"Ready for dinner"
The guru, Celia Corona-Doran says, asked her to strip and perform lesbian sex with another follower while he watched. Corona-Doran, called “Suchatula” while at the Sri Chinmoy Center—which offers free meditation classes and cultural events with the aim of “uplifting the human spirit,” according to its website—spent her entire adult life committed to the cult and felt compelled by guru Sri Chinmoy’s request for “total surrender.” Her conflict was so great that it shattered her faith. After trying to fake it, she refused to participate and instead confronted Guru. She was told to “forgive, as Chinmoy forgave,” in a twisted conflation of their collective sins and victim blaming. She was crushed, but Chinmoy died just a short time later in 2007. After another conflicted year or so, Corona-Doran left the Chinmoy family forever, set adrift at 40.
The self-proclaimed Indian guru Sri Chinmoy moved to the United States in 1964, founding athletic events, writing thousands of poems and songs, teaching spirituality through meditation, and (in a strange twist) performing a series of bizarre weightlifting stunts. He consciously avoided calling his teachings religion, even as he exercised godlike control over the lives of “disciples.” All efforts were designed to feed his base egomania and hunger for fame. Even after his death, his followers continue to peddle various events, books and assorted businesses in an attempt to deify their guru, while the media continues to play along with a stunning lack of skepticism. This brilliant public relations effort has obliterated any trace of the victims.
In just the span of two weeks, two of America’s most prestigious newspapers have praised Chinmoy or affiliated creations: “A Spiritual Legacy Endures in Healthy Eating,” April 25, and “Healer at the Pit Stop,” April 26, both in the New York Times. “Runners Race for Enlightenment in Ultra Marathon Inspired by Indian Guru,” was printed in the Wall Street Journal on April 30.
I get it. Who doesn’t love stories about running and vegetarians? But by ignoring the unanswered allegations of dozens, perhaps hundreds of former members, otherwise responsible journalists are perpetuating a twisted kind of religious privilege. So many religious denominations of every kind are up to their eyeballs in the “sin” they so often rail against. They make millions off a willing flock, cheat on wives and protect child predators hidden among the clergy. It’s so common that it’s almost boring to bring up, but every time a new crime emerges, the victims have to fight to be believed as if it were the first smarmy accusation in the history of religion.
To understand the outrageous nature of Chinmoy’s sex request, one has to know that he preached total abstinence, going so far as to punish disciples who got pregnant. Well into adulthood, Corona-Doran felt guilty for the mere act of finding a man attractive. Chinmoy trained disciples to obey Guru without question for years over matters great and trivial, from naming of a business to pairing disciples for marriage (even when married many were forbidden from having sex with spouses). After enough time in the cult, Chinmoy would judge which of his female disciples had “surrendered” sufficiently to bring into his own sexual orbit. Even if one decides not to accept the sex allegations at face value, the Sri Chinmoy cult has many crimes to pick from.
Jayanti Tamm, at one time Chinmoy’s “greatest” disciple, wrote a memoir of her life in the cult, titled “Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult” in 2009. She was born to cult members and lived it every day until escaping at the age of 25. Now Tamm, 43, lives a normal life in New Jersey, but reading Tamm’s book is harrowing and frustrating to an outside observer, watching children being treated with malice and cruelty wrapped in the most coercive and caustic religion.
Aside from the uncritical eye many Americans reserve for religion, the reporters who write incurious puff pieces should have acknowledged the cloud over the Chinmoy Center. The most basic Google search returns a litany of controversy about Chinmoy. I talked to several former members, citing two in this essay, but there are Internet and post-cult support groups with members who have every manner of horror story, sexual and otherwise.
So how did the New York Times in particular, that great American paper of record, run two pieces on Chinmoy without one mention of his victims?
Mark Oppenheimer wrote the flattering piece on vegetarian restaurants that are tied to Chinmoy and is the writer for the “Beliefs” column for the Times. It’s appropriate his column is “Beliefs,” rather than facts, which tend to get in the way of bogus spirituality. Belief is cheap. People can and do believe dump trucks full of hokum, which they regularly share (visit Facebook), but by treating Chinmoy as just another vegetarian enthusiast, Oppenheimer helps scrub the inconvenient egomania of a man who would declare himself a god.
Oppenheimer got at least four irate e-mails from victims, one of whom was Corona-Doran, whom I interviewed for this piece. Her letter laid bare the facts, prompting Oppenheimer to post a response: “I have no idea if these charges, or others like it, are true. And Chinmoy is dead, which makes it hard to investigate this matter conclusively, or fairly. My column was really about followers who run vegetarian restaurants, far less about the man himself …”
I like Oppenheimer, but dismissing the allegations because Chinmoy is “dead” ignores the fact that his followers are turning him into a latter-day messiah. There is enough information in Tamm’s memoir and several firsthand accounts online to clearly show something was rotten in the Chinmoy Center. Perhaps it will be impossible to get every fact or witness statement, but people have been hurt. Every time one of these victims picks up a copy of the Times with some gushy article about Chinmoy, he or she is victimized all over again.
“Every time an article comes out, we ask ourselves when it will stop,” said Corona- Doran. “It’s so disheartening because we spent so much of our life in it thinking it was the real deal only to realize that it was all a lie.”
At the very least, any time Chinmoy is mentioned in an article, book or publication of any kind, a disclaimer should follow his name: “Sri Chinmoy, the controversial cult leader with unresolved allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct.”
Even though Oppenheimer gave voice to Corona-Doran in his blog, Tamm felt it was all but useless. “I believe in the Times and I know the influence it has. Some possible rebuttal on (Oppenheimer’s) blog is not the same thing. It’s far too late, because someone in Nebraska has read the article and is ‘inspired’ by it.”
Suppose the Times decided to run a story about convicted jailbird Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s as if the Times ran a puff piece on Jeffs’ favorite prison toilet wine recipe, while ignoring the sex crimes that sent him there.
Chinmoy continues to victimize from beyond the grave. Tamm’s life post-cult is stable and happy, but not all her family got out. She remained mostly estranged from her brother, Ketan, until he showed up in her life just months ago, diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. Tamm always suspected her brother might be gay and had to live a secretive, painful life if he ever wanted to express his sexuality.
“Turns out my brother contracted HIV and ended up very sick and never took any meds. Part of this is the center; there is magical thinking that goes along with it. If you are a good disciple, you don’t go to doctors.”
Ketan died in March.
I would argue that it’s too easy, especially for progressives, to like Chinmoy. He didn’t hit the buttons a fundamentalist Christian sect might. He used words like “peace” and made the case for fitness and vegetarianism, and even after his death, his followers have ramped up the left-pleasing language.
Creating authority from whole cloth is a troubling byproduct of America’s deference to religion. No person or group is as dangerous as one that claims to have the absolute authority over another person’s sex life, relationships and salvation. The center itself seems like a troubling blend of business, spirituality, fitness, religion and sports promotion as described from the website:
The Sri Chinmoy Center USA offers free meditation classes and concerts, sponsors nationwide running events and promotes vegetarian cafes and more in service to world harmony within and without.
The wounds are fresh and for some are always being reopened. February is five years since Corona-Doran left. “The longer I’m out the more horror stories I hear about sex. It’s so disturbing to see. The theory behind (the center) was great but the reality was so far behind. The center knows the truth. They just don’t care that people have been hurt and that these stupid stories that keep coming out are upsetting people. Why don’t reporters ever look things up?”
That’s a damn good question.
Like every other firsthand account, the stories Tamm and Corona-Doran tell are as unique as their individual personalities. Their greatest shared trait is that they continue to be victimized from the whitewashing of an egomaniac by people, and in particular reporters, who should know better.
After being pressured to have sex in front of Chinmoy, Corona-Doran tried but ultimately refused to comply. She left the center and religion of any kind in 2009. “When I left, I wanted to die. My whole point of life didn’t exist anymore,” said Corona-Doran, the now 45-year-old San Francisco Bay Area resident. “For me, I have no more religion.”
Corona-Doran and Tamm express no more faith of any kind. The twisted reality of the center is behind them, but so is any hope of accountability. Chinmoy and those who profess his “godliness” have much to answer for, but the victims will continue to live in the shadows until otherwise intelligent people stop ignoring their voices.
Edwin Lyngar writes about politics, media criticism and family at www.edwinlyngar.com. Follow him on twitter @Edwin_Lyngar.
Update, 5/14/14, 1:00pm:
Kusumita P. Pedersen of the Sri Chinmoy Centres responded with a statement, reading in part:
As a woman and as a feminist, I am always greatly concerned about the mistreatment of women and girls throughout the world, as well as any neglect or repressive measures which would silence their testimony. But as a woman concerned about justice, and as a scholar familiar with the history of spiritual communities, and as someone who knew Sri Chinmoy personally, I must point out that the allegations floated by Lyngar are categorically false. They are being used to stigmatize an innocent person, and by extension those who remain loyal to him.
In the article it is actually the students of Sri Chinmoy who have been neglected and silenced, their own direct experiences replaced by a crude media stereotype. This is especially an injustice to women in the Centre like myself, since it implies that we lack any sense of discrimination or moral judgment, engaging in wrong and outlandish practices. Our teacher led a life of the utmost purity and integrity, which he also commended to us. I was in constant contact with him for thirty-six years and witnessed his impeccable conduct day after day, year after year. We who knew him best were not consulted about our experiences.
I am trained as a historian of religions, with a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from Columbia University. I have spent my professional life since the 1970s teaching in colleges and universities and working in interfaith organizations. I have studied religion and spirituality and have been in contact with people of all religious traditions for my whole adult life. I practiced Zen in Japan and the United States before starting to study with Sri Chinmoy. In my own spiritual search and in interfaith settings over many years, I have met spiritual teachers of many different paths, both men and women, and have had extensive personal interactions with them. I think it is fair to say that I am not naive about religious and spiritual life, as I am not ignorant of it.
I became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy in 1971, after meeting a number of spiritual teachers and reading the works of others. I judged him to be a completely genuine and enlightened teacher. Such judgments have to be constantly tested and renewed. In the years that followed, I never had any reason to question my deeply, carefully and continually considered judgment.