Monday night with the divine mother

Evening Standard - London/July 18, 2001

Word has got round that a journalist is asking questions outside Holland Park Comprehensive, where Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi will shortly be addressing her Sahaja Yoga devotees. A smart young man approaches me purposefully. "Do please come inside and listen," he says pleasantly. "Feel free to talk to whomever you want."

Access to all areas is not the sort of invite one expects from a group that was last week described as a dangerous cult, has a dissident website created by former members listing alleged abuses and about which the respected Cult Information Centre says it has been handling enquiries for 20 years from parents who claim their children have become lost to them.

Either their openness is a PR charm offensive, or they genuinely have nothing to hide. The allegations against the Sahaja Yoga organisation are typical of those levelled against alleged cults. Ex-members claim the Sahaja Yoga has extensive assets and makes a profit of between $2.3 million and $5.5 million per year.

Sahaja Yoga leaders deny this, pointing out that their group is a recognised religion in both the US and Russia, that all members are free to come and go as they please. They admit that members are asked for voluntary contributions to events and projects, but that the money does not go to Shri Mataji personally.

Gregoire, a Swiss diplomat who has been a member for 25 years, said: "All the organisation owns is a few properties in various countries. If we were into making money, that would be a pretty feeble return."

Members are encouraged to meditate in front of a picture of Shri Mataji and are told that self-realisation will enable them to diagnose illnesses in themselves and others. Most remain in their jobs, though a few move to an ashram. Shri Mataji is a squat 78-year- old Indian granny married to an Indian diplomat, but to the tens of thousands of followers of Sahaja Yoga around the world, she is the divine mother figure. Through her, they experience en masse the transformation to self-realisation and become one with the whole cosmos.

Their leaders don't deny they are looking for new members - it is inherent within the philosophy to spread the word. To this end, they hire the Albert Hall each year and hold an open session. Given that one of the key definitions of a cult is the rigour with which it strives to recruit new members, I went along to see how they would try to get me on board.

Derek Lee, Sahaja Yoga's UK co-ordina-tor, estimates there were 3,500 people at the Albert Hall, of whom about 3,000 were new faces. "We've got roughly 500 members in this country," he says. There were a few well-heeled Asian families in the audience, but most were nondescript middle-England. The proceedings started with some Indian music to get us into a contemplative mood prior to the divine mother figure's arrival. Then Derek Lee explained the theory of Shri Mataji's "Subtle System," involving seven chakras and three channels.

Other yogis might have given enlightenment to one or two people, he concluded, but Shri Mataji was the only person who had given it to "hundreds of thousands." There then followed 30 minutes of devotional songs.

A short testimonial from an Indian businessman heralded the great woman's arrival. She was presented with garlands as she sat down on a red dais, then at last she spoke. For all her vaunted compassion, she seemed tired and grumpy. She rattled on about Transformation and how all races were equal, which would have sounded more convincing if I hadn't already read what she had said about the greed of the Jews exterminated by Hitler. Several people walked out.

Then it was time for self-realisation. "Put your hands out in front of your face, pointing towards me," she said. "Now close your eyes. Put your left hand above the fontanelle on your head. Can you feel a cool or warm breeze rising from your head. Put both hands in the air if you can."

About 90 per cent of the audience thrust both hands in the air. According to Shri Mataji, what had happened to these people was that their kun-dalini levels had risen into the seventh chakra and they were capable of being saved. I experienced nothing.

For Sahaja Yoga followers, this was the divine experience - the moment of bliss - for which they had come, and the evening rapidly wound to a close. Fifty or so people queued to offer Shri Mataji flowers, while the singers stretched their vocal chords again, but the thousands of other people in the hall slipped off into the night.

So where was the aggressive recruitment squeeze? The only hints of pressure were the listings of weekly London meetings in the programme and an overhead sign saying that Shri Mataji would be appearing at Holland Park on Monday. As sales tactics go, I've had more trouble getting rid of a double- glazing salesman.

Monday night's meeting - which was attended by about 1,500 people - followed a similar pattern, except the mood was less formal. Shri Mataji even cracked a few jokes in a question-and-answer session. She again delivered mass self-realisation and I again experienced nothing. The only controversial moment arose when she claimed that Sahaja Yoga could cure psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

None of the newcomers I spoke to seemed remotely bothered by the possibility of Sahaja Yoga being a cult. "I've tried a number of religions without being hooked," said Fay, a poet. "I've come tonight because I was one of the few on Saturday who appeared to experience nothing. I want to find out what all the fuss is about."

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