Trapped in a religious cult: One woman’s story of sexual exploitation at the hands of a ‘guru’
Until, the guru who was in the room, suddenly hugged her. As he held her close, she panicked and ran out.
But she was told that the guru was not sexually harassing her, it was his exalted soul reaching out to her soul that deserved to be elevated.
The guru’s first ‘blessings’ to her were the start of her long nightmare.
As a 25-year-old working in a multinational in 2007, Veena* had everything going for her. She had a flourishing career where the money was good, and a loving husband.
And yet, she felt there was something amiss.
“On the surface, I had everything. I had all the reasons to be happy. But at some point, I realised that just looking after myself was not enough. I had grown up believing that life has a higher purpose. So, I thought, ‘Can I do more with my degree? Can I use my knowledge to help people?’,” she says.
Little did she know then that this yearning would drag her down a dark path, one from which she is still struggling to recover.
How I joined a cult
During a trip home in a state in south India the same year, Veena first came across ‘guruji’ on a spiritual channel her parents were watching. He was a Hindu godman, touted as a brahmachari.
She was instantly impressed.
“He was talking about dealing with challenges in life. What struck me most was the way he spoke. It was very clear, sensible and funny,” she recalls.
Since guruji’s ashram was nearby, she decided to pay a visit.
“It seemed like a nice place. Very peaceful and spiritual, bereft of any grandeur. He was travelling abroad then, and I couldn’t personally meet him. I picked up some books on meditation from the ashram,” she says.
The books were in essence similar to most spiritual books — they revolved around expressing love, finding happiness and contentment.
“It appealed to me because it was not close minded or too religious. Perhaps anyone who practices these may find peace,” she now thinks.
To top that, guruji’s disciples would make anyone around him think that the energy they felt was merely because of their leader’s presence. And yet it was never in-your-face. “As I understood later, the technique used was a very subtle psychological influence.”
And it worked, because a year later, the educated, independent woman quit her job to work full-time for guruji.
Though the common misconception is that only ‘crazy, unstable, or weird people’ join cults, a paper published in the Cultic Studies Journal by Janja Lalich, has shown that most cult members are of above-average intelligence, come from stable backgrounds, and do not have a history of psychological illness.
“Cult leaders and cult recruiters tend to capture the hearts, minds, and souls of the best and brightest in our society,” the research says.
“A marketing guy”
India has no dearth of self-styled godmen, and there have been a string of incidents involving gurus, and their alleged role in sexual assault, extortion and cheating.
“Our family too had gurus but all of them were revered long after their death. So, it took some time to believe that a living person could also attain the same status. He made us believe he was one of those rare living gurus of our generation. He told us that if we prayed to him, all our wishes would come true,” Veena says.
She also calls him a great marketing guy. “He just sells himself so well. If you attend one of his programmes, you’ll be dying to attend the next one as well.”
The ambience would only add to the aura.
Sucked into a vortex
“Why do you want to quit your job? You are so young. You can do this on the side,” Veena’s concerned family told her when she informed them of her plans to embark on her spiritual journey.
“But I was so sure,” she says. “I felt so strongly about joining a spiritual group to spread happiness and peace through meditation and spirituality.”
Soon, she became part of a select group of people who worked closely with the godman and looked after the running of his empire.
“It was a big privilege to touch his belongings. One day, I was told that I could clean his room. From then on, I would clean his room every day. During one such occasion, he was there in the room. He hugged me. Not in a way a guru would, but just as a man would hug a woman he was interested in,” she says.
A terrified Veena ran out. But she was summoned again, and the guru ‘explained’ to her that mere mortals like her saw ‘human bodies’, while he only saw the soul.
“He told me that every avatar of god would find another soul who needed to be elevated. Like Krishna found Radha and blessed her soul. I was his Radha, he said. Normally, after a session, he would hug a few chosen disciples. This included children, young, middle aged and old people. We were constantly told that he was only touching our soul,” she said.
For months, what Veena went through was mental conditioning. She was told that the guru’s touch was only for a select lucky few who were very spiritual souls.
The hug had soon progressed to sex and Veena was coerced to believe that it was a path to salvation. She was given the guru’s special blessing whenever he desired it.
“Though he would hug a few of us, he told me not to tell others about our relationship. I was the special one, the only one who was blessed to be his soul mate (have intercourse with him),” she says.
The state of affairs went on for several years. As a young educated woman, why did Veena not walk away from there? Can this be considered sexual assault or rape? Over the years, many have asked her this.
“This is how a cult works; this is how power structures work. It was ingrained into us that the guru was supreme and worldly pleasures meant nothing to him. Every time the abuse happened, he would tell me that my soul had become a bit more elevated and I was almost at the next level,” she said.
The Bhagavatham and other revered Hindu scriptures were constantly quoted to her. “I was told that though I was a special soul, I was not discovered by a guru in my previous births.”
Wiping out evidence
The guru, however, was a clever man, who ensured that there was no trace of evidence.
In many cases in India and throughout the world, it has been well documented how such gurus wipe out evidence.
Premananda Swamy convicted in 2005 would facilitate abortions. Aravindan Balakrishnan (a Maoist cult leader) established himself as someone who could control nature and it was proved in a court in UK that he would first isolate victims from families, so that they never betrayed his secrets. He was convicted of six counts of indecent assaults and four counts of rape in 2015.
Swami Premananda: Source
Another guru in India, (according to a victim’s statement to court), used to tell the victim that he would dispose of the condom as his semen was special and no mere mortal should get hold of it. He convinced the victim that his semen should be poured into the ocean.
In Veena’s case too, the guru was careful to keep his assault a secret, and to be discreet.
As Veena narrates this, she adds as an afterthought. “All this sounds ridiculous to me now. But when I was in the situation, I was constantly made to believe and accept it as right without questioning.”
Janja Lalich says in her research that cults that exploit people, especially women, project the assault as a matter of honor. “The woman is told that a sexual encounter with the leader is an honor, a special gift, a way of achieving further growth. Sexual activities with the leader are interpreted and rationalized as spiritually beneficial.”
The guru and disciples
Every disciple shared a unique relationship with the guru and all of them were strictly prohibited from discussing it among each other. Veena says, “To some he was a mother figure, for some it was a master-sevak relationship. And it was up to him to decide which relationship was ‘right’ for which person.”
People from all walks of life would throng to see him. Some were just like her, wanting to make the world a better place, and a few quite like him, manipulating people for their gain.
Going against the guru is the greatest of sins, they were told. They would repent, not just in their current life but also in their coming lives, if they did so. They would suffer, suffer horribly.
And the best way to prevent a revolt is never give it a breeding ground in the first place.
Cult members were always overworked with assignments and had strict deadlines to follow. “We hardly had time for anything else. We were extremely exhausted and sleep deprived as we slept for not more than four hours a day. No one had the mind to question anything,” she says.
If someone did question him, they would immediately be outcast. Threats and intimidation were also used to shut victims up when needed.
As the years passed, Veena also realised how the cult was fueled solely by its greed. “Only the rich were allowed to personally meet him. If you weren’t bringing him business, you were of no use to him,” she says.
There were murmurs of others who were given the guru’s blessings and were forced to become his sexual partners.
When the truth finally hit her, and with the intensity that it did, it pushed her into depression.
“I was in a state of shock. I kind of just wanted to forget that I had lived this life,” she says. “But then I realised that many more innocent victims were getting sucked into the cult everyday. I felt I must tell what happened to me, so that it can save others.”
Seven years after she joined the group, she finally left it. She also filed a complaint with the police and the case in underway in court.
Why not quit?
Cults in Our Midst, a book by Margaret Thaler Singer, a clinical psychologist and an expert on brainwashing, and Janja Lalich, an author and researcher, explains how cult groups resort to thought-reform processes and persuasion to control people’s minds.
This book was an eye-opener for Veena as it helped her to understand why a rational person like her would join a cult.
It is simple to ask why someone would not leave a cult immediately when they realise they are in a wrong place.
But as Singer and Lalich state, the answer is not that simple. Even though cults mostly don’t use physical restraint on their members, there are several psychological barriers stopping them from walking away. This includes their beliefs, peer pressure, fear or even confusion.
The last few years have been punishing for Veena. The fight has been emotionally, physically and financially draining.
Looking back, she says, “Life has taught me many, many lessons and I am very grateful for that. But I still believe I have a bigger purpose in life.”