Shri who must be obeyed

She's been hailed as a saint: a selfless distributor of goodness and light. But, on the eve of her appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi is under attack. Mary Braid and Beatrice Newbery report
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The Independent Online

The posters are appearing again, all over east London. They depict an elderly Indian grandmother, of comfortingly rotund proportions, her forehead stained with the traditional red tikka, her face radiant and serene. She will, we are told, be appearing at the Royal Albert Hall tomorrow night, where spectators will be able to "experience the living power that will change your life".

This cuddly, sari-clad lady is called Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi; now 78, she founded the Sahaja Yoga movement in the early 1970s; she now has tens of thousands of devoted followers across the globe.

Tomorrow, if all goes according to divine plan, Shri Mataji – whose full name means "Venerable Great Mother Immaculate Goddess" – will dispense to thousands, absolutely free, her gift of "self-realisation". Those gathered around her should be able to feel a release of spiritual energy, or Kundalini, that will rise from the base of the spine until it bursts through the fontanelle area at the top of the head. Shri Mataji will then ask if they can feel a cool breeze on their head and "vibrations" on their palms and over their heads. If previous events are anything to go by, most hands will shoot up and the audience will have connected, en masse, with the divine. Thereafter, they will be able to make all the right decisions in life, to know the truth of things, and even to heal themselves of illnesses.

Over the years, countless newcomers have been sufficiently impressed to find out more, joining one of the 44 Sahaja Yoga groups and seven ashrams across Britain. Worldwide, Shri Mataji is estimated to have between 30,000 and 100,000 followers. Official publicity material makes much of her standing in the international community. She is married to "one of India's top diplomats" (Chandrika Prasad Srivastava, who has an honorary British knighthood), comes from an aristocratic family, advised Gandhi on spiritual matters and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize.

But harmless as she looks, and sounds, Shri Mataji has her detractors. Ian Haworth, founder of the Cult Information Centre, has spent the past 20 years dealing with families who believe their children or siblings may have been "lost" to Shri Mataji. Former members who claim to have been "lost" themselves and subsequently "recovered" are becoming increasingly vociferous in their attacks on the organisation. Their message is that Sahaja Yoga is a cult which aims to control the minds of its members.

According to them, followers meditate in front of a photograph of Shri Mataji which they believe emits powerful vibrations. They regard her with both devotion and fear. While most Sahaja Yogis continue with their jobs, their spare time is spent in the worship of Shri Mataji, meditating, performing rituals, mixing with other Sahaja Yogis, recruiting newcomers at public meetings.

Every year, thousands of her devotees travel from all over the world to India or Italy (where she lives), to perform mass pujas, worshipping her with mantras, offering sweetmeats, honey, incense and gifts. Shri Mataji, according to these ex-members, claims to be "Adi Shakti", the Supreme Goddess or Primordial Power – or, more simply, God in the feminine form.

One ex-disciple, Juan, from Switzerland, claims the organisation insisted he break off all family ties: "Once they told my Sahaja Yoga brother and I that we should slap our mother if she argued. As zealous disciples, we followed instructions and my brother slapped her. Next we were told to cease all communication with her. I loved my mother but I forced myself to obey."

Babies born of two Sahaja Yoga parents are considered realised souls, of high calibre with an extra responsibility. "Your children have to be the soldiers of Sahaja Yoga, not dainty darlings," Shri Mataji announced at one puja. "You have to rough it, you have to make them sturdy."

Parents are encouraged to send their children to a Sahaja school in Rome from the age of four, and then on to the school in Dharamsala, India that accepts children from the age of eight. Extra-curricular activities there include learning to meditate in front of Shri Mataji's image and listening to her teachings.

Shri Mataji's supporters deny that there is anything irregular about the movement's educational activities. But the Sahaja Yoga view of children certainly seems unconventional. Juan has a tape of a meeting in Canberra in 1991 at which Shri Mataji insisted that a child who was crying during her speech was "possessed".

Another ex-member, Alistair, has never forgiven himself for sending his small daughter to the Sahaja Yoga schools. "I still can't believe I did it," he says. "My heart would break when I put my young girl on a plane and sent her away for nine months. All the parents would say 'How are your children doing?' and we'd always reply 'Oh they're having a wonderful time,' since you can't criticise. But my daughter's grades were very poor in reading, writing and maths, and when we picked her up on her annual holiday, she had lice and her clothes were tattered and dirty."

Derek Lee, Sahaja Yoga's national co-ordinator in Britain, says the organisation "believes in strong families. We are not in the business of breaking up families."

When the ex-members' group started to form, some of them had been Sahaja Yogis for two decades and were grieving for their "lost" years. Others were having trouble making decisions on their own in the world, without guidance from Mataji or vibrations. They claim it's not easy to leave the organisation. An ex-member called Christine, once Sahaja Yoga's US country leader, explains: "When I was in Sahaja Yoga, I thought that to go against Shri Mataji, to fall from grace, was a fate worse than death. After I left, I had nightmares for months." For another, Anna, leaving meant confronting the fear that the outside world was evil, a result of the "us versus them" attitude encouraged in Sahaja Yoga. "Every morning," she laughs, "I would perform a bandhan – a ritual to protect against negativity from other people. And I never looked at people straight – I always focused between their eyes. The fear of the outside world was deep in my system." Christine cannot believe now that she allowed Shri Mataji to arrange three marriages for her to other followers.

Simon Montford, a Londoner in his late-twenties who works in further education, went to his first Sahaja Yoga meeting in Brighton when he was 19. "In time, I began not only to feel the vibrations," he recalls, "but to believe that others could feel my vibrations, how good or bad they were, and that Shri Mataji especially had that insight. This belief makes members fundamentally paranoid." It also makes them slaves, Montford and other former members say, to Mataji.

Montford, who "wasted" six years of his life following Sahaja Yoga, now dedicates much of his spare time to disabusing her disciples. "At first, followers are not told about the arranged marriages," he says. "Or how children are sent away to Sahaja Yoga schools in Italy and India."

His interventions are not welcomed by the organisation. Last year, Montford went to a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall with a bag of flyers detailing his objections to Shri Mataji. As soon as he began to hand them out, he says: "Four followers came out and tried to grab my bag, although they backed off when I yelled out. Next they started snatching the flyers off people. Then they crowded round me and threatened to smash my face in."

In her defence, Shri Mataji and her supporters make much of the fact that she offers her spiritual gift for free. The official Sahaja Yoga website boasts that "without any financial support from any person, Shri Mataji neither charges for Her lectures nor for Her ability to give Self Realisation".

According to ex-members, however, belonging to the organisation can be a costly business. Typical costs might include: fees for the music academy and youth camp; rent for ashrams owned by Shri Mataji; bills for treatment at the Sahaja Yoga hospital; payments from wedding ceremonies; and earnings from music and video tapes, magazines, even Ayurvedic medicines that are "vibrated" because they have grown on Shri Mataji's land.

And what many of them now point to is the discrepancy between their old mistress's avowed altruism and her apparent wealth. Their website lists the extensive properties she owns across the globe – in Italy, the US, Canada, Australia and India – and also analyses in some detail the movement's financial position, estimating its profits at between $2.3m to $5.5m a year.

Derek Lee utterly rejects the insinuation that the guru is growing rich on her followers' spirituality. "She is married to one of the wealthiest men in India and was wealthy before she ever started, so she doesn't need the money," he says, adding that her long list of properties across the world are mainly used as ashrams.

"Members do make contributions to things like the hire of the Albert Hall, but no one forces us to do that," he says. "And she does raise money but for Sahaja Yoga but not for herself. The money comes back to us. She has just given us £150,000 for a new centre."

What's harder to refute is the accusation that there are unwholesome elements in the philosophy of Sahaja Yoga. Shri Mataji's book Meta Modern Era repeatedly talks about the "greed" of the Jews exterminated by Hitler. ("They always lent money on exorbitant terms," she explains.) And her claims to be not just a guru but a "Divine personality of the highest kind" become less ambiguous the further one examines her speeches and writings.

Of the claims that Sahaja Yoga members are pressured to send their children to the movement's schools, Lee says that it is up to individual parents but that some feel it is better to sent their children to India or Italy to keep them away from "ecstasy and sex before the age of 14".

In the past two years, Montford and his allies have been battling it out with their old spiritual mistress on the Web, at a website address that is almost identical to that set up by the Sahaja Yoga movement itself. If one potential devotee, or wavering member, stumbles on their site while on the way to the other, the effort will have been worth it, say the ex-members.

A letter posted on the ex-members' website claiming to be from the "Sahaja Yoga finance committee" in Italy acknowledged the movement's extensive property holdings, but insisted that there was nothing improper about them. It added: "Sahaja Yoga doors are open for every individual. Sometimes we get people who are very sinful, hypocritical, cheats, and have very low type of background. After getting realisation many of them do rise and get transformed, but some do get lost. These are the people who publish such wrong things about Shri Mataji."

The ex-members' dissident website is at www.sahaja-yoga.org. The movement's official website is at www.sahajayoga. org.uk

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