Leaving a Cult

By Jayanti Tammauthor, teacher I was born and raised in a cult. For over 25 years my life was strategically … Continued

By Jayanti Tamm
author, teacher

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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  • Paganplace

    Sounds like some confused people, don’t it always. Sexual control of others, in one form or another, is sadly, always a hallmark of what we call cults. All the best to yourself and your child. Always, there is hope for doing better. 🙂

  • yogaloy

    Sri Chinmoy was no doubt correct in his assessment of your unique strength, Jayanti, even if in the end he felt personally disappointed by it.To leave, as you did, with little support to forge a new life, marked by individuality, was an act of singular courage.I salute you and am eagerly anticipating your upcoming memoir.

  • storyd1

    Poor you. Another tall tale memoir for Oprah’s book club. Chosen Ones are a dime a dozen these days. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

  • DavidinAuburn

    Sri Chinmoy rejected the US baby boomer generation’s anthem extolling the virtues of “sex, drugs and rock & roll.” He insisted on the very same behavior norms expected of hundreds of millions of people who follow spiritual paths as conservative Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many Christian groups. As with any conservative religion, many followers are unable to deal with all the rigor and fall by the wayside. Most accept that they simply were not cut out for that life style. Others — such as yourself — fall in to a “sour grapes” rationalization that they were supposedly “victims of a cult.” Your degree is in “creative writing” and that is what you teach at your school. Clearly, you have used your training here as you attempt to partially rationalize but mainly monetize your previous life failures. As one example, it is a simple fact that your parents met a full year after Sri Chinmoy moved from his Manhattan apartment to the modest little house in Jamaica, NY where he spent the rest of his life. Sorry kid, I was there, you were not. So your colorful stories of how your mom met your dad are fiction, just like much of the rest of your story. Maybe your mom made it up. Maybe you did. But if anyone took advantage of you or abused or exploited you, it was (as I am sure you understand by now) your biological father that did that, not the spiritual father whom you are now so busy defaming. It is a better read after all. So, one last piece of advice from a guy who was there when you were born and who watched you grow up. Writing fictional accounts and promoting them as non-fiction is a historically poor way to start a writing career.

  • persiflage

    I strongly advise against insisting on vows of celibacy among members in any cult-like separatist organization – look at what happened to the Shakers. Long gone now… At least they left some fine furniture behind! It seems to me that celibacy is a road better taken from within, rather than inforced from without. There’s a time and place for everything, and the master of oneself is certain to be oneself, at the end of things. Why all the fuss about gurus??

  • gladerunner

    DavidinAuburn:So Sri Cinmoy really did lift 7000 pounds, all by himself?Preaching fiction is just as iffy, no? I mean, some people might catch him in a fantastic lie and label him a narcissistic nutjob……. So he MUST have lifted 7000 pounds with one arm, right?

  • windhill

    Becoming a monastic before one is ready is an incarnation wasted. A true guru knows where you are and will nurture you in that direction. I cannot think of anything more psychologically destructive than repressing sexual desire (I said repressing, not transmuting)and becoming celibate before one is ready. A true guru should help you learn balance…..

  • pitadev

    I hope the proof-reading for Tamm’s upcoming book was more accurate and professional than that displayed in this self-promotional article. Eg.”informal mediation circle” and “ensures that the he is”. Perhaps people might take her a bit more seriously if she was less sloppy with the truth as well.

  • KathleenSW

    To Pitadev, sadly, you missed the point of the article…and I’m assuming you’re firmly in the clutches of the cult and are grasping at straws to pick apart this account in any way you can.Anyway, bravo to the author for being brave enough to share her account of the events. As always, there are many versions to a story, and who’s to say that Ms. Tamm’s is not an accurate assessment of her experience. Looking forward to reading the book.

  • zenguy1

    Dear Miss Tamm,

  • Annakarenin

    In the early years, 1968, 1969 and 1970, Sri Chinmoy revealed to his then small group of disciples, that he was the Highest Avatar that ever lived, or ever will live. He was higher than Buddha, Krishna and much higher than Christ who, after all, was only a partial Avatar. Sri Chinmoy had been at the Sri Aurobindo Asram in Pondicherry, and he vastly exagerated his role at the Ashram. Of course he had far transended his former guru Sri Aurobindo.

  • MBrooks4

    Good point Pitadev — ‘sloppy with the truth’ does seem to sum it up. Although I see it as a classic case of misplaced aggression. If Ms. Tamm was so miserable with her life, rather than taking it out on the teacher, then why doesn’t she blame the parents. After all, they chose the lifestyle for her. Had they left the organization when she was born, she would have turned out to be a perfectly happy well-adjusted adult like the rest of us.

  • juanita5

    I look forward to reading your book, Jayanti! How interesting to witness some of the self-serving, venomous and simply mean attacks on you from individuals who are still under the influence. What is this type of spirituality? Is this what the “guru” taught? (Doesn’t seem too enlightened or serene to me…)I did not pick up on any “misplaced aggression,” and not once did I get the impression that you were “so miserable with (your) life!” And, based on what I have read here, I suspect that you are already the “perfectly happy well-adjusted adult like the rest of us,” and then some! I suppose more barbs will come your way. You seem resilient and capable of handling them. Obviously, your parents did an amazing job of raising you in spite of this cult! All the best. And yes, enjoy the ride.

  • DavidinAuburn

    Since I don’t see anyone else with “David” in their screen name, I am guessing that poster “Annakarenin” believes I am the individual David B, formally of the AP; well kid, that ain’t me. Sorry to burst that little argumentum ad hominem put-down bubble you were trying to blow. Meanwhile, back on-topic, I do not believe that the Sri Chinmoy Center was a cult. However, that is not to say that there were not a lot of cultists and other nut jobs involved in the organization. Those who were too weak-willed to follow the rules, drifted away or got booted. The more mature ones of those at least accept that either they failed to make the grade or that they made poor choices in joining to begin with. In contrast the less mature or less emotionally robust ones fell into the mental trap that was first so elegantly described by Dr. Festinger back in 1957, and what is now called “cognitive dissonance resolution.” Look that up. It describes this type of whining ex-disciple behavior exactly. Using this mental crutch, these losers convince themselves that they did not actually personally fail at what they had attempted, but rather that they were poor little abused “victims” of a “cult.” Please. My message to them is “get over it.” If leading a so-called “normal life” is so (expletive)important to you, then by all means, go do that. Clue time #1: Sitting at your computer years afterward passing along urban legends made up by sociopathic ex cultists or (even worse) creatively fabricating still more fantasies about a now harmless dead guy in order to validate your poor bruised egos, is not being “brave” and is not leading this “normal life” your now claim to have been denied. Clue time #2: You are only a victim of your own narcissistic stupidity. You did it to yourself then, and you are still doing it now. By the way, how’s that working for you?

  • peaches-n-cream

    Do we really want to read another book by a comfortable middle-aged housewife about her ‘courageous’ struggle to leave a cult? Give us a break. ‘Oh, can someone comfort me, I’ve had a bad dream. No, don’t bother, I’ll write a book about it.’ How self-indulgent can you get! Sometimes I think we are completely out of touch with reality here in America! Can’t we leave the word courage where it belongs – for people like the firefighters who went into the Twin Towers on 9/11, or for solo ’round the world yachtsmen, or for a family in Palestine trying to hold their ground as bombs fall around their home.

  • Lavanya1

    Jayanti, Jayanti, does anybody get through their early years untouched by frustrations, sorrows, and lost loves? No, nobody. Your young life’s hurts and bruises were pretty minor, looked at from the perspective of the world as a whole. Are you the only person who doesn’t realize that Sri Chinmoy had absolutely no authority in your life except what your parents willingly gave him? He could not have pushed you any harder than your mom and dad allowed. You are smart enough to realize that he did the best he knew how for you and all of us, based on the wisdom he had from his own spiritual and cultural traditions. And that he loved you sincerely, and wanted to protect you, just as your parents did, whether you always liked it or not.You are young, beautiful, and healthy, enjoying marriage, career, motherhood, and every opportunity to choose the direction of your life. Gratitude would be not only a more skillful but also a more appropriate emotion twelve years down the road. Gratitude for the wonderful opportunities you had in your childhood and youth, and for the love and support that surrounded you while you lived in Sri Chinmoy’s close circle. Your disparaging attitude toward him is so disappointing to everyone who loved you and your Guru throughout those years. It says much more about who you have allowed yourself to become than it does about who Sri Chinmoy was.

  • zkensf

    thank you so much for your wonderful book and your great appearances on the radio-unfortunately sick cults have tarnished the beauty and deep resonance of so much spirituality-no guru who practices cult like behavior will ever benefit from these abusive behaviors—-cult leaders exist in almost every spiritual realm-the important thing for spiritual practioners is to avoid them like the plague and not to let these vampires poison the well of your own spiritual practice. In my own practice, I say no guru, no temple, no truth: the truth is in nature, the guru is in your own mind and the temple is all around us. We can teach one another, and learn to practice the deepest path by taking the first step-then the greatest teachers will lead us effortlessly onward………….Ken in CA

  • ebrehm33

    Wow, Ms. Tamm – I’ve noticed that any negative comments about your article here are not intelligent or insightful discussion points. They are all just vile, nasty, and condescending personal attacks against you. It’s clear that it is an organized effort by the “disciples” to discredit you – which is a known practice done in all cults when a member leaves. Your sharing your experience causing some people to react so defensively is predictable, as well. Judging from what I read right here, your article, your engaging story, your fluid style of prose, and this building controversy – it has all the makings of a best seller!! Good luck to you!

  • philipaugustus

    Ms.Tamm’s account of of her controlled life within the ashram and her struggle to establish her life on her own terms is, in my view,courageous,although the events of her young childhood were probably told to her by another.This transition is not easy for any ex-disciple.The guru did bring fourth such spiritual light during meditation,that it was hard to reconcile this with his problematic human ego .But we must ascend;learning to listen to the inner Voice,to forgive and to move on .

  • ovajonaj

    Regardless of what some say, it was courageous of you to leave the cult to pursue your own destiny, and not one set for you without ever asking you. Especially since it involved leaving all your past (i.e. support) behind you, and starting totally on your own.I look forward to reading your book, which i appreciate not only as a personal strugle account, but also on a purely informative basis – informative of yet another ‘guru’, and yet another cult. Since this one has been rather sucessful in presenting himself as a saint, it is a more than welcome ‘second opinion’.Not that i believe all gurus are bad – but today’s world is so full of predators in all walks of life; and sadly spiritual guidance, guidance in so important an aspect of one’s life, is one of the very affected areas. True leadership is all but gone from the world, and the dominion of spiritual leaders unfortunatelly doesn’t fare much better than that of politicians – in other words, 99.9% are actors misrepresenting themselves, and preying on people’s gullibility.Keep up, and all the best to your family!

  • ovajonaj

    Regardless of what some say, it was courageous of you to leave the cult to pursue your own destiny, and not one set for you without ever asking you. Especially since it involved leaving all your past (i.e. support) behind you, and starting totally on your own.I look forward to reading your book, which i appreciate not only as a personal strugle account, but also on a purely informative basis – informative of yet another ‘guru’, and yet another cult. Since this one has been rather sucessful in presenting himself as a saint, it is a more than welcome ‘second opinion’.Not that i believe all gurus are bad – but today’s world is so full of predators in all walks of life; and sadly spiritual guidance, guidance in so important an aspect of one’s life, is one of the very affected areas. True leadership is all but gone from the world, and the dominion of spiritual leaders unfortunatelly doesn’t fare much better than that of politicians – in other words, 99.9% are actors misrepresenting themselves, and preying on people’s gullibility.Keep up, and all the best to your family!

  • DeaconDan

    I was a disciple in the S.F. Center in the middle 1970’s. I worked in two “Divine Enterprises”, both Debbie and Carlos’ restaurant and Sumitra’s woodworking shop. I was one of the lucky ones who found the demands of discipleship too much and eventually failed when I asked the guru to modify his demands upon me. Davidinauburn’s words regarding personal failure which were intended to insult and condemn are unwittingly words revealing the great mercy and goodness of God. My failure at discipleship was the road to finding a new Master, one who taught me that the greatest love was to lay down one’s life for his friend, who modeled humility by washing his disciples’ feet, someone who challenged the ruling elite’s treatment of the weak at the price of losing his own life; rather than a master who taught that you should pull over and leave your friend by the side of the road if he was in a “low consciousness”, who literally sat on a throne and who chased celebrity endorsements and funding. Sri Chinmoy was not a charlatan in this sense: he was a person with very real and tangible occult power. Like many in my generation who had become involved with eastern mysticism, I had confused the world of consciousness with the world of the spirit. I had mistaken an illusion impressed on my psyche as an absolute truth of the soul, not believing that there could be something like unclean spirits in this world. All of Sri Chinmoy’s strange, vaunted accomplishments such as lifting 7,000 pounds are all capabilities well documented in accounts of the demon possessed. It is odd that he didn’t conceal these powers rather than advertise them. It just shows how naïve and uneducated we all were back then. Please read a reputable book such as “Hostage to the Devil, the Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans”, written by Jesuit priest, Malachi Martin or Scott Peck’s recent book “Glimpses of the Devil”.For all those current or past disciples who still feel lost and unable to shake the vestiges of frightening occult forces, my recommendation is this: find someone to pray over you as my Christian father did. When he said the name “Jesus” an incredible pillar of light, love and power came over me and cut off the mysterious source that was attacking me. It’s called deliverance prayer. I thank God nearly every day that I was a failure as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy.