Noted cult abuse lawyer Carol Merchasin has filed a lawsuit on behalf of several victims against Siddha yoga, Gurumayi, and Swami Muktananda. Gurumayi is the guru Elizabeth Gilbert visits in her book Eat, Pray, Love.
Be Scofield is the author of the new book Hunting Lucifer: One Reporter's Search for Cults and Demons. Her cult reporting is mentioned in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, People, and has been turned into HBO, Netflix, Dr. Phil, VICE, and more.
By BE SCOFIELD
December 1st, 2023
A new lawsuit filed on November 22nd, 2023 by three women alleges a series of abuses by Swami Muktanada including rape, sexual assault, and cultic abuses during the 1970s and 80s. It also alleges followers were required to provide free labor often in a “rigorous,” and sometimes “grueling” schedule. Those who lived in Muktananda’s ashrams were told “exactly where to sleep, eat, work, worship” and think according to the lawsuit. Followers who challenged the dictates were punished with “public humiliation, shaming, threats and physical harm.”
The lawsuit alleges Muktananda "sexually abused and raped dozens of his female followers, both women and girls" and that Siddha Yoga including Gurumayi aided the abuses. Gurumayi would "assign teenage girls and young women to the rooms closest to his living quarters." Siddha yoga members witnessed young girls coming and going from his room at night.
The lawsuit alleges a pattern of grooming girls as well. Once targeted by Muktananda, he and his inner circle would shower them with "praise, gifts, and invitations to sit closer." They were taught to be obedient to Muktananda.
Plaintiff Doe alleges Muktananda told her at the age of 14 "Top Secret" and proceeded to hug, kiss, and digitally penetrate her and rape her over several different nights. The lawsuit alleges he continued similar sexual assaults "once or twice" per week. When she was 16, 17 and 18 Muktananda continued to sexually abuse and rape her.
"As early as January 1978, Gurumayi became aware that Muktananda was raping Doe," the lawsuit alleges. Gurumayi was second in command and later became the head of SYDA, the organization that oversees Siddha yoga. Muktananda died in 1982 and Gurumayi took over. She had been initiated by him at the age of 14.
"In public, he announced that he was celibate, insisting that sexual acts took away from spiritual energy," reported Salon.com in 2010 about Muktananda. "But in private, a parade of girls would be trooping in and out of his bedroom all night." The Salon article titled, The "Eat, Pray, Love" guru's troubling past, reveals Gurumayi was the guru she visits in her book. Gurumayi was one of Muktananda's chief enablers of sexual abuse.
Another follower, Joan Bridges, alleges in the lawsuit forceful groping, kissing, sexual abuse and rape. Years later when she had the strength to report the abuse, she told Gurumayi's assistant, Panna Hamilton. Bridges was heavily interrogated about her allegations and was scolded by Hamilton for speaking out. Hamilton warned Bridges "once again to keep quiet."
Katherine Stern alleges in the lawsuit that Muktananda raped her in 1980 when she was 19-years-old. The lawsuit explains:
"Muktananda led Stern to his bedroom. He ordered Stern to take off her underpants, and led her to an alcove with a high, narrow table resembling a doctor's examining table, with a bright light above it. He told her to get on the table, lie back, and move her hips forward. When she did lie back, Stern closed her eyes due to the blinding bright light.
Muktananda took his penis, which was flaccid, and holding it in his hand he forcibly penetrated her vagina. He rolled his eyes to the ceiling, wagging his penis with one hand. Stern felt both revulsion and dismay. After the assault concluded, Muktananda told her to put her underpants back on. He led her to a dresser that had a pile of jewelry on it. Muktananda gave her a gold ring."
When Stern left SYDA in December 1980 she told one of the leaders it was due to his sexual abuses. "The leader did not express surprise," the lawsuit states. "Instead, this leader encouraged Stern to see the abuse as an opportunity to serve Muktananda."
The lawsuit against SYDA alleges key leaders enabled and covered up Muktananda's abuses for years. It claims, "SYDA provided Muktananda with, or arranged Muktananda to be provided with, women and girls, including Plaintiffs, knowing that he would isolate and sexually abuse them."
Plaintiffs suffered, "serious personal injuries, emotional distress, mental pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and/or physical manifestations thereof, and other losses."
"I said a few words in defense of someone whom Gurumayi was berating," writes Daniel Shaw who was a Gurumayi follower. "From then on, Gurumayi began speaking to me with searing contempt and derision. After 6 months of being exposed to her relentless, caustic denigration" Shaw was expelled from the ashram but coerced to continue doing extensive work for SYDA by Gurumayi. He is now a cult abuse expert and author of Traumatic Narcissism.
For years sexual abuse allegations have been made against Muktananda. This lawsuit by Carol Merchasin of Mcallister Olivarius LLC is the first attempt to seek legal damages against his SYDA organization.