August 22, 2009

In Cults: A Darker Side of 1960s Rebellion

By Jayanti Tamm
Special to The Washington Post
August 10, 2009

At my local bookstore on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, 1960s nostalgia is in high gear. A display table is stacked high with pricey coffee table books, each with its own variation on psychedelic rainbow lettering, each claiming to reveal the untold story of the "peace and music" festival. I understand the lucrative business of selling those hazy memories — the Woodstock museum, Cherry Garcia ice cream, even the new movie "Taking Woodstock." I just can't buy into it.

It's not because, as a Gen-Xer, I feel slighted that I missed out on all the fun. It's because for me and many other children of the flower children, our rose-colored glasses are not just slightly tinted, but darkly tainted.

Along with the iconic music and fashion came myriad new religions and a foolish rush to embrace peddlers of spiritual snake oil. A flood of swamis, yogis and self-proclaimed enlightened beings preyed on hippies who were disillusioned by mainstream religion and in search of an alternative path.

By the time the mud had dried at Woodstock, Swami Prabhupada had created the Hare Krishnas and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon had founded the Unification Church — the Moonies. Communes and ashrams sprouted across America. In the 1960s, the decade now mythic for its anti-conformity, flocks of people conformed to the dictates of self-proclaimed prophets.

In 1968, the Beatles sat at the feet of the Maharishi. Consciousness-raising went mainstream. Reciting Sanskrit chants, wearing japa beads and finding a guru became chic. Everyone who was anyone read "I Am That" and "Autobiography of a Yogi." Many free spirits obediently changed their names, dropped out of college and abandoned their families. Ironically, their wild-child rebellion landed them in rigidly structured cults that controlled their lives — and those of their children. For many, that life eventually grew old. They retired their mantras and moved on. But for others, my parents included, the intrigue never faded.

Like the Beatles, my hippie parents met their guru in 1968. Sri Chinmoy, based in New York, promised them enlightenment — if they obeyed his dictates. All they had to do was surrender their lives to him. To my trusting and vulnerable mother, and to my eccentric and contemplative father, the offer sounded like a bargain.

Arriving in the United States in 1964, Sri Chinmoy had vast ambitions. He aimed to infiltrate the United Nations, win a Nobel Prize and gain a worldwide following. His disciples were to lead austere, celibate lives, devoting themselves and their financial resources entirely to his mission. In 1970 when my mother became pregnant — a clear breach of the rules — the guru saved face by divining me as his chosen soul.

I was raised in the ashram of this man who declared himself an incarnation of God. Before I could walk, my parents dressed me in a sari and took me on their recruiting trips. Instead of acting in school plays and playing soccer, I distributed leaflets proclaiming the guru's divinity from parade floats that wound through city streets. I spent summers scrubbing the cages of the zoo housed in the basement of the guru's Queens home.

When Chinmoy wanted to attract more media attention, he staged elaborate weightlifting feats, hoisting elephants, helicopters and even Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev — a smoke-and-mirrors spectacle I never understood. How could lifting elephants illuminate and ultimately transform the world? When I was a teenager, the guru's strict rules banning all contact and relationships with the "outside" world provoked questions and longings for everything he forbade — college, career and family. When he told me to neglect the mind and forever remain in the heart "like a 7-year-old," I finally realized that he was a narcissistic charlatan, shamelessly exploiting the faithful.

At 25, older than my parents had been when they renounced the world to serve the guru, I was formally banished, losing all my connections to the community I'd known since birth. Fortunately, I was young enough to forge a life on my own terms.

For years, I have struggled with the reckless decision of some in my parents' generation to entrust their present and future to those who claimed to be spiritually enlightened. Cultural historians today portray the '60s as a unique time. I hope they are right. That is, I hope that the cast of corrupt opportunists — gurus, prophets and messiahs — who profited from others' naive belief is indeed a unique '60s phenomenon, safely encapsulated in those glossy anniversary books.

Tamm, an English professor at Ocean County (N.J.) College, is the author of "Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult."