Quotes from Ram Dass That Fit the Pattern of Spiritualizing Sexual Abuse in Yoga

Not long after the glowing obits for Ram Dass started packing my feeds, Karen Rain, a trusted friend and colleague messaged me:

“Did you know that Neem Karoli Baba was a sex offender too?” No. No I didn’t.

Neem Karoli Baba was Dass’s guru. Bhagavan Das introduced them. (Falk has the rundown here.) Karoli Baba is essential to the bios of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal as well.

Rain pointed me to a book that I was able to download and search in a few minutes. Miracle of Love (Dutton Publications, 1979. ISBN-13: 9780525476115). It’s a hagiography of Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass.

Dass has an entire chapter in the book called “Krishna Play” (loc. 4661). Here’s how he introduces it:

IT SEEMS AT ONCE surprising and obvious to note that Maharajji was quite different in the quality of his relationship with men and with women. With men he hung out and gossiped, scolded, and guided—as friend, father, and sage. With the women, on the other hand, in addition to those roles, he seemed frequently to assume roles like that of Krishna, as child and playmate and lover. Such play on Maharajji’s part of course created some consternation and confusion among devotees and also grounds for criticism on the part of people who did not like or trust Maharajji. But for the women devotees who were directly involved with Maharajji in this way, his actions served as a catalyst to catapult them to God.

Okay Boomer.

Here are some of the testimonies that Dass compiles for this section:

We’d be sitting outside and Maharajji would pull my hands under the blanket and make me massage his legs, almost pulling me under the blanket. I loved touching him, but I was not sure how far you can go in touching Maharajji. I’d be working on his feet and calves, and he’d grab my arm and pull my hand up to his thigh. So I’d do his thighs for a little bit and then my hands would start wandering down to his calves again, because all of a sudden I’d look around and see all these people staring at me. An Indian woman would be gasping, and I’d get real embarrassed, so I’d start working on his feet again. Then his hand would come sliding down and grab mine and pull it up again. He would often perform this puzzling ritual with me. And if I tried to explain it to myself, no sooner would I have the thought than he’d turn to me and yell “Nahin!” and then go on with his conversation.

 

One Indian widow who had no children came to Maharajji, worried about who would take care of her. Maharajji said, “Ma, I’ll be your child.” She started to treat him like a child and then he said, “You know, Hariakhan Baba used to suck the breasts of women. I’ll sit on your lap.” And he sat on her lap and he was so light and small, just like a child. He sucked on her breasts and milk poured out of them, although she was sixty-five. Enough milk came from her to have filled a glass. After that she never missed not having children.

 

I felt a great deal of fear of Maharajji and experienced a kind of awkwardness with him, wanting so much to do the right thing yet afraid that I wouldn’t know what that was. He called me into his room in Kainchi one day. (Of course it always happened on the days when you really needed it.) He had me close the doors. He was up on the tucket, I was sitting on the floor, and he leaned down to hug me. I reached out to hug him back and he meant for me to come even closer. He said, “Come closer, come closer, you’re not close enough.” And he just lifted me off the ground, onto the tucket, and into his arms. He put his arms and his blanket all the way around me. He absolutely covered me with his blanket and with his being. He swallowed me whole! I melted—all my fears, all that stuff totally vanished into the sea of Maharajji. I was completely out of my body, totally immersed. So that’s how he answered all those questions: Just by one hug!

 

I was kneeling before Maharajji when he grabbed at my sari and started pulling at it. Then he was holding my breasts and saying, “Ma, Ma.” I felt for the first time as if I were experiencing an intimate act free of lust.

 

There are stories about gurus doing things with women. But somehow around Maharajji there was a feeling of such purity that people could tell me anything he had done, and it never shook my total trust in him at all. It was clear that he needed nothing; he had no desires of his own. I believe that he would do things with women for whom the sexual part of their lives was not straight. In retrospect, it looks as though it served a very direct function for them.

In the introduction to the book, Dass explains that the material comes from interviews with over one hundred devotees. He writes:

These stories, anecdotes, and quotations create a mosaic through which Maharajji can be met. To hold the components of this mosaic together I have used the absolute minimum of structural cement, preferring to keep out my personal interpretations and perspective as much as possible.

Any Stanford psychology PhD should know that it’s not that simple. Inclusion choices are also exclusion choices. Dass put together the book by either cherry-picking statements that frame experiences with Karoli Baba as transformative, or, most likely, by not having interest in or access to survivors’ narratives in the first place. There is a difference between cult literature and survivor literature.

Interestingly, the most visible time Dass displayed a critical eye in relation to sexual abuse in the guise of spiritual intimacy was in his vicious take-down of “Joya”, a female spiritual teacher living in Brooklyn in his 1976 Yoga Journal essay “Egg On My Beard”.

Then there’s this bit from Dass’s obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Leary accused Mr. Alpert [Das] of trying to seduce his 15-year-old son, Jack, whom Mr. Alpert often took care of while Mr. Leary, a single parent, traveled.

I’d like to know more about that. Can’t find much.

There’s an entire genre of male writing that mystifies, rationalizes, or spiritualizes women’s experiences — especially of sexuality — within modern global yoga and Buddhist cultures. I believe it has both blessed and reinforced a misogynistic pattern that has prevented survivors’ stories from being heard.

Consider these two passages, both written by men, glorifying Chögyam Trungpa’s relationships with women:

For those of his fortunate female students who wished it, his love could manifest in the most intimate physical manner. Those who did take up his invitation almost always remembered these times as some of the most precious of their years with Rinpoche. They were felt as times of profound teaching — though rarely was there any formal dharma discussion between them — as well as times of lightness, freedom from care, and playful humor. At the same time, of course, anyone in any similarly intimate situation with Rinpoche was pushed to the edge of their little ego games, pushed to be open and genuine; and, for many of us in the West, sex provides one of the deepest entrenchments for ego.

— Hayward, Jeremy W. Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa. Wisdom Publ., 2008. 48.

and:

A measure of his compassion can be gleaned from the reports of a number of female students who experienced spending intimate time with him as a very precious communication. Some women reported that, even when there was no sexual intimacy involved—as was often the case in the last years of his life—they experienced spending the night with him as the greatest kind of intimacy.

— Midal, Fabrice, and Ian Monk. Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision. Shambhala, 2012. 153.

Hayward and Midal obviously didn’t ask Leslie Hays about her experience of Trungpa.

I’m left with uncomfortable questions, given how wall-to-wall the praise has been for Dass. The way he was mourned over the holidays positioned him as some kind of unimpeachable saint. I started to notice that every single portrait of him captured exactly the same overwhelming beaming smile.

But this is the yoga world, and I’m skeptical of single-toned portrayals.

So I’m wondering if he also benefited from the mythologization of his guru. And if that mythologization depended upon the suppression of abuse stories.

I’m wondering how many bystanders to abuse in the yoga world felt consoled — for decades — by that enormous, unfailing smile.

I’m wondering if he was the guy who somehow made it all okay.

 

13 Comments

  • I am left wondering if you are able to imagine what a non-abusive sexual relationship with a spiritual teacher or practitioner would look like? These stories quoted by Ram Dass are clearly not stories of abuse – in his telling of them – and it is equally clear that you believe that his teacher was sexually abusive. Why? Can a spiritual teacher not have a sex life? Is a hug a sign of abuse?

    • Not sure how anyone can assert that these accounts do not describe abuse. The testimony goes way beyond hugs, so I’m not sure why you’re minimizing that. It’s true that the quoted sources do not frame their experience as assault, and it doesn’t matter, because that’s not how assault is defined. The main point is that Dass writing on behalf of all women who interacted with Karoli is presumptive, projective, and fits the pattern of suppressing or minimizing sexual abuse in yoga.

      I don’t care whether spiritual teachers or anyone else has a sex life. I care about whether power is used over others.

    • it’s very clear from at least some of the accounts that the women on the receiving end of the guru’s ‘attention’ experienced his actions as boundary transgressions. “Then his hand would come sliding down and grab mine and pull it up again…And if I tried to explain it to myself, no sooner would I have the thought than he’d turn to me and yell “Nahin!”…” Dass implies that the woman wants to massage the guru’s thigh/crotch but doesn’t because she is worried it might offend him due to his holiness. This may be so, though it’s unlikely, given that she feels “embarrassed” and repeatedly tries to pull her hand away. The abuse/assault occurs exactly at that moment when the woman withdraws consent (by pulling her hand away) and this withdrawal is ignored. Furthermore, just like in any run of the mill abuser-victim scenario she tries to deal with the cognitive dissonance by attempting to “explain to herself” (read: excuse) his boundary transgression and her discomfort. And he keeps her in check by withdrawing his “love” (continuing the conversation) as soon as she begins to form a resistant thought. If that isn’t a coercive scenario then I don’t know what is…

      Side note: Just replace “guru” with “school teacher” and “follower” with “child” and play the scenario out in your head. Does it still sound appropriate and “loving” to you?

  • Standard cancel culture article. Too glowing a picture must mean there’s some character failing we can latch on to and get to hold a contrarian view of a beloved figure. And selectively choose a few moments from their 88 year life to then make a referendum on who they were. The premise that but for Ram Dass’s (and countless unmentioned Maharaji devotees) portrayals of Maharaji so many unknown abused followers would have had their stories told is quite a monumental stretch. But you have succeeded in being contrarian. And getting a click from me.

      • Such as the NYT quote where you highlight a passing reference to Leary thinking Ram Dass may have attempted to seduce his son at some point, but completely omit the the significantly detailed content that follows which states that Tim Leary loves Ram Dass and couldn’t think of anyone else he preferred to have at his side more when it came time to face his own death? Or how Leary’s son defends Leary’s characterization of Ram Dass seducing?

        I don’t want to get too deep in the mud here. You’re an author. You have a point of view. I’m sure you’re a good person. You’re worthy of love, the way I believe we all are. I definitely was reactive when I read your words because, having listened to and learned from Ram Dass for many years and knowing the deep impact he’s had on my life and many others, I see him beyond a string of quotes analyzed in isolation. And his recent death still stings. He is absolutely imperfect. As am I. You chose to write a piece from the lens you see things through. Crafted a narrative that you find compelling. I may not agree with the approach or conclusion but I understand and can appreciate it. I apologize for my reactivity. Something I need to work on. And I genuinely wish you well.

  • I appreciate your efforts in exposing abuse in the yoga world. Over the course of my thirty years in yoga practice, I have personally witnessed the exploits of many, including Pattabi Jois, Bikram Choudhury, John Friend, and Amrit Desai. And I have developed a skeptical and questioning mind when it comes to gurus or spiritual teachers.
    However, reading this article I am not convinced, and I am left wondering why you wrote it. More importantly, it tells me something about your character. The fact that you publish this article slandering Ram Dass right after his death, shows me that you have little sensitivity or sympathy for all the thousands of people who loved him dearly, and benefited from his life and teachings. Let alone, respect for his life and passing. It is tactless, and without heart.
    The fact that you are starting the article with gossip and slander from your friend, and then trying your hardest to support it and promote it, tells me something about your intentions and interests. Also your provocative choice of title, which is quite damning, is sensationalist and unfounded.
    I cannot help but think you are attempting to ride on the wave of interest in Ram Dass’s death, trying to stir up controversy to generate interest in yourself, and get people to notice you.
    You make very serious accusations against him and his teacher without solid evidence. Your perspective seems biased, trying to find whatever threads you can to make a case, which are very weak. Such as the way you bring in another teacher, Chogyam Trungpa.
    I knew Ram Dass over many years. He was open about his sexuality and his neurosis. He was very human, very humble, and very honest. Which is why so many loved him and could relate to him. He did not try to hide or trick or deceive. In my view, Ram Dass was one of the few spiritual teachers that stood with integrity through his teaching career. One of the good ones. It doesnt make him perfect, just that he didnt abuse his position of great influence, which is obviously challenging for white Western males.
    In this article, you accuse Neem Karoli Baba of sexual abuse and point a finger at Ram Dass saying he is in part responsible for making sexual abuse ok. What you supply is not evidence of sexual abuse, although questionable, so it is irresponsible for you to make such a serious claim, or assume what your friend says is true. That is just slander.
    That you choose to make such a case here, pointing a finger at Ram Dass with the implied blame that he has normalized abuse, with the very few and insignificant references you have to back up your claim, is not right.
    I am left with a very sour feeling after reading this article, and I feel sorry that you felt it necessary to step this low.
    Again, I appreciate the work you have done to expose abuse in the world of yoga. It is important to address. But perhaps you should question the manner in which you focus on this topic, so that you do not end up creating a mountain out of a mole hill, only to prop up your own arguments or achievements through exploiting the reputation of others.

  • This post reads like some one with a preconceived agenda trying to twist and contort a beautiful mans life work into something nasty and profane. If you can scour books upon books upon books written about the great saint Neem Karoli Baba and this is the most incriminated quotes you can come up with to try and paint him as a sexual abuser ….. you know you’re clutching at straws.

    You must understand how he worked. Which was to work with people to remove their dysfunctional behaviors and desires and then transmute or convert peoples strongest desires into higher forms that served humanity and God. He aimed not to dismiss the deepest desires – but rather to cause them to be fulfilled in a way that allowed to be used to serve god and higher ideals and bring them closer to god.

    Krishna Das / Jeff Kagel wanted to be a famous musician. That was his deep desire. He was actually a member of the famous rock band Blue Öyster Cult. But before they became famous he dropped out met Ram Dass and eventually traveled to India. There Maharaji saw this and orchestrated that this desire to be a famous musician be fulfilled but in a purer form. He became not a rock star but rather the most famous and well known kirtan wahler singing sacred mantras and names of God and spreading these prayers to the world. He fulfilled Krishna Dass desire in a way that still served God.

    Then you have Ram Dass. The intellectual and professor. Who wanted to be a renowned and respected scholar. He took this desire and once again converted it to serve God. Becoming probably the most famous and respected western spiritual teacher of the 70s and 80s – spreading love and spiritual teachings across the west.

    Then you have Larry Brilliant. A young man who wanted to be respected as doctor but who’s own mother saw him as a drop out and didn’t believe he was capable. Maharaji at work again moved him away from the typical prestigious selfish well paid western medicine and into humanitarianism. He orchestrated that he become one of the leaders of the WHO project which rid Small Pox from the world and created one of the largest charitable medical and health organizations in the world – SEVA.

    These amazing feats should make you aware Neem Karoli Baba was no ordinary man. He was a saint with amazing power to purify and cause positive change and powerful manifestations of a persons desires and gifts into the world in ways that served god and humanity. They should serve as evidence – the type of fruit he brought forth and that this was beyond normal mans capabilities and understanding.
    When in the example you use – an older woman expressed she was upset she never had children – Maharaji aimed to fulfill this desire so she could focus on other more important things and not be drawn back to this through karma or another reincarnation. When he said to her – Ma, I’ll be your child – this wasn’t merely words. He was through the spirit able to embody this experience to help fulfill and then dissolve her desire for children. They played this role out ….. he became her child …….. so she could move on from this desire and not have it bind her and prevent her from moving towards god. It requires and understanding and acceptance of his power to appreciate what was happening. But like I said the amazing feats that were manifest through his followers should give you and idea ….. this was a true spiritual master – not a fraud like many who have come before.

  • I feel like you could have taken some more time to learn about the culture you’re writing about. You are approaching this from the view of how progressive white culture views things in 2020. I don’t feel you really appreciate that things were different 50 years ago and you literally found every bit of evidence you could against Ram Dass on this specific topic, but failed to present any potential counter arguments to why this could have been the case. So really I feel like you wrote a biased opinion piece and tried to piecemeal a giant straw man that wouldn’t hold up in the court of public appeal.

    • To the contrary, I focused mainly on the quotes from a single book, and analyzed them. Have you looked at them closely?Things definitely were different 50 years ago; and here we are.

  • Thanks for the article…having been in and out of Sathya Sai organization and having learned and personally known the abuse their in…I have shifted my studying Indian religion elsewhere…unfortunately, I find that many of the Gurus including Yogananda and Sri Neem Karoli Baba…likewise (it doesn’t matter how many we have sex with…but the fact that they display sexuality though outwardly denying it is bit troublesome…only Shirdi Sai Baba and Ramana Maharishi are two left in whom I haven’t found this awkward correlation to sex…amidst the Indian Gurus…we turn to Gurus so that we will free ourselves of such feelings but if they themselves are bound by these , how will they free us…?

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