Background of Project Satya
On December 10, 2019, Julie Salter, who had been a close disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda, (Kuttan Nair) the leader of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres (“ISYVC”) from 1982 until his death in 1993, published a Facebook post with an account of the sexual misconduct of Swami Vishnudevananda. Salter was known as Swami Kartikeyananda from 1979-1999 while she was a member of the ISYVC.
In her Facebook post, Ms. Salter also described her subsequent efforts to bring this information to the Executive Board Membership (“EBM”) beginning in 2003.
In response to a lack of accountability and appropriate action by the Sivananda organization, a community group called ‘Project SATYA’ (formerly: Sivananda Yoga Community) was created, led by Antonia Abu Matar, Angela Gollat, and Jens Augspurger (“the Project Satya Admins”) to shed light on Julie’s and other claims of sexual and psychological harm in the ISYVC. The Project Satya Admins set up a Facebook group (“Project Satya Facebook Community”) and additional women immediately began writing Facebook posts about sexual misconduct involving Swami Vishnudevananda, Prahlada, Swami Mahadevananda, and others. Allegations of other forms of abuse (emotional, financial, callous indifference, and indentured servitude) also began to come forward.
The Project SATYA community is made up of over 2,400 former Sivananda Yoga swamis, staff, karma yogis (unpaid employees), and yoga teachers who together launched an independent community-funded investigation into several forms of abuse that allegedly occurred within the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta organization including sexual, spiritual, emotional, psychological and financial abuse. This investigation has been conducted by American based attorney, Carol Merchasin and Australian based psychotherapist, Dr. Josna Pankhania.
The History of the EBM’s Investigation into Julie Salter’s Allegations
On December 13, 2019, the EBM issued its first statement through its Public Relations firm, Communications Avenue. They announced that a confidential email inbox had been set up by the PR firm and that women who had allegations could reach out to this email address confidentially. The PR firm’s website indicates absolutely no experience with confidential, trauma complaints. It was later announced on February 8, 2020, via a subsequent EBM statement that some of the emails sent to this address would be handled by Lanny Alexander, a lawyer who was seen as being close to the EBM and who had handled previous complaints on behalf of the EBM.
The EBM attempted to reassure skeptical women to come forward by asserting that no one who told their story would be sued. The Project Satya Facebook Community viewed this statement as an admission of the silencing of women in the past. Ms. Salter had been threatened with legal action in 2007 after a lengthy and unfruitful attempted negotiation with the EBM. Other women also allege that they had been intimidated in their efforts to disclose or report abuse.
In a further erosion of trust, the EBM first appeared to express surprise at Ms. Salter’s claims in December 2019, but a statement made a week later (on December 16, 2019) admitted that they were aware of Ms. Salter’s claims many years before and that they had failed to investigate.
Given the inadequate and contradictory responses from the organization, Project SATYA decided that an independent community-led investigation would better serve to bring truth forward and letting survivors’ voices be heard. Project SATYA set up a GoFundMe account and raised money to retain Carol Merchasin, a retired lawyer with experience in conducting investigations, and Dr. Josna Pankhania, a narrative therapist with experience in advocating for women in abusive situations.
In January 2020, the EBM announced that they had hired Marianne Plamondon, a Québec lawyer with experience as an independent investigator. Her investigation was initially limited to allegations against Swami Vishnudevananda. Subsequently, the EBM expanded the mandate of Mme. Plamondon’s investigation to include allegations of sexual misconduct against Prahlada (aka Thamatam Reddy).
Lack of trust and transparency on the part of the organization initially discouraged Julie, and others from participating in the Plamondon investigation. However, at the end of March 2020, only hours before Julie Salter (and eventually others with allegations of abuse by Swami Vishnudevananda) were scheduled to be interviewed by Mme. Plamondon, the EBM suspended its investigation into all abuses by Vishnudevananda, citing COVID-19 as the cause.
The Plamondon Investigation into Prahlada
The investigation into allegations of abuse against Prahlada continued but initially not all of the women who came forward to Mme. Plamondon were included in her investigation. Instead, on April 10, 2020, Mme Plamondon stated that the EBM had limited her investigation to only four women. This seems to contradict the EBM’s commitment in early 2020 that “Ms. Plamondon will have the independence to meet with anyone she believes would help in her findings, and we will not interfere in any way during her investigation.”
Eventually, another two women were permitted to give their allegations to Mme Plamondon. We understand that the investigation into Prahlada is on-going.
Attempts to Engage the EBM in a Process of Reconciliation
After the EBM cancelled the investigation into the allegations of abuse against Swami Vishnudevananda, they communicated individually with Julie Salter, Lucille Campbell, and Pamela Kyssa, offering them a choice: either a mediation process as an alternative to an investigation or an investigation at an unknown future moment.
Over a period of several weeks, the three women communicated with the EBM to inquire regarding the process the EBM had in mind, as an investigation and a mediation are two inherently different processes.
1. Investigations are a way to collect information and come to a conclusion about what happened;
2. Mediations are used to negotiate a voluntary settlement of differences with the help of a third party. They are typically useful for disputes of property or money. They are not useful, in fact, they are harmful, in situations where there is a power imbalance among the parties, where there is fear, coercion or where there are criminal allegations.
In order to determine the best process to engage in, the women asked the EBM a series of questions:
Do you believe what the three of us have said regarding the sexual misconduct of Swami Vishnudevananda? If you already believe us, then waiting for an investigation is not necessary.
If you do not believe us, then we must consider whether the mediation you have proposed is the right process for us to be involved in.
The EBM responded to the question of whether they believed the women’s allegations by saying that ‘each one of us have our own experience, and each of the current EBM members have their own personal truth in their relationship with Swami Vishnudevananda, as well as different understandings of what constitutes sadhana and service.’
Working with the Mindells
The EBM then appointed Arnold and Amy Mindell as mediators. The Mindells are experts in working with large and small groups in conflict. The EBM suggested the women meet with the Mindells in order to start the mediation process.
However, once again, there was no communication as to what the topic of the mediation might be. Usually, mediation begins with a conflict to be solved: how to divide the assets in a divorce, or how to sever a business relationship. The conflict in sexual assault is not one that can be mediated. As the women pointed out, you either believe us (no investigation necessary)or you don’t (an investigation is necessary).
Julie, Lucille, and Pamela asked me [Carol Merchasin] to speak to the Mindell’s on their behalf to find out what the EBM meant by “mediation.” I informed the Mindell’s of the interim results of my investigation, specifically the many allegations of sexual abuse. Upon learning this, the Mindells said they felt that a mediation process would not be the best process. Instead, the women asked for the EBM to engage the Mindell’s to lead a community-wide process of truth and reconciliation.
The EBM responded:
We do not wish to mediate with the Project Satya group.
Should the 3 women want to engage in a direct mediation process with the EBM, they can let the EBM know.
As we come to the close of the investigation into the allegations against Swami Vishnudevananda, it appears that the EBM is committed only to the process of mediation, which the women correctly have identified as harmful. Further, it appears that the EBM has no intention of resuming the Plamondon investigation into the credible allegations of abuse by Swami Vishnudevananda.
The EBM also responded:
We remain open to listen to the 3 women. This was offered several times already and was declined.
I want to be clear that the women did not ever decline being listened to. They asked reasonable questions to try to determine what process the EBM had in mind and “mediation,” a process totally unsuitable for sexual abuse, was the only option offered.
I do not know what the EBM has in mind when they say they are open to “listening,” however, I note that “listening” could be accomplished by reading the investigative reports, the survivor statements that Dr. Pankhania has compiled and then making a full, sincere apology for the harm done.
* The above text is from a memo sent from Project SATYA lawyer, Carol Merchasin, to SATYA admin in October 2020. The original document can be found here…