Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review. "Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult" by Jayanti Tamm (2009).

Several exit counselors have explained to me that it can aid a person in recovery from a destructive cult to learn about a different cult. That's because it's hard to judge one's own experience objectively, but when one sees manipulation and inconsistencies in another group, it's easier to make the leap to understanding better one's own former group.

Therefore I thought it might be useful to some readers if I reviewed the book "Cartwheels in a Sari." This is the true story of growing up in the Sri Chinmoy movement. The author has a straightforward style. She doesn't beat the reader over the head with Chinmoy's reprehensible behavior. Instead, she tells the story through the innocent, non-critical eyes of the child she was - and damns Chinmoy in the telling.

Jayanti Tamm was born into Chinmoy's group. As a child, she naturally believed everything she was told about about "Guru": that he was godlike, that he gave everything to his devotees; and that in return they should totally believe, be totally devoted, and be totally obedient.

An early memory of Tamm's: the devotees are sitting on the ground before "Guru," who is sitting on an awning-covered platform. All are prepared for a long meditation session. Then, far off, lightning flashes and thunder roars. "Guru" announces that he will perform a special meditation to stop the rain. He closes his eyes, and sure enough, the rain holds off for 10 minutes. Jayanti is thrilled. Her guru can even control the weather! But then the rain starts. "Guru" then reveals that some disciples had doubted his ability, therefore he held off the rain only for a limited time! Now he would teach them a "true lesson." And so the devotees sat contritely in the mud and rain for hours, meditating.

Cult recovery scholars call this technique "mystical manipulation," that is, making an everyday event seem miraculous, and ascribing it to the cult. In TM, an example of mystical manipulation was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's contention that when a TMer experienced involuntary jerking movements, stress was being released and the TMer was purifying his/her nervous system. Another was ascribing improvements in the stock market to people "flying" together. Another was, during the construction of the Fairfield domes, we were told that the winter weather miraculously turned warm on the days we had to pour cement. Actually, the crew supervisors listened for the weather reports, and when the weather was warm, then they poured. Can you think of other examples?

Like the founder of TM, Sri Chinmoy (born "Chinmoy Kumar Ghose," 1931-2007) bent the truth for the sake of publicity. For instance, Chinmoy instructed several of his devotees to seek employment at the United Nations. Once hired (in clerical positions), they started a lunchtime social club, and invited "Guru" to speak. Chinmoy's goal was realized: his publicity could now state that he was a speaker at the U.N.

Similar TM organization technique: give honorary Maharishi University Ph.D.s to supporters of TM, and then have these "doctors" extol TM. Can you think of other examples?

When the author was in Chinmoy's physical proximity, here is what she experienced: "The second I stood...before Guru, I felt overwhelmed by his humbling and beautiful presence. The waves of energy that surrounded him enveloped me completely, erasing all thoughts....Being in his presence created a tangible change in me; it made me holy, better....I longed to sit on the ground before Guru's throne and never leave....[A]ll my outer strife and worries seemed to utterly wash away....I wanted to spend my life inside his trance, drinking in his light, his consciousness. The way he made me feel when I stood near him, fixated on his presence, was a sense of completion - I was aligned, whole, and safe."

What do you make of that? Did you experience that around Mahesh? I did.

Many of Chinmoy's devotes worked at disciple-owned small businesses whose profits supported him. He called these businesses "divine enterprises."

I believe that in cult recovery circles, this is called "loading the language." Words take on insider, glorified meanings. In TM, instead of "Mahesh's meanderings about the nature of things," he had "The Science of Creative Intelligence." Instead of "many people paying to gather in one place and practice Mahesh's meditation programs together" we had "World Peace Assemblies." Instead of "a building where TM is publicized and taught," we had "Capitals of the Age of Enlightenment." Can you think of others? What did these words evoke in you?

At the"divine enterprises," devotees of Chinmoy "were paid only a few dollars a week, yet they were grateful. Without healthcare or retirement fund they happily worked...feeling fortunate to be sheltered in Guru's atmosphere rather than the outside world."

Does this sound familiar? How much were you paid when you worked in Mahesh's movement? In 1975, I was given room, board, credits towards courses and $25 a month. In 1980, I was given room, board, a course and $75 a month -- except that after 3 months, they claimed they couldn't afford the $75, so we stopped getting the stipend. We got no healthcare or retirement, either. We, too, felt fortunate to be living in a "life-supporting" "evolutionary" atmosphere.

And many disciples who worked at "outside" jobs felt honored to sign their entire paycheck directly over to Chnmoy.

Chinmoy had a few pet projects, whose goal seemed to me to be to glorify his name. One was the "Sri Chinmoy Peace Blossom" project, an attempt to re-name major international landmarks in Chinmoy's honor. Another was to acquire the title "Lord" from Queen Elizabeth of England. And a third was to win the Nobel Peace Prize! He also gave awards to famous people in order to obtain laudatory quotes and publicity photos of himself with them. In their ignorance, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, among others, accepted his awards.

In contrast, it seems to me that at first Mahesh didn't try to glorify his own name. All glory went to his Guru Dev. But later, all things TM were labeled with Mahesh's name and likeness: Maharishi International University, Maharishi Ayur-Ved, Maharishi Shtyapata, Maharishi Amrit Kalash, etc. One of his goals seemed to be to spread TM, or his brand of Hinduism, throughout the world. One way he tried to achieve this was by encouraging scientists to bias their research to make TM look good. Another was to honor rich and famous people through wining, dining and flattering them. From this, I believe he hoped to gain publicity and money. What other goals do you believe Mahesh had? And what other misleading means do you remember him using in his attempt to reach those goals?

Chinmoy claimed to possess supernatural powers. Tamm reports, "As long as someone remained a disciple, they were safe from sudden death....It was evident to all disciples that all those who did become gravely ill or died obviously had not been good disciples."

Mahesh never claimed to possess supernatural powers. (Or did he?) However, he did claim that his products and services produced marvelous powers. For instance, he claimed that his TM-Sidhis (SM) program produced perfect health, immortality, levitation, supernormal abilities and world peace. What other marvelous claims do you remember Mahesh making?

Slowly, Tamm saw through Chinmoy's duplicity, and she rebelled. Chinmoy then threw her out. She, like some TMers who left TM, lost "family, church, friends, beliefs, ideals, identity." She was left homeless and penniless. She also had no skills that were translatable into earning a living. What did she know? She answers, "I knew Guru's Bengali songs, poems and aphorisms; I had memorized classical Indian tales about masters and disciples," and she could sit for hours.

What were your experiences when you left TM?

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