When Bikram Choudhury was first teaching yoga in the 1970s at his yoga studio in the basement of a Beverly Hills bank building, he very much represented the ascetic ideal of the yoga guru, sleeping on the studio floor and offering donation-only classes. According to Choudhury, Shirley MacLaine approached him and advised, “In America, if you don’t charge money . . . people won’t respect you.” Choudhury apparently took that advice to heart and, today he is the founder of the yoga empire Bikram Yoga, and a multimillionaire. He now represents the corruption and greed of corporate America.
This week Choudhury was ordered to pay $6.5 million in punitive damages on top of $924,000 in compensatory damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit in which Minakshi Jafa-Boddena, the former head of legal and international affairs at Choudhury’s yoga school in Los Angeles, said Choudhury sexually harassed her and wrongfully fired her for investigating another woman’s rape allegation. Six other women, five of whom accuse Choudhury of raping them, have filed sexual assault lawsuits against Choudhury. One of those is in the process of being settled, and the remaining five are set for trial later this year.
Some news outlets have reported on the recent order with headlines labeling Choudhury the “guru” of Bikram Yoga. This instantaneously situates him within the broader context of guru sex scandals that have erupted since the 1960s and the larger narrative that envisions religion as inevitably despotic and abusive. It is true that, even as gurus idealized celibacy and ethical integrity, many scandals revealed sexual corruption and secrecy as central to their lifestyles. A number of yoga gurus have been outed as sexually active, usually with young, white, female students. These scandals have left the American public thinking the “guru model” is problematic for its inherently undemocratic tendencies, suspecting the model is an extreme form of authoritarianism that inevitably leads to demise.
In 1993, for example, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad warned against the dangers of the guru-disciple relationship, suggesting it displays “the seductions, predictable patterns, and corruptions contained in any essentially authoritarian form” and “the epitome of surrender to a living person, and thus clearly exhibits what it means to trust another more than oneself.”
Though yoga gurus certainly can slip into authoritarianism, the assumption that corruption is somehow inherent in that model betrays an orientalist stereotype of South Asians, their religions, and other cultural products as despotic in contrast to white, so-called democratic religions or cultures.
I suggest we avoid orientalist traps by too simplistically subsuming this case into “guru scandals,” as if this is simply a result of an essentialized “guru model” or, more generally, of religious authoritarianism. Though I have no doubt that, for some of Bikram’s students and employees, there is a religious devotion to the practice and the man, this type of corruption is found in all forms of authoritarianism, including corporate forms. Corporate control of the United States is at an all-time high, and the super wealthy, more than religious authorities, have little reason to fear the average American. CEOs, after all, regularly get away with making over three hundred times the average wages of workers.
Bikram himself has acknowledged his superpower, stating, “I’m beyond Superman. . . Because I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.”
Yet Bikram bemoans, following the over $7 million order, that he is now nearly bankrupt. Well, as we have learned from Donald Trump, bankruptcy is not sufficient to destroy the super wealthy in the United States and, considering that American police arrest someone for marijuana charges every 42 seconds, many of whom, especially black youth, end up serving prison time, this cost to an entrepreneur of Choudhury’s magnitude strikes me as a mere slap on the wrist for charges of serious, harmful behavior.