'Cartwheels In A Sari': Memoir Of A Disciple Jayanti Tamm grew up fully devoted to the teachings of Guru Sri Chinmoy. In her new memoir, Cartwheels In A Sari, Tamm tells the story of living in the Guru's inner circle, and her decision to lead a more independent life.

'Cartwheels In A Sari': Memoir Of A Disciple

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Jayanti Tamm's destiny was settled before her birth. Her parents were followers of the Guru Shri Chinmoy. After arranging their marriage, he declared that his disciples would be celibate. So when Tamm's mother became pregnant, the guru declared that the baby was special and would eventually become his greatest disciple. Tamm grew up in the guru's inner circle, enjoying his special attentions and devoting her life to him.

She traveled with him around the world, watched his weight lifting feats, cleaned his private zoo and saw thousands of disciples pass through his ashram, all of them yearning to be in her exulted position. As Tamm grew older, she began having doubts and rebelling against the guru's strict rules, but it was hard to leave the only life she had ever known. In the end, the guru expelled her and she had to find a way to start a new life. Now Jayanti Tamm has written a memoir about her experience: "Cartwheels in a Sari." And she'll be with us to talk about it. Later in the hour, writer Stanley Crouch on HBO's new show "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." But first, "Cartwheels in a Sari."

If you've been a part of a consuming faith that you eventually left, what made you follow it? And what made you leave? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jayanti Tamm is now an English professor at the Ocean County Community College. She is with us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.

Professor JAYANTI TAMM (English, Ocean County Community College; Author, "Cartwheels in a Sari"): Thank you so much, Lynn, for having me. It's a real honor to be here today.

NEARY: Well, it's great to have you. So tell us how you became, even before you were born, tell us how it happened that you became a disciple - not just a disciple, but a very special disciple of the Guru Shri Chinmoy?

Prof. TAMM: Yes, well, my parents arrived and became disciples of Shri Chinmoy in the late 1960s. My mother had been a civil rights worker in Chicago. My father had been a graduate student at Yale University, and they both arrived to seek enlightenment and truth from this newly arrived spiritual teacher, Shri Chinmoy. And the day that my mother went first to a meditation, this Shri Chinmoy introduced her to my father and said that in order for my mother to make great spiritual progress, she should be married to my father in a divine marriage. And so that happened.

And shortly after their marriage, the rules radically changed and the group transformed from a very informal meditation circle into a cult, where Shri Chinmoy was the sole authority and where he demanded complete and utter control of his disciples. And one of the rules that he then imposed was celibacy, and that disciples were meant to be single. And even married disciples were meant to be celibate. So when my mother became pregnant shortly after that, clearly there was a problem. At first, Shri Chinmoy was furious at my parents' disobedience. But then he came back and said with great compassion that he was going to bestow a great blessing upon them and that he had chosen from the highest heavens a special soul to incarnate on earth and to become his chosen disciple, one that was meant to serve and please him throughout their life. And that was me.

NEARY: That was you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TAMM: Right.

NEARY: So you came in with a lot riding on your head, I guess. And tell us how when you were just - I don't know, I guess a day or two old, this was confirmed, this, what he had declared about you was confirmed in his mind.

Prof. TAMM: Well, actually, it was the morning of my birth when Shri Chinmoy came to the hospital. I was born in Connecticut. He came to the hospital to bless me and to bestow my spiritual name. Jayanti is a name that he gave me that means the highest victory of the absolute supreme. So on that morning, his story - the one that he repeatedly told over the years to his disciples - was that he arrived at the nursery and was standing at the window of the nursery to bless me, and he was inwardly making contact with me.

But, of course, I was sleeping with the other newborns, until he finally said I brought your soul down from the highest heights, and where's your gratitude? Why don't you respond to me? And at that point, according to him, I folded my hands and bowed to him. And that sealed me as being a disciple that obeyed his earliest command.

NEARY: You bowed to him when you were only hours old.

Prof. TAMM: Right.

NEARY: Yeah.

Prof. TAMM: With folded hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Now as a child, you sort of reveled in all the attention that this brought to you, right?

Prof. TAMM: Absolutely. I mean, one of the ideas behind (unintelligible) that it explores the various opportunities and also setbacks of being born and raised in a cult, in this group. I did have, indeed, wonderful opportunities and experiences with Shri Chinmoy. We were, indeed, able to travel around the world. He had meditation centers all across America and internationally, and as well as sort of these rare opportunities on to meet celebrities, from going to Leonard Bernstein's apartment to where he met with him, to having Carlos Santana babysit me. There were all these sort of whacky and wonderful opportunities. So yes, indeed, there were many positive experiences, as well as very dark and disturbing elements with having to surrender and obey to another person's will.

NEARY: Now you use the word cult, which some people object that word. They -and how do you define it?

Prof. TAMM: Absolutely. Well, the word cult clearly is a loaded term. And through my own personal experience and through research that I've read, there are many, many different definitions of what a cult is.

My belief is that a cult has a number of key characteristics that really define it, and the central being that a cult is built around a single individual or small group that has complete authority and control over the members. And this authority and control, then, therefore is able to kind of ban all criticisms, doubts and critiques about the group. So people who do raise questions are attacked and demeaned. And the other sort of key characteristic of a cult, as opposed to just an alternative religion, a cult has a distinct separation between those who are inside the group and outside. And it's imperative to preserving the order and the control to have that separation. So when someone leaves the cult, there is revenge that's taken by cutting off contact, often by retracting jobs, homes and often even causing physical harm.

NEARY: Yeah. And that was something that you witnessed even as a child, that people would leave the cult, would leave this group and then never be seen from again. And you didn't think very much of it when you were child, actually.

Prof. TAMM: No. That was the norm. Again, you know, people who had known me my entire life, one day all of a sudden they are gone, and that was it. They were never spoken about. They were never seen. And if they did attempt to contact members or it did attempts to sort of speak out about their experience, they were routinely harassed, shunned and discredited. So this, to me, was normal behavior.

NEARY: Yeah. Now, without getting ahead of ourselves in terms of your story, I mean, did you ever talked to your parents as an adult about what made them stay in this group? Because the way you describe it in the book, every night they were driving from - every day they had to drive from Connecticut to Queens to go to meditations. You were getting home very late at night, even when you were very young child. I mean, it was - he demanded that they live in Connecticut. Everything that they did was something that the guru had told them to do. Your father became a lawyer because he told him to become a lawyer. Did you ever talk to your parents later on about what made them go that route in the first place?

Prof. TAMM: Yes, but that happened after they even self left the group. When we were all in the group, we never spoke. Again one of the challenges of a group like this is that no one speaks honestly, and if you do, you're meant to be reported by being a doubter, by being someone that has suspicions. So when I spoke to them years later - and in "Cartwheels In A Sari," it actually explores their own slow and eventual loss of faith in the guru - but they believed at that time and still held onto some belief that Sri Chinmoy was the person he claimed to be. He claimed to be the direct representative of God on earth. He claimed to be the last avatar, the highest soul, higher than Jesus, higher than Buddha, higher than Muhammad, the greatest avatar.

And with that belief, they truly felt at the time that by raising their family in this, it was an opportunity to have their children learn from the greatest living spiritual master. So they believed at the time that they were doing the absolute right thing for us.

NEARY: And this was despite the fact that there were some odd aspects of what Sri Chinmoy - not so much what he preached, but the way he behaved, I guess I would say. Weightlifting was a big part of his life in some way, and that just - I had, of course, heard of Sri Chinmoy, but I didn't really know much about that. And at one point, he even came to your family's home to lift an elephant. Maybe you can tell us about that and the effect it had on you, at that point a middle-schooler.

Prof. TAMM: Right. Well, the weightlifting was one of the various hats that he wore in his efforts to gain public attention. Sri Chinmoy was always pursuing public figures for photos, comments and awards to promote himself. And to gain public attention, he positioned himself as a musician, poet, artist, philosopher and then weightlifter. And he realized that by weightlifting huge, bizarre objects, that this would garner him great press and attention.

So when I - we had just moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and I was entering middle school, and I was hoping to try to blend in to the norm. And then it was arranged for him to come to Connecticut, to our front driveway, and literally lift an elephant with a calf raise platform. And all the sudden, that was in the front of the paper. My parents were gushing, and suddenly I was no longer the anonymous middle-schooler that I had hoped.

So the weightlifting was, again, part of his spectacle to get attention. Later on, he made a claim that he lifted, with one arm, 7,000 pounds.

NEARY: Now this was, this time of your life when this occurred, when these sort of very public displays of weightlifting, particularly the elephant in your backyard, at a time when you were really pretty vulnerable. This is when you started having some problems.

You were in middle school, and like all middle-schoolers, you just wanted everybody to like you, and, you know, to lay low and for nobody to think you were strange.

Prof. TAMM: Right, and well in "Cartwheels in a Sari," as I get older, clearly, my doubts begin to be more intensified. So by junior high school, like most teenage girls, I was interested in boys, and I wanted to experience the quote-unquote "outside world," the world that Sri Chinmoy was forbidding us to enter into.

So there were many contradictions there, and there were many longings for things outside. So while my daily life and my evening life tended to, at that time, sort of create problems for me to try to figure out who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.

NEARY: And, of course, the big thing was you liked boys.

Prof. TAMM: Oh, that was a big problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TAMM: Being raised in a celibate cult, that was bad. Family was a bad word. The guru repeatedly told me the supreme was my boyfriend. The supreme was his word for God. So I would say, well, where is he on a Friday night? He's a pretty crappy boyfriend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: All right. We are talking with author Jayanti Tamm. Her memoir is called "Cartwheels In A Sari." We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email to talk@npr.org. We'll be back in a minute. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking with Jayanti Tamm this hour. She's the author of a memoir of her years as a disciple of the charismatic guru, Sri Chinmoy. It's called "Cartwheels In A Sari."

Tamm left Chinmoy's group when she was 25, and we want to hear from you. If you've had a similar experience, if you've been part of a consuming faith that you eventually left, what made you follow it, and what made you leave? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we're going to take a call now. We're going to Sam, who is calling from Portland, Oregon. Hi, Sam.

SAM (Caller): Yeah, hi. How are you doing?

NEARY: I'm good, thanks. How are you?

SAM: Good. Okay, so I actually was raised in the same group that Jayanti was, so I just wanted to say hello, first of all. And yeah, for me I had a pretty dramatic experience getting rusticated or expelled from the group, you know, essentially just for attending a party of people who were not in the group. So that was a pretty traumatic experience.

I just wanted to see, you know, how it was for Jayanti leaving the group, and, you know, how it feels now with losing so many people that you grew up with.

NEARY: Jayanti?

Prof. TAMM: Yeah, thank you. Well, in the group, of course, we were told that Sri Chinmoy and the disciplines were our family. Again, we weren't supposed to have outside connections, outside family. The group was our family. But the irony is that once you leave that group, that family is gone.

They disown you, and everything you have there is banned. So it certainly was a shock when I left the group. Suddenly, you're alone, and you're in this frantic rush to build a life.

I mean, leaving a cult, one leaves behind everything. So the focus is to try to figure out, well, how to build a life without having any connections and anyone from the past there with you.

NEARY: And also, Jayanti, as you explain in the book, you tried to leave a couple of times, and you weren't really able to. It was very hard for you because you didn't know anything else.

Prof. TAMM: Exactly. And also, there was pressure from the group to return, and actually, this continued over the years until I finally had received sort of my last message from Sri Chinmoy back - and this was in 2001, in October, 2001, right after September 11th attacks.

I was living in Manhattan, and all of the sudden, I received this message from him, saying that there was a hostile force, this demon that was trying to attack me and kill me.

NEARY: Sam? Let me ask Sam how it's been for him, actually, too. Was it hard for you to leave, and has it been hard since you left?

SAM: Yeah. It was extremely difficult, you know, after being in the group for 20 years and being raised in the group, you know, essentially having education be something that was considered a bad thing.

So just adapting to society and getting your career was a monumental task, but then also just having the basic emotional tools to deal with everyday life was difficult. So I had essentially a big edge, though, to a lot of other people, because I was referred an exit counselor. And at that point, I had about seven years of psychotherapy, which really helped out a lot.

But I do have an interesting thing, and I do still have dreams often of all the people that I grew up with. And I've also talked to people about it, and it seems that this sort of reoccurring dream with people that you grew up with often happens to people who leave these high-demand groups.

NEARY: All right, Sam, thanks so much for calling. And we're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Hassan(ph), and Hassan is calling from Cleveland. Hi, Hassan.

HASSAN (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon, guys. Thanks for having me. I was born into the faith of Islam, particularly in a political sect here in America, the Nation of Islam. And some of the first words you speak, of course, are Arabic. You're making your prayers and making salah five times a day.

And my father's approach to life was so dogmatic, that everything else outside of Islam was either sub-par or savagery. And that type of elitist attitude was challenged once I was moving off into age because I would begin to meet people who weren't Muslims and they weren't savages, and they ate pork, and they were still good people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HASSAN: And my mother gave me the option of practicing or not. My mother and father divorced, and I chose not to remain a practicing Muslim. And it's because of the dogmatic approach, and I asked the questions of the imams, and I've asked questions to pastors that before there was the New Testament, the Old Testament, before the prophet Muhammad, there was God and his relationship with man, and type of questioning, and that - that's not accepted in dogmatic faiths.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, thanks so much for calling in, Hassan.

HASSAN: Thank you.

NEARY: Does that sound familiar to you, Jayanti, what he was just saying, what Hassan was just saying?

Prof. TAMM: Absolutely. We were told that those who were outside the group were ignorant and were potential hostile forces, were demons there to challenge us and to rid us of our own spiritual faith.

So we were told to ignore them, cut off all contact from them, and even the simplest thing like going online on the Internet was considered banned and bad. One shouldn't do that. One shouldn't enter into those spheres that might tamper with your own faith.

NEARY: And one thing we should mention is that although your parents left the group, so you're in touch with them, but your brother cut you off when you left the group.

Prof. TAMM: Yes. My brother is still a very devout member, and as a devout member, he has - he does not have any contact with me, and I also have an aunt who is still a member of the group.

And that's very typical because, again, there needs to be a separation between those inside and outside, but it's also very painful not to be able to contact and have a normal family life with your own relatives.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from Ryan. He's calling from Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN (Caller): Hey, how are you guys doing?

NEARY: Good, thanks.

RYAN: I was raised evangelical, you know, from as little as I can even remember. And then, real normal things as lay hands and, you know, do all the -to hear my mom speak in tongues is just like an everyday thing. And I guess the main thing that really made me kind of leave, you know, the small group of people, it was like 20 to 25, it was all the church ever had, was just getting a formal education, which, you know, and some of the other callers, and you know, with your guest today, wasn't exactly prohibited. It was kind of encouraged, but only Christian colleges.

And so then you learn about all the parallels in all the Christian stories, you know, like other - like Zoroastrianism and other religions all have virgin birth. There's, you know, the one prophet who gets stuck in these (unintelligible), so they throw him in a river, and someone saves him, a world flood.

It just really makes you question everything really, really bad. And, you know, then when you leave, you know, it starts really subtly. Like your mom, how's your walk with the Lord going? Oh, okay. And it really just kind of progresses from there.

NEARY: How old were you when you finally left this church?

RYAN: You know, it was - I left Arizona, or I left for Arizona about four years ago and started college then. And then after about a year and a half of taking classes, it was literally about three years ago where I really sat there, and all of a sudden, I couldn't answer the questions I had anymore.

Neither could anybody else. And to ask them is definitely doubting, and it's not something encouraged. And so now I don't know if I want my brother, who I asked, who is a pastor, to marry me and my wife. It kind of a creates a little issue. So we'll see what happens.

NEARY: Are you - what's happening with your family now? Are you in touch with them? Are you still…

RYAN: Not as often, and they kind of understand. I have questions that none of them can really answer. And my brother's a pastor, went to college for 10 years at a Christian college. He's a pastor, wonderful, and years ago, before my education, I asked him to marry me and my girl, and now I don't want it to be the same.

You know, I don't want it to be just, you know, total, Christian, all-out, hands being laid, oil, and all this stuff. I just don't want that anymore. I have too many questions.

And so - and I don't want a fake it, either, by going through the motions. So it's going to be - I don't know what will happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Well, Ryan, thanks so much for sharing with us today.

RYAN: No problem. Thank you.

NEARY: You know, I think that's really interesting what Ryan was just saying, Jayanti, because at a certain point, you were faking it. And it sounds like you got into a pretty serious depression as a result.

Prof. TAMM: Yes, absolutely. This was when, towards the - my teenage years, after I had tried to leave and I came back, I felt completely trapped. What Sri Chinmoy expected from my life was to be his full-time devotee, to sit and serve him, and what I wanted was something else.

I didn't want to just work on his own achievements. I had my own goals. I wanted a family. I wanted a normal life. So I ended up suffering from extreme depression, and I had - tried to commit suicide at that time.

NEARY: You tried to commit suicide by throwing yourself under a train, a pretty dramatic suicide, which if somebody hadn't pulled you back from the edge, you would've been - you would've succeeded.

Did anybody in the group recognize what was happening with you, that it was a depression?

Prof. TAMM: No. No. But as I explained, I couldn't speak to anyone about it. I mean, it was not a situation that I could express my doubts, express my longings, what was happening to me, so I had to internalize and keep everything to myself, which just made it worse. There was no outlet for discussion. That's they way that Sri Chinmoy had it set up.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take a call now from Roland in San Francisco. Sorry, I think I just picked up the wrong - let's go to Roland in San Francisco. Hi, Roland.

ROLAND (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

NEARY: Yes. Go ahead.

ROLAND: Hi. My experience is kind of similar, yet a little bit opposite of your main guest. I was a Tibetan Buddhist monk when I was 24 here in the city, and it's something I totally did of my own accord.

I was born and raised Catholic, then kind of drifted away and became a Buddhist at 19 and really recognized this is something really beneficial to do maybe at a really young age. I just felt really compelled to, and I only managed to do it for three months because you have to, you know, wear robes and have the vows, which include things like celibacy and, you know, you can't consume any intoxicants of any kind.

And I found myself not really closed off enough from the outside world to really sustain this at such a young age. And being, you know, young and gay in San Francisco three blocks from the gay district, that was also kind of a little bit difficult, you know?

So, yeah, after three months, I ended up disrobing and giving back my vows, but it was an incredibly valuable experience and I'm still in close contact with the community and my lamas.

Yeah. It was altogether a very beneficial experience and one that encouraged free, open thought and coming and going as you chose, which…

NEARY: Well, that's a…

ROLAND: …for me, has almost been the downfall.

NEARY: Yeah. Well - and that's a very different experience, I think, from - and thanks so much for calling, Roland. And that's a pretty different experience from what you had, Jayanti, just in the sense that it was brief and, as he says, it was open and offered the option of free expression.

One thing that you may have had in common with him was that you, too, were -went through a period of just really being frustrated that you could not have relations with boys and with men that you were attracted to.

Prof. TAMM: Absolutely. And towards the end of "Cartwheels In A Sari," that was something that I felt was never going to be able to be reconciled. Sri Chinmoy was not going to lessen his demands on me and I was not going to be able to be the chosen one that he expected me to be. So by the end of the book, we had come to sort of a stalemate and eventually, then, he banned me and banished me from the group.

NEARY: Yeah. We are talking with Jayanti Tamm about her book, "Cartwheels In A Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult." And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

How tough was that, Jayanti, to be banned?

Prof. TAMM: I was - growing up, this was routine. Disciples, again, who had been my friends, who had been part of the family, when they left, they were banished. So, when it happened to me, in a sense, I thought I was prepared for it, but in another way, I wasn't, because along with being banned came everything.

Sri Chinmoy told my parents to evict me from where I was living, and luckily, I'm very grateful my parents, you know, defied him and my mother said no. But the idea was to, again, to punish me for leaving and kind of take revenge and take things away.

So on one level, everything was stripped from me, but on another level, my parents at that point stepped up and actually supported and embraced what I was doing.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call, and we're going to go to Greg. And Greg is calling from Boise, Idaho. Hi, Greg.

GREG (Caller): Yes. I - it's amazing how many parallels I've heard from your different callers and the person that you have on there.

I was involved in a fundamentalist Christian church, one of the larger ones here in the Boise area. And what initially struck me was that they wanted everybody. All are welcome, is what they started out with.

But as I was studying more, I started finding, you know, some standard questions where you have different stories of Jesus' life in the Bible not meshing with each other, and the pastors weren't able to answer those questions. And friction started to build.

So I've been in the church for, you know, a year or two before that started to get to the point where at one level, you had the church trying to include you, and it was almost a schizophrenic experience for a long time, where at another level, you have, like, what your speaker is saying where, you know, I was isolated from the rest of the group.

They would do everything they could so that I couldn't talk to these other people about the experiences I was having. And it finally escalated to the point where, you know, somebody put a dead cat on my front porch. I went into church one day and they arrested me.

I was getting fake emails from various members. And other members were faking my email and sending, you know, rather nasty grams to - you know, it was Internet bullying basically, all the way to, you know, them having a lawyer try to convince me to, you know, go talk to these people after the trespassing charge, which would have been an intimidating the witness, you know, that's a 14-year felony.

NEARY: Yeah.

GREG: I fortunately avoided that. I was smart enough to know that I can't talk to these people. But, you know, I had to leave that church, lots of friends that I had from multiple years…

NEARY: It does sound very similar, Greg. I want to thank you for calling, and I just want to - we just have about a minute left, so I want Jayanti to just wrap up. Thanks for calling again.

It does sound like a very similar experience to yours, but with just a minute to go, Jayanti, let's wrap it up because I want - it has a happy ending. You've got a little baby now. You're married, and things are working out, right?

Prof. TAMM: Absolutely. Absolutely. There is complete closure, in a sense, in "Cartwheels In A Sari" because on the morning of the birth of my daughter, who is the joy, the light of my life, actually was the same morning that Sri Chinmoy himself had passed away.

And so, in a sense, it goes back to that first morning when I was born at the hospital and he came to greet me, and I felt as though my life had, in a sense, found love and joy and true closure and happiness.

NEARY: All right. Well, Jayanti, thanks so much for joining us today.

Prof. TAMM: Thank you so much for having me,

NEARY: Jayanti Tamm's book is called "Cartwheels In A Sari." Coming up, writer Stanley Crouch on HBO's new series "The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency." He says it captures Africa in all of its complexities. That's next.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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