New-age gurus and cults

Have you ever been in a cult? So much so that you have never realised that it is a cult? It gives you an amazing feeling to be in the presence of “like-minded” people and a charismatic “guru”. I have been through one, albeit for only a short period of a few weeks.

I attended the Youth Empowerment Skills program of the Art of Living while I was in NUS. This was organised in collaboration with the NUS Hindu Society, of which I was the Vice President at that time. So naturally, I was not averse to trying it out, as it was also provided at a discounted price. We did surya namaskars, pranayama exercises and various other games and activities. The program was a success and I came out of it thinking that I made some new friends with whom I really enjoyed spending time.

We decided to keep in touch even after the 5-day program was completed and so we met every Wednesday evenings to continue doing our pranayama sadhana. During my first Wednesday meeting, the leader of the group announced very enthusiastically that “His Holiness” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar will be coming to Singapore for an event he will be hosting. I witnessed at first hand how happy and excited everybody there was to hear this news and the energy in that room at that moment was unbelievable.

The leader then started talking about ticket prices to attend that event and to see Sri Sri. It was at that moment I realised what I had previously noticed before and had not even given a second thought about. Thank God for my skeptical mind, I came out of it as soon as I realised that the people I have befriended were more enamoured by the teacher rather than the teaching. Even today I wonder why it was initially very attractive to me. The moment they started talking about donations and more money towards attending an event just to get a glimpse of their “Swamiji”, it was enough to open my eyes.

I am a happy person. I am naturally in-built to see the positive side of things all the time. I have accepted this as the truth in my life. Oh vey! Even my blood group is B+! So I imagine if the cult had this much effect on me, then what would happen to people who are in a sad and depressed state and are finding for an avenue to search some answers? How much they will be easily manipulated by such cults?

I call these groups like the Art of Living, Nityananda Sangha, and Isha Foundation as cults, because that is what they are! Just take a look at the characteristics of a cult:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and his/her beliefs and system are taken to be the Truth. (Every time they said something about Sri Sri’s method of pranayama, they used many reasons to justify it. Not only that. Each and every sentence was in praise of Sri Sri.) 
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even looked down upon. (The general tone in the room was of total contentment and agreement to whatever the youth leader was saying. None of them raised any questions against Sri Sri, although other questions were easily welcomed.)
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). (This is very true and it is seen happening in many of the cult-like groups I mentioned above. The devotee believes that he/she is well-taken care of by the cult leader through practising these meditation/chanting techniques, while at the same time paying loads of money to the organisation.)
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, to marry or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth). (We see this happening too, in the Nithyananda Sangha amongst their permanent residents of their Adeenam. Their livelihood is dictated by the rules set in the ashram, but they fail to see that they are just part of a large corporate structure, which is money-hungry.)
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members. (Nithyananda considers himself the Avatar of Super-Consciousness. What else is there to say?)
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. (The moment you join a cult disguised as a self-help group or a religious organisation, your family and friends may not like and may even discourage you from continuing in it. The cult instils this feeling of you versus your family/friends, and isolates you from your close circle. This way, it will be easier for them to manipulate you.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members and making more money. (This is self-explanatory.)
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group. (The so-called “withdrawal symptom” I felt when I decided to get out of AOL and sever connections with AOL members was a sense of “emptiness”. The daunting feeling of “what’s next”. I am sure this feeling will be more intense the longer you stay within a cult.)

I have come to abhor these religious organisations that are centered on a “guru”, who seemingly has no solid and proven sampradaya (or unbroken line of student-teacher tradition) to back them up. Although the teacher may be well-meaning, what is then the need for widespread marketing campaigns, over-priced meditation programs, and solicitation of celebrities and other VIPs into the organisation?

There are many appeasers and apologetics among the so-called “devotees” of these new-age gurus. One has to scrutinise every single detail before concluding the truth. Instead, excuses are often made solely on the basis of a blind faith and trust held on the “guru” personality.

Take “His Holiness Swami Paramahamsa” Nithyananda as an example. It is very important to note that the court proceedings against Nithyananda have not been quashed, as claimed by many of his followers. It has never been resolved yet because on 6 February 2017, the Supreme Court of India stayed the start of the trial proceedings noting that “a number of significant documents favouring Swami Nithyananda had been wantonly suppressed by the investigating authorities and that proceeding with the trial without these critical evidences would be unjust.” This most likely means that the evidence has been somehow mysteriously tampered with and most probably lost forever. Although Nithyananda’s followers are ecstatic about this news, we rational-minded Hindus should be well-aware that justice has only been delayed but not yet delivered. Truth will prevail at the end.

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Are new age gurus causing more harm than good? Are we too satisfied that they are involved in philanthropic activities, that we are willing to close one eye even if a small detail about their largely hidden scandal is exposed to the world? Are we questioning the authority by which a guru can claim himself to be a living avatara (or incarnation) of God, other than his own experiences that he has written about on his website? Are we even taking efforts to check and authenticate the stories concocted by these so-called “gurus”, before we take greater efforts in getting enrolled into one of their 10,000-dollar programs?

Let me give you an exercise. Compare the following two religious organisations using the information provided in their websites. Using your God-given discriminating capabilities, are you able to authenticate which of the two is belonging to an established sampradaya? Are you able to tell which of the two has a genuine interest in the betterment of yourself? Are you able to see for yourself, which of the two is money-minded?  Are you able to identify which of the two is guru-centric instead of being knowledge-centric?

Website 1: http://www.nithyananda.org

Website 2: https://arshavidya.org

Paris Trip – The Louvre Museum

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Paris is indeed a very beautiful city that I had the privilege of visiting with my family. There is simply so much history to soak from its well-maintained historical structures, buildings, tours, sculptures and art. No wonder it is a home to the world’s largest and most important museum; The Louvre.

Initially the Louvre was a fortress constructed in 1190 in order to secure Paris, the capital of the kingdom of France, under the initiative of Philip Augustus. In 1528, when King Francis I decided to take residence in the Louvre, it gained the grandness of a palace and housed many of King Francis I’s art collections. The fortress-turned-palace was added on more and more by the subsequent Kings who resided in the Louvre, till today we see a huge square ground in the centre of the renaissance structure. During the late 18th century, under the reign of Louis XVI (who was the last monarch of France), the palace was turned into a museum. All the great art collections in the palace were displayed for public viewing in 1793. Throughout the years, many paintings, sculptures and decorative art items were added in the museum for display. Today, the museum has over 380,000 collections, but only displays about 35,000 pieces (including replicas, retouched works and even some incomplete paintings).

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The arts displayed in the museum are separated according to several classifications such as Near Eastern Antiquities, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Islamic Art, Sculptures, Decorative Arts, Paintings, and Prints and Drawings. It should take about 2 full days to see all the museum displays, if you are fast enough. I spent about 6 hours in the museum and so I missed an entire floor of French paintings. So here I am sharing with you the particular paintings and sculptures I found interesting and delighted to have seen at the Louvre.

We started from the Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, which was one of the first departments started by the Louvre Museum management. Some of the sculptures and antiquities were inspired from the time period ranging from 3000 BC to 480 BC and it was really amazing!

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Venus de Milo – This glorious Greek statue is believed to be from the period 130 – 100 BC, depicting Aphrodite, the Goddess of love and beauty, or Venus. Since the statue was discovered in a Greek island called Milos, it was thus named. The arms of the statue were lost and never recovered subsequently. This statue was so well-cherished that it was actually taken in hiding during the World War II, along with other statues and art works!

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Muse de la Tragedie – In Greek mythology, there are nine muses, who are inspirational goddesses of literature, science and the arts. The above statue depicts the Muse of Tragedy. She is always depicted holding a tragic mask in one of her hands. The Muse of Tragedy is the daughter of the Greek God Zeus, and is often invoked so that one might create beautiful lyrical phrases.

Here is another statue of Aphrodite or Venus from the 2nd century AD.

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Héraclès (Hercule) portant son fils Télèphe – Hercules carrying his son Telephus. This statue is a  Roman copy of the original statue that was sculpted back in 4th century BC. Telephus is the son of Heracles and Auge. Telephus, separated from his mother who was sold as a slave, was abandoned in the mountains and nourished by a doe (as seen). He was later found by Hercules.

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Arès – This statue preserves perhaps the memory of an original work in bronze, now lost, from the end of the 5th century BC. Ares is the Greek God of War (Roman God equivalent to Mars). He is the son of Zeus and Hera, and represents the physical or violent and untamed aspect of war. He is very well-known for his affair with Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. So it is true that opposites attract! 🙂

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Sleeping Hermaphrodites – This work is a Roman copy that was probably inspired by a Greek original of the 2nd century BC. The sculpture was dug out in 1608 and the mattress was sculpted in the early 17th century by another artist. Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, had rejected the advances of the nymph Salmacis. Unable to resign herself to this rejection, Salmacis persuaded Zeus to merge their two bodies forever, hence the strange union producing one bi-sexed being with male sexual organs and the voluptuous curves of a woman.

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Ergastines Plate – This fragment of the ancient Greek sculpture was taken from the frieze of the Parthenon, built between 447 and 432 BC to glorify Athens and its divine protector, Athena. It depicts six Ergastines (“female workers” in Greek), responsible for weaving the golden tunic offered by the Athenians to their patron goddess, greeted by two priests during a harmonious procession.  The entire frieze depicts some 360 figures taking part in the festival known as the Great Panathenaea. 

Now, moving on to the paintings…

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Parnassus – This is a painting by the Italian artist called Andrea Mantegna, executed in 1497. The painting is named as such because this scene is depicted to be set on Mount Parnassus. The two Gods shown standing over the arch are none other than Mars (Ares) and Venus (Aphrodite) and behind them we see a bed, which symbolises their illicit affair. There are so many hidden meanings in this painting. For example, the plant behind Mars and Venus has borne lots of fruits on the Mar’s side (indicating many sperms versus one egg), while only few fruits are borne on the Venus’s side.
Venus and Mars are accompanied by the heavenly love God, Anteros, who is aiming an arrow against Vulcan (center left), who is the husband of Venus. The Roman myth of the famous forbidden love affair between the God of War and the Goddess of Love is very well-known. In the myth, Vulcan humiliates them in front of all the Gods on Mount Olympus. On the bottom left of the painting, we see Apollo playing the lyre, a string musical instrument. The nine Muses are dancing to the music played by Apollo. On the right, we see the divine Pegasus, together with Mercury, a famous Roman God for financial gain, commerce and eloquence. 

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The Virgin and Child with St Anne – This is an oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci depicting St Anne, with her daughter the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. Christ is shown to to grappling with the lamb, while the mother Mary is trying to restrain him. Davinci depicts Mary as being seated on her mother’s lap, showing the close bond that the mother and daughter share. I love this painting of all the other Davinci’s works because it looks very pleasing and calm. I have a feeling that the painting wasn’t completed, because I cannot make sense of the background of this painting. Any thoughts? 🙂

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La Belle Ferronière (Daughter or wife of the Ironmonger) –  This is another work by Leonardo da Vinci. Until today, nobody has been able to correctly identify the female in this portrait. Many names have been named. But it could refer to the lady who was the wife of Le Ferron, mistress of Francis I and therefore, called La Belle Ferronière.
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The Mona Lisa –  The most famous painting of Leonardo da Vinci of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. But Davinci did not deliver the painting to the person who commissioned it. Instead he brought it to France and it remained as part of Francis I’s collections after Davinci’s death. The delicate dark veil that covers Mona Lisa’s hair is sometimes considered a mourning veil, and could have been worn as a result of her daughter’s recent demise. I read that nobody else before Davinci had done portrait paintings in this manner, covering only half the length of the figure, in a seated position. So this was a new of painting at that time that Davinci introduced. Mona Lisa’s smile and the background of this portrait are some of the reasons why this portrait is very famous.

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Madonna of the Rocks – The painting is done by Leonardo da Vinci, somewhere around 1483-86. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary together with the Child Jesus and the Infant John the Baptist, accompanied by an Angel, Gabriel or Uriel. This painting is about the adoration of the Child Jesus by the Infant John the Baptist. The subject of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child being adored by John the Baptist was common in the art of Renaissance Florence, that many Italian painters he been known to have presented similar representations of Virgin Mary with Christ and John the Baptist.

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The Sleep of the Child Jesus – The Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus are accompanied by the three musical angels. This painting is by Bernardino Luini, one of the painters who have worked with Leonardo da Vinci himself. He has attributed many of his works to Leonardo himself, and he was quite skillful in drawing gentle female figures. This painting invokes such calmness in anyone viewing it. It’s a beautiful painting, with soft brush tones and colours used. The veils draped around Baby Jesus is so softly drawn, there are no words to describe the talent of the artist.

Most of the Italian paintings we viewed were mostly about Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

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The Wedding Feast at Cana – Mother Mary and Jesus are seated at the center, surrounded by a swarm of 130 people. This painting by Paolo Veronese depicts the miraculous event of the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. Jesus miraculously transforms water into wine when suddenly wine has ran out at the wedding feast. The artist has drawn himself in this painting as one of the four Venetian musicians in the front, clothed in white. There are simply too many details in this painting, it’s just amazing!

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Joséphine de Beauharnais – The first wife of Napoleon I (who is six years younger than her), and thus the first Empress of the French. Josephine was certainly a bold woman who had affairs with various political figures. She made a lasting impact on Napoleon Bonaparte and hence he proposed marriage to her just a few months after meeting her. She had two children from her previous marriage, so obviously Napoleon’s family was not happy with his choice for a bride. True enough, she went ahead to have many affairs of her own even after her marriage with Napoleon I, while he was at war. Having heard the news of his wife’s affairs, Napoleon I’s love for his wife diminished entirely, and soon enough he too started having affairs with women in the countries he travelled. What a love-torn marriage!  
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Coronation of Napoleon I in Notre-Dame – Jacques Louis David was appointed as the First Painter to the Emperor in 1804. So it became David’s responsibility to set the coronation of the great Napoleon Bonaparte to memory. But he did not paint the crowning of Napoleon I, but the crowning of the Empress Josephine. The painting canvas is 10 metres wide and 6 metres in length, and depicts 191 figures present during the coronation, including the artist himself. The artist has even drawn Napoleon’s mother , seated among the audience, although she had declined to attend the coronation due to disapproval of Josephine. The coronation is seen to be presided by the Pope Pius VII.

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Intervention of the Sabine Women – After the abduction of the Sabine women by the neighbouring Romans, the Sabines attempted to get them back – David Louis depicts this episode here. The Sabine women are intervening to stop the bloodshed. Hersilia is throwing herself between her husband, the king of Rome, and her father, the king of the Sabines. The artist is using the subject to advocate the reconciliation of the French people after the Revolution.

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The 28th of July 1830, Liberty guiding the people – This painting by Eugene Delacroix depicts the Three Glorious Days, revolutionary days of 1830 led by the people of Paris against Charles to put an end to the Restoration. In the midst of the crowd gathering of people from various social groups, a half-naked woman stands holding a blue-white-red banner (prohibited under the Restoration). She symbolises Liberty and embodies the dream of a victory over despotism. This painting was kept hidden for a long time before being displayed at the Louvre, as it was deemed subversive by the Monarch during the 1830’s. 

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Madame Vigee Lebrun with Daughter Julie – This is a self-portrait of the artist, Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun, and her daughter, Jeanne-Lucie-Louise. She was one of the great 18th Century artists, and women artists in particular. She is well-known amongst the elite women and also well-paid for painting portraits of famous women during the 18th Century. The doomed Marie Antoinette was an early patron who used her influence to get Madame Vigee Le Brun into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783. Mind you, this was the age during which women were not normally allowed admission into art schools. In this painting, Julie clings onto her mother, the artist herself, in a very charming and loving manner. It invokes a lot of pleasant feelings in you, while standing in front of the portrait and admiring it. While the picture taken above appears blurry, the words on the canvas are crystal clear. This gives you an idea of how soft are her painting strokes.

So here we come to an end. There are many more exhibits and these are just a drop in the ocean. I would say, it is not even a drop! I spent a lot of time at the Greek sculptures exhibit and the Italian paintings exhibits. I then rushed through the Islamic Art and Egyptian Antiquities exhibits very quickly, hardly getting any time to observe and appreciate the unique art pieces displayed. Like I said, you need at least 2 full days to truly and thoroughly enjoy the Louvre Museum. Next time, I vow to get the audio guide, and I bet that would be a tremendous learning experience. At the Louvre, I saw many artists and students have come to look at the displays and learn Art and History through the sculptures and paintings.

It was an amazing trip to the Louvre and I am sure I will visit it again if I ever get to travel to Paris again. 🙂

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