How documentary series 'My Daughter Joined a Cult' shines a light on India's obsession with godmen

The three-part series, which streams on discovery+, tracks the rise and fall of controversial godman Swami Nithyananda and the murky goings-on at his ashram

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'My Daughter Joined a Cult', a docu-series about self-proclaimed godman, Swami Nithyananda, is available on Discovery+

In 2019, Netflix released a documentary feature, Bikram: Yogi, Guru & Predator, detailing the many sexual misconduct allegations against popular yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. A year later came Bad Boy Billionaires, which singled out the shady dealings of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Subrata Roy. A damning portrait emerges of another absconder, Nithyananda, in the three-part documentary series My Daughter Joined a Cult, which streams on discovery+. Using news footage, a lot of it from local media in Karnataka, talking heads of ex-devotees and journalists, and video bytes of the godman’s sermons, the show tracks the quick rise and subsequent fall of Swami Nithyananda.

“The moment you sit in front of me, enlightenment starts,” says Nithyananda to his audience. It is one of the many declarations the godman makes, which leave us questioning what made people fall for him. His legion of followers includes influential and wealthy people, who are unnamed, and like many Indian spiritual gurus he has his share of foreign devotees. There are accounts from followers-turned- whistleblowers. The most insightful voice here belongs to an anonymous woman whose experience suggests that Nithyananda knew how to target the vulnerable and make people commit to him so much that they’d be ready to sever ties with their families.

Nithyananda’s two-faced ways are revealed best by Sarah Landry aka Sudevi, his social media manager, and Jordan Lozada through their recollection of goings-on 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 the enrolments for his inner awakening programme. Landry and Lozada do as the boss orders with a video segment called “Keeping up with the Kailashians”, in which they dress up in saffron robes and chronicle their lives in the ashram.

The series often runs like a well-edited Wikipedia entry as it documents the key events in Nithyananda’s controversial life—the foremost being the “sex tape” which rubbishes his claims of being a celibate; accusation of rape from erstwhile follower Aarthi Rao, and the sudden death of a young woman at his ashram in Bidadi near Bengaluru. These hardly deter his followers, who instead launch a malicious campaign against his detractors. What the series is low on are nuggets on his origins, the lapse which led to his escape from India, apparently without a passport, and Kailaasa, a country he reportedly founded and is currently based in. A quick search on Google tells you that it can be accessed only through chartered flights.

Nithyananda is not the only one missing. The series begins with footage of Janardhan Sharma and his wife searching for their two daughters, who they believe are held against their will by the swami at his ashram in Ahmedabad. "I am very happy here. I am not kidnapped,” says Nanditha in a video call with the media, rejecting her parents’ claims. Sharma’s two daughters are yet to be found. While most of his former followers are busy critiquing him, Jansi Rani is one of the few to call out her own follies. Rani’s 24-year-old daughter died of a heart attack in the ashram under mysterious circumstances. “He told us the sun rose because he appeared,” she says. “All of us were crazy.” Many continue to be under his sway watching his videos and supporting him as he hides in Kailaasa, a place few can pinpoint on a map and where the self-proclaimed ‘Paramashivam’ continues to preach.

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