allegations: the way my teacher threatened her own brother with violence; the way her own teacher, who claimed to have renunciated worldly habits and desires, smoked pot and sexually abused women and girls. I knew I needed to leave Siddha Yoga. But in the process of disentangling myself and sorting through the rubble of my shattered beliefs, I wondered whether corrupt gurus could still inspire genuine spiritual growth. 

I liked the idea of joining my fellow devotees in solidarity, railing against a person we had willingly given so much power to. But the groupthink had always made my eyes roll: When posed with a problem, many followers had the same answer for everything — do the practices, say the mantra, hand your pain over to the guru. When I reflected on how I’d been abused, I looked hard, but couldn’t see it. At the ashram, I’d been given room, board, and a small stipend in exchange for service: administrative, writing, and teaching jobs that enhanced my skills and ended up serving me well once I’d left. The schedule of daily spiritual practices provided me space and structure to go within and heal my bruised self-esteem. Most significantly, I’d received useful, playful attention from Gurumayi, evading the wrath that many — especially those who got too close — did not. 

More than betrayed, I felt guilty. Guilty for getting away not just without harm, but with a discipline that serves as an antidepressant and still carries me through hard times today. I was embarrassed, too, for believing in the very idea of a Siddha — a perfect enlightened being I could submit to, I could aspire to emulate. But that’s the thing: For some primitive reason probably rooted in childhood, humans have a deep need to idealize other humans; to project the possibility of transcendence or redemption onto a charismatic other. The clash between the tender need to be led and an idol’s need for power forms a breeding ground for the worst of humanity.

It also makes for a compelling story, and the subject of endless podcasts, docuseries, and, as listed below, stellar reported features. These stories are not only entertaining, but meaningful in their capacity to shake some followers out of their trance. Some gurus, clearly, are crooks from the get-go, but in the following pieces we see flawed humans initially compelled to share some essential Truth, who get waylaid by their own greed, grandiosity, and need for control, thereby throwing the Truth and its seekers under the bus.

The Second Coming of Guru Jagat (Hayley Phelan, Vanity Fair, December 2021)

Hayley Phelan, with a ripe combination of rigor and snark, chronicles the rise of a Colorado farmer’s daughter (Katie Griggs) as she becomes the kundalini master Guru Jagat and head of RA MA Institute, her own wellness organization. Jagat was a spiritual renegade, on the brink of being canceled for her anti-vax, conspiritual — where conspiracy and spirituality meet — views before her mysterious death at 41. Phelan elucidates the lineage of damage passed down from Jagat’s Punjab teacher, Yogi Bajan of the tea fame, an alleged rapist who invented kundalini yoga, “an ancient technology,” out of thin air. This passage reveals the impact of these co-opted spiritual practices on the traditionally Black and brown Sikh community.

Though Bhajan himself was Punjabi, he purposefully courted mostly white followers, creating the kind of community where, decades later, someone like Jagat, a white girl from the suburbs, could find herself whitesplaining the Sikh faith during an “intersectional feminist” panel that included mostly brown and Black women. Morrison called it a troubling example of “aligning whiteness with expertise” and noted that white kundalini practitioners who cheerfully wear turbans to class seem to have little understanding of how different the experience can be for a brown person, and how much danger and attention it may attract.

Scandal Contorts Future of John Friend, Anusara Yoga (Manuel Roig-Franzia, The Washington Post, March 2012)

John Friend wasn’t yet a yoga superstar when I lived at the Shree Muktananda Ashram, but he was at the ashram a lot, prototyping anusara, his signature brand of hatha (physical) yoga. When I read Manuel Roig-Franzia’s article in which he cites “students spoke of melting beneath his touch,” I could attest to it: In a class of 300 in the ashram’s main hall, I felt particularly lucky to be singled out for an adjustment.  

While this superbly researched article doesn’t mention Friend’s early connection with Gurumayi, it was my impression that she served, if not as his guru, then as a staunch supporter of his work. Like Siddha Yoga, anusara teachers were given a strict, ethical code of no drugs or sex with students, which Friend — and the gurus of Siddha Yoga, kripalu, and kundalini yoga before him — disregarded by doing both. The article makes it clear that Friend was growing something powerful that he lost track of as his own power grew.

The small yoga classes that Friend once taught at Willow Street and other studios morphed in recent years into flashy extravaganzas, some with music and dance performances. His shows were branded with catchy names, like the tours of mega-rock bands: Ignite the Center. Melt Your Heart, Blow Your Mind. Light the Sky.

“It just got weird,” said Jezzeny, the New Hope, Pa., Anusara instructor. “I’m like, ‘What happened to the yoga?’ 

Inside Hollywood’s Orgasm Cult (Mick Brown, Los Angeles, May 2022)

How did Nicole Daedone manage to turn a one night hookup with a monkish dude into a radical organization for women’s pleasure and men’s spiritual growth — one that exploded onto the wellness scene but then later found itself investigated by the FBI for sex trafficking, prostitution and labor law violations? Mick Brown deftly documents the whole journey for Los Angeles magazine, and in this particular passage showcases the sleazy recruitment and sales tactics that are mirrored by so many wellness gurus and their programs. 

Potential customers, it was alleged, were referred to as “marks”— the grifter’s term for targets. The sales staff were “lions” or “fluffers”—a porn-industry term. 

“You fluff someone to get them energetically and emotionally hard,” one former salesperson told Bloomberg. “You were the dangled bait, like, ‘You can have more of this if you buy this.’ ” 

Potential customers were told that money was just “an emotional obstacle” and urged to take out multiple credit cards to pay for courses. Some talked of racking up debt of up to $150,000.  

The Hare Krishnas of Coal Country (Ashley Stimpson, Longreads, February 2022)

If you’re like me, your Spotify kirtan playlist is near the top of your homepage. You could say the Westernization of kirtans — iconic call-and-response Sanskrit chants — all started when Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded the Hare Krishnas in New York in the ’60s, and troops of saffron-clad monks danced and chanted Hare Rama, Hare Krishna in the city streets. 

In Ashley Stimpson’s tale, in which she books a writing retreat at the rundown International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) headquarters in West Virginia and ends up researching the organization and its infamous scandal, she traces the trajectory of where things went wrong. In a refreshing departure from the norm, the “genuine saintly” Hare Krishna founder Swami Prabhupada was not accused of the harmful duplicity that his successors embodied. 

At the top, Stimpson brilliantly lays out the question that many readers will be wondering. Her answers, with her personal story and vulnerability woven in, are deeply compelling.

The only thing more surprising than the scandal this place had endured was that it had endured at all. How did a radical, communal movement of the ’60s, dismissed as a cult and lampooned by everyone from Kermit the Frog to Cheech and Chong, manage to survive, let alone on this ruined patch of Appalachia, where fracking trucks rumble past weed-choked doublewides folding in on themselves?

The Billionaire Yogi Behind Mogi’s Rise (Robert F. Worth, The New York Times Magazine, July 2018)

Robert F. Worth’s chilling profile of Baba Ramdev, a populist swami/yoga teacher/business man, draws uncanny parallels between the rise of U.S. nationalism and the Christian right. Although Ramdev is not (yet) a politician, through his rhetoric he has successfully won the political imagination of the middle class, and contributed his vast spiritual leadership to winning Indian nationalist elections. Ramdev, in addition to running his ayurvedic herbalism business like an ashram where workers accept low wages in exchange for their service to humanity, jockeys between harsh taskmaster, merry prankster, and politician, playing to his audience, as modeled in the dialogue with Worth below: 

When I asked him if I could follow him around for a day or two, he seemed delighted. “Of course! You can stay with me,” he said, gesturing at the house behind us, where he sleeps on a pallet on the floor. “I’m not married. But don’t worry, I’m not homosexual!” He burst into raucous laughter and added, “I’m against homosexuality!” The laughter got even louder, and he added under his breath, “Just kidding.”

Further reading:

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Blair Glaser is an executive leadership consultant and writer in LA. Her essays have been published in Oldster, Shondaland, Insider, and HuffPost. She is currently working on a culty memoir.

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