The Cult of Swami Shankarananda, Sri Nityananda Ashram:
And Why It Is Dangerous to Attend
No one consciously chooses to join a cult. They are deceptively recruited into a high control group, often at a vulnerable point in their life. Cults do not see themselves as cults, but rather as special and rare, with profound opportunities for those that get involved. Contradictory to popular depictions, cult members are not all stupid or naïve, but simply deceived by a complex system of covert influences. They are often idealistic and intelligent, and looking for more than the status quo of mundane life.
I was once a close disciple of Swami Shankarananda (Swamiji) and lived at his ashram for many years. I have come to see it as a destructive cult and my purpose in writing this article is to inform the public so as to help people avoid deceptive recruitment into it. I’ve studied cults in depth, influence techniques, hypnosis, I have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Sociology, and I have my own first-hand accounts of the exact ways that deception, manipulation and abuse occur at the ashram, orchestrated by Swamiji and his inner circle.
My core values and beliefs guiding this article and its information include the belief that all people have a right to choose their path, that most people are doing their best given their model of the world, and that freedom is a fundamental human right. I have learned from my own experience as well as the testimony of others and academic research on the psychology of influence: that whilst humans are innately free, we can be seduced to give away that freedom and not even recognise that we are no longer in the driver’s seat. It is for the agenda of our ultimate freedom, happiness and growth that I offer my sharing here.
THE ROMANTIC VISION
Why might the ashram be an attractive place for someone to attend?
Swami Shankarananda is an American Guru who lives in Mount Eliza on the outskirts of Melbourne. He runs an ashram where committed disciples can live, work and study for the purpose of spiritual transformation and the cultivation of shakti or spiritual energy, as well as expanded awareness. Gurdjieff and many others including ancient lineages of various traditions have spoken about the incredible opportunity of mystery schools such as the ashram, where devoted seekers can make their spiritual development their primary focus, and where the relationship between an enlightened master and his students can foster enormous mystical experiences and transmission of energy. It’s an incredibly romantic ideal, and an intoxicating dynamic to take part in. Whether you’re curious about learning meditation or yoga or coming along to a Satsang or study group — there’s something magnetic and euphoric about this community, and it can be easy to see the value offered, because there’s a real sense of family, of deep meaning, and of mystery.
The ashram follows the ancient tantric philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism; a oneness ideology that sees the whole universe as a play of consciousness and the path of enlightenment as an unknotting of individual tendencies to allow for an immersion into the deep ocean of awareness and bliss that is the substratum of reality. It’s an appealing philosophy and shines in stark contrast to the renunciate ways of the austere Vedantic yogi or the concept of being born in sin. In the Shaivite philosophy, all of us are perfect and divine at our core.
There are many things that can make Swami Shankarananda and his teachings, courses and ashram highly attractive to a spiritual aspirant. It’s a place for sadhana or intensive spiritual practice, and if you hang out there, you’ll likely experience some profound states of bliss, connection, and deep reverence, not to mention learning some directly applicable spiritual philosophy and practices that can uplift your life and transform your consciousness.
Given the romantic vision described above, you might ask: Why would there be accusations of Swamiji being a cult leader, and the ashram being a dangerous place? This cultic narrative is a crushing of the utopian possibilities described above. There are definitely a broad spectrum of wonderful experiences to be had at the ashram and this is where people can easily be led to ignore the warnings of destructive cultism because it feels so good. What follows ought to urge the reader to consider exploring further information beyond the ashram walls so that you don’t end up in a situation you never signed up for or wanted when you first came along.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
What you need to know about the ashram that they probably won’t tell you…
My personal study of cults and Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Mind Control revealed that in my many years of ashram immersion and observation of the dynamics there, the ashram was rife with all eight criteria and ticks the boxes of all the markers of a destructive cult. I recommend exploring these markers of covert influence and mind control and I have provided resources at the end of my article here so you can decide for yourself. Most importantly, what makes a group a destructive cult is its use of deception and coercive influence to take a person’s free-thinking mind and turn them into a slave to the leader. A cultic relationship is an abusive dynamic, where the group provides a replacement family, a rich narrative of meaning outside of mainstream society and where the members are trained to love their abuser. Disciples constantly pay attention to their own inadequacies and are programmed with phobias about ever questioning the inadequacies and contradictory behaviour and expressions of their leader. The ashram is a culture built on adoration of Swamiji and surrender to him, where the ends (initially enlightenment… and later, pleasing Swamiji) justify the means, whether this includes sexual abuse, bullying, lying, shunning, dropping out of regular employment, slave labour, or cutting ties with family and loved ones outside the group.
In December 2014, and again in 2021, reports emerged in the ashram community and across the media that Swami Shankarananda had been coercively engaging a number of his female disciples in sexual relationships with him. More information about this can be found at: www.leavingshivayoga.guru. Both written reports and spoken testimony from the victims of this supposed “tantra” between Shankarananda and his disciples reveal a disturbing picture; secrecy, lies, pressure from Shankarananda on his disciples to engage sexually (in secret) with him for the purposes of pleasing God, and also systemic support of this secrecy and abuse through the inner circle of the ashram. This was not the first time that Shankarananda was engaged in a sex scandal. Many years earlier he was de-robed by Gurumayi for this behaviour, and he consequently separated from Siddha Yoga. Gurumayi was one of the official successors of Swami Muktananda who was Swami Shankarananda’s guru. Shankarananda promised his disciples back then that he had changed his ways and would not continue this behaviour. I learned this information from long term disciples of Shankarananda who left him during his 2014 sex scandal due to this reason. You can also read about it at: http://www.leavingsiddhayoga.net/shankarananda.htm
Russell Kruckman legally changed his name to Swami Shankarananda decades ago and is referred to as Swamiji, Guruji or Swami Shankarananda inside the umbrella of his cult. I believe the Swami title is inappropriate in Kruckman’s case as it refers to a humble renunciate and celibate, and Kruckman is well known for his abusive and narcissistic behaviour as a cult leader and sexual predator. This was further established in a 2021 ABC expose where one of America’s leading cult psychologist, Steven Hassan, discussed some of the ways that the ashram shows the markers of destructive cultism and narcissistic abuse. You can read about this and listen to the abc podcast here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-27/mt-eliza-ashram-guru-russell-kruckman-accused-of-sexual-abuse/13191656. I refer to Swami Shankarananda as Kruckman in this article from here onwards for these reasons.
I have observed consistently that people who leave the ashram are generally talked about there as being unspiritual, evil, haters, possessed, and dangerous for disciples. Any incriminating information against Kruckman is framed as lies, manipulations of the truth, and full of “ebolo” which is ashram speak for demonic entities. People who attend the ashram these days, if asking questions about the “sex scandal” will be told a narrative of persecution about haters who were hungry for power and who lied about what really happened. My observation is that despite this narrative, most of the current residents have been too scared to talk to anyone who left or to read anything incriminating about Kruckman. They therefore are not informed about the facts. Disciples have been told not to read such information and to avoid anyone who has left Kruckman at the risk of spiritual suicide if they do engage with the negative information or with ex-members. The residents have been taught by Kruckman, through the employment of other spiritual authorities such as Aurobindo, that there are demonic, anti-guru forces that will possess them and destroy their connection to God and take all of their shakti (spiritual attainment) if they explore these things.
The ashram pronounces a beautiful ideology of divinity: “God dwells within you as you” and “see God in each other”. This philosophy is a universal and appealing one that masks the true teachings that unfold as you go deeper. In truth, the agenda of the ashram teachings and practices, in the context of involvement with the organisation, is to step by step create a situation where a person attending the courses and programs becomes a disciple of Kruckman. As you become more enmeshed in the experience of discipleship, you will give more and more of your freedom away — devoting more and more time to the ashram in the form of indoctrination programs and free labour, and you will find you are progressively less connected to anyone who does not attend the ashram or agree with the idea that Kruckman is a God man.
There is an inner circle of leadership at the ashram and an inner circle of devoted disciples. These members see Kruckman as their means to attaining spiritual enlightenment and they believe that “pleasing the guru is the source of all attainments”. There is an essay by Swami Muktananda (Kruckman’s guru) by this title that is propagated by the ashram. They also believe that making Kruckman angry or not surrendering to his wishes will plunge them into Hell, cause numerous sorrows in their lives and destroy their relationship with God. Many members of the inner circle were aware of Kruckman’s sexually abusive behaviours (something I have come to believe based on my own experiences and observations), and yet, it is my observation that they believe it is a blessing for Kruckman to engage with someone in this way, and they speak about those who left the ashram and their surrendered relationship to the guru as being evil, possessed by demons, and on a hate mission.
The ashram propagates a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. For the devoted disciples in the ashram, speaking anything negative or incriminating about their guru is the worst kind of sin, and they are programmed with phobias and thought stopping techniques to ensure that their ideal of the God man (Kruckman) is maintained in their experience at all costs. The way this works is by over-emphasising the “truth of good feeling”. Disciples are involved in regular indoctrination programs where their inner world of good feeling is taught to be synonymous with having shakti. Shakti is the measure of attainment in the ashram, and depletion of shakti is the ultimate taboo. This becomes a form of mind control as the world view of the ashram begins to take its effects: the bliss that follows a newfound faith in Kruckman as an enlightened master along with the utopian vision of the ashram will quickly dissipate if one investigates Kruckman’s and the ashrams corruption. Since feeling good is the marker of shakti, questioning or criticising the ultimate source of good feeling which comes to be seen as the guru (who is the bestower of enlightenment), represents the ultimate loss of all goodness.
Shiva Process self-inquiry groups are one of the regular programs at the ashram and involve small groups of members who scan their inner world for blocks and report back to the group where they feel most contracted and most expanded. This program and the employment of Kruckman’s self-inquiry technology in the ashram culture, act as a means to further indoctrinate people to associate their ultimate happiness and enlightenment with surrender to Kruckman. It also installs a justified expose of each members inner most thoughts and feelings which aid in group bonding and also allow for the easy manipulation of each member due to their regular confessions. It’s a form of mindfulness meditation on the sensations in the navel, heart, throat and head and also a kind of indoctrination process. The person who is playing (chosen by the group as the one who is most “contracted” at the time) is asked to give a report about their inner world in terms of feeling. For example: “I feel angry, scared, sad, guilty, depressed, etc”. The player then reveals any story that they think might be related to why they are feeling this way. The group gives the person who is playing statements that they repeat back out loud to the group (for example: “I’m X, and I feel sad”), noticing how they feel when they try on each statement. The agenda is to make a true statement, and this is marked by an upward shift of energy. Shiva Process is a cathartic technology and provides deep bonding among the community members. The aim is to allow most or all participants to play during a session, and ultimately what is most important is that by the end of the group, all participants feel more shakti. This is achieved by resorting to the narrative of “surrender to the guru” and the magical goodness of the ashram (and similar G statements explained further below) that are collectively celebrated at the highest conclusion of each play, providing relief, bonding and renewed enthusiasm about the yoga for all participants.
There are three modes of statements, starting with statements of present feeling (“A statements”), followed by affirmative “B statements” and finally “G statements” (God or Guru statements). In essence, through the process of upliftment that unfolds in these Shiva Process groups, participants come to associate G statements such as “The Guru loves me” and “I trust Swamiji” and “I give my life to the Guru” with the experience of catharsis, energetic release, group bonding, belonging, and euphoria. There is something truly wonderful about these groups in their potency of good feeling and bonding and trust that they achieve. However, what many participants don’t realise, is that the group leaders report to Kruckman on how the group went, divulging private information about participants and what they confessed about their thoughts and feelings and their personal lives during the group. Through the mechanisms of the Shiva Process mindset and the reporting back to Kruckman, members of the community are shamed and manipulated so that if they are not feeling good, then they don’t have shakti, and “if they don’t have shakti, their thoughts must be untrue”. And since the ultimate good is the G statement (aka “the guru is great”), the solution is always to trust in Kruckman and to banish all doubts and criticisms which are seen as blocks to the shakti.
The narrative of sadhana, and of “pleasing the guru as the source of all attainments” discourages finger pointing at the guru and asks the devoted disciple to always look to their own vision as the primary focus. “If you see the guru as perfect, you will attain perfect enlightenment. If you see him as a demon, you will attain Hell”, explained Kruckman to me many times. This kind of black and white, all or nothing thinking requires the disciple to base their thinking on what feels good, appealing to the emotional high that comes from believing you are in the presence of God incarnate. The truth is simply the “truth of good feeling” and the consequence is that as your good feelings become dependent on Kruckman’s approval and the reinforcement of the group, you will become trapped in a situation where your happiness and choices depend on what Kruckman wants.
I have watched Kruckman lie over many years in the guise of what he calls “following the upward shift”. In fact, he has explained to me that he will tell a “different version of the truth” depending on who he is with. My experience was that he used whatever narrative ensured he looked the most favourable regardless of whether he was telling the truth or not, and to ensure the person he spoke to was the most open they could be with him. When I questioned Kruckman about his “different versions of truth” he told me (many times) that “the truth of the shakti is more important than the facts”. This truth of the shakti refers to “finding the narrative that has the best feeling”. It’s an artful practice of communication that finds the balance between truth and kindness, and this is how Kruckman sells it. Unfortunately, in my observations, it also amounts to flat out lying and manipulation in the name of preserving Kruckman’s positive image and increasing the openness and surrender of his disciples.
True disciples will reject anyone who rejects the ashram or Kruckman, seeing them as demonic and dangerous, and they will give Kruckman the authority to decide all kinds of intimate details of their lives. These details can include what to think and who to talk to, where they can live, what they do for work, details of their sex lives (what they can and can’t do and with whom), diet, hobbies and what they study. It is possible that someone can be a fringe member of the ashram, attending programs and living in their own home (not at the ashram), and that such a person may not be exposed to the sinister dynamics of power and subjugation that a close disciple finds themselves in. However, this is a risky business to engage in since the research on recruitment into destructive cults shows that it is in times of displacement, uncertainty, and loss, that a person is most likely to be recruited into a bounded submissive relationship with a cult leader. By hanging out on the fringes of the ashram, you put yourself at risk of being recruited into the more sinister dynamics of control as you come to see the ashram as a place of refuge to go to in your inevitable times of need.
I have seen and experienced Kruckman playing people off against each other and actively engaged in games that manipulate and break the trust between people in his circle. He does this by teasing, backstabbing, gaslighting, and revealing that he knows things he ought not to, unless someone had been telling him (or he had psychic powers). His disciples consequently assume they will be reported on by each other and that Kruckman knows everything. The people in Kruckman’s circle police each other and there is a reward and punishment system and even a shunning system based on levels of surrender to him, where the more surrendered you are, the more you will be rewarded, and the less surrendered, the more you will be shamed and shunned. I have observed Kruckman speaking extremely negatively about many of his disciples behind their backs as well as about the broader public who attend Satsang. I have found him to be often hateful towards those who have left him and showing no obvious remorse about the pain he has caused from his sexual abuses.
Kruckman lives in a situation where he has people serving his every need, 24/7, and paying him to do so in the form of rent and programs. He has disciples working for no pay who read and write his correspondence for him whilst he dictates, as well as disciples who clean his room and bathroom and wash his clothes, do his ironing, make his bed, prepare his meals, clean his dishes, wash his car, help him organise his talks, and who report back to him private information about people who he speaks with. I have observed this reporting to Kruckman many times and even took part in it myself when I was inside the disciples’ mindset. I watched the effects of it many times when new members would speak about how Kruckman seemed to know so many things about them psychically when in truth, he had his people spying on new members and potential recruits, including on social media. He has people who are employed in all the operations of the ashram, almost universally without pay. Once in Kruckman’s circle of influence, you will be encouraged to trust and open yourself to him increasingly.
The ashram has extreme emotional and energetic highs on tap, as well as providing an experience of community and belonging, and a rich path of spiritual practices and teachings. There is one major problem in my opinion: Kruckman has no independent authority to answer to. He is the universal authority inside the microcosm of the ashram, and sadly, absolute power has been shown to produce absolute corruption. The ashram is no exception. There are many sincere spiritual aspirants there, and no doubt, Kruckman was on a mission for spiritual growth when he set off to India on his search for a guru many years ago. Whatever Kruckman’s abuses are, in my opinion he has been the victim of similar dynamics of mind control on his own journey to guruhood.
It seems to me that Kruckman has attained some kind of experience of enlightenment through his conviction in his own guru, Swami Muktananda’s perfection. Swami Muktananda’s ashram had many of the same relational dynamics to Kruckman’s ashram as I understand it; disciples reported on each other to their guru, policed each other, Muktananda had different “levels of truth” based on degrees of surrender and indoctrination, and Muktananda also engaged in secret sexual relationships with many of his female disciples (including young teenagers) which later turned into a scandal when some of these women accused him of abuse. Muktananda asked Kruckman to leave his wife and to “forget about her”, breaking Kruckman’s heart at the time as he has reported to me. Kruckman’s faith and surrender to his own guru and his divine vision of him in spite of Swami Muktananda’s “abuses” has (in my opinion) had the sad consequence of perpetuation of abuse to the present day through Kruckman’s actions and his inner circle support. I have listened to Kruckman justify all of his actions based on his own experience of “abuse” which, when seen with his narrative of the guru as God-incarnate, has provided Kruckman with a sense of ultimate meaning despite whatever suffering he has endured.
Inside this paradigm of “surrender to the guru”, the means justify the ends, and questioning or challenging “the means” (which include the surrender of autonomy, the shunning of ex-members, and in some cases sexual abuse), is accompanied with phobias of damnation and of life times of the worst kind of suffering. The teaching “You are That” (the Upanisad statement that refers to the individual soul as an expression of the Godhead) is a deceptive front for the real inner circle teaching which is: “do what Kruckman wants or burn in Hell”. The teaching, “see God in each other” is only applicable to people who don’t question or challenge the ashram leadership… those that do, are to be seen as evil.
If you are attending a learn to meditate program at the ashram, be aware: the majority of people in the room are disciples of Kruckman and are there to influence you so that you have the most optimal experience and come back for more. There are often no more than a small handful of new people in a course where there are more than twenty attendees (the majority being disciples of Kruckman). If you share anything about yourself to any one of these disciples, it will be reported back to Kruckman and used at an appropriate time, possibly giving you an experience of him reading your mind. This is my personal experience from living there.
If you’re not convinced either way regarding the nature of the ashram, I would encourage you to save years of your life that you might lose without sufficient education, by checking out some of the resources provided here and contacting ex-members to see what they have to say. Contrary to the ashram propaganda, ex-members have a lot of true information and testimony that will shed light on an otherwise highly manipulative ashram schedule. There are testimonies on www.leavingshivayoga.guru also, and at the end of the day, what is important is to get the facts and decide for yourself. The majority of people in the ashram community have never investigated the critical information about Kruckman as they have been told not to and “since it feels bad, it must not be true”.
The romantic vision of a mystery school, of discipleship to an enlightened spiritual master, and of the transformation of consciousness through sadhana are extremely beautiful and alluring. The sad situation, when it comes to Russell Kruckman and the ashram, is that like a drug addiction, you may find yourself many years later in a situation far away from the goals you originally sought (aka enlightenment) in your engagement there. Instead of becoming the best version of yourself, you may discover you have become a dependent slave with an intolerance for anything that challenges the authority or commands of your master. And rather than being happier, freer and more spiritually liberated, you may instead find yourself with little to no money, no friends you can count on (since the moment you challenge the status quo of the ashram, you will be demonised and shunned), and no credibility outside the ashram sanctuary because you failed to investigate the truth behind the mirage.
My reasons for suggesting the ashram is a dangerous and destructive cult is due to my personal experience and observations combined with the scary realisations that the ashram ticked all the boxes of a destructive cult in my research and reflection on my personal experiences there. It also fulfilled all 8 criteria of Lifton’s markers for a mind control regime. I encourage you to explore the resources provided below and to make up your own mind about whether you want to get involved. I have had some of the most profound experiences of my life in the ashram and in my personal case, I do not completely regret my involvement. I am certainly very happy and relieved to be free from it now and it has cost me a lot of pain and growth in the process of breaking free. I would not wish it upon anyone to have to go through the kinds of psychological, spiritual, and sexual abuse (as expressed by multiple testimonies) that many of us have endured who got trapped there. I hope you will choose wisely on your path, and not be scared to look at the available evidence when weighing up your decisions. If an organisation can be shown to tick all the boxes of a destructive cult and a schedule of deceptive mind control, then I would personally argue against having anything to do with it.
“Combating Cult Mind Control” and “Freedom of Mind” — by Stephen Hassan (you will also find information about Robert Jay Lifton’s 8 Criteria for thought reform here)
“Cults Inside Out” — by Rick Alan Ross
“Opening Minds” — by Jon Atack
“Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation” — Daniel Shaw
“Take Back Your Life” and “Bounded Choice” — Janja Lalich
“Love, Brainwashing and Terror” — Alexandra Stein.
What is a cult and how does it work: https://youtu.be/8bRBFhMEQFk
Leaving a cult: https://youtu.be/UO0vPYd9Txw
Asch conformity experiment: https://youtu.be/NyDDyT1lDhA
Stanford prison experiment: https://youtu.be/xPO6BrFTsWM
Milgrim obedience to authority experiment: https://youtu.be/mOUEC5YXV8U
Derren Brown mystical manipulation, converting atheists: https://youtu.be/W-i_9DOCsEY
Holy Hell (Netflix)
Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
Kumare — the true story of a false prophet (can buy or rent through YouTube)
Seduced — Inside the Nexivm Cult (Stan)
How I Created a Cult (currently unavailable). There is an excerpt from it here… https://youtu.be/X3ess8txBX0 (Brilliant documentary series that I hope will become available again!)
https://freedomofmind.com/ See here: https://freedomofmind.com/robert-jay-liftons-eight-criteria-of-thought-reform-brainwashing-mind-control/ if you would like to explore Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Mind Control
Open Minds Foundation non-profit charitable community
The Open Minds Foundation brings together a collective of like-minded individuals, who either have knowledge and…
IndoctriNATION — Rachel Bernstein
Sensibly Speaking — Chris Shelton
CIFS: Cult Information and Family Support, http://www.cifs.org.au/
ICSA: International Cultic Studies Association, https://www.icsahome.com/