The Bhakti part of yoga is perhaps the one component that I most struggle with. Born without a religion and living as an atheist, I had very little personal understanding of devotion towards a particular religion, deity, or personification of a God. Consequently, looking up to a teacher and seeing him as a spiritual guru way above my realm rather than equal to me is a fairly new concept. That said, my 300 hours of training in the Jivamukti Yoga method has allowed me to observe and explore these ideas of devotion and surrender. And although jñāna yoga (path of knowledge) through the maryada marg (effortful path, liberation through self-introspection, meditation, and looking for the Self within) is still what resonates with me, I have become a lot more tolerant and understanding of individuals who choose to pursue the pushti marg (the path of grace through chanting, bhakti/devotion, looking out to an external God through religion or otherwise).
One such Bhakta (someone who pursues Bhakti yoga) is Bhagavan Das, famous for his chanting and notorious for his sexual pursuit of young women. The documentary Karmageddon, by exploring the complexity, or perhaps the in-your-face simplicity by which Bhagavan Das lives his life, poses many questions about the concept of gurus, the relationship between emotional stability and spiritual maturity, and the spiritual precepts that may at times seem difficult to comprehend (e.g. seeing the guru as perfect and complete).
It appears that Bhagavan Das uses spiritual seduction to lure young women into having sexual relationships with him. The psychology at play is at once fascinating and alarming. I was once told that one seduction tactic is through a fast drive on the highway. The speed produces some kind of fear and uncertainty, which is the same kind of excitement associated with falling in love. The object of seduction is then unable to distinguish where this feeling is coming from, and starts to associate it with the seducer. The same concept applies here. The spiritual seeker is fascinated, but whether it is towards the teachings or towards the teacher is unclear to the spiritual seeker herself. Bhagavan Das, in this documentary, is very upfront and unapologetic about his advances. He goes as far as equating sexual favors with spiritual service. Which begs the question, can a guru who is obviously flawed lead others into their path to enlightenment? What is a guru anyway? If there is a teacher within all of us, what is Bhagavan Das teaching us? Is he teaching us by holding up a mirror and showing us our own judgments and criticisms of another's imperfection? Isn't he perpetuating the mistrust of those like me, who struggle with bhakti to begin with? Does he not have a responsibility to practice what he preaches?
Would it be small of me as a yogi to conclude that Bhagavan Das belongs to a 12-Step Addiction Recovery Program? Addictions being something I am familiar with, I see its signs in the narrative of the documentary. Addiction is the dependency created by using something- whether drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, or even spirituality- to escape reality and responsibility. It is using the outside to escape the inside. It is creating so much drama in the external world to avoid confronting old and repressed wounds in the internal psyche. In the end, people become addicts not because they are bad people, but because they are unable to cope with the depth of their pain-- pain so deep-seated they usually start in childhood and are still unresolved.
vastu-samye-chitta-bhedat tayor vibhaktah pantah (YS IV.15)
Each individual person perceives the same object in a different way, according to their own state of mind and projections. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to how you see it.
Why does someone else's imperfection bother us so much? Do we elevate someone into guru status so we ourselves can escape the responsibility of working through our own ignorance? Do we put the flawed gurus down in order to lift ourselves up and feel better about ourselves? Why project this guru status anyway? Wah! expressed it so beautifully during the interview in this documentary. "I think it would be unwise to place any of the chanting artists in a guru or spiritual teacher position. All of us are embracing this particular teaching because we need it. We are immersing ourselves in this energy because we need it, not because there is some service that is to be done to humanity."
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.
Bhagavan Das, like us, is trapped in avidya (ignorance). We merely have different manifestations of this ignorance. My ignorance is not superior to his ignorance just because I can clearly see his and I am blind to my own. In Jivamukti Yoga, this mantra is the backbone of the practice. This mantra is a reminder to practice compassion towards all beings. All beings include all human beings and all animals. All beings include even those whose actions we disapprove of. All beings include even those whom the world holds in high-esteem and yet whose actions we cannot defend, whose tamasic tendencies are alive and well. All beings include Bhagavan Das with his sex addiction and the Dalai Lama who continues to eat veal and everyone else, whether they are prominent in their spiritual path or not.
Compassion, however, does not mean enabling another person to continue to do what they do. It is true that it is not our job to change anyone. But it also a great disservice to ourselves and to the addict and to the individuals they hurt if we support what they do. In 12-step recovery programs dealing with addicted individuals, detaching and walking away from the addict are practices to stop enabling behaviors. Perhaps the best way we can practice compassion is to allow the addict to make his mistakes, allow him to fall flat on his face, allow him to hit rock bottom and give him the gift of desiring change for himself. Compassion is to allow him to confront the consequences of his actions. It is not fixing him. It is not shielding him. Compassion is letting him confront his truth. Compassion means that we see beyond his actions, that we instead acknowledge the pain that drives him to this addiction, and we dig deep within our own hearts and wish for his freedom and happiness nonetheless.