Bikram: Yogi, Master, and Predator, a documentary film produced by Netflix, detailed the numerous sexual assault charges leveled against famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. A year later, Bad Boy Billionaires exposed Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Subrata Roy’s nefarious operations. In the three-part documentary series My Daughter Joined a Cult, which is available on Discovery+, a devastating portrayal of another absconder, Nithyananda, emerges. The show follows Swami Nithyananda’s meteoric rise and eventual collapse through news footage, much of it from Karnataka’s local media, talking heads of ex-devotees and journalists, and video bytes of the godman’s discourses.
‘Enlightenment begins the minute you sit in front of me,’ Nithyananda says to his listeners. It’s one of many assertions made by the godman that left us wondering what drew people to him in the first place. His community of followers includes many powerful and affluent individuals, and he, like many Indian spiritual gurus, has his share of overseas adherents. There are testimonies from followers who became whistleblowers. An anonymous woman’s experience reveals that Nithyananda understood how to target the vulnerable and make individuals commit to him so deeply that they were willing to cut relations with their family.
Nithyananda’s two-faced ways are best revealed by Sarah Landry aka Sudevi, his social media manager, and Jordan Lozada in their recollection of events in the ashram, which include verbal abuse and beating of disciples, as well as demands to ramp up the videos propagating his teachings and increase enrolment in his inner awakening programme. Landry and Lozada follow the boss’s directions with a video series dubbed ‘Keeping up with the Kailashians,’ in which they dress up in saffron robes and document their life at the ashram.
The series often reads like a well-edited Wikipedia entry as it chronicles the pivotal events in Nithyananda’s controversial life, including the ‘sex tape’ that disproved his claims of being celibate, an accusation of rape from former follower Aarthi Rao, and the sudden death of a young woman at his ashram in Bidadi, near Bengaluru. These scarcely dissuade his supporters, who instead start a scathing campaign against his critics. What the series lacks are tidbits on his beginnings, the lapse that led to his flight from India, ostensibly without a passport, and Kailaasa, a nation he allegedly built and now resides there. According to a quick Google search, it is only accessible by chartered planes.
Nithyananda is not the only one who has gone missing. Janardhan Sharma and his wife are seeking for their two children, whom they say are being detained against their will by the swami at his ashram in Ahmedabad. ‘ I’m very happy here. I have not been abducted,’ Nanditha says in a video conversation with the media, dismissing her parents’ accusations.
Sharma’s two daughters have yet to be discovered. While most of his erstwhile followers are busy criticizing him, Jansi Rani is one of the few to own her own mistakes. Rani’s 24-year-old daughter died of a heart attack in the ashram under unexplained circumstances. ‘ He told us the sun rose because he appeared,’ she adds. ‘All of us were insane’. Many people continue to be swayed by his films and support him as he hides in Kailaasa, a spot few can find on a map and where the self-proclaimed ‘Paramashivam’ continues to preach.