The man who passed himself off as Paramahamsa Nithyananda for seven years, promised instant spirituality to hundreds, perhaps even thousands, across India and abroad.
It might be too early to brand Nithyananda as a conman, but what is emerging is that he is a psychopath who exploited people’s credulity and played on the minds of youthful devotees who, before joining his cultic order, might have demonstrated symptoms of psychic distress, anxiety, depression, apathy, disinterest, meaninglessness, isolation, social alienation and confusion. As a normative social system, Nithyananda’s cultic order is an alternative healing mechanism for the existential crises of contemporary youth.
Nithyananda, of course, is no paramahamsa. He is an ordinary man who was intelligent enough to capitalise on his youthful disciples’ loss of faith in the “rationalistic western cosmology and loss of the extended family system,” as sociologist Mansell Pattison has pointed out. But Nithyananda also tapped into the dissatisfaction caused by the impact of the prevailing economic paradigm which has created stress and anxiety, especially among those in the 30-40 age group whose members may have deliberately turned away from traditional psychotherapies toward his religious cult as the ultimate remedy for their anxieties.
These young men and women found in him and his cult — which is a strange and often frightening mix of the Vedic and tantric with an attractive and appealing focus on phallus worship — the path to physical and spiritual healing. What might also have appealed to the devotees was the stress on mental seduction and enslavement or mind control, so much so that they were prepared to abandon family, loved ones and well-wishers.
Some psychologists and sociologists agree that intensive conditioning (or brainwashing) is designed to compromise the devotees’ psychological integrity and indoctrinate them in a world view in which the ends (salvation, bliss and even personal health and wealth) justify the means (deceptive recruitment, fraudulent fund-raising and psycho-sexual practices).
The rest of Nithyananda’s so-called spiritual and healing prowess was built by aggressive and purposeful public relations directed not at the poor from our urban ghettos or despoiled rural backwaters. Rather, these are middle class, affluent, educated, and sophisticated youth. A network of branch heads in some southern Indian cities and those in the United States, mostly non-resident Indians with deep pockets helped Nithyananda catapult to spiritual stardom. It would not be out of place to point out here that the website of one of Nithyananda’s subsidiary organisations in US suggests that more than a spiritual enterprise the Nithyananda mission is commercial enterprise.
Brief interviews with some of Nithyananda’s disciples at his ashram near Bangalore and over telephone, with the primary question “what drew you to his order?,” elicited confused response. Emails from followers in support of Nithyananda were also important sources to understand what attracted the youth to his alternative spiritual system that offered a radical world view in distinction from the common culture, with explicit sanctions in regard to one’s behaviour, with a strong emphasis on separatism from the ‘world at large’ that is reflected in some degree of small group communality ranging from total communal living to frequent communal gatherings.
The standard replies typically comprised two strains of belief: a) he helped heal their physical ailments and psychological distress and b) we experienced truth and enlightenment, two very abstract concepts that souls far greater and intellectual than ‘Nithyananda, our Master’ have not been able to fathom within the context of Indian philosophy.
The likes of sundry other self-proclaimed television-propelled godmen have, in their own distinctive styles, tried to peddle Indian spirituality, with their base and esoteric twists, to a gullible audience within India and abroad.
They have met with varied levels of successes and then faded away as the spiritual ferment, shaped in large part by globalisation and television, spawned other unconventional, secretive and deviant cult movements. They were sought to be given legitimacy and acceptability within society by obtaining the crucial backing of political parties and enlisting the support of the rich and the powerful, an approach that has almost always benefited the organisations in more ways than one.
But such groups have often elicited extreme hostility and distrust and have, moreover, been perceived as fundamentally subversive of civil order and the ideals of Hinduism. To some extent, part of the popular uproar about cult groups such as Nithyananda’s comes from bewildered, frightened and angry parents and other elders who cannot comprehend why the youth, otherwise socialised into the mainstream of society with many seeming advantages, should abandon their cultural and religious heritage to enter such ‘separate reality.’
The Nithyananda cult operated as a surrogate extended family and provided novel, if questionable, therapeutic and spiritual alternatives that confer meaning on individual lives and experiences, even if the devotees were deluded into believing so because of their existential vacuum. In doing so, he and some of his close confidantes exploited the weaknesses of existing institutions like Hinduism, family and modern psychiatry.
This is not to say that cults necessarily threaten the social order. After all, people are at liberty to exercise their preference for one religious movement for another. But what may endanger society is the return to obscurantism, superstition and blind faith that once constituted the bane of India.
A study of Nithyananda’s cultic order — the reference to an ‘energised banyan tree’ and ‘energised puja items,’ besides a host of weird teaching practices that go toward deification of the occult — indicates that its devotees, drunk on their ‘sadguru,’ their ‘Enlightened Master’ of merely seven years’ experience, should exercise some caution in distinguishing between the truly pious and the charlatan.