Waiter, There’s Woo in My Food: Sri Chinmoy

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.

Sri Chinmoy

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.

January 30, 1987, Sri Chinmoy allegedly lifts 7,063¾ pounds

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.

Chinmoy lifts an airplane

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.

Further Reading:
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.

27 Responses to “Waiter, There’s Woo in My Food: Sri Chinmoy”

  1. Rita Says:

    I don’t think we can save people from believing nonsense – I suppose the up-side is that some nonhumans got saved……

  2. T. Says:

    I do not buy the vegan argument you often hear about how we should still support such places because they are vegan/vegetarian.Many vegans/vegetarians seem to forget that when one decides to not use or abuse animals, that humans are to be included in that.

    At least that is what I think, anyways.

    • The Rational Vegan Says:

      Agreed, T. I just had that discussion over Loving Hut. On one hand, they have delicious food and are trying to spread veganism. On the other, they are “volunteers” (read: cult members) enriching a complete whackadoodle. It’s not something I’d want a loved one involved in and I cannot in good conscience support it. Give me a woo-free vegan restaurant and I’ll support the heck out of it.

      • skepticalvegan Says:

        Not to worry, SMCH is the subject of the next installment of this series of posts. Ive got a few lined up but feel free to suggest groups I may not have heard of, though i want to start with the ones with the biggest presence in the vegetarian and vegan food industry.

    • PythagoreanCrank Says:

      Good for you T! Many vegan people will do all sorts of ideological gymnastics to get around their immoveable vegan praxis in support of whatever questionable ethics. It’s what really disappoints me about the movement. Their vegan advocacy comes first and this becomes dogma which is cultish in itself. Perhaps that’s why cults are so buddy-buddy with veganism.

  3. Anna Says:

    Uuuuuughhhhh … One of Sri Chinmoy’s restaurants is in my hometown, and it is the only vegetarian restaurant that my family likes to go to. We have an annual tradition of going there for a meal when I go back to visit. I had been purposely trying not to know what is up with them, because I always got a creeped-out feeling there and never believed the weight-lifting bullshit for a second.

    On the other hand, they did take my favorite item off the menu, and there aren’t a lot of other vegan options there. I’d gone to Ananda Fuara when I lived in SFBA, but the bun they used for my tofu burger was a store-bought brand known to me … which used honey, so not vegan even though they advertised it as such.

    • Anne Says:

      Uuuuuuughhh … Honey, there is brown sugar in it, not honey. Ups, and the secret out. 🙂 My favorite too, and I love it.

      • Anna Says:

        No, it had honey. The buns they used were a store-bought brand so I could easily check the ingredients. This was around the year 2000, so they easily could have changed to a better bun by now.

  4. PythagoreanCrank Says:

    Hurray! Hurray! Finally, somebody who’s vegan and brave enough to take on the cultists! I’m looking forward to the series, you have your work cut out for you.

    Our local Sri Chinmoy cult restaurant is called Victory’s Banner and it’s one helluva popular brunch place. Inevitable when somebody I meet Chicago first finds out I’m vegan they’ll say “Oh have you been to Victory’s Banner?!” Tthe last time I went the menu was nothing but eggs and cheese. When I asked for something to be veganized they rolled their fucking sari-ass eyes. I wrote a scathing Yelp review criticizing Sri Chinmoy’s love for birds while his supposed restaurant exploits the hell outta them with eggs eggs eggs eggs eggs. It got taken down (fair enough) but I’ve never returned. Supposedly they got vegan-friendlier but fuck em and their pretentious woo shit.

    I read Tamm’s Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult and it was an interesting inside look into the ongoings. Nothing too scathing if I remember correctly just culty-creepiness as one would expect.

    I know you’re working on Supreme Master and I don’t wanna spoil or steal your thunder but two other groups off the top of my head are the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Science of Spirituality. The latter might be a Chicago thang though.

    My stance went from ‘vehemently opposed’ to ‘just not for me’. Ultimately people are adults and can make their own decisions to follow whatever cult or religion. They’re all insidious in my book so I can’t really pick on one in particular. I just don’t patronize their establishments and concentrate efforts elsewhere. Cults sure make good food for whatever reason, not enough though for me to suspend my ethics.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      Black Hebrew Israelites are on the list, I’m familiar with them from Atlanta. Its good food, but I like the vegan soul food place here in Oakland, Souley Vegan, even better and it is not directly affiliated with a religious group as far as I can see. I am unfamiliar with Science of Spirituality, will look into them.

      • PythagoreanCrank Says:

        Well, the Science of Spirituality isn’t really food based but they do recommend a vegetarian diet. They run an annual “Veggie Fest” which gives top speaker billing to their guru and is one big woo-fest.

        Will Tuttle is a cult apologist who looks to be starting his own sect with a sorta updated twist by offering a training course to be a “World Peace Diet Facilitator”. Basically a full on vegan death-grip co-option.

      • Rob Wakeman (@rgwakeman) Says:

        Ahh, Souley Vegan is great. Cultists are fine by me, though. If omnivores can have Chick-fil-a and Sunday blue laws, I can have my curry.

  5. vagan Says:

    The only cultist I see in this post is you man! Something is really wierd about you

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      Perhaps you could explain using the above 3 criteria how I am a “cultist”. And if I am the “only cultist” then, using the same criteria, please explain how Sri Chinmoy is not a cultist…
      If you have specific criticism of the above post then please by all means address those specific points and add some substance to your attack. Otherwise I’m gonna have to assume this is a baseless insult rather than actual criticism and delete it.

  6. Adrien Says:

    may the people judging negatively and insulting Sri Chinmoy and his teachings and students one day find happiness and become aware that what they see in the world is only a reflection of themselves. As Sri Chinmoy said: yesterday i was intelligent, i wanted to change the negative that i saw in the world, today i am wise, i am changing my own negative qualities. Love is the answer, meditation is the way to get it.

  7. veganerd Says:

    In the late 90s they had aan awesome restaurant in san francisco called michaels. they made a mean bacon double cheeseburger. They closed their doors because the world was going to end in 2000. I remember that weight lifting photo on the wall. Ridiculous!

    • Anna Says:

      Wait, was that the place in Berkeley? Everyone was telling me about this amazing vegetarian restaurant in the East Bay, and then when I moved there it had JUST closed down. I was so pissed, and at that time there really wasn’t too much decent vegan food in the area. I had no idea what the backstory was, though.

  8. KJ Says:

    The Sri Chinmoy restaurant in San Diego, Jyoti Bihanga, uses bone-char sugar in nearly every dish on the menu, but still bills them as vegan. I wrote them a letter several years ago, and they promised that by Thanksgiving they would be using vegan sugar. I went back a couple times after Thanksgiving, but they hadn’t stopped using the offensive sugar.

  9. Why Be Meat-Free? | Skeptic in a Foxhole Says:

    […] be vegan and pro-science, even pro-GMO!  We need more science-friendly vegetarians to combat the food woo prevalent in the vegan community.  Skeptical vegans may just be the smallest minority in the world, but we […]

  10. George Says:

    Interesting blog. but very biased. Although a speEll chLeck is always a good IdeA

    Anyone can find stained information of any guru, celebrity, or person in view of the public.
    Your blog used only this soiled information as your source.
    No attempt to read any of his writings, talking with disciples(who are responsible for Chinmoy’s publicity stunts)

    I was a one time disciple. I learned to meditate, learn to accept the wholeness of our universe, and became more connected to myself.
    I still listen to his music for meditative inspiration. And have been moved by many of his writings, and paintings.

    Avatar? I have no real opinion on this.
    I am aware of many who have had a great deal of inspiration from him, and I know some ex-disciples who were underpaid at restaurants, and who where greatly disappointed, in what they call wasted time.

    Cynicism in topics related to spiritual topics is common, and often required,

    One sided researched topics are biased,

    As a university professor,
    My grade
    You loose points for spelling,
    Disappoint and bore with a one sided point of view.

    C-

    • Anna Says:

      “You loose points for spelling”? Are you kidding, dude?

      Your reply showed very little control of grammar, spelling, punctuation, or even formatting. As a former copy-editor and a professional evaluator of written material, my grade for you is a solid D.

    • michael Says:

      @George.
      I too was a one time disciple and still pray and meditate on Guru Sri Chinmoy. My experiences were even more Beautiful and overwhelming after I left the path actually. Via empirical experiences..he was very very rare.i did service at one of his restaurants and found it fulfilling. Some may have been bitter about it..but I did it only once or twice a week. To the author of this article. ..if you have not experienced the overwhelming divine love for Sri Chinmoy that I felt I can understand why you may be pessimistic. .I can only relate my personal experience.

  11. George Says:

    Thanks for the input Anna.
    I agree. I recommend rewrites to all my students.
    We teach what we need to learn
    cheers.

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