The Ashram: Spiritual-Corporate Caste System

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

Spiritual Corporate Ladder

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.

Notes

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

8 comments

  1. SkepticMeditations

    Greg/My Other Feet: I like your insight that in an ashram the guru’s attention, affection, or “spiritual energy” is a kind of psychological or spiritual paycheck for the follower’s. When I was a monk, I could certainly see no ideological conflict with that type of currency.

    Later, after I left the organization, though I’ve come to the realization that so-called guru’s, their affection and spiritual energy are counterfeit. The empty promises eventually bust.

    I think many people would be interested in your perspectives and your BSY experiences. Contact me anytime at my email if you’d like to privately bounce your ideas off me.

    Thanks

  2. My Other Feet

    Scott,

    I wasn’t in the Australian branch of the BSY; I was in the Munger, Bihar ashram, so I can’t speak to the accusations there. However, I have heard rumors that the founder Satyananda was accused of sexual abuse, although I haven’t attempted to confirm or deny them.

    This is slightly off-topic, but frankly, I think being celibate or asexual is a terribly difficult thing for most people to do. And building a large, public-facing organization that’s predicated on celibacy/asexuality sets-up many people for failure.

    I think there are some interesting comparisons between your description of ashram social organization and Marx’s ideas about capitalist society: your model uses the guru’s attention, affection, or “spiritual energy” as the currency for which the devout exchange their time.

    I’d be willing to discuss my experiences in more detail, but let’s discuss what that might look like off of the comments section of your blog. Contact me through the contact tool on my blog, and we can discuss what you have in mind.

    -Greg

  3. SkepticMeditations

    @My Other Feet/Greg: Good points. A so-called “spiritual path” itself is hierarchical and authoritarian: guru-masters, holy texts are the supreme leaders and the followers are graded by proximity to the exalted leaders divinity or spiritual attainments.

    In the ashram or cloister there is high requirement for “willing” and mandatory submission and obedience of the followers to the leaders. Abuses are inevitable.

    Short response to your question: Yes, I think the nature of guru-disciple relationship requires a hierarchical, submissive, authoritarian organization and system. The followers within and outside the ashram by necessity must submit to the guru-master’s “spiritual” authority.

    I did a quick Google search on Bihar School of Yoga, and then on its founder-leader Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Near the top of my search results I found out that the guru’s ashrams have been embroiled in abuses of children and sex scandals. Here’s one article I found:

    Ashram children starved, drugged, tortured, royal commission hears
    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/ashram-children-starved-drugged-tortured-royal-commission-hears-20141203-11z3mb.html#ixzz41xjaQN10

    Would you care to share any information about your experiences in Bihar Yoga ashram system? Perhaps you could write some posts for your blog or as a guest here on SkepticMeditations.

    Thanks

  4. My Other Feet

    Scott,

    I think you make useful observations in this article. Anyone who is thinking about spending time in a cloistered religious environment ought to consider this aspect of cloistered life before participating: some folks might love the structure, like the military in a way, while others won’t take well to it.

    This structure closely resembles my observations of the social organization at the Bihar School of Yoga. In part, experiencing this tiered labor structure led me to realize that being a “holy man” was just another job at another company — in fact the guru of BSY said as much during a satsang one night. I think it’s interesting how manual labor can feel more gratifying outside of a starvation economy like an ashram or monastery. Do you think this social organization is necessary in a guru-disciple group?

  5. SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: Yeah, many organizations are like your friend’s.

    I think what is different, at least in degree, about the spiritual-corporate hierarchy is there are more psychological and social controls in place.

    The Hindu-Christian religion of SRF has a work ethic that is extremely renunciant and self-sacrificing for the followers. The followers see work and position as a kind of spiritual-accumulation. Since followers work for no monetary compensation, they must justify sacrifice for the organization somehow.

    Thanks

  6. SkepticMeditations

    @Uwsboi14: I appreciate what you say about humans seeming ease to be controlled and programmed.

    Taking a bigger picture, longer-term historical perspective I’n not confident that our human “sheep” state is “natural” state, though all too often it does indeed seem normal to humans.

    Our educational and societal memes over the last century or two seem to emphasize “followership” or discipleship, of not thinking for oneself, of rather trusting authorities with little question.

    I see that humans also have an innate skill for being independent, rebelling against controls to survive emotionally, mentally, and physically.

    Unfortunately, our innate “free” thinking skills are seldom nurtured or developed. It takes much more effort, time, and energy (courage to be in uncertainty) to develop our own critical thinking skills than it is to had over responsibility to some other master-leader to do it for us and just be a follower.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. Sabio Lantz

    I have a friend who works in a huge US company and described how each person he knows who climbs the corporate ladder slowly gets transformed into the same sort of critter. So he has decided to stay lower on the ladder.
    At least he is not a renunciate of anything else but power. 🙂

  8. Uwsboi14

    It’s fascinating to read this clear description of a totalitarian system. At the same time it is very sad to see how humans think they need to subjugate themselves in this way. But, I think there is evidence that the human mind is instincually primed to allow itself to be controlled and programmed. It’s not a psychological abnormality, but a natural human skill meant originally as a tool for survival. The Master-leaders either consciously or unconsciously know this and can expertly play on this very human trait and manipulate scores of vulnerable people.

    Your posts always keep me thinking. Thanks, Scott.

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