IF what I saw last month was an example of something very old, what I saw today was an example of something very new…and I almost feel like it loses something in the translation of religion. Isn’t the whole point of religion to make those ancient precepts and happenings relevant and valid for today? I mean, sure, we all kind of miss the mark sometimes on that, but what is it like to be in a setting, a religious experience, that has been created within the last fifty years? Not updated, not modernized, not conformed to culture…but something that has been taken out of an ancient construct and stuffed into westernized society?
That’s exactly what I found today, and that’s exactly what Eckankar is. Sure, if you ask members of Eckankar, they probably wouldn’t define it quite as I just did. They would talk in circles about focal points of their understanding and use words in a pointed way, but it is never that sincere. What I walked away with today was the major question I will be posing to my missions class as we approach the end of it: How do we minister to those who already think they know everything?
In all honesty, I tried to go somewhere else. I sent out over a dozen emails with the project at hand and asking various religious groups if it was all right for me to visit, but none of them responded. Not one. So that kinda annoyed me. I understand I didn’t send an email saying “I am desperate to join your group, will you let me in?”, but nonetheless, there are just some things we do when people reach out to us. Even Eckankar’s emails bounced back because the inbox was full, but I decided to plow forward with things, anyway.
In all truth, I was not familiar with Eckankar beyond the conceptual, and I’ll admit not having the best handle on that, either. In fact, if you can say you know anything about Eckankar before reading this blog, I’ll be rather surprised. I will explain it within my understanding of religion in the next paragraphs, but not knowing a whole lot about it beyond the conceptual meant that I wasn’t real sure what I would find before I went to their weekly meeting today. Just to be safe, after standing in stilettos for two hours last time, I went with a squarer, more solid shoe and attempted to not look so Pentecostal. I picked a $15 brilliant find off Ebay that was newly joining my closet. This was picked over a rather expensive suit with a scarf and purple shoes that I resolved to save for a time when I wouldn’t be in an alternative religious group looking for members. I stood and looked at myself in the mirror, with an entirely different line of thinking than I had last time I did this. We sat in the car and I said to my mom, “I look like Courtney Love.”
My mother was adamant that I did not look like Courtney Love, because in the first place, she is taller than I am. I don’t think she was amused I mentioned that type of resemblance, especially given Courtney Love is given to behave a bit crazy in public. Alas, we took some pictures outside, and then ventured inside to what would be a most interesting hour or so.
Eckankar is basically a group known among Christian cult criterists as an alternative religion with cult tendencies. I am not entirely sure I agree with the cult labeling myself, although after having been in the group today, I can see why it is often identified as one. Eckankar was founded in 1965 Las Vegas by a man named Paul Twitchell. Very little is known about his early life because he had a way of deliberately confounding the facts therein. What we do know is he was born sometime between 1908 and 1922 in Paducah, Kentucky. He had a long history of failures, including college that he never finished, and eventually worked as a journalist. Twitchell’s spiritual interests cross many diverse paths, including L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (a part of the Scientology cult), the occult, and several different eastern Hindu offshoot groups that operated in western culture, such as the Self-Realization Fellowship and Ruhani Satsang.
Eckankar is what I would classify as a deconstructed Hindu organization. What this means is they have taken the basic principles of Hindu worldview and thought, but they have removed the context that makes those concepts relevant. In place of the construct, they have infiltrated western ideals and values, terminology and language, and style and format. Instead of worshiping various Hindu deities and making the daily sacrifices and offerings, meditating, practicing yoga, and disciplining one’s self to the personal commitments of the Hindu system, they elevate certain mind concepts and ideals within the context of western living and understanding. I also believe Twitchell gave his work a certain sound or understanding to compete with groups such as Scientology, which is nothing more than behaviorism in a complex and pseudoscientific context. Eckankar’s basic structure revolves around their key figure, called their Sri, Mahanta, or Living Eck master, which is comparable with the way a Hindu guru is often revered in various Hindu cults. Every single quote, teaching, and brochure focuses on the teachings of that singular individual, and his picture is found in every single brochure and teaching they make available. This individual is considered to be a living enlightened being, one who can provide inner guidance to those who follow Eckankar. Their current leader is named Harold Klemp, a man who, at one time, trained through divinity school to become a minister. (Yes, it makes me wonder what he learned there, as Marilyn Manson and Seth MacFarlane also went to seminary, but I digress). With assumption of his leadership, headquarters of the group was moved to Chanhassen, Minnesota, and remain there today.
Even though Eckankar is modern, the adherents of it believe it’s based on ancient principles. They have their own language and dictionary, and according to their understanding, “Eckankar” means “Co-Worker with God.” Their understanding of God, however, is not what Christians, Jews, or Muslims speak on when they use the word “God.” “God” is an abstract concept of a master, manifested in the enlightened beings of the religious system. It’s something one aspires to become, not something separate from us. Eckankar follows monist principles, that everything is one and one is everything. They also embrace karma and reincarnation, believing multiple lives bring about spiritual awareness and teaching.
Eckankar’s teachings that vary from Hindu thought center around the principle that the soul is separate from the body and can be experienced as such through altered states of consciousness in different realms of existence. This is often spoken of as soul travel or astral projection. From what I understand, it appears they believe this often happens through dreams, so much of their spiritual expression comes through interpreting the dreams one has that might have explanation in their belief of soul wandering through different cosmic or natural realms. They believe the ultimate liberation comes through “self-realization” and that if one achieves this “God-consciousness,” they can be free. This comes about through applying and living the precepts of Eckankar in one’s life.
Eckists (as members of Eckankar call themselves) practice weekly spiritual exercises to bring them to their desired place of God-consciousness. Every Sunday of the month features a different application of Eckankar principles as taught by Harold Klemp and showcased to appeal in different ways. After their weekly classes (which are taught in seminar style) is a 20-minute “worship” session in which they chant the name “HU” (pronounced hue) and then meditate upon it for 5 minutes. “HU” is believed to be the true name of God, and focusing and chanting on it will make an individual “one” with that precept.
There are about 50,000-65,000 Eckists worldwide. They believe their religion is superior to others, but do not deny any religious path to be problematic or inferior. They just claim to believe it is the most comprehensive available, and that any Eckist can be a member of Eckankar and remain a practicing member of any other belief system as they wish. Membership is done through payment of annual dues to headquarters and numerous purchases, all of which cost money, to elevate an individual through various levels of initiation. In all, there are five lower levels of initiation which one is determined to be prepared to receive based on their application and absorption of the Mahanta’s teachings. If you do some internet searching, there is a lot of controversy over initiation and what qualifies one to elevate up, but we aren’t going to get into that here.
I first learned about Eckankar from a television commercial in the early 2000s advertising Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom For Today. I’d never heard of it. It didn’t exist where I lived then, or where I would live after that (although the founder was from a city about 45 minutes from where I would live). I did some reading on it, but the basics make it sound a lot more complicated than it is. In considering this project, Eckankar was never a consideration until I was doing a search for something else in the area and stumbled across it. The group was about 10 minutes from my house, in a very nice storefront, and since nobody else had the consideration to return my call, I figured I’d see this group I only knew of in shades.
Upon walking into the group’s meeting hall, nobody spoke to me or to my mother. Nobody introduced themselves, welcomed us to the meeting, asked our names, shook our hands, or did anything whatsoever to make us feel welcome. In fact, nobody even spoke to us. We were looked at a bit sideways, in fact. We had to find someone to ask where the meeting room was, and even that man wasn’t particularly nice about it. He acted as if our presence was ruining his fascinating conversation with whoever else he was talking to. In twenty years of religious study and well over 500 services later, I would concede this group was, by far, the rudest I have ever encountered. After walking into the meeting room, I turned to my mother and I said it.
“Rude ass people.”
I meant it. I don’t care who heard me.
Sure, I have spent the better part of twenty years in every conceivable sect of Pentecostalism that exists, and for the most part, you almost can’t keep people off you in those churches. They find out you are a visitor, they are eager to hug you, learn where you are from, who you are, and ask so many questions, it’s not funny.
The feeling of the group was quite sterile. There were about sixteen people there; one teenager, no children, and most of the members were somewhere around retirement age. Most were Caucasian; there was one family that was a mix of African and African-American; that was it. There was one member in my age group, and trust me, he was enough to make me want to lie about my age. Their meeting space was quite ample and beautiful, immaculately cleaned and pristine in appearance. It also felt unwelcoming, unwarm, and impersonal. Tables and chairs were set up, seminar style, with sheets of paper on each table and some pencils toward the center, near a vase of flowers. The sheets were titled “Law of Creativity – Quotes.” There were two presenters: a man and a woman. The woman did most of the talking; the man just interjected here and there. The accompanying slideshow had all the same quotes on the papers; nothing more, nothing less. All except for one quote, every single one of them was by Harold Klemp.
When Hindu offshoots are put in a western context, they often become cultic. Seeing the way Harold Klemp was clearly the focus put that understanding front and center for me. Everything was what he taught. They didn’t even mention former individuals they believed were enlightened or showed ways of truth. God was only mentioned once, and it was in the context of being a master and becoming one with that God-identity. Jesus was never mentioned, and no one was mentioned from Hindu beliefs. They even showed a short clip, and, once again, Harold Klemp was talking. As a minister for so many years, I couldn’t believe so much focus was on one man who came from a midwestern farming background. Sheesh.
The theme of their teaching was “creativity,” which was never formally defined. It was used in various contexts and spoken of in the different quotes, which sounded deep, I am sure, to some, but when you pulled them apart, really wasn’t saying much of anything, at all. The use of the term “creativity” was to be applied to life, school, work, retirement, health, and spiritual principles, and by reading through the quotes and talking about them, the members of the group were to find ways to apply these concepts to their own lives. The quotations were read in thirds; the first third, participants were to give verbal answers; the second, participants were to discuss them with others at their table; and the third, participants were to meditate upon them and write out a life plan, some way to incorporate creativity into their lives, and then were given the opportunity to share if they so desired.
The sharing at the table was notably awkward. Us being there was notably awkward. It was clear that our presence was causing others to feel uncomfortable. I leaned over and told my mom, “We look Pentecostal.” It made her smile, but it was probably true. I was in a leopard print dress and she had on a lovely two-piece black outfit with pearls. We looked dressed to go to church. Everyone in the room looked dressed to go to Wal-Mart. The man at the table with us obviously wanted to talk. We weren’t apt to share as our own thoughts and perceptions wouldn’t be readily accepted, so we listened to him. The first thing I noticed about him was he wore a Buddhist rosary on both wrists and was even playing with it at one point in time. He never told us his name, but was eager to share the story of how he was diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease when it first came out and nobody knew what he had prior. He claimed he used “creativity” to keep going to different doctors until they found a diagnosis.
When it came time to share with the group, others were eager to share their own “creativity” stories, including creative eating. The moderator spoke about loving ice cream and how she self-diagnosed herself with gallbladder issues after visiting Eckankar headquarters in Minnesota. Since she started moderating her ice cream intake, the attacks stopped. She attributed this diagnosis to her insights through Eckankar. Another table of individuals started a discussion about apples being healthy, and apples being fresh. Somehow all this was supposed to be creative, but I am not sure how it applied because the term was never properly defined and within my own experience, none of what they talked about sounded creative; it sounded conventional.
At around this point, they stopped discussing to chant the name “HU” for a few minutes. They called it, “doing the HU.” It was very much like their worship service; in fact, it was exactly the same. It was their hope this would inspire their creativity and help them continue through the remaining exercise, which was their life plan. They got particularly hung up on one quote on the paper that involved the word, “chessboard.” One woman claimed she was “redesigning her DNA” because she drew a diagram of a chessboard to demonstrate to her the need to rearrange things in her life. The chessboard imagery turned into a 3-D chessboard with another, and then a 2-D chessboard with yet another, and an astral chessboard with someone else, and then someone started on it being a recasting of one’s life movie. The basic principle was if they were creative enough, even in something as simple as changing the room one is in when fighting with a relative, they can change the course of their entire life.
The obvious appeal is one of the illusion of control; the people felt that if they apply the principles of Eckankar to their lives, they will be more in control of what happens to them. All it takes is thinking or looking at something differently to master that desired control. The problem with their concept is that it is, indeed, an illusion. Even in a game of chess, our moves on the board are not dictated by us alone. They are counter-moves, created in response to our opponent. They move, we move; we defend, we check, we checkmate as we go around the board and use the different pieces to accomplish different things. We can’t just rearrange pieces on a chessboard; and we can’t just rearrange life, either. But this group creates the illusion that life can be controlled by following an abstract guide of principles that does not challenge, nor really change, its adherents.
Before leaving, my mom asked the man we were seated with how he came to find the Eckankar group. He started an extensive story that I was concerned was not only going to be long, but also boring, and was, indeed, both. He went back to his childhood where he claimed the ability to astrally project himself while his father walked around at night and then later got interested in Franciscan spirituality through a Tridentine brotherhood on Long Island. I’m going to skip some of the details in here that aren’t really relevant, because I don’t feel like recounting them. He came to Eckankar because of their acceptance of astral projection and because they don’t require him to make a steady commitment away from any other belief system. He was quick to say he gets interested in honoring Jesus at Christmas and has no qualms about practicing anything else, whether it’s Buddhism or Christianity, because he feels there are many paths “up the mountain.”
His attitude annoyed me and I had long had enough of prattling rudeness passed off as intellectualism. He wasn’t moved by learning I was a minister, that we had been Catholic and we really didn’t care to have him patronizingly explain “chanting” to us, and he made a rude remark about my mother’s age. He gave no consideration to the fact that we might actually know something about what he spoke of, or that we might actually know more than he did. So yeah, since he said there was nothing wrong with multiple paths, I asked him, “How can you possibly walk on two different paths at the same time?”
He was annoyed by this time and tried to talk about taking deep paths up the mountain. He even quoted Joseph Campbell, who I know of and know the context of what he said and somehow it sounded different here. He also pronounced “contemplative” “contem-plative,” which made me wonder just who he was hanging out with, because the speaker pronounced several words incorrectly, as well. It was amazing how a few carefully placed questions challenged him to a place where he was not only uncomfortable, he was unprepared.
I left the building without a single introduction, nobody asked our names, one or two told us we could go have refreshments with them, but I really wasn’t comfortable doing that. We’d been treated as if we were lepers the whole time, and that was not a nice feeling. The sterility got to me, and I was ready to leave.
What did I learn?
Christ transcends constructs – Christianity is the only world religion that seems to have the ability to fit into every culture, worldwide. It has made its appearance and home among different thoughts, understandings, and structures. This speaks to its truth and solidifies it in a way that other religions often do not experience.
Be nice – I can’t believe it’s 2017 and I have to tell others to be nice to people, but I guess I have to after my experience today. The Bible reminds us that we never know who walks among us, so it is important to be kind and hospitable. I’ll agree that some of what I have experienced in church is a little extreme and it can be off-putting to be hugged by 15 people you don’t know, but there is something to be said for genuine affection: a handshake, a hug, saying hello, greeting someone, and showing genuine interest in them, whether they return to your church, or not.
If we aren’t challenged, we aren’t prepared to answer – The people in the Eckankar group I saw were comfortable with one another, but notably uncomfortable with others. Their system doesn’t challenge them to make real change or be real change, and they don’t know how to handle challenges. When we isolate ourselves like that, we become the utmost authorities about everything, and this is bad because none of us corner the market on information. We can always learn, always explore, always experience something new. When others disagree with us, we should rise to learn about our own beliefs and how we can explain them better instead of trying to avoid our own limitations.
Agreement is powerful – The Bible teaches us that two cannot walk together, unless they be agreed. In this particular group, it was obvious no one agreed, even on the basics. They interpreted them all differently and understood things in varying ways, which caused confusion. You can’t be a Christian and in a system that doesn’t even mention Christ. There are differences in religions and in religious beliefs for a reason. In Christianity, we recognize there are things we don’t always agree upon, but the essentials of faith – Ephesians 4 – need to guide our belief, because if we don’t have foundations, we sound like the disagreeable Eckankar people.
Delusion is also powerful – The illusion of control and power over one’s life is definitely appealing. We all can feel like too many things are random and that we are the cosmic butt of a nasty, universal behind-kicking. We can’t control other people and sometimes responding to others doesn’t feel adequate. Pretending we can, however, by changing our thinking, strategically placing our movements, or meditating is delusional. We change our world by making changes; by doing concrete things, guided by God and our faith, to bring about change. No amount of meditation or wishful thinking is going to substitute our own needed deeds for actions.
Words do mean things – When the group referred to “Eck” as the “Holy Spirit,” I was deeply grieved. This was beyond blasphemy, as the Holy Spirit does not fit within the construct of the group. They use this term, however, to make you think everything is one and the same, all acceptable, and all variable in form. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit; Eck is Eck is Eck, if Eck is even, arguably, a real thing in religious definition. Alternative groups and cults are quick to use this form of word-play to make you think you are all on the same page. We, as believers, must be cautious about terminology we use; how it is properly defined; and how it is properly used, both by ourselves and others.
Learn to limit your wordiness – I get notably impatient with people who take too long to get to the point. If you have to get long-winded every time you talk, you are talking too much. Everyone doesn’t need to hear the entirety of your stories…or your thoughts…or your entire life. We should all be able to give testimony in three forms: In under one minute, in under five minutes, and in complete form. None of us should have to prattle on endlessly every time we are asked a question about ourselves. No one is that interested.
New doesn’t equal truth any more than old does – It’s just as much a mistake to assume a new group is more truthful than an old one as it is to assume an old one is more truthful than a new one. New doesn’t equate to fact, and we should all be highly cautious when it comes to embracing any group that does not have some sort of grounding in a belief system that can trace itself back more than a few generations. If a group has to grapple and make things up because it does not adhere to an ancient system or tie to something tried and true…be very cautious with its embrace.
There’s a difference between science and pseudo-science – Many modern religious groups, such as Scientology and yes, even Eckankar, fall into the category of “pseudo-science.” The term literally means “false science” and is used to indicate something sounds scientific, medical, healthful, or plausible within a provable or scientific context, but there is no such evidence, even in the face of research, to prove that any of it is real. Be very careful with the “alternative” things you accept, because many of them do not have a basis in reality.
“Though logical systems often speak about turning the opportunities into reality, everything is not so simple. There’s a decisive moment in between them – the anxiety.” (Paul Tillich, Existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian)
(c) 2017 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.