An elderly woman is walking a dog in the tranquil neighborhood of Jamaica Hills, Queens when suddenly she’s chased down the street and accosted. Is this some new menace plaguing a generally low-crime area? In a way. It’s PIX11’s Mary Murphy practicing her peculiar brand of ambush journalism. What makes it especially peculiar is that in this case she’s become a surrogate stalker.
Anne Carlton and Gary Falk have been cyberstalking Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre for 25 years between them. Neighborhood residents or readers of local Queens papers would recall that Sri Chinmoy was the kindly, genial spiritual leader who lived in the area for the last 35 years of his life. See “Kids learn to help others at Sri Chinmoy Centre,” in Newsday, or “So Sorry To Lose Sri Chinmoy” in the Queens Courier.
According to The New York Times, Jamaica Hills is a tranquil haven for many ethnic groups. A synagogue, a Greek orthodox church, and a meditation garden are each attractions to different people who live side-by-side in peace. Residents say that followers of Sri Chinmoy are good neighbors because they’re quiet and law-abiding. Community Board 8 has nothing but praise for the group, crediting them with cleaning up an area which the city had abandoned, keeping it safe, clean, and crime-free.
Sri Chinmoy was originally from India, but moved to New York City in 1964 and soon began teaching a philosophy based on meditation, inner peace, and service to the world. By 1971 he had garnered praise for his meditations at the United Nations for diplomats and staff. (See “Many at U.N. Find Guru’s Message Brings Peace” in The New York Times.)
A 1976 People Magazine article lauded the guru’s genuine achievements, and noted that his followers opened up a row of businesses on Parsons Boulevard, including a health food store, a stationery store, and a café. Forty years later, those businesses are still standing and have been joined by a constellation of others. Over the decades their presence has become a familiar, non-threatening staple of life in a diverse community, a point of interest in articles describing local color.
Followers of the late guru are health & fitness buffs, and hold many races in the area, including the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal did a video piece about the race, including an interview with a local resident who said she felt safe with the runners and support staff out from 6 a.m. to midnight. Writing in the Queens Free Press, Vejai Sahadeo noted that this “Ultra Marathon is a Winner for the Neighborhood” because “the determination, resilience, and endurance the runners exhibited motivated some people to search their own life for meaning and inspired them to reach a goal they thought was not achievable.”
Sports isn’t only for the men at Sri Chinmoy Centre. The women have been breaking records right and left, including ultra runner Suprabha Beckjord and channel swimmer Abhejali Bernardová. In fact, the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team has racked up numerous channel swims by both women and men. Consummate sportswoman Vasanti Niemz speaks about her experiences in this YouTube interview.
But there’s more going on here than road racing or channel swimming. Art, music, and poetry play an important role in the guru’s “path of the heart,” and he was known to be prolific in these areas. In August 2008, nearly a year after his passing, followers held a 10-day exhibit of his “Paintings for World Harmony” in the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat building:
World leaders sent letters of support, art curators eagerly attended, and singer Roberta Flack spoke of the guru in glowing terms:
Sri Chinmoy is a man who came to walk the talk. Everything that he said, everything that he proposed, every solution that he imagined as a way for us to get closer to each other was in fact a part of his entire being. It was not a struggle for him to lead us and to guide us as artists and as thinkers. Sri Chinmoy indeed gave me the opportunity to prove that art and music are the most eloquent balms for the challenging times that we live in. His work you see here tonight is an indication that he was a creator of peace. So he was walking the talk. Again, through his words, music and art he lived every day, every second, every minute of every hour of every year of all the time striving for world harmony — he never tired. And he also never tired of encouraging everybody to do the same. I look at his art with you tonight and I hope you can see and feel as I do his strong message of peace, his ability to walk that talk, his message of peace and harmony, and love that will always be here and will continue to ring clearly and purely for generations to come.
So what’s with the cyberstalking by Anne Carlton and Gary Falk, and physical stalking by Mary Murphy? Well, almost since its birth America has partaken of a dual nature: strong ideals of religious freedom, but also a strong nativist backlash against newly arrived religious groups, including Roman Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century. The burning of convents, synagogues, and black churches is a shameful aspect of American history, even as the hope and striving for religious tolerance is a proud one.
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he had to overcome a tide of anti-Catholic sentiment. Speaking to a large group of Protestant ministers who were initially hostile to him, Kennedy said:
I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
Even before coming to America, Sri Chinmoy was a great admirer of President Kennedy, and wrote of him:
Hope is strength. Hope is progress. When the sun of hope is eclipsed, the inevitable fear of bondage looms large. Kennedy, with his breadth of outlook and depth of insight, can help immensely to restore this hope to man.
— Sri Chinmoy, Kennedy: The Universal Heart
On the subject of tolerance, Sri Chinmoy wrote:
True religion has a universal quality. It does not find fault with other religions. Forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, brotherhood and the feeling of oneness are the signs of a true religion.
— Sri Chinmoy, World-Destruction: Never, Impossible! Part 1
Sri Chinmoy was active in the interfaith community, and often met with leading figures of other faiths, from Mother Teresa to Pir Vilayat Khan. He composed songs honouring both of them, as he also did for his friends Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman, whose respect he earned.
Yet, even as many leaders were striving for greater tolerance and understanding between religions, and diverse communities were learning to live in harmony, there was also a rise in hate groups based on anti-cult ideology. While hostile to religion in general, these anti-cult groups especially targeted new arrivals who taught meditation and Eastern philosophy. Such spiritual groups varied greatly in beliefs, practices, and quality of leadership, but tended to be lumped together by anti-cultists. Sociologist Dr. Joseph E. Davis writes:
Lumping disparate groups together serves the purpose of creating the specter of conspiracy and of a stereotypical enemy. All of these elements — organized opposition, brainwashing theories, atrocity stories, calls for governmental action, combining of unrelated groups with an overarching xenophobia and religious bigotry — are a part of the anti-cult movement that appeared in the 1970s. Furthermore, with the establishment of formal anti-cult organizations, publishing enterprises, and educational programs, the anti-cult movement now has a considerable stake in keeping the cult scare alive.
In his final years, Sri Chinmoy continued to garner praise for his outstanding achievements in the fields of spirituality, art, athletics, and world peace. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Queens congressman from 1983-2013, knew Sri Chinmoy personally and visited Sri Chinmoy Centre on numerous occasions. In 2006, he offered this “Tribute To Sri Chinmoy” published in the Congressional Record. In 2007 — the final year of his life — Sri Chinmoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was not the first time, but the number of people and groups supporting his nomination was larger than ever before.
Yet, Sri Chinmoy also had to contend with increasing levels of harassment from anti-cult groups, some of whom engaged in trademark infringement. The situation got so bad that as a last resort, in 2003 Sri Chinmoy was forced to file a complaint. In it, he attested that he was a celibate yogi, but that anti-Hindu deprogrammers were registering websites in his name, using them to publish false and scurrilous attacks, some of a sexual nature, while at the same time making commercial offers to “deprogram” students of Eastern spiritual studies. Indeed, despite the good reputation which Sri Chinmoy Centre enjoyed in the community, members were sometimes kidnapped and subjected to forced “deprogramming” in what is generally considered a violation of civil rights. According to Shelley K. Parker writing in the Western New England Law Review:
Removing devotees from their chosen sect and unduly scrutinizing their religion violates the first amendment rights of freedom of religion and association. The free exercise clause of the first amendment protects the right of the individual to hold any religious belief, provided that belief is sincerely held. Beliefs may not be questioned nor put to any test of proof of validity. Even beliefs which seem irrational to most people are entitled to constitutional protection. More important, all religions should be treated equally.
Scrutinizing an individual’s religion not only interferes with the right to religious freedom, but also interferes with an individual’s freedom of association. To insure that this right is protected, any state action forcing an individual to reveal, explain, or defend associations, regardless of whether the association is for political, economic, cultural, or religious reasons, should be closely scrutinized. Denying freedom of association not only frustrates the individual, but also inhibits the growth of religious groups. All religious groups need a climate of full freedom of association to grow and develop. The Supreme Court has recognized that this constitutional protection is especially important when the beliefs and ideas which the group advocates are not those of the majority.
The possibility of being subjected to “deprogramming” may deter individuals from joining unpopular religious organizations. Present members may not wish to chance open and continuous devotion to their religious sect. Such a chilling effect is in clear contradiction to the first amendment’s purpose of protecting both freedom of religion and freedom of association.
To anti-cult groups, Sri Chinmoy’s actual teachings and record of achievements mattered little, as did the clearly voluntary process by which seekers applied to become his students and subsequently adopted a modest spiritual lifestyle. Rather, the main focus of anti-cult groups was on locating disgruntled ex-followers who could be persuaded to portray the guru in negative stereotypic terms — in effect replacing the real person with a hateful caricature. This is similar to harassment of Roman Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century, when so-called “convent tales” in the form of false first-person accounts were used to portray the life of Catholic nuns as one of captivity and rampant abuse. According to religious scholar James R. Lewis, convent tales “typically consisted of the recounting of one atrocity after another — a litany of evil held together by a thin strand of narrative.”
Today, anti-cult groups continue to circulate atrocity stories in an effort to discredit Eastern gurus, and to send a strong message that notwithstanding ideals of religious freedom written into the U.S. Constitution, participation in minority faiths is still stigmatized. Anti-cult groups may subject the minority adherent to shaming and harassment, using the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. (Hence, Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street and peppering her with insulting questions, cameras rolling all the while.)
Harassment by anti-cult groups or their surrogates makes the barriers to entry intolerably high, as citizens may fear to follow their conscience in spiritual matters, dreading the punishment meted out by aggressive majoritarians. As Shelley K. Parker noted, “Such a chilling effect is in clear contradiction to the first amendment’s purpose of protecting both freedom of religion and freedom of association.”
This highlights the often stark contrast between ideals of religious freedom we learn as schoolchildren, and the reality that when people make minority choices they may be harassed and ridiculed. We teach Frost to schoolchildren, but when someone actually takes the road less traveled by, they’re subjected to name-calling and hatred. Anti-cult groups feed the media disinformation about minority spiritual figures. This material is not fact-checked the way a piece about a Senator or corporate head would be. Such disparate treatment is the hallmark of discrimination.
In a media-dominated society, it’s not necessary to make a spiritual group illegal in order to suppress it and greatly limit its ability to function. It’s only necessary to demonize its leader and followers so as to discourage participation by sending a clear signal that such participation will be stigmatized. This leads to a climate in which peace-loving and law-abiding citizens may be falsely portrayed as criminals in order to feed the media frenzy for scapegoats or “folk devils.” There’s a confluence of interests between anti-cult groups obsessed with discrediting Eastern gurus, and tabloid media who capitalize on fear and suspicion. The net result is to fuel moral panics and inflame a reactionary mindset.
The problem, then, with PIX11’s Mary Murphy is that she often ends up being a crusader for stupidity and intolerance, not for the values of brotherhood which actually make America great. She barges in on a quiet neighborhood which is a model of people getting along, and tries to sow suspicion and religious hatred — based on ridiculous lies which she seems predisposed to believe, perhaps due to some narrowness or bigotry in her own upbringing. She does not see the people she targets as individuals with rights; she sees only a cult meme which she’s intent on commercially exploiting.
Just as it’s joked in Washington that the most dangerous place to stand is between certain politicians and a camera, the most dangerous place to stand in Queens is between Mary Murphy and an Emmy. Her treatment of Sri Chinmoy and his followers was ruthless, heartless, and inhumane. Where she opts to believe serial fabricator Anne Carlton — who is a modern day Maria Monk figure — this is a massive blunder tantamount to believing that the woman stalking David Letterman was really his wife.
A 15-second teaser for the 5 O’Clock News boasts that Mary Murphy will expose a mysterious cult found right here in New York, and closes with a salacious sound bite. The only problem is that the “mysterious cult” is a respected spiritual group with a 45-year history of good citizenship and strong roots in the community. It conducts its benign spiritual, athletic, and cultural activities in full daylight, and anyone wanting accurate information about them can easily acquire it from reputable sources (which do not include PIX11!).
Sri Chinmoy’s followers are people who buy homes or rent apartments in the Jamaica Hills area, and open up small businesses like cafés and flower shops. For decades they’ve contributed to the low crime rate and economic revitalization of the area. They have a well-earned reputation for clean living, inspired by their teacher Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in October 2007 at the age of 76. His loss was mourned by thousands of people worldwide. To state the obvious, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime. Why would he be, since he was a model citizen?
As for those who circulate salacious material (mostly via the Internet), they’re what are commonly known as kooks and cranks. No one at PIX11 bothered to ask whether any of them were on psychiatric medication, or had ever been fired from a job for sending threatening and abusive e-mails, and therefore bore an obsessive grudge. The answers to such questions would have been revealing.
Mary Murphy’s story was untruthful and unfair. Sri Chinmoy got kinder treatment from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and from the late Sister Nirmala Joshi. Closer to home, he got fairer treatment from the late Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, born in Richmond Hill and affiliated with the Rockville Centre Diocese. Father Tom penned the introduction to The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy. So many good people of Sri Chinmoy’s generation who knew him and could speak for him have sadly passed on, leaving his memory open to shark attacks from the likes of Mary Murphy.
Deep in our hearts we all want to live in a world where there is peace and harmony. Sri Chinmoy strove each day to help create such a world. That’s why false material vilifying him is especially offensive to those who knew him, knew his good works, and knew him to be a kindly soul.
Like John F. Kennedy, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.