Last updated on 20th March 2015
For novice (and even some experienced) spiritual aspirants today, perhaps one of the biggest challenges in figuring out which (Indian) ashram system is best suitable for them, is in dealing with the various allegations of fraud made against almost every ashram system. [This post is about Indian ashram systems. I don't have any direct exposure to non-Indian ashram systems but some parts of this post may apply to non-Indian ashram systems too.] Some sections of Indian television media revel in making sensationalist and wild allegations against Indian ashrams and god-men and god-women. I think that must be getting them a lot of eyeballs and so, advertisement revenue :-).
The reality is that ashram systems are also composed of people who have come from regular society, and bring with them the good and bad of regular society, even if their intention is to eventually eschew all the bad. So some level of corruption and fraud is inevitable, IMHO, in any decent-sized Indian ashram system.
Now from a spiritual ashram perspective, there are two types of corruption and fraud: spiritual and material. Material corruption and fraud is against the law of the land. However, until hard evidence is produced to prove material corruption and fraud before law enforcement and judicial authorities, mere allegations only serve to malign individuals. And, unfortunately, uncontrollable jealousy is one of the worst evils in ashram systems, which does lead some people to make wild and malicious allegations without clear supporting evidence, against others.
[I think most people (including me) certainly suffer from some jealousy but they try to keep it under control. It is when the jealousy is uncontrollable that it becomes very damaging in ashram systems. Perhaps the worst form of this jealousy is that which is directed towards wealthy ashram residents whose lifestyle reflects their wealth. In my considered opinion, a spiritual aspirant who is jealous of the wealth of an ashram resident has lots and lots of spiritual effort in front of him/her, as that kind of jealousy is a terrible spiritual flaw. How does another ashram resident being wealthy create a problem for one's spiritual journey? In fact, it may even help in that the wealthy ashram resident may even provide some financial help, when required, to the genuine spiritual aspirant.]
But then there is an issue of public perception. Repeated allegations from various sources, over time, creates a public perception, irrespective of whether it is true or false, about the extent of material corruption in an ashram system. Going in for audited books of accounts and publicly shared balance sheet for the ashram system, like in the case of commercial companies, does serve to reduce this public perception of corruption to some extent.
From an individual spiritual aspirant perspective, what matters is whether in his/her activities in an ashram, he/she is facing material corruption or fraud. If that is not there then the spiritual aspirant can happily pursue his/her spiritual efforts in the ashram ignoring any allegations of fraud/corruption elsewhere. If and when the aspirant starts facing some material corruption issues, he/she should immediately move out of that activity to ensure that his/her honest reputation in financial/material matters is not damaged. But there is no need, IMHO, to become an anti-material-corruption crusader as that may interfere with the spiritual goal with which one has come to the ashram. Simply move away from material corruption areas, and if one finds that too many areas in the ashram system have got infected with material corruption then it is time to move away from the entire ashram system and maybe look for another suitable one.
On the other hand, spiritual corruption and fraud are very disturbing to spiritual aspirants. Small levels of inconsistency between teachings and practice of ashram system leaders should not lead an aspirant to immediately jump to the conclusion of spiritual corruption and fraud. With some more maturity in the spiritual path, these small levels of inconsistencies become either very minor or one even understands them to be proper for that time, place and situation. However, if ashram system leaders project something which even some of them suspect to be false, but which allures followers, we get into what I consider to be spiritual fraud. In my humble view (some readers may disagree with it and that's fine), an example of it is attracting followers of a spiritual master who has somewhat recently given up his body by having mediums/communicators who claim to communicate/interact with the subtle body/form of that spiritual master, when that spiritual master had repeatedly in public discourses clarified that he never uses mediums/communicators and that his interactions with his followers/devotees is a direct relationship without the need for any intermediaries. The void/vacuum felt by followers due to the physical absence of the master, for some followers, now gets filled by the medium/communicator! They feel happy, spread the word and the following gathers strength.
Now, am I saying that all mediums are frauds? Well, I am not an expert on mediums. But in the history of great spiritual masters and avatars like Rama, Krishna, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Shirdi Sai Baba etc. we do not find any mediums who communicated to their subtle body forms, to have become well accepted by the community, and stood the test of time. I was told by somebody recently that after the passing away of Shirdi Sai Baba, his close servitor Abdul Baba tried to play the role of Shirdi Sai Baba for some time. But that did not seem to have worked/gone down well with the community over time, and so Abdul Baba was forced to discontinue that practice.
Mediums may be connecting to the spiritual force within themselves (and within each of us) and may be viewing that force as a form of a particular master. Due to their own spiritual ability these mediums may be providing great spiritual (and even material) advice to people who go to them. The mediums may attribute it to communications from the spiritual master. But, at least in the case of the great masters & avatars mentioned above, I think the mediums are imagining that those communications come from that spiritual master.
The fraud problem comes when the medium uses the name of the spiritual master to boost his/her following. The honourable and authentic approach, IMHO, would be for the medium to use his/her own name and may even attribute his/her spiritual powers to the Grace of the spiritual master, but not say that the spiritual master is communicating with him/her. And if the medium goes to the extent of claiming to be a special and only communicator to a special subtle body/form of a master based in a particular place, and points out to others where the subtle body is walking, is seated etc. so that others can reverentially bow down to the invisible-to-them subtle body/form of their master, then I think that it either gets into the territory of spiritual fraud OR it is something unique and unheard of in the history of all spiritual masters/messengers/prophets/founders of all the major religions & religious sects in the world! I am very skeptical of the latter possibility and so view such mediums as spiritual frauds. Of course, I may be wrong - I do not have any paranormal powers to know inner stuff about such mediums. So do take my words with a few pinches of salt :-).
Between spiritual fraud and material fraud, in an ashram system, which is the lesser evil for a spiritual aspirant?
In my considered view, for a spiritual aspirant, material fraud is the lesser evil. Spiritual fraud may deliver a shattering blow to the spiritual progress that an aspirant has made from which he/she may take years to recover. Material fraud, especially in India, is, very unfortunately, all too common, and so not a big problem to recover from, from a spiritual perspective for people familiar with India. [Though if one personally loses a lot of money in such material fraud it may leave a lot of psychological scars. I am talking about material fraud in the ashram system which does not directly involve/impact the spiritual aspirant.]
In my considered view, spiritual aspirants should stay away from spiritual frauds and ashram systems that promote spiritual frauds to gain a larger following.
19th March 2015 Update:
An (international) online spiritual daily which seems to be an Internet blog content aggregator, http://paper.li/SpiritualBlog1/1337878098?edition_id=cb7a8220-cdd1-11e4-9626-0cc47a0d164b, has put up this blog post (link) as an article under POLITICS :-), in today's issue.