Indians active on WhatsApp are no strangers to a certain godman called Nithyananda, he of the bearded visage and ever-present smile, and a treasure trove of hilarious “godman-isms”. His viral videos may have been chuckle fodder for most of us, but apparently, not everyone thinks he should simply be a laughing stock.
This is what forms the basis for the expository narrative behind “My Daughter Joined a Cult”, a 3-part docu-series that has recently aired on Discovery+.
The structure of the series is fairly simple, piecing together a 20-year-long timeline, like parts of a jigsaw puzzle slowly coming together to show a fuller picture.
For most of the part, the expose rests heavily on the tell-all accounts of disenchanted ex-followers of the godman, as well as families of victims.
Sarah Landry, a former devotee of Nithyananda, explained how followers at the ashram were made to do ‘mental gymnastics’ to actually enable them to deny the veracity of the allegations against their guru, even when presented with clear evidence of his guilt.
“If we don’t do as he tells us, we are made to seem like monsters,” she said.
Yet another former disciple, Nara Simha, stated in his Change.org petition, “He has swindled us of our life savings to make millions of dollars and it is believed he has bought a Caribbean island for this pleasure, off the coast of Florida, USA.” The petition goes on to describe the deplorable practices at Nithyananda’s ashram near Bangalore, where young children are subjected to confinement in dark rooms, deprived of food and water for days; all this, under the guise of ‘ashram training’.
The docu-series also talks to journalists and whistle-blowers who present a more public view of the rise of Nithyananda. They also reveal the campaign of harassment that they have been subjected to, for daring to speak out against the self-styled godman or “Paramshiva” as his bhakts like to call him.
Dhanya Rajendaran, the Editor-in-Chief of The News Minute describes the harrowing experience of being stalked and mocked online by followers of Nithyananda. She also expressed happiness that some members are now moving away from the cult. Rajendran believes that it is imperative for more victims to come forward.
Yet another former member of the ashram revealed, on condition of anonymity, that the real secret behind the growth of Nithyananda’s growth is donations, primarily from NRIs abroad as well as from large Hindu business families in India. The donations may either be in the form of hard cash or ‘gifts’ of land to set up new ashrams.
The picture painted by various survivor accounts is one of ghastly horror, reminiscent of 20th-century dystopian novels. If being subjected to hard labor and sleep deprivation sounds bad, wait till you get to know about the more sinister aspects such as encouraging suspicion of each other and forcing children to physically assault other children. Families are split up, each member deliberately assigned tasks that keep them apart from other family members. This is done to make them feel dissociated from each other to the point where people feel that they don’t need their families anymore. Many ex-devotees have attributed their impaired judgement to the constant sleep deprivation they were subjected to, being allowed only 4 hours of sleep per day. A penchant for secrecy, bordering on paranoia, was yet another cog in the machinery that made the ashram run.
Jordan Lozada aka Dhata, a former member, says, “So I distanced myself from my family and bid them farewell. The guru and the ashram were now my new family and this was my new life. I was to dedicate my life, not to the family I was born in, but to the ashram.”
Sangeeta, an ashram member, died in 2015 of a purported cardiac arrest. However, Sangeeta’s mother, Jansi Rani, believes otherwise, claiming that her daughter was being harassed. Her account also reveals the extent of brainwashing that goes into controlling the devotees.
“One day my daughter told me that she wanted to join meditation classes for 1 month at the ashram. At the same time, the video of guruji’s sexual contact with his bhakts went viral. When we came to know about it, we tried to convince her to quit the classes and come home, but she refused. She simply picked up her belongings and left home, saying she’ll return after 10 days. After 11 days, we went to the ashram to meet her and saw her wearing khadi clothes. That was the last time I saw her,” recounts Jansi Rani.
An unnamed devotee said, “You are taught to blame yourself for everything that happens to you. If you don’t do so, you are admonished and even abused by the administrators and even Nithyananda himself. The penance for any mistake is severe punishment.”
Yet another anonymous ex-member states, “Once you have entered the ashram you are trained to avoid contact with your family and friends.”
Lenin Karuppan, a former close aide turned whistle-blower, reveals, “Right now inside the ashram, they still believe he is a god. He claims to be a God who is searching for the true devotees and that the difficulties faced by the devotees are simply a test. At this point, the devotees only see one facet of Nithyananda. The truth is that he abused me. He abused at least 30-40 women and many men as well. Nithyananda compares himself to Lord Krishna and says that the women are his gopis”.
The docu-series underline, very clearly, the sort of harassment that people are targeted with when they choose to reveal the truth about wrongdoing, be it in the world of ashrams or corporations, or anywhere else. That’s because anonymity is hard to come by, in this day and age.
However, in this era, Hood stands out as a platform that allows all members to do just that: hide their identity. The platform focuses on what is being spoken or revealed, not on who is doing it. This dissociation from a real-world identity means that those who wish to speak out against anything now have a platform to divulge the secrets they were so far afraid to tell.