You’ve found yourself here from A Lover of Books and you’re expecting your next clue? Well, that’s coming.
Interestingly, to me at least, I was chatting to @mredwards on twitter before I knew his publisher was going to do a treasure hunt so I’m happy to take part plus All Fall Down is 99p on Kindle right now!
Anyway, you need to read the following to answer the question at the end where you’ll also find your next destination on the treasure hunt.
My Year in a Cult
The year was 1992. I was in my mid-twenties, renting rooms in shared flats in London, feeling adrift and spiritually unconnected from the Church of England tradition in which I’d grown up.
I had a brief fling with an eighties popstar (who shall remain nameless but who I will call M), categorized mostly by his substance and alcohol abuse. It was fairly typical of my relationships during that time – excessive, loveless and empty. The last time I saw him during that time he looked half-dead, was monosyllabic, rude and cold.
Then I bumped into him again some months later, and he was like a completely different person. His eyes were kind and loving, and he had a sort of Ready Brek glow I’d never seen in him before. Blimey, I thought, I’ll have what he’s having! I enquired as to what that might be, and with a beatific expression he said, ‘Meditation.’
On further investigation it turned out that he had started practicing something called Raja Yoga up in North London, and he offered to bring me along with him. I didn’t need any encouragement at all.
I don’t remember anything specific about the first session, except that it was blissful immediately. The meditation was like a mental massage – relaxing and invigorating, like nothing else I’d ever experienced. I think there must have been a talk, too – nothing about their doctrine, but a general sort of ‘positive thinking, clean-living’ vibe that left me wanting to change things in me, and wanting more of that meditation. They talked about ‘consciousness’ and ‘spiritual empowerment’. It was really exciting, and the fact that I had an ally in M was even better. I signed up for the free introductory course on the spot.
The centre was in Willesden, an impressive building populated by white-clad figures drifting quietly around, many but not all of them Indian, more women than men. I came to learn that it’s a largely female-run organization. They call themselves the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, and have been in the UK since 1971. They depend on voluntary donations of money and assets from their members (women are encouraged to sell their homes, donate the proceeds and move into communal houses with other Brahma Kumaris members) – many of whom happen to be extremely wealthy middle-class Indians, and consequently as an organization they have a lot of money, which conveys an aura of respectability. Just walking into the centre inspires confidence, with its huge lecture rooms and auditorium, large smart entrance hallway and sizeable dining room. This is no tin-pot dodgy old group of nutters… but were they a cult?
Many people have preconceptions of what the word ‘cult’ means: negative associations about being brainwashed, having to hand over all your worldly goods, not being allowed to leave, perhaps mental cruelty or domination… The Brahma Kumaris are, I discovered, a cult – but a benign one. You can leave whenever you want to. You are not forced to make any payments whatsoever. Most of the people, particularly the senior members, are calm, good, loving, and utterly dedicated to spreading the message of their philosophy and practice to the world.
The sticking point really concerns the nature of that message. You don’t hear about it at first, not for a long time. When you’re doing the introductory meditation course, it is intentionally not mentioned at all – since it’s so bonkers that it would send the uninitiated running for the hills immediately. It’s only once you are invited to attend early morning meditation and the daily ‘Murlis’ (ie. the core teachings of the Brahma Kumaris, named after a magic flute that God Krishna was supposed to play to bewitch his female followers. These are channelled mediumistic messages allegedly spoken by God directly through the mouths of Brahma Kumaris mediums) – every morning at 6.30am – that you begin to grasp the philosophy – but by that time, you’re so blissed out by the meditation that your life has already changed beyond all recognition.
According to a very informative website I have used as a resource * , for about the first 18 years, from 1932 to at least 1950, adherents thought millionaire founder Lekhraj Kripalani was God on the basis of visions of him as Krishna. It was only sometime after 1950 that the Brahma Kumaris re-wrote their philosophy to include an incorporeal God it named Shiva who was claimed to be possessing him and speaking though him.
I look back at the notebooks I filled during the morning Murlis now, and they might as well be Mandarin for all the sense they make – they just seem to be full of vague platitudes, spiritual mantras, woolly metaphors about enlightenment, invocations of the ‘Golden Age’ and lots of Indian names.
The Brahma Kumaris’ belief, in a nutshell, is an apocalyptic one – that humanity is doomed and will only decrease in spiritual values until the forthcoming and desirable final ‘Destruction’ during which six billion humans will be killed in nuclear war and natural disasters. (I do remember them saying that it would happen as soon as the world’s population reached that figure. It didn’t. ) Then will ensue a period of Heaven on earth, peace amongst humanity, strictly for the Brahma Kumaris only. Attempts to save or improve the present world or environment are futile.
This is where some of the patchwork philosophy of the so-called Sisters of Sekhmet comes from in mine and Mark Edwards’ novel All Fall Down. Quite a few religions actually do believe that Time exists in a cycle of 5000 years only (although I’m not sure how many of them, like the Brahma Kumaris, believe that this cycle repeats itself identically each time).
I joined the Brahma Kumaris in 1992 and it was taught then that these were End Times, that this Cycle was ending in 1997 (although a couple of the more liberal long-standing Brahma Kumaris followers did admit that they had also been told that previously the Cycle was meant to end firstly in WWII, then 1950, 1976, 1986 – it had kept shifting forwards for years, as each new deadline passed. Bet they were gutted when both the Millenium, and now 21/12/12 passed without incident! Also, they’d previously been told the world would end when the population reached five billion before that number was discreetly re-set to six billion…).
Strong spiritual preparations must be made to ensure a place in the ‘Golden Age’. As part of these preparations, a strict lacto-vegetarian diet – no dairy, meat or fish – was observed. Although not enforced in any sinister way, beyond suggestions, there was also a complete embargo on alcohol, caffeine, drugs, sex or any kind of sexual contact, garlic, onions (too stimulating. Instead they used a truly horrible spice called asafoetida that smelled of sick. The Germans call it Teufelsdreck – devil’s dung! Thankfully the smell disappears when cooked). Actually the food was delicious – curries and sweets, all freshly cooked.
Brahma Kumaris don’t eat anything that isn’t home made, and there is no eating out in restaurants.
If I’m honest, that was probably what did me the most good – a year out from unhealthy relationships, drinking, partying and eating badly, on top of daily meditation and Godliness. I felt like a new woman. It was my own choice to follow those rules, nobody made me – but it would have been deeply inappropriate to show up to the 6.30am Murlis (or, as I began to do on a regular basis, the 4am meditation for the real hardcore!) stinking of garlic or booze.
It was only the philosophy that constantly troubled me. If I asked awkward questions like, ‘well, what about the dinosaurs, if the world’s history is only 5000 years old?’ I’d get a confusing reply such as ‘everyone knows that carbon-dating has been proven to be inaccurate,’ or they would question the existence of dinosaurs altogether, on the basis of the lack of bones found. One Brahma Kumaris follower even argued that dinosaurs existed in a parallel space-time dimension and, because of a warp hole, ended up in this dimension!
Um…. Right, I thought, none the wiser.
And of course, hanging over you all the time was this fear that the world might be imminently about to explode in a fiery ball of destruction, which was also a bit of a bummer, and made it slightly more difficult to feel completely at peace and in harmony with one’s fellow Brahma Kumaris followers! Note ‘fellow Brahma Kumaris followers’ not fellow human beings, because to have friends outside the Brahma Kumaris was very much discouraged, for the energy-sapping worldliness and cynicism that would inevitably rub off of you. They called it ‘maya’ – meaning evil, negative influences.
All that, and the prospect of a life cut off from friends, family, and any future sexual relationships if for some reason the Apocalypse got delayed again, eventually prompted me to leave after a year. This is another reason that the Brahma Kumaris are accused of being a cult, because followers are actively encouraged to renounce their families and be reborn in ‘the divine family.’ There have been many cases since the 1930s of marriages ending and families being forced apart because of this philosophy, and even a few very sad cases of young Brahma Kumaris converts taking their own lives through fear of the imminent Armageddon.
By then I had, through my job, met the man who was to become my husband. I always think I owe my marriage to the Brahma Kumaris, because had I not been in that particularly insular contemplative space that year, I don’t believe that I would have taken the time to get to know him the way I did – all my previous relationships had been so shallow.
Leaving was a really tough decision, but of course one that after some months of anxiety and guilt, I have never regretted. If I left, and the world ended, I’d be stuffed! But one of the things that drew me to the Brahma Kumaris in the first place was their emphasis on God – and I have always believed in God. My relationship with God these days is a lot more conventional, and I feel ashamed that I almost became sucked into a nonsensical philosophy on the strength of hypnotic meditation.
M, my popstar friend, gave it up before I did, but I think it really helped him too. Shortly afterwards he went down a route of AA that almost certainly saved his life.
When I think about my year with the Brahma Kumaris, I mostly feel gullible – but then, a lot of people in their twenties are on a spiritual sort of quest… I’m glad I escaped with nothing worse than a feeling of guilt and fear that took a while to subside. Now I just consider it a part of life’s rich tapestry – and great background fodder for a plotline about a cult of women who, hoping to hasten Armageddon, release a deadly virus into the world!
I just hope that other survivors have fared as well as I did, with no lasting scars.
*www.brahmakumaris.info – The Truth about the BKWSU
And your question:
What aspect of All Fall Down was inspired by Louise’s year in the Brahma Kumaris?
Where is your next clue?