Truth Behind Allegations Against Isha — I

What really happened?

In the past three weeks, various media outlets in Tamil Nadu were full of allegations about Isha Foundation, based out of Coimbatore. In the past two decades, I have seen these cycles of allegations periodically emerge in the media, like mushrooms in the monsoons, and mysteriously go silent. Then they disappear. They all centre around something like this:

  • Bright, young and extremely capable people are brainwashed and held captive in Isha.
  • Food served in Isha is laced with mesmerising drugs.
  • Isha steals kidneys and sends it to foreign countries.
  • Police, politicians, and courts are all bought by them and will not act.

The bottom line is this: the public must storm the ashram and burn it down. So far, not one person has been found who has been held captive or drugged or with a kidney less. Not one of the allegations has ever been proven.

The current cycle of allegations was triggered by a set of parents — Mrs. Sathiajothi and Dr. Kamaraj. The gist of the allegations run like this: their daughters (aged 34 and 31 yrs.) have been staying at Isha ashram in Coimbatore for almost seven years. About five years ago they took monkhood. Now, the parents who have been in close contact with the daughters all the time, alleged that the daughters were being held against their will by the ashram and sought the help of the community, media and the government to free them.

Pretty unremarkable, so far. You have two parties (parents and daughters) have a dispute and the parents feeling helpless, seek the help of the state to resolve it. But, that is not all. The parents then tell the media that their daughters’ case is only the tip of the iceberg of the wrong doings by Isha. In a series of media releases, interviews, and TV debates, the parents level a host of criminal allegations against the ashram and its founder Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. They call for the death of the founder and annihilation of the ashram.

Fortunately for Isha, this time, there is a legal closure to it. As I write this, the High Court has dismissed a habeas corpus plea filed by the parents, saying that prima facie, they are satisfied that the daughters are staying on in the ashram of their own wish and accord and the parents cannot force them to come home.

However, I am sure we have not heard the last of this. Soon it is going to be another set of actors, playing the same drama again. Nor have we heard the last of allegations against Isha, because these are largely an outcome of a successful modus operandi that is only waiting to be milked again and again.

The Current Cycle

The story goes like this. Here is a family of four. The father, Dr. S. Kamaraj, retired recently as the Professor & Dean, from the prestigious Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. The mother, Mrs Sathiajothi, is a post-graduate and heads a fair-sized, national award winning NGO in Coimbatore.

Parents Dr. Kamaraj (left) and Mrs Sathiajothi (center) allege that that their daughters are forcefully confined by the ashram with the intention of taking over all their property. They accuse the ashram of a host of criminal acts. They call for the death of the founder and annihilation of the ashram.
Non-stop media outrage ensues.

In April 2007, the parents marry off their daughter Ms Geetha to a person named Mr Jayaseelan. This is an arranged marriage. Ms Geetha was then employed by Sheffield Hallam University, UK, where she also studied. She secures employment for her husband in the same University. Soon the husband (a drunkard, by the father’s admission) begins abusing the daughter. In January 2008, the parents secure a divorce for the couple.

Sometime after the divorce, the mother introduces Ms Geetha to Isha Yoga. The younger daughter who is studying at Anna University in Chennai, also undergoes Isha Yoga program. She is later employed by the software company Cognizant. By 2011, both sisters have increased their involvement with Isha and moved full-time into the Ashram in Coimbatore. They also take Brahmacharya. Parents claim that they were not aware that the daughters were going to take this step, but daughters claim that they were kept in the loop.

Over the next four and half years, the parents visit the daughters in the ashram often. (Parents live just 20 kilometres away.) The mother makes at least 2–3 trips in a month, the father visits less frequently. They are now familiar faces in the ashram. Sometimes the mother brings food she has cooked for the daughters, which they share with others. On more than one occasion she cooks in the ashram kitchen for the entire ashram. People remember the mother as someone who is chatty, and with expert advice on every aspect of life and someone who sings a lot of traditional Tamil songs while working.

Daughters Latha, 31 (left) and Geetha, 34 (right) declare that they are in the ashram of their own will and do not want to go back to their parents. They claim that their parents have been visiting them regularly and have no clue why they are making wild and baseless allegation against the ashram.

Then suddenly, a few weeks ago there is a barrage of allegations by the parents against the ashram in the media. The parents claim that their daughters are forcefully confined by the ashram with the intention of taking over all their property (they have no other children). They also allege that they are being prevented from seeing their daughters or even speaking to them over the phone.

Then begins the set of legal moves and counter-moves. In response to the parents’ complaint, the daughters appear before police and give statements confirming that they are at the ashram of their own will and do not wish to go back to parents. Parents move the next level. Daughters file their statements there too. Police call both parties for a face-to-face meeting to solve this amicably. Parents do not turn up. Another time, only the father turns up but refuses to speak to the daughters. He yells threats about destroying the ashram. Parents petition the Chief Minister and then the Prime Minister as well. Then finally, mother files habeas corpus petition in the High Court of Madras, which ultimately gets dismissed, favoring the daughters. (Video report here.)

A familiar modus operandi

For someone who has been familiar with Isha over a period of time, these are not spontaneous or a random sequence of events. Instead, a clear pattern emerges in this waxing and the waning of outrageous allegations against Isha. And unfortunately, organisations like Isha, remain susceptible to this for more reasons than one.

Take this case for example; By all considerations, this is pretty much a common domestic dispute. Parents want to fix the lives of the children in one direction, but children have plans of their own. Though the early thirties is a little late to have such adolescent or post-adolescent issues in the family. Usually, where people are sensible, they arrive at mutually acceptable compromises. Or one party overpowers the other, depending on the particular domestic dynamics of the family. So, a family dispute is not an ultimate disaster in the world, except that it could be a little impractical to call upon the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister of the country to resolve this.

But hey, that too is the right of a citizen and let us not grudge that.

This is where the plot turns sinister. Because the children are adults now and are leading a life of their own choice, most parents know that their case is not morally and legally tenable. So they create a child-stealing, kidney-stealing bogeyman. Their strategy is to create so much negativity about the ashram so that the ashram will pressurise the children to go home. After that, it is just a matter of beating up a mass of flesh into submission. Hence the massive vilification campaign.

For parents, this is an easy way to have their way. They can continue to live happily-ever-after. Collateral damages be damned. For the ashram, this is a Catch-22 situation. While they are not holding anyone against their will and it is not their battle to fight, they cannot renege on their commitment to anyone who wants to stay. Especially to someone who has taken up monkhood. (Read how another young person, Ananth, went through an exactly similar cycle in 2011. Most other cases have been lost due to lack of documentation in the pre-internet, pre-social media era.) So history keeps repeating itself.

In the next three parts, I argue how brazen overreach of parental license, sensationalist media reporting, combined with our morbid fears about “brainwashing” make organisations like Isha, sitting ducks to such sinister plots.

Disclosure:

It has been seventeen years since I have been introduced to Isha. Almost twenty people from my extended family are Isha meditators. My wife and I so deeply value our connection with Isha that we have shifted our residence to the outskirts of Coimbatore, to be close to the Isha Ashram.

Part II: Brazen Overreach of Parental License