Cults, Sects and the New Age
My personal explorations into alternative spiritual belief and practice.
In this section I describe a period of my life where I quite systematically set about learning the unconventional aspects of religion and spirituality. I did this by spending time visiting and learning about the land of cults, sects and the new age. I would read up about them, then visit their centres of worship and activity; thereby getting to know firsthand what they believed and what they thought. This experience I gained learning about new religions and fringe sects would later help to give me a better understanding of the meaning of religion. A list of the different organizations I researched would be quite long and includes cults such as the Brahma Kumaris, Scientology, Soka Gakkai, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Sahaja Yoga, the Alpha course, ISKCON and Osho; among many other such organizations that I briefly passed through or else spent a significant amount of time exploring. What follows is an account of what I learned about a selection of some of the sects and cults that I spent time studying.
the international society for Krishna consciousness
My first exposure to the world of cults was probably when I was a student studying in London. I used to like to visit the London headquarters of the Hare Krishna cult or ISKCON, the international society for Krishna consciousness, as it is more formally known. On a Sunday afternoon if I was in the vicinity I would go down occasionally to the Soho temple which is located just off Oxford st and near to Centre point in London's West end. At this point in my life I didn't have much of an interest in any religion, I was around 20 years old and my mind was quite firmly fixed on temporal and earthly pursuits. I did find some amusement in the act of observing strict religious people, but the main reason I went to the temple was that they served free Indian food which I quite liked. As a student I never managed my finances very well so this free input into my diet served to supplement my resources. I remember listening to the talks which were always a feature before the food was served and thinking what a load of nonsense it all was.
Later on in my life I became intensely interested in religion and I found myself once again visiting the Hare Krishna Soho temple. It was around the year 2000 and I had since developed quite a love for the Indian holy text called the Bhagavad Gita. So it was great to hang out in a place where passages from this book would be read out and also chanted in sanskrit. Also I found more meaning in the talks than I had done a decade earlier as a hungry student. The talks were either about passages from the Bhagavad Gita or else they were about the adventures of Godman Krishna and also the life of the Chiatanya Mahaprahbu who is like a saint of ISKCON. Other than the talks and food I really enjoyed the singing and dancing. I recall how the pace of the music would gradually speed up, which starting slowly at first would ultimately reach a crescendo of quite an exciting pace. This had the effect of lifting the spirits and generating a feeling of alertness and also well being. This was a time in my life when I felt lonely and isolated. I had few friends and my sense of alienation was compounded by my intense obsession with religion. So being with seemingly like minded people was reassuring and comforting.
However my feeling of connection was shattered one day when during a questions and answers session with one of the more senior Krishna devotees, I discovered that the Hare Krishna cult rejected the idea that everyone was God. I was completely shocked. I thought how could an organization which had the Bhagavad Gita as its premiere source of truth not accept the essential unity between Brahman(God) and atman(self). I found myself getting into debates with the cult members over this matter but of course if my intention was to change opinion then this was futile. However it was not a total waste of time because the exchanging of views can often sharpen the mind and help to better define our own beliefs. I recall one heated debate that I had with two of the devotees in the downstairs kitchen which was part of the restaurant immediately below the temple. It got really silly, with one of the devotees grabbing my Sony walkman music player and saying 'Ok, if you're God then I can have your walkman can't I?'. It was much harder and less rewarding to communicate the truth to people who thought that they already knew the truth but knew only a fallacy, than it was to relate the truth to an agnostic or atheist say, who didn't really know one way or the other.
Later I would learn how certain key passages of the Bhagavad Gita concerning the relationship between a person and God, had been mistranslated and it's meaning therefore altered. Furthermore, through studying the history of the sect and learning more about the evolution of religion in India; I discovered that the Hare Krishna sect are themselves an offshoot of a wider revisionist reform movement that emerged in medieval India called 'bhakti'. Essentially bhakti is hindu fundamentalism and it rejected the classical hindu notion that the self(atman) and God(Brahman) are one and the same. The ideas of bhakti were later brought over to the West during the sixties by the founder of ISKCON, one Bhaktivendanta Prabhupada. This was the time of the hippy counter culture when the use of psychedelic drugs opened up a lot of people to the quest for the transcendent. Initially the organization grew quite quickly and soon the sight of orange clad shaving Hare Krishna devotees, chanting in the streets and selling books on street corners, became a common sight in most cities of the developed world. It seems that these days the cult is in a state of decline. They still do a lot of good work such as feeding the homeless and the odd hungry student too, but the food is really a hook to try to get people to join the cult. Looking back on things now all I can really say about the Hare Krishna movement is nice food, lovely chanting but shame about the metaphysics.
The Alpha Course
Alternatives at St James' Church Piccadilly. The New Age in London.
Alternatives is a New Age organization based in st James Church, Piccadilly, London. Here they have their office and is also the main venue for regular Monday evening talks held throughout most of the year. Also they organize a quite extensive programme of New Age workshops which take place at various locations in the Central London area. Just about any and every Writer, Thinker, Personality or Spokes person with any sort of connection to the International New Age scene has spoken at St James church at an evening organized by Alternatives. This would include people such as Deepak Chopra, James Redfield, Donald Neale Walsch, Ram Dass and Fritjof Capra, to name but a few of the many hundreds of speakers who have appeared at Alternatives over the 20 years or so since its founding. As such the Alternatives organization and the people involved provides a comprehensive window into the contemporary phenomenon collectively referred to as the New Age.
Over the years quite by chance or rather through a series of uncanny synchronicities, I would find myself involved with the Alternatives organization in various ways. Initially back in the early 90s I first became aware of Alternatives because I happened to be friends with the Son of one of its founders William Bloom, himself a well known New Age figure at least in the UK. At this stage I would come to the talks on a semi-regular basis for a couple of years or so. After which I would have nothing to do with Alternatives for about 6 years or so. This would change.
In early 2002 as I was starting to do public speaking, in order to communicate my ideas. About this time I also happened to be a friend of one of the volunteer team members of Alternatives who was involved in helping at the talks and workshops. So figuring it would be a good idea to see as much of other people doing public speaking as I could, I decided to also become a volunteer. This involved turning up most Monday nights to hear the different speakers and giving a hand at the workshops now and then. I did this for about a year and a half, after which I left because I started to see a rather dark side to the New Age as represented by the Alternatives Organization. But funnily enough nearly exactly a year after leaving Alternatives to the day, I would once again find myself in close contact with them almost on a daily basis.
I happened to have an associate who worked for St James church, where Alternatives are based. My friend was someone quite unconnected with Alternatives and only worked for the church. He was also somebody that I had met completely randomly at a party several years previously. It was April 2004. He telephoned me one day telling me there was a vacancy going at the church for the position of one of the church Vergers. At first I hesitated because of negative feelings that I had for the Alternatives organization but at the same time there was a feeling that this was what the Universe wanted me to do. When I got the phone call I was sitting in a public library wondering what to do next in life, so the timing was spooky. Anyway the work seemed diverse and interesting, also the pay wasn't bad, so I decided to apply for the job and got it. This put me in direct contact with Alternatives on a pretty much daily basis. It was in this position that I was really able to learn and assess the true nature of the Alternatives organization. Also in general I was able to discover the meaning of the New Age or New Spirituality in the wider context.
Looking back on things, I can see what a perfect set up it has all been. It is as if the Universe needed me to be put into close contact with the New Age as represented by the Alternatives Organization, in order that I should learn and form impressions. It is uncanny how 3 totally random meetings at various random parties and gatherings should introduce me to 3 different friends, who were perfectly and stategically placed to guide me into the land of New Age at well specified and appropriate times in my life. I see in this the hand of providence at work, guiding my destiny through the mysterious process of synchronicity.
My involvement with Alternatives and the New Age has been quite extensive and I've ended up writing so much that it deserves a section and web page of its own. To follow my journey into the land of New Age and learn about my discoveries and conclusions, follow the link Alternatives and the New Age
The international psychedelic trance scene