Authors’ Note: This article is in no way sanctioned by Siddha Yoga nor has it been written in collaboration with any other official or unofficial members of Siddha Yoga.
We are writing this article in order to introduce a new way of understanding the late spiritual teacher, Swami Muktananda (1908-1982), who was famous and highly influential in his time, but whose legacy was later tarnished by a series of documented cases of sexual contact with young women in his community (Caldwell, Link 4 and Rodarmor, Link 2).
We feel our perspective is important, for reasons we’ll explain. To our knowledge no similar perspective about the last six years of Muktananda’s life exists in any published description in print or on the internet, despite the great deal that has been written about him.
We should also make clear our relationship to this topic: We have both been a part of the Siddha Yoga community—the name given by Muktananda to his spiritual tradition—since the early 1990s, under one of Muktananda’s appointed successors, Gurumayi Chidvilasanda.
Neither of us met Muktananda or were present for the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. While we have both been active and serious students in Siddha Yoga, neither of us has occupied a place in the administration or inner circle of the community.
Our connection to the tradition now is through our spiritual practices and study of Siddha writings, particularly since the public and community activities of Siddha Yoga have slowed greatly in the past 10 to 15 years.
Our hypothesis about Muktananda comes out of our respective roles as a practicing psychologist (Forman) and a psychiatrist (Fishelman) who have been deeply and positively impacted by Muktananda’s tradition and work and yet who have also—like so many—struggled to make sense of his later-life actions and somewhat tarnished legacy.
Our central hypothesis about Muktananda was first conceived by Fishelman in the mid-1990s, but has been spurred into writing now by the recently published piece by Karen Schaefer (Swami Dayananda; Link 1), who was a close disciple of Muktananda’s during his later years. In it, she has provided a highly detailed account of Muktananda’s life and particularly his physical health from 1975 until his death in 1982.
Before we begin, it is worthwhile to introduce to those unfamiliar or those outside of the Siddha Yoga community why we feel our new perspective about Muktananda is so important, even many years after his death.
Muktananda was, by most accounts, not simply one more Eastern guru making his way into a newly open, post 1960s West. He was instead considered by many a “guru’s guru” —a person of extraordinary energy, charisma, and teaching ability who had a widely reported capacity to catalyze intense spiritual growth in so many who came in contact with him.
His community numbered in the many thousands and he was skilled in its practical day-to-day operations.
The list of figures who at one time or another sought him out is long and also testifies (at least in one sense) to his importance. Amongst just the well-known spiritual leaders who sought out or deeply praised Muktananda were Ram Dass, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM, Carlos Casteneda, Joseph Chilton Pierce, Da Free John (later Adi Da), Werner Earnard of EST, and Rudi (Rudrananda).
The list of well-known celebrities who engaged with Muktananda included California Governor Jerry Brown, Indira Gandi, John Denver, Isabella Rossellini, Diana Ross, James Taylor, and astronaut Edgar Mitchell (who would later found the Institute of Noetic Sciences).
What made Muktananda singular was not simply a matter of being famous or of being highly sought out; although he could be quite playful and charismatic, he was better characterized as an austere and commanding teacher who was not given to coddling students or creating a cushy environment for spiritual practice.
Instead, what set him apart was his ability to catalyze the spiritual growth in ways that were both astonishing and also, in the broad sense, neurophysiological. This, it should be said, will end up being one of the ironies of our argument.
By neurophysiological, we mean that people experienced spirituality around Muktananda in tangible, sensory ways. Miles apart from the abstract faiths in which many of us were raised, Muktananda widely introduced a spirituality to the West in which his students felt strong spiritual energies in the body and had spiritual visions and awarenesses of intense clarity.
These did not simply last for highly charged gatherings, but often continued to unfold over time, resulting in many of the higher insights and spiritual changes that he claimed were described clearly in yogic and Vedic scriptures.
According to a huge number of formally and informally published accounts, Muktananda was a person who could catalyze others who dedicated themselves to become enlightened in the yogic sense of the term. He was a guru who both promised and greatly delivered access to heightened spiritual awareness.
All of this has made the questions of his behavior that much more troubling, and they have deeply impacted many.
How could a man of such apparently extraordinary insight and discipline—a man who walked around India from ages 15 to 39 in search of a spiritual teacher, and once he met a teacher who he felt was the right one, meditated at his instruction for six hours a day in a small hut for nine straight years—behave in such a way?
Why would someone with a record of prolonged and intense celibacy suddenly, around the usually not sexually-charged age of 68, start to engage sexually with young women?
The theories that have been offered exist along a continuum. At one extreme, some have painted Muktananda simply as a “fallen guru” who succumbed to the temptations of power and used his personal gravitas as an opportunity to treat others as sexual objects.
On the other end of spectrum, some have argued that Muktananda was secretly engaging in unconventional tantric sexual practices late in his life which were found in his tantric tradition, but that were commonly hidden from the public, who received more orthodox spiritual teachings. Some writers have admirably attempted to weave something of a middle ground between both of these perspectives—including Sarah Caldwell (Link 4), Karen Schaefer (Swami Dayananda) (Link 1), and to a lesser extent Lis Harris (Link 3).
These complex accounts are welcome especially given the unusual and sometimes strange reports by the victims of Muktananda’s sexual transgressions. The sexuality involved only sometimes resembled typical intercourse or typical sexual touch, because, as we’ll discuss, Muktananda suffered from severe sexual impotence.
In our view, we would not discount either of these perspectives out of hand or suggest that only one explanation can be true. Indeed, both could be true—both the unhealthy exploitation of power and engaging in unorthodox spirituality—with each accounting for some aspect of the situation. However, we feel that at least one other perspective is woefully missing from even the best and most complex accountings of Muktananda’s later life and actions. And this is the perspective that we are offering.
This then leads us to the largely untold medical story of Swami Muktananda.
Swami Muktananda and Stroke
By the time Muktananda was at the peak of his renown as a teacher in the mid-1970s, he was approaching 70 years old. He had previously led an austere life in rural and pre-modern parts of India, far outside the reach of advanced Western medicine, both culturally and practically speaking. He certainly did not believe himself to be immune from eventual sickness, old age and death. Indeed, the inevitability of sickness and death are intrinsic aspects of the yogic tradition of which he was a part.
So although he was a man of reportedly uncommon energy and vigor well into his 60s, he was also suffering from diabetes. And being diabetic significantly raises—as much as doubles—a person’s odds of having heart disease or stroke. This is due to the fact that the diabetic body has a reduced ability to handle sugar in the blood system. This leads to increased fatty deposits along with artery walls. Diabetes also increases the risk of seizure.
True to form, in 1975 Muktananda had his first of these serious medical problems: he experienced several seizures and a major stroke which landed him in the hospital. Following his recovery, he suffered significant angina (heart pain) in 1977 and later that year had a massive heart attack which also required lengthy hospitalization.
This was followed by about five years of continued struggle with his cardiovascular health that culminated with a final heart attack in 1982 which took his life. While the general nature and outline of his health problems were known in the Siddha community—they were not secret—only recently has one of his close disciples at the time, Karen Schaefer (Swami Dayananda) (Link 1), published a much more detailed account of his health travails and his subsequent positive and negative actions during those years.
This leads us to the issue we wish to address: It is a well-known fact of medical science that strokes and damage to the brain can cause dramatic changes to personality and behaviour.
While these impacts vary depending on the specific area or areas of the brain most damaged by the stroke, they tend to result in issues with:
1) emotional self-regulation—the ability to control and appropriately address emotions
2) impulse-control—the ability to monitor and appropriately control urges, desires, and behavior
3) executive-functioning—the ability to make reasoned and sound life decisions
Put more plainly, the issues that result from stroke often come in the form of uncharacteristic anger and irritability, acting-out of various kinds, including hypersexuality, and questionable or objectively poor life choices whereas before there was more sound decision-making.
In short, Muktananda displayed all three of these issues and they all either began or apparently timed with this first stroke.
According to Stan Trout (Swami Abhayananda) (Link 2), who was instrumental in first exposing Muktananda’s sexual behaviors in the early 1980s, Muktananda’s first reported sexual indiscretions occurred in 1976, a year after his stroke. His temper issues during this period have been widely reported and are also something of a community legend, although the exact beginning of the these issues is less clear.
His decision-making was also highly questionable during this period. Especially noteworthy was his choice to not stop or even really curtail his teaching activities even after he became very ill, despite the strong advice of medical doctors. In reality, he continued to minister to people while even in the hospital and his fame and teaching schedule were generally sustained or intensified during his later years. This, while easily interpreted to be either a sign of his spiritual greatness on one hand or an inflated ego on the other—and both have been argued—may have been a decision that was driven in-part by problems in executive functioning (decision-making) and difficulty with emotional self-regulation.
What is key to emphasize, however, is that Muktananda did not simply have a single stroke in 1975. Including his heart attack in 1977, he had ongoing, persistent cardiovascular issues all along the way.
This brings us to the heart of our argument, one that is hypothetical but that is grounded in cautious and well-accepted medical knowledge: Muktananda was likely suffering the early signs of brain damage from multiple cerebral “infarcts.” An “infarct” is a tissue-injury suffered through the loss of blood flow after a stroke or heart attack (a heart attack is known by physicians as an “MI” or myocardial infarction). This damage is often silent (not noticed), but it often leads to impairment in judgment and emotional regulation as it proceeds to a type of dementia called multi-infarct dementia.
Multi-infarct dementia involves multiple, permanent injuries to the brain following a series of strokes. It is the second leading cause of dementia following Alzheimer’s disease and is more common in men than in women. This usually involves many asymptomatic, “silent strokes”—which we would guess Muktananda experienced—as well as occasionally more severe strokes such as the one Muktananda had in 1975.
Diabetes is again a major risk factor for multi-infarct dementia.
Although Muktananda survived his initial stroke and subsequent heart attack, and continued to work at great intensity for the next five years, his cardiovascular issue and diabetes continued. Thus he would have been at especially high risk for this kind of continued brain-tissue damage and degradation of his executive functioning, emotional self-regulation, and impulse control.
Beyond even silent and non-silent strokes, the simple fact of heart or blood vessel problems of any kind can create an impact in brain functioning. This is simple to understand. The brain relies on constant and consistent blood flow. Any problems in blood flow in the body may contribute over time to poorer mental functioning. Muktananda was at risk of brain tissue damage from conditions both obvious and unnoticed. Had he lived longer, our guess is that his mental health issues would have become even more pronounced and progressed to a more obvious multi-infarct dementia.
These issues with cardiovascular health also connect to sexual impotence (the inability to achieve an erection), which requires healthy arteries in the body. And by all accounts, in his sexual episodes, Muktananda demonstrated complete and incurable impotence.
This issue of sexuality and spiritual energy is one that is also tied to and complicates this story. Muktananda wrote at great length in his spiritual autobiography, “Play of Consciousness” (Link 5) about the importance of celibacy and the sublimation of sexual energy in a guru’s ability to transmit spiritual energy and spiritual experience to others.
As has been suggested by Karen Shaefer (Swami Dayananda; Link 1), older male tantric teachers—both Hindu and Buddhist—have often taken younger female consorts as a way to boost their spiritual energy as they age. Indeed, according to Shaefer’s report, Muktananda would have sexual episodes prior to events where he needed to teach and transmit such energy.
Obviously such a belief is far outside of any spiritual tradition that we Westerners are familiar with, unless we are very familiar with tantra. And we won’t take up the question of whether such a belief carries real merit or is simply tantric superstition. For our purposes, we would only want to argue that Muktananda’s engagement in these sexual activities might have made sense to him, and yet been undertaken with his compromised faculties at the time.
For a man of his fame with a community of thousands, but who was sexually impotent, to repeatedly take a risk such as this shortly after a major stroke—for the first time in his life at almost 70 years of age—we believe supports our hypothesis that he was having significant issues involving his judgment, at least, and perhaps with impulse control as well.
The Transcendent vs. the Brain
As we mentioned, Muktananda did not subscribe to a vision of holy men or yogis in which they were entirely spared disease or the impacts of old age. He himself was an Ayurvedic physician earlier in life—the traditional system of Indian medicine—and was reported as being scrupulous in regards to his own health in terms of diet and physical activity and often counseled others in this same way.
However, it is certainly part of the tradition Muktananda grew up in that, although the body might be ravaged by disease, the mind of a great yogi can transcend being harmed through his or her highly developed spiritual faculties. This belief is still with us today in some circles.
The body may be ill, but the mind stays unperturbed and unaffected. Muktananda appears to have held some version of this traditional belief and, subjectively speaking, seems to have experienced this. He is reported by Karen Schaefer (Dayananda) (Link 1) to have denied the ill-effects of his stroke and heart attack on his mental state and suggested that they revealed to him new levels of fearlessness after having these major confrontations with death. This idea is present in other writings about his health struggles as well.
This idea that Muktananda was largely unaffected by these conditions also appears to have been the perception of many people around him. For those who argue that Muktananda was carrying out tantric sexual rites during this time, they seem to believe that his doing so was an entirely conscious choice (rightly or wrongly) of a fully intact mind.
Similarly, for those who feel Muktananda simply became a sexual predator, they too seem to ascribe to his actions the full moral weight of a man making conscious choices that hurt others.
But both of these views should be seen as questionable—or at least be softened considerably—given that this was a man who had a very serious set of brain-impacting health conditions. Either loss of self-control around sex (hypersexuality) and power, or an uncharacteristic move towards unorthodox sexual-spirituality, could be led by compromised executive function and impulse control due to some form of brain injury such as he had experienced.
There is bound to be confusion for a layperson, and likely for many who were around Muktananda at the time, about our hypothesis. Didn’t he seem just fine, if a little weakened, after these health problems? He didn’t seem to undergo drastic outer changes after his stroke, such as those that have famously impacted Ram Dass. But stroke and heart disease don’t impact any two people the same way. The exact areas that of the brain that suffer infarcts can be very different and much of what makes the person “who they are” can remain intact to an outsider while other brain areas are damaged. In Muktananda’s case, he seems to have largely been spared his verbal intelligence as well what might be called his “crystallized intelligence”—the knowledge he had accumulated through years of spiritual training, study, and repeated task-performance.
To our knowledge, Muktananda’s core teaching ability during this period did not decline. He continued to instruct others ably in meditation and to invoke powerful spiritual experiences in those around him, including up to the very last days of his life.
He also continued to give lucid talks and write and publish books on complex spiritual subjects (although, of course, we cannot be sure whether his translators, assistants or editors would have compensated for any decline in his cognitive ability that was becoming apparent). In the end, it would be understandable why those around Muktananda some 30-plus years ago, when our knowledge of the brain was much less advanced than it is now, and who were not medically trained, might believe that they were truly seeing a man mentally unaffected by these severe health conditions.
Obviously our perspective on this topic also begs larger questions about whether the mind ultimately transcends the body. Is the brain merely a conduit for consciousness, and is thus transcendent of it, or is there no consciousness apart from the brain? We are not going to try to answer that age old question here. But from our perspective, it does not really matter. Even if the brain is simply a conduit for consciousness —like a radio that receives radio waves—when we are here, in this body, on this plane, what happens to the brain seems clearly to work in tandem with what happens to the mind. And since much of mental functioning is non-conscious, we can have changes in our mental functioning and not really see it, either because we are stubborn or because the injury itself has compromised our ability to have self-awareness that we might have previously owned.
Conclusion: A More Complete Picture
We have not in any way intended this piece as a way to justify Muktananda’s sexual behavior towards the end of his life. Spiritually motivated or not, his actions were highly regrettable for the young women involved, for his legacy, as well as for many students who were left hurt and confused by his puzzling choices during this time. However, as mental health professionals we deal on a daily basis with complex realities of why people choose to do what they do.
To neglect organic brain damage as a possible contributing factor in poor decision-making or behavior in any case, let alone in one with health problems as severe as Muktananda’s, would be considered deeply misinformed, unethical and unprofessional. Among the very first questions we ask of any person reporting behavioral changes is about their health conditions and any past head injuries.
People hold a certain image of spiritual teachers in which they become almost superheroic beings. There are clear traditions around not criticizing the teacher and attempting to see all their actions as signs of their spiritual teaching. Teachers can sometimes add to this. Muktananda himself delivered mixed message on these issues: sometimes he emphasized the humanity and the morally complex nature of the guru and reality, and at other times seem to emphasize the guru’s infallibility and to wave off all criticism. Whatever the case, it appears that both his supporters and detractors have fully ignored the potential cognitive impacts of his severe health issues, and took either his greatness or his fallibleness during this period at face value.
From our perspective, we believe we can do better and believe we have to consider new viewpoints, especially given our current knowledge of the connection between the mind, body and brain. We can recognize that spiritual teachers may own a true measure of genius and unusual spiritual qualities, while also recognizing that their bodies and minds (and brains) are subject to the very same frailties of any typical person here on earth. Thus when we are considering the behavior of Muktananda towards the end of his life, we have to consider this reality and take it very seriously from a medical perspective. He went from a teacher of widely accepted intelligence, wisdom, and practical life skill to one who was involved in very controversial and unwise actions.
We find it compelling and significant that his behavior changed so dramatically just at the time he suffered such a major brain injury and that he continued to struggle with impulsivity, emotional self-regulation, and poor judgment until the end of his life. This view neither denies his spiritual genius or that he retained many of his gifts and abilities until his death. Neither does it excuses his transgressions. But it does put all of this into a more complete and full picture of Muktananda as a human being.
It is our hope that this piece will offer victims a different perspective and allow students to make more sense of the many blessings Muktananda offered as well as the troubling events that characterized the end of his life.
Caldwell, Sarah (2001). The Heart of the Secret: A Personal and Scholarly Encounter with Shakta Tantrism in Siddha Yoga” (PDF). Nova Religi, 5(1), 9–51.
Dayananda, Swami (Karen Shaefer) (April, 2014) How An Accomplished Yogi Faces Old Age, Sickness, And Death: Observations on my life with Baba. Retrieved from http://themysticsvision.weebly.com/another-perspective-on-baba-muktananda-8-3-14-rev-8-12-14.html
Harris, Lis (14 November 1994). “O Guru, Guru, Guru”. The New Yorker.
Muktananda, Swami (1978). Play of Consciousness. Siddha Yoga Publications.
Rodarmor, William (1983). The Secret Life of Swami Muktananda. CoEvolution Quarterly.
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