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Monday, April 06, 2009

Into a Bizarre World

This afternoon on my way home I was listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation show. When you initially tune in to a call-in talk show, you don't always know who the guest is or what their topic is. All the callers were describing personal experiences of belonging to religious groups that were overly controlling and how they eventually separated themselves from the situation.

It turns out the guest was an author named Jayanti Tamm, and her book is Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult, which as it says is an account of growing up in a very restrictive community and eventually leaving it.

Cult is a strong word, and almost always used as a pejorative term for a religion that is disliked. The vast majority of religions have dogma, and through it attempt to exert some amount of control over its adherents. Still, there is a big difference between, for example, the Catholic Church's (widely ignored) proscription of birth control and the various acts of the FLDS that got it in trouble with the law. So I'm hesitant to use the word; I have some personal experience in the world of small self-contained highly dogmatic religious groups and I'm a bit less judgemental than most about the members of such groups...but I have naught but contempt for any highly authoritarian leaders of such groups who keep their followers under their thumbs.

Once Tamm mentioned who the leader of her "cult" was, I immediately knew there was a connection to running. The man was Sri Chinmoy, whose followers put on several marathons and ultras. One was featured in Runner's World in 2007. The article never mentioned any controversy about the leader, and his adherents seemed like relatively normal Americans who happened to convert to Hinduism and run 3,100 miles around a city block--which is to say eccentric, but not weird. I'd already heard of him before that through a race called the "self-transcendence marathon", which was singularly odd in the world of marathons because it was impossible to find the results online. Odd, but maybe not strange.

But once you start doing even a cursory Internet search on the guy, you figure out he's a seriously strange individual. Or was; he died about 18 months ago. The Wikipedia entry on him is obviously guarded closely by his followers to eliminate any bad PR out there--and there's plenty. I won't go into details; you know how to use Google. But I guess it only makes sense that anyone who can convince people to run a 3,100 mile ultra in the summer on one city block is a highly controlling individual.

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