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Can Hindus Self-Govern Competitively? Lessons from the Nithyananda Scandal

The Christian Church has the longest continuous history of governance, with a tremendous track record of protecting its interests under all circumstances. Its history of corporate governance is not only remarkable amongst religions but also when compared to commercial multinational corporations. Most people are unaware that it was the Church that first invented many of the corporate management procedures, norms and laws in use today by multinational corporations. The Church floated the first commercial multinationals as well, such as the Knights Templar, centuries before the British East India Trading Company and other multinationals emerged using similar methods. For over a decade I have studied with interest the governance systems of various Christian denominations, both formally in seminary courses and through my attendance of various Church conferences. The Church has learned a great deal through trial and error and has thus become robust. The proof lies in its ability to survive even after hundreds of scandals in its history. Its latest scandals involve many thousands of minor children who were sexually abused by hundreds of priests in dozens of scattered locations across the world. This went on for a period of many decades and was systematically covered up by its leadership at the highest levels. Yet the resilience of the Church in protecting itself is amazing.

While Western secularists have led the charge against the Church, India’s so-called secular media, intellectuals, NGOs and government have remained mostly quiet. By comparison with the Church scandal, the relatively lesser abuses by Hindu gurus turn into major sensations as though it was some kind of terrorist attack. (The real terrorists, meanwhile, do not always get hounded with the same intensity.) This is not to defend Swami Nithyananda (“SN”), whose resignation I was the first person to call for many weeks ago. When I did my journalistic investigations in early March this year, I wrote that one of my main interests was to figure out lessons to be learnt about Hindus’ ability to govern their institutions and protect their collective interests in the modern world.

Those who adopt the orthodox posture rigidly (with ridiculous claims like Hindus should not live outside India) also condemn all attempts to professionalize the governance of Hindu institutions. But they must note that Indian laws require compliance with regulations pertaining to trusts, societies and associations that are based almost entirely on Western corporate rules of governance which originated in the Church. In other words, whether we like it or not, it is not Dharmashastras or Arthashastras that provide the legal methods for governance in India. Besides, there is much our gurus can learn from modern corporate governance, and our tradition has a long history of assimilating new ideas from everywhere and adapting itself. Manu himself said that smritis are meant to be revised and rewritten for each period of time and each new context. Parroting old smritis (such as the recent condemnations of Hindus based outside India) might serve narrow selfish interests, but this fossilized approach is not how dharma has functioned for many millennia. There is a clear history of dharma that shows change and evolution, many trial and error approaches, speculative writings and debates, and so forth.

The scandal of SN provided an opportunity to test how Hindus might collectively respond in crisis management, what mechanisms and institutions they might have along the lines of the World Council of Churches and various other bodies that other world religions have developed. Could a Hindu body be brought in to play a responsible role, either an institution or a panel of elders, such that there would be fair play by the system and not prosecution by an utterly biased and corrupt media? This would not be in lieu of courts but alongside them, as a sort of voice of authenticity adding objectivity and analysis in support of the legal due process.

What I discovered in this inquiry confirmed my worst fears: Hindus have no such mechanism, nor is one likely to emerge in the near future, especially given the voices that tend to block such moves. There were several individuals who did perform commendably in their personal capacities trying to help bring dharmic justice. I am referring to individuals who took the time and interest for several days, trying to understand the various facets and dimensions of the saga, and who acted with impeccable honor, clarity, morality and without any selfish interests. Yet these noble attempts failed. Why? And what can we learn from this? There are several complex factors that make Hinduism dysfunctional when it comes to collective action in the kurukshetra compared to Christian, Islamic, Marxist/Subaltern and miscellaneous opportunistic identities.

The closest Hindu body to the World Council of Churches is the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, and it was disinterested in playing such a role. The role is critical it felt, but HDAS was not in a position to perform it. My sense is that despite a decade of Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s commendable attempts, this body is still not robust enough to garner the wide support needed in such a controversial matter. It deserves support to strengthen itself further. The Church mechanisms were not built overnight. (Interestingly, HDAS got attacked by some Hindu journalists charging that it was trying to meddle in the matter, but the facts are just the opposite – HDAS senior persons felt right away that it would not get involved. For a rebuttal to these attackers see the article by Jayakumar.) But there were numerous elders, both sadhus and civic leaders, who did make an honest attempt in their personal capacities to see if some collective actions could work out. More than SN personally, it was a matter of larger Hindu interests at stake. Some felt that SN should go away for at least five years and leave his institution in the hands of another sadhu who he would select. This would bring continuity to the lives of the hundreds of young men and women who did nothing wrong, but who stand to lose a lot having left everything and joined as ashramites or as other full-time disciples. It would keep the non-Hindu groups from getting control over the properties which had been funded by the pocketbooks of Hindu donors worldwide.

Such problem-solving attempts involve extensive consultations, meetings, negotiations and navigating amidst multiple egos and agendas – all without any predictable outcome in the end. This demands risk taking and leadership. The Church took centuries to develop its robustness, with considerable enterprise by numerous risk takers. Are Hindus willing to go through such processes that are not instant successes and bring no personal benefit? There were indeed those who saw the multiple issues at stake and were able to separate them out, but others felt that the moral issue had to get resolved first and until then no other progress could take place. The facts available were murky and unreliable all along. Without being able to interview each of the persons directly involved – at least SN, Ranjitha and any other women potentially involved, and Lenin – what we had were conflicting stories that kept changing from one day to the next. SN did not make his position clear enough, and nor was he consistent in what he said to various persons from one day to the next. Each new rumor or allegation, including many ridiculous ones, became media opportunities to regurgitate the scandal. From the legal side as well, reliable information was unavailable. Many media allegations of criminal complaints were outright fabrications because the police said that no such complaint had been made by anyone.

SN missed a great opportunity for a potential solution that would have received backing from many Hindu elders, when he verbally accepted the resignation idea (and even said so in an interview which his inner circle later decided not to post online), but later told his inner circle that this resignation would be a sham. This appeared to be duplicity and upset many who had tried so hard to negotiate among a wobbly, unwieldy lot of Hindu leaders. It is not surprising that many individuals who had meant well started to walk away and returned to their normal lives, exhausted from the grueling process and frustrated at the roadblocks at every turn. Hindus seem to be their own worst enemies.
SN’s inner circle was also feeling tremendous personal stress and risk, and gradually, more and more persons started to walk away. Some had economic pressures to support themselves, once it became clear that the organization would not be teaching courses in the near future that bring the cash required to support approximately 200 ashramites. Others felt ashamed at the scandal as relatives and friends questioned their choices in life. There were those who felt betrayed that SN had abandoned them and not been in contact. Yet others felt side tracked because they no longer enjoyed the authority in the organization. Some left without a grudge purely to protect themselves. Others turned from bhakti and seva into virulent hatred against him. What he needed in the inner circle were logical persons rather than emotional ones, and strong personalities who could tell him what was on their minds rather than the blind idol worship commonly given to gurus.

My theory is that there were three kinds of reasons for a person being attracted to him prior to the scandal. (1) Those whose closeness was based on having had experiences (in meditation or healing) had something to take away; hence their relationship with SN had not been a total loss. Such persons did not turn hostile even after they left him. Many of them continue the meditations and plan to do so – they can separate the techniques he taught from the rest of him. (2) Others did not get any such experiences and their relationship was purely based on blind faith that he was Paramhansa, hence infallible. It was bhakti based, which he encouraged. The crisis tore such devotees from deep within as they had become very emotionally dependent upon him. Some of them enjoyed a high status in his presence and this boosted their own personal egos and gave them stature. The downfall of SN became their personal downfall as well. They feel deeply betrayed so they lashed out. (3) The third category saw him as someone who had great potential to help dharma counteract some of the threats it faces in the modern kurukshetra. Their disappointment is not as intense as he is one among many leaders and they must simply move on.

I did not have guru-devotion (i.e. the second category) and told him so on many occasions. He had no problem teaching meditation to those who did not consider him their personal guru. This is why I have been more objective, able to separate out different kinds of issues and judge each independently. (It is ironic that when I called for his resignation based on the facts at the time (which are now being validated publicly), many Hindu “activists” angrily hounded me with insinuations like “Jaichand” (traitor), and yet these persons had NO link with SN whatsoever, none of the three kinds I have mentioned above. They knew hardly anything of his teaching, had never met him, and yet felt authoritative in making sweeping judgments. This is armchair Hindu activism at its worst.)

The legal case will not be easy to solve, as rushing to judgment would be dangerous. For sure, the authorities are under great pressure to incriminate him on whatever grounds it takes. As regards the “sex contracts” mentioned in the media, I wrote long ago that I saw one with my own eyes. It is not a contract saying something like, “Let’s have sex, baby!” It’s a corporate style Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) that all employees sign in most large corporations. It covers the standard things like protecting all the intellectual property of the corporation, ensuring that trade secrets of various techniques and teachings are not turned into any ashramite’s personal property, that there is no conflict-of-interest activity such as starting one’s own teaching practice on the side, and so forth. It tries to prevent someone from walking away with the meditation techniques and becoming a guru, as has happened to numerous gurus in the past. In this 5 page contract, there is a small portion on sex. It is carefully worded that some of the techniques the individual may choose to participate in are Tantra based and these may include sexual contact. I was told that this NDA was drafted by an American corporate lawyer. When I confronted a senior insider for details (who is an elderly married man living in the ashram with his wife), he remarked that even he had signed the same NDA, though he never had sex with SN. It was something signed by lots of persons as a standard corporate NDA. So, contrary to all the media hype these days, merely having signed the NDA does not equate to having had sex. Time will tell whether this NDA will provide legal protection as proof that any alleged sex was between consenting adults. A couple of parents told me of their daughters being compromised by SN. So it was not just in the case of Ranjitha. But there was no intercourse claimed by them; they charged other kinds of sexual contact and inappropriate touching.

I would like to separate two periods in my understanding of SN – before March 2 and after March 2 of 2010. That was the date when the scandal broke out. Until that date, I had no clue of it, and like most others I was very impressed by his meditation teachings. I cannot comment on the charges being made because my information is indirect via various others, and every account I heard seems to have missing pieces in the story. So I will wait for the courts to do their due process and will not take the media reports at face value. But after the March 2 event, I do have direct information about how SN has conducted himself. His post March 2 track record of making judgments has been very disappointing. For instance, he is now in jail only on the charge that he failed to show up for a court summons to answer questions. There was no FIR (criminal complaint) against him, only a summons to answer questions. Why did he not show up and answer questions as a free man, rather than being arrested for not showing up and then having to answer questions? Also, why did he persistently approach the man accusing him and try to negotiate a settlement, even though he was being taped all along? Why did he disappear from the scene rather than address his followers when the scandal broke? Most disappointing is his judgment of who he selected and trusted to be close to him, his vacillations on various positions when questioned, and the erratic way he jumped around on what course he would follow. I found him confused, not the crystal clear teacher he had been earlier.

This is a case of multi-faceted truths. Jainism has a remarkable philosophy of the multifaceted nature of truth, called Anekāntavāda. This means avoidance of one point of view only, and accepting that multiple facets of the truth might not add up to a conclusion in one binary dimension – like true/false or good/bad. From my first writings of the SN saga, I have emphasized that the matter involves multiple aspects, and these cannot be collapsed by reductionism. Syādvāda is a highly developed Jaina methodology that systematically applies this principle. It requires the observer to maintain healthy skepticism, reasonable doubt, pluralistic outcomes, and hold on to even what might appear to be contradictions. One should always be open to new data that might provide fresh insights. It would be good for those trying to rush to judgment on such episodes to examine this philosophy with an open mind. Unfortunately, some self-appointed journalists operating as “Hindu authorities” have used Semitic methods of reductionism and dogmatic approaches to box in the dharma.

Returning to the issue of corporate governance, the goal to unify Hindu groups in social-political matters is necessary if Hinduism is to survive. This is what Manu and other past leaders would want us to do in today’s world. But this entails inculcating Kshatriya competence among a large number of individuals. Some loud mouthed journalists have tried to apply orthodox Brahmin norms to such issues without realizing that these challenges fall under the realm of Kshatriyata. This means it’s irrelevant whether a kshatriya leader today got his “adhikar” certified by a given orthodox sampradaya. Such critics lack even the basic experience in modern governance or management. Hindus have centuries of catching up to do in this regard. Under the colonial rule of Muslims and then Christians, the Kshatriyata was deliberately depleted. After all, any foreign ruler would suspect the Kshatriyas as a threat to him. Brahmins by themselves are not a political threat.

Such a revival entails courageous experimentation, risk taking, enterprising attempts to engage the real issues as and when they happen. It cannot be done from the sidelines browsing in cyberspace and issuing email pronouncements and petition blogs. One has to get one’s hands dirty with field work in order to learn. It also involves getting inside the large scale institutional management of other religions in order to learn their strengths and weaknesses as well what we could borrow from them. This is not casual stuff and demands serious commitment on a full-time basis for many years. Most challenging of all, expect no help from Hindus, but lots of suspicion, blame and arrows from bystanders who have little to contribute positively.

I won’t speculate whether some of these “Hindu journalists” are double agents. But I wish to point out that at least one person named Khalid Azam, a devout opponent of Hinduism, has started to circulate the attacks by these “Hindu journalists” against Hindu leaders and institutions. He feels this will help him rally support against Hinduism. The spirit of samvad requires that debate within the dharma must be done with fairness and use of accurate information, not blind accusations based on false “conspiracy theories” and blatantly incorrect information. Unfortunately, this has not been the habit of those claiming to have the monopolistic adhikar to speak for Hinduism. Even when errors have been clearly pointed out to them, they have persisted in their attacks.

In the absence of competent leadership that can build teamwork, Hinduism faces a bleak future in a world filled with civilization clashes.