Sahaja Yoga is a new religious movement founded by Nirmala Srivastava, more widely known as 'Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi' and affectionately as 'Mother' by her followers (Sahaja Yogis). The movement says that Sahaja Yoga uses a process of Kundalini awakening to produce Self Realization, experienced as a cool breeze and thoughtless awareness.
Sahaja Yoga started in India and England (where Nirmala Srivastava moved in 1974) and there are now Sahaja Yoga centers in almost 100 countries worldwide. The Sahaja Yoga organization is known as Vishwa Nirmala Dharma (Universal Pure Religion) or Sahaja Yoga International.
The word 'Sahaja' in Sanskrit has two components: saha meaning 'with' and ja meaning 'born'. Sahaja means natural, simple or innate and Yoga means union or yoking and refers to a spiritual path or a state of spiritual absorption.
The term 'Sahaja Yoga' goes back at least to the 15th Century Indian mystic Kabir. and has been used to refer to Surat Shabd Yoga. The term is also used to describe the basic meditation practice of Ananda Marga. Rajneesh (aka Osho) described 'Sahaja Yoga' as the most difficult of yogas because it involves no effort and is natural and spontaneous.
In 2000 the term 'Sahaja Yoga' was trademarked in the United States by Vishwa Nirmala Dharma. In 2001 a complaint by Vishwa Nirmala Dharma to the World Intellectual Property Organization regarding the use of the term was rejected (despite the dissenting opinion of the presiding panelist), in part due to the determination that the words 'Sahaja' and 'Yoga' are descriptive Sanskrit words heard in Buddhism, used by Kabir and also referred to by Guru Nanak in Sikhism.
It is suggested that Sahaja Yoga beliefs, seen as re-discovered ancient knowledge, should be treated respectfully, like a hypothesis and if found by experiments as truth, should be accepted. The individually verifiable achievement of self realization is held to be the single most important point of difference between Sahaja Yoga meditation and other forms of yoga/meditation. At a doctors' conference in 1993 Nirmala Srivastava stated that Sahaja Yoga as a meta science is already researched and does not require years of further work.
Students are encouraged to experience and test the meditation for themselves rather than proceeding blindly or learning from a book. Advanced concepts are not generally taught until a beginner is understood to have gained enough knowledge of their own subtle system through actual experience. Without direct experience of the meditation, some people have reported difficulties understanding or proceeding to the more advanced material. Sociologist, Judith Coney, for example, reported facing a challenge in getting behind what she called "the public facade".
Coney wrote that because "established devotees are usually prepared to discuss their more 'advanced' beliefs only with people who have followed the practices laid out by Sri Mataji for some time, Sahaja Yogis at different stages of membership have recourse to different amounts of information. She described Sahaja Yogis as adopting a low profile to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Sahaja Yoga, like many Eastern and New Age systems, believes that in addition to our physical body there is a subtle body comprised of nadis (channels) and chakras (energy centers). Psychoanalyst, Sudhir Kakar writes that Nirmala Srivastava's additions to this widespread traditional 'tantric' model include giving it a scientific, neurological veneer, an elaboration of the health aspects and an introduction of notions of traditional Christian morality. Nirmala Srivastava equates the Sushumna nadi with the parasympathetic nervous system, the Ida nadi with the left and the Pingala nadi with the right sides of the sympathetic nervous system. Kakar writes that this follows the theories of Vasant Rele.
Sahaja Yoga teaches that there are seven main chakras and that each chakra possesses different qualities and looks after different aspects of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. Disease is said to occur when the subtle qualities of the chakras are neglected or denied. Each chakra has a presiding deity who may become deactivated in extreme cases causing disease.
Sahaja Yoga teaches that the chakras can be balanced by awakening the Kundalini in the sacrum bone, which is conceived of as a normally dormant 'mother' energy. Nirmala Srivastava has said that the Kundalini is the reflection within us of the Holy Ghost or Adi (Primordial) Shakti. Nirmala Srivastava has said that Kundalini "is the desire of God.... and the desire of God is the Shakti" and that yoga is impossible without kundalini awakening. As the Kundalini rises through these centres, the qualities of the chakras are said to begin manifesting spontaneously. Most illnesses are said to result of damage to the chakras and Kundalini is said to repair them.
Sahaja Yoga teaches that when the sahasrara (topmost) chakra is pierced by the Kundalini, a person will feel a cool breeze on top of their head and/or on their hands. These sensations (referred to as 'vibrations') are interpreted in Sahaja Yoga as indicating Self-Realization or an "encounter with Reality. The vibrations sensed are believed to be an objective divine energy that can even be caught on camera.
If there is a feeling of warmth or heat, it is interpreted as the Kundalini working to achieve this state. Sensations in the hands, head and/or body are also used to diagnose imbalances in the different chakras and nadis.
Upon Self-Realization, the practitioner may also experience thoughtless awareness (Nirvichar Samadhi).
Reporting on Sahaja Yoga, Sudhir Kakar writes that mental and physical disease can be caused by "clogged chakras" or an overactivity of the left and right channels. If the chakras are not linked together by the flow of (kundalini) energy, there is no integrated personality. Sahaja Yoga claims that it has cured patients of high blood pressure, asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, cancer and can prevent many other ailments. In an interview, Nirmala Srivastava stated Sahaja Yoga has cured people with AIDS. She has also said that Sahaja Yoga can cure mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Kakar has written that followers of Nirmala Srivastava consider faith in her divinity to be a precondition for being cured.
Nirmala Srivastava, who claims to reside in the Sahasrara chakra , is said to have opened the primordial Sahasrara and thereby cleared the path for the Kundalini to rise effortlessly in all who desire Self-Realization. The ability to grant en-masse Self-Realization is held to be proof that Nirmala Srivastava is the 'Avatara of our times'. Nirmala Srivastava has claimed to be the complete incarnation of the Holy Ghost or Adi (Primordial) Shakti. The incarnation of the Adi (Primordial) Shakti was prophesied in the Markandeya Purana and the Nadi Grantha 2000 years ago.
According to followers, the practice of Sahaja Yoga results in spontaneous Self-realization which, according to the official Sahaja Yoga website, can even be obtained online as one sits in front of one's computer, although it is usually experienced at a Sahaja Yoga program.
The methods for practicing Sahaja Yoga are made available free of charge to those interested. According to the official Sahaja Yoga website there is a fee for attending international pujas to cover costs and voluntary dakshina. In the US, the dakshina has only been collected separately from the costs since 2005, when the customary dakshina was $121 per adult.
It is suggested a candle or oil lamp is lit in front of a photograph of Shri Mataji, which is believed to emit a constant stream of "positive, cool vibrations (energy)". The practitioner sits comfortably, breathes normally and holds the hands out, palm upwards, as if receiving something precious. During meditation, the attention is focused on the Sahasrara chakra. Sahaja Yoga meditation can be practiced while listening to music or in silence.
Nirmala Srivastava has stated that meditation is not thinking "about your problems at all, whatever chakras you have, anything", rather it "means exposing yourself to God’s grace." She has described meditation as "an individual journey towards God."
The practice has been taught to prisoners in Italy and the United States, such as at Rikers Island to "help the prisoners' social, psychological and spiritual recovery". Nirmala Srivastava has said that the younger children practice meditation the better.
Some studies have suggested that Sahaja Yoga meditation may have some effect in addressing some medical ailments. One study reports results with asthma patients. Sahaja Yoga practitioners were asked to assist in the trials and one of the researchers was a practising Sahaja Yogi. Short-term effects on asthma were noticed, by both objective and subjective measures. According to an article in the Medical Observer Weekly, Sahaja Yoga meditation was found to be "significantly more effective than a generic form of meditation in reducing stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms".
A pilot study (N = 14, no control group) on the effect of Sahaja Yoga meditation conducted by Dr Ramesh Manocha of the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney, Dr. Barbara Semmar of the department of Psychology at Bond University and Dr. Deborah Black of the Faculty of Medicine at the School of Community Medicine of the University of New South Wales on menopausal symptoms showed that "Changes in vasomotor symptoms, especially hot flashes, were most prominent as a significant decrease of 67% at post-treatment and 57% at follow-up". Dr. Ramesh Manocha was thanked by Nirmala Srivastava's husband for assisting in his wife's medical team in Australia in 2006.
A news report on a preliminary study suggested that Sahaja Yoga meditation "may be the most effective form of treatment for occupational stress".
A case study showed that test subjects who were practising Sahaja Yoga meditation had "significant improvement in VCS (Visual Contrast Sensitivity)", and that meditation appeared to bring about changes in some of the electrophysiological responses studied in epileptic patients. Another study indicated that Sahaja Yoga meditation results in fewer and less acute epileptic seizures A review of the studies determined that there was insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about the efficacy of Sahaja Yoga meditation in treating epilepsy and that further studies were needed. One of the authors of this study, Dr U.C Rai, former head of the Physiology Department of Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Pondicherry, and professor in various medical colleges in Delhi, was appointed by Nirmala Srivastava as the first director of the International SahajaYoga Research and Health Center in 1996.
Mishra reported that Sahaja Yoga meditation resulted in a "significant increase" in beta-endorphins between control and meditating subjects. The endogeneous opiates, b-endorphins, are known to have a role in body homeostasis. They strengthen the immune system, and are involved in the maintenance of a healthy psychological functioning. They can even combat cancer cells, which could explain so-called 'miraculous cures' in cancer patients after the practice of Yoga meditation.
Puja is a traditional Hindu ceremony. In Sahaja Yoga, Sahaja Yogis express their devotion to particular deities. In some pujas, followers worship Srivastava as the Adi Shakti. This may include ghee, honey, yoghurt, milk, sugar and water being poured on Nirmala Srivastava's feet and then drunk. Nirmala Srivastava has said that Puja is necessary to achieve a state of "Shiva Tattwa".
According to a Canadian Sahaja Yoga website, puja is defined as: "the act of showing reverence to a God, or another aspect of the Divine through invocations, prayers and songs" and notes that a Sahaja Yoga puja involves "the same kind of ceremony as practised thousands of years ago in the East when mankind had a much closer relationship with God".
Pujas are recommended for realized souls (people who have received their Self-Realization – knowledge of Self) for them to gain from these pujas.
Nirmala Srivastava has developed a liver diet to promote better health. White cane sugar, white rice, yogurt, ginger, fruits and vegetables promote the "cooling" of the liver. Alcohol, fried foods, red meat, fish, cream and chocolate are among the foods that are "heating" and thus may be harmful if taken in excess.
Water can be spiritually vibrated, according to Sahaja Yoga, changing the characteristics of the water, and resulting in purification.
During Nirmala Srivastava's active years, Sahaja Yogis would generally consult her before marrying. Sahaja Yoga hosts a voluntary arranged marriage system. Those interested and their leaders have to fill out a form concerning the candidate's qualities and involvement in Sahaja Yoga, detailing their backgrounds and involvement in Sahaja Yoga. The official Sahaja Yoga website still states that the matching is performed by Nirmala Srivastava, although the matching may be done by a Sahaja Yogi, e.g. a leader. The official site also states that Sahaja Yogis believe in the sanctity of marriage and have mostly been married by this means. 'Mass marriage ceremonies' are sometimes held at puja events. Judith Coney has written that marriages arranged by Shri Mataji are not always successful.
Vishwa Nirmala Dharma (trans: Universal Pure Religion, also known as Sahaja Yoga International) is the organizational part of the movement. It is a registered organization in many countries such as Columbia, the United States of America, France, and Austria. It is registered as a religion in Spain.
The organization is governed by the World Council for the Advancement of Sahaja Yoga and, in addition to directly promoting Sahaja Yoga, promotes Sahaja culture, runs schools, a health center, a youth movement, and a project for the rehabilitation of "destitute women and orphaned children".
The WCASY has 31 members, "World Leaders", who represent Sahaja Yoga collectives from across the world. Among the latest additions to the WCASY is a Dr. Bohdan Shehovych, Gagan Ahluwalia, Paul Ellis, Alan Wherry, and Alan Pereira in 2005. According to an official Sahaja Yoga website, Guido Lanza, a World Leader, was suspended from all activities in Sahaja Yoga in 2005, for disrupting a havan ritual and threatening members. An Italian ashram was "temporarily closed". The same website announced that a Russian World Leader, Sergey Perezhogin, resigned his position in 2005.
The organization runs the International Sahaja Yoga Health and Research Centre in Mumbai, India, which uses Sahaja Yoga methods. Daily activities at the center include meditation, clearing techniques, listening to Nirmala Srivastava's lectures and bhajan singing. This health center claims to have been successful in curing incurable diseases such as (refractory) high blood pressure, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. The center's website states: "What really counts in this Health Centre is that Our Holy Mother Shri Mataji has Her Divine Attention here and it is evident that She effects all cures."
On 9 May 2007 a conference called Towards Sustainable Global Health was held. The conference was organised by the United Nations, UNESCO-UNEVOC and the University of Bonn. Sahaja Yoga was presented at a conference symposium by doctors from the Sahaja Yoga Research and Health Centre, Mumbai, India, Prof Katya Rubia, King’s College, London and others.
As well as helping organize Sahaja Yoga events such as Realize America tour, The European realization tour, and Realize Australia, Yuvashakti is active in forums such as the World Youth Conferenceand TakingITGlobal which aim at discussing global issues, and ways of solving them.
An example of this is the participation in the 2000 "Civil Society & Governance Project" in which Yuvashakti were "instrumental in reaching out to women from the poor communities and providing them with work".
A leaflet produced by INFORM says that, although the initial emphasis is on free involvement, Sahaja Yoga's emphasis on complete devotion to Nirmala Srivastava has led to a number of problems and controversies. Sahaja Yogis are expected to accept Nirmala Srivastava's view that the more you give, in time and money, the better you will feel. This can lead to Sahaja Yogis cutting themselves off from relatives and former friends and accepting only Nirmala Srivastava's advice about child rearing, whom to marry or when to divorce. Some of those who deviate may be told they are possessed by evil spirits or may be said to be mentally abnormal and risk being expelled from Sahaja Yoga. This may bring problems for those who still believe in the power of Nirmala Srivastava and fear 'losing vibrations' and the possibility of a form of demonic possession. INFORM is an independent charity, based at the London School of Economics, that was founded in 1988 by Professor Eileen Barker with the help of British Home Office funding and the support of the mainstream Churches.
As of 2001, according to the author David V. Barrett, the movement had been criticized because of encouragement of its members to make donations to pay for Mataji's trips and "expensive properties." John Crace writing for The Evening Standard in 2001 also reported that ex-members claim that Sahaja Yoga has extensive assets and makes large profits.
Sahaja Yoga leaders deny this, pointing out that their group is a recognised religion in both the US and Russia, that all members are free to come and go as they please. They admit that members are asked for voluntary contributions to events and projects, but that the money does not go to the founder herself. A current member of 25 years said: "All the organisation owns is a few properties in various countries. If we were into making money, that would be a pretty feeble return."
Barrett also wrote that some former members say that they were expelled from the movement because they "resisted influence that Mataji had over their lives." According to Barrett, the movement's founder's degree of control over members' lives has given rise to concerns. The Austrian Ministry for Environment, Youth and Family has advised that Nirmala Srivastava "is regarded as an authority who cannot be questioned".
In 2001, Australia's AAP reported that a general practitioner named Dr Bohdan Shehovych had been fined after grabbing a Sahaja Yoga critic "round the head and dragged him over a backyard fence" The physician had been part of a group delivering a letter to the critic from Nirmala Srivastava. In 2004 an Australian medical practitioner called Dr Bohdan Shehovych was made a World Leader in Sahaja Yoga and appointed to the World Council for the Advancement of Sahaja Yoga.
There has been a Sahaja Yoga school in Rome that, according to Judith Coney, has accepted boarding infants from the age of 2. A 1988 Italian television program surreptitiously filmed children sleeping 6 to a bed and there has been negative press coverage in Le Figaro, 16/5/91; Paris Match, 30/1/91 and Marie France, February 1992. Coney also reported the allegation that "when Swiss parents protested to Sri Mataji about their children going away from the age of three, thinking that the command to send their offspring came from the national leader rather than her, she personally reinforced his orders and, moreover, ordered them to have no contact with their children for at least a year."
A 2008 court case in Brussels has ruled that Sahaja Yoga had been wrongly labeled as a cult by a Belgian state authority and awarded the group compensation. A French National assembly report has also referred to Sahaja Yoga as a 'cult'
France and Belgium have been repeatedly criticized at the U.N. and at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for fostering religious intolerance and discrimination through state entities and state-funded private entities. Willy Fautré, the Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers writes that "up to now, the negative image of Sahaja Yoga has been mainly conveyed by 'antisect' organizations and 'state sect observatories' without any serious control of the rumors concerning this movement as the Belgian court decisions clearly show".
Some newspaper articles have reported on "cult" allegations directed at the movement. In 2001, The Independent reported that certain ex-members say "that Sahaja Yoga is a cult which aims to control the minds of its members. In 2005, The Record reported that some critics who feel that the group is a cult have started their own websites. In 2001, The Evening Standard reported that Sahaja Yoga has been "described as a dangerous cult" and "has a dissident website created by former members".
In 2001, the Sahaja Yoga Association published a response to the online allegations of ex-practitioners who were described as "dissatisfied" and having had been previously asked to leave the movement.
Eileen Barker from Inform advises that the media is the most influential source of information about New Religious Movements and that the majority of that information is of a negative nature. The media have an interest in attracting and keeping readers, most of whom are likely to be attracted by sensational stories. Suppliers of information may well have an agenda that leads them to adjust their product to meet a perceived demand. Nevertheless, Sahaja Yoga practitioners are concerned with how their beliefs are represented in the media. In response to one press article in which cult allegations were made, a meeting was held after a national puja to discuss the level of secrecy within the group. In an effort to be transparent, a researching sociologist, Judith Coney was allowed to attend this meeting. Sahaja yogis discussed the ways in which some of their beliefs were disguised when in contact with non-members. Coney described this discussion as frank and revealing.
John Crace from the Evening Standard wrote about an event he attended and noted that a Sahaja Yoga representative asked him to feel free to talk to whomever he wanted. He remarked, "Either their openness is a PR charm offensive, or they genuinely have nothing to hide". He proposed that "one of the key definitions of a cult is the rigour with which it strives to recruit new members" and concluded that there was no aggressive recruitment squeeze.
In 2008 the Belgian newspapers De Morgen, De Standaard and The Evening (Le Soir) reported that the Court of First Instance of Brussels ordered the Belgian state to pay 1,500 Euros compensation to Sahaja Yoga for wrongly labeling the movement as a sect (cult). The Centre of Information and Opinion on Harmful Sectarian Organizations (CIAOSN/IACSSO) had given an unfavourable report on the meditation movement which was found to be unobjective and had resulted in the movement being defamed. The state appealed.
* Second Coming? or Mother of all Cults?Neutral or mixed sites