Even as religious tensions continue to deepen in India, one of the world’s most controversial and contested religions has quietly grown here over the past two decades.
Nestled in a residential colony of Jangpura, passersby might be confused by a building with red boards reading “dianetics”, “business solutions”, and a larger board reading “scientology.tv”. A small black marble plaque identifies the building as the “Religious Foundation of Scientology” – which might unwittingly confuse the uninitiated even further.
Founded by American science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1950, Scientology has been plagued by allegations of cult behaviour, the abuse of those who seek to quit, tax evasion, extortions, kidnappings, and even forced abortions for its adherents – all of which it has denied. Even today, Australia is pondering a parliamentary inquiry after the Sydney Morning Herald investigated the Church of Scientology’s cross-shore movement of tens of millions of dollars into Australia, where Scientology is tax-exempt.
While Scientology’s status as a religion and its tax-free status is contested globally, in India, the registrar of companies registered the Religious Foundation of Scientology of New Delhi in 2003. It was later granted a “charitable tax-exempt status”.
Given the quiet existence of this organisation in India, this correspondent investigated its existence here over the past two decades.
Way to Happiness Foundation
Since 2003, Scientology Delhi has followed its international game plan and set up a number of related organisations.
One of them is the Way to Happiness Foundation India, an organisation that purports to provide a “common sense guide to better living”. Headquartered in Mehrauli, it’s led by executive director Rohit Sharma, who has been a Scientologist for over a decade.
“Scientology is the world’s fastest growing religion,” Sharma said, though he was quick to add that the Way to Happiness Foundation is non-religious and independent of the Church of Scientology.
The foundation is centred around a book of the same name written by L Ron Hubbard in 1981. “The book does not preach anything,” Sharma said. “It is based on 21 common sense live-a-good-life precepts that help us to live. We already know what is written in it but forget to apply it.”
These precepts include things like “take care of yourself”, “get care when you are ill”, and “do not murder”. While it seems innocuous enough, former Scientologists have alleged that the Way to Happiness Foundation is a front for the Church of Scientology, serving as its PR and recruitment wing. Its objective is to present Hubbard’s ideas as a moral corrective for corrupt societies.
In India, the foundation has concerned itself with conducting seminars and distributing books in schools across the country. In Delhi, participating schools include Amity International School, Bluebells School International, and Delhi Public School.
But it's not just students benefiting from tenets like “don’t be promiscuous” and “set a good example”.
It’s also the Delhi police.
The Delhi police’s special police unit for women and children, or SPUWAC, confirmed to this reporter that Sharma approached them in 2011 to conduct seminars and distribute copies of Hubbard’s The Way to Happiness. This kicked off a series of engagements with the police that continued for years. Sharma held similar seminars and book distributions with the Arunachal Pradesh police and CRPF personnel in Jammu and Kashmir.
But in 2014, this went a step forward. Under the leadership of then deputy police commissioner Suman Nalwa, SPUWAC issued 10,000 copies of a “special edition” of The Way to Happiness, complete with the Delhi police’s insignia on the book. The Delhi police itself took up the task of distributing the book among communities and furthering the implementation of its precepts in the police force.
But why would the Delhi police endorse a book attached to the Church of Scientology? Nalwa, who is now with the police’s special branch, refused to comment for this story. Her video, however, appears on the Church of Scientology website, promoting the book in a video in 2014.
Rohit Sharma said he did a “few courses and occasional sessions” in the past with the Delhi chapter of Scientology. However, in 2015, he was awarded the International Association of Scientologists’ “freedom medal” precisely for his foundation’s work with Indian schools and the Delhi police. He’s even had a photo taken with the most famous Scientologist in the world: Tom Cruise.
But Sharma pushed back when asked about Scientology’s troubled reputation and, by extension, that of his foundation.
“It would be true if this was a fact,” he told this reporter. “It is just paid media propaganda. NGO work is always blacklisted. If you read the book yourself, you will find it is completely benign.”
The Delhi police’s SPUWAC told this reporter that they have not collaborated with the foundation since 2014.
Attending a dianetics seminar
When contacted for an interview, the church’s Delhi chapter initially agreed and invited this reporter to attend a free seminar called “How to increase your mind’s potential”.
The seminar was a primer on dianetics, L Ron Hubbard’s invented system of therapy that forms the religion’s foundation, and aims to make the human mind “clear” of its past traumas.
Apparently, dianetics divides the mind into two categories, analytical and reactive. While the analytical mind solves problems or observes and records information, the reactive mind takes over in moments of trauma and records these moments in a state of “unconsciousness”.
But through several paid sessions of “auditing”, a person can be gradually “cured” of their issues. Auditing is a one-on-one format of therapy in Scientology’s dianetics, through which an auditor assesses and reveals past memories of trauma using a device called an e-metre.
Scientologists in India who spoke to this reporter confirmed that their religion teaches that psychology and psychiatry are inferior sciences that prescribe drugs and pills, while dianetics is superior since it considers people to be spiritual beings, not animals.
It should be noted that dianetics has been rejected by psychologists for being a superficial science; there have even been cases where Scientologists died when they chose not to seek psychiatric help.
My seminar took place on April 6 at Scientology’s main premises in Delhi. There were five attendees, this reporter included. One of them said, “My career and personal life have not been doing well. So, when I received a call from them, I was intrigued.”
The attendee emphasised that they were approached by Scientologists, not the other way around. “I did not approach them. I don’t know how they got my number.”
Was the attendee aware that Scientology is a religion? “I am not aware,” was the response. “I don’t know anything about their background. The seminar was okay okay. They want me to attend a paid auditing session now.”
The multi-story premises opens with a reception displaying a wall stacked with the complete works of Scientology by L Ron Hubbard, who holds the Guinness World Record for the most publications by an author. Then a waiting area with large portraits of Hubbard and an interactive TV set up to learn more about Scientology.
Before our seminar began, the main speaker told me, “We do not speak with journalists. We have our own media.” I was directed to this link in lieu of receiving answers to any questions I might have had, and was told that their courses and workshops are attended by children, teachers and members of the police.
At the seminar, we were told to complete Scientology’s personality test: the Oxford Capacity Analysis (no relation to Oxford University). Following the test, we sat through an hour-long seminar on how dianetics leads to a greater use of the mind. We were then presented with a graph based on our test results in a one-on-one session with a Scientologist.
The graph basically pointed at flaws in our mental health and encouraged that we return.
In India, Scientology does not market itself as a religion even though it has fought for this classification the world over and is exempt from paying taxes here. In India, Scientology refrains from using the word “church” and presents itself as a personal improvement or business solutions organisation. Its paid workshops, seminars and courses offer training on topics like “the art of selling”, “personal efficiency”, “time management”, “how to achieve targets and goals”, and “learning how to learn”.
Even Sharma said he does not consider Scientology to be a religion.
“I am a Hindu Scientologist,” he said. “I only became a better Hindu through Scientology.”
He continued, “Scientology recognises man as an immortal spirit. Even L Ron Hubbard said Scientology would not exist without the Vedas. To that extent, it can be called religious. Just as the Gita says the soul is infinite, so does Scientology, it just uses the word ‘thetan’ instead of spirit. You and I are both thetans.”
But the church has said time and again that it’s a religion. Members of its upper echelons even sign billion-year contracts to tether themselves to the religion, supposedly across lifetimes.
These contracts are not available in India. But that does not mean Indians haven’t been made the offer.
A former senior-ranking Indian Scientologist confirmed to this reporter that they, along with other members from India, were offered this contract abroad.
“I attained the status of ‘clear’ several years back and then I went to Sydney to do my higher levels,” they said, adding that these “higher levels” are not available in India. “I took my children with me once and Scientology offered them billion-year contracts too...That was really a warning sign. My kids were smart and did not sign it.”
The source has since left the church, though they haven't formally been “declared” as a former adherent yet.
But what are these “higher levels”? What is this contract for?
Scientology basically says that if you do a certain number of hours in “auditing”, you reach the level of “clear”. Scientology Delhi charges about Rs 37,000 for 12 hours of auditing, the source said.
Once you’re “clear”, you can be deemed an “operating thetan”, the source said. You’re then presented with the contract to gain access to higher “operating thetan” levels. There are eight levels and you can only clear them if you’re willing to shell out a large amount of money.
“Clearing each ‘operating thetan’ level costs over Rs 30 lakh; it might even be more now,” the source said. “I paid nearly Rs 24 lakh to Scientology in Delhi, Patiala and Sydney over the span of four years.”
And there’s a lot of pressure to pay and qualify for each level, they added. “I started thinking about selling my property to go further. But I have business sense and realised I was no longer thinking straight and needed to break away.”
The source joined Scientology due to a “low point in life”.
“Dianetics helped me understand and process what I was feeling,” they said. “I still stand by and practise dianetics myself; it is the greatest technology on this planet. I consider myself a Scientologist in principle but I no longer associate with the church. I am now associated with Ron’s Org, which practises Hubbard’s original principles independent of the church.”
Ron’s Org is a small group of former Scientologists who believe Scientology has strayed from Hubbard’s original teachings. Describing the church as “toxic”, the source added: “Ron’s Org allows you to be free. You are not answerable to anyone except yourself.”
Smaller scale in India
Scientology now has centres in Kolkata and Patiala as well, and smaller footprints throughout the country. In Delhi itself, the organisation’s followers have developed other smaller institutions which practice its principles too. Study Technologies, for example, is another Hubbard-designed method in Scientology which claims to enable better learning for students. Shikshalaya, a play school in Jangpura itself, claims to make central use of this system to teach children.
This reporter contacted Shikshalaya several times, but their representatives remained unavailable for comment.
In the course of this report, all sources highlighted the distinction of scale between Scientology in India and abroad. However, in the 19 years of its existence in India, and a minimal media scrutiny, Scientology has gradually percolated and touched varied institutions. It has diversified into smaller satellite organisations, and now in the form of small adversarial separatists such as Ron’s Org.
But despite a history of controversy the world over, and a system of principles and methods which experts have debunked, the implications of Scientology’s presence in India remain unexamined.