She Built a Shady Guru’s YouTube Army. Now She’s His Fiercest Critic—But Who Will Believe Her?

She Built a Shady Guru’s YouTube Army. Now She’s His Fiercest Critic—But Who Will Believe Her?

It was May 2015, and the Hotel Surya in Varanasi, India, was hosting “Inner Awakening,” the flagship spiritual training program of Paramahamsa Nithyananda. To his followers, he is a god incarnate, “His Divine Holiness Bhagavan Sri Nithyananda Paramashivam,” the living avatar of Shiva, or, as one devotee put it, “the only reviver of authentic Hinduism to the fullest of integrity.” Scandal, including an alleged sex tape, rape allegations, and accusations of shady land deals have plagued the guru’s career, and outside the event, protesters like the pink-clad Gulabi Gang, who combat abuse of women in India, marched through the streets, vandalizing Nithyananda posters. Inside though, Inner Awakening attendees, who had paid around $6,000 each for the three-week program, meditated, practiced yoga, and gathered to commune and be blessed. Sarah Stephanie Landry describes the 2015 event as a major personal turning point in her life, when Nithyananda himself pulled her out of the crowd, and acknowledged the work she’d been doing to spread his message on YouTube.

Pale, with dark hair and a long, ovoid face, the Canadian woman was known for her intense online missives on topics like veganism, conspiracy theories, self-improvement, and the Hindu practice, her eyes sparkling under heavy lids as she wove tales of prophetic dreams, new-age mystic powers, and a world ravaged by the greed and evil of powerful cabals. In Landry’s strange reality, there was one constant light though, an answer to all the questions faced by those lost in the metaphysical aether: her guru, Nithyananda.

In the Varanasi hotel event hall, as several hundred people crowded in to hear their spiritual leader speak, Nithyananda called Landry to sit by his side—an enormous honor—before turning to the crowd and asking: “How many of you here today found me through her channel?” A few dozen hands shot up. “By then I had about 50,000 subscribers,” said Landry. “But I didn’t know that many of them had taken the jump. I teared up,” she said, “the purpose of my life was being fulfilled.” Over the following years, Landry took on a number of roles promoting Nithyananda and his mission, living at the group’s main ashram in India for long periods, growing close to the guru, and eventually becoming a public face of his organization. As the group’s social media manager, she helped grow Nithyananda’s sprawling online presence, a fierce internet warrior against the group’s many enemies and critics, and a talented recruiter of new followers through platforms like YouTube.

Sarah Landry referring to Nithyananda’s group as a “cult.”

That’s why it was such a shock to the Nithyananda community when in September 2019, she published videos and Facebook posts alleging children at the ashram’s school had been abused. According to former Nithyananda disciples interviewed by Gizmodo, kids at the school were trained to perform demonstrations of supposed “spiritual powers,” like reading through a blindfold, the diagnosis of medical ailments through something called “bodyscanning,” and a kind of clairvoyance known as “Akashic reading.” In a video, which now has more than 490,000 views, Landry alleged that kids from the school told her tearfully how they’d learned to fake these “powers,” since they were forced to beat each other raw, denied sleep and food, or locked in rooms for long periods if they couldn’t convincingly “manifest” supernatural feats. Landry also alleges the group is a dangerous cult, she herself was “brainwashed,” and in later videos, alleges she endured sexual exploitation and other abuses in service to Nithyananda. Gizmodo reached out to the Nithyananda organization several times requesting an interview with the guru or a representative, and sent a detailed list of questions regarding Landry’s allegations to two of the group’s official contact email addresses, but did not receive a response.

Landry’s posts both inspired others to come out with stories of alleged abuse and provoked the online fury of Nithyananda’s followers, who claim she is a liar and a racist, merely trying to cover up crimes of her own. She’s become the number one enemy of a social media machine she helped build, which has fired back with a raft of response videos, thousands of posts and comments, petitions, blogs, Facebook essays, and conspiracy theories, painting Landry as a secret agent of Christian forces, sent to infiltrate and undermine a Hindu institution.

On social media, Landry has been called a monster, who was in fact the real “child abuser,” and a complete cheating, fraud whose “False Flag” allegations were hurting thousands. In India, where Christian proselytization is historically intertwined with colonialism’s brutal, exploitative legacy, some critics saw Landry’s allegations as part of a larger project of Western cultural aggression, and accused her of being a saboteur representing foreign religious interests. “Vatican mole exposed!” exclaimed one Twitter user, presenting a video about Landry’s supposed deceptions. One verified Twitter user with more than 30,000 followers called her “a Vatican mole placed in Ashram to spy” and accused her of making up “stories that Xtians want to hear,” while another account with more than 6,000 followers told Landry it was “only a matter of time before the cops come knocking” to punish her for her “disgusting” behavior. Her critics gave her the nickname “Dirty Laundry,” made Facebook pages dedicated to taking down Landry, and an anti-Landry Change.org petition with more than 1,000 signees asked authorities to end what it calls Landry’s “hateful social-media abuse” and “help us Hindus who are a religious minority, targeted time and again throughout history.” For those coming across the uproar, it was hard to know what to think. As one YouTube commenter put it, “Sarah was extremely believable when she was pro the ashram and extremely believable even now. But that’s what makes me wonder what the truth really is.”

Landry isn’t alone in her campaign, though, and she’s since begun using her YouTube channel to interview others who left the group, each with their own alleged personal story of pain and spiritual disappointment. She’s refused to back down, appearing in interviews with Indian news channels and on anti-cult podcasts, but she’s also far from Nithyananda’s biggest problem right now—the guru is a fugitive, having fled India after facing a range of criminal charges. Not only was he set to stand trial for a longstanding rape case initiated by a former disciple, but over the past year, complaints from ashram parents have resulted in additional charges including “abduction” and “illegal confinement of children” against Nithyananda and officials in his organization. Meanwhile, Landry’s apostasy sparked widespread internet drama and fierce debates over online spirituality, cults, and racial and religious stereotypes, shaking loose secrets, and triggering a firestorm of allegations that left no one involved unscathed.

The avatar, online

“I was just watching things on YouTube when I first saw Nithyananda,” said Haran Thanabalasingam, 41, a life coach and hypnotherapist living in Melbourne, Australia, in a phone interview. Thanabalasingam appeared in a November 2019 video with Landry, in which he discusses spending about six months as an adheenavasi, or resident volunteer, at Nithyananda’s ashram in Karnataka. He describes growing up in Sri Lanka in a Hindu family, regularly attending the local temple, where, as a child, he’d help out with devotional services. Online, he came across Nithyananda discourses on the Bhagavad Gita, karma, and the Nayanars, a group of 63 saints important to Shaivite tradition. “He would explain it properly,” said Thanabalasingam, “bring it down to our level, where we can all understand it.” He loved that Nithyananda often spoke in Tamil, Thanabalasingam’s native tongue and one of the world’s oldest languages. When he finally decided to go live at the ashram as a volunteer in 2017, “My whole family was against it,” he said. Fearing the ascetic lifestyle would require cutting ties with relatives, “my mom and dad were crying over the phone.”

About an hour and a half by car from the Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru, the Karnataka ashram’s scattered buildings spread across about 30 acres, including a grand temple, a welcome center, the gurukul (a form of traditional Hindu school), dorms, and the mixed-use building that housed Nithyananda, his offices, and his personal courtyard. Speaking with Gizmodo, former residents described the compound as mostly scrubby, with sparse areas of greenery and a famous banyan tree, alleged by Nithyananda’s website to be more than 1,000 years old, under which disciples would meditate. Thanabalasingam said most of the people at the ashram were from India and most of the conversations took place in Tamil, but since about a third of the residents were from overseas and the group’s media went out to a global audience, English was also spoken.

“If YouTube didn’t exist, then I never would have come across Swamiji,” Sri Nithya Dridhananda, a Nithyananda disciple, told Gizmodo, using a term of affection for the guru. A former professional hockey player from Canada, Dridhananda remembers exploring the platform’s spiritual offerings in 2013, taking a winding path through conspiracy fare and ideas like the “Law of Attraction” that eventually led him to Nithyananda and the ashram in India. Since then, “I’ve experienced so many profound things because of my guru,” he said. In videos on his “Blissful Athlete” channel, which has more than 20,000 subscribers, Dridhananda appears muscular and pale, sporting white-blonde dreadlocks, and exuding a coach-like, big-brother energy, as he demonstrates yoga, explains fitness and fasting regimens, and generally shows off life in the Nithyananda movement.

Dridhananda, a Nithyananda disciple and poster, and his wife, Prasiddha.

As the ashram’s yoga teachers, Dridhananda and his wife, Prasiddha, befriended Landry, who helped the couple set up their YouTube channels, through her social media programs. Since her allegations though, they’ve both posted response videos on YouTube deriding her claims and defending the guru. “What she’s saying about the kids, I don’t believe her,” he said. Dridhananda said he’s never seen any violence, child abuse, or sexual impropriety at the ashram. The thumbnail image for one of Dridhananda’s YouTube responses, which has more than 65,000 views, asks, “Will the real Sarah Landry please stand up?” In the video he calls Landry’s claims “atrocious” and edits in what are supposed to be clips of Landry contradicting herself over the years, questioning the details of her story, and making the case she’s motivated by a hidden Christian past.

Watching through Dridhananda and Prasiddha’s channels, YouTube recommends videos from other smiling Nithyananda devotees, unrelated clips about “color healing” and something called a “chakra cleansing soundbath,” documentary footage of Osho, and of course, a wide variety of offerings from the guru himself. People complain, said Dridhananda, that Nithyananda’s programs are expensive, but on YouTube, thousands of videos present the same lectures, ceremonies, and testimonials, available for free to “people seeking all over the world.” On his own channels, Nithyananda, born A. Rajasekaran in 1977 or 1978 (disputed), exists in a timeless matrix, a celebration of his life, mixing new images with old ones, in which the guru appears as a gaunt young man with long, flowing hair, and warm-looking eyes. His main YouTube channel, which boasts more than 60 million total views, promises “Live discourses daily” (though it seems like the schedule is a bit more sporadic), and in recent videos, he is stout, with a short, dark beard, often appearing in front of CGI backgrounds, wearing a dreamy smile, and speaking with the slow, casual certainty of a man who knows his words will be taken as divine by his flock.

“Nithyananda, this guy, he’s really a mystic,” Federico Michel, 24, of Argentina, who spent five months as an adheenavasi at the Bidadi ashram, said in a phone call. “He really has a very unique and deep perception of reality.” After finding the guru on YouTube, “I found him a really charming, really charismatic being, and it gave me the impression that he was really in a deep meditative state and full of love. I was really under a spell,” said Michel, who added that he was very drawn to the guru’s promise of “third-eye” spiritual superpowers. Once in India though, “If you are his disciple, you stop thinking and he becomes your source of truth and information and discernment. You start believing he’s a god.” Michel, who left the group in 2019 and appeared in a video on Landry’s YouTube channel discussing his experiences, said he sees Nithyananda as someone who had reached the top rungs of spiritual attainment, before somehow, “it all went wrong.”

With more than 100 local centers and temples around the world, the guru has a large international following, a raft of wealthy supporters that includes prominent Indian business figures and Silicon Valley executives, and years ago, even met with now-Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. (One official Nithyananda website claims he has “millions” of followers worldwide, though there’s no way to verify that number.) Most people in the U.S. have probably never heard of Nithyananda, but those living in India, particularly in South India, are more likely to be familiar with the guru, whose antics and alleged scandals have been the subject of tabloid headlines and public outcries for years.

In 2010, television stations in India broadcast hidden-camera footage of what appeared to be Nithyananda in sexual embrace with a then-popular Tamil actress and devotee most commonly known as “Ranjitha,” which according to a Times of India article, briefly made the guru “the sixth most tweeted-about subject globally.” Ranjitha, Nithyananda, and his followers have long maintained that the footage was fake, either “morphed,” or somehow altered to frame the guru, though the Times of India reports that the government of Delhi’s Forensic Science Lab assessed the video to be genuine. According to the Times of India, the official report was solicited by police in 2010 but wasn’t made public until 2017. Between those dates, Nithyananda hired his own forensic experts, who have made the case that the video could, in theory, have been tampered with. (You can see an analysis of the footage from one of Nithyananda’s hired experts here.)

Also in 2010, an ashram resident named Aarthi Rao said that Nithyananda raped her repeatedly over the course of five years. “My deep trust and my sacred beliefs as a Hindu,” said Rao in a 2012 English-language interview with Kannada channel Suvarna News, “were exploited to abuse me and take advantage of me sexually.” Rao claimed that in an effort to expose Nithyananda, she and another former disciple had planted the hidden camera that captured the alleged sex video of the guru with Ranjitha. Though Rao first reported her allegations to police in 2010, sparking an investigation, according to The News Minute, resultant criminal charges against Nithyananda—including rape, “unnatural offences,” criminal abetment, and evidence tampering—didn’t progress to pre-trial proceedings until 2018. In fact, the case stemming from Rao’s allegations is still ongoing in Ramanagara district court in Karnataka, now complicated by the guru’s disappearance from India. Nithyananda and his representatives have consistently denied Rao’s allegations and attacked her character, reportedly calling the rape case a “blackmailing tactic by powerful people.”

Then there’s the leaked document alleged to be a nondisclosure agreement given to select disciples at one training program, which includes what media outlets like NDTV and The News Minute have called a “sex contract,” letting recipients know their tutelage “may involve the learning and practice of ancient tantric secrets associated with male and female ecstasy.” The guru has also faced a range of other allegations and legal woes, including sex-related complaints from both women and men, concern about allegedly mysterious deaths at the ashram, and probes into his financial and real-estate holdings. Despite the persistent air of scandal, Nithyananda himself has never been convicted of anything, though he has been arrested, spent time in jail, and seems to have a long-running cat-and-mouse relationship with the law, disappearing for periods, dodging courts, and taunting authorities. “No stupid court can prosecute me for revealing the truth,” boasted Nithyananda in a late 2019 video.

Marion Braun, who ran programs for Nithyananda in Germany and Australia before leaving the group last year, said she once believed the allegations were “all lies. I believed what we were told,” she said, “which was, this is all something instigated by anti-Hindu elements, who don’t want [Nithyananda] leading or reviving Hinduism.” She and other followers believed Nithyananda was the target of conspirators who considered the guru “a danger to society because he helped us wake up,” she said. You can see this point of view reflected in videos like “Nithyananda Scandal Video Proven Morphed - The Hidden Truth,” which Landry narrated, and has 77,000 views, “The Conspiracy Against Paramahamsa Nithyananda Timeline,” which has 192,000 views, and attacks on media figures, like “Dhanya Rajendran - The Queen of Presstitutes,” which takes aim at the editor-in-chief of The News Minute.

The salacious headlines formed a sort of feedback loop with the tales of conspiracy, as outrage and aggressive public reaction reinforced both the views of critics—who saw Nithyananda as a source of chaos—and those of his followers, who felt persecuted and sunk ever deeper into an ideologically defensive crouch. In 2010, after the alleged sex tape aired, local mobs outraged at the specter of a Hindu guru engaged in such acts raided Nithyananda’s ashrams across India, setting fires and assaulting devotees. In 2012, a press conference gone wrong in Bidadi led to a clash with reporters that swelled into an hours-long melee, resulting in the arrest of 10 Nithyananda followers and 20 others. And according to the New Indian Express, in 2017, after a dispute over land at a Nithyananda facility in Chennai, “residents ransacked the premises and even toppled a car belonging to the ashram.”

And yet the guru’s influence kept growing, especially online (where his reach rivaled that of the local press), and with an international audience, who could engage with his ideas directly, without the tabloid context. A post on the Nithyananda website includes excerpts from a speech he gave in 2014, in which he said, “We will take the route of Social Media to educate the world about the Guru Bashing going on [in] this country. ... I request all my disciples, devotees, followers, you will all be warriors protecting Santana Hindu Dharma in Social Media- FB , Twitter, Internet.”

By the numbers, Nithyananda’s online following is considerably smaller than that of other prominent gurus, like Sadhguru and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, but it’s made up for in enthusiasm, and occasionally, the intensity of the movement’s online beefs has drawn its own media attention. For example, when in response to claims that children at the ashram could read blindfolded, Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and former director of the Karnataka Consumer Protection Board, publicly challenged the guru to exhibit these spiritual superpowers under controlled conditions. “That was met by a response cursing me with carcinoma of the penis within 24 hours, for the cure of which I was supposed to come to his place and grovel at his feet,” said Nayak, in an email. (The aggressive front wasn’t restricted to internet warfare, either—Nithyananda also has a reputation for being litigious, and his organization has in the past sued accusers and press outlets that broadcast the alleged sex tape.)

Paramahamsa Nithyananda on why he thinks Einstein’s theory of relativity is wrong.

Mystical claims and wild pronouncements associated with the guru also draw frequent negative press attention and public mirth, like his claim he could make animals speak, his insistence Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is incorrect, or recent social media videos claiming the guru could cure coronavirus infections. “To most Tamil people I know,” said Thanabalasingam, “he’s seen more like a sex guru than anything else.” He said these days, he sees a lot of Tamil Nithyananda memes floating around, “so, if someone says something about a girl being hot or something like that, someone else might send a Nithyananda meme saying, oh, come to my ashram, you’ll find a lot of girls like that.” One Nithyananda meme, for example, has the guru saying “Infinity + infinity = more infinity,” while Einstein tries to take a swing at him but is held back by his pals Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Another meme says “[Dan] bilzerian is claimed to be the no1 playboy of the world—bitch please,” along with pictures of Nithyananda hugging Landry and other women devotees.

Last November, a couple of months after Landry posted her first allegations, more trouble was brewing for the guru closer to home. Nithyananda’s secretary Janardhan Sharma, who had several children enrolled at the ashram school, alleged his kids were moved out of the main facility, to a location in another city, without his permission. When Sharma tried to pick up his kids, he alleges he was refused access; infuriated, he involved law enforcement agencies, who were eventually able to retrieve his two minor children. The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding Sharma’s allegations. Sharma’s older daughters, however, who were over 18, declined to go with their parents, and their locations have been a matter of rampant media speculation ever since—even as they post videos defending the ashram, claim their father embezzled money from Nithyananda, and argue on social media that they’re better off with the guru than their dad, using the hashtag #JusticeforHinduMonkSisters. (In interviews with Indian press, Sharma has said his daughters’ allegations of financial misconduct were “fabricated,” or “character assassination” meant to scare him away from publicly criticizing the guru.)

Though the young women are old enough to choose their own path, Sharma has been petitioning authorities and appearing in frequent media interviews in which he alleges his two eldest daughters have been brainwashed and sexually exploited by the guru. In Facebook videos and speaking to the press, his 15-year-old daughter, now back with her father, told a very different story from her older sisters. Speaking to Asian News International in November, she alleged the ashram’s school “locked her up in a room for two months in the name of some spiritual process.” She says she started off happy, but over time, the pressure to raise money and create social media posts for the group became a nightmare. “In the middle of the night, they used to wake us up and make a video for Swamiji. We had to wear heavy jewelry and heavy makeup,” she told Asian News International. Nithyananda “directly instructed” her older sisters to make posts defending the guru and “to talk about our father and mother in a bad way,” said the teen, adding, “They even asked me to do so but I refused.” In November, two more children removed from a Nithyananda facility also claimed they were “beaten and verbally abused,” according to the Times of India. (The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the interview with Sharma’s daughter or the allegations of child abuse at the ashram.)

Allegedly, at least part of the reason Nithyananda’s following has been so active online is because they have no choice in the matter. “We were forced to do multiple videos every day,” alleged Thanabalasingam. He claimed until she left the ashram in 2018, for adults at the ashram, Landry’s social media team was “in charge of making sure that everybody’s doing the videos. If they are not doing any videos,” he said, “then they will be verbally abused.” Landry showed ashram residents “how to talk, how to stand in front of a camera, and how to have really good backgrounds,” said Thanabalasingam. She told them not to always stand in the center of the shot, how to find inspirational topics to talk about, and how to promote Nithyananda’s programs without being too direct or pushy.

According to Braun, every day “we all had to share [Nithyananda’s] messages,” on social media. “They took it very seriously,” she said, “we all had to do three videos a day talking about him and our lives at the ashram” for Facebook or YouTube. She has since deleted all these videos, except one she keeps up as a reminder of the group’s negative impact on her life. “I particularly wasn’t really fond of making videos,” she sighed. “Nobody was really fond of those videos.”

Thanabalasingam claims older ashramites struggled with the technological aspects of the mandatory social media regimen. He alleges since residents were kept constantly busy with work and spiritual practice, most only slept about four hours each day. No specific time was allotted for making videos or posting, he said, so even squeezing in a few minutes for social media could feel like a grueling chore.

One of the reasons he ended up leaving, he alleges, is he didn’t particularly like the types of work he was given: He was either assigned to “causing,” which he calls “a call-center type of environment,” where he and others would phonebank, trying to raise money or get people to attend Nithyananda programs. Or, there was “hard labor,” like when he and other adheenavasis were sent to an under-construction Nithyananda facility in Chennai, “where we had to carry concrete slabs all day. We were only allowed to sleep for a few hours,” he alleges, and in the heat and concrete dust, “my asthma was getting really bad. I couldn’t really breathe or even walk properly, but we were forced to do things there.” Thanabalsingam claims the functionaries in charge told him if Nithyananda sent him to do the work, he must be able to do it, asthma or not, and by seeking reprieve, he was “going against Guru’s word.”

Thanabalasingam was eventually sent back to the ashram, but his breaking point came soon after, when he allegedly witnessed Nithyananda order aides to beat up an elderly pair of ashramites who had angered the guru by calling him fat (a story Thanabalasingam relates in detail in his YouTube interview with Landry). Over the years, others have also made allegations of violence at the ashram, like Rao, who in her 2012 English-language interview alleged, “I have seen bramicharis beaten black and blue by Nithyananda until the walking stick broke. I myself have been slapped.” Nonviolence, said Thanabalasingam, was an important part of his faith, and by his estimation, Nithyananda failed to embody the principle. The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding allegations of violence at the ashram.

During a phone interview with Gizmodo, Deepak Sarma, a professor of religious studies and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, scrolled through Nithyananda-related material online. “This is all a bunch of bullshit, man,” he said. “Nithyananda would be perceived by most Hindus as just a crazy person.” The Nithyananda case, he said, “is interesting and has all the right stuff for a good story. Sex, [allegations of] rape, money, and other megalomaniacal claims. Most countries and religions seem to have at least one Nithyananda every so often,” he added, comparing the guru to Jim Jones and Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints prophet Warren Jeffs.

Illustration for article titled She Built a Shady Guru’s YouTube Army. Now She’s His Fiercest Critic—But Who Will Believe Her?
Illustration: Chelsea Beck (Gizmodo)

“This scandal in particular also fits into the imagination and stereotypes in America, and fuels misconceptions about Hinduism,” said Sarma. Landry’s framing, for example, hits on sensitive points for those attuned to how “the term ‘cult’ began being used more widely in the late ’60s, early ’70s, when you had good Christian kids who were becoming interested in Hinduism and Buddhism.” Stereotypes about any ethnic group are often contradictory, he explained, and in the Western imagination, South Asian men are somehow simultaneously emasculated, while also painted as oversexed terrors. Nithyananda, both a clown prince and a sex villain in the tabloids, is sure to be seen, especially by some in the U.S. and Canada, as a confirmation of those stereotypes, said Sarma. There’s a kind of anxiety about these kinds of stories, and the optics of a guru accused by Landry, a white Canadian woman, who in many of her videos wears saris and the dreadlocks favored by Indian spiritual renunciants, is likely to feed it.

“I’m sorry [Landry] had these experiences,” said Sarma, but maybe part of why her allegations caused such an uproar is that those casually coming across the video are going to see a “kind of privileged white-woman voice” in her videos that’s “very loud.” The story “appeals to two kinds of people,” said Sarma, “those who want to see Hinduism and gurus all as a threat; and those who want Hinduism and gurus to be the solution for all the world’s problems.”

It also wasn’t going to be easy to win over Nithyananda’s most ardent dislikers, who at that point basically saw Landry as a kind of Hindu YouTube Leni Riefenstahl. After all, she had spent years smearing and helping discredit others who made allegations against the guru, why should they extend their sympathies or the benefit of the doubt to her? A blog post from one anti-Nithyananda site titled “Sarah Landry Starts to Squeal Against the Cult of Nithyananda” was skeptical of her apostasy, referring to her as “Ma Nithya Pancake Makeup Lady,” and predicting threats and lawsuits against her. After seeing Landry start to post her allegations, one longtime YouTube Nithyananda critic who goes by GuruSwamiG said Landry “still has some apologizing to do,” adding that Landry “was one of the leading people who would go after people” who denounced the guru. “She has to now defend herself” from Nithyananda, said GuruSwamiG, because “she’s going to get back what she was giving out when she was there.”

Thanabalasingam, who knew Landry as a true believer and one of the guru’s staunchest supporters, “was really shocked and surprised” when she came out against Nithyananda, he said. He was “happy for her because I know that it was a cult,” he said, but “Sarah was also putting out a lot of videos... a lot of people came to Nithyananda’s program because of Sarah.” According to Landry, she was “brainwashed” during her time with Nithyananda, but she also knows she has a lot to make up for. “I helped create the method for this sinister, greedy man to recruit people into his cult,” she alleged. Now the thing driving her most is “the realization that I had been his top recruiter.”

The spiritual education of Sarah Stephanie Landry

Sarah Landry grew up Catholic in Lethbridge, Alberta, a small city in Western Canada, raised by her mother, a teacher. She describes developing a passion for animal rights issues at a young age, skipping social events to attend protests, and later taking up a study of Eastern religions as an art student in college. When she first found Nithyananda in 2009, she said, she was selling crystal jewelry online and doing tarot readings for a living. Drawn in by a sign on the street, she checked out the guru’s Vancouver storefront and stayed for a meditation session. According to Landry, by the time she left that day, she’d signed up for a $200 one-day program; soon after, she scraped together thousands of dollars for an Inner Awakening course. At one point, she claims, Nithyananda instructed his devotees to each recruit 10 others for the program, so “I started my YouTube channel as a way to introduce seekers to him,” she said.

In her videos, Landry is impassioned but rarely raises her voice, instead inflecting her patter with a knowing scoff or chuckle, as if she feels bad for those not on her level. She pronounces her words carefully, almost overly delicately in a noticeably Canadian accent, with an overall affect somewhere between the poise of a television news presenter and the patient, cooing tone of a kindergarten teacher. Dridhananda said Landry is a “very good speaker. And if you put a camera in front of her, or a phone in front of her, she will just talk and talk.” Communicating online “is her calling,” he said. YouTube was a natural fit, an ideal petri dish for Landry’s interests and skills.

“I loved the show Ancient Aliens,” Landry said. She posted content about UFOs and the “starseed” community, which believes many humans are descended from far-flung alien races. Landry made videos and blogged about tarot, and crystals, and animal-rights issues, but “always tried to tie it back to Nithyananda,” she said, and used keywords like “Enlightenment,” “Guru,” and “India.” Maybe her most popular content was a playlist of 10 now-deleted videos titled “Free Yourself from the International Conspiracy Against Enlightenment,” mashing together an omnibus of popular conspiracy theories with Hindu concepts and other esoteric ideas. (You can see her describing the series in this video.) “So if you watched television, the networks are programming you,” she said, “if you drink fluoridated water, what about your pineal gland?” Landry adds that these days, she feels “more dubious” about these types of conspiracies.

While still exploring Nithyananda’s online offerings, “The ‘Conspiracy Against Enlightenment’ series was very intriguing to me,” said Dridhananda. “I was very into conspiracy theories. I think there’s a lot of shady things that go on in our society.”

Landry’s content was a perfect runway to the world of Nithyananda, which itself seems to exist in a cloud of constant conspiracy, menaced by shadowy forces and political plots, as each new accuser or detractor is added to a tale of intrigue that becomes increasingly hard for outsiders to comprehend. (Nithyananda’s critics and accusers, too, often engage in conspiratorial thinking, seeing hidden offenses in seemingly innocuous events, or theorizing over the details of stories like the recent murder of a Nithyananda disciple.) The guru is his own pre-made internet rabbit hole, a well of ideas, characters, and lore with a natural appeal to those who distrust what they’re being told about the world around them and look to YouTube for answers. To people who—perhaps reasonably—feared that large food producers and pharmaceutical companies are not acting in the public good, or that some media sources are less objective than claimed, Landry offered them a vision of a small, spiritual group fighting back against a tide of sinister modern woes, a saffron-tinted alternative to the metaphorical “red pill.”

According to Landry, “by 2011 standards” her channel “got popular fairly quickly. I was getting 40,000, 50,000 views per video.” She claimed “hundreds of people each year have attended his programs because of that channel,” bringing in millions of dollars for the group. In a way, she was more than a seeker; Landry was herself spiritually ambitious, questing not only to discover community and mystic truth, but also what she began to see as her own special place and destiny. She had dreams and visions of Arcturian aliens and Vedic gods and goddesses, dreams she felt were supposed to be telling her something. Landry already offered services like tarot, and with viewers tuning in, she started to sell herself as a spiritual teacher, a wielder of divine energy in her own right. She experimented, at one point co-founding a Catholic-Hindu unity organization, using the spiritual name Sudevi, or “beautiful goddess.” “When you have like 50,000 subscribers, your inbox fills up with various levels of crazy people who have fantasies about you,” she said. “I had a lot of people writing to me saying that they had visions of me as a devi, as a goddess.” Who was she to disagree?

One person who Landry got to start attending Nithyananda events, even without the help of the YouTube channel, was her mom. In a phone interview, Teresa Landry, now a retired Catholic school teacher, who ended up participating in several Nithyananda retreats and courses over the years, said her daughter “was so dedicated to the group, and one of their main focuses was to encourage people to come to the program. ... I wanted to support her and learn more about what she was into,” said Teresa. “And as her mother, I felt like, ‘Why don’t I just go to one of these programs with her and then,’” she laughed, “‘maybe she’ll get off my back about it.’”

Teresa said during this time period, she and Landry didn’t see each other in person too often, but they would speak on the phone, and both women paint a picture of a close mother-daughter relationship. “I’ve never been married,” said the elder Landry. “Sarah’s my daughter. I always tell people I was alone from the morning after, which that’s how life goes sometimes. So it’s only ever been her and me.” Though in retrospect, maybe there were some red flags, she said; at the time, “the only thing I was concerned about was that Sarah really wanted to move to India to live at the ashram permanently ... because I knew that if she made that decision, I would see far less of her.”

The 2015 Varanasi Inner Awakening, when Nithyananda called Landry to his side to commend her work on YouTube, was part of a seven-week trip to India she took with her mom. At the program, Landry’s online work made her something of a movement celebrity, said her mother. “Everywhere we go, people are saying, ‘Oh Sudevi, oh Sudevi.’ Other participants knew her from her YouTube channel, and I told her in our hotel room in the evening, ‘It’s like being with a rockstar.’” When she was called out by name to sit near beside Nithyananda, “I felt very proud of her,” said Teresa. At the time, “all I knew was: This was Hinduism, this was quite a famous guru, and my daughter had been working diligently to get people to know him and to follow him.”

Though Landry describes herself as a continuous devotee of Nithyananda and a Hindu since 2009, her spiritual pursuits were eclectic and not exclusive until the 2015 Inner Awakening, when she was finally allowed to take sanyas, the vows of a monastic disciple, and decided—just as her mom had feared—to move to India. “I came back to Canada, got rid of all of my stuff, closed my Etsy shop, went back [to India] and took the initiation,” said Landry, donning the kavi, or orange robes of a sannyasin, and given a new spiritual name, “Swaroopapriyananda.” Dridhananda said he remembers feeling happy for her at the time since, despite her popular videos, before this point, he’d heard that some people at the ashram were wary of her, or felt there was “something off” about her vibe. In any case, once she took her vows she had to ditch the tarot cards, but while most monks were told to delete or hide their old social media posts, claimed Landry, Nithyananda told her to keep her online history up, so people could see how she got to him. “I felt special,” she said, “because the rules were being bent for me.”

She claimed one of her first jobs there was to find and research trending conspiracy, new-age, and wellness topics that Nithyananda could incorporate into his videos. “He started giving discourses about water fluoridation, Monsanto, and farmer suicides in India,” Landry said. “So that was the first time in my life when I had a direct personal connection with him. And so I felt really good.” According to Landry, she held a number of different roles with the organization over the next few years, all related to media or social media, running an online magazine called Hinduism Now, creating a video series called “Living Advaita,” in which she’d lecture on spiritual matters, and managing or monitoring various social media accounts for the guru.

Landry said she eventually got burnt out and took a hiatus back home to Canada, during which, she said, “his messages to me took a turn.” First, she alleges, he sent her a “gif image of a cartoon man crying” to indicate his sadness over her absence, telling her “pray to me tonight and you’ll see me in your bed.” The next suspicious message was “a gif of a couple making out,” she alleges, “and then he quickly wrote, ‘Whoops, I’m sorry, dear I meant to send you a hug and sent you a kiss by mistake. You can keep it if you want.’” Now, she alleges, she sees these texts as “grooming” her, but at the time, she claims, she just thought, “‘It’s too bad he worded it that way, because if anybody ever sees this message, they might take it sexually.’”

It was when she returned to the ashram in early 2017 that Landry really hit her stride, starting her social media team and establishing the posting regimen for residents. She said she’d thought about how her channel brought in “people who were into crystals or tarot or new-agey stuff,” but “what if we get everybody to make their own channel? Because individuals who can’t relate to me, because they’re businessmen or doctors or mechanics, they can see videos from people like themselves and connect to Nithyananda.” She said she started with a core group of 20 people who she thought had social media potential, then expanded to hour-long classes with the hundreds of other ashramites and gurukul students.

Illustration for article titled She Built a Shady Guru’s YouTube Army. Now She’s His Fiercest Critic—But Who Will Believe Her?
Illustration: Chelsea Beck (Gizmodo)

Though by all accounts Landry was a successful recruiter through her own channel, it would be hard to quantify her exact impact on the group’s overall internet presence. There are a lot of Nithyananda-related YouTube channels that started up or became a lot more active two to three years ago, many of which appear to have petered out sometime after Landry left. There are some standout Nithyananda YouTubers whose follower counts climb into the thousands, like Ma Nithya Bhakthipriyananda, a pretty young woman whose videos with smiling, joking ashram kids have tens of thousands of views, or Dridhananda and his wife, who ably package lifestyle, diet, fitness, and spiritual content into a coherent social media brand. But much of the content made by ashramites just languished in relative obscurity, though Landry’s program did seem to get everyone on social media every day, and at least somewhat engaged in the organization’s online goals.

Given the scandals, the media scrutiny, and the internet’s never-ending supply of shit-talkers though, representing Nithyananda online wasn’t always about projecting the positive aspects of his teachings. According to several former ashram residents, aside from Landry’s social media team, there was an “attack team” that predated her involvement with Nithyananda. Thanabalasingam said he ended up at a different department, but was initially asked to join this team, and was shown the ropes. Team members would make hundreds of Facebook and YouTube accounts, he claimed, to “use all these different names to attack people. So it would look like 300 people are attacking someone for saying something, but it’s actually one person having 300 different accounts attack them.” The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the alleged attack team described by former disciples.

Landry alleged this team was also responsible for spreading “misinformation” about Nithyananda’s enemies, like Aarthi Rao, including “making infographics or medical reports that prove she has diseases,” since part of the guru’s defense includes alleging Rao was promiscuous and riddled with various sexually transmitted infections. Followers claim Nithyananda himself has none of these diseases, and he would have been infected if he had in fact, raped her repeatedly, as she alleges. In an interview with NDTV, Rao called the group’s disease-related claims “disgusting,” and “complete bullshit.” In now-defunct Google groups for Nithyananda devotees in the United States, organization apparatchiks coordinated messaging about Rao in 2012, suggesting phrases like “AARTHI - SHAME TO WOMANHOOD!” and “AARTHI - HERPES QUEEN!”

According to onetime ashram residents, during legal troubles or when the attack team needed extra firepower, they’d put out calls for other community members to jump into a particular fray, or pull in Landry. She remembers one particular dustup with the followers of Teal Swan, a controversial self-help figure, and the subject of Gizmodo’s podcast “The Gateway.” Swan had an upcoming book called The Completion Process, and since Nithyananda taught a spiritual process of the same name, Landry alleges, the guru told his team to attack her and her followers online. (You can see Landry discussing the matter with other Teal skeptics in the comments of this 2015 blog post.) According to Landry, Nithyananda “told us that if she doesn’t change the title of her book, or cancel its release, to go after her character,” and if that didn’t work, to just start making things up. Swan, who has an internet army of her own, apparently did not succumb to the pressure and released her book as planned. The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding Landry’s characterization of the alleged campaign against Swan.

A clip excerpted by Dridhananda in one of his response videos to Landry shows her in a Nithyananda broadcast, maybe providing an idea of the zeal she once wielded in her social media beefs. “I know you’re watching this Sharon,” Landry says in the video, addressing a YouTube enemy. “Get ready for the consequences,” she later ominously warns Sharon. “It is all going to backfire on you, you are finished.” After speaking she stares wide-eyed and unblinkingly at the camera for several seconds straight, seemingly shaking with rage, before her face turns up into an aggressive-looking smile. There’s a reason Dridhananda included the clip: In the video, at the height of what Landry would call her “brainwashing,” she looks totally vindictive and absolutely bonkers. (In a phone call, Landry claimed that since leaving the group, she’s reached out to Sharon, and the two are now on good terms.)

She was “verbally abusive when I was there,” said Thanabalasingam, berating or demeaning those who failed to make their video quota, though he adds, for those with authority at the ashram, “there’s a lot of pressure from Nithyananda.” Landry alleges Nithyananda would yell at her “for not making everyone else’s YouTube channels as prominent as mine,” or failing “to make his discourses go viral.” She alleges Nithyananda “told me to yell at people or beat them if I have to, to make them make videos,” and since she wasn’t about to start administering beatdowns, she chose to chew people out. The Nithyananda organization did not respond to requests for comment regarding Landry’s characterization of the guru’s instructions.

Nithyananda seemed to recognize Landry’s effort, and like a few other ashramites of import, he gave her a kind of walking stick she had to carry all the time, denoting her as a figure of authority. It was made of teak, she described, and “covered in pure silver plating with a lion’s head on the top, and a very large rudraksha seed dangling from its mouth.” She claims she was moved into the building that housed the guru’s office and personal quarters, and given a bed in a room used to store boxes of paperwork and legal documents. “From the peephole in the door of my room,” she said, she could see the Nithyananda’s courtyard, where “he had a swing that he would often lounge on all day,” while he took meetings and ate his meals.

“I would see girls pressing his feet, which is typical of a guru,” she alleges, but “sometimes I would see them basically cuddling with him” under a blanket, or kissing, which she found odd, because “a Hindu male sanyasi isn’t supposed to have any kind of romantic contact with anybody.” She alleges once being woken at 2 or 3 a.m., to find the gurukul students had been called into the courtyard, where the guru berated them for not manifesting “third-eye” spiritual powers, like the supposed ability to read blindfolded, or “bodyscanning,” in which, Landry said, one would “look at a person and tell them physically what’s going on, like ‘you’re prediabetic,’ or if you have cancer.” (You can see a demonstration of Nithyananda devotees’ bodyscanning and other supposed powers in a video with more than 5 million views by YouTuber Frank Elaridi.)

Thanabalasingam said he was raised with a belief in this type of spiritual powers, but usually “in Hinduism, it’s actually discouraged.” In his tradition, such supernatural feats are considered “a big distraction that will take you away from realizing your true nature, achieving enlightenment, [and] merging with the divine.”

Controversial as they were, over time, Nithyananda’s claim to grant these powers to his followers became an increasingly central part of his teachings. Landry describes long sessions in the main assembly hall that could last up to eight hours, in which paired ashramites would sit and attempt to manifest these powers, trying to read images from each others’ minds, with what she claimed to be mixed success. On her YouTube channel, Landry “regularly interviewed people about their experiences with the powers,” she said, and in a 2017 Instagram video she intently concentrated on a coconut in a young man’s hand until it seemed to move under the power of her psychic will. “At the time, I was a true believer, and when I saw that coconut jump out of that kid’s hand I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ve done it!’” she said, laughing. She now realizes, “there’s a strong possibility the kid faked that.”

The “third-eye powers,” particularly blindfolded reading, started out as something taught exclusively to the gurukul students, and though over time the others were initiated, the practice was always associated with the ashram’s children. First, said Landry, the claim was the kids could “identify colors, then they started identifying shapes, then letters, then reading words. By early 2015 the kids were holding books and reading sentences from those books blindfolded.” It was a big draw for Nithyananda: In public demonstrations and YouTube videos with millions of views, genial young boys and girls donned seemingly opaque eye coverings, and gamely appeared to read text from books or packaging to astonished audiences. “The kids were under a lot of pressure” to be able to convincingly perform, alleges Landry, “Nithyananda himself told the teachers, ‘Don’t let the kids eat or sleep until all of them manifest all of the powers.’” She admitted it might be hard to understand why that “didn’t strike me as barbaric at the time.” Nithyananda, she alleged, “told us these kids are not human beings, but rather ‘divine incarnations,’” whose bodies “were capable of living without sleep or food.” According to Nithyananda, alleges Landry, if they didn’t manifest the powers, “they were failing to achieve the purpose they were born for.”

Ashramites and devotees looking for advice on major life decisions were told to seek Akashic readings from the young students, who would supposedly read the “Akashic records,” a sort of cosmic ledger detailing all that has ever been or ever will be. According to Braun, one of the buildings on campus was set up for Akashic readings in the morning, in a dedicated area decked out in gold, with elaborate mirrors and deities. “It looked impressive, like you were entering a divine space,” she said.

Braun claimed she’d “almost spent everything I had on [Nithyananda] programs,” but had some savings for her children. Feeling unsure about how she’d invested the nest egg, she said, she got an Akashic reading to ask if she’d have good fortune. The teenage gurukul student performing the reading, she alleges, told her, “No, you should take [the money] out immediately and give it to Nithyananda.” Braun said she ultimately decided not to donate the rest of her money to the guru. She felt guilty not heeding the Akashic directives, but it just didn’t “feel like a divine message” to her. Yes, in retrospect, the idea of adults asking a kid what to do with their life’s savings is “totally outrageous,” said Braun. To those not conditioned to the concept, she said, it probably seems “quite bizarre,” but she’s “known people who have lost everything because they believed those Akashic readings.”

Nayak, the rationalist and consumer advocate, has contended that having kids perform these types of supposed feats constitutes a “violation of child rights.” “First of all they are teaching the children to lie which is the worst thing,” he wrote in an email. “They are using children to sell their quackery. His children are also diagnosing disease by ‘looking into’ the body which is medically dangerous.” On top of being unethical, he alleged, “Using children for such purposes is an offence under [Indian] child protection laws.” Nayak pointed out how other gurus promise similar “powers,” adding that Nithyananda is “exactly like all the godmen I have seen before,” alleging he merely “uses women more openly.”

Landry alleges that over her last year or so at the ashram, Nithyananda’s “messages got more and more sexual in nature.” She alleges he sent her porn and told her she was a goddess, his counterpart, “the Parvati his Shiva.” To Landry, who already felt like she was special, perhaps even channeling some kind of divine power, it made sense. “I believed it. I thought I was an incarnation of a goddess and that he was the god. I didn’t know the details of Aarthi Rao’s case, [and] that’s exactly what he’d done to her,” alleges Landry. “And now I’ve had other victims come to me anonymously and say, that’s the same way he got them into being sexually active with him.”

In her 2012 interview with Suvarna News, Rao alleged she “was made to feel … that I am a very special and spiritual person. … Nithyananda convinced me that I was the chosen one, I was the only one who was fortunate enough” to receive his sexual attention, which she alleges he framed as part of her path to enlightenment, a “technique” she alleged he referred to as “loving the divine as the beloved.” In a February 2020 interview on Landry’s channel, Jordan Lozada, a former Nithyananda disciple who also alleged he had a sexual relationship with the guru said, “[Nithyananda] used to always say, ‘You are my soulmate, you are my beloved.’” Lozada alleged he “didn’t want” to have sexual contact with Nithyananda, “I felt really uncomfortable doing it,” but he was scared to refuse. “I saw him as a god,” said Lozada.

Landry alleges Nithyananda began to escalate things, groping her breast or kissing her when he had the opportunity, which wasn’t frequent—after all, the responsibilities of a god mean he’s not often alone. At a meeting of around 30 of his lieutenants, she was called to massage his feet, alleges Landry, and afterwards, “he sent me a private message,” saying “he was disappointed, and I should have done more.” She claims she protested, since there had been so many other people around, but alleges Nithyananda told her to “do it in front of them, be mischievous, that’s part of the fun.” She began a sort of sexual relationship with the guru, she alleges, touching him beneath his robes when the opportunity arose, though he “never seemed to fully ejaculate, so like, partial handjobs.” The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding Landry’s characterization of her relationship with the guru, or her alleged sexual contact with Nithyananda.

Landry could not provide screenshots or other evidence documenting many of her alleged text-based conversations with Nithyananda, claiming most were set to self-delete through Facebook Messenger’s “secret conversations” feature, or that she willingly deleted the messages herself at Nithyananda’s request. However, she did provide Gizmodo with a number of screenshots from 2017 that she alleged to depict romantic conversations with the guru. In these alleged conversations, Nithyananda appears to send Landry softcore images of couples in intimate embrace, calling her “sweetie” and “my shakthi,” and urging her to use the secret conversation feature. In some screenshots provided by Landry, the guru appears to send her cute cat images or romantic clip art with hearts and flowers, while another depicts a half-naked couple under bed sheets, under which he appears to ask Landry if she finds the scene “inviting.”

Landry’s mother said she began to feel “concerned” a couple years ago, when Landry returned to Canada to renew her visa and mentioned that her relationship with Nithyananda was evolving beyond an ordinary guru-disciple arrangement. According to her mother, at that point Landry had alleged, “They kissed, and I think he may have copped a feel.” Nithyananda “was saying things to her like she was his devi, and they had past lives together,” claimed Teresa. “He had told her that he was interested in being physical with her. ... I remember at that point thinking to myself, ‘Oh honey, I bet he says that to all the pretty young girls at the ashram.’ And that made me start thinking, ‘Ok, what kind of guru is this?’”

At the time, Landry didn’t feel like there was anything harmful about the alleged relationship. “I think the only negative reaction I had,” she said, was “I wasn’t physically attracted to him. I just thought, ‘It’s a blessing.’ I get to serve the living incarnation of Shiva in a way that I didn’t think anybody else did.” Later, she said, she’d come to think of the alleged relationship as exploitative, and an abuse of power. But even then, there were actually a couple things that bothered Landry. Like, why couldn’t he tell anyone else if she was his goddess? She alleges her illusion was finally shattered “when he asked me in a private message to pick another woman to have a threesome. And I said no. And that was basically the end of my sexual relationship with him.” (The Nithyananda organization did not respond to requests for comment regarding these allegations.)

According to Landry, in the next day’s discourse the guru trumpeted the merits of bisexuality, she felt, in an effort to humiliate her. Later, he “sent me out of his building and into the women’s dorm,” she said. She was devastated and fallen from grace; and now that she knew he was interested in the other women at the ashram, she alleges, she began to obsess over who else he might have a relationship with.

Disappointed and confused, Landry once again returned to Canada in August 2018, and so began the slow collapse of her faith. At first, she said, she had no intention of actually officially leaving the group, but just knew she couldn’t be happy at the ashram. In Canada, she continued to post Nithyananda-related videos, did some work for the organization, and maintained her friendships with fellow devotees, but also began to question some of the things she’d seen. She watched Leah Remini’s A&E series about leaving the Church of Scientology, and how that organization allegedly exerts power over its members. (Landry and other former disciples allege that Nithyananda has, in fact, been personally influenced by Scientology. An alleged internal document related to the guru’s “Nlighten” app, shared with Gizmodo, contains a “to do” list that includes the entry “make scientology style videos.” In a Telegram message, Michel alleges “Nithyananda set Scientology as a base example for what the publications, websites, stories, articles, should look and feel like.”)

A few months later, a group of gurukul kids and older ashramites traveled to Toronto to demonstrate their spiritual powers, according to Landry, in a performance meant to “drum up public support” from Canadian followers and those curious about the Nithyananda movement. Then staying in Toronto herself, Landry was catching up with some of the visitors she knew from India, and she alleges one night, she was chatting with two of the children, a boy and a girl—both around 13—to whom she’d taught social media classes. The kids, she alleges in a YouTube video, had an “emotional breakdown,” beginning to cry, telling her they didn’t want to go back to India, and that they were scared because they’d been beaten and deprived of food for not manifesting superpowers. She alleges the kids told her they had been faking their mystical visions and supposed “third-eye” abilities. The young girl, in particular, “I trusted,” said Landry in the video, this was “a girl who I knew very well, whose parents I had spent a lot of time with.”

And yet, it was almost a year until she finally posted about it, a point that Landry’s critics have used against her—if she was so outraged, why did she wait so long to say something? She claims she did initially tell the kids’ parents, who were officials in the Nithyananda movement, sending them “private messages about what their kids had told me, that they ignored.” Landry claims that she shared the experience individually with others in the group, and reported it to Ranjitha, the former actress who is alleged to have appeared with Nithyananda in his “sex tape.” Now known as Ma Nithyananda Mayi, according to former Nithyananda followers interviewed for this story, she is one of the guru’s closest confidantes and one of the organization’s highest-ranking authorities. Mayi did not respond to multiple email requests for comment regarding Landry’s claim to have contacted her about the alleged incident in Toronto.

According to Landry, she was still shaking off Nithyananda’s influence, unsure what she wanted; coming out against the group publicly would blow up her life, and she knew as well as anyone how aggressive Nithyananda could be in pursuing his detractors. Besides, she’d already seen plenty of outrageous things at the ashram and rationalized them away in the name of her faith, or shut out information that caused her cognitive dissonance. In a way, at least some of what the kids allegedly told her wasn’t even completely new information.

But she did start getting rid of her Nithyananda paraphernalia. Landry claims the guru told her the silver lion-head stick, once a sign of her rank, was “an extension of him,” and “anything I said in front of it, he would hear.” She’d been keeping it locked in her closet, she said, “for the same reason people put post-it-notes over their webcam.” She eventually worked up the nerve to toss it “in the dumpster in the basement of my apartment building,” she said. Immediately a wave of relief washed over her. “I felt like I could breathe again. Like I’m free.”

She posted less frequently, making videos about other topics, or her jewelry, and began a dialogue with people she’d known through Nithyananda, who’d left the group for good. “We were conversing behind the scenes and swapping stories. Each of us has seen a different aspect of the organization’s dark side,” said Landry. She eventually posted a video saying she was moving on from the group, but that nothing terrible or weird or abusive had happened to her there, she just couldn’t take the bare-bones ashram lifestyle and needed a fresh start. (Again, Landry claims she then lied because she was still hoping for a low-drama exit.) Members of the ex-Nithyananda conversation, like Marion Braun, alleges Landry, were “ready to try to pull other people out,” and began to contact friends who were still-loyal devotees to share misgivings.

According to Landry and Braun, someone they contacted told the organization what they were up to. Soon after, they allege, a Nithyananda official sent messages to members on Facebook, claiming “intelligence sources” had uncovered proof of a drug-trafficking operation run by “implants” and “abusers,” naming people in Landry’s circle, including Braun, as conspirators. A screenshot allegedly depicting one of these messages provided to Gizmodo also appears to direct devotees not to speak with the accused and to “unfriend them immediately.” Asked if she ever smuggled drugs through the Ashram, Braun laughed. “No,” she said, “and no proof ever came, of course.” She alleges the accusations “backfired” on the organization, which is why they’ve since deleted the posts. “Nobody believed it, and it woke up a lot of people. They lost a lot of people through this kind of rubbish.”

Though Landry’s first posts containing allegations against Nithyananda were focused on the kids at the ashram, she said the accusations against her friends were what freed her hand. After all, she reasoned, they were probably already on to her apostasy, and there was a good chance they’d come for her either way. Just a year before, “I would have attacked me,” she said. On September 11, 2019, she began posting on Facebook about her experiences and why she really left the group, alleging that in December 2017, a teacher at the ashram school had “forced kids to beat each other” as punishment, since adult participants in Nithyananda’s programs “who were promised ‘superpowers’ complained that nothing was happening,” and it was believed the children were the source of these supposed abilities. The children who confided in her, she alleged in her post, “told me that they were locked in the dorm until their visible injuries healed,” believing it was “a crime against the guru to tell their parents.” The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the details of Landry’s story, or her allegations of child abuse at the ashram.

On Facebook, Landry alleged the kids described “sleep deprivation, public shaming sessions disguised as spiritual practice … and starvation- being denied food for lengthy periods of time unless they ‘manifested powers.’” According to Landry, the students had begun resorting to peeking under blindfolds, or making up supposedly divine messages “[i]n order to earn the right to eat, sleep, drink water and go to the bathroom.” Since then, she alleged in her Facebook post, “a few parents who were there as volunteers confirmed for me that the [December 2017] incident indeed happened.” Five days later, she appeared on her YouTube channel, less made-up and adorned with jewelry than usual and told the same story in more detail, alleging that in one case, “one of the young girls beat every other girl there until they either bled or cried tears,” adding that kids allegedly ended up with “black eyes” and “welts visible on their skin.” At the end of the video, she apologizes to anyone she influenced to pursue Nithyananda’s teachings and other longtime enemies of the group, like Aarthi Rao, “because I had believed the lies and the smear campaign against her by the ashram.”

According to Teresa Landry, her daughter approached her about a month before she made these online allegations, explaining what had allegedly happened, and that she planned to go public with the information. “I was quite frightened for her safety,” said Teresa, “I thought if they find her, maybe they’ll hurt her.” With Landry speaking out, “I thought, oh my god. Now they are going to attack her,” said Braun, “and I don’t know what that will look like, how far they’re willing to go.” Landry’s video would turn into months of what she called “whistleblowing” about her and her friends’ experiences with Nithyananda, but it was also just the beginning of the allegations, both against Nithyananda, and against Landry herself.

One in God

Dridhananda describes the reaction of the Nithyananda community to the allegations with one word: “Shock.” He claimed, “The ashram is not a place where beatings happen.” For him, her allegations felt personal. As the yoga teacher for the kids, he’d wake them up each day before dawn for morning practice, and considering that close proximity, he feels that Landry is essentially accusing him of being party somehow to abuse. In a phone call, Landry makes clear she isn’t accusing him of anything and claims she knows he was elsewhere at the times of the incidents she described in her video. But as an official “mentor” to the kids, he believes the kind of abuse she alleged couldn’t have happened without his knowledge, and “she’s basically saying that I would beat people. And I don’t really want to defend myself from that, I don’t need to.” He said once her critical videos started going up, her fans and other YouTubers who came across her channel started migrating over to the accounts of Nithyananda disciples like him, sending “hate mail,” ripping them for being in a “cult,” and leaving trolly comments.

Landry’s old friends from the organization blocked her phone number and social media accounts. When she posted some of the alleged flirtatious messages from the guru, someone posted a video purporting to show how, in theory, Landry could have faked the exchange. Landry discussed her devotion to Nithyananda as a decade-long saga; detractors pointed out that she’d only been a resident at the ashram for less than a third of that time. Nithyananda followers put out a multipart video series dissecting Landry’s claims. “Whom Are You Trying To Fool Sarah #DirtyLaundry?” asked one Nithyananda account. One YouTuber, who said he’d followed Nithyananda since 2010, thought it was suspicious that she’d deleted her old videos, and accused her of having “a dangerous motive.” “I was trained as a social media ambassador by Sarah Landry,” said a middle-aged medical doctor living in the U.S., who lamented there were parts of Hindu spirituality that Landry, as a Westerner, just failed to comprehend. Sharma’s older daughters posted a video accusing Landry of being promiscuous and a paid agent of the ashram’s enemies.

“All the people I trained to make YouTube videos are making YouTube videos against me,” said Landry. “If I didn’t have a sense of humor, I think this would all be really difficult. But I can see the irony.” The publication Hinduism Now, which she once helped operate for Nithyananda, posted videos to Facebook claiming to expose her “deadly plan to destroy not just his sangha but Nithyananda Swamiji also.” On YouTube, Landry and others in her circle, believing the guru undeserving of the titles and spiritual names he uses, took to referring to him with the fecal epithet “Poops,” while in a February video, she and Lozada, both of whom allege sexual contact with Nithyananda, mocked his alleged penis size. In her videos, Landry repeatedly emphasized that her contention was with Nithyananda, and not with Hinduism or other Hindu people. Still, Landry’s hedging didn’t win over either Nithyananda’s followers or those who seemed to believe her aim was to disrespect Hinduism as a whole.

In a series of September blog posts about Landry, one Nithyananda loyalist calls her a “racist,” and “the newest white savior,” accusing her of trying to save Hindus from their own religion. “To fathom that this is happening TODAY, exactly like 300 years ago when the British came into this country with the same logic, is honestly astounding,” wrote the blogger. A Medium post titled “Appropriation of Feminine Divine Consciousness,” spends pages discussing cultural appropriation and sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy, later pivoting to Landry to imply she’s an agent of controversial Catholic organization Opus Dei, sent to spread “vicious and false accusations and allegations against His Divine Holiness to ensure that no one else benefits from His teachings.”

Asked about the theory that Landry is an undercover Catholic agent, Dridhananda maintains that her allegations have “a Christian motive,” though he “can’t say whether it’s part of some kind of Vatican thing.” Given the painful history of colonialism and intrusive Christian fervor in India, one might see how this kind of thing might be used as a barb, like how “colonizer” is deployed towards perceived racists online, but it seems like Landry is believed to be a more literal type of cultural agitator. To understand why though, you first have to meet Bishop Ralph.

In a September 2019 YouTube video, a frantic-looking, light-haired man with a German accent and a priest’s collar stood in front of a wooden cross, imploring viewers to “not fall for the manipulation games of Sarah Landry,” whom he called a liar and accused of stirring up hate between Christians and Hindus to gain followers and fame. The guy in the video is Ralph Napierski, who claims to be a Catholic bishop, ordained through a once-schismatic lineage, which has since been reconciled with the Catholic church. (Napierski prefers a more detailed explanation of his religious station, which you can find on his “about me” page.) In 2013, he gained the attention of media outlets like Der Spiegel, which called Napierski a “fake bishop who snuck into a meeting of cardinals in the Vatican,” noting him as a frequent attendee of “erotic trade fairs,” who was known for “sex-toy advocacy.” Napierski claims in a phone call that despite these stories, he is a legitimate bishop and blames the bad press on a cabal in the church and media who don’t appreciate his unorthodox ways. Online, Napierski makes videos about a practice he calls “Jesus Yoga,” selling alleged religious relics and art, and appearing on YouTube channels like “Foot Missionary Queen,” to discuss issues such as “Foot fetish and the feminine divine.

Ralph Napierski accuses Sarah Landry of “manipulation.

For a period, in the years before moving to India full-time, Landry lived with Napierski in Germany, working with him on a project called “One in God,” an organization that, according to its website, contends that Catholicism and Hinduism “are 2 parts of the same puzzle and bring different gifts from God with which we can enrich each other.” Napierski, who claimed to maintain a Facebook dialogue with Nithyananda, originally contacted Landry through her YouTube channel. According to both parties, they met at the Slovakia Nithyananda center, and she agreed to work with him on an interfaith unity project in Berlin. Expecting a church and a congregation, when she got there, “instead I met his wife and kids,” alleges Landry, noting that marriage is unusual for members of the Catholic clergy. She stayed with his family, while the two made videos, blogged, sought online followers, discussed ideas like Christian transcendental meditation, and came up with grand titles, like calling Landry “Divine Director.”

Landry’s mother, who called Napierski a “nut job,” said, “He was quite convinced that Sarah was quite a spiritual being and an important person. And she was kind of a sitting duck for that kind of flattery.” According to Landry, Napierski never did or said anything explicitly sexual towards her, but he did “ask for a lot of pictures of my feet,” ostensibly for some spiritual purpose. After a while, claimed Landry, she began to think he was “just trying to use me for my YouTube popularity to bring more people to him and to sell his stupid relics. And so I left.”

Napierski claimed that when Landry began speaking out against Nithyananda, the guru’s devotees uncovered pictures and videos from her “One in God” era, featuring the two delivering talks side by side, or Landry wearing a cross. He claims to run a Catholic order called “Corpus Dei,” which sounds like “Opus Dei,” and that was enough for those, who—perhaps having read The Da Vinci Code—already suspected Landry had sinister, culturally motivated intentions, or at least believed her Hindu faith to have been insincere. They began harassing Napierski, who thereafter denounced Landry on YouTube.

Landry, meanwhile, maintained that while she was born into a Catholic family, she was never particularly religious, and at no point in her adult life, even when she worked on “One in God,” was she a believer in the Catholic faith. In YouTube videos from the time, she made statements explaining that alongside her Hinduism, she “believes in Jesus,” but according to Landry, her role in One in God was just to represent the Hindu side of the equation, which rankled Napierski: He insists that since she took communion, a sacrament reserved for the faithful, when she attended church with him, she is “by definition Catholic.” Though in an interview, she maintained she only stayed with Napierski and his family for about six months, he claimed she was there for over a year. He said the two of them wrote a book together; she claimed she was pressured into including a short, “crazy manifesto” from Napierski at the end of a book she’d otherwise written herself.

None of the disagreements over details reflect on the core of Landry’s allegations or wider claims about Nithyananda, but they did provoke Napierski to speak out, inflaming her detractors, who painted Napierski as either her Vatican puppetmaster or an authoritative source on the claim that Landry is an inveterate liar. As one YouTube commenter put it, “If her past is in question, then i have doubts about her present and future!” True, Landry’s critics are right that her story hasn’t been consistent. For a time, she continued to identify with the Nithyananda publicly after losing faith, initially denied she’d been sexually exploited, and played down her association with Napierski, about which she might have felt a bit “embarrassed,” she said.

If inclined, one could certainly see the evolution of her story as proof of deceit or a dishonest character. One anti-Nithyananda Facebook account expressed concern that the circus around her “could negatively impact the very important court cases against [Nithyananda],” adding, “While Sarah is becoming famous .... we still see little evidence of truth from her.” Still, it’s also not that hard to imagine her changing story as the negotiative process of slowly backing out of a long-held belief system, for someone whose instinct is to broadcast every shade of grey online, with little room in between for reflection. Seemingly aware of her inability to control whether the general public believed her, Landry said in a Facebook message to a critic, “convincing isn’t my top priority; preventing others from falling prey to the cult and getting as many of my friends as possible out is.” And given the response to Landry and others who have spoken out about the group, it would seem one might, in theory, have a pretty good reason to waffle, hoping through attrition to avoid the internet avalanche she’d later shake loose with her allegations. As it turned out, “lying, racist Vatican monkey-wrencher” was not even the worst thing Landry would be accused of.

On September 18, 2019, Sri Nithya Sundareshwarananda Maharaj, a young man living at the ashram, published a post on his Facebook page alleging Landry sexually molested him in 2017, when he was still under 18 and a student at the gurukul. In the post, he details at length how Landry taught him and the other gurukul kids to post on social media and make videos. He claims it’s difficult to admit the alleged abuse, but given Landry’s accusations against Nithyananda, he had “no other choice.”

“[Landry] hugged me from my back,” he writes, “I felt the skin of her stomach on my back and the difference in the body temperature, I started sweating and my heart beat raised heavily, my mind was blank and I couldn’t cognize anything around me… within the fraction of a moment she put her hand inside my dhothi and touched me.” Sundareshwarananda claims, in that moment, he was so shocked that he immediately passed out, falling to the floor. When he woke up, he alleges, “I didn’t understand what happened and got up and went back to gurukul ... I was very scared as to what happened.” He concludes the post with a message seemingly aimed at Landry, telling her he wants to provide “Protection for my GURU - HDH BHAGAVAN SRI NITHYANANDA PARAMASHIVAM who is my LIFE from ANTI HINDU ELEMENTS LIKE YOU BITCH.” Sundareshwarananda claimed to have messages from Landry proving his allegations of abuse, but they never surfaced online. Gizmodo reached out multiple times for an interview or comment on his experience, but Sundareshwarananda did not respond.

Thanabalasingam said that since he wasn’t there at the time of the alleged incident, ultimately, there’s “no way to know what happened.” Still, he said regarding the sexual abuse accusation against Landry, “I don’t feel like it’s true, personally,” and knowing the people involved, “it doesn’t make sense to me.” He thinks it’s suspicious that the allegations against her were leveled so shortly after Landry spoke out against Nithyananda. “I don’t know what to make of it,” he said, but it seems like these types of accusations are “common” when someone badmouths the guru. Nithyananda devotees say of ex-members, ‘Oh, they are anti-Hindu elements,’ or ‘They sexually abused someone,’ or ‘They’re dealing drugs.’”

Landry denies the abuse allegations against her. “Instead of bowing down and going silent, I made a video about their false accusations,” said Landry, “and I started interviewing other people who had been there and witnessed firsthand what [Nithyananda] has done.” One of the people she interviewed on her channel was Braun, who in a tearful November 2019 video explained how in her dedication to Nithyananda, she’d almost lost her children and given up hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. In the video and in her interview with Gizmodo, Braun alleges that one element in her decision to leave was witnessing women from the ashram encouraged to embellish or invent stories of rape and assault, in order to garner political sympathy for the movement. (See also Lozada, who in his video with Landry, alleges he participated in spreading what he now believes were false sexual misconduct accusations against a former Nithyananda follower.) The Nithyananda organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding claims that the group manufactures allegations to further its interests.

The fog of accusations is at this point so thick, the signals so faint amid the noise, that every engagement becomes pyrrhic, every accuser, examined alone, must ask for the benefit of the doubt, while telling you to deny the benefit of the doubt to someone else. With accusations flying every which way, “I think it’s important to question both sides,” Thanabalasingam said. “Even when I say something, it’s only my experience.”

But there are patterns one can observe. With all this back and forth, it’s easy to forget that the overall picture presented by Nithyananda’s accusers doesn’t hang on any one single actor, and maybe the biggest strength of Landry’s efforts was the chorus of voices, like Braun, Thanabalasingam, Lozada, and others she pulled together from around the world, a small quorum others couldn’t so easily dismiss by dint of her posts about aliens or former grand, goofy, spiritual ambitions. For those who may have come across the Nithyananda headlines over the years, her channel offered a slate of first-person stories, a less-distant version of the media’s tales of pain and absurdity. Other YouTube channels also began featuring interviews with ex-Nithyananda devotees, and Landry said she has begun the process of reconciling with longtime Nithyananda critics, apologizing for her actions while in the group, and attempting to amplify their voices through the attention focused on her channel. With each new accuser, with each personal narrative alleging violence, sexual misconduct, or parasitic financial behavior, it becomes harder to wrap these faces and personalities into a single motive or unified conspiracy aimed at undermining a religious movement.

When you follow Nithyananda, said Thanabalasingam, “you’re made to believe that all these people are attacking Hinduism. All these people are attacking this poor victim, Nithyananda. But I’m a Hindu. And I know so many other Hindus running away from Nithyananda … This is personal for me. Like, I have nothing to do with Christian missionaries or anything like that. But for me, I don’t want to do anything with [the Nithyananda community] because I don’t feel they are genuine and I don’t feel like Nithyananda is a real guru. I feel like he’s using people for money and power.”

Kailaasa

Of course, even amid the outrage and counter-accusations, much of the response to Landry’s coming-out was positive. “I am glad finally a soul like you got freed from the cults and gurus,” wrote one Twitter user. “I’m so happy you got away from him. I have been a follower of yours for years now,” wrote a YouTube commenter, adding, “You were meant to be there to expose him!!” Another YouTuber remarked, “Wow!!!! Thanks for informing us!! I’m shocked! I planned on maybe going there!! Ahhh soooo glad I didn’t!!!” Others commenters called her “brave” and “beautiful,” and congratulated her for moving on with her life. Someone who claimed to be a former gurukul student commented that her allegations were “100% true!!” After hearing her story, vlogger Dakota of Earth, who has more than 300,000 subscribers and makes videos about travel, drugs, and spirituality, documented an attempt to get inside the ashram, giving outsiders an idea of the tight security around the compound. Braun said since she made the video with Landry (and another with her daughter), “so many people have contacted me, people who were a little bit on the fence, people who were waking up by the information we put out.” Bringing the conversation onto a public platform “is helping people to make sense of what has happened to them. To all of us,” she said.

“I feel so proud of Sarah,” said Teresa Landry, “for trying to atone for having convinced so many people to start following this guru. And because Sarah was brave enough to come out publicly and tell her story, more of those people have been brave enough to tell their stories.” According to Michel, “when Sarah released her first video talking about the kids it was like a missing piece in a puzzle for me. When I saw that video something clicked and I started coming out of a big bubble of delusion.” It inspired him to make videos with other Spanish-speakers who left the group, since “no one was translating Sarah’s videos,” and Michel asserts that those at the ashram who spoke neither Tamil or English were particularly vulnerable.

Landry did interviews with Indian TV networks, already keen on Nithyananda news, and set out on a small media tour of sorts, appearing on a handful of podcasts and YouTube channels that tackle cult-related conversations, including Ron Miscavige’s “Life After Scientology,” and “Sensibly Speaking” with Chris Shelton. She believes she’s found community with ex-Scientologists because “you have to have been convinced by something outrageously and completely false, to understand how other people can get convinced by something outrageously and completely false.”

In Landry’s anti-Nithyananda videos, as with her material supporting the guru, she always stays remarkably on-message, working in the words “fraud,” and “cult” and “brainwashed” frequently. Academics tend to scorn some of these terms, arguing that the difference between the startup faiths one might call “cults” and other religions is illusory, and “brainwashing” is an ill-defined concept that can be used to duck responsibility for past actions. “I tend to think of brainwashing as an idea that is more useful as a rhetorical strategy than an empirical claim,” wrote Benjamin E. Zeller, chair of the Department of Religion at Lake Forest College, and co-general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, in an email. Even if Landry faced “psychological manipulations” or “outright deception,” he wrote, “There is never a way to prove brainwashing, since it is circular. (Any evidence a brainwashed person presents in their favor can be dismissed as invalid, since they are brainwashed after all!) But it is a very useful way for a person who leaves such a group to redefine their previous experience.”

Landry, who continues to sell handmade jewelry and other craft products through her Etsy store and social media channels, nervously laughs that seeing her story laid out in an article could “make me look like a kooky, new-age YouTube ditz,” though she thinks it’s important people hear about what she and others allegedly went through. “I really think of my life as a cautionary tale about the need for healthy skepticism. I think now my view of spirituality is that it’s such a personal aspect of life that it should be enjoyed but never outsourced [to] a church, or a group, or a guru, or even a book.” She said she’s probably not done learning that lesson about skepticism, or others about the way she pursued her past passions. For the first couple of months after going public, she said, “I had almost this savior mentality that until everyone who’s [still following Nithyananda] is freed, I have to keep fighting. But I’ve had to really let that go after psychoanalyzing myself and realizing that’s the kind of stupidity that got me into the cult. I don’t need to now live a reverse image of that.”

Dridhananda and his wife, Prasiddha, are still devotees of Nithyananda and have moved back to the U.S. (for reasons they explain in this October 2019 video.) Dridhananda said there are some perks to being back home; the former hockey player recently got the chance to do some ice skating for the first time in years. He voiced a version of something Landry and Braun had also expressed in interviews, saying, “You have to be a seeker to understand” parts of this story, to understand why people do the things they do in pursuit of the supernatural or divine. In his former life, he remembers hiding his spiritual YouTube questing from friends and teammates, unsure if they’d understand the “weird” or “hippie” ideas he was getting into, so he knows some of the details might look outlandish to outsiders. But, he said, he has experienced the presence of an “enlightened master” and a profound bliss through his teachings, and that’s a personal reality no one else’s narrative can supersede. These days, he said, he really doesn’t care what other people think.

When he returned home to Australia, Thanabalasingam said he had to endure plenty of ribbing from old friends about his stint with the “sex guru,” though they and his family were “really happy” he was out. He said his cousins and friends from India have told him they’re proud of him for going public with his story, but they also warned him “to be careful because Nithyananda has a lot of political influence there, and a lot of millionaires behind him. And he doesn’t hesitate to do anything.” Braun said she’s “very much” worried about retaliation from the group and declined an opportunity to teach yoga in India because right now, it’s “dangerous for me being in India.” Landry added that she’s still worried about “legal intimidation like was done to people like Aarthi [Rao].”

After Rao made allegations of sexual misconduct against the guru, the lawsuits began: In 2011, Life Bliss Foundation, a Nithyananda group, filed a civil complaint against Rao in California state court, alleging her public disclosures were a misappropriation of the movement’s spiritual trade secrets. And in 2013, a Columbus, Ohio, Nithyananda center sued Rao—who lives in India but is a dual citizen of the U.S. and India—for defamation and tortious interference in business relationships, in an Ohio Federal court. A Nithyananda facility in Saint Louis similarly sued for defamation and tortious interference in a U.S. court in Missouri, accusing Rao of inventing her allegations maliciously and hurting the movement’s reputation and business. In Michigan, where Rao once lived, several Nithyananda-related entities sued Rao in state court, citing a range of complaints, including defamation, invasion of privacy, eavesdropping, fraud, and “theft and conversion of trade secrets.” Rao was also named as a defendant in a racketeering case brought by a pair of California Nithyananda facilities, alleging her rape accusations were part of a complex blackmail plot, in which she, other Nithyananda accusers, and Indian media outlets that had played the guru’s alleged sex tape were all complicit.

Even through years of maneuvering and litigation, Nithyananda’s representatives were never made to actually prove Rao’s claims were false, or that she had done something criminal. Rao, who claimed to be living in India throughout these proceedings, simply did not respond to much of the litigation, or alternatively, claimed that revealing her location or appearing in court would put her in danger. And while most of the cases against her were consolidated, or sputtered out, or dismissed, Nithyananda-related entities still won two default judgments against Rao, including a 2014 judgment for more than $400,000 in Ohio, when she repeatedly failed to show up for court. Nithyananda’s representatives have been consistently aggressive in attempting to pursue this debt, and as recently as January 2020, were attempting to get her U.S. passport revoked and have a federal bench warrant issued. Earlier this year, United States Magistrate Judge Mona K. Majzoub recommended denying this action by the Nithyananda camp, citing the criminal rape case against the guru in India, Rao’s characterization of the U.S. cases against her as retaliatory, and Rao’s past assertion that she feared for her safety if she was to appear in court. “Evidence suggests a legitimate reason for [Rao’s] failure to appear in this and other cases,” wrote Majzoub in her report, adding that the facts of the case gave her “great pause in making any recommendation in further support of the execution of Plaintiff’s default judgment.” Meanwhile, 10 years after her original allegations, Rao’s rape case continues to inch forward, unresolved, in Indian courts.

On top of Rao’s allegations, according to a November 2019 India Today article, due to complaints from Sharma and other gurukul parents, Nithyananda and several of his lieutenants were booked by Gujarat police in a criminal investigation of alleged abduction, illegal confinement of children, and other violations. As part of the investigation, two Nithyananda disciples were arrested on related charges after the guru’s Ahmedabad ashram was raided late last year. (The arrested ashramites were granted bail in February.) Since then, as reported by the Indian Express, a Nithyananda disciple has fired back with a criminal complaint against Sharma, several police officers, and child-welfare officials probing his claims, alleging that in the course of investigating abuse allegations, children at the ashram were shown “morphed pornographic videos,” and “mentally tortured.”

With all Karnataka district and trial courts closed due to covid-19-related concerns, the cases against Nithyananda have been temporarily adjourned, but if he ever wants to return to India, “We will definitely arrest him,” a police superintendent told India Today. In February, the High Court of Karnataka revoked Nithyananda’s bail and demanded the rape trial be expedited. And according to the Hindu, in January, Interpol issued a “blue-corner notice” for the guru, allowing the agency to seek information about his whereabouts and activities, while local authorities still seek a “red-corner notice,” which would amount to “a global arrest warrant.”

The legal pressure hasn’t stopped Nithyananda from consistently posting new videos or making big plans: According to the Guardian, in December 2019, Nithyananda announced he was starting his own sovereign nation, the “Republic of Kailaasa,” which he bills as the “world’s greatest and purest Hindu nation,” a place for “dispossessed Hindus from around the world who lost the right to practice Hinduism authentically in their own countries.” While initial reports stated the guru had purchased an island off the coast of Ecuador for the new country, the ambassador of Ecuador in the United Kingdom wrote to the Guardian’s editors, clarifying that Nithyananda had left Ecuador in August after being denied refugee status, and hadn’t in fact, set up a “cosmic republic” off its shores.

According to the Quint (an Indian outlet partnered with Bloomberg News), a late January call for donations requested devotees “deposit money in a bank account based out of the Republic of Vanuatu,” leading to speculation that the guru had set up shop in the South Pacific island nation. Jamaica is also a possibility; the Times of India reports that Sharma’s older daughters, denying allegations that they’re being held against their will, have finally come to an agreement with the Gujarat High Court to be deposed by video conference from Jamaica’s Indian embassy. Or maybe, some news outlets have theorized, the guru has been holed up in Trinidad, where according to the Kailaasa site, Nithyananda aims to build “the Largest Hindu Female Monastery for the Americas, housing a dynamic enlightening and empowering training center solely for women,” as an expression of what the site calls “Vedic Feminism.” The site also offers a “social media kit” with Kailaasa images, so followers can show solidarity with the movement through matching banners and account avatars, which maybe gets to the heart of Kailaasa’s reality.

Maybe, no matter where Nithyananda is, Kailaasa only exists online, where a Canadian woman can briefly become a goddess, and those who seek to dream wild, magical realities into existence can do so, in defiance of pesky headlines, legal authorities, and the constrictions of any one particular truth.

Jed Oelbaum is a writer and editor based in New York

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DISCUSSION

imnotdedyet
David E. Davis

So in summary...never trust white people with dreads.