Alex Constantine - June 13, 2009
"Proclaiming himself 'the last avatar' and 'God's direct representative on earth' after forming his spiritual group in the 1970s, Chinmoy began dictating his followers' lives, she said, deciding everything from what they could eat to what time they slept. ..."
Greenwich Native Calls Chinmoy's Ministry a 'Cult"
By Colin Gustafson
When the late guru Sri Chinmoy came to Greenwich to lift an elephant in a circus-like street spectacle in 1984, former resident Jayanti Tamm, then 14, knew her secret was out.
"The next day, the newspaper had these breathless quotes from my parents, praising their spiritual leader (Chinmoy) for this feat (of strength)," Tamm said. "I was outed to the entire town."
A graduate of Greenwich Academy, Tamm says she spent many years in Greenwich leading a double life. By day, she was a typical teenager, she said, attending class and playing sports at the all-girls private school.
At home, however, she led a secret life as Chinmoy's so-called chosen disciple, along with her brother and parents, who were assigned by the guru to recruit disciples for his Queens-based spiritual ministry.
Growing more disillusioned with Chinmoy's teachings as a teenager, Tamm eventually rebelled against him and, at age 25, was kicked out of his ministry for disobedience.
Now a professor in Toms River, N.J., Tamm, 39, has chronicled her life growing up as a Chinmoy devotee in her book, "Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult," released in April.
Unlike many other accounts, Tamm's book casts a sharply critical eye on Chinmoy.
An India native who emigrated to New York City in 1964, Chinmoy founded a popular ministry that would eventually attract thousands of current and former members, including celebrities Carlos Santana and Roberta Flack. Prior to suffering a fatal heart attack at age 76 in 2007, he also set up hundreds of meditation centers nationwide to spread his message of enlightenment through practices like celibacy and vegetarianism.
Today, his ministry remains active, promoting cultural and athletic initiatives that he founded, such as the annual World Harmony Run USA, an 11,000-mile race that, in 2005, passed through Greenwich.
But while Chinmoy has drawn praise across the globe for such efforts, Tamm reveals in her book a far darker side to his ministry -- which she calls a cult, led by a charismatic con man.
"He had this amazing capacity to work a room and to change people's minds," Tamm said in a recent interview. "Oftentimes, the whole thing was a sham."
Proclaiming himself "the last avatar" and "God's direct representative on earth" after forming his spiritual group in the 1970s, Chinmoy began dictating his followers' lives, she said, deciding everything from what they could eat to what time they slept.
While dating and marriage were prohibited, the guru made occasional exceptions, such as when he commanded her parents to wed shortly after they had met at a meditation session in Manhattan in the late 1960s.
When the couple violated his decree of abstaining from sex, and conceived Jayanti, Chinmoy was at first enraged -- only later approving the pregnancy after claiming that he had contacted a divine spirit who had given its blessing to the unborn child, according to Tamm.
Upon Tamm's birth in fall 1970, Chinmoy named her "Jayanti," meaning "the absolute victory of the highest Supreme," before declaring her as his "chosen" or "greatest" disciple, she said.
The family soon became loyal servants to Chinmoy, who ordered them in the early 1970s to move to Norwalk to serve as missionaries, recruiting "seekers" from across Connecticut.
Despite their desire to live closer to Chinmoy in Queens, the Tamms obeyed -- spending the next decade in Norwalk before moving to Wilton in 1981 and, a year later, to Greenwich. There, the family bought a home near the Port Chester border in hopes of being as close as possible, geographically, to New York.
"For my parents, Greenwich was always a disappointing substitute for Jamaica, (Queens)," said Tamm, whose father worked as Chinmoy's personal lawyer in town during the mid-1980s.
Once the family was settled here, Chinmoy soon ordered Tamm to enroll at Greenwich Academy, she said, because he wanted to "keep me away from boys," who would "poison your inner life, your spiritual life."
By that point, however, Tamm said she had reason to doubt Chinmoy. For years, she had seen him tour the country performing concerts and strongman feats. However, it became increasingly clear to her that these acts were a charade, the author recalled.
For one, she said, Chinmoy was embarrassingly inept as a musician, sometimes prompting audience members to walk out of his shows midway. And his seemingly super-human feats of strength -- on display, for instance, when he "lifted" an elephant in Greenwich during a promotional stunt -- were achieved by sleight of hand, she said, through a special apparatus designed to boost his leverage.
Having been forbidden from attending college, Tamm moved to Queens to worship at Chinmoy's side after graduating from Greenwich Academy. However, the doubts that had begun to take hold during her teenage years in town continued to mount during her early 20's in Queens, said Tamm, who was eventually expelled from Chinmoy's group after she attempted suicide.
Her parents left the group five years later, and got separated. Her mother still lives in Greenwich. Her brother, Ketan, 42, however, remains an active member of the group to this day.
Since then, the emotional recovery has required many hours of therapy, she said.
Still, Tamm does not blame her parents for choosing their former lifestyle, nor does she begrudge her brother for staying in Chinmoy's group following his death.
"They were doing what they believe was the best," she said. "If you've indeed invested 30 years of your life, it's hard to leave and finally admit that what you put your whole life into is something that isn't really true."
"That is so immense," she continued, "you can either make a huge break, or just keep plodding along."