I’ve been watching news out of India this past week about Swami Nithyananda and the scandal he and his organization are caught up in. Those have inspired this post. I am acquainted with Swami Nithyanada’s Life Bliss organization because they took over Hindu University near me in Florida. I’d been taking yoga classes with a wonderful instructor at the school before the takeover. Afterwards, the classes were offered by the Swami’s Life Bliss Foundation and included meditation and watching a video of the Swami’s teachings. Now I don’t have enough experience with Hinduism to comment on the teachings though there have been accusations that they were both borrowed from others and highly westernized. (I did have a bit of a confusing conversation with one organizer who insisted that the Swami’s teachings his organization were not actually Hindu because she didn’t believe in Hinduism.) But what finally made me reconsider the organization was the simple issue of money.
Now, it is not that I believe that religious organizations should or can be completely free from monetary issues. Our local Wiccan Cooperative asks a small fee for rituals so they can help pay for space and supplies. And when I attended the meditation sessions, which were free, I didn’t object to donating money or supplies to help make sure we had tea and other minor needs for the meetings. But I do have a problem when I sense that any religious organization is using fees to make a profit or control who joins the group. And I soon began to sense that I was seeing an organization that had structured itself to attract Westerners willing purchase Spirituality to join the ranks while keeping the poor or money conscious at a distance.
How? Well, while the basic meditation each week was free, the other programs that the foundation offered were not. And in fact, increased in costs during the period I was with the group. At weekly mediation session, we were often encouraged to sign up for the more expensive programs, which involved multiple levels all increasing in cost. Then there were the talks given by the Swami during his travels, which often required a fee for attendance. It seemed that again and again after the meditation sessions people would sit around discussing what program or talk they wanted to attend and what the cost was. When asked about the increases in price, the organization responded that the Swami had become so popular they needed to raise prices to ensure space for true devotees.
Huh? Now, I spent years working in the tourist industry. When you set a price point for entry to a theme park or a room at a resort, what you are doing is actually selecting the level income you want your guests to have. Why? Because this level of income will also determine the amount of money they spend on merchandise, food and other items that well, frankly are a large portion of your profit. So, when a religious or spiritual organization that sells books, CDs and other paraphernalia sets a price point for admission, my wisdom tells me that they’re looking for members with money that can be spent on programs and merchandise.
Currently many in India are angry over the way such actions are influencing people’s perceptions of what Hinduism is. As Western Pagan, we can learn from this. We are avid readers and love to buy books. We often take classes from local experts in everything from Wicca to tarot reading. And then there are items for the altar, sacred jewelry, scented oils, candles, and such that we love to buy. All of this is fine, as long as we remember – no one can sell us spirituality or enlightenment or the Goddess. The connection to the God and Goddess lies within each of us, and they don’t charge an admission fee.