New Delhi, India - In India, where the most popular psychology books include such titles as "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and "Who Moved My Cheese," there's a new self-help guru in town: Scientology.
Founded in 1954 by United States science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is the religion of Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Isaac Hayes, claiming a worldwide membership of 12 million.
Ironically, however, in a country overcrowded with religions and beliefs, Scientology has taken a different approach: it's being taught as a business tool. With 19 "technologies," each focusing on a different area of life, Scientology courses give advice on business, disaster management, communication, the art of selling, even marriage and family. Scientologists, while not offering a direct explanation of what exactly these technologies entail, claim to have the best how-to manuals you'll ever need.
Branches are called "Churches of Scientology" in the West, but in India the words church and mission are curiously missing. "I don't think Scientology has anything to do with religion," said 25-year-old Meenu Raina who remains true to her Hindu faith. A graduate in environmental sciences, Raina has taken seven of the 19 courses, as she looks for a job in Pune. "Scientology has made me a better person, and while most of us know the rules to a good living, the courses have helped me want to implement those rules in my life."
The rules don't come cheap. A pamphlet received by this reporter offered an introductory seminar and "free" book for Rs 750 (approx. $16). Others have been charged anywhere from Rs 980 (approx. $21) for four hours of training to Rs 12,600 (approx. $270) for Hubbard's lecture packs. Booklets pertaining to each of the 19 technologies have been printed in several Indian languages, and are reportedly "selling like hotcakes."
Australian Scientologist and trainer Marion Whitta, however, says all her seminars are free and the only charge to the participants is the Rs 60 ($1.20 approx.) for the booklet. Raina confirmed that she paid only for the booklets provided.
In the last six years since Scientology came to India, approximately 5,000 Indians have become members, according to estimates. Centers exist in several cities across the country, including the capital New Delhi.
"We are not trying to convert people to Scientology," said 58-year-old Whitta. "We are giving people a technology, teaching them life skills. [Scientology] helps a Hindu be a better Hindu, a Muslim be a better Muslim. We're not, at the end of the course, giving them a certificate saying you are now a Scientologist."
Whitta, who came to India five years ago, started working in Melbourne's Scientology center in 1974, and then moved to Los Angeles, which is home to Scientology's headquarters.
"There are members, specifically people who sign up on a membership, and we do have centers," she explained. "But what I'm doing here is running a tour. We train hundreds, thousands, within a very short span of time. Many of these people then use the technologies. Whether they call themselves Scientologists at the end of it, I don't know."
But while controversy hasn't yet followed Scientology to India, it's well and kicking around the globe. A 1991 article in TIME magazine called Scientology a "thriving cult of greed and power." According the article, "eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, were sent to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations." The church has also been investigated by the Internal Revenue Service.
More recently, in October 2009, a Paris court convicted the Church of Scientology and six of its members of organized fraud and fined it almost $1 million, though stopped short of banning it outright. Unlike the U.S., France regards Scientology as a sect, not a religion. Other countries in Europe remain skeptical of it as well.
As one of the pioneers of Scientology in India, Whitta has led training programs in primary schools and for the Indian police, the Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) around the country. "Part of when we train security forces or the CRPF or police, is that there's an agreement that they will then train their juniors," she said. "If there's any disaster at any particular time- natural or man-made - they go and help."
Indeed, after the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed almost 230,000, Tibetan monks trained by Scientologists in a technology called "Assist" arrived in Nagapattinam in South India to help with rescue and relief efforts. The technology claims to be able to talk people out of focusing on a particular event and helps heal themselves by eradicating pain waves and allowing energy waves to follow.
The knowledge of what Scientology is or any controversy surrounding it is all but unheard of in India. In fact, relief operations by Scientologists here are indistinguishable from those of UNICEF or the Red Cross, and local village hospitals often send patients to their care.
This week, a hundred of Pune's finest - in fire services, police, civil defense, etc. - attended sessions on disaster management jointly led by Whitta's team and the collector's office. "Our disaster management is not the same as the firemen or the police," said Whitta. "We aren't training them how to be a fireman, that's not our skill. We train them in how to handle people so that they can be more effective in disaster situations."
But despite Whitta's confidence in the techniques and a growing audience for the workshops, Indians are beginning to ask questions.
As the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 unfolded, several online groups claimed that Scientologists were on the scene, trying to take advantage of victims. According to CounterKnowledge.com, the British branch of Association for Better Living and Education, which is a Scientology-related non-profit in LA, sent out emails asking members for money to print copies of "The Way to Happiness" and send them to Mumbai. The website asserts that the Volunteer Ministers VMs) "were sent solely to keep people away from trained mental health professionals and to use their own form of mental therapy - dianetics- to console the bereaved."
After the Mumbai attacks, anti-Scientology campaigners asked the Cardinal Archbishop of Mumbai to stop the distribution of these booklets. According to the Telegraph, Damian DeWitt, the pseudonym of one of the anti-Scientology supporters, wrote in a letter: "Many of us Catholic and Christian critics of Scientology's human rights abuses are deeply concerned about Scientology's infiltration of India and its co-opting government, municipal, civic, and religious organizations ... . The VMs routinely deceive the Indian public that they are a secular organization … . In fact, all of its practices are inseparable from the rest of Scientology."
Scientologists in India dismiss these controversies and allegations. "We're just giving people the technology," said Whitta. "Whether they use it or not is their choice."