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Shyam Interviews:

The Scandal

"Sex and the 'Celibate' Swami", by John Stackhouse

Article from the www.globeandmail.com Web Centre
The Globe and Mail, Saturday, March 3, 2001

Allegations of long-term sexual impropriety against an Indian guru with a largely Canadian following have rocked his tranquil ashram. JOHN STACKHOUSE reports from Kullu, in the shadow of the Himalayas, that Swami Shyam's flock has begun to shrink

High in India's Valley of the Gods, there is only one god and today he is presiding over a crowd of Canadians, who believe they, too, can become god, if only they shed all they have known.

Most have already left comfortable homes in places such as Westmount, North Vancouver and Rosedale and taken vows of celibacy to focus their energies. Many have walked away from corporate jobs, academic careers and positions in their family firms.

Here at the International Meditation Institute, the very idea of family takes on new meaning as devotees shed their family names -- names such as Mulroney, Rosenberg and Reitman -- for a new Sanskrit identity.

It is all meant to bring one closer to the eternal state of pure-bliss-consciousness, Swami Shyam explains to the 70 people who have gathered in the open-air theatre of his ashram, or religious retreat, for the daily satsang,or teaching.

"In whose hands is your birth? In whose hands is your death?" he asks. "In whose hands does your river flow?"

The people in the crowd nod appreciatively and return the smile of their white-bearded guru as he proceeds to chisel away at their upbringing. They are prisoners of materialism and ambition, and of carnal desires. But most of all, they are prisoners of their minds. The mind creates dreams, he explains. And dreams destroy.

"Mind is the dreamer, friends," Swami Shyam says. "And if you think you will find a true friend in the world who will be truthful, you will have no friend on Earth."

Some of the devotees shift uncomfortably under their fleece blankets, for today's message is more than the swami's usual lessons of eternal bliss. Today's message hints at the more fleeting troubles of sex, money and scandal, and how they are tearing his following apart.

Over the past two years, Swami Shyam's largely Canadian following based in the mountain town of Kullu has dwindled amid accusations that the supposedly celibate guru has been engaged sexually for decades with his most attractive female devotees, and that some of his disciples in Canada used meditation centres in Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg to lure young women into a form of sexual devotion.

Swami Shyam strongly denied the accusations, but five women now living in North America and Europe have given detailed accounts of what they allege were long-running affairs with the man.

Those who have left the ashram believe that the swami has broken one of the main principles of their meditation movement -- that celibacy, in an ancient Hindu ascetic tradition, is essential to channelling bodily energy to a spiritual quest.

They also believe that the guru abused his authority over many followers and neglected others, including a group of Canadian youths who grew up at the ashram and were involved in drug abuse.

"There was a group-think, 100 per cent, and it's still going on," said a businesswoman and former devotee who says she had sex with the swami a number of times.

She said she is more concerned about the ashram's devotional culture. "The problem since time immemorial is that we continually search for a deity in human form that we can look up to so that we don't have to take responsibility for ourselves. My greatest lesson from Kullu was that no one knows what is better for me than myself. In Kullu, everyone has given up that right."

At first glance, the ashram appears to be the ideal blend of East and West, with so much to comfort the body and soul that devotees have come to joke about their meditation centre as "Club Med."

It is located on a congested road that may have been bucolic 30 years ago but today carries the cacophony and diesel clouds of urban sprawl. On either side are grocers, Internet cafŽs and shawl merchants catering to the steady flow of Indian travellers who come to vacation in the area, called the Valley of the Gods for its proximity to the white-capped Himalayas.

Of course, the region is equally famous for its ready supply of hashish and marijuana, but those are influences the gated ashram has long tried to keep out.

On a landing built above the road and overlooking the raging Beas River, the devotees gather for their daily lesson. Afterward, a lucky few will be invited to attend a private meditation session with the swami or to join him for his afternoon tea.

The rest retire to long mountain hikes or a tennis match, and later to dinner parties in their renovated chalets, set amid orchards on the mountainside.

Some devotees have managed to bring their professions with them, using Kullu as a base for freelance writing, art design, filmmaking and, in one man's case, legal advice. A few have written books about meditation, adding to the institute's claim that it is a centre of higher learning, not just a retreat.

Blending spiritual quests with material needs has long been a tradition in India's ashrams, which are found in every corner of the country, wherever a self-styled guru can assemble some disciples. In the 1960s, the Beatles sought enlightenment at an ashram in the northern town of Rishikesh, under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

But sex scandals have become common as well, despite an ancient Hindu custom that calls for chastity among religious students and their teachers.

In 1980, Bhagwan Rajneesh, a guru with a penchant for Rolls-Royces and beautiful young women, moved his flock from India to Oregon. He wound up being convicted of immigration fraud and deported back to India, where he died in 1990.

More recently, a politically influential god-man, Sai Baba, has been accused of sexually abusing several European followers.

But no guru has won more Canadian admirers than has Swami Shyam, himself a former follower of the Beatles' Maharishi.

The swami's curious affair with Canada dates back to the early 1970s, when the former Indian public servant -- his full name is Shyam Srivastava -- visited Vancouver as a member of the Transcendental Meditation movement.

There, he gathered his first followers, largely well-off youths who were riding the tail end of the hippie movement. One was Scott Stirling, whose father, Geoff, the Newfoundland media magnate, was so impressed with the swami that he gave him a late-night spot on his Montreal station, CHOM-FM.

Soon, the swami had enough followers to return to India and build his own ashram, where he taught the young Canadians to shed their material-driven identities for a pursuit of enlightenment, the eternal state that he claimed he achieved in childhood. He placed particular emphasis on the concept of "oneness," that all people are one with god and the universe -- in short, that we all are god.

The pitch has enabled the swami to assemble among his followers Barbara Mulroney, the sister of former prime minister Brian Mulroney; the retail-chain heiress Ellen Reitman; Ellen Rosenberg, daughter of a wealthy retired Ontario judge; and two sons of retired general and Second World War hero Sydney Radley-Walters.

Many of the swami's devotees said they did not know of the sexual allegations until recently, and still do not believe them. Yet in almost every case, the guru has gained an extraordinary influence over their lives. "I think I was just very naive," said Ann Craig, a former devotee who asked that her maiden name be used.

She said she was so impressed by the swami that she did not think to question him when, she alleges, he invited her to his bedroom while staying in her home during a trip to the West in 1981. She was 41. He was 58.

"I was flattered," Ms. Craig said of her alleged first sexual encounter with the swami. "Very stupidly, I thought maybe I was unique. I was very surprised. I remember I was pretty overwhelmed. He just asked me to lock the door. It didn't seem odd. It was happening. I just accepted it, that it was an amazing happening."

She then visited the swami at his Kullu ashram and returned every year until 1985, when the alleged sexual liaisons stopped. "Every time I went to India, it would always happen at least once," she said. "I can honestly say this is somebody I loved."

Other women said they, too, fell in love with their spiritual guide and saw his alleged sexual advances as part of their development. But like Ms. Craig, the women interviewed said they eventually discovered that they were not the only ones.

"I never understood why it needed to go that way," Ms. Craig said of the alleged sexual encounters. "I once asked him and he said something about divine will, that he was a puppet at the end of the string. That was the only explanation that he gave.

"But he insisted it be kept secret. He said he would be crucified if the others found out, that it would never be understood."

although she continued to return to the ashram until 1998, she did not reveal her alleged affair to anyone, especially not to her two teenaged children, who had gone with her to Kullu and stayed until 1999, living off a $110,000 trust fund from their father. (A third child did not go to India.)

Only last summer did Ms. Craig's daughter, now 34, tell her that she also had had an affair with the swami, starting around the same time as her own ended.

"I saw him as god, so did all the people around me," Ms. Craig's daughter, who asked not to be identified, said in a letter to other former devotees. "It was a belief stronger than any in my life. I somehow by some outrageous serendipity had stumbled upon Jesus here in 20th-century India and I would do anything for him because he was the guardian of my soul, the one being in this fragmented universe who would be for my life and evolution."

Other women who say they have had sex with the guru said it never appeared seductive, that it was most often part of a meditation session in which he would request one of the devotees massage him.

"I believed him to be greater than a human being, that he couldn't possibly be subjected to human desires," said the businesswoman, who asked not to be named.

"There was no indication that he was a typical man, a Western man. He didn't handle it like a normal Western relationship. There was no seduction or courtship or attention made in normal ways that we're used to. I was able to say, 'Oh, he's not a normal human male, he's a sort of deity. And whatever he does is always for my evolution. He's making me one with him and his consciousness and awareness.' "

A Montreal women, who similarly asked that her identity not be revealed, said sexual contact began on her second visit to Kullu, when the swami invited her to his private room at night and asked her to remove her underwear and lift her skirt.

"It was often a quickie," she said. "He told you that he was purifying you, so you thought that this was the purpose of the sexual intercourse. He constantly created in us a sense of awe toward himself. For me, it was always the impression like he was having a cup of tea, he appeared to remain emotionally uninvolved, and then he would go back to reading his book or to some other activity."

Esme Hendrick-Wong, a Toronto textile merchant now based in Singapore, said she came to believe that it went much further than private sexual encounters.

although the swami never approached her for sex, she said, she walked into a meditation session in the late 1980s and saw him rubbing his feet on one of her friend's exposed breasts. At least 20 other women were in the room, she said.

"From my conversation with her [the friend], she thought this was great," Ms. Hendrick-Wong said. "In private, it was open knowledge that he got massages, but I believe everybody should have massages. It's therapeutic. In no way did I think the massages were sexual."

How the swami gained such mental power over his devotees -- most of them well educated, financially comfortable and free from any sort of substance abuse -- is a matter of interpretation.

Some women say they were attracted to him, to his soft eyes, gentle humour and white beard that flows like a mountain glacier across his chest.

Some say he manipulated them, pampering them with favours one day and then belittling them the next, especially at the satsang,where devotees take turns on a "hot seat" on stage next to the guru, who questions their spiritual thinking in front of the others.

Many also say they found comfort in him, an escape from troubled childhoods or marriages, or a lifetime of neglect. "If you have to put one thing in common with all of us, we all came from an unhappy family life," the businesswoman said.

But there was more, she continued. "I watched him. I scrutinized him for three years before I was convinced of who I thought he was. He never seemed to falter. He really seemed to have something most people did not have. I had come to an understanding that he was greater than man, that he was god on Earth."

In every part of the ashram and every chalet, the swami's portrait can be seen on walls and mantels, next to espresso makers, even on bedside tables where a loved one's picture might be more appropriate. Some followers carry his picture in lockets. One woman boasted of writing a cheque to him for $25,000 because she loved him so.

On a chilly morning, the devotees sit around kerosene heaters, some bundled in Lands' End designer wear, awaiting the swami's entrance. A video crew gets ready to record his every word, which will be meticulously catalogued in the ashram's library of his thoughts. Several followers also prepare to take notes during his teaching, to review at night.

In the front row sit his wife and five grown children, perhaps a sign of family solidarity since he has not shared a house with them in nearly 20 years.

Swami Shyam originally agreed to an interview on the condition that specific questions about the sexual allegations not be asked. Then, when the date of the interview was changed, he cancelled and wrote an angry e-mail.

"I, being the lover of the universe, am supposed to love all," he wrote. "But I have my own bathroom and have not to put my pee-stick into the pee-pots of women or try to abuse a minor who has been involved in experimenting in all that which young people are taught to do by certain members of their own group, where they are experimenting and smoking hash constantly."

He wrote that he would never reveal the names of drug abusers, but felt that they were making him the target of a smear campaign.

"Sex is something that nobody sees, thus anyone without seeing anything can say, just by hearing something from someone," he wrote. "You also fall in this category. You have not seen me abusing anyone who just wanted to see what this sex is. Do you not know what sex is? I have five children and know what sex is. And who are the people who have produced children by me? Only my wife."

He signed the electronic letter: "With lots of love and appreciation for your half-intelligence, Swami Shyam."

At satsang,the swami emerges on stage, hands folded politely toward the audience as he approaches a throne-like chair positioned in front of a black circle on a wall, an object that is meant to focus the mind in meditation. He smiles and bows his head to familiar faces, and greets newcomers like a teacher on the first day of school.

Then, once a devotee has placed a cup of steaming tea at his side, he begins to talk. Without notes or interruption, he will speak for more than an hour about the idea of dreams and dreamers, weaving together musings on the earthquake in Gujarat state, the big Hindu festival known as the Kumbh Mela, and Bill Clinton's departure from the White House.

While meditation may be the swami's secret to life, he also apparently watches a lot of CNN.

The crowd laps up his every word -- one moment gasping at his deep thoughts, the next laughing at his jokes. There is no sign of dissent, except for the dwindling numbers. Where 200 or more people once vied for a seat close to the stage, there are now one-third that many, and several are people who have been here since the 1970s. It is hard to imagine where else they would go.

The schism is something the swami seems only willing to discuss in parables, today in the story of his own dream.

In the dream, he says, invaders bent on destroying his following are about to storm the ashram. although they bear arms, he tells the devotees to allow them to come, to breach the gates -- and then to smash their heads with rocks. The invaders are too close to fire, he explains, comparing the ensuing carnage to Pol Pot's Cambodian genocide in the 1970s.

This sudden burst of violent metaphor from the preacher of pure-bliss-consciousness seems to startle the crowd, but there is an explanation. The real danger, the swami says, is human ego, which of course must be transcended if one is to reach bliss.

Dan Chernin, who acts as general manager for the ashram, later plays down the dream sequence, saying he did not interpret it as a metaphor for war within the following.

He prefers to attribute the dissent to "a few bad apples," most notably a group of younger Canadian devotees who grew up in Kullu and became heavily involved in the local drug scene.

"The rift may be a rift, but the environment at least has been purified, in that the drug situation is gone," Mr. Chernin said.

He believes that some of the sexual allegations were concocted by the same group.

"We don't stand for that," he said. "We're working on a level of evolution that happiness comes from oneself, that one's nature is immortal. . . . Our way is not looking for gratification through the senses."

The son of a wealthy Cape Breton developer, Mr. Chernin was among the first to latch on to Swami Shyam when after university he travelled to Vancouver with Scott Stirling, who was a friend. Mr. Chernin was also with the first group to join the swami in Chandigarh, the Punjab state capital, where the guru lived, and then in Kullu, where they built the ashram.

By the 1980s, the ashram had grown from a collection of a few dozen rich kids to a large following of middle-aged professionals who increasingly wanted to escape the West's rat race.

But some families also started to grow worried about relatives there and alerted Indian officials in the hope of getting them to leave.

Hume Wright, a prominent diplomat in the 1960s, visited the ashram to try to persuade his daughter, Sheila, to come home. The woman was raising her young daughter at the ashram, where like other children there she was home-taught by various devotees.

According to Mr. Wright's son, Blake, who lives in Nova Scotia, the retired diplomat liked Swami Shyam, but at one point shouted at him for keeping his daughter and granddaughter in Kullu, and then returned to Canada alone. The elderly man, who was terminally ill, eventually committed suicide outside Ottawa.

"Obviously, his [Swami Shyam's] power to attract people and keep them was far beyond anything we could have imagined," said Blake Wright, who filed a complaint with the Indian High Commission in London but received no reply.

Another West Coast devotee, whose son grew up in the ashram and then tried to commit suicide after the family left, said he realized only after returning to Canada the psychological control the swami has over his followers.

"The man had a power to show me spaces I had never seen before, not on drugs or anything. . . . I was in love with him, like a schoolgirl."

As the guru's following grew, devotees were allowed to return to the West and open meditation centres as a way of spreading his techniques, and to bring new recruits to Kullu.

After opening one such meditation centre in Montreal, Jean Bouchart D'Orval, a former Hydro-QuŽbec engineer, said he discovered the power he could exert over his own students, whom he was soon seducing.

"The moment you set up and start speaking you have a special connection. You have a special air," he said. "People project their own energy, their own greatness, on the one who's sitting in front of them. This energy is impersonal, but it's the easiest thing in the world to take it personally and to follow up with personal relationships. . . . I don't know how many people I would have been involved with, because with many of them I was only flirtatious."

In 1993, after two women wrote to Swami Shyam to complain about Mr. D'Orval's behaviour, the guru reprimanded him during a visit. "He said these are things animals do. He referred specifically to bulls and bears, that this is what they did. He said I should save my energy. That was one of his favourite lines he gave to men."

Mr. D'Orval was allowed to continue to teach meditation.

Some of the women who stayed in Kullu said they felt they could not leave, even as they heard more rumours about what had gone on in the swami's private room.

For those who thought of returning to Canada, the Montreal woman said, "he creates the illusion that you're failing, like you're going to hell and that you've been to heaven."

although she said she was first involved sexually with the swami in the early 1980s, she stayed off and on until 1998, feeling at times like a psychological prisoner. "At times, I hated myself. I hated life."

In 1994, she was suicidal. One night, she sealed her chalet's windows, took a handful of Tylenol and went to turn on her gas stove. But she stopped herself, not for fear of death, she said. She was afraid her suicide would malign the ashram.

"I thought and was made to believe that such actions would make me incur the worst karma that one could incur and I would carry it from incarnation to incarnation," she explained. "Like a lot of women there, I needed attention, I needed love, I needed help."

Rumours continued, but in the spring of 1998, two separate events shook the community.

First was the revelation that one of the original members, acting as an investment adviser to other devotees, had lost $4-million of their money through speculative investments.

The ashram responded by charging a daily fee for satsang, in the hope of raising funds for some of the victims. But instead the levy created a new sense of division between wealthy devotees and those who came to Kullu only with enough to live on.

Then came a suggestion that devotees should not talk publicly about the bizarre drowning of a young Montreal woman in the nearby Beas River. The woman had been travelling in India and stopped to visit a family friend at the ashram.

"Someone said swami told everyone not to speak of this," Ms. Hendrick-Wong said. "That smacked of total control. Something definitely had changed there."

Local authorities did not link her drowning to the ashram -- a tragic number of young Westerners die, often from drug abuse, in the area -- and the Canadian High Commission later wrote a letter of thanks to Mr. Chernin for his work in getting the woman's body to New Delhi so that it could be returned to her family in Montreal.

For all that has happened at the ashram, many of the dissidents continue to respect Swami Shyam's powers.

Ms. Hendrick-Wong considers him "psychic." Warren Taffel, a retired landscape designer in London who once led the swami's British wing but is no longer a follower, said he still thinks that the man "has a line to supreme knowledge."

"I had never found myself in the presence of a man who knew answers, and to a great extent I haven't changed that view," said Mr. Taffel, who has left behind a rented house full of possessions in Kullu.

Ms. Craig disagrees, as she watches two of her children, now in their 30s, and many of their friends struggling to rebuild their lives in the West.

One young woman she knows in British Columbia is on antidepressant medication. Another young woman, who has relocated to the southern United States with her parents, still struggles with North American life, complaining of nightmares from her Kullu experiences and often unable to attend classes at college.

The swami's faithful deputies believe that in each case the parents are to blame. After all, they were the ones who chose to raise their children in a small Himalayan town, to keep them out of school and to ignore the fact that cheap drugs were easily obtained, before dropping them into North American society as young adults.

Some of the parents admit that perhaps they were naive. "In a way, it was the end of a dream because I actually thought that my children would be safe, that they would follow their souls. We all did," Ms. Craig said.

Back in Kullu, the few score people who stand behind Swami Shyam see light beyond the darkness of a community that has, in a way, turned on itself. Those who remain believe that they can now return to their original pursuit of enlightenment, unencumbered by charlatans and passers-by who at the height of the ashram's popularity may have diluted its strength.

"We're still driving on the road to Nirvana," said Stephen Aitkin, 47, a technical artist from Ottawa who divides his time in Kullu between meditation and serving clients through the Internet.

As satsang floats into its second hour, the guru of pure-bliss-consciousness remains seated cross-legged in his chair, working busily through a string of prayer beads as he weaves deftly from humour to insight, from CNN to Freud, carrying his enraptured audience with him.

One gets the impression that he could talk like this for days and no one would leave, but eventually, with lunch time nearing, the guru begins to sum up his thoughts on the deceit of dreaming. He offers his own denunciation, perhaps a code for the invaders rattling his gates.

"Peace is not in wine or whisky. Peace is not in smoke," he says before softening his voice to a whisper.

"Peace is in your life, eternal, unmoved. That is god. That I am."

And with that, he is gone.

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