Tagged: monasticism

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.


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

Former Monk, Joy After Leaving Ashram

Ninja Midia, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Ninja Midia, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A young monk ignored the scare tactics used to keep him inside an ashram. Describes pain and joy of going back home.

Below is a message received from a former Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monk1:

Your recent post, Abandoning Family for a Guru, resonated deeply with me.

When I entered the SRF Encinitas Ashram, I did not tell my parents until after I was already inside. I’m sure not telling my parents before entering the ashram hurt them.

My dad recently sent me a large folder of letters I had mailed to him around the time I entered the ashram. I should go through those letters and try to find the letter where I informed my parents I had joined a Hindu-inspired monastic order in Encinitas. (My parents raised me in a mainstream Christian church).

Eventually my parents came to visit me at the ashram. Our meeting was a bit heart-wrenching. The feelings could probably not be duplicated unless we were visiting family in prison.

I was also allowed, was given permission by the monastic superiors, to occasionally visit my parents at home. At the end of those visits, a part of me never wanted to return to the ashram.

A number of years ago, one of my sisters took all my dad’s slide collection–decades of family photos–and had them converted onto CD’s. When I reviewed the family photos, I was shocked by my absence from them. It wasn’t just during the years when I was in the ashram. Prior to that, when I was age seventeen I moved to London and soon after moved to Hawaii. But all those holiday celebrations when the family gathered, so often I was not present. Missing.

Today, both my parents are 92 years of age. We have a close relationship. I just finished drafting a Wikipedia page about my dad, an early pioneer of computers. My three younger sisters and I somehow all survived to be over age 60. Today, I cherish them all, and we talk frequently on Skype.

The monastic bonds of love were not as strong. In the ashram there was talk of divine “fellowship”. Indeed I felt a kind of brotherhood with my fellow monks while fighting spiritual battles together in the trenches. The brotherly love, though, was often laced with fear.

The SRF monastic community often used scare tactics to get monks to stay inside the ashram. We were indoctrinated that life outside the ashram, out in the world, was terrible, and that when you leave “you grab the tail of the cat, you get the whole cat.” Meaning that if you choose to leave the ashram, you get caught in the claws of a supposedly evil and dangerous world outside the cloister.

I love cats, and so ultimately the scare tactics didn’t work. I eventually left the SRF Monastic Order and found that life outside was wonderful and fulfilling.

Life after leaving the ashram was not always easy for me. I confess I had to do some hard work on myself to get to where I am today. (But I won’t discuss those details now as it’s a bit too personal).

Several years after leaving the ashram I met the woman of my dreams. We recently celebrated our 30-year wedding anniversary. We have love everyday in our home.

We have a wonderful daughter who often visits us. She brings joy with her and is the love of our lives. In six months she finishes a Ph.D. program, with a doctorate in statistical genetics. I’m one proud dad.

Last night, my wife and I attended a holiday party and everyone talked of family. I left the party feeling joy. (I don’t drink, so that wasn’t the reason). Today. we shared our fairly lame party pictures on Facebook, we tagged each other, and enjoyed our shared memories.

I can’t remember ever feeling that good during my ashram days during or after gatherings in the monastic community. The monks would meet and then just go back to their solitary rooms and meditate.

Every morning I walk for an hour as the sun comes up and I am filled with gratitude. I love living in the moment, the life I’ve chosen, and have been given.

My wish is that monks who live inside an ashram, who wonder what it’s like on the outside after leaving, that they could know the love and joy that is possible in this world.

1 This former monk asked to remain anonymous for personal reasons. I have obtained his permission to use his story in this post. While this former monk and I did not know each other inside the SRF ashram–he left a decade or more before my entry into the ashram–we recently had a pleasant in person meeting sometime after he first contacted me through this SkepticMeditations website.

Abandoning Family for a Guru

Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When I discovered meditation at the age of nineteen, I was overjoyed, and felt that my life’s purpose had been found.

Thus began my renunciation of family, career, and education in an idealized quest for truth and self-realization in a Hindu-inspired meditation group, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).

Ten years before, Dad had had lifesaving brain surgery. His psychological and emotional health gradually deteriorated. [I wrote briefly about this in the first paragraph of my post Think & Grow Rich Gurus]. Life at home with family was tense, dysfunctional. I sought refuge in meditation.

When I wasn’t at the SRF Temple to meditate or listen to sermons, at home I’d lock my bedroom door for hours to meditate and read books by Paramahansa Yogananda, the guru-master of SRF.

One day dad banged on my locked door and yelled, “What the hell are you doing in there? When you are in my house, my rules. It’s my way or the highway!”.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

At that moment I knew I had to get out and hatched a plan to leave home.

I called the SRF Hidden Valley Ashram and made reservations to stay there for an extended retreat.

The SRF Hidden Valley Ashram, a meditation retreat center and 40 acre farm, was located 40 miles northeast of San Diego.

My retreat reservations were easy. I was to live in the SRF Hidden Valley Ashram for weeks, months, even years. In exchange for room, board, and spiritual instruction I was to pick farm produce in the ashram and was to make a suggested cash donation.

I was eager to leave my problems behind, at home, and to start an ideal “spiritual” life on a retreat.

I packed a toothbrush, clothes, and some books by Paramahansa Yogananda in a cardboard box and a duffle bag. Before I drove away in my pickup truck to stay at Hidden Valley Ashram I scratched a handwritten note to family (my only communication that I was leaving home):

“Going away for awhile to live with friends in San Diego Area. Will call you in a few days. Love, Scott”.

That was the last time I was home with family. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later, when I left the Order, that I realized how important blood family is.

Thomas Leth-Olsen, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Thomas Leth-Olsen, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Regrets I have about abandoning family for a guru, included:

  • Missed my sister’s wedding. (The monastic rules and counselors forbade monks from attending weddings).
  • Missed my dad’s second wedding. (Dad remarried ten years after I left home).
  • Neglected my blood family relations and instead spent the majority of my time within SRF.

Actions taken with family while I was in the ashram, included:

  • Called my parents every month by phone, mailed birthday and post cards.
  • Visited my parents at their home for one to two days two or three times a year after I had been in the Order for several years.
  • Visited by my parents at the SRF Ashram once a year or two.

If I knew what awaited me in the ashram I would have never abandoned family the way I did.

Many members of SRF shunned me after I left the “fellowship”. Apparently, the unconditional love of a guru and “divine fellowship” is conditioned upon surrender to the rules of the community.

When I left the ashram in midlife, I was overjoyed, and was welcomed back into my blood family as if I had never gone.

silence skeptic meditations

Unholy Silence, Hollow Men

Withdrawing from the world is appealing when there is a sacred, enlightened state to withdraw to.

Inwardly, the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monks lived in quiet desperation. Silence was an escape from external and internal disorder. Escaping through meditation and comforting beliefs was not a healthy model for survival. The very obedience to silence was considered sacred and automatically created it’s opposite, an unhealthy un-sacred1.

Outwardly, the SRF monastics imitated the holy ascetics, mystics, and saints and gave onlookers the impression that they were contented, blissful, and mirrors of the divine.

As I began writing this exposé on the quaint SRF monastic rituals of outer silence, I more fully understood the authoritarian rule of silence was unholy and oppressive.

Desperation in Withdrawal, Silence

The renunciants were expected to obediently suffer in silence, “A good monk is seen and not heard”, preached Brother Premamoy, the Postulant House-Brother (Father-Superior) who ran the bootcamp that shaped the young, impressionable minds who were eager to follow in the spiritual master’s footsteps into the SRF monastery.

The film Song of Bernadette was shown every year or two to the monks and was referenced in classes given by the senior monks. The Catholic nun, Bernadette Soubirous (Saint Bernadette of Lourdes), was admired by the monks for her silent suffering from painful cancer of the knee as she scrubbed the filthy cloister floors on her hands and knees.

To suffer in silence was glorified. To meditate in silence was the ultimate escape from personal responsibility and we called it seeking spiritual enlightenment or self-realization.

The SRF monastics and congregations liked to quote Sister Gyanamata, a revered SRF nun and direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda: “We make too much of feeling, even admitting that the right kind of feeling is very enjoyable. What does it matter how you feel? Bear your lot as long as it is the will of God that you should do so”. These sentiments overtly and subtly stifled the monks from voicing their needs and encouraged unhealthy silence.

Marco Castellani, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0
Marco Castellani, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

Afraid to speak out about what was really going on in our minds and hearts, the monks I knew lived in quiet desperation. Helpless and hopeless that the ashram would ever change its dysfunctional, non-sacred ways, we were forced to “bear our lot…”. Monks I knew were diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder), stomach ulcers, and mental and emotional disorders. (Scores of monastics, like myself, eventually left the Order to escape an unhealthy, authoritarian power structure designed not for individual’s self-realization but for the aggrandizement and self-preservation of the leaders and the SRF organization). While in the Order, suffering in silence made it easy to escape for four to six hours a day in silent meditation–wishing, hoping, and praying that the next incarnation, the afterlife, and enlightenment would come and that the guru would save us.

Silence is the speech of hollow men

On Sundays the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monastics refrained from speech from the time of waking to the time of retiring in the evening and devoted the entire day to meditation and practicing the presence of god. [See my post Spiritual Duties and Rules of Conduct of a Resident Disciple of the Monastic Self-Realization Order]

The intent of Sunday silence was to dedicate the entire day especially to god, and to redouble efforts to practice of the presence of god, and to forego any activities that would interfere with silencing the outgoing mind. Each Sunday the monks were expected to retreat further from the world into the inner sanctum of non-verbal silence, all-day fasting, and six-hour long meditations.

Gisela Giardino, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0
Gisela Giardino, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

In addition to Sunday silence, on each day of the week the monastics observed periods of silence during all meal times and before 8 AM and after 9 PM.

Withdrawing from the world is appealing when there is some enlightened state to withdraw to. There is nowhere to escape when there is internal and external disorder. The appeal of Eastern wisdom for Westerners comes in the form of gurus, spiritual masters, and divine authorities. Escaping through comforting beliefs is neither healthy nor sacred. Indeed, that escape is unhealthy and non-sacred. The appeal of enlightenment in the silence is an authoritarian tool to get us to renounce personal responsibility and to be an unquestioning follower.


Featured image by donna.dark, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

1 This post was influenced in part by The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books. Berkeley: CA. 1998. Paperback

Cult, Charisma, and Convocation

Kevin Dooley, Cult directions, Flickr CC BY 2.0
Kevin Dooley, Cult directions, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Reader says she quit cult of SRF after 37 years.

I regularly get emails from readers. Here’s a short message from one and a few of my comments below:

“Thank you for your website. I used to be in SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) for 37 years. I realized that it is a cult, like all religions. I still like to meditate each morning and I do biofeedback to help put myself into a parasympathetic state before I start work. I think Yogananda[1] was a very charismatic person. I no longer believe in Gurus. I distrust organized religion. I used to go to Convocation[2] and could never get into the Daya Mata[3] worship.  She always seemed like an overly conservative, uptight person. I appreciate what you write about on your website, and your way of thinking critically.”

My Comments/Notes

1 Paramahansa Yogananda is the yoga-master, guru-founder of Self-Realization Fellowship. For a critique of Yogananda’s extraordinary claims about meditation, read my posts Can Yogis Stop Their Heart? and The Evidence Against Breathlessness and Samadhi 

2 SRF’s Convocation is a weeklong convention were thousands of SRF monastics, volunteers, and devotees from around the world converge each summer at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

While I was a monk, I participated each year in the SRF Convocations. The monastics and volunteer lay members worked 14-18 hours each day to run the event behind the curtain and at the Bonaventure.

The first five years of my life in the SRF Monastic Order I enthusiastically served at Convocation in a labor of love. I tolerated the 18 hour work shifts at the Bonaventure Hotel. By my sixth, seventh, and eighth Convocation I found the event, the monastic speakers, and the topics were monotonous and formulaic: How to Meditate, Finding God in Daily Life, Keys to Happiness, Surrendering to God, etc. etc.

For SRF’s perspective on highlights from Convocations see this page on their official SRF website: http://www.yogananda-srf.org/convocation/Highlights_From_Past_Convocations.aspx#.VgCLVGRViko

The SRF Convocation gets 4,000 attendees each year. During the last 20 years, the Convocation nor the SRF organization as a whole has increased membership. The SRF apparently aquires new members at the same rate they lose members. The same goes for the Monastic Order: the ranks of SRF monks and nuns doesn’t appear to grow much if any.

3 Daya Mata is the late President of SRF who died in December 2010. I write about several of my encounters with Daya Ma in Darshan: Mind-Reading Saints and Ashram Politics

Daya Mata was originally a Mormon living in Salt Lake City Utah. At age 17 she met Yogananda during one of his public lectures in Salt Lake City. She then left home with her parents permission to live with Yogananda in his ashram in Los Angeles.

Daya Mata was succeeded by the present President of SRF, Mrinalini Mata Mrinalini Mata entered the SRF Monastic Order at the tender age of 15. For more about her, see this article in the Los Angeles Times