Under The Thumb Of Cult Leader Sri Chinmoy

Forbes Magazine/April 14, 2009

Cults are notorious for convincing people to do the unthinkable. In March, a member of the now-defunct One Mind Ministries pleaded guilty to starving her son to death. Allegedly, she and other cult members stopped feeding the 1-year-old because he wouldn't say "amen" at mealtime.

Back in 1993, David Koresh's Branch Davidian sect ended in a conflagration after a 51-day standoff with the FBI. In 1978, over 900 members of the People's Temple died at Jonestown, Guyana, in a mass murder-suicide; and in 1997, scores of Heaven's Gate followers killed themselves in California.

But not all cult members' stories end so tragically.

In her fascinating new memoir, Cartwheels in A Sari, Jayanti Tamm describes growing up in a cult within mainstream America--and how she eventually managed to break free. With a succinct and earnest writing style, Tamm delivers a coming-of-age story overflowing with heartbreaking and hilarious moments.

Read his 2007 New York Times obituary, and Sri Chinmoy comes across as a kind-hearted spiritual leader who championed world peace through his art, music and athleticism. His meditation center's Web site likens him to Jesus Christ, Buddha and Krishna. Well into his 70s, crowds gathered to watch the old man's extreme weightlifting feats, which included lifting an airplane (with the help of an apparatus).

Celebrity followers have included Olympian Carl Lewis and musicians Carlos Santana and Roberta Flack. And a host of prominent people--Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Princess Diana, to name a few--have applauded Chinmoy's dedication to promoting unity and world peace.

Tamm, on the other hand, depicts a charlatan who masqueraded as a god and convinced hundreds of thousands to worship him. Her parents were among the first disciples. Chinmoy arranged a "divine marriage" between a Yale-educated hippie and a single mother, then told them to practice abstinence. (Most disciples, however, were directed to remain single.) When Tamm's parents disobeyed and conceived her, Chinmoy invented a myth to explain her birth. He declared her the "Chosen One," a miracle child he'd selected to be his most devoted follower.

When she was a year old, Tamm's family moved to Connecticut and opened a meditation center in their basement. She writes, "The sole point of everything was Guru ... Our house felt like a Guru museum, replete with photo gallery--pictures of Guru occupied every single free space upon the wall."

From Tamm's description of Chinmoy, it's hard to help but draw parallels to Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose picture still adorns the walls of classrooms on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas.

Tamm says the guru always had the last word in her household. TV was mostly forbidden, but she was allowed to watch The Muppet Show and Little House on the Prairie. The guru disparaged education, so instead of doing her homework, she spent hours memorizing aphorisms and songs he wrote. Consuming alcohol, caffeine and meat; dancing; sex and dating; socializing with outsiders; and owning pets were prohibited.

But the guru contradicted himself and made hypocritical decisions. Despite his ban on pets, as a preteen, Tamm worked long, unpaid hours during the summer cleaning cages in Chinmoy's Queens basement, where he kept his collection of exotic pets from around the world.

She also says the guru controlled his pupils by pitting them against one another. He created a caste system that allowed him to demote or promote members at will. He encouraged members to keep tabs on one another and turn in rule-breakers. Tamm says he once held a fundraiser where disciples paid $25 apiece to hear him describe their worst qualities. At one meditation session, he held a contest for the ugliest girl--a young member with a boil on her face won the distinction.

When Tamm was ejected repeatedly for dating, she felt compelled to beg for forgiveness and return to the organization. But at 25, she was so unhappy that she attempted suicide, and Chinmoy banned her permanently without explanation.

Tamm's memoir is the first book to document Chinmoy's life and expose the insular existence his followers adopted. As Tamm notes, the 7,000 current members worldwide, and countless others who have encountered Chinmoy, are likely to have had different experiences and perceptions. She doesn't pretend to have the definitive story. But her account reveals a great deal.

Krystle M. Davis is an assistant news editor at Forbes.

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