How I Broke Free From Life in a Cult
police. Tony Gutierrez, A.P.
"I don't know if I should tell you ..."
Fearful that something had gone dreadfully wrong after all, I clutched my daughter, shielding her from the news.
"It's your guru," he said. "He died this morning."
In 1968 my mother, ardently seeking an alternative path to enlightenment, arrived at the apartment of the guru Sri Chinmoy. When she peered up at the stairwell, the newly-arrived Bengali spiritual leader appeared the way my mother had always imagined: luminous and wise, cloaked in flowing robes.
Sri Chinmoy ushered her into the crowded, silent, incense-flooded living room and instructed her to sit on the floor beside a barefoot, long-haired man. At the end of the evening's meditation, the guru informed my mother that in order to advance in her spiritual life, he would wed her to the young hippie in a "divine marriage." She agreed.
Shortly after my parents' initiation as disciples, he changed the informal mediation circle into a strict cult that demanded unconditional obedience to his growing list of rules: no drugs, meat, alcohol, TV, newspapers, dancing, pets or sex. All disciples were required to be single, and all disciples -- even the married ones -- were required to be celibate.
When my mother got pregnant, the guru was initially furious at my parents' reckless disobedience. But almost as quickly, he offered to transform my parents' transgression into a miraculous blessing: me. He claimed to have selected my soul from the heavens to incarnate as his chosen one, his perfect disciple. I was his.
As I cradled my newborn daughter, I remembered the countless times the guru narrated the legend of our first encounter on the morning of my birth. According to his version of events, he arrived at the hospital shortly after sunrise to welcome me into the world with a special blessing and my Sanskrit name.
He stood looking through the nursery window, concentrating on my soul, waiting for me to recognize him. In response, I spontaneously folded my tiny hands and bowed to my master in an amazing display of devotion.
Being raised in his celibate cult, I was trained to be one-pointed in my commitment. To him and his devotees, family was a dangerous word, signifying attachments, distractions and obligations. I was taught that in order to fulfill my spiritual life, the trappings of a traditional family must be avoided at all costs. Model disciples were the ones who dissolved all contact with relatives, friends and acquaintances.
Being the sole disciple allowed to be born into the group, I was expected to be transcendent, remaining steadfast and unswerving in my spiritual life. The only family I needed was the one person to whom I would devote my entire existence: the guru.
As a child, I suppose, I was everything the guru wanted, a perfect disciple. Draped in a flowing sari, I worshipped before him with clasped hands. When he was pleased with me, he smiled and offered me love and blessings. He repeated again and again that he was both my father and God. Nothing and no one else mattered. He was the only family I would ever need.
He was my all.
Nightly at his ashram in Queens, I sat in lotus position before his throne. Throughout my childhood, as his mission expanded worldwide, I eagerly followed with utter devotion. When he wanted more recruits, I proselytized his message. When he wanted media attention, with pulls and levies, he weight-lifted elephants and airplanes, and I cheered. He was my father, my God, my hero.
But like many father-daughter relationships, when I became a teenager, our trusting ease hardened into mutual distrust and disappointment. For me, Guru's strict rules banning all contact and relationships with the "outside" world provoked deep longings for everything that he forbade.
As the guru repeatedly warned me that my soul wanted to serve only him, and to forgo a college education, career and family, I listened with increasing resentment and suspicion. I realized he was a jealous guru who demanded complete love and obedience, and from me, his chosen one, I sadly understood that he would never accept anything less.
As a depressed and isolated young adult, I began a double life. Folding away my sari late at night, I would sneak into East Village nightclubs in desperate search of companionship, only to return at dawn and drape on my sari for group chanting.
I knew I was not behaving as he expected, as his obedient apostle. Unlike his other disciples, I had never chosen a life with him, and I resented the fact that it had been chosen for me.
After years of mutual struggle -- the guru trying to keep me and my trying to leave -- we had exhausted each other's patience. I was banished and shunned. No explanation had been given, but none was required; it was a world he created, and he made all the rules.
Occasionally, news filtered its way to me about the guru and his latest exploits, but I listened numbly, unwilling to invest myself. I embraced my freedoms, relishing the simple and astounding luxury of making my own decisions. I chose a wonderful man to marry and attempted to immerse myself in my new life, but something was always unsettled. My former guru and I had never reconciled our estranged relationship. In his eyes, I was a failure.
The fact that his death occurred the same morning as my daughter's birth ensured that he would never meet her, never know her pure beauty, the stunning magic of her breath. In between my birth and the birth of my own daughter, I had lived what felt like many lives.
As I lay in my hospital bed nestled with my sleeping baby girl, I thought of the guru who raised me and loved me in his own conditional way. Studying her tiny, swaddled form, I understood, finally, what it means to love a daughter unconditionally instead.
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