In the ashram1, spiritual advancement was measured by the position of the person within the organization.
All within the organizational hierarchy got feelings of specialness and authority from position and proximity to the leader.
Self-Realization Fellowship claims2 that the organization will always be guided by God-realized people, and that disciples can always be assured of the direction of their leaders.
At the SRF Headquarters, the ashram atop Mt. Washington in Los Angeles, people got promoted on loyalty and obedience to the guru-leader and the President of SRF. Obedient disciples were rewarded with position and higher rank within the organization.
Diagram of the ashram spiritual-corporate hierarchy
A spiritual-corporate caste system: This spiritual-corporate hierarchy, which I am familiar with from the SRF ashram or monastery, mirrors the horrific Indian-Hindu caste system: the Guru-Master is the highest or Brahmin caste; the Pretenders to Throne, close disciples, are the Kshatriyas (warrior) class; the Ministers are the Vaishyas (merchants or landowners); the Servants represent the Shudras (subordinates to all the other upper castes); and finally, the Untouchables are the lowly, outsiders of this hierarchy.
Climbing the Spiritual-Corporate Ladder
The guru, infallible Master-leader is at the top of the power pyramid. The Master-leader has absolute authority over everyone within the organization. To question the infallibility of the leader is seen as a sign of egoism, of disloyalty and disobedience to the leader and organization.
Seldom is there open, honest communication between disciples within the hierarchy.
There is underlying fear of punishment that keeps everyone in line: fear of being withheld any rewards and attentions, of displeasing and being banished to a remote outpost, or of even being expelled or excommunicated from the ashram. Disciples within the hierarchy are starved for attention and affection from the leader. Rewards of position and rank are seen as a sign of pleasing the leader and of spiritual advancement.
Directly below the Master-leader is an inner cadre of elite disciples. This small, close circle, sometimes referred to as “advanced” disciples or directors, are one among them who is likely to someday inherit the spiritual mantle and the entire organization after the Master-leader is no longer physically present.
Below the inner circle of elite disciples are ministers and administers who filter, interpret, and communicate the Master-leader’s commands and “teachings” to rank and file, lower-level disciples.
Persons furthest from the Master-leader, those at the bottom of the ladder, are either new members or considered not spiritually advanced enough to rise to positions of authority within the organization.
The lower-level disciples, the majority of followers, are seldom able to be near the Master-leader, who typically is aloof and indifferent to their survival, needs, and problems. Despite the apparent indifference of the Master-leader, most disciples are convinced that spiritual blessings of the Master-leader trickles down from top to bottom of the organizational hierarchy.
Loyal and obedient disciples are willing to sacrifice all, even life, to uphold the Master-leader and the hierarchical organization.
All persons outside or disloyal to the hierarchy are considered either inferior, not intelligent, or not spiritually advanced, and are likely lost in ego, delusion (Maya), or evil.
Position within the organization, climbing the spiritual-corporate ladder, generates feelings of specialness, power, and authority for the disciples.
1 The Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order has half a dozen ashram centers in Southern California. It is in these that I lived for more than 14 years as a renunciant, monastic-disciple. For a brief description about me and why I left read my About page.
2 Supposedly said by Paramahansa Yogananda, according to Mrinalini Mata, current President of SRF as quoted in Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion, Lola Williamson, NY University Press, 2010, p 63