Acharya Devo Bhavah—the spiritual teacher is god. Millions of Hindus and spiritual aspirants across the world have heeded this phrase from the ancient Upanishad texts as they touch their teachers’ feet in reverence, lay flowers at shrines, and write healthy checks to ashrams, or spiritual centers.
But sometimes the temple is marked with temptation. Last month, a video cropped up reportedly showing the popular Swami Paramahamsa Nithyananda and South Indian actress Ranjitha in flagrante delicto. It’s as though Billy Graham were caught with his pants down (or like Jim Bakker minus the imprisonment *). The uproar has been audible: Indian TV stations broadcast the tape in Hindi, Telugu, Bengali, and Tamil; reporters scrambled to interview police to learn more about the origins of the tape and uncover leads to the actress involved. Nine protesters from an angry crowd were arrested outside of Bangalore for vandalizing Nithyananda’s ashram, Dhyanapeetam.
Said to be secretly filmed at Dhyanapeetam, the video shows Ranjita and Nithyananda in the swami’s bedroom. Far from Paris Hilton-esque, the video is low on graphic scenes and skin. Most of the time, the actress stays in her white sari as she and the swami relax and watch television. The faces aren’t in focus and the voices are muffled; it’s impossible either to confirm or to deny the identities of those depicted.
For a public swami with millions of devotee dollars in the bank, the shaky evidence might be enough to be convicted in the court of public opinion. The well-known Nithyananda is estimated to have attracted more than 2 million followers over the past decade with his Life Bliss Foundation lectures, Bangalore-based Dhyanapeetam ashram, and 37 international centers. As a young, pleasant “Godman” without a specific lineage (a spiritual pedigree passed down from master to student over generations, such as Swami Sivananda), Nithyananda was hailed for his eloquence in explaining the path to enlightenment and in his welcoming attitude to a full spectrum of devotees. He is described on his Web site as “an enlightened master” who left his childhood home in Thiruvannamalai to travel India, visiting shrines and learning from yogis and mystics.
A guru—an encompassing term translated from Sanskrit as “one who leads from darkness to light”—can take the form of a Hindu priest, sometimes a family man or woman, ordained to perform rituals and interpret dense scripture. Other gurus are swamis—Hindu monks who take vows of renunciation, usually including brahmacharya (celibacy), to carry out their spiritual practice, called sadhana. Swami Nithyananda was expected to forgo worldly pleasures and live a life of nonattachment. But since the leak of the video last month, Nithyananda’s Google searches and reputation have gone from portraying him as spiritual to sexual, famed to fraudulent, leaving his devotees betrayed and angry.
In a true reflection of India’s often sensational media, some reports have announced that Nithyananda admitted to appearing in the video; others say he continues to deny it completely. Most media report the actress as Ranjitha, while some named another, Ragasudha. Ranjitha is a midlevel actress in the Chennai-based film industry (dubbed Kollywood), whose movies are in the Tamil language. In India, the regional culture can denote a distinct flavor in the story lines, music, and acting, and Kollywood is markedly different than the more famous, Hindi-based Bollywood. Though Indian cinema has its roots in the same culture that begot the Kama Sutra and the second-largest population in the world, a true lip-lock or steamy scene are only recent developments. Despite her poorly timed pillow talk, Kollywood Today made a statement that its film industry stands behind Ranjitha and even suggests the longtime devotee was only massaging her guru’s legs and serving him in respect—not, as the saying goes, servicing him.
In his latest video statement, released on the Dhyanapeetam Web site on March 29, Nithyananda announced his resignation as head of the ashram. “I have decided to live a life of spiritual seclusion for some indefinite time,” he says, entrusting his spiritual center to a board of trustees. Nithyananda urges his devotees to continue their spiritual path, saying that “the sadhana (practice) is more important than the initiator.”
But his followers might be distracted from their meditation for a while. Nithyananda is currently being held to trial in the south Indian state of Karnataka’s High Court on charges of fraud—for misleading the public into thinking he led a celibate, sagacious life. According to the media outlet One India, his lawyer has accused his driver, Kurup Lenin, of framing the swami and distorting the video.
In India, and now internationally, famed contemporary swamis have a strong Internet presence, VIP status, and tours across the globe. Ashrams have branched to France and California. Swami Ram Dev, a popular televised yogi, hosts a show comparable to Good Morning America in Indian households. While they haven’t joined the British royalty in celebrity equality, swamis still make headlines for claiming to treat disease or for commenting on politics.
The globalization of the spiritual leaders has shifted the scene at some ashrams from secluded meditation to cross-cultural crusades that attract Hollywood celebrities and authors. Bollywood stars and high-profile Indians like Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa and actress Tara were known Nithyananda followers. The transition of ashrams to the mainstream can be bring welcome funds, but some decry the accompanying dilution of the original gurukula system, a tradition of learning spiritual practices from childhood. With the concept of yoga being applied to everything from a stretching session with wine to sitting in a chair, Hinduism and its swamis face the erosion of cultural borrowing.
Citizen journalism Web site truthDrive calls Swami Nithyananda “a victim of Indian social system.” The idea that Indian leaders lead hidden romantic lives may not be widely documented, but it’s certainly prevalent in India. Even in lesser camera-phoned times, Indian spiritual leaders faced similar, vaguely confirmed scandals like the accusation of the famed Puttaparthi Sai Baba and Swami Rama, one of the first pioneers of yoga in the West. Rama, accused of sexual abuse by some of his female students, garnered unsavory attention in Yoga Journal. The implications were never proven true, and some media apologized, but the cautionary tale remained. Spiritual musician and sitar prodigy Ravi Shankar, though not an ascetic, was berated for his affairs with his students and fans.
In the truthDrive article, the author posits that the public endorsement of Nithyananda as a perfect guru—an articulate, realized, and charismatic leader—led to the swami’s climb to fame and eventual downfall. “Many politicians manage very well in maintaining their secrets,” the article reads. “However it is [evident] now that Nithyananda did not master this technique well enough and has taken this sudden and steep fall.”
What will become of the Dhyanapeetam ashram remains unclear. For now, Indian media will continue to deliver piecemeal speculation of the public sentiments and court trials. Unless, as Nithyananda says in his video statement: “If required, I will return and talk about all that had happened as an independent witness to my conduct, with a clean heart and pure soul, but also in a less prejudiced atmosphere.”
As the last month of news foretells, decisions concerning the swami will unravel with plenty of drama and not a few complications. Time will reveal if a hidden camera will launch Nithyananda into post-scandal stardom, or bury his spiritual icon status in hopes of making room for a new realized soul.
Correction, April 5, 2010: This article originally misspelled Jim Bakker’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)