The vegan and vegetarian communities are philosophically and religiously diverse and while secular veganism is growing in the west, still in the US and much of the world religious groups of one sort or another dominate the vegetarian and vegan culture. Most of us are familiar with Hindu-run curry houses or Buddhist tofu joints but there are also many other places run by devotees of smaller “new religious movements” or cults*. In the following series of posts I will be taking a deeper look into some of these businesses and the groups behind them.
Our first subject of interest is the guru Sri Chinmoy, born in India in 1931 where he spent many years studying meditation and Hindu scriptures at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. In 1964 Chinmoy moved to the US and quickly took advantage of the popular New Age and hippy movement establishing the Sri Chinmoy Centre, promoting himself as a Guru of meditation. He soon attached himself to celebrities such as John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana and set himself up as the director of the “Sri Chinmoy: Peace Meditations at the United Nations” group, often using the position for self promotion and was even accused of misusing the UN logo. His empire grew to encompass thousands of followers and boast 400 meditation centres in 60 countries along with numerous businesses devoted to “divine enterprise” including many vegetarian restaurants. As part of his practice Chinmoy also preached vegetarianism stating,
When we eat meat, fish and so forth, the aggressive, animal consciousness enters into us. Our nerves become agitated; we unconsciously become restless and aggressive. The mild qualities of vegetables, on the other hand, help us to establish in our inner life as well as in our outer life, the qualities of sweetness, softness, simplicity and purity.
Upon visiting one his disciple’s restaurants the cult of Sri Chinmoy appear innocuous. Peaceful flute music and the smell of warm curry and veggie burgers fills the air, books on meditation are made available for reading, and the guru’s face adorns the walls, what could be so harmful about that? But a deeper examination uncovers accusations of manipulative behavior, sexual and emotional abuse, animal abuse, harassment of ex-devotees, homophobia, and hypocrisy. Chinmoy preached celibacy to his follows, but reportedly did not practice it himself. While Chinmoy has never been convicted of any sexual crime, a number of his ex-devotees have reported sexual impropriety and abuse. Though he preached compassion and vegetarianism he also collected exotic animals, including two monkeys, in his New York basement and used captive animals such as elephants in his stunts. Chinmoy reportedly advised followers generally against doctors and dentists as well, preferring homeopathy and meditation instead. Followers were also often advised to leave behind successful careers, dreams of college, family connections, and their native land in order to be closer to and serve Chinmoy. Despite claims of never asked for money documents reveal that Chinmoy was in fact a millionaire.
Sri Chinmoy was quite the performer and was dubbed the “gonzo guru” for his media grabbing antics and extreme claims. Chinmoy is said to have produced at least 1200 books, 62,000 poems, 14,000 songs, 4,000,000 “peace bird” drawings and 150,000 paintings in his lifetime, though these figures vary depending on the source. Chinmoy often performed free concerts for the public and claimed to have played somewhere between 25 and 150 instrument during a single concert. He was also an avid athlete and runner and was well known for the grueling ultra-marathons he and his follows organized. Though perhaps Chinmoy is most famous for his many seemly impressive and unorthodox weight lifting stunts, including lifting elephants, hundreds of people, planes, cars, or just about anything that would look impressive in the newspaper. He claims to have once lifted 3½ tons with one arm at the age of 55 and has the pictures to prove it. Such a claim should draw immediate skepticism, this is not a simple feat of strength we are talking about but rather something which does not appear to be physically possible according to kinesiologists. Forget about having the muscle, his bone and tendons simply would not be able to handle the stress. But if there is no humanly way that Sri Chinmoy could lift as much as he claims, what are we to make of the photographs and video? Are they proof that he somehow has supernatural abilities? No, he simply cheated. Such trickery is a mainstay of professional gurus, the bed of nails and fire walking are more familiar examples, another famous trick is the levitating guru performed with the help of a special device. Chinmoy employed specially made machinery in his record breaking and media grabbing lifts that gave him considerable leverage. Beyond the use of these leverage devices Chinmoy was also reported to resort to the airbrushing of photos or outright lies, saying a video shows a successful lift where it clearly does not. While a number of professional weightlifters called Chinmoy out on his shenanigans, a few others were more interested in the inspirational quality of such huge lifts than pointing out the mechanical aids used by Chinmoy. Chinmoy’s followers have also made a habit of performing extreme stunts and breaking all kinds of obscure Guinness records to impress their guru and gain media coverage. The most prolific of these stuntmen was devotee Ashrita Furman who racked up hundreds of records over the years. Chinmoy’s philosophy of overcoming the psychical with the spiritual has lead some of his followers to put themselves in danger though, in 1979 one of Chinmoy’s devotees drowned while practicing a stunt. Chinmoy himself eventually ssuccumbed to a heart attack at the age 76 leaving behind over 2 million dollars in property.
My purpose in writing this is not to be a cynic or to call for a boycott of all religiously associated restaurants, but we need to be wary when our dollars may serve to enrich an abusive leader or perpetuate a manipulative organization. The ethics of consumption go beyond just animal flesh and byproducts. Many of us are well aware of some of these troubling ethical issues, human rights abuses in chocolate production, the toll of palm oil, labor abuses at Wal-Mart, ect. If the working conditions at places like Wal-Mart concern us, then we need to seriously consider claims that some cult-associated restaurants withhold tips, pay employees less than minimum wage, exploit immigrant labor, and fire employees who dare criticize the organization or leader. One of Chinmoy’s “divine enterprises” Ananda Fuara in San Francisco was sued in 2010 for some of these very same labor abuses. Ive actually eaten at Ananda Fuara before and they have a number of vegan options which are quite good. They serve some the best “beef” stroganoff is the best Ive had, but after doing my research for this post and reading about the lawsuit against Ananda Fuara I find myself seriously reconsidering eating there ever again.
How fringe religious groups helped launch the healthy eating movement. By Daniel Fromson
Leaving a Cult By Jayanti Tamm
SRI CHINMOY EX-DISCIPLES FORUM
The Wild, Wacky & Questionable Claims of Sri Chinmoy at the Skeptic Tank
MO’ CHIN-UPS CHAPTER XII of Stripping the Gurus
Running Around in Circles: a Metaphor by Rebbecca Watson
Sri Chinmoy database at The Rick A. Ross Institute
Official website of Sri Chinmoy
*in this post I use the term “cult”, there is no agreed upon universal definition and competing lists of characteristics but for this post the definition most in mind is that laid out by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. The three primary criteria are as follows:
1. a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
2. a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform;
3. economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
It is important to remember there is a wide continuum of “cultishness”, not all groups fall on the Johnstown/Heavens Gate/Aum Shinrikyo extreme of the spectrum.