In Prakash Jha’s web series Aashram, a spiritual leader channels his ability to work a room into a multi-crore enterprise. Aashram’s Baba Nirala, who lusts after money, political influence and women in equal measure, is a composite of several spiritual leaders who have fallen from grace in recent years. Might one of these be Nithyananda, the renunciate accused of rape and abduction?
The formal charges against Nithyananda – including that he raped a devotee at his hermitage in Karnataka and abducted a pair of daughters of a follower in Gujarat – sit alongside reports about an alleged sex tape secretly recorded by a whistle blower. Threatened with arrest in the abduction case, Nithyananda fled India in 2018. He claims to be in Kailasaa, the country he has founded on an island in an undisclosed part of the world.
Kailaasa has its own flag, currency and everything else that qualifies it to be a nation-state. From here, wherever that is, Nithyananda and his followers regularly flood his official YouTube channel with videos of virtual workshop as well as issue statements proclaiming his innocence.
Despite being an object of memes and mirth for his gnomic statements, Nithyananda is an astute judge of the power of social media and digital video. For those who hasn’t been following the Nithyananda scandal closely, one of the most revealing sections in the discovery+ series My Daughter Joined a Cult is how Nithyananda and his social media head, Sarah Landry, used digital media tools to bolster his “cool guru” image.
The three-episode series has been produced by VICE Studios and directed by Naman Saraiya. My Daughter Joined a Cult retraces Nithyananda’s meteoric rise and dizzying fall. The focus is firmly on his alleged crimes and the mystery of his current whereabouts.
The highlight is on-the-record interviews with lapsed devotees, which include Sarah Landry and another prominent foreign follower, Jordan Lozada. Landry claims that the guru asked her to send him nude selfies so that she may overcome her personal inhibitions – which she did at the time.
The interviewees include journalists, among them The NewsMinute founder Dhanya Rajendran, who, while working for Times Now, tracked down a supposedly absconding Nithyananda and did a revealing interview with him.
By ignoring the flamboyant guru’s parody-ready performative side, My Daughter Joined a Cult acknowledges the seriousness of the allegations against him. The rigorously researched show maintains a forensic quality throughout, seemingly hoping to revive interest in hunting down Nithyananda.
But cult leaders never come out of nowhere. In their quest to build kingdoms of influence, they are often backed by a powerful elite. Apart from wondering about Nithyananda’s easy escape from India, the show doesn’t have much to say about how he rose to prominence so qucikly.
Also under-explored is the sociology behind religious cults. My Daughter Joined a Cult ably fulfils the purpose of providing a detailed summary of a case file. But its decision to be an expose rather than an analytical account constrains its horizons.
Some insights emerge in the conversations with the disillusioned. He was “very sweet and charming and playful”, an unidentified woman says.
Another says he had a glow that made him irresistible. Yet another says that ashram life was a welcome alternative for anybody wanting to drop out of conventional society.
The most moving conversation is with Jansi Rani, the mother of 24-year-old Sangeetha, who refused to leave Nithyananda’s side despite mounting scandals. Sangeetha was reported dead from a heart attack a few months after she called her mother, saying she was planning to flee the ashram. In Jansi Rani’s tragedy, we gain some understanding of the perils of blind faith and the willing suspension of disbelief.