Scott is the Founder of Skeptic Meditations. He speaks from experience in entering and leaving Self-Realization Monastic Order, a Hindu-inspired ashram headquartered in Los Angeles and founded by famous Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. Here we talk about some of the benefits of ashram residents and their guru-leaders. Also, we discuss the drivers that keep people stuck inside an abusive community.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I want to take a 25-degree slant on the conversation around cults. What small benefits came from the extensive training found in the ashram?
Scott from SkepticMeditations.com: Yeah, you’d hope there were some benefits from spending a decade and a half of my life in an ashram. A few benefits were: I got exposed to people from all over the U.S., Canada, India, Australia, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, England, Scotland, and Ireland. Interestingly, other than India, there were no monks from other parts of Asia. Of course, the SRF monks in the ashrams were fairly homogenous in terms of beliefs. But I got to enjoy traditional recipes from around the world.
While in the ashram I learned how to prepare and cook food, to cut hair, to grow herbs and vegetables. The ashram routine taught me how to be extra neat and tidy, as there was lots of rules and household duties to clean toilets, clean dishes and community areas of the ashram.
Jacobsen: Did any big benefits come to you? It seems odd to ask because the focus is on the negative, but, with a hint of humor, only a small percent of all things are ever all bad.
Scott: Everyday the monks practiced meditation for four hours both individually and in groups. I learned how to introspect, to sit quietly, to meditate and watch my thoughts. There was nothing quite like sitting in a chapel full of monks for hours to force me to sit still though my thoughts could be racing. There were times when I was able to have so-called mystical experiences, which many of those altered states I now understand have alternative explanations that are more natural than supernatural.
Perhaps there’s no other human experience quite like living as an ascetic, like a hermit or a monk. Professional monkhood demands total self-involvement. Taken to extremes monkhood or ashram life becomes quite self-absorbed. Despite all the “spiritual” rhetoric about selflessness and ego loss as an exalted human state, frankly, my experience was “spiritual” selfishness is this self-absorption into excessive meditation or contemplation,
Monkhood in a closed-community, like the SRF ashram, forces you to withdraw within. After the first 2-3 years the honeymoon wears off and there’s not much going on that is new. It became a monotonous routine. Deadeningly predictable.
The bigger benefits become traps. All the forced solitude, meditation, and monastic rules stifled my psychological development and creative imagination. In the SRF ashram, developing intellect and self-expression is considered egoic. Of course, you’d find exceptions but most monks who were creative outside of serving the ashram organization had more or less secret avenues of creative self-expression. Again, this is the double-life I’ve mentioned that monks were forced to live if they were to stay in the ashram.
Jacobsen: What is the need fulfilled by the joining of a cult for those that do join them? What need does this serve?
Scott: Well for me, joining the SRF ashram and becoming a monk was a way to escape the world on the pretext of spiritual searching. It’s not that I was insincere in my search. It’s just that looking back I realized what I searched for was answers so I no longer had to search. The guru and his organization of SRF seemed to have all the answers to my questions. I just needed to follow and I’d find everything I’d been searching for. The culture of nonthought is rewarded with its own benefits. Ignorance is bliss, goes the cliche’. Until disillusionment hits.
Outwardly the ashramites presented themselves as pious disciples. Inwardly they were ordinary with human desires, neuroses, and deep fears and insecurities. Of course, followers have to pretend that everything is wonderful. Many monks that I spoke with had admitted that to survive in the ashram they had to have double life. First it started with little things, a coffee maker in their bedrooms (consuming caffeine is against the rules), the buying a TV or sneaking out periodically the watch movies (only ashram approved movies were to be watched and were shown once a month). Or, though all monks had to take a vow of celibacy occasionally there’d be scandals when renegade monks ran off with nuns or had sexual affairs with church members.
I digressed. But coming back to you question. I think the needs change for members who join these groups. At first they join for idealized, starry-eyed, spiritual purposes. It’s no wonder that these high-control, thought-deadening communities are on the outside appearing to be peaceful, harmonious, and idyllic. While on the inside a terrible battle goes on in each person and among the residents fighting for attention from the leaders. Spiritual advancement is often equated with position, power, and authority over others. So the ashrams become a nasty breeding ground for bringing out the best and but more often that not the worst, passive-aggressive behaviors, in residents.
Jacobsen: Obviously, the main benefits of cults come to the leaders, whether finances, followers, or, apparently, people to have sex with for an extended period of time. These seem like casual observations of consistent phenomena. What seems like the main driver for the highest leadership in a cult?
Scott: In a recent blog post I wrote about how the supreme leader-guru gains his superpower from his devotees. The guru needs disciples for his identity. The disciples need guru for theirs. The guru-disciple relationship is based and maintained in this power exchange.
Allegations of sexual impropriety are common among Hindu gurus in the U.S. The guru-disciple relationship is built and maintained on a power exchange and often by sexual attraction. Here’s some examples I will quote.
“Yogananda was also formally accused of impropriety by Swami Dhirananda in 1935 and Sri Nerode in 1940; these two men worked originally with Yogananda to spread Kriya Yoga” wrote Lola Williamson, a religious studies professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS and researcher of Hindu-based groups in the US, in Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion.
Yogananda was apparently never found guilty of abuses by a court of law. However, there’s been numerous out of court settlements and testimonies of disgruntled former followers.
One disillusioned female student of Yogananda wrote in a letter dated 1938:
“…After we started living at Mt.Washington, Swamiji [respectful for Swami, Yogananda], whether at Encinitas or here, had me come to see him every night….On these nightly visits to his rooms he always had me lock the door or he did it; then all he’d do was either to sit and look at me or talk about his experiences with beautiful women on his tours and of sex….Before this time he had me take an oath of unconditional friendship to him promising never to reveal what he tells me to another person. He says there should be no conditions, no barriers between us now that I took the oath…He said I was creating a barrier between us by not letting him kiss me, or at least not wanting him to. He kissed me every time I went to his rooms after the first time although it was against my liking. Sometimes he tried to stick his tongue in my mouth but I wouldn’t stand for that! He says that nothing he would ever do to me could possibly hurt me but bless me since it was God manifesting through him.
“He has told me that any place his hand touches that person is blessed. At times he has placed his hands on different parts of my body and made suggestive movements to put his hand inside my dress and would have if I had not pushed it away. If he would do such things as this on just a few months friendship, what does he do with the girls who are with him constantly and wait on him like slaves?
One afternoon up in his office here at Mt.Washington we were sitting on the couch and he pulled me back on his big lotus pillow and kissed and held me so tight I had to fight to get my breath. This was not an unusual occurrence however. We had been discussing the barrier which he said I had erected by resisting him (he always brought this subject up until finally I got so sick of discussing it I refused to say any more on it) when he told me this about Jesus Christ. He said that a spiritual man can touch a woman and it won’t be in the physical plane. He said Jesus “had” Mary Magdalene in a certain way.”
I don’t find the allegations surprising. I would expect a few students to come forward to testify they’d been abused by a charismatic god-man who claimed spiritual authority over their souls. The leader-gurus use students for their personal pleasures, self-aggrandizement, and to maintain an extravagant lifestyle.
Jacobsen: When it comes to followers somewhere in the privileged circle of the leader, what benefits accrue to them? Why do they keep following when they must see the hypocrisy and faults of the leader more closely than others at the bottom of the cult pyramid?
Scott: The inner circle of followers, those who are closest to the powerful leader, have much control of the followers further outside the circle in addition to influence over the guru-teacher leaders. don’t believe followers can remain long in the inner circle of the leader if they focus on the leader’s hypocrisy and faults. There would be too much cognitive dissonance (inner psychological conflict) for the follower who no longer believes in the infallibility of the leader. Or, at least that the leader is the unquestionable channel or conduit for the infallible God or Guru. Or, in some rare cases some monks or follower disciples might be able to go through the outer motions, pay lip service, while inwardly not believing in the teachings, doctrines, or edicts of the church and its leaders.
What keeps “followers” following is complicated. The longer followers follow, especially an ascetic, renunciate, monastic life that is dependent on the church or spiritual organization the harder it is to break away. When a follower inside the ashram or any cult-like group realizes they are trapped inside a system or by a leader they no longer believe in, often followers choose to pretend everything is OK. It’s too hard to leave identity, adoration, mission, purpose, and community. Where will that follower go if they’ve been living inside a closed-community?
The Clergy Project is a community of current and former religious clergy who no longer believe in god or supernatural. As a member, I have heard many many stories of clergy who can’t leave or who finally left but couldn’t without support from groups like Clergy Project, other former cult-members, family and friends. Having left a high-control group, the SRF ashram, I understand how difficult it is for followers inside these groups and how much more difficult it is to leave the longer they stay inside the group. Frankly, it should not be surprising that people stay in abusive relationships. Relationships are powerful and difficult to break from the longer we stay and the more our identity and survival feels wrapped up with them. It becomes an existential fight for survival to question or break away.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Scott.