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To hear him tell it, there isn’t much that self-proclaimed “godman” Paramahamsa Nithyananda can’t do with his alleged supernatural powers. Want to hear a cow or monkey speak Sanskrit? He’s your man. Heal the blind? Check. ESP, stop sunrise, see through walls? The swami says he can do all these and more. And if you swear your fealty to him and start making donations, he’ll teach you how to do them too.
Nithyananda, who claims to be the physical embodiment of Lord Shiva, is the man skeptics and debunkers love to hate. But he’s pulled off a couple of tricks that not even his most strident detractors can explain. For example, managing to flee India one step ahead of the law and without valid travel papers back in 2019. Or how he continues to evade justice to this day, despite being wanted by Interpol on charges of rape and kidnapping.
Narendra Nayak, the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations [FIRA], called Nithyananda a “fraud and a cheat” in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But how he managed to get out of the country is a mystery because his passport had expired long back!” he said.
Nayak has publicly challenged the claims of paranormal powers made by the swami and his legions of followers. He has also designed tests in which the miracle workers are asked to show off their gifts in a controlled setting, without hidden cameras or other aids. The inability to repeat their feats under monitored conditions does nothing to persuade Nithyananda’s true believers, and some have gone so far as to threaten Nayak for exposing their parlor tricks.
One such vengeance seeker even vowed to cast a “curse that I would get carcinoma of the penis,” said Nayak, who described his metaphysical assailant as “a woman disciple of Nithyananda’s who said she had already granted cancer of the brain to someone who had challenged her man.”
The ‘Sex Swami’
Nithyananda, 43, began practicing yoga at the age of 3. He later roamed the Himalayas as part of his spiritual training before opening his own ashram in the Indian state of Karnataka in 2003. He served as chairman of the Hindu University of America. Although exiled and in hiding he remains wildly popular on social media—his Facebook page alone boasts some 1.1 million followers—and he often surfaces to drop video clips full of grandiose statements, such as claiming that he and only he could cure India’s COVID woes.
“Though some of his pronouncements look like jokes, they are all calculated to bring more attention to himself and [serve as] clickbait,” Nayak said.
Nayak isn’t the only critic to lock horns in public with Nithyananda. Journalist Nakkheeran Gopal helped bring to light some of the swami’s alleged wrongdoings and wound up in court.
A nationally acclaimed Indian journalist who operates his own magazine and website, Gopal told The Daily Beast he published “secretly recorded” videos that he said exposed Nithyananda’s “sexual indulgence with young sanyasi [mendicant] girls in his ashramam.”
In a resulting lawsuit, the godman and his lawyers contended the videos were “morphed” or computer generated, according to Gopal. “[The] court found and held that the clippings were not morphed and dismissed his suit,” Gopal said.
A sex tape starring the so-called “Sex Swami” had surfaced in 2010, and in that case too he had tried to claim the video was faked, although forensic experts eventually testified otherwise.
But videos coming to light were just the start of Nithyananda’s trouble. He was later accused of rape by an American woman, Aarthi Rao, who had come to study yoga and meditation under him—and who later stated that she thought she was “having sex with God.”
At the time, Rao believed that her personal yogi was “not just an enlightened master, but an avatar and incarnation.” Furthermore, the guru convinced Rao herself that she was the “chosen one” ordained by the godhead to be his sole companion in this world—until she found him sleeping around with other students, according to news reports at the time.
Rao pressed charges against her former teacher in both Michigan and India, “yet he continues to go scot free & harass the witnesses & critics through his brainwashed disciples & followers,” she tweeted.
Shiva’s personal avatar was later accused of luring at least four underage girls to his ashram and holding them in an apartment against their will, leading to government charges of abduction against him.
By 2019, Nithyananda “found the due processes of law finally closing in on him,” according to Nayak.
“He had tried to dodge [the charges] for so long by filing plea after plea [and] obtaining adjournments, trying to cast aspersions on character of the one who had complained of rape and so on. Finally there were no more avenues left and he absconded,” Nayak said.
It eventually came to light that the godman had the students of his ashram sign a sexually explicit non-disclosure agreement that would scare the hell out of loving parents from any culture. According to India Today the clause read:
"Volunteer understands that the Program may involve the learning and practice of ancient tantric secrets associated with male and female ecstasy, including the use of sexual energy for increased intimacy/spiritual connection, pleasure, harmony, and freedom. Volunteer understands that these activities could be physically and mentally challenging, and may involve nudity, access to visual images, graphic visual depictions, and descriptions of nudity and sexual activity, close physical proximity and intimacy, verbal and written descriptions and audio sounds of a sexually oriented, and erotic nature, etc."
Twilight of the godmen
The Nithyananda isn’t the first self-styled godman to get himself into trouble in India for sexually exploting his cult-like followers.
“There have been quite a few scandals over the years,” said Dr. Brian Collins, an expert on Hindu studies at the University of Ohio, in an email. Collins added that “there is most often money (and/or sex) involved” and that some of the godmen “use their money and power to escape consequences.”
Collins also said that many in India don’t see a living incarnation of the supreme deity as being so farfetched, which can help traditional godmen like Nithyananda establish their sway over the masses.
“Unlike in Christianity, gods come to earth in many forms in Hinduism, so the idea of the divine in a human being is not particularly scandalous for most people,” Collins said.
Dr. Patrick McCartney, who studies the intersection between religion and anthropology at the School of Global Environmental Studies in Kyoto, Japan, described Nithyananda as being “about as sleazy as a used-car salesman at the afterparty to a used-car-dealers’ convention.”
“His followers are attracted to him because he promises to help them gain powers. People seem to feel powerless and so through his pretence of being all powerful they believe they too can become a powerful yogi.”
“Cult leaders [like Nithyananda] use psychological manipulation to break and rebuild targeted individuals into their puppets,” said Dr. Robert Bunker, director of research and analysis at the security consultancy C/O Futures, LLC.
“The specialness, and at times divine origins, of the group’s members and the identification of the ‘others’ who become the sworn enemies of the group are part and parcel of this approach,” Bunker said. He also helped explain why the swami’s many die-hards run propaganda websites that defend his actions and tear down his accusers, and why they might try to curse his enemies with cancers of the brain and genitals.
“Once a cult follower has been turned into a ‘true believer’ all bets are off as far as their potential for violence… Such reprogrammed people will readily fight for and kill on command of their god.”
‘People are donating from all over the world’
Other sex-crazed mystics may come and go, but Nithyananda has secured his place in the godman pantheon by founding his own “country” after he lit out of India on the lam in 2019.
His “Hindu nation” is known as Kailaasa and is described on the national website as a country “without borders” intended to function as home for “the ancient enlightened Hindu civilizational nation which is being revived by displaced Hindus from around the world.”
Kailaasa allegedly boasts its own currency, flag, bureaucracy, and COVID policy. It’s rumored to be off the coast of Ecuador, with visa-approved tourist flights coming in by charter from Australia, although the Ecuadorian government has categorically denied selling the swami an island or even granting him asylum.
“Kailaasa is a decoy,” said journalist Gopal. “There is no Kailaasa island. My guess is [Nithyananda] is hiding in some secret place in Nepal or any other Hindu-lenient country, where he is facilitated to appear on social media.”
Others have posited that Kailaasa is in fact a “virtual nation”—that is, a metaphor for the dozens of NGOs that have been set up to receive donations and engage in pro-Nithyananda outreach programs across three continents, including at least 10 in the U.S.
From Pennsylvania in the east to Hawaii out west, from as far south as Houston to as far north as Minnesota, the guru’s networkers have established a series of franchise-like branch offices that serve as embassies “for global representation for the diaspora who are practitioners (Hindus) of Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism),” according to documents obtained by India Today.
Like traditional consulates, they also gather intel about the U.S. and other nations so as to “analyse [the] political and economic situation of the host country and report back to appropriate Kailaasa ministry on issues that affect the Kailaasa.”
India Today quoted the maligned spiritual leader explaining how Kailaasa might work as a broad-based religious organization—one that could also fill his personal coffers and fund his fugitive lifestyle—during an internet address in which he said:
“People are donating all over the world, working with the local governments because each donation in any country belongs to that country's NGO, follows that country's laws, working with those countries in an organised way [so] this whole structure is absolutely ready.”
For FIRA’s Narendra, however, the as-yet-undiscovered country is likely just the latest iteration of the Sex Swami’s old M.O.
“His Kailaasa seems to be a harem with himself as the master stud,” Narendra said.
‘Front companies, forged papers, and safe houses’
Whatever or wherever Kailaasa is, the fact remains that Nithyananda continues to evade an Interpol manhunt, while also dressing in conspicuous orange robes and appearing regularly on internet broadcasts.
“It is an intriguing mystery that Interpol has failed to trace him,” Gopal said. “Some stealthy protection helps him.”
Interpol declined an interview request for this story.
In late 2019, Indian police traced the fugitive godman as far as the island of Trinidad, in the southeastern Caribbean, where he had gone to attend a religious event. The Times of India cited a police spokesperson who indicated that Nithyananda and some of his female acolytes had later departed Trinidad on a private jet bound for Ecuador.
But he didn’t stay there long. Not only does Ecuador deny selling him an island, it seems they were also quick to show him on his way:
“Ecuador denied the request for international personal protection (refuge) made by Mr. Nithyananda before Ecuador and later on Mr. Nithyananda left Ecuador,” the government said in a statement in December 2019. And that was the last time the whereabouts of the god-made-flesh renegade were known.
Security analyst Bunker said the godman’s elusiveness is abetted by his ranks of fanatical worshippers.
“Since cult leaders typically suck out the wealth of their adherents, they amass large war chests in which to invest in properties and businesses[,] and also bribe public officials in less developed countries,” Bunker said. “I have no doubt front companies are being used, travel documents forged with bogus identities, and safe houses established to protect him.”
In spite of his ability to elude international law enforcement, religious anthropologist McCartney referred to Nithyananda as “just another shady snake oil spiritual salesman” duping gullible people. He also described the relationship between the godmen and their followers as one based on mutual necessity.
“The guru needs gullible devotees and the devotees need a guru to take away all self-responsibility,” McCartney said. “It's much easier to let the guru direct you in life than to take charge of one's own.”