FROM MEMBERSHIP IN AN ANCIENT RELIGION TO A NEW ONE:
A Personal Account
When you think of a cult, otherwise known as a new religion, you might envision its members as hippies or self-proclaimed psychics or someone with a "unique" nature. But very often this is far from the truth. I was raised in a somewhat typical Catholic family with six siblings in the suburbs of Los Angeles. And somehow, despite my parochial education, preppy topsider shoes, and pastel colored polo shirts worn with the collars up (remember I am referring to the early eighties when this was cool), I found myself highly attracted to a new and foreign religion. In this personal narrative the three major stages of my religious life (from a devout Catholic with childhood aspirations for sisterhood, to a follower of an Indian guru, and, finally, to an agnostic) can illustrate how an average American becomes drawn to an alternative group and how and why one may depart from it.
To begin with, my Catholic initiation transpired in a hospital sink. When my blood cells starting battling with each other and the first transfusion did not take the nurses at Holy Cross Hospital figured they better baptize me. With a sprinkle of tap water on my wrinkled newborn forehead and a hand gesture of a cross made over my faint brow a few religious words were pronounced: I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Voila! I was viewed as saved, not to be destined for the land of limbo, a neither here nor there spiritual region supposedly designed primarily for non-baptized children. According to Catholic dogma, my name would now appear as one of the chosen in St. Peter’s directory.
As for my Catholic upbringing it included the usual: attending Catholic school for twelve years, receiving the sacraments of penance, communion and confirmation, and going to church every Sunday. Being a very religious kid, I would even try to get a few extra masses in during the week just before school started (although I must admit it was often tough sacrificing handball for Our Fathers). However, my religious heritage faced competition early on in my childhood. When I was in second grade, at around the time of my first Holy Communion, my sister returned from India. I was a bit too young to understand what a guru meant, but I had heard my mother tearfully explain to relatives that "she went to live at the ashram of her gu…ru" as the reason for the journey (my mother displayed her dislike of an idea by over expressing the word in question). As might be expected, my sister was from the hippie generation, a flower child as it were, who experimented in mind expanding drugs before coming to Eastern philosophy. In her room amidst the beaded curtains and other funky sixties décor were pictures of a bearded Indian man wearing a turban. Just a kid at the time it was the Indian candies on her night stand, supposedly personally blessed by the guru himself and referred to as prasad, that always caught my attention. These candies looked like multi-colored miniature Good-n-Plentys and had a similar taste. My sister did not mind me eating them since, because they were blessed, she believed as other initiates did that they possessed a spiritual benefit to the recipient. So the more her little sister ate the more enlightened she might become. Now this may sound ridiculous from a Western standpoint. How could candies blessed by an Indian man be holy? But if looked at more objectively there is really not that much difference between the concept of prasad and of the blessed bread I was soon to receive during the sacrament of communion. Granted, the Catholic looks upon the bread as the embodiment of Jesus via transubstantiation (certainly philosophically a much more radical notion than my sister's tradition was proposing). Yet, both food items are given a sacred status and when ingested one believes that one somehow partakes in the divine.
Well, while I in no way attribute the prasad encounter as responsible, in my mid-teen years I was pulled to the ideas of Indian philosophy. And ironically it was in my Catholic high school that I had my first major dose of Eastern philosophy as a young adult. Although Father Butkiss (a name I will never forget) taught more traditional Catholic ideas in my sophomore year religion class, both my junior and senior religion teachers, who happened to be in their mid-twenties and who were not priests, had their own interests in Eastern teachings and often spoke of Indian gurus and read from Indian scriptures. When yoga and meditation were occasionally proposed for the class session students would let out a joyful yelp (anything to get out of real work). I suppose this was a more liberal Catholic high school than most. Anyway, as typical of many sixteen-year old minds, I was seeking answers to deep philosophical questions and somehow I found the Eastern approach quite appealing. Instead of an eternal hell, reincarnation was posited. Instead of one true path, all religions were to some degree valued. Unlike in Christianity, where a Tibetan Buddhist child would be condemned to infinite damnation after death for not being Christian (to me a very unfair scenario especially since it is not his fault for never even hearing about Christianity in his part of the world), in the Eastern perspective everyone, including lower life forms, was destined at some point for liberation. Moreover, according to Indian thought, God did not walk on the planet only once two thousand years ago, but was believed to manifest in human form throughout the ages, including my own. While the religious iconography was foreign to me, I found it exotic and enticing. To my parents demise my Catholic ideology was beginning to wane.
My mother suspected my philosophical conversion when I announced my commitment to vegetarianism (it is common in Eastern traditions not to eat meat). If truth be told, at first I tried to hide it from her fearing her wrathful reaction. But when she found a handful of chicken pieces crunched up in a napkin under the kitchen table I was clearly busted. She reacted like she had uncovered a load of marijuana in my dresser drawer. All hell broke lose. Why the overreaction from a mother who already went through this with an elder daughter? She must have figured that she lost one of her children's soul to the "devil". From her perspective clearly a sign her mothering skills were suspect, but to lose two children (especially her youngest) was unthinkable. My sister was also freaked out over the whole affair. She feared that she would be blamed for my new found interest and tried to talk me into eating meat until I "turned eighteen or something or at least until mom calmed down." But the thought was inconceivable to me. Sure, I would conceal religious paraphernalia, read philosophical books elsewhere, and meditate behind locked doors, but I would not be told what to eat. I was asserting my independence and individuality, what many psychologists call a healthy transition at my age. No doubt, I was watched closely from then on.
Around this time I had my first out of body experience but not while meditating. It happened spontaneously while lying down in bed. I felt an overpowering force come through me (like a strong wind) and pull (almost a vacuum sucking sensation) what I felt was my spirit out of my body. I ascended in rapid speed to what appeared to be higher and more conscious states of awareness. Another one occurred shortly after this, but this time from the dream-state. I had a vivid dream that I died, being hit by a huge truck, and suddenly with the awareness that I died I was thrown into what seemed like a classic near death experience. The old claim that you cannot dream your own death should certainly be reevaluated. These intense experiences drew me even more into mysticism and Eastern philosophy.
Reading Autobiography of a Yogi and other popular Indian texts instilled within me a desire to be a female yogi of sorts. I would try to meditate a couple of hours a day and live a life of ahimsa (non-violence). My college roommate must have thought I was a bit nuts when I would retire to the walk-in closet for an hour or two to meditate (I preferred a dark location for this activity). Unfortunately, this act almost got me killed when one time my roommate, not knowing I was home, heard a noise in the closet and plunged into it with a knife ready to stab. I guess I should of put a note on the closed door reading: "Do not disturb; meditation in progress."
All of these philosophical pursuits culminated when I received initiation into an Indian religious organization. Like my sister I now had a guru--in fact, the very same one. I first wrote to him in India when I was sixteen just after my out of body experiences. Having detailed my mystical travel I expressed a yearning for spiritual liberation, withdrawing from the wheel of reincarnation, and some kind of guidance to that accord. My "keen desire for initiation" was declared by the guru as "altogether good," but, as with all initiates, I had to wait until my adult years (twenties) to be ceremonially welcomed into the spiritual brotherhood. Why the delay? The guru thought that pursuit of initiation should be a mature individual's choice and not a parent's enforcement. When I turned twenty I applied for membership, under the assumption that I was a vegetarian, did not take drugs or alcohol, and lived a moral life (including no pre-marital sex), and was accepted.
I found it a bit ironic, however, when the initiation ceremony of all places in California took place a few blocks from my parent's abode. Travelling over two hours from my college town, I ended up next to mom and dad's house to be "spiritually connected" to an Indian mystic. I borrowed a friend's car so as not to be recognized and wore sunglasses when traversing the streets. My ruse proved successful and I was now officially a disciple of a guru. The ceremony itself was quite interesting. The inner spiritual regions were more fully explained, the proper technique to meditate was highlighted and, most importantly, a meditation mantra was given. Several initiates shed tears of joy perhaps out of love for the guru or because they believed, as they were told, that enlightenment was theirs within at least four lifetimes (depending upon one's karma and effort). During the initiation, the one major spiritual experience I had was when the representative of the guru (the initiator) shook my hand welcoming into the spiritual family and his face took on the appearance of the guru himself. The representative's eyes and facial structures seem to melt into another imagine and I was enthralled by it. Other than that, at that time I did not have an instant out of body experience as I had hoped for or anything comparable.
When I graduated from college I planned my first trip to see the guru in India. Certainly telling my parents I was heading off to a third world country on the other side of the planet to receive darshan of "that gu…ru" was not on option for me. Planning the journey to my initiation in my old hometown now seemed like a piece of cake. Pulling off this journey required real ingenuity. Cleverly I thought of sandwiching the India trip in between a trip to Europe, so that the few weeks before and after India were spent riding the trains of the European continent. This I did with my girlfriend. She did not accompany me to the ashram in India, however; I had to do that alone. When I tried to exit the plane in the middle of the night in Saudi Arabia (in no less than short sleeves!) thinking we had already landed in India I kind of wish she was there to give me much needed direction. I was a bit of a basket case at this time. There was so much going on in my head: flying over to India by myself, knowing that the plane landed at 3 a.m. in such a foreign environment, dreading being found out by my parents, and meeting someone that I viewed literally as a living Jesus figure.
The ashram itself was centered in Delhi and quite impressive. Lodging and food were free and the people were exceptionally nice. My room was a dorm setting with over twenty beds in it. Once I caught up on some sleep and set up shop in the room I heard rumors that the guru was soon to appear at the ashram. That night I had my first view of him. The sight of the guru brought me to my knees. He was regal and radiant, soft and yet powerful. In his discourses he displayed great wisdom and insight. What most won my admiration was a certain lack of ego; he did not seem to possess vanity of any kind. The one opportunity to speak with him occurred in front of over ten thousand Indians. I was granted a few minutes to approach his chair on the dais and to ask him a question, a sort of an interview. When his response indicated that he did not know that I was initiated yet (foreknowledge I assumed he possessed), I was a bit thrown off. But that was not really my focus as I departed his company; I was just blown away by his overall presence. I stumbled down the stairs from where he was sitting and appearing overwhelmed was handed a cup of water by an Indian woman. I guess that I was so out of it by the emotion of it all I just sat and drank the water. Once I realized that I had drank it I was in a state of panic, for India's water usually contains strange parasites that if not use to lead to amoebic dysentery. (Foreigners are strongly advised to drink and brush their teeth in only bottled water.) For days I waited for the gurgling stomach to set in but thankfully no problems developed. After a month here I returned to Europe safely with plans to come back to India within a few years.
My second trip was to the Punjab in Northern India to visit the guru in the main ashram. It was closed to all Westerners on the earlier visit due to sporadic terrorist activities between the Sikhs and the Hindus. This time I went with my sister. After an eight-hour train ride from Delhi dodging baseball size cockroaches in our very questionable compartment we arrived at the ashram gates to find a Shangrala type town. The people there felt they were walking amongst god and thus a feeling of love and devotion radiated throughout. As policy demands, food and lodgings were again complimentary. For two weeks I meditated, attended the guru's discourses in the mornings and evenings for about an hour each, and relaxed on the grass lawns in the sun the rest of the time with fellow members. Again, I sandwiched India between a European vacation and so my parents (at least this is how I justified) were spared heartache and worries.
My religious life, as you can see, has been full of interesting interludes. One may think that the transformation from Catholicism to a disciple of Eastern mysticism is radical, especially coming from a Southern California "Valley Girl" background. Yet, having studied religion academically for many years I can now say with hindsight that there are in fact many parallels between the two traditions. First of all, both Christianity and the guru tradition are bhakti (devotional) approaches, instilling an emotional attachment to the object of homage. In one case Jesus is praised and in another the living guru. In fact, the Indian tradition incorporated Jesus into it by declaring him an enlightened mystic from an earlier period teaching a similar message. Secondly, while not in any way identical, each is filled with rituals of some sort, sacred writings and other holy objects, sacred stories (myths) about the teacher, moral codes, etc. Furthermore, both groups offer a strong sense of social bonding; in the Catholic mass it usually occurs when one greets one's neighbor with a "peace be with you" just before communion, and in the other tradition camaraderie is experienced at the local meetings and especially at the ashram. Religion, it seems, satisfies certain pyscho-social-emotional needs in many of us and so it makes sense that there are strong similarities among the religions.
Perhaps surprisingly over five years ago I entered a new stage in my philosophical journey. No longer did the religious worldview capture my allegiance as it had since childhood. Although I valued its social function and cultural connection, philosophically I now found religion to be full of mythic (non-rational) thought, blind belief, group thinking or conformity, and ideological work (when there are discrepancies rationalizations occur). Sadly, critical thinking, questioning and doubting, products of a healthy mind, were typically viewed in religion to be a taboo and one was scorned for it. In Catholicism it was the "devil's work." In my guru tradition I was reaping "bad karma." As my philosophical mind matured I could no longer swallow this. Skepticism replaced blind belief and unknowingness overthrew absolute certainty. If I was to analyze how I went from an adamant believer to a selective or rational skeptic (as opposed to a universal skeptic who cynically rejects everything) and agnostic there are several very specific occurrences that I attribute to it. As for my skepticism, it developed as I read numerous books on critical thinking and logic. Carl Sagan, Paul Kurtz, James Randi, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, to name a few, became my intellectual guides. Assigning their material in my critical thinking courses supplied both the students and myself with a better understanding of fallacious reasoning and a fuller appreciation of science, the scientific method, and skepticism.
Around the time I was engrossed in this type of literature I was also working on my Ph.D. in religion. The course work for this degree ripened my understanding of the dynamics of religion: how religions start and grow, the process of myths and hagiography, the ideological work inherent in religion, the psychological and sociological function of religion, etc. While my M.A. work set the foundation it was the latter work that really pushed me into a new, more scientific way of analyzing religion. As a social scientist interested in religion for its social phenomenon and not in religion as ontological truth, I could place religion in a human context and witness it as a product of material culture. Under this method, religion could be studied more objectively as it was divorced (at least at the conscious level) from personal preferences and bias. In no way was religion devalued here; instead it was honored for its rich tapestry of history, mythology, philosophy, and cultural rituals.
And, of course, teaching philosophy has had a huge impact on my overall thinking. Studying the ideas of Socrates, Nietzsche and others has open philosophical doors that have hitherto been closed. No longer a rosary carrying Catholic or a firmly devoted disciple of an Indian guru, I place myself in the agnostic camp (one I share with Socrates) reveling in the bliss of my admitted Ignorance. (I spell "Ignorance" here with a capital "I" to distinguish it from stupidity or lower case "ignorance.") Reality, whatever it may be, from my perspective is far greater than is possibly comprehendible.
When I say agnostic, I do not mean that I know there to be something out there but I just do not know what. Nor do I mean that I am open to all claims to truth, be it Elvis is the messiah, extraterrestrials are really angels from god, Jesus appears in tortillas, or I am the reincarnated form of Cleopatra . That form of total openness to all positions is not called agnosticism but stupidity. One needs to rationally discriminate between claims based on evidence. When a claim can be sufficiently supported (having been tested and re-tested) then, yes, go for it. Instead, what I mean by agnosticism is a sense of unknowingness. Sure, I know certain things, such as that life forms are composed of DNA and that we live in a heliocentric solar system, but the answers to ultimate philosophical perennial type questions escape my (and I suspect all humans) limited intelligence. Moreover, the more we discover about nature and existence the more this knowledge seems to decimate our previous understandings. At one time we thought the earth to be stationary and only six thousand years old. And I am confident that, while the fundamentals of physics and science will not be radically altered as it was with Einstein's work, science will continue to amaze us. The universe is an awesomely mysterious place and we are all thrown right in the middle of it. Indeed, one can pick up mystical tendencies in such rhetoric; it is reminiscent of the Hindu's Upanishadic claim that we are all a drop of the infinite sea of existence. They referred to this higher reality as Brahman. As an agnostic I do not profess a transcendental reality or the lack thereof, but agree with the mystics that right now I am living in the mist of marvelous mystery, an infinite wonder. I do not have to wait until death to experience a mind-blowing transmundane encounter. At present I exist in a "spiritual region" of sorts. For instance, everywhere I look I literally see frozen popsicles of light and this includes my very self. Remember the equation E=MC2. According to Einstein all material forms are condensed energy that if released at a particular speed become beams of light. Now think about this: you are congealed light eating and breathing and bathing in light. There is nothing but infinite light and all is part of it. How incredible this is. So perhaps instead of labeling me a plain agnostic (since I do not just claim not to know), it is more correct to say that I am a mystical agnostic as I focus on the beauty of the mystery. And I am even comfortable declaring a belief in God, so long as one defines God not as an anthropomorphic being awaiting our return in some heavens but the infinite, unknowable, splendid mystery itself.
Despite my newfound critical mind, I still have very positive feelings for both Catholicism and the Indian guru tradition. When visiting my parents on weekends I attend Sunday Catholic mass with them and often feel nostalgia for it. The burning incense, the ceremonial formality, the religious icons, the satisfactory feeling that I have fulfilled my duty by attending (a feeling carried over from my youth), all bring me back to my religious childhood. Philosophically I may stand at odds with the tradition but emotionally there is still an attachment of some kind. So ingrained is this religion in me since birth I even occasionally catch myself when asked what religion I am mechanically responding Roman Catholic. And in many ways this is still correct, for, while not religiously Catholic, culturally I am Catholic. Perhaps you have to be a non-practicing (and non-believing) Catholic raised in the tradition to get this.
As for the Eastern religion, I still love the guru as a truly remarkable human being. His wisdom, kind heart, and utter brilliance are unparalleled. People may list Gandhi and Mother Teresa as exceptional characters, yet, for me at least, I would place him even beyond this. His work to cure the blind and feed the poor of India deserve a great deal of credit but his overall inner "spiritual mojo" (to rip off an Austin Powers' term) blew minds. Sitting in one of the night meetings at the ashram I still recall a radiance of indescribable light surrounding him (perhaps his frozen light energy was beginning to unthaw). If one had to have a guru this was a damn good one. But whether he was god manifest who mastered all the inner spiritual realms is way beyond my grasp (he never literally claimed this role but was appointed guru by the master before him who supposedly recognized his evolved state). Even today, with my sister still an avid disciple, I occasionally attend the local satsang (discourse), again for nostalgic reasons. Yet, believing as I did that I was a chosen soul destined to soon depart from the prison-like cycle of reincarnation and return to my true spiritual home via meditation and the guru's guidance was not possible. I choose instead to ride the waves of light that surrounds me marveling at consciousness and dumbfounded on what it is all about.
Now that I have offered an insider's look at a new religion to help explain the attractiveness of it to a spiritually inquiring mind, in the following chapter I will more fully explain what a cult is and who are its most likely candidates.