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Is Amma the Hugging Saint a benevolent guru or a cult leader, and if so has my friend joined a cult?
September 28, 2009 2:06 PM   Subscribe

Has my friend joined a cult?

One of my closest friends (let's call her Alice) has spent the last couple of years in India, and is now a follower of a guru called Amma (AKA. Mata Amritanandamayi, "Amma the Hugging Saint" etc). This is a fairly new thing for her, as previous to this she was something of a hedonist and wasn't really what you'd call a spiritual person. That said, she travelled to India with the intention of having a spiritual journey, so I'm sure that she found her own way to the ashram, and as she tells it she definitely had an epiphany in the presence of Amma and hence became a convert. And most importantly, she seems happy, whereas she probably wasn't before.

So no problem so far. I'm an atheist/skeptic sort of person myself, but I can see the value of faith to people so I'm not criticising her choice on that front. A couple of aspects of her beliefs make me uncomfortable, specifically the rejection of anything from her previous life that she now associates with "negativity" (which includes downbeat films, noisy music, and some types of intellectualism or criticism for want of a better way of putting it), and also as an anti-authoritarian, the idea of submitting yourself to a self-proclaimed guru seems wrong to me.

Now, up to this point I thought that that lifestyle wasn't for me, but was probably no bad thing for Alice. I have to say that at this point I've had very little contact with her recently, but such contact as I've had hasn't been worrying at all.

But I've just found out that another close friend of hers (we'll call her Betty) has apparently been researching Amma and is convinced that Alice has joined a cult, and is deeply distressed by this.

So I've done a google myself, and there do seem to accusations and counter-accusations flying about this, and I don't know what to think any more. It seems like a lot has been written on the subject, but then again some of the cult accusations are linked to via the David Icke website, which raises warning signs itself.

So, is Betty right? Is Amma a cult leader? How can I tell if Alice really has joined a cult or is just following a leftfield religion? If she has joined a cult what should I do? And if it really isn't a cult, how can I convince Betty of that?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cultwatch may be of interest: http://www.cultwatch.com/
posted by dfriedman at 2:10 PM on September 28, 2009


Check out this FAQ from TV personality, ex-cult member and "exit counselor" Steve Hassan on whether it's a cult.

Speaking as someone who wrote a book about a cult: There are many shades of gray before you get to Scientology. The classic scary cult is the one that asks you to cut off all your old friends as Satanic, give away all your money, drop out of school and hassle pedestrians for cash. This might not be all the way there, but there are plenty of religious shysters out there who may or may not qualify as full-blown L. Ron Hubbards.

Also, don't listen to Icke but check out the archives of the Rick Ross Institute. He keeps a ton of news stories on a variety of groups that have been accused of being cults, ranging from the Moonies to creepy business seminars.
posted by johngoren at 2:13 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Rick Ross article archive

Sarlo's guru rating with pro and con links
posted by gimonca at 2:17 PM on September 28, 2009


Cultwatch from dfriedman's link appears to consider the Mormons and the JWs to be cultists. Just FYI.
posted by CRM114 at 2:19 PM on September 28, 2009


Given that she went to India with "the intention of having a spiritual journey", I'd say that the long-term concern here is minimal. I realize that's not a direct answer to your question, but generally speaking, long-term convictions evolve from the life you lead on a day-to-day basis, not from a Religion Vacation.

So, while this guru may in fact be a fraud, you may wish moderate your response barring any obvious harm. I suspect that in six month, it will be a non-issue.
posted by ellF at 2:22 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


For whatever it's worth, I had the opportunity to get a hug from Amma - it was an overwhelmingly positive experience and the best hug I ever received.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:25 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Cult of the Hugging Saint blog certainly seems to agree with your friend "Betty."
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:30 PM on September 28, 2009


My rule of thumb is that if you're in doubt, it's a cult.
posted by box at 2:30 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Now love for the The Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame?
posted by adipocere at 2:33 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Amma is positioned to the uninitiated as a Great Humanitarian, which may or may not be true. However, when you get to know people really involved and devoted, they ALL seem to claim that Amma can read their minds and is all powerful. They believe her to be a full-blown avatar, a la Krishna. Ok great, but why don't they come out and say that to the uninitiated? Seems to me if you felt she was an all powerful, physical incarnation of god, then you'd be fucking tell everyone that. "We don't because it will scare off people too quickly." They actively don't mention this to n00bs until they are primed. This sort progressive disclosure is sort of a hallmark of shady shit to me.

With that said, out of all the big time inidan gurus, she seems the best.
posted by cuban link flooded jesus at 2:45 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am aware of Amma, I'm generally interested in people/things that offer alternative consciousness, AND I was involved in exposing a cult in the way back.

Folks surrounding Alma may be a "cult," but your friend is probably OK.

Everyone else who responds will "link" to lists highlighting characteristics of a cult. Watch out for those tell-tale signs in your friend.

But don't discount that any benefit she enjoys from Amma or any other pursuit along her journey is just that -- a benefit, a perspective.

Talk to your friend first, then decide if she's heading somewhere she shouldn't.

Best.
posted by jbenben at 2:52 PM on September 28, 2009


I don't know whether she's joined a cult, but there are strong indications in your description that she has a cult mentality. What really stands out is "the rejection of anything from her previous life that she now associates with 'negativity'". This is essentially the self-help version of "hell". It's how gurus hook people into buying deeply into their teachings, and inoculate their followers against being dissuaded (i.e., "don't listen to your friend, he's just being jealous and negative").

Any time someone starts giving you rules to live by, they're encouraging a cult mentality. I mean, guidelines are great, but it's all about nuance. Negativity is not a great thing, but it's part of life. When a desperately unhappy person is convinced by some self-help huckster that completely eliminating negativity from their life 100% is the only way to be truly happy, then they're lost... you can't win that game.
posted by mpls2 at 3:02 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


If she has joined a cult what should I do?

Has Alice mentioned a problem? Is she unhappy with the situation?

If not, nothing. Assuming that she's an adult of sound mind, it's her choice to follow this path. It might look strange to an outsider, but if she went into this with her eyes open, then it's her right to do that. It might not look good to someone not involved in the lifestyle, but that doesn't mean that an insider shouldn't do it.

If she's mentally vulnerable, or she becomes mentally vulnerable, then that's a different situation. In the instance that she's not able to make decisions like that for herself, someone should be making them for her.

That's assuming that this is actually a cult.
posted by Solomon at 3:04 PM on September 28, 2009


I think it depends a lot on what you mean by cult. You seem comfortable with "leftfield religion" and "negativity" towards "intellectualism or criticism" - I'm assuming you mean criticism of the beliefs and practices of Ammaji and followers.

Since I have some considerable experience in this world (part of a so-called cult for 20 years) I'll tell you what I think.

We call a "movement" or "organization" a cult when the members lose some measure of personal volition. That is, they give over decision-making about their lives, in big and small ways, to some one else - the guru, the master, the leader. Trouble is, that is an apt description of what happens when someone has a "calling" to take holy orders too. They give over the direction of their life to God. So when we sanction that surrender, the cult is then called a religion.

However; when you give up your life to God or Jesus - a divinity - their is no actual person telling you what to do and, sane or not, it is up to YOU to determine what God is telling you to do not some other human being. Yes, the Mother Superior or the Pope or someone like that, can be considered the guru telling you where you must serve God and how but I think that that kind of authoritarian practice has diminished significantly within the hierarchies of organized religion. Their clergy can still study in whatever discipline they wish and largely choose their occupation within the community they serve.

Being part of a cult implies that you have little choice over the way you live, where you go, what you do, who you do it with and ultimately what you think and believe. Yes, many people do seem to give up this personal control willingly, at first. But then it becomes increasingly hard to ever exercise that control again. The conditions of your practice and your service in the cult becomes such that at each step you are more fully committed and the personal choices you have made shut down possibilities for a life in any wider community.

For example, some cult leaders do not want their adherents to attend educational institutions that do not teach their way of seeing the world. A young person can only attend their college being taught by their teachers so that they will not be exposed to ideas and arguments that would call their own new beliefs into question. Or to be exposed to lifestyles that would be considered seductive or destructive "negative".

The real tragedy, and what I would be concerned about for a friend is the ways in which the organization and belief system she has joined exercises power over her decisions. And if she is making decisions which shut out her ability to be part of the world in general and have access into the world if and when she chooses to exercise it.

It is especially sad when a teen enters a cult and spends his or her twenties under that influence. All of the people she would meet as a potential spouse and all of what she learns which might lead to a career are all clipped and trained to suit life in the cult.

This is what I would beware of. Don't worry to much about what she believes right now, just make sure that she doesn't close down the possibilities of another kind of life "outside".

I know people who are in their fifties, having spend their entire adult lives in a cult, being educated by and working in the cult exclusively, having raised their children in it and now neither generation can fully enter the "regular" world even if they wished to.

I do know people with Ammaji and she is a pretty positive figure. There is such a huge world of beliefs and practices that go along with her type of system; one can devote a decade or two to learning it. But what she is known for is the "hugging". I've seen people stand in line all day, literally the entire day into the night to get a hug from her. Her followers seem to be people who need lots of love and so the organization around her does a lot of "love bombing". In the Hindu world that is called "darshan". That's what Ammaji gives her followers - darshan - and they have some kind of spiritual experience; make an unbreakable connection to the guru.


So, I would suggest that when you see your friend you give her lots of love; hopefully genuine love; what you really feel for her as your friend. And let her tell you as much as you can listen to about what she is learning and experiencing. Beware of when all of her decisions in life are made to serve the "cult". Help her see it otherwise. Especially when it means closing off her personal life to only people in the Ammaji circle and when all decisions about occupation and education are absorbed by the organization itself.

Good Luck.
posted by ofelia at 3:05 PM on September 28, 2009 [16 favorites]


Cultwatch from dfriedman's link appears to consider the Mormons and the JWs to be cultists. Just FYI.

I don't know much about the JWs, but Mormons practice secret rites and de facto require money for participation, so it's not way out there to refer to them as a cult (no matter how many adherents they have). "Is Mormonism definitely a cult?" is a topic for another thread, but you needn't discount a cult resource because its definition includes the LDS Church.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:24 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sounds like a cult to me, and I like box's rule of thumb above. But another red flag would be money. The more she's spending on donations, training materials or other paraphernalia, the more worried I would be.
posted by pete_22 at 3:27 PM on September 28, 2009


I actually just threw up a link related to this the other day. If J Mascis is cool with it, I don't think you have much at all to worry about.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:44 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


like The Light Fantastic, i was fortunate enough to meet and hug Amma. it was a positive experience for me too, and definitely the best hug i've ever had.

i was "on guard" when i went to see Amma. i was in San Francisco (on holiday, alone) and drove out to San Ramon to a ranch. when i got there, i was asked to park in the main parking lot and carpool with some people to where Amma would be. i ended up meeting Margaret, one of the sweetest people i've ever encountered. she drove me up to the main building. i asked her lots of questions because this was my first time seeing Amma, and she seemed like an old pro. she told me that she had met Amma 10 years ago and followed her for a year, volunteering and just enjoying the experience. then she went back home to San Francisco, and now goes to see Amma whenever she's in California, if she (Margaret) can.

i met a lot of similar people that day. i arrived early (wanted to make sure i'd get my hug!) and chatted with the people volunteering at the event and people who had met Amma before. not once did i think it was a cult. even though i was alone and i was being somewhat cautious, i didn't get the sense that there was anything to be afraid of. from what i could tell, Amma's 'team' or her followers were just people who loved Amma and wanted to help however they could.

the main difference between Amma and her followers and a cult is, in my opinion, that Amma doesn't 'recruit' people or force anything on anyone. she's not trying to convince you that she's all-powerful. if anything, she's trying to show you how powerful you are (or can be).

plus, she gives everyone she hugs a Hershey's Kiss - not exactly propaganda. ;)
posted by gursky at 3:45 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


People with gurus (especially westerners) are simply people looking for a good brainwashing. If it wasn't Amma, it would be Rev. Flipperhands and his Church of Goody-Goodies.

Most Hindus don't need a guru. For some reason, Westerners come to India and find someone to be their guru. Not a translator; straight up guru.

That being said, let her do whatever she wants, just make sure she sends you regular emails and you keep in touch with her. If Amma robs her of all her money, then loan her some money when she returns.

There really isn't much you can do outside of that because she's an adult. So whether she's in a cult or not isn't really important. You're better off being supportive, I think, then having her withdraw because you're telling her she joined a cult.
posted by anniecat at 4:05 PM on September 28, 2009


A couple of aspects of her beliefs make me uncomfortable, specifically the rejection of anything from her previous life that she now associates with "negativity" (which includes downbeat films, noisy music, and some types of intellectualism or criticism for want of a better way of putting it),

Just anecdotally, but I think one of the best things I ever did in my life was decide not to engage in a lot of the negativity of popular culture. There is just so much cynicism, nihilism, anti-intellectualism, meanness, etc, etc, in pop culture. In my 20s or thereabouts I decided that I just would rather not put that crap into my brain. So, IMO, this tidbit about your friend's choice makes me think that, guru issues aside, she's all right. (Note that this doesn't mean I'm a Pollyanna; I know Bad Shit Happens, and I can face it and deal with it; but I'd rather give it the credit it's due and not any more than that.)
posted by Sublimity at 4:33 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


A couple of aspects of her beliefs make me uncomfortable, specifically the rejection of anything from her previous life that she now associates with "negativity" (which includes downbeat films, noisy music, and some types of intellectualism or criticism for want of a better way of putting it)

I think that avoiding films and music that you think are "negative" is perhaps reasonable self-care.

I think that rejecting science and/or logic and/or evidence-based medicine because you think they're "negative" are probably dangerous choices.

Without more information, it's hard to say whether being part of this group is encouraging her to make dangerous choices or good choices or some of each (or if she'd be making the same choices regardless).

I think Steve Hassan's checklist (linked above) is really the key set of questions to be asking.

Cultwatch from dfriedman's link appears to consider the Mormons and the JWs to be cultists. Just FYI.

I know many kind, friendly, smart, trustworthy people who are followers of both of those religions. However, there are some aspects of behavior by the hierarchies of each that are resonant with some of the issues of concern around cults--I'm thinking, for instance, of the Witnesses' "disfellowshipping" tradition. And I would say the same of some other groups within (my own) Christian tradition. A belief in Jesus does not in and of itself make a group's behavior non-cultish.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:55 PM on September 28, 2009


They believe her to be a full-blown avatar, a la Krishna. Ok great, but why don't they come out and say that to the uninitiated? Seems to me if you felt she was an all powerful, physical incarnation of god, then you'd be fucking tell everyone that.

Every religion references God as being within.

Probably the reason why no one out and out says that is because it elicits thoughtless responses similar to yours. Religion is always spoken in the language of metaphor and if you don't take the time to try and understand, then you'll just write it off as a cult.

Also, even people of great faith doubt. The name that can be named is not the name. People don't out and say that Amma is a physical incarnation of God because they themselves aren't even sure, and if they are sure, then they are probably mistaken.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 5:25 PM on September 28, 2009


This is a tough thing to call. I would make a chart (because I'm a professional nerd) that rates the group on cultish behaviors like:

Severing emotional ties
Demanding tithing
Sleep deprivation (mind control)
Abuse (any kind)
Isolation
Strict hierarchical structure
Behavior control

I'd then go through and rank what I knew. It doesn't matter though since it isn't up to you and if you mention it's a cult, she will probably just double down on the denial. You can make sure she knows you think it's dodgy and if she needs help she can call you.
posted by chairface at 7:04 PM on September 28, 2009


I have several friends who are devotees of Amma. They don't give Amma all their money. They don't follow Amma around the world. They simply see her when she comes to visit locally twice a year. They clear their calendars for a week each time, and they go to the ashram and hang out all day and receive darshan. Amma even married a couple of them.

Just because it's not something you understand, it doesn't make it wrong. Your friend is happy. It's not harming her. Let her be.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:50 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Note: Betty needs a hug.
posted by flabdablet at 7:53 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


There is a great book about cults by Margaret Singer called "Cults in our midst." I'd recommend reading it before taking action, but please, don't let your friend be taken in by a cult.
posted by fuq at 9:06 PM on September 28, 2009


Every religion references God as being within.

Probably the reason why no one out and out says that is because it elicits thoughtless responses similar to yours. Religion is always spoken in the language of metaphor and if you don't take the time to try and understand, then you'll just write it off as a cult.


They are not talking about a vague god within. They are claiming that another human being can read their thoughts and is all powerful. Sorry if my reaction to that seems thoughtless to you, but I have had a lot of direct interaction with that organization and there is something weird going on.
posted by cuban link flooded jesus at 9:21 PM on September 28, 2009


How much time does Amma require of her followers?

How much money does Amma require of her followers?

How much choice does Amma allow her followers?

And do the followers receive any tangible benefits from the above?

Values along these axes can be used to measure any church, really. The Mormons require members to tithe, for example, but the LDS church also maintains stockpiles of food and other goods in case of disasters. elsietheeel suggests that Amma isn't into the culty stuff; when she starts building her fleet of Rolls-Royces and requires her followers to move out to the middle of nowhere, then you might have some cause to worry.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:51 AM on September 29, 2009


My knowledge of Amma is limited to a documentary I saw (Louis Theroux?), but he was definitely treated as something above human, and I got the distinct impression that he didn't really believe his own schtick. So, at the very least, I found him to be a con artist.
posted by cmoj at 9:28 AM on September 29, 2009


My knowledge of Amma is limited to a documentary I saw (Louis Theroux?), but he was definitely treated as something above human, and I got the distinct impression that he didn't really believe his own schtick. So, at the very least, I found him to be a con artist.

Amma's a she.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:44 AM on September 29, 2009


Oh. Then, I'm thinking of someone else entirely.
posted by cmoj at 3:01 PM on September 29, 2009


johngoren Speaking as someone who wrote a book about a cult: There are many shades of gray before you get to Scientology.

And lots of darker shades past them, too. I find it a little irritating that Anonymous's War on Scientology seems to have given Scientology the rep of "the worst cult". No. They're not even as controlling of their followers' lives as some of the Christian separatists, they don't stockpile Sarin gas as far as we know, and they certainly don't kidnap, rape and sacrifice "unbelievers".

The religion/cult of the "hugging saint", on the other hand, seems to me to be considerably less harmful to a person's psyche than would be the same sort of intensity of belief in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. At worst, it's silly. At best, it's making people genuinely happier. It doesn't seem to demand a whole lot of money or time, and in any case India is a cheap place to visit, for a Westerner.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:21 PM on September 29, 2009


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