The strange appeal of Eastern-styled cults

In an interesting and informative profile of Tulsi Gabbard, Kerry Howley looks at her very unusual childhood and family that are followers of a one-time white surfer-dude named Chris Butler who became a self-styled guru called Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa and founded a group called Science of Identity that has pretty weird beliefs and actions.

I had thought that Gabbard’s father was an Indian-American but it turns out that he is a socially conservative Samoan who grew up as a Catholic before becoming a devotee of the guru. Gabbard calls herself a Hindu though the guru’s sect does not identify itself as Hindu. The article says that “Butler taught vegetarianism, sexual conservatism, mind-body dualism, and disinterest in the material world. He taught a virulent homophobia, skepticism of science, and the dangers of public schools… Whenever Butler traveled, he’d have the homes he stayed in lined with tinfoil, to protect against electromagnetic radiation.” He also thinks the moon landing was a hoax.

He also was coarse and abusive.

In 1970, the Honolulu Advertiser published a piece called “One Man Rules Haiku Krishnaites,” with the subhead “Absolute power of devotees.” In the photo beside the piece, Butler is seated shirtless and smoking, hair skimming his shoulders and a sarong around his waist, staring alluringly into the distance, a mischievous smile on his face. It is the expression of less a guru than a playboy, and this is how Advertiser reporter Janice Wolf depicts him, a handsome dictator with the ability to hypnotize the two dozen 18-to-22-year-olds who live with him in his Quonset hut. One of the girls, an 18-year-old who also happened to have the Sanskrit name Tulsi, says he arranged her marriage to another member of the group. She and another girl, who say they would kill for him, describe his teachings. Among them: “Flowers scream when they’re picked. So do trees when they’re trimmed.” (“Tulsi and Boni were sitting on the lawn chewing blades of grass when they said this,” notes Wolf.)

Butler taught vegetarianism, sexual conservatism, mind-body dualism, and disinterest in the material world. He taught a virulent homophobia, skepticism of science, and the dangers of public schools.

The guru would then address the crowd. He was good with the pregnant pause. He had the kind of easy confidence you’d expect from Krishna’s representative on Earth. He was also vulgar and vindictive. “He would start excoriating people for fucking up. Sound systems not working, cups of water not being cleaned, people dressed funny, driving poorly. He would publicly mock people. And when he would do that — that’s a form of Krishna’s mercy.” Everyone I spoke to who was raised in the group described, as children, hearing Butler call men “faggots” and women “cunts.” One time in Malibu, Greg recalls, Butler had passed a man on the beach in a thong on his way to the gathering; Butler then described in graphic detail what that man allegedly wanted his “boyfriend” to do to him. “That’s vivid as a kid,” says Greg, whose name is not really Greg; he does not want to be cut off from his family.

In the videos made available to the public by the Science of Identity Foundation, Butler has cut his hair and donned a collared shirt under a V-neck sweater, and watching him lecture is a bit like imagining Mister Rogers if Mister Rogers were very stoned.

The article sheds an interesting light into one of the many small religious cults that, despite the deeply weird nature of their beliefs, seem to be able to attract followers away from the deeply weird but more familiar beliefs of the larger cults that constitute mainstream religions.


  1. says

    I used to listen to Alan Watts back in the day, and I realized eventually that he was preaching his own form of buddhism, which resulted from his cherry-picking what of buddhism he thought was good, or that he understood. I think that happens a lot with mystical religions -- people synthesize something that they are happy with and pass it along; then you get things like nation of islam, which resembles islam about as much as the democratic people’s republic of North Korea resembles democracy. Or, for another example, mormonism, which is a from-memory transcription of islam from a conman.

    The “eastern” religions make as much sense as the others (i.e.: none) -- they’re just privileged because they’re inscrutable and mysterious and the doctrinal flaws can be swept aside. That’s how you wind up with things like non-religious yoga.

  2. bmiller says

    Agree with Marcus. Except that the inscrutable, mystical forces of my YouTub account keep feeding me old Kung Fu (1970s American “orientalist”-western television show) excerpts, and they are AWESOME.

    I do wonder, though, if one of the reason we keep hearing about how cray-cray she is because she does seem to deny the underlying world view of the Eternal War Everywhere state?

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @1:

    they’re just privileged because they’re inscrutable and mysterious

    They’re only inscrutable and mysterious to people who can’t be arsed to study them (not to say they’re necessarily worth studying, mind you), and who look for quick, easy soundbites, mistaking that for “understanding”. That’s what people do. I see it all the time with people’s half-baked notions about physics. There’s nothing inscrutable or mysterious about it. It just requires some actual work to get a grasp of it.

  4. John Morales says

    Thing about physics, it’s counter-intuitive.

    I recall, back when I was a kid, encountering the concept that if you push a wheelbarrow up a hill and back down to where you started, you have done no work at all.

    (Yeah, friction and whatnot, but that was not included in the equations)

    … and then you get all quantum and stuff, and Choprawoo ensues.

  5. lorn says

    For me it comes down to the fact that the human mind is always seeking out patterns. We get a slight rush every time our understanding ‘clicks’.

    Eastern-styled cults, and Eastern philosophy and religion, offer up a fairly coherent framework on which to hang a lot of people’s experiences and feelings. It helps that the overall theme is non-judgmental and otherworldly enough that it doesn’t make most people feel guilty. If we are all just here to make mistakes and learn from them in preparation for reincarnation there isn’t a lot of judgment or blame necessary. Karma takes care of all the necessary blame and punishment. While internal judgment and correction is welcomed the context makes judgment of others largely useless.

    It is also handy in that everyone is experiencing what they deserve. The suffering poor are working off their karmic debt and so we should be happy for their opportunity to work off so much debt. On the other hand the comfortable are enjoying the consequences of their karmic good behavior. No need to feel sorry for the downtrodden. Befriend and emulate the wealthy and powerful for they are living right. It is the Eastern version of ‘The prosperity gospel’. No need to feel bad about the suffering of others. No need to feel shame about your own privileged situation. All is bliss/ illusion/ part of the karmic path toward enlightenment.

    All is well. Nothing to worry about. No need to shake things up or to be concerned with the depredations of poverty, disease, exploitation. Relax and enjoy you lot in life. No need to worry about all the details, like Global warming, income inequality, failure of entire ecosystems. Immersing yourself in this sort of thing is like a warm bath.

  6. bmiller says

    lorn: Aren’t many traditions also concerned about compassion, though?

    Or is compassion defined in a different, impractical way?

  7. lorn says

    “lorn: Aren’t many traditions also concerned about compassion, though?
    Or is compassion defined in a different, impractical way?”

    Generally, in my limited experience with Asian cults, and Prosperity gospel Christians, compassion is mainly framed in terms of ‘The best thing you can do is to care for their immortal souls by bringing them into the light (joining our group)’, recruiting; or compassion is seen as both extra credit and/or providing the group with positive exposure. Positive exposure that potentiates recruiting.

    In one case a friend bouncing around the world cheap got hired in Africa to drive a minister, kitted out with khaki safari-wear, and his grim camera crew to a refugee camp. It helped that he was young, healthy, spoke English and was white. They bought a couple of sacks of porridge, a big pot, a paddle, a stack of disposable bowls, and filled up a couple of buckets with water. They went to the camp, cooked up a pot dished it out to starving people, got lots of great video of comforting starving Africans, and then left. The whole thing didn’t take an hour. He figured they had $20k worth of video equipment and spent less than $10 on the porridge.

    My friend used to tell me over beer back here in the US how it made him sick every time that video was shown. Thinking about how the minister use that video to bring in donations for his ‘African mission which feeds the poor and bring souls to Jesus’. It was used for years.

    Yes, many Asian cults, and preachers of the Prosperity gospel, do talk about compassion. Unfortunately it is compassion used as a means to an end, not a selfless exercise in empathy or a genuine attempt at making things better.

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