Finding Her Place
Proclaimed “The Chosen One” by an infamous cult leader, former Greenwich resident Jayanti Tamm shares how she broke free of her oppressive life
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, a secret world existed right under the noses of the well-heeled, well-educated citizens of Fairfield County. The Connecticut branch of a notorious religious cult was invisible to the outside world, and the few who did know of its existence—by dining at its Love and Serve Natural Restaurant, perhaps—thought it benign. In recent years, however, there have been shocking and disturbing accusations involving sexual improprieties perpetrated by their leader, Sri Chinmoy. Now deceased, Chinmoy controlled every aspect of cult members’ lives for forty years from his world headquarters in Queens, New York, including his following in Fairfield County, which at its peak numbered 175 members.
This self-proclaimed guru had a Chosen One, a soul he claimed to embody his most exemplary disciple. This girl, born to two of Chinmoy’s devotees, grew up in Norwalk and Greenwich and graduated from Greenwich Academy. By day she donned the school’s hunter-green kilt, but at night she would change into a sari and participate in cult activities. None of her teachers or classmates had a clue about her secret life. But two years ago, after much therapy, Jayanti Tamm was finally ready to share her story with the world, and she has written a powerful memoir, Cartwheels in a Sari, about “growing up cult” in Fairfield County.
Today, Jayanti looks and acts like any other thirtysomething suburban mom. The attractive thirty-nine-year-old woman dotes on her two-year-old daughter, checks her smart phone, drinks tea and laughs easily. But her life wasn’t always so carefree. From the day she was born, and for the next twenty-five years, her life was controlled by Sri Chinmoy. Her parents, a couple of earnest young seekers, hooked up with Chinmoy four years after he arrived in the States, in 1968. On the night they met, he forced them into a “divine marriage,” meaning they were legally wed but, per cult rules, required to remain celibate. A few months later, Jayanti’s mother wound up pregnant. Initially Chinmoy was furious, but realizing there was nothing he could do about it, he quickly changed his tune and declared that he would use his power and compassion to arrange for a special soul from the highest heavens to incarnate on Earth to serve as his chosen disciple. That was Jayanti.
Now absolved for their “sin,” and, in fact, the parents of Chinmoy’s chosen one, their stature within the cult was elevated, and they ascended to his coveted inner circle. When Chinmoy instructed them later that year to move first to Wilton, then to Norwalk to open his Connecticut Center, they considered it an honor. In reality the “center” was simply a modest two-story home with almost no furnishings—just some beds upstairs and one throne-like chair for Chinmoy to sit on when he visited. But the Tamms never felt the house was really theirs, nor did they want it to be; they knew it was just a way to serve their guru, who was intent on becoming an international figure. And because he knew of the wealth and power of the people in Fairfield County, he was determined to have a presence here, a strong presence.
In 1982 Chinmoy stopped coming to Connecticut to lead meditations, but the Tamms continued to lead meditation classes all over Connecticut, including free weekly classes at the Byram Library. Around this time, Chinmoy enacted a new rule that all disciples in the tristate area had to attend meditation with him every Wednesday night, so everyone, including Jayanti and her family, had to travel to Queens. To save themselves time, they left Norwalk when Jayanti was in seventh grade and moved to a small house on
a dead-end road in Greenwich.
As Jayanti writes in Cartwheels, “Most people settle in Greenwich, Connecticut, an oasis of French boutiques, polo clubs and waterfront rambling estates, as the culmination of a lifelong dream to enter the gated community of New England’s elite. Not us. For my family, Greenwich was a disappointing substitute for Jamaica, Queens.”
One doesn’t need a psychology degree to understand Chinmoy’s motivations. Orphaned at an early age, he and his six siblings were placed in an ashram in their native India. His guru, Sri Aurobindo, was an important Indian nationalist, poet, philosopher and yogi. By contrast Chinmoy (then known as Madal) was penniless and parentless, and, just when puberty was likely striking, was told that he was to spend the rest of this life as a celibate monk. But he had strong desires of his own, and assiduously studied ashram life, particularly how those in control manipulated devotees by playing favorites. A narcissist with low self-esteem, young Madal decided that he would be more famous and successful than his own guru. Later he would tell his followers about a vision he had in which the Supreme Being commanded him to go to America and become a spiritual guide to the unfulfilled seekers there.
As the leader of a burgeoning cult, he ruled with an iron fist. Devotees had to dress the way he ordained, they had to be celibate, couldn’t eat meat, consume alcohol or caffeine, smoke, dance, interact with outsiders, have pets, watch movies or TV or read magazines, newspapers or books not written by him. When not in school or working in “divine enterprises” that supported the cult, members were expected to obey Chinmoy’s orders, which usually involved getting him more and more media attention and celebrity endorsements.
I met with Jayanti recently at a coffeehouse in New York City to talk about the book and her life since leaving the cult. I asked how she felt being on a national book tour promoting the first exposé of the Sri Chinmoy cult. “I feel liberated,” she says. “For so many years I felt I was carrying this secret life. I was trying my best to make up for lost time, to fit in with the world, achieve things I’d always wanted. I didn’t want to let people know what a freak I had been. Finally being able to let it out was incredibly freeing.”
She talks about not only the benefit for herself but for others who were, and are still, trapped inside the cult. “I feel happy to be able to share my story and how people have reacted—not just cult people but everyone. So many people have a similar family dynamic with their fathers, or have been in an abusive relationship. It feels great to have made this kind of impact.”
Cartwheels in a Sari delivers an emotional punch. The anecdotes are powerful—and often humorous. Like her first day of kindergarten, when she wore her favorite blue sari and introduced herself to the teacher by explaining that her guru had given her a name that means Highest Victory of the Supreme in Sanskrit. And how when the cult would meet in their Norwalk home and she and her brother were banished upstairs, they’d entertain themselves playing a game of their own devising: Guru and Disciple, in which her older brother would typically spend the evening bossing her around. Real games were forbidden, but their father invented one specifically for them called Disciple Chutes and Ladders.
As Chinmoy’s chosen one, Jayanti was expected to stay single and celibate and never have any ambitions beyond sitting at her guru’s feet, pleasing him and devoting her entire life to fulfilling his desires. With strict rules and rigid guidelines that emphasized surrender to his will, Chinmoy was completely in charge of every detail of her life, from her friends and clothes to what she ate and how much she weighed.
By the time Jayanti entered middle school, she was desperate to “stay under the radar,” as she puts it. She was doing well, making friends and not standing out—until Chinmoy announced he was going to perform his greatest stunt ever: lifting an elephant in her front yard. (Lifting extremely heavy objects with a rigged contraption was his shtick at that time.) A large crowd gathered, and the local paper snapped a photo with Jayanti in it and plastered it on the front page the next day. It’s hard enough being a teenager under the best of circumstances. But a short bald Indian man in flowing robes power-lifting a pachyderm in your yard?
“I developed a strategy in elementary and middle school: I tried hard not to draw attention to myself and just slipped past,” she recalls. “School authorities couldn’t figure out what my problem was, because I didn’t have any physical problems or bruises. They knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to do with me. I was always sleep-deprived from our late nights of meditation, I never did homework, my parents never came to PTA meetings, and whenever my mother did show up, she was in a sari.”
Jayanti‘s first crush, and kiss, came at age fifteen. As teenage girls are wont to do, she wrote a love letter to the boy—only it was intercepted by her brother who, in his zeal to win guru brownie points, ratted her out. Spying on and reporting fellow cultists, including your own family, was not only acceptable behavior, it was encouraged. Chinmoy was very disappointed and explained that the Supreme was her boyfriend. Then he ordered her parents to send her to the all-girl Greenwich Academy.
“I didn’t want to go,” she tells me as we sip our heavily caffeinated chai lattes. “I tried to do poorly on the entrance exam, but they took me anyhow. And I used the method I’d perfected: trying to blend in and keep quiet.” Sports were required at GA, but that part was easy. Chinmoy was a sports nut, particularly obsessed with tennis and jogging, and as a result, all his followers were expected to do both (the women even were required to wear running shoes with their saris), so Jayanti actually excelled on the track and tennis court.
Megan Lindemeyer, a contemporary of Jayanti’s at GA and now its director of alumnae, remembers Jayanti and, like most of their classmates, was surprised to learn about her secret life. “She was not in my circle of friends, but by the time we were seniors, we were all one big group of friends,” Megan remembers. “I always found Jayanti upbeat but even-keeled and serene. I would never have known about her personal life. She had friends, and in no way was it evident that she was not from a relatively similar background. There were probably a handful of girls who were very wealthy, but there wasn’t a huge emphasis on socioeconomic differences. And because we were all in uniform, clothing didn’t set you apart.”
And yet Jayanti found it excruciating trying to appear “normal” while her life felt anything but. When all of her classmates were researching colleges, she knew Chinmoy would never allow it. But at her guidance counselor’s insistence, she secretly took the SATs and applied to Bennington College—and was accepted but not allowed to enroll. When the prom rolled around, she asked special permission of her guru to attend. At first he denied it, but when she prevailed, he said she could go under one condition: that she attend with another cult member. There was no one else appropriate, so while all her classmates were enjoying the biggest date night of their young lives, Jayanti was at the dance with her brother.
After High School graduation, she was directed to get a job at the U.N. because Chinmoy was leveraging a small role he held there in an attempt to garner world attention. A minor love affair landed her in hot water again, and she was sent to France to live under the watchful eye of a devotee. It was in the land of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité that Jayanti’s own seed of liberation took root, and over the next seven years she rode a psychological seesaw of being called to serve her guru and desperately wanting a life of her own.
At the age of twenty-five, when she finally managed to catapult herself out, she didn’t land on Easy Street. For one thing, her family was still ensconced in the cult, and they were programmed to regard all outsiders as hostile forces sent to harm them. She had never really functioned on her own, and worse, felt she had to completely disconnect from her past to banish it. After eight years of trying to bury her past, she came to the conclusion that she needed therapy and randomly chose a male practitioner in her insurance program. Nothing about that boded well. The morning she walked out of her first session, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Spooked and not particularly happy with the therapist, she quit. It took a while to get up the nerve to try again. By then she had moved to New Jersey, where she found a woman with whom she slowly unraveled the tangled skein of her previous life and learned to make peace with it. “It was transformative,” she says. “It was the first time I’d ever opened the vault, which had been so carefully sealed. That was the beginning of the journey. Therapy allowed me to know that there are areas that are available to me to assess and understand, which was important, because otherwise I would have shut off that part of my life. Now I see that who we are is based on where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Finally, I feel whole.”
Being whole is one thing, writing a tell-all about the secret inner workings of a cult is quite another. She knew she wanted to tell this story but, she says, she couldn’t do it with her parents still in the cult. But in 2001 there was another fascinating development: A former disciple started a discussion board site on Yahoo for other former disciples to post their experiences. “This was revolutionary!” explains Jayanti. “In the past when people were estranged, they had no way to find each other. Often we didn’t know people’s last names, only their spiritual names.” In this moment, technology trumped the guru.
Though Jayanti maintains that she was never sexually assaulted, she explains that such accusations were rampant. “Very quickly came many postings of dark, disturbing allegations of sexual abuse by Sri Chinmoy,” Jayanti continues, “including one woman disciple who led the San Francisco group and got pregnant by him. He told her to have an abortion. There were other stories of his forcing female disciples to have sex while he watched. He grew terrified that this information was out there so publicly. He directed his full-time PR team of disciples to go into crisis-control mode, and forbade all disciples to go online. But my father had been Sri Chinmoy’s personal lawyer for twenty years and had incriminating information of his own—plus his growing doubts, which he kept to himself. But these allegations had crossed a line as far as my father was concerned, and he went online to see for himself and discussed what he read with other disciples.” Naturally his defiance was discovered, and he was promptly kicked out in 2002.
Jayanti’s mother had wanted to leave for a long time but knew she wouldn’t be allowed to see her children, so she stayed in. When her husband was excommunicated, she welcomed the chance to jump ship along with him. Sadly, the marriage didn’t hold together. He moved back to North Dakota and has tried to put back together the life he was living pre-Chinmoy. Jayanti’s mother still lives in Greenwich and is very active in local politics, charity work, hospice, divorce-support groups and works part-time at the children’s library in Darien. The two have forged a new, loving, honest and supportive relationship. But her brother, once her close friend, is still in the cult and has become one of the leaders, still producing events in his guru’s honor and regarding his family members as hostile forces.
“I went almost full-spectrum to the other side,” Jayanti explains. “For my whole life, decisions were made for me. Once I left and realized I was empowered to make decisions for myself, I became vehemently against taking any orders from anyone. At first I couldn’t handle normal boss-employee relationships, couldn’t handle being told what to do. I rebelled and fought. To this day I still struggle with that.”
With much water under the bridge and a cathartic book under her belt, Jayanti has finally found peace. She’s happily married, lives in Monmouth County, New Jersey, is the mother of daughter Nadira (who, eerily, was born on the very day Chinmoy died in 2007), teaches English at Ocean County College, and has even found her former cult best friend, now also liberated and living two towns away. Despite her stolen childhood, Jayanti has finally created a self-directed life of her own. In fact, she says, “I get a thrill through my own daughter of experiencing all the joys and simple pleasures that were forbidden to me when I was growing up. Of course, my husband and I joke that when Nadira is a teenager and is looking for ways to rebel against us, she’ll run off and join a cult!”