Letters for the week of February 11-17, 2004 

How can you sleep at night? How could you hail Monster? How did you miss Wushu West? How can SYDA justify its claims?

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Thank you for correcting this unfortunate oversight.
Gary Nathan Gartenberg, Berkeley

"How To Live Your Overseas Dream," Resolution Guide, 1/21

You're about seven years late
I would like to make a correction to your story, "How to Live Your Overseas Dream," which seemed to be somewhat of a review of the book of the same title. The book was published in 2002, and since Stefano DeZerega's tenure (which ended, I believe, in 1996 or 1997), JustAct has gone through two executive directors. I am the current ED.

JustAct's mission has evolved as well, from being an overseas development organization to one that serves for leadership development for working-class youth of color. The following is our mission statement: "JustAct supports the leadership development of grassroots youth groups by providing experiences and opportunities for personal development that will further strengthen their justice work in their communities in the global context."

JustAct is currently working with various youth organizations, particularly in the SF Bay Area, to assist them to make the local-to-global connection to their work. JustAct collaborates with organizations that work with youth in the fight for justice despite being heavily impacted by the ill-effects of globalization and neoliberalism.

We recently returned from Mumbai, India, with two youth from local youth organizations -- Conscious Roots and Schools Not Jails Coalition -- where we participated in the World Social Forum and Mumbai Resistance. We will be conducting a report-back event on February 26. You are more than welcome to attend and learn about how many youth are working locally (many volunteering their time) to fight for justice in their communities and make the connections to the global issues.
Liz Suk, JustAct, San Francisco

"A Guide to Overseas Volunteering," Resolution Guide, 1/21

Credit where credit is due
I read your article with great interest partly because you mention my organization, Food First, and partly because Food First also has an alternatives to the Peace Corps guidebook called, appropriately enough, Alternatives to the Peace Corps. I appreciate your mention. Having been in the Bay Area for 28 years, Food First is among the Bay Area's oldest social activist organizations and its former staff members have spun off many other notable organizations, among them Global Exchange, Pesticide Action Network, and Neighbor to Neighbor.

However, there is one correction I'd like to bring to your attention. While Joseph Collins did indeed found Food First, he did so with Frances Moore Lappe, whose book, Diet for a Small Planet, provided much of the original funding for Food First.
Nick Parker, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland

"Pursuing SYDA," Bottom Feeder, 1/14

SYDA's tangled history
I would like to thank you for your fair and balanced article. Given SYDA's culture of secrecy, well-oiled PR machine, considerable resources for suppressing dissent, and the ex-SYDA people's difficulty in obtaining hard evidence, this cannot have been easy.

The credibility of SYDA and its guru is based on two things -- the lineage and the ability to give shaktipat, or transmission of spiritual energy. Both are myths built up by SYDA. In fact, shaktipat has no more spiritual significance than, say, an LSD trip, and like LSD, the experience and long-term effects are highly dependent on both the mind of the subject and the context in which it is taken. Like LSD, shaktipat may give the subject intense, colorful experiences, or it can drive vulnerable people insane. In fact the only real difference is in the price -- SYDA now charges $500 for shaktipat via a two-day intensive program.

The lineage that SYDA claims "goes back to Shiva" in fact only goes back two successions to an acknowledged Indian saint known as Nityananda. In fact, Nityananda claimed no guru and named no successor. Muktananda's claims to be his successor were entirely self-proclaimed and unverified.

Gurumayi's own succession is almost as dubious. Muktananda first named Gurumayi's brother Subash/Swami Nityananda as successor in an elaborate ceremony. Much later, SYDA began referring to Gurumayi as "cosuccessor," something unprecedented in Indian tradition. No official announcement was ever made. It has been alleged that Gurumayi had blackmailed Muktananda over his sexual improprieties. About half of SYDA's swamis resigned, unable to accept that either Gurumayi or her brother were in any way enlightened.

Three years after Muktananda's death, Swami Nityananda resigned as guru after being kidnapped and beaten by Gurumayi and her people. He admitted numerous sexual liaisons, including two with female swamis. In fact, sexual activity was rampant amongst SYDA's supposedly celibate swamis, and Gurumayi's chief lieutenant, George Afif, was convicted of statutory rape of a minor. Not only did SYDA not fire him, it provided him with lawyers and settled other cases out of court. George's authority was unchallenged until 1994, when he mysteriously disappeared after SYDA was fined for massive environmental damage in Sullivan County, New York.

Gurumayi is not unlike Michael Jackson, with a strange childhood, a distorted sense of reality and self-importance, and an inordinate need for her devotees' adoration.

SYDA likes to present a pleasant and benign face to the public. In fact, it is an insidious cult intent on bleeding its innocent and well-intentioned devotees of their money. However, the hardest thing facing devotees who have left is how to cope with the deepest sense of spiritual betrayal.
Gorakh Silvester, Auckland, New Zealand

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