Leaving a Cult

Washington Post/April 2, 2009

I was born and raised in a cult. For over 25 years my life was strategically designed to cement my faith and deter all distractions from the one and only focus - the guru himself.

In the 1960s, during the swell of America's fourth Great Awakening-the version that imported teachings from the East-ambitious yogis, swamis, and gurus draped in flowing robes arrived to fill a void in the emerging spiritual market. They understood that thousands of Americans' needs were not being met. Importing a lineage of teachings that could be traced back before recorded history, these skillful leaders repackaged the luster of an ancient hoary tradition to new consumers. They instantly offered a viable option to the dogmatic religions of square parents in small town subdivisions. My mother-born and raised Catholic-and father-born and raised Lutheran-were among the throngs of sincere aspirants actively seeking an alternative to mainstream religion.

In 1968 my mother discovered the lower-east side tenement of the guru Sri Chinmoy. The newly arrived Bengali spiritual leader beckoned her to follow him. He appeared humble, luminous and wise, everything she had always imagined. Sri Chinmoy ushered her into the crowded, incense-flooded room and instructed her to sit on the floor beside a barefoot, long-haired man. The serenity was palpable, a rich communal spirit filled the space. At the end of the evening's meditation, Sri Chinmoy informed my mother that in order to advance exponentially in her spiritual life, the guru would wed her to the young hippie in a "Divine Marriage." She agreed.

My mother's seemingly reckless abandon shocks many people, yet it makes sense to me. I understand why so many normal, highly educated people would have bowed deeply and entrusted their most sacred longing to a charismatic leader whose physical presence emanated tranquility and the assurance of having a connection to something larger than one's self. My parents, like so many others, longed to be part of a revolution to transform the world. Sri Chinmoy offered a unique opportunity to build the foundation of that movement. It was the chance of a lifetime. Their decision, as it turns out, was one that affected not only their lives, but my generation as well.

Gradually after my parents' initiation, the guru changed the informal mediation circle into a strict cult that demanded unconditional obedience to Sri Chinmoy's growing list of rules: no drugs, meat, alcohol, TV, newspapers, books, music, dancing, pets, and sex. Disciples were now required to be single, and all disciples-even the married ones-were mandated to be celibate. Sri Chinmoy was fed up playing matchmaker; the days of him arranging 'divine marriages' were over.

When my mother became pregnant, the guru was furious at my parents' reckless disobedience. Days later, he displayed his loving and charming side. He beamed a wide smile, and in his lulling voice, pronounced that through his boundless compassion, he would transform my parents' transgression into a miraculous blessing-me. Sri Chinmoy claimed to have selected my soul from the highest heavens to incarnate on earth as his 'chosen one,' his perfect disciple. I was his.

Being born and raised in a celibate cult has a unique set of challenges. To the devotees, family was a dangerous word, signifying attachments, distractions, and obligations. I was taught that in order to fulfill my spiritual life, the trappings of a traditional family life must be avoided at all costs. Model disciples dissolved all contact with 'outside' relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Being the sole disciple born into the group, I was expected to be transcendent, remaining steadfast and unswerving to my spiritual life. I was repeatedly told the only family I needed was the one person to whom I would devote my entire existence-the guru.

Over the years, I witnessed thousands of disciples pass through his ashram. Some arrived with wide-eyed wonder, relieved to discover a secure place for respite from the relentless world of jagged competition and broken relationships. Many were grateful to relinquish total responsibility for their own lives, happily allowing someone else to steer them safely toward a defined goal. The majority of these people had traveled the world and had their fill of loves and losses, bumps and crashes. They arrived as adults and independently chose this lifestyle; it was a conscious and deliberate choice. As a young adult, I envied these people. I secretly wondered if I would have selected to renounce the freedoms of the world and entrust my life to the will of one guru, and the answer was always no. Of course, I never had a choice.

My destiny had been cast before I was even born and sealed on the morning of my birth. Countless times the guru narrated the legend of our first encounter. According to Sri Chinmoy, he arrived at the hospital in the early morning shortly after my birth to welcome me into the world with a special blessing and my Sanskrit name. He stood peering into the nursery waiting for me to recognize him. In response, I spontaneously folded my tiny hands and bowed to my divine master in an amazing, impossible display of devotion.

As a child, I was everything that he wanted, a perfect disciple. Draped in a flowing sari, I worshipped before him as he proclaimed he was both my father and God. Nothing and no one else mattered. He was the only family I would ever need. He was my all.

The placement of the focus on the leader is a common feature of cults. Severing all connection to families in the 'outer world' and surrendering to the leader ensures that the he is the singular object of devotion. Rather than emphasizing the disciples' spiritual development, a one-pointed narcissism designs a system to nurture, foster, and sustain every whim, wish and desire of the leader. From mandatory dress codes to diets, whatever the guru fancied at the time became the established law.

Nightly at the ashram in Queens, New York, in meditative silence I sat in lotus-position before his throne. Throughout my childhood as his mission expanded worldwide, I eagerly followed. Whether he was meeting celebrities like Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, or leading meditations at the United Nations, I was in the front row cheering him on.

As a teenager, as in many father-daughter relationships, our trusting ease hardened into mutual distrust and disappointment. The guru's strict rules banning relationships with the 'outside' world provoked deep longings for everything he forbade. As Sri Chinmoy repeatedly attempted to convince me that my soul wanted to serve only him and to forgo a college education, career, and family, I listened with increasing resentment. I realized he was a jealous father who demanded complete love and obedience, and I sadly understood he would never accept anything less.

After years of mutual struggle-the guru trying to keep me and my trying to leave-we had exhausted each other's patience. I was tired of serving him and longing for a normal family life. Finally, at age 25, I was officially stripped of my discipleship, banished, and shunned.

Cults are designed to keep a clear separation between those inside and outside. The more faithful a follower, the more reliant the person is on the group. It becomes everything-family, friends, church, home, work, dwelling, community. Extracting oneself from that after decades is difficult, and sometimes impossible. It is both terrifying and isolating.

For years I tried to bury my past, make up for lost time, and forge my own path. Gratefully, I was still young enough to obtain what I was never supposed to have-my own family.

On the morning of my daughter's birth, as I lay holding her, gazing in wonder at her perfect cheeks, the curve of her lips, the wisps of hair, I was overwhelmed with love. My husband entered the room, phone in hand, his face hesitant and tense.

"It's about your guru," he said. "He died this morning."

Twelve years had passed, and my former guru and I had never reconciled our estranged relationship. I understood his deep disappointment that I had failed to fulfill his divine prophecy. In his eyes, I had been ensnared by the common attachments of career, marriage, and family.

Knowing that his death occurred the same morning as my daughter's birth ensured that he would never meet her, never know her pure beauty, the stunning magic of her breath. Nestled with my sleeping baby, I wanted to protect her so that her life would be filled with her own choices and possibilities. But, as she stirred, I dared to imagine that upon hearing the news of my daughter's birth, perhaps some part of my former guru would have become tender and nostalgic, remembering the morning decades earlier when he had come to the hospital to welcome his own special daughter into the world.

Jayanti Tamm's memoir, "Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult" is being published by Crown Publishers on April 14. She teaches writing at Ocean County College.

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