Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Groups

meditation group Hindu yoga
premasagar, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

A 20 year insider investigates the worldviews and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements.

In Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press) Lola Williamson explores the worldviews, mystical experiences, and guru-disciple relationships of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs) and examines three famous gurus and the organizations they founded: Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda, Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Maheshi Yogi, and Siddha Yoga Dham Associates of Swami Muktananda.

She interviews followers of these organizations who have 20+ years of tutelage under these famous gurus. These three organizations combine Hinduism with Western values that form a hybrid, new religion that Williamson calls HIMMs[1].

Williamson, at the time she began writing this book, had participated for 21 years in Siddha Yoga and saw herself as a devout disciple of Gurumayi, the guru-successor of that movement. Before that Williamson was involved for 10 years in teacher trainings with Maharishi in Transcendental Meditation.

As Williamson investigated these movements to write this book she learned of disturbing accounts of abuses and organizational dysfunctions that were endemic to many of these groups[2].

She and many followers of HIMMs felt it was necessary to distance themselves from rumors of scandals and negativity that was reported by persons who left the ashrams and the organizations.

In 2005, Williamson abandoned this book project and quit Siddha Yoga because of the “cult-like atmosphere pervaded by many of the movements”.

In 2007, she resumed writing of this book that offers a unique perspective on HIMMs from both inside and outside.

Two perspectives, insider and outsider, reveal bits of reality in different ways, like the lame man riding on the shoulders of the blind man[3].

Williamson, as an insider understands the “heart” of the tradition and what makes the HIMM faith attractive to its followers. Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], may provide a different perspective and a willingness to examine and critique abuses.

“I also realized that some people use Hindu-style meditation and the philosophy accompanying it to escape from facing hard truths about themselves or about people and events around them”- Williamson [For example, see my post Abandoning Family for a Guru]

This post is the first in a series that will summarize Lola Williamson’s book, Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Movements as New Religion

Beliefs and Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements

Paraphrasing from Transcendent In America here are some of the beliefs and practices common to HIMMs:

1. Strong commitment to meditation as a means to attaining inner peace, and ultimately, to attaining a state of consciousness described by practitioners variously as liberation, enlightenment, or unity consciousness;

2. Belief that the guru of the movement has attained this state of liberation and serves as their guide;

3. Initiation into a deep, personal relationship with the guru, who is the center of charismatic authority;

4. Each HIMM sees itself as a sort of “family” centered on the guru;

5. Share common beliefs such as karma (natural law of retribution) and reincarnation and the ideal of “enlightenment”;

6. Share common lifestyle; purity is necessary for attaining enlightenment and adherence to dietary restrictions, most are vegetarians and try to avoid stressful situations or “negative” thinking;

7. Seek a balanced life that combines self-effort with a sense of ease, often limiting exposure to popular “worldly” culture or entertainments often viewed as not helpful to spiritual evolution;

8. Belief that self-reflection aids spiritual growth, may include introspection, psychotherapy, or participation in human potential groups;

9. Share common rituals (eg. chanting, meditation), myths (eg. ascending chakras in an astral spine service as a ladder up to samadhi, awakening of kundalini or serpent energy), and metaphors (eg. yoking the five senses to the “chariot” of yoga meditation–an allegory from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture);

10. Conceive of HIMM practices and beliefs as more than or greater than “religion”, that it’s a universal, spiritual approach to life available to anyone irrespective of faith tradition.

The are several problems, says Williamson, with this interwoven system of meaning used by people who participate HIMMs.

Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements

According to Williamson, there are several problems with the beliefs and practices of HIMMs, including:

HIMMs do not adhere to “universal” beliefs nor practices

A. First, the notion that the beliefs and practices of HIMMs are universal actually disregards the fact that many religious practitioners do not believe that “God” dwells within a human being or that union with God is possible or even desirable.

B. The notion that differences in religions can be transcended if everyone where to experience unity consciousness is a particular dogma or belief system of HIMMs, even if it arises out of personal experiences.

C. Essentially, followers and gurus of HIMMs are asserting that unity among religions would be possible if everyone accepted the HIMM worldview or practiced the HIMM forms of meditation.

HIMMs adhere to dogmatic beliefs and ritualized practices, like other religions

D. HIMMs compare the inner depth of their religious system to the outer expressions of others. To outsiders, though, that observe HIMMs, the particular rituals, practices, and dogma appear as forms like any other religion, for only the external can be observed.

E. Rituals most valued by HIMMs center on practices of meditation and initiation into its methods. Traditional Indian Hinduism, like traditional Asian Buddhism [See my post From Monastic to Domestic Mindfulness], reserved the initiations and practices of meditation exclusively for monks and renunciates, not for householders as is touted by HIMMs as a way to recruit people from all walks of life.

Conclusion

Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion questions and discusses, from both insider and outsider perspectives, the problems, beliefs and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs).

In the above article I summarized and paraphrased what Williamson noted is the system of meaning of people who participate in HIMMs, including: strong commitment to meditation as way to peace and liberation or enlightenment, initiation into a guru-disciple relationship with a charismatic authority, share common beliefs such as karma (retribution), reincarnation, dietary restrictions, and a set of Hindu-inspired but Westernized rituals and myths that are similar externally to any other religion.

Some problems with HIMM’s beliefs and practices, paraphrasing Williamson in Transcendent in America, include: adherence to a dogma that meditation is universal when actually only if other religions believe like HIMMs do that god is within all human beings and that god may be found in their forms of meditation practice. Traditional, Indian Hinduism reserved meditation practice for monastics. HIMMs promote meditation as a necessary and desirable practice for people from all walks of life.

Question for readers: Have you ever considered yourself a participant in a HIMM, as outlined above? Are there other key components (not included in the lists above) that more clearly represent the system of meaning, practices, and beliefs of participants in HIMMs?

Notes

1 In defining HIMMs, Williams says, “There is a qualitative difference between people who have been raised in a tradition in which the rituals, the foods, the prayers, and the ethics are second nature, and people who have incorporated only parts of a tradition into their religious style. This is why I use the term ‘Hindu-inspired’ rather than ‘Hindu’ to describe Transcendental Meditation and similar movements….Western traditions of individualism and rationalism also influence the style and ethos of these movements.” p 4 Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press). On p 25 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger says, “The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus’, certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”

2 In future posts I intend to explore some of the abuses and dysfunctions of HIMMs as described by Williamson in her book.

3 Adapted from p 34 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger

19 comments

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Scott, you write:
    “Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], can bring a balanced perspective and willingness to examine and critique abuses.”

    As an outsider, you certainly show a willingness to examine and critique abuses. But remember, you were less willing in the beginning. All to say, I don’t think you or anyone can claim that they bring a “balanced perspective” to anything. It is sort of an epistemological arrogance, not admitted many of the same continued biases and blindspots that we all continue to have.

    Your view is tinted by your personality, your experiences, your needs. So in that way, it is not balanced. Though of course, having both an insider-outsider view is interesting.

    For example, take the British citizens who leave the country of their birth and join ISIS. Can they now claim they have a “balanced” perspective on Britain and the West? Should their perspective be more trusted? Of should we realize that they too have reasons for their changed positions — that is, they benefit from their change in perspectives in ways they are unaware of.

    I’d imagine you agree with this, in which case, this is merely a critique of word choices, but my experience is that our minds often show themselves in this way.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    Scott,

    You said “People who participate in HIMMs, says Williamson, have created a system of meaning that has several interwoven components:”

    But of course everyone (the Boy Scouts of America, the Catholic Church, the YMCAs, the Presbyterian Church, you and me) create these systems too — that is what people do, no?

    The question is, how should we evaluate each of these propositions.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Concerning the problems Williamson has with the beliefs and practices of HIMMs:

    (1) Is Williamson still a believer? Maybe not in the Gurus, but in some modified version of the message? If so, which version? We need to think of her criticisms in light of that too, perhaps.

    “Blind adherence to dogma” is bad — but a member of HIMMs would never typify themselves that way, would they?

    “Meditation as a way to peace” — if false (which I think it is), what evidence against it, do we have. Or should we leave the burden of proof on them?

    “Charismatic Authority Guru” — right now, in USA, our public schools do that to our kids with stories of our presidents and history. Yeah, not a good thing either. Hell, TV does that to people. Celebrities do that. Pastors of non-cult churches do that. (remember, I do not like classification of ‘cult’ == so I use it tongue in cheek).

    Why is belief in karma, reincarnation and dietary restrictions bad?

    It is interesting to me that meditation gurus and mystics of all sorts, tell us that their inner experiences (union with god or the divine or the universe) is the basis of all religions. This is obviously a false claim and a false claim in many ways.

    Why is it a criticism that HIMMs offers their methods for everyone and not just monastics??

  4. Uwsboi14

    I downloaded Williamson’s book with great expectation, thinking she had given an unbiased, clear critique of the guru/disciple relationship. I was disappointed to find that she never took a firm stance. Instead she stood in the “middle path”, afraid to decry the destructive consequences of living in the fantasy world of so-called spiritual experiences and the guru’s protection. I understand that Williamson was trying to give both sides of the story. But, in her attempt to be balanced, she came off as soft and unconvincing instead, still shying away from calling a spade a spade. As a recipient of thought reform and indoctrination, I can understand how difficult it is to admit that one has allowed one’s brain to be programmed and made insentient to natural human experience. Who can admit without tremendous grief that they have subsumed themselves within a prison of belief for decades and have missed out on enriching human life experiences as a result?

  5. Uwsboi14

    @Scott, that being my first critical comment on your blog, I still appreciate that there is a book out there that dares to critique SRF. Maybe you should be the next “Leah Remini” and expose SRF to the world. 😉 I’ll help write the forward.

  6. SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: I agree. No one has the “truth” or a truly balanced perspective. We humans all have biases. Some more aware of their biases and use methods to mitigate those biases so as not to be myopic or fooled by them.

    I appreciate your critiques. In them I see my biases (and yours or others) that may be for or against the use of certain words or phrases that seem to push “hot” buttons. Always best to communicate as clear as possible.

    Before, I wrote: “Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], can bring a balanced perspective and willingness to examine and critique abuses.”

    After, your comment and my edit: “Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], may provide a different perspective and a willingness to examine and critique abuses.”

  7. SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: I attempted, in this post, to evaluate the “system of meaning for participants of HIMMs” towards the end my post under Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements.

    By no means are my posts intended to be a complete, final, or even fully comprehensive evaluation of anything. Just starting points for further exploration and discussion. In future, I hope to elaborate further.

    I’m toying with idea of writing a book, but even keeping up with my commitment to writing a weekly blog post is time-consuming.

    I wonder if readers prefer, short weekly posts of 500-750 words (like I’ve typically posted) OR prefer longer, in-depth articles or essays of 1000-1500+ words bi-weekly or less often?

    I have been posting weekly and attempting to keep my posts around 500 words for readers sake and for time-commitments that it takes for post writing.

  8. SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: YOu asked “Is Williamson still a believer [or participant in HIMMs]?” I suspect not and she indicated she quit formal ties with HIMM organizations.

    I too felt her ambivalence while reading this book. She referenced in the forward that the process of writing and researching the book was the “undoing of her” trust and faith in the organizations and criticizes many practices and beliefs. Her book though seems to me to not primarily be critical analysis but a socio-cultural or somewhat psychological examination of HIMMs.

    Bio for Prof. Lola Williamson on Modern Yoga Research website:
    http://modernyogaresearch.org/people/136-2/

    In future posts I hope to address your other, excellent questions.
    Thanks

  9. SkepticMeditations

    @Uwsboi14,
    I agree. I held off reading this book for sometime for the reasons you stated. I finally though, recently completed reading Williamson’s book.

    I mentioned this also to Sabio in reply to his earlier comment:
    I too felt her ambivalence while reading her book. She referenced in the forward that the process of writing and researching the book was the “undoing of her” trust and faith in the organizations and criticizes many practices and beliefs. Her book though seems to me to not primarily be critical analysis but a socio-cultural or somewhat psychological examination of HIMMs.

    Bio for Prof. Lola Williamson on Modern Yoga Research website:
    http://modernyogaresearch.org/people/136-2/

    While Transcendent in America book may not be considered a critique of SRF or HIMMs, I found it a helpful resource to understanding different aspects of the participants in these organizations.

    Did you not find any of Williamson’s book interesting or helpful in understanding why you joined and eventually left SRF?

    The main reason I started the SkepticMeditations.com website was to fill an unmet need for critical analysis of meditation practices, beliefs, and the organizations and movements who promote them. I try to provide well-researched, critical thinking and exploration to the topic. I know there’s plenty of room for improvement and learning on my end.

    Thanks for your comments.

  10. SkepticMeditations

    @Uwsboi14: No, keep your critiques and comments coming. That’s how I learn and improve.

    Have you read Leah Remini’s Nov 2015 book, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology? I have not.

    I have seen the excellent and disturbing HBO documentary:Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015). I recommend that movie to anyone interested in understanding the controls in place in ashrams and meditation movements that promise “enlightenment, liberation, and freedom from karma or from suffering. Seems these groups all manipulate using similar methods in varying degrees of severity.

  11. Sabio Lantz

    @ Scott,
    I was not criticizing that you were not comprehensive in my 5:05 comment above.

    I was criticizing the phrase, “have created a system of meaning that has several interwoven components;”. You write it like doing such is a cultic activity or negative. But we all do it. Instead, as a lead in to your list, maybe something like this is helpful:

    “Paraphrasing from Transcendent In America here are some of the beliefs and practices common to HIMMs:”

  12. Sabio Lantz

    @ Scott:

    (1) Disciplining yourself to write 1 post a week is a personal thing. I don’t think readers care. Once a week, once two weeks or once a month. Most readers get your posts in their email or on an RSS reader, so frequency does not matter. They don’t just type in your URL each week to see what you are up to.

    (2) I don’t think length of post matters — instead, it is the following:
    (a) Quality of writing — legibility, grammar, organization, flow etc
    (b) Quality of content
    (c) Clear ideas
    (d) Finally, and this is my pet desire: That an author not bite off too much. In other words, don’t present too many ideas or claims in a post unless they can defend all of them. It makes commenting cumbersome.

    Personally, I think that using a blog to practice writing is a great use of a blog. Most amateur bloggers (me included) aren’t professional writers. And we aren’t pretending to be. So the value of comments is to help us improve both our ideas, our logic, our writing and our style. Using that, our posts get better.

    We can then later go back and re-write posts or even organize them into e-books or other material as we like.

    And actually I am not a fan of book report or even book review post series for two reasons:

    (A) Length: If the blogger is going to write long posts or series of posts on a book, I’d rather just read the book. It is an easy common practice among bloggers because it gives them something to write about (the once a week thing), imagining that we need to hear from them.

    (B) Summary: Heck, lots of other folks have usually reviewed the book — why not read them? And those other folks are professional writers. I don’t want yet another summary. Link us to a bunch of other summaries and then you can skip yet another summary but instead, give us short Scott-specific criticisms, insights or additions.

    Mind you, I have done the same in the past, but then stopped. Instead, if I’d prefer (just my preference, mind you), if you (or any blogger) reads a book and has something specific to share, I wish they’d write a short post on that — not a summary. And I’d wish they write their own personal, very critical opinion of the issue — either criticizing or agreeing with the author and make it clear who is saying what.

    I also like the writer of the blog to give us MORE than the book — go out and find more about the author, more ideas — give us something the book does not give us. So in this case, for instance, is the author still a believer in some Hindu-inspired mystical ideas of some sort , even if just more progressive or “scientized” or “psychologized”. You know what I mean.

    Anyway, off the top of my head, those are my thoughts on your question about length of posts.

  13. uwsboi14

    @Scott, yes, I read Leah Remini’s book and it was lots of fun to read. It wasn’t well written, but she’s a bit of a comedienne, so it was very entertaining and as well as informative. At times, it felt like reading a high school gossip column, but I think that’s what these groupthink communities are good at. At the NYC Center, stories of other members’ problems would pass like wild fire through the group and it felt like high school all over again with a thin veneer of spirituality to disguise the lack of compassion. I suppose in some ways NYC Center lay members are like the high school students of the larger educational (read “brainwashing”) system called SRF. The monastics are considered the advanced students who are taking the PhD courses. Hmm, that reminds me of Scientology’s Operating Thetan levels. I saw the HBO documentary, too, thanks to your suggesting it. I agree that these different groups use similar manipulating techniques.

    I liked to say that Williamson’s book helped me to understand my own experience in SRF, but because it was superficial in its analysis and too apologetic, it was more like a ship passing in the night rather than a boat ride across the river.

  14. david

    I can’t think of any criticisms of SRF and Yogananda other than 2 I have come across besides the SRF Walrus/Blacklist forums.

    The trouble is, if I give links to the books it will probably not go down well around here due to the religious emphasis.

    I purchased Williamson’s book for kindle yesterday and am about half way through it. I agree that it isn’t really pulling punches or giving any, but actually in between the academic style of the writing there are definitely emotional undertones in the form of a few questions and pointed remarks that are implying something is wrong with the cults and gurus without explicitly stating it or going into it any further. I am quite enjoying the book actually as I find it is well written. Just waiting to finish it.

  15. SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: I agree, mostly, with your comments. Some different approaches there for me to aspire towards.

    Exactly two years ago I started Skeptic Meditations blog. It has and is a learning process for me and its a plus if readers get something of value out of it. Quality content certainly is a good idea.

    Thanks again for taking the time to give me constructive feedback.

  16. SkepticMeditations

    @uwsboi14: Thanks for sharing your thoughts from your reading of Remini’s book.

    I agree Self-Realization’s Kriya Yoga Initiations (kriya yoga meditations-EE, HS, OM, Kriyas 1-5, etc) serve a similar function as Scientology’s Operating Thetan Levels I-VIII.

    The various levels or initiations are lures used to entice devotees to continue to climb up the imaginary “ladder” of so-called spiritual attainments, purifications, and “Self”-realizations. When I got each levels of Kriya techniques, especially the so-called “higher” Kriyas, which BTW were to me useless, mumbo-jumbo mantras and silly visualizations of astral energies. The “higher” techniques were childish imaginations dressed up as special yogic secrets that had been lost but found and brought back to free us poor ignorant, mortals. Of course, god’s supreme-swam, Guru-Yogananda, was the messenger and founder of SRF’s divine dispensation for the New Age.

    If I had had the internet critiques of SRF and many other guru-inspired meditation groups I would likely would not have fallen so hard for the yogic meditation B.S.

    Easy to see the B.S now after getting outside the dogmatic bubble and developing critical thoughts. But while inside SRF that sh*t seemed seductive as “truth”.

  17. SkepticMeditations

    Thanks for letting us know, David, that you are reading and enjoying Williamson’s book, Transcendent In America.

    I agree Williamson’s book has brief moments were she openly critiques the gurus, followers, and the organizations’ beliefs and practices. She may be weak on her criticisms but I found value in reading the book. I did not read her book only for its critique per se but found her comparisons and research interesting that all three Hindu-inspired meditation movements were “cult-like” and had similar beliefs and problems.

    Please feel free to post your thoughts or criticisms. I also have other books that are much more critical of gurus and meditation groups that I think readers would appreciate and I plan to share more books and sources soon.

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