Footnotes: Tales of life in a cult

Carlsbad Current-Argus/June 13, 2009

The Emperor's New Clothes," by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, is a familiar cautionary tale about not taking things at face value. Otherwise, you might end up naked in the public square, like the foolish ruler who believed what he was told by a couple of con men.

Author Jayanti Tamm was caught in such a con man's trap. Her book, "Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult," relates her childhood spent in a personality cult, from which she was expelled in her 20s.

Jayanti, like the other followers of Sri Chinmoy, was urged to always focus on how to make him happy with gifts, flattery, extended hours seated at his feet, and by obeying his rules: no television, no pets, no computers, no books other than those written by Sri Chinmoy, no outside friends or hobbies; in short, no life or interests outside of Sri Chinmoy. Yet, even as he prescribed a life of rigid asceticism for his followers, he himself accumulated material goods - a fleet of cars, money and gifts.

As a teenager, Jayanti rebelled against the austere life her parents had chosen to live under Sri Chinmoy's authority. She wanted to date, finish school and even go to college, but was foribidden by Sri Chinmoy: "The outer life, the ordinary, vital life is not for you. No married life. No children. No negative trappings." Jayanti despaired, but strove to please Sri Chinmoy with increased devotion.

Manipulating his followers by creating a hierarchy and distributing favors (such as the privilege of being seated near his throne), Sri Chinmoy kept his devotees on edge, wondering how to please him, which he said would help them progress farther on their spiritual journey. Followers were encouraged to report each other to Sri Chinmoy if they noticed "unsoulful" behavior. Some followers gave all their money, including family inheritance, to Sri Chinmoy. Others toiled in his grimy, underground zoo full of illegally-collected exotic animals, or performed whatever other menial tasks he assigned.

One day, Jayanti's years of doubt and unhappiness coalesced into a moment of piercing clarity. She was suddenly aware of how absurd it all was. Staying within the group, she would have to live "like a dependent, mindless child. Stripped of all pretenses, the reality horrified me." Yet Jayanti also feared that inside of her, there wasn't "a real person who could exist wholly unto herself." But she knew she had to find out.

This intriguing personal account of Jayanti's courageous journey to independence is both fascinating and strange; a peek into a hidden world from which Jayanti emerges to tell her story and analyze the strange power Sri Chinmoy held over his followers.

Tamm's book is available for checkout at Carlsbad Public Library. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The library is closed on Sunday.

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