Growing Up Cult: A Memoir of Life with Sri Chinmoy

Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult
By Jayanti Tamm
(Harmony Books, 2009)

 

So what’s the difference between a guru and a cult leader? Lots. A guru is a simply a teacher, anyone who helps an aspirant remove the veil of ignorance. But when Indian teachers first came to the West and asked their students to trust them, to revere them—and even to serve them—the ground was prepared for a cultural confusion that is still being untangled.

 

Jayanti Tamm, author of Cartwheels in a Sari, grew up in the inner circle of Sri Chinmoy, a popular Bengali teacher who came to New York City in the ’60s and developed a strong following. Her parents conceived her in violation of the community’s celibacy rules, but the guru, rather than rejecting her, dubbed her “Chosen One” and she became a cherished favorite.

Chinmoy, an orphan, had himself grown up in a religious community, the ashram of Sri Aurobindo. The religious life he required of his followers (including practicing abstinence from sex, vegetarianism, and poverty) was conventional enough as far as monastic rules went, not a sign of cultishness; and many of Chinmoy’s devotees never experienced the group this way.

But the role of guru carries risks; for the soul of the teacher as much as for the student. It is apparently all too easy to succumb to a particularly virulent form of narcissistic disorder when people are throwing rose petals at you all day. And when a teacher loses his bearings, the signs are hard to miss.

As Tamm grew up and witnessed the guru’s increasingly erratic posturing (elaborate weightlifting hoaxes and an underground zoo of exotic animals were among his most bewildering experiments), she began to question the idea of devotion to a guru. After a number of attempts to leave, she broke free of the group at age twenty-five.

I recently caught up with Tamm to talk about Sri Chinmoy’s death, her use of the word “cult,” and what her spiritual life looks like today.

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Did it make a difference to his followers that Sri Chinmoy was from India? Did it give him extra authority?

In the late 1960s, there was a trend to look to the East for alternatives to Western religions and philosophies. Many people felt that the ancient traditions of the East might hold the answers to their modern longings. As a result, there were many gurus, yogis, and spiritual teachers that headed to America eager to establish themselves and build a large following. Since Sri Chinmoy had been raised in an Indian ashram, he believed he had the proper credentials to become a guru.

How did Sri Chinmoy court fame? How did he make his publicity stunts and celebrity meetings seem necessary and legitimate among his core followers?

Establishing his base in the midst of New York City, Sri Chinmoy always was driven with the ambition to become a world leader. In the early 1970s, one of his disciples who worked at the United Nations started a meditation club named after the guru. With that credential, Sri Chinmoy promoted himself around the world as the official spiritual leader and “Peace Ambassador” of the United Nations. Shortly after that, Sri Chinmoy instructed his disciples to launch a campaign to lobby for him to receive the Nobel Prize. From having his disciples around the world praying every morning for him to win the award, to convincing other world leaders to lobby on his behalf, Sri Chinmoy was intent on being more famous than the Dalai Lama and the Pope.

Sri Chinmoy’s disciples believed his claim that he was the last and highest living avatar on Earth; he was the direct representative of God. Having the opportunity to spread his message felt like an honor for his disciples, and they believed that having the Guru reach the broadest audience possible was a way to spread God’s light around the world. Throughout the years, Sri Chinmoy devised new methods to gain public attention—from weightlifting elephants and helicopters on specially-rigged contraptions, to convincing national monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls to be renamed in honor of the guru—his disciples felt that they were benefiting humanity by making the guru famous.

How do you think people generally differentiate between religion and cult, and how do you feel your personal definition compares and contrasts with public perception of the two?

I believe that the common assumption is that religions are older, established organizations that have been assimilated into mainstream society. Cults, on the other hand, are commonly viewed as newer, informal organizations that are separate from mainstream society. My personal definition of a cult focuses on a number of key characteristics that cults share. The first is that a cult is centered around a single individual or a small group of leaders that possess total and complete authority over the members. The members cannot question, doubt, or criticize the leader. If someone does question the leader’s authority, that person is singled out and punished. Perhaps what is the most important common trait is that in order to preserve unity and to keep total authority, there is a clear separation between those inside the group and those outside the group. Finally, if someone does leave the group, that person is punished by being banished, excommunicated, stripped of economic support, and is sometimes put in physical danger.

Do you worry that your labeling of Sri Chinmoy’s group will hurt his most vulnerable followers?

I understand that ‘cult’ is a loaded term. When I was a disciple, I remember that we referred to other groups and sects as ‘cults,’ but we proudly called ours a ‘spiritual path.’ The irony is, of course, that according to so much research conducted by psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists, we fit perfectly into the traditional definitions of a cult. Using the word ‘cult,’ in my book, will perhaps lead to an honest conversation about the true nature of the Sri Chinmoy Center.

Your parents remained with Sri Chinmoy’s group for seven years after you left, and it isn’t clear in the book what happened to your brother. How did your parents’ allegiance to Sri Chinmoy affect your relationship with them, and where is your family now?

I was very fortunate because when I was banished from the cult, my parents defied Sri Chinmoy’s orders to evict me and disown me. Because of their disobedience, they received threats and harassment from other disciples, and that eventually led to their own ties with the group loosening, and being permanently severed in 2002. If I didn’t have their emotional and financial support when I left, I honestly don’t know what would have happened to me. I’m so grateful that they helped me when I most needed it. They are no longer together. The ‘divine marriage’ that Sri Chinmoy created on the first night that they met each other and the guru back in 1968 ended.

My brother, on the other hand, is still a very devout member of the cult. He wrote me a letter saying that he could not support my decision and that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. He still lives right in the hub of the ashram. I also have an aunt, my father’s sister, who is a devoted member as well, who also has had no contact with me or my parents for years.

For legal or ethical reasons, did you wait until he had passed to publish your memoir?

Sri Chinmoy died on October 11, 2007. I had sold my book to Random House in October 2006, so I was still in the process of writing the book when he passed away. Right from the start, the memoir had been scheduled to be released in April 2009.

Some current disciples seem to have organized efforts to discredit your story. How have you handled their reactions?

I understand their reaction because I used to feel like them. Anyone whom we believed was out to present a view of the guru that posited him as anything other than as a perfect being and living saint—we were outraged. Because I know their perspective, I am not surprised by it. I would be so interested to hear their true reaction to Cartwheels in a Sari because if they read it, they would see that the book explores the complicated realities that encompassed Sri Chinmoy and his mission.

What is your spiritual life like today?

I officially do not have a ‘spiritual life.’ In fact, even the word ‘spiritual’ is one that I cannot separate from my life with Sri Chinmoy. I am happily living a secular life. I don’t have any desire to follow a religion or dogma. I find happiness, peace, and love in the mundane details of life: laughing with my baby daughter, attending a new play, or dancing to my favorite music.

4 Comments

  • john_haggerty51@hotmail.com' John Haggerty says:

    Disciples of Sri Chinmoy have stuffed the internet with their own propaganda. You have to know where to look, if you want to find the truth. Start with THE MEDIA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH ALLEGED SEX CRIMINAL SRI CHINMOY and then look at CULT WATCHDOGS AND MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS WARN ABOUT SRI CHINMOY. We now know that Chinmoy Ghose, as a low-paid US immigrant, set out with two goals: to become as famous as Ghandi and to win the Nobel Prize. In this he almost succeeded. His brilliant move was in using the United Nations as his base. From there he could set himself up as a spiritual master and avatar. He had a strange physical presence. Many were drawn to him. He knew how to work the room as it were. As the British television personality Hughie Green once said, ‘The hardest bit is faking the sincerity. But once you’ve done that, it’s easy ‘ Ghose exploited the real spiritual yearning in so many people. He knew how to work on people’s fears. His disciples really believed he had ‘god consciousness’. He told them he possessed divine knowledge of their previous incarnations. To leave his ‘path’ would endanger the individual’s ‘karma’. One example. An ex-disciple in the Scottish group fell to his death from high-rise apartments in a Glasgow suburb. Chinmoy told the group that their friend would be ‘re-born’ into a good and loving family. He said he could make this happen. It was at this moment I realised he was a liar and possibly psychotic. Mind control is a slow and insidious business. Another useful blog to look up is CULT HELP AND INFORMATION – CONCERNS ABOUT SRI CHINMOY. There is also SRI CHINMOY EX DISCIPLES FORUM. Many disciples, we now know, were working for Chinmoy’s little empire and earning only slave wages. There is a simple key to unlocking this particular door. It’s best summed up in a scene from the film All the President’s Men. The character Deep Throat tells the Washington Post reporter, ‘Just follow the money.’ Following the trail of Chinmoy’s money is instructive. Read the blog NEWS FROM RICK ROSS: GREEDY GURU DIED WORTH MILLIONS. The earth’s ‘last living avatar’ wanted what many of his disciples didn’t have. Money. According to his Queens attorney, Ghose owned six properties, estimated at well in excess of two million dollars, and ranging from Florida to British Columbia. It is not difficult to see why former disciples like Bono saw the man for what he was. A very clever charlatan. Clever is the key word here. How else could he have fooled someone as decent and admired as Bishop Desmond Tutu? I have thought about this a great deal. I can see that Christians want to be on good terms with people of other faiths. Ecumenicism, while having good intentions, has led liberal Christians to sacrifice Biblical doctrine for the sake of unity. Bishop Tutu’s work for reconciliation in South Africa is admirable. It showed the world that forgiveness is possible even after acts of terrible evil. For reasons that we can’t fully know, Bishop Tutu was drawn to Chinmoy Ghose. I suspect he never knew the extent of Ghose’s satanic control over his vulnerable followers. The Bible says that the devil can appear as an angel of light. Christ warned the Apostles that there would be many false Christs, and that the anti-Christ would set himself up on the throne of God ‘so that even the elect may be fooled if that were possible’. Imagine. The final deceiver will be so holy and persuasive that even some of God’s elect will be fooled. For those interested, listen to the radio website of the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The Doctor once said: ‘Whenever I have doubted Christianity, I have only needed to look at the depravity of my own heart to know that it is true.’

  • johnhaggerty@hotmail.com' John Haggerty says:

    Quite apart from misplacing the ‘h’ in the name of Gandhi (gremlins in my typing head) may I offer a word of correction, and even a little balm, to anyone hurt by my remarks? The ‘foolishness’ of the gospel of Christ confounds the wise. And the wise today includes everyone from scientists who ridicule the notion of creation as expounded in the Bible, to mystics and gnostics who think they can ‘get right with God’ through their own efforts or through the help of a guru or a spiritual master. The gospel is counter-cultural and counter intuitive. We have no seeds of holiness within us which can be nurtured through meditation practice. All mankind fell in Adam. Without Christ we are, as the Apostle Paul said, ‘dead in trespasseses and sins’. We are no more capable of saving ourselves than a dead man is of sitting up and giving himself a blood transfusion. Read the new book by Iain H Murray. EVANGELICAL HOLINESS, published by the Banner of Truth. Preachers such as Iain Murray could win back our cities, towns and communities for Jesus Christ.

  • johnhaggerty@hotmail.com' John Haggerty says:

    One of the worrying aspects of the Chinmoy Ghose legacy is the way ex-disciples are talking of his ‘sexual misconduct’. This is the phrase used on a blog titled ‘The Abode of Yoga: Bithika – A Guest Post’. The phrase sexual misconduct implies a serious misdemeanour as well as a betrayal of trust. It could, for instance, refer to betrayal within a relationship. What Ghose stands accused of is sexual abuse. That he used young women in his care for casual sex. That, in truthful terms, he raped them. Raped their bodies and their minds and their souls. For he told them, as he raped them, that he was pouring his divine self into their souls. And then he compounded his evil by swearing them to silence. His poisonous little court was built on silence, lies, absolute control and fear. This demolishes any credibility he ever had as a spiritual figurehead. It means that his claims to divinity or semi-divinity or ‘god consciousness’ was a lot of ballyhoo. The tragedy is that talented and well-meaning people gave the best years of their lives to his monstrous vanity. The brilliant fiction writer Alan Spence has dedicated his new novel, Night Boat, to Ghose. But why single out a writer? Pope Paul VI and John Paul II both received Ghose, embraced him physically (not something Popes usually do with pious lay Catholics) and endorsed Ghose’s potty ideas. Pope Paul said ‘We will meet in Heaven.’ Pope John Paul said ‘I bless your divine work.’ All part of the Roman Church’s plan to rule over a one-world religion with the Pope as ‘another Christ’. What they can’t do now is commemorate Ghose as a man of God. Saints don’t rape young women.

  • johnhaggerty@hotmail.com' John Haggerty says:

    Further to my recent comment, please read the blog ‘The Abode of Yoga: Outing’. It is clear Chinmoy Ghose rang a ‘sex ring’ in his groups. He singled out his victims in the most cunning of ways. After years of suffering, these isolated young women left the groups quietly, usually without saying anything. They struggled silently with the knowledge that the guru they had trusted and loved had sexually abused them. Who can begin to imagine the internal damage? Sexual abuse destroys lives. The abused victims feel isolated and guilty though they have nothing to be guilty about. They suffer years of clinical depression. They struggle with suicidal thoughts. The abuser continues to enjoy his position of absolute power – this was Sri Chinmnoy Ghose’s position. He bathed in the admiration of his famous admirers such as Gorbachev and Roberta Flack and the Bishops of Rome. Ghose went to his grave without ever being publicly exposed. Members of the meditation centres run by Chinmoy Ghose were kept in the dark. All the abused women were to be treated as lepers. Members of the group must have nothing to do with them. This ruling came from Ghose himself. His most powerful disciples who ran the groups on a day to day basis enforced Ghose’s ruling rigidly. (This makes the group leaders guilty of covering up criminal offences.) Cults such as the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church operate in exactly the same way. Yet on Wikipedia disciples of Ghose are fighting tooth and nail against being described as a cult. If you want to see the state of grave disorder in the Roman Catholic Church, watch Chinmoy Ghose on YouTube leading a prayer meeting in a Catholic monastery in Switzerland. He stands beside the altar where the eucharist resides, praying beneath a crucifix. An old friend of mine from the Glasgow (Scotland) meditation group has been touring the country with his Sri Chinmoy choral group. They are still being welcomed in the Catholic Cathedral in Glasgow, the Church of Scotland cathedral in Glasgow, on the beautiful island of Iona where early Christianity flourished and in a Cistercian monastery in Aberdeen. A senior Marist Brother was happy to pose for a photograph with a Chinmoy disciple. How can such evil wear a halo of holiness?

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