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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm — review & interview

In this time of risk-taking based on promises of exorbitant returns from precarious investments, what could be more timely than the tale of growing up in a community where everybody has surrendered all decision-making and self-responsibility for the promise of divine protection and maybe God realization?

In her riveting, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious memoir, Cartwheels in a Sari (Harmony Books, April 14, 2009), Jayanti Tamm recounts how her parents, like so many people who came of age in the sixties and seventies, met a guru after years of spiritual seeking. So moved were they by the experience that they didn’t question his direction to marry each other — despite the fact that they’d just met. They did, however, flaunt the directive to remain celibate. On hearing about the impending birth of Jayanti, Sri Chinmoy (referred to as Guru), a self-proclaimed realized master, announced that he had communed with the “Supreme” who was sending a special soul who would be the “chosen one” — Guru’s special disciple. Writes Jayanti:

“In the history of the Sri Chinmoy Center, from its humble beginnings in 1964 to its present-day expansion with more than seven thousand followers around the world and the hundreds of thousands of ex-disciples and seekers who, for however fleeting a time, came to experience Guru’s presence, I, according to the legend …, am the only soul to have been personally invited, selected, or commanded to incarnate into his realm on earth. . . . I was to be Ananda to Buddha, the Peter to Jesus, the Lakshmana to Rama, a devoted, sacrificial being, selfless and tireless, pleasing the master unconditionally.”

There was one problem with this. The same analytical thinking, unwavering honesty, and blazing life force that make Jayanti such a compelling writer also made it impossible for her to deny the gap between how she felt and was (a stubborn, at times deceitful, always questioning kid) and what Guru declared and the Sri Chinmoy community expected her to be. The story of how she gradually disconnected and eventually was banned from the community is the stuff of a great movie. Replete with bizarre scenes of Guru supposedly weightlifting elephants and contests to determine who had the most soulful smile, as well as Jayanti’s desperate attempts to live like a normal sexual being and fit into a world that Guru disparaged, the book is a great rollercoaster ride.

With a journalist’s eye, a dramatist’s ear, and a great storyteller’s sense of structure, Jayanti makes it clear that what is most remarkable about her story is how insidiously an ordinary spiritual quest and a desire for a teacher turned into a cult; how skillfully a worldwide reputation and a coterie of admiring celebrities were manipulated.

Cartwheels in a Sari is simultaneously a unique memoir and a hauntingly familiar story for the billions of people who, longing for a magical fix, surrender some part of themselves. This is also a story for anyone who is certain that their dysfunctional family was the weirdest or the worst, and that is why they’ve had such a hard time in life.

It was my honor to meet Jayanti Tamm and her wild eighteen-month-old daughter, Nadira. Nadira can throw anything that’s not nailed down, climb, and tap dance on coffee tables — all of which she did as Jayanti and I calmly played interference for every object in the room. What was amazing was how relaxed we both were. Jayanti Tamm is an earth mother — smart, deep, mature, and wise. To read our interview, click "more" (below, if you are on the main blog page).


A postscript: Following the last-minute cancellation of her reading at East West Books — due to the fact that the book’s perspective on Sri Chinmoy conflicted with that of the bookstore! (Can a bookstore read, let alone have a perspective?) — Jayanti will be doing a reading Friday, April 17th at 7:00 p.m. at the Mercantile Library, 17 East 47th Street (between Fifth and Madison), eighth floor, in Manhattan. For more information, go to www.jayantitamm.com


The Interview

Betsy Robinson: Do you have some take on this craving we humans have for magical solutions and magical people? And why were you immune to it?

Jayanti Tamm: I don’t know if I was immune, but I think we can begin to think about where we are in America now with Obama as our new leader. There is this kind of cult of Obama — he’s a charismatic person, there are pictures of him, his image is on T-shirts. People are looking to him as this leader, as the hope that we all need. So whether it’s politics or entertainment or religion, it seems as though people want someone at the helm to steer them, maybe make them feel better, assure them that they’re not alone, that there’s something beyond them. It seems that it helps people feel less alone and connected to someone who has a vision that’s larger than theirs.

BR: Do you think there’s a certain kind of person who surrenders their life and self-responsibility to a charismatic leader?

JT: No. There are myths about people who join cults, and one of the misconceptions is that these are crazy people or imbalanced people or these are losers, these are uneducated people that would be susceptible to their power. But that’s not true because, from what I know in the Sri Chinmoy Center, the disciples were an incredible mixture — from people with doctorates to people who had never finished high school, from people who came from well-educated upper-class families to people who came from broken and shattered homes. There were people who you could look at and wonder how they could fit into the real world, and then there were people who were quick and creative and charming — people you’d think would end up being the CEO of a big company. So you can’t stereotype.

I think a lot has to do with where they are in their lives at that particular junction, and also, with Sri Chinmoy, his offering was so broad. You have the painter, the philosopher, the musician, the long-distance runner, the weight-lifter, the world leader/politician. So no matter what sphere you are in, if a particular interest catches your eye, it seems as though he is speaking directly to you and has something for you. And that was created specifically in order to encompass this amassed group.

When he first came to America, he began as a simple yogi, a meditation teacher with a group of disciples. The group at that time was called the Om Center — “Om” being the traditional Hindu concept of the soundless sound, the trinity, creator/preserver/destroyer — and the focus was really on the disciples and their own spiritual life. When he realized that through that he was never going to become the next Dalai Lama, he was not going to be a leader on the world stage, he decided he needed to try some other things in order to get that attention. So at that point, he shifted it from the Om Center to the Sri Chinmoy Center. He began working on what he called “manifestation” in order to spread his message to a broader audience. There was always something for everyone.

BR: In your book you have a section that describes what sounds like a pretty classic darshan (the experience of having the presence of and blessings from a guru) where you were absorbed in blissful, peaceful, loving energy with Sri Chinmoy. Do you think Sri Chinmoy was a complete con man or do you think he believed what he said, or was it both ways? Was your darshan experience real?

JT: At the time it was, absolutely. And it’s difficult to go back and analyze: Well, was that real because that was supposed to happen and you were told that was what’s supposed to happen? Was it an environment that made it happen because he was there and there were flowers and incense, and it was worship? Or did you create it for yourself because that’s what you thought you should be feeling at the time? That’s a difficult question, but I can say undeniably that one would have experiences meditating with him. And one could feel a change, a shift from how one felt in a hectic way to some sense of serenity, to some sense of peace. There was something there.

When I talk to a lot of disciples and when I ask my parents, “Why did you stay so long?” they say that when they were at the meditations, no matter the craziness on the outside, there was something in that meditation, and whether it’s simply the power of having a group of people meditating together — that that naturally creates something — there was this true, tangible sense of bliss, of peace, of love. And that was enough for them to say, “Okay, well, I don’t agree with this or that, but we can’t deny that in the meditation we feel something.”

BR: Do you believe Sri Chinmoy believed in his own proclaimed powers and that his belief made it so believable to others?

JT: Again, this is just my perspective. I truly think that he believed what he said he was — this direct avatar, the last and final avatar, the highest soul that had ever come to earth, higher than Buddha and Krishna and Jesus, Mohammed, etc. — and that his message was absolute and direct from God. I believe that he believed that.

BR: You tell a story in the book about the death of a disciple that surprised Sri Chinmoy because it was at odds with his claim that somebody could not die without his agreement. After a moment of shock, he came up with a story about the disciple leaving the fold — which you knew was not true. What do you think happened in Sri Chinmoy’s mind at that time?

JT: He was a very intelligent person, so I imagine that at that point he needed to come up with answers that satisfied, just like with my own birth — he was faced with “here’s a problem: they’re supposed to be celibate and here she’s pregnant,” so now he needs to do something about this. So he solved that problem — crisis management — by coming up with my own story, the myth of me. So I think as an intelligent, powerful person, he felt pretty confident that he could take any situation and transform it so that he always had the control and authority over what was going on. If a disciple became ill, then it’s that the disciple wasn’t receptive to his blessing. His blessing is still infallible.

BR: Do you think there is such a thing as a realized being?

JT: I don’t. I think human beings are imperfect beings. Our instincts are not necessarily good. Our instincts oftentimes are of self and ego and greed and lust. I don’t see anyone having the capacity or the ability to be free from those things that come with being human — the fact that you’re born and die and have a body that breaks down.

BR: You worked at Tricycle magazine, a Buddhist publication, for a while. Are you drawn to Buddhist ideas that are not really God-based but have more to do with detaching from suffering?

JT: That was just a year after I finished college — between undergrad and grad school. In a sense, the train felt familiar. I was an editorial assistant. In one of the first days, they were doing like a big story about Ananda, the Buddha’s closest disciple. And I remember thinking, oh, this is familiar — the close disciple and examining Ananda. I went there thinking that it was an area that I knew and I could work within, but I wasn’t there to immerse myself in their teachings. At that point I was still way pulled and entangled with the Sri Chinmoy Center.

At this point, I don’t have any beliefs in anything, nor do I want to. But I know that many former disciples have found a nice, happy place with some elements of Buddhism. Basic Vipassana teachings make sense, right? Mindfulness, just being aware of yourself.

BR: Do you meditate anymore?

JT: No. And I think part of the problem is the fact that it’s still impossible for me to separate even the word “meditation” from Sri Chinmoy and the whole experience. Even when I hear the word “spiritual,” I think of Guru telling us that we’re not spiritual enough. I can’t separate, and thus I don’t want to have anything to do with it. One day perhaps I’ll get to a point when I’ll feel like, okay, I want to do this.

BR: Sri Chinmoy had constant contests where disciples were competing for the most soulful smile or whatever. Winning gave you a higher status and greater value — not unlike in our everyday American lives. How has this affected your trust issues now and how you make judgments about value and credibility?

JT: That was one of the elements of the center that always was so bizarre for me. That was one of the early things that I just never understood. It never felt normal — ranking people and having this sort of hierarchy. I can honestly tell you that when I left the group and headed out into the world, emotionally I was like a pre-teen. I quickly realized that I didn’t have the basic skills to interact with humans. But so much of that was from the way that the center was set up — where Sri Chinmoy told his disciples to behave like a child, don’t be in the mind, be in the heart. Be the seven-year-old child — which is not a way to cope with the world.

So in terms of trying to grow up, one has to make a big adjustment. I’m not sure how you figure that out. One makes some bad decisions initially, but I was lucky because I met my future husband really early after I left the group. And he’s a really good person, and he helped me grow, even though I didn’t reveal hardly anything to him about my past. I was trying to immerse myself without revealing too much and to learn from others. I think he helped me. In some of the friendships that I developed, I think people helped me.

BR: Did you have therapy?

JT: I have. And I’d like to continue. I stopped about a month before my daughter was born, and I haven’t been able to because we moved three months after she was born, and then all has been kind of chaotic ever since. But yes, that’s something that has been really helpful for me.

BR: You were designated the chosen one before birth. By writing this book and possibly getting a lot of attention for it, are you ironically fulfilling your destiny?

JT: It’s interesting because yesterday a friend said to me, “Here’s the irony of it.” He said, “If [Sri Chinmoy’s] followers believe all his teachings and believe everything he said, then they’d have to believe that you are this chosen being. So they’d have to still believe that, and how would they think about that now in terms of what you’re doing and saying?” But I said, “Well, no, they’re not going to think about it that way.”

When you transition to the outside world, that whole notion of being born as this special person is just ridiculous. So I never think about that at all.

I think his whole prediction and his whole story was this bizarre fabrication to — I’m not even sure why it was.

Here’s the irony of the chosen one thing: If he hadn’t called me a chosen one and expected all these things from me, maybe I’d still be there, because what was always the problem was the fact that I’d have these doubts or I’d be questioning things or suspicious of things. And then I’d say to myself, “Well, if I’m supposedly this soul, this being that was created for this task, then there’s a problem: I’m not really this being created for the task. So one of us is wrong.” He always made me feel like it was me, my failure. But I think if I was supposed to be, and if I am supposed to be, this ideal disciple, how come, unlike my brother or unlike other kids in the center — disciples — how come I can’t just be happy to sit at a meditation for twelve hours? How come I can’t just put aside my own desires and ambitions and just want to work on his? So had the expectation been lower, maybe it wouldn’t have been this stark division in my head in terms of what he was saying and how I was feeling.

BR: Do you think the fact that you think this way makes you special — that somehow from the earliest age you knew there was something wrong with what everybody around you accepted as normal?

JT: Maybe, but I really don’t see myself any special way in terms of destiny. I’m a Virgo, so we’re an earth sign and we’re analytical and critical. Maybe that’s part of it. I guess right now everything is sort of deleted in terms of the teachings that I was told by him, so I don’t believe in reincarnation now. I don’t believe in any of that. So this idea of being destined — who or what would have created that destiny? I don’t know. I’d label myself agnostic because I’m not absolutely sure about anything, but I don’t feel a great desire to figure things out.

BR: The role of you is really amazing. Who would you want to play you if this book gets made into a movie? You look an awful lot like Meryl Streep, but she’s probably too old. Whoever it is has to be able to play 15 to 30.

JT: (Laughter) Well, my favorite actress is Helena Bonham Carter. Maybe Meryl will play me at the end.

BR: Is there anything else you would like to say?

JT: I guess I want to make it clear that my intention and the goal is not to try to destroy anyone else’s faith or search. That’s not where I’m going with this — to bring down a spiritual group. I understand that people have to come to their own understanding of Sri Chinmoy.

I see the book as two different stories. I see it as the story of one particular family, one particular person living a lifestyle that’s totally in opposition to what’s happening in mainstream America. And the other thing the book is doing is it’s exploring the evolution of a cult — how this occurs. It starts from something and it morphs and changes into something else. Somewhere along the way, things twist off path. They start spiraling, and then here they are.






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