In 1990, I spent two months at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshire Mountains.  This massive 160,000 acre facility was originally built in 1957 as a Jesuit monastery.  It had been purchased and converted into the Kripalu Center by a yoga master from India that everyone affectionately called Gurudev (aka Yogi Amrit Desai).  Gurudev converted the grounds into a world renown ashram for Kripalu yoga and the healing arts.  

He had 300 devotees that gave up all their worldly possessions to him in order to dedicate their lives in volunteer service to his mission.  His devotees were highly skilled and ran all the workshops and Kripalu Institute services.  Pictures of Gurudev were everywhere, including one that occupied his throne chair in the main hall where he gave lectures.  Celibacy was the rule of practice and the sexes were strictly separated.  Males ate on one half of the cafeteria, females on the other half.  Mixed sexes were not even allowed to ride in the same car.  All of this was a part of Gurudev’s Kripalu yoga practice to cultivate Kundalini energy.  Although Gurudev’s wife lived at the center, Gurudev lived in his own house as an example of his vows to celibacy.  I attended one of his sangha lectures and was impressed with his wisdom and charisma. His presence was revered and his devotees thought of him as a mortal incarnation of God.

During my stay, I became interested in photographing him. I submitted a formal proposal to his social secretary (as he did not interact with anyone outside of his formal appearances).  Gurudev accepted my proposal.  Everyone was surprised, as this was unprecedented.  Apparently, he had an upcoming national tour and was hoping to get a free portrait to use for the poster.  It was a further surprise to everyone that he gave me a full afternoon of his time, as I had requested.

It was an honor to spend any one-on-one time with this guru.  He was very comfortable in front of the camera as well as being open and willing to try anything I directed.  But being alone with him gave a very different impression than the one I had gotten of him in public.  He acted very child-like, spoiled and self-absorbed.  His rooms were filled with homages to himself – such as busts of himself, casts of his praying hands and other tributes to him that devotee artists had done.  He was very excited to take me into his huge room-size closet.  He showed me all his favorite clothes with adolescent excitement – and especially his favorite shawls. We spent the afternoon shooting and exploring the grounds.

I had access to a darkroom in the area and printed a set of prints for him.  When I called to present them to him, I was told that he had no time to see me and to drop them off with his social secretary.  I told them that this was unacceptable and that I would present these prints to him in person or not at all.  They acquiesced and arranged a 20-minute meeting.  As I presented one print after another to him, he was very quiet as he looked at each one very carefully.  When I was finished with my presentation, I just sat there waiting for some response.  All of a sudden, he violently exploded and started yelling at me. He accused me of tricking him and using a special lens that made his nose look bigger than it was.  He then stormed out of the room.

On my way out, I stopped to talk with his social secretary and told her what had happened.  She then explained to me, “Oh yes, that doesn’t surprise me.  He has a psychological complex about the size of his nose. Any picture of him that goes public must be first approved by him.  If he thinks his nose looks to large, he won’t let it out. If you notice, all the promo pics of him on his books and CD’s have special angles and such that make his nose look small.  It is just part of the personal karma that he has to work out in his lifetime.”  He was carefully protected by a select circle of devotees that knew these kinds of things about him. They guarded him in such a way so his quirks and temperaments were not known by anyone outside his inner circle.

I left with an interesting story to tell.  His devotees loved the photos and many were given as gifts.  Later that year, I ran across this article in a yoga magazine about his “resignation”.  He was apparently demonstrating his “penetrating insight” into the receptive vessels of three of his female students.  His devotees ran him out. The Kripalu Yoga and Health Center still runs a full yoga and healing program, sans Gurudev.  Around 15,000 people visit there each year.

World of Yoga Magazine article on Kripalu scandal
(click on article to enlarge)

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    Copyright John Bonath 2019