in Gurus & Disciples, Self-Realization Fellowship

Extreme groups like Amish, Skinheads, and Self-Realization Fellowship Order promise followers “paradise”. Promises of “paradise” come in various forms: a heavenly afterlife by following tradition, spiritual enlightenment by meditation practice, or superiority over others by violence.

Below we compare the underlying psychology within three extreme, cult-like groups:

Skinhead promise of paradise

Christian Picciolini was born and raised on the southside of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood called Blue Island, the birthplace of the American white power skinhead movement.[1]

One day at 14 years old I was standing in an alley and a man came up to me an essentially promised me paradise. He promised me that I wouldn’t feel powerless anymore.[2]

That man was Clark Martell who in 1987 co-founded the Chicago Area SkinHeads, also called Romantic Violence, the first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group in the United States.[3]

Martell promised me that I had something to be proud of. And that if I were to join him and his movement I would leave a mark on the world and find my purpose.

Did Skinheads deliver on their promise?

At first it felt like a family. There was a lot of acceptance. Here you have a bunch of broken people who enjoy each other’s company because we were all broken in some way. But quickly it turned into a dysfunctional family. It was after a while each person for themselves movement. There was no loyalty, only people with an agenda they wanted filled. They used others as pawns.[2]

Picciolini, after 8 years as a Skinhead, left the group. He co-founded a non-profit–Life After Hate–which helps people leave hate groups.

Amish in tradition and fear

A former Amish man testified on camera[4]:

I was Amish. It was a simple life. We were a unified people that shared one thing: Tradition. Within the Amish Order we all had our part: The older, the younger. From the outside we looked good. We looked satisfied. But on the inside we were confused, unsure, scared.

I lived in a society that was based on fear: The fear of hell. Each day I had questions and uncertainty about my life’s purpose. The elders told me not to question but to obey the teachings of the past. I tried to live at home but my reality was defeat. I had to hide my feelings for the sake of acceptance.

“Loyal” gods in Self-Realization Fellowship Order

My story.

In Self-Realization Fellowship the guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, promised to show us we were gods. In a secret ceremony disciples vowed their complete loyalty to the guru and his organization, SRF. Then the guru initiated disciples into Kriya yoga meditation techniques. Meditation and being loyal to the guru would show us we were gods. In its Service Reading #39, SRF teaches: “To such a God-sent Guru [e.g., Yogananda] the disciple must always be loyal throughout his lifetime and through future incarnations until he finds redemption.”

Did SRF and Yogananda deliver on their promises?

At first, there was a sense of certainty, purpose, and acceptance. The guru and SRF made promises and had the answers. They made us dependent on them.

The monks were broken people. We all had been disappointed and disillusioned with the world. Promises made us willing to give up everything, to follow and obey forever the guru and SRF.

But after the honeymoon wore off it was a different story. There was no loyalty, only loyal followers and those who were labeled disloyal. Each person was loyal for their own self-preservation. Everyone’s true thoughts and feelings had to be hidden for fear of not being accepted. Any person could at anytime be branded as disloyal, shunned, or ostracized within the community.

I lived in fear. People had to accept their “training” without question. Abuses were easily excused and justified. Towards the end of my decade and a half within the Order, a few monks and I discussed our fears of fanatically “loyal” monks who might assassinate other monks who they considered disloyal. That kind of “loyalty” and fear was the last straw. All four of us monks in that conversation left the Order within the next several months.

There was no loyalty except to persons who said or did what SRF and its leadership wanted. Their promises were empty.

Loyalty in cult-family

At first members of Amish, Skinheads, or SRF Order feel like they are part of a family. Members of the in-group feel accepted into the community. People outside the group don’t understand them, even ridicule them. A persecution or messianic complex drives followers of these groups to bond even closer together. However, the loyalty is to the leaders, tradition, or ideology–not to the individuals themselves as human beings. Any deviation from the tradition, guru, or institution is seen as disloyalty. Fear takes over. Some eventually leave the group.

These examples illustrate some common themes of groups like the Amish, Skinhead, and SRF Order:

  1. Leader or tradition that promises certainty, purpose in life.
  2. Feeling, at first, of acceptance and family.
  3. Dysfunctional group held together by fear.
  4. Hiding of one’s feelings and living in fear of being found out.
  5. Eventually, fortunate persons, leave and are able to help others leave.

Notes

1 Life After Hate. Staff. Accessed on Aug 20 2017 at https://www.lifeafterhate.org/staff

2 The Center for Investigative Reporting. Hate on the march: white nationalism in the Trump era. Reveal broadcast. Aug 19 2017.

3 Clark Martell. Wikipedia. Accessed Aug 20 2017 at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_Martell

4 Amish: Shunned and Excommunicated. Mission to Amish People. Accessed on Aug 19 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgU7hiBczjI&list=PLv3ujCEQ-THhKEp6ty81eFlAhcG6j4wcP

Leave a Reply

  1. Dear Scott,

    Disclaimer: I am a 70-year old, male, and a long-standing (nearly 30 years) member of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF). In prologue, and in summing up why I’m writing, I think you may be missing the point of the SRF teachings, which I take to be: The ‘inside’ (our consciousness) is real. The ‘outside’ (a material world) is maya, unreal. And it follows from this observation, available to us in regular meditation over many years, that loss of faith, while disappointing, is nevertheless not the end of, or a defensible conclusion to, anything. Soon, replaced, in time, with the realization that we cannot live without it. Since it is life itself.

    If I may go on, I am sorry you dropped out of the SRF postulant training program. I would think it was a great privilege to be accepted. And to last in it for 14 years!

    I found your site, yesterday, because of some trouble I got myself into, and had woken up in the morning, starting with my well-established routine of reviewing the SRF Lessons, or other SRF publications. And the thought came to me, something like you, that my devotion to this path might be all for nothing. Wishful thinking only, since it had already occurred to me that maybe God and Guru had not protected me in my time of need. And I thought I should do some planning ahead if I were to make my escape from this untenable situation.

    I had thought of finding out if the Ananda Village in California would take me. But soon saw the word ‘cult’ associated with its name. Following with the many suggestions of sexual impropriety leveled at its founder in Kriyananda. So, I abandoned that line of reasoning. And quickly gravitated to the thought that maybe SRF is a ‘cult,’ too. Thus, too, from what you have had to say on the matter. Obviously, I was grasping for straws. But, in my moment of seeming weakness, ‘What else could it be?’ Hadn’t SRF, God and Guru, let me down?

    I read with great interest many of your blog entries detailing the inner workings of SRF monastic life. You can be commended for bringing all this to light. Especially, for long-standing SRF devotees who are largely oblivious to this look into this seemingly secret society.

    A number of ‘high-ranking’ disciples, Sri Daya Mata among them, has said, or at least intimated that, ‘monastic, ashram life is not a bed of roses’ all the time. Human beings being as we are, fraught with ego, as it were, almost frothing from the mouth with all kinds of outlandish frights and fears of being accused of wrong, and responding, or defending ourselves, in like manner. Weak to the bone, hardly, able to stand upright. Let alone stand for anything of any worth at all. I exaggerate somewhat. But know myself capable of such at my darkest hours.

    But aren’t you forgetting the training you got in all those years? Are you not failing to appreciate that ego is not all there is?

    Reading your accounts, and weighing my own options, I could go that route. Abandon all I’ve accomplished in my years as a lay devotee. But where would that course lead me? I am quite sure- on the street or the gutter. Before coming upon Yogananda, I might as well have been, or heading fast in that direction. With ego roaring on.

    It has been a long journey, but in the process, I have found direction. As you have in your own right. Thank God for that. Surely, you, too, must realize, we cannot do it alone. There is a way. And thinking this over, I have come to realize, once again, that I have found it. I am alive at all, because I have learned to overcome some of the ego’s directionless tendency to fly off the handle. And to risk everything. How is this triumph brought about? Through daily activities which are uplifting, And directly by the process of meditation. Which you must admit is a calming influence, a brake on our often-unruly emotions of panic. And, as it is taught, a chance to grasp the seemingly fleeting joy of life-everlasting. Firmly enough to eventually make it our own. And not only for those born perhaps with higher innate spiritual sensibilities than many of us seem to be.

    Yes, a wish. But much more. After all, what is life, but nurturing the will to live forever. And if we do it right, this alone keeps us going.

    So, in the end, I am deciding, with your help, and suitably reaffirmed that the life I have managed to construct: with eating only an organic plant-based-no-oil diet; twice daily and weekly longer meditations; study, self-discipline, Patanjali’s yama-niyama prescripts; living a simple life as far removed from the material one so many are caught up in, and with no alcohol, no drugs, and yes, no sex- is the way to keep going. And with good precedent in God and Guru, and all the saints who have come before us.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. And I hope the life you have found outside the monastic order, and apparently outside of SRF, and, it would appear, outside of God, is truly what you want. And if not, in time, you and your family will someday, ‘come on back!’

    For the light within, as I am suggesting here, is truly ever-divine, and with God, a life-everlasting.

    I should stop here. But since you’ve asked, so to speak, here, really is what I believe. When we lose our faith in God, ipso facto, in living forever, Who and Which is Utter Peace and Loving Bliss, see what happens?

    We incur, automatically, a seemingly physical body, along with all its baggage, of weight, hunger, thirst, limited energy, longing for love, and the sex instinct to reproduce! All for our loss of faith in God.

    Summing up the body in one word it is all ‘ego.’ Restlessness, separation anxiety, fear of having lost our bearings, of having lost direction.

    And what is that divine direction? But the peace and calm, and the daily discipline practiced and found in meditation, that enables us to carry on happily ever after, life after life-situation forever and forever. With this faith in God, always sure, always welcoming, always pure. Always in Aum, Peace, Amen.

    Peace to you,
    George

  2. @George: Thanks for sharing your heart-felt thoughts and experiences. Your 30 years of dedication to SRF teachings is both impressive and saddening. I also spent (wasted) over two decades practicing SRF teachings and discovered they are for the most part a sham. Rife with empty promises that cause more harm than good in the long run.

    There are some wonderful, sincere people in SRF. But that doesn’t validate a “system” or prove that teachings are valuable or true. It only shows there’s some sincere people, and humans are humans no matter what kind of system of control or manipulation.

    You ask: “What else could it be?’ Hadn’t SRF, God and Guru, let me down?” Yes. I recommend you keep asking these questions and following your journey of exploration beyond SRF teachings, which claim to bring self-realization but isn’t that only possible by going beyond what some authority tells us is best for us?

    “Ego” is not something to be demonized. But to embrace. Seek outside counsel. Read outside literature and watch some movies on escaping cults, I have a variety of resources listed on my Resources page.

    You are standing in a place open for making positive change in your life. It takes courage and compassion to question our assumptions and admit we may be wrong. As indeed we often are and there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Certainty is arrogance. To think and act based on our own authority (not what some else tells us what’s best for us) takes courage and compassion for ourselves.