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115 5 A Life in Progress The Biographies of Sivaya Subramuniyaswami Richard Mann This chapter studies the biographies of Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (1927–2001), or Gurudeva as his followers more commonly referred to him. Subramuniyaswami was the American‑born founder of the Saiva Siddhanta Church, the Himalayan Academy, and the Kauai Aadheenam.1 He claimed to be a guru within the South Indian Hindu tradition of Saiva Siddhanta and through his guru lineage the true satguru of 2.5 million Tamil Sri Lankans. Saiva Siddhanta originated in the north of India, but developed into the most important ritual and doctrinal sys‑ tem of Shaivism in Tamil, South India. Tamil Saiva Siddhanta combines the devotional traditions of the Nayanars (Tamil Saiva saint‑poets) with an extensive temple system based in the Agamas (Saiva texts oriented towards religious practice).2 From the 1980s until his death, Subramuni‑ yaswami became a prominent voice not only for some Saiva Siddhantins, but also for the Hindu diaspora around the world. By the 1990s, Western commentators and scholars presented Subramuniyaswami as represent‑ ing an orthodox and authentic voice within Hinduism.3 The following maintains that Subramuniyaswami’s biographies are constructed documents designed to respond to particular circumstances he and his group find themselves in over the course of time. Biography becomes an important tool Subramuniyaswami and his followers use to define his status, role, and legitimacy within the traditions of Saiva Siddhanta and Hinduism in general. As the biographies are designed to establish the reputation of this guru, they do as much to illuminate 116 / richard d. mann aspects of his life as they do to obfuscate other aspects of it. An examina‑ tion of the biographies and the historical circumstances of their produc‑ tion demonstrate a steady shift in the image of Subramuniyaswami from the 1950s to his death in 2001. He began as part of the esoteric move‑ ments found in 1950s California, many of which were influenced by various forms of Theosophy, and developed from there into an Aquarian Age guru by the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of the counterculture movement. His biographies emerge in the 1970s and 1980s and play a significant role in recharacterizing Subramuniyaswami as an orthodox Hindu guru by the 1990s. As such, Subramuniyaswami’s biographies and the contexts of their production mirror broader shifts in Hinduism as it was found in America through the 1950s to the end of the millennium. A study of Subramuniyaswami’s biographies and their depiction of his shift from teaching esoteric ideas primarily to Westerners to a conserva‑ tive image as a Hindu guru who primarily addresses diaspora Hindus illustrates the integration of Hindu thought and practice into American Figure 5.1. Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Photo courtesy of Himalayan Academy on May 13, 2012) a life in progress / 117 life as well as the shifting perception of the guru in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. Adopting the work of Russell McCutcheon on myth, I approach sacred biography‑hagiography or biography as an example of an ordi‑ nary process of narrative construction.4 From such a perspective, the point of these narratives is not their felicity to some “truth” or lack there‑ of. I am not, then, interested in locating the original or correct narrative, but rather in locating the forces that lead to the process, or processes, of narrating the events of a particular life in particular forms. Hence, I have two general goals in studying the biographies of this particular guru: first, I hope to understand the historical circumstances that led to their production, and, second, I hope to understand how these narratives function—the role they play for the group or individual that uses them. This chapter begins with a summary of Subramuniyaswami’s life as gleaned from the biographies found in official publications of his organizations. It proceeds by reconstructing the guru’s teaching career by arguing for four distinct periods of historical development. The first period discussed is in the 1950s and 1960s when Master Subramuniya, as he was then known, presented a mixture of esoteric and theosophist, Hindu, and Christian practices and teachings to his followers. In the 1970s, he entered into a second period of development. He relocated his core disciples to Kauai and established an Adhinam there. This period represents a transitional phase for Subramuniyaswami. Many of his pub‑ lications still drew on esoteric and Aquarian Age teachings, but he was also increasingly in contact with the larger Tamil...


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