Oom the Omnipotent


1876 (October 31):  Pierre Bernard was born as Perry Arnold Baker in Leon, Iowa.

1889:  Bernard met his yoga teacher, Sylvais Hamati.

1893:  Bernard and Hamati traveled to California.

1898:  Bernard ran the San Francisco College for Suggestive Sciences. He performed the “Kali Mudra” stunt to advertise the power of yoga.

1902:  Bernard was arrested for practicing medicine illegally.

1906:  Bernard published Vira Sadhana: The International Journal of the Tantrik Order of America

1906:  Bernard left San Francisco, traveling to Seattle and then New York City.

1910:  Bernard was arrested in New York City on charges of abduction. The charges were subsequently dropped.

1918:  Bernard and Blanche DeVries married.

1919:  Bernard created the Braeburn Country Club in Nyack, New York, with funding provided by Anne Vanderbilt.

1919:  State police raided the Braeburn Country Club

1924:  Bernard expanded the Braeburn Country Club to become the Clarkstown Country Club.

1933:  Bernard created the Clarkstown Country Club Sports Centre, with a baseball diamond and a football field.

1939:  Boxer Lou Nova trained under Bernard for his bout against Max Baer.

1941:  DeVries resigned from the Clarkstown Country Club, formalizing her separation from Bernard.

1955:  Bernard died.

1956:  DeVries sold the Clarkstown Country Club to the Missionary Training Institute.


Pierre Bernard, sometimes referred to as “Oom the Omnipotent,” was an early advocate of postural yoga in America. He created a number of short-lived organizations to promote yoga, Sanskri, and tantric teachings, including San Francisco College for Suggestive Therapeutics, The Tantrik Order of America, and the New York Sanskrit College. He finally found success in the Clarkstown Country Club, where he popularized postural yoga by training the wealthy, athletes, and celebrities.

Bernard demonstrated some genuine knowledge of hatha yoga, Vedic philosophy, and even tantric practices. However, he embellished this training with a good measure of charlatanism, especially in the first part of his career. After meeting his wife, Blanche DeVries, Bernard was able to make postural yoga acceptable to Americans by re-branding it as “physical culture” and a technique for achieving health, beauty, and athleticism. Prior to this, many Americans associated yoga and Hinduism with sexual deviance, primitivism, and white slavery. At their country club in Nyack New York, they trained heiresses, athletes, and celebrities, who further popularized yoga. For better or worse, Bernard pioneered an American movement that separated postural yoga from its Hindu roots, transforming it into a secular exercise form.

Pierre Bernard’s biography[Image at right]  is challenging because he used numerous aliases and provided false details about his origins. The most authoritative sources record that he was born in 1876 as Perry Arnold Baker in Leon, Iowa (Love 2010:9). Bernard often claimed he had travelled in India, although this seems implausible. He did, however, meet a man named Sylvais Hamati in 1889 in Lincoln, Nebraska, who taught him hatha yoga and Vedic philosophy. Hamati’s background is also murky. He had come to America from Calcutta and may have worked as a performer prior to meeting Bernard. Bernard began studying under Hamati for three hours a day and, in 1893, they travelled to California (Love 2010:12-13). In San Francisco, Bernard was able to meet some early representatives of Hinduism in America, including Swami Vivekananda and Swami Ram Tirath (Laycock 2013:104).

With help from his uncle, Dr. Clarence Baker, Bernard established a business using his yogic training as a sort of holistic medicine. By 1898, Bernard had established a business called the San Francisco College for Suggestive Therapeutics. That year, he performed a stunt called “the Kali Mudra” [Image at right] as a public demonstration of the power of yoga: Bernard entered a death-like trance and doctors were invited to probe or cut him in an attempt to elicit a response. In 1902, Bernard was arrested for practicing medicine illegally. This was the first of many obstacles as Bernard sought a way to earn a livelihood training Americans in yoga (Laycock 2013:104).

Bernard and Hamati were also experimenting with an esoteric group called The Tantrik Order of America. This group drew bohemians, actors, and artists, and offered training in Vedic philosophy, yoga, and tantra. Bernard had plans to create a network of Tantrik lodges in different cities; however, it remains unclear if significant groups were ever formed outside of San Francisco. In 1906, Bernard published the first and only volume of Vira Sadhana: The International Journal of the Tantrik Order of America.  [Image at right] Bernard also created a social club known as “The Bacchante Club,” where men dressed in Oriental-inspired robes, smoked hookahs, and watched women perform Oriental dances. The San Francisco police monitored The Bacchante Club, even sending in officers undercover (Love 2010:40). The police may have been motivated by sensationalized media stories about Hindu gurus mesmerizing and enslaving white women.

Bernard left San Francisco in 1906, possibly hoping to avoid police scrutiny. He and a few followers travelled to Seattle before re-locating to New Yo rk City. By 1910, Bernard had created a new Tantrik Order lodge on 74th Street in Manhattan. Once again, Bernard’s operation presented both an esoteric and an exoteric face: The lodge offered yoga classes to promote health and vigor as well as initiation into the secrets of the Tantrik Order (Laycock 2013:105).

Many of Bernard’s students were young women who had become interested in yoga after watching vaudeville performances of Oriental dancing. Bernard had a number of romantic relationships with his female students. One such student was Gertrude Leo, who had met Bernard in and followed him to New York. Bernard also had a relationship with Zelia Hopp. Hopp suffered from health problems and Bernard had approached her under the alias “Dr. Warren” and offered to help. On May 2, 1910, Hopp, along with Leo’s Sister, Jennie Miller, led detectives to Bernard’s school whereupon Bernard was arrested for abduction (Laycock 2013:105-06).

1910 was the same year that the Mann Act, also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, was passed. Hopp and Leo’s story seemed to confirm many Americans’ worst fears about women being trafficked, and Bernard’s trial became a media coup. It was covered not only in New York City’s forty daily newspapers, but also in Seattle and San Francisco. Leo and Hopp reported that Bernard sometimes referred to himself as “the Great Om,” and by the afternoon after his arrest, headlines were calling him “Oom the Omnipotent.” They also claimed that Bernard had kept them in captivity using a combination of threats and hypnotic power. Bernard spent more than three months awaiting trial in the infamous Manhattan jail known as “The Tombs.” The case collapsed after Bernard’s lawyer was able to get Leo disqualified as a witness, and Hopp dropped all charges and fled New York City. With no witnesses, Bernard was released (Laycock 2013:107).

Bernard seems to have learned from this episode that Orientalist fantasies about yoga were a double-edged sword: They could attract clients in search of adventure, but they also played into a moral panic about gurus using nefarious forms of mind control to prey on women. During the trial Bernard insisted that yoga was merely “physical culture,” a talking point that he would continue to raise in the face of criticism.

Upon his release from The Tombs, Bernard moved to Leonia, New Jersey. When he returned to New York, he set up a new school, but this time he branded his teachings as academic, rather than esoteric. He called his new business the New York Sanskrit College and took the alias Homer Stansbury Leeds. He hired faculty from India to teach courses in Sanskrit, Vedic philosophy, Ayurvedic medicine, and Indian music. Unfortunately, the New York Sanskrit College was immediately the subject of rumors by neighbors and media in search of stories. The State Board of Education sent police to arrest him for running a “college” without any license or academic credentials. This time, Bernard evaded arrest end returned to Leonia (Laycock 2013:107-08).

In Leonia, Bernard began a new romance with the woman who would change his fortunes: Dace Shannon Charlot. Charlot had come to New York after leaving her abusive husband. Her divorce attorney also represented Bernard. Charlot’s divorce had attracted some media attention, which she hoped to use to launch a career in vaudeville. She changed her name to Blanche DeVries and studied dance at the New York Sanskrit College. [Image at right] Bernard and DeVries married in 1918, and in their letters the two refer to each other as “Shiva” and “Shakti,” respectively. DeVries understood how to find the right market for Bernard’s teachings. Bernard ceased fleeing police, holding “Bacchante Club” meetings, or using aliases. With DeVries’s guidance, Bernard opened several yoga studios around New York aimed exclusively at women (Laycock 2013:108).

One of Bernard’s new students was Margaret Rutherford, daughter of Anne Vanderbilt. In 1919, Mrs. Vanderbilt funded the Braeburn Country Club in Nyack, New York (Laycock 2013:108). The Club attracted wealthy aristocrats who sought to improve their health and relieve their boredom by studying yoga. The town was initially hostile to Bernard. There were rumors that Bernard ran “a love cult” and that he performed abortions. In its first year, mounted state police raided the club (Randall 1995:83). But Bernard soon became an important taxpayer and even a pillar of the community. In 1922, the New York Times wrote of him, “The ‘‘Omnipotent Oom’ . . . is known here simply as Mr. Bernard, one of the most active and patriotic townspeople of Nyack.”

In 1924, Bernard spent $200,000 purchasing and developing an additional seventy-six acres for his estate, renaming it the Clarkstown Country Club (Laycock 2013:108). This was followed by the creation of the massive Clarkstown Country Club Sports Centre in 1933, which featured a baseball diamond, a football field, and impressive electric lights (Love 2010:250). At the height of his career, Bernard owned $12,000,000 in real estate. He was the president of a county bank, owned a mortgage company, a reconstruction corporation, and a large realty company, and was the treasurer of the Rockland County Chamber of Commerce (Clarkstown Country Club 1935:124).

However, Bernard never shed his flamboyant style completely, which attracted more patrons to his club. He purchased a troupe of elephants as well as several apes and other exotic animals. The elephants were featured in an annual circus in which students performed as acrobats. Bernard also invented the sport of “donkey ball,” a variant of baseball with all players (save the catcher and pitcher) mounted on donkeys (Love 2010:274).

The club became a hub for Americans who were integrating Asian religions into American culture. Bernard’s nephew, Theos Bernard, travelled to Tibet before receiving his doctorate from Columbia University and publishing a classical text on hatha yoga. Bernard’s half-sister married Hazra Inayat Khan, the founder of The Sufi Order International (Ward 1991:40). The biochemist Ida Rolf studied under Bernard, and her physical therapy technique of structural integration or “rolfing” has similarities to the scientific approach to yoga advocated by Bernard (Stirling and Snyder 2006:8). In her youth, Ruth Fuller Sasaki spent time at the Clarkstown Country Club as therapy for her asthma (Stirling and Snynder 2006:6). She went on to be instrumental in importing Zen Buddhism to America, translating important several important texts into English.

In 1939, heavyweight boxer Lou Nova arrived at the country club to study yoga. The training had been conceived as a stunt to promote his upcoming fight with Max Baer. Nova learned headstands, meditation, and boxed with one of Bernard’s elephants, which had been trained to wear one oversized glove on its trunk. Newspapers reported that Nova had mastered “the cosmic punch” under Bernard’s training. Later, Nova patented a device called the “yogi nova” to assist practice with headstands (Laycock 2013:125). Figures like Nova helped to broadcast the idea to Americans that yoga could give athletes an edge.

By the end of the 1930s the Clarkstown Country Club had started a slow decline. Bernard also became estranged from DeVries, and in 1941 she resigned from the Club, formalizing her separation from Bernard (Love 2010:304). Bernard died in 1955. The following year, the nearby Missionary Training Institute purchased the land. Today, Nyack College stands on the former site of the Clarkstown Country Club. The campus folklore includes stories about paranormal phenomena left behind by the strange rituals allegedly performed by Pierre Bernard (Swope 2008).


 The Clarkstown Country Club had a sizeable library and Bernard lectured on a wide variety of topics. However, little is known about his actual beliefs regarding yoga and tantra. This problem is rendered more difficult by the fact that he catered his teachings to his audience, presenting himself as an esoteric master in some contexts, a holistic healer in others, and an athletic trainer in still others. There is no record of Bernard discussing doctrines of Hinduism such as karma, reincarnation, or moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). Perhaps Bernard was most honest in a 1939 interview for American Weekly when he stated, “Yoga’s my bug, that’s all. Like another guy will go in for gardening or collecting stamps” (Love 2010:296).

There is some evidence that while he was running The Tantrik Order Bernard understood himself to be a traditional tantric guru and expected his initiates to regard him as having a quasi-divine status. This may be how Bernard regarded his own teacher, Sylvais Hamati. Intriguingly, Bernard’s publication Vira Sadhana contains an illustration of the Greek god Bacchus holding a staff and states that he came from India (Tantrik Order of America 1906:49). There are, of course, legends tying Bacchus’s Greek counterpart, Dionysus, to Asia. Bernard’s Bacchante club was named after Bacchus and Bernard may have believed that the Greek mystery schools were, in fact, a form of tantra imported from India.



Little is known about the Tantrik Order of America. [Image at right] It apparently had seven degrees of initiation, each of which required a blood oath. Women were allowed to join, as was revealed by testimony during Bernard’s 1910 trial for abduction. The Order seemed loosely modeled on Freemasonry, and its chapters were called “lodges.”

In New York City, we have some descriptions of Bernard’s yoga classes, which seem to have added elements of the exotic. A detective testifying at Bernard’s trial described students tumbling on a mat with “strange figures” on it while Bernard stood near a crystal ball (Laycock 2013:106). These esoteric elements were largely dropped by the time Bernard was running a country club. Bernard does seem to have pioneered important material aspects of American postural yoga, such as having specialized mats and having students wear tights while training.

The Clarkstown Country Club emphasized physical culture and adult education with a heavy dose of play and whimsy. A stone pediment at the gate stated, “HERE THE PHILOSOPHER MAY DANCE AND THE FOOL MAY WEAR A THINKING CAP” (Boswell 1965). In addition to yoga classes, Bernard would lecture on a wide range of topics and maintained a large library. The Club forbade sex, liquor, and smoking, at least officially. Bernard still consumed cigars, and skinny-dipping was reported to be a popular activity.


Bernard seems to have regarded Sylvais Hamati as his guru. During his time in New York there were rumors that Bernard encouraged his students to think of him as a god. While this behavior disturbed Americans, it makes more sense in the context of tantra where gurus are understood as having a divine status. Bernard was also rumored to sometimes be deliberately off-putting around new students, doing things like chomping cigars and spitting near their feet, to test whether they were worthy to study under him (Watts 2007:120).

DeVries seems to have been essential in helping Bernard to rebrand himself. However, she does not seem to have been an equal partner in teaching yoga or running the finances of the Clarkstown Country Club. Despite their estrangement, she was left as Bernard’s sole heir and executress upon his death.


Bernard’s lifelong challenge was getting Americans to overcome their negative attitudes toward yoga, which were rooted in bigoted fear of Hinduism, racist attitudes toward Asians, Victorian attitudes about the body and sexuality, and a moral panic over white slavery. Of course, many Americans were interested in yoga because of Orientalist fantasies about beautiful dancing harem girls and athletic, savage men. Bernard was not above catering to these fantasies, which caused many to perceive him as a charlatan. He was ultimately able to strike a balance in which he made yoga appealing to those seeking beauty and athleticism without seeming scandalous.

Since Bernard, many Americans now associate yoga not with mysticism but with posh yoga supplies and vain people sculpting their bodies. Groups such as the Hindu American Foundation have expressed frustration that Americans have divorced yoga from its roots in Hinduism and turned it into a form of secular exercise (Vitello 2010). Bernard was clearly interested in Vedanta philosophy and would likely have taught a less secular form of yoga, if only Americans been ready for this in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Image #1: Pierre Bernard.
Image #2: Bernard performing the Kali Mudra.

Image #3: Vira Sadhana: The International Journal of the Tantrik Order of America.
Image #4: Blan.che DeVries.
Image #5: Clarkstown Country Club.
Image #6: Tantric Order of America charter document.


Boswell, Charles. 1965. “The Great Fuss and Fume Over the Omnipotent Oom.” True: The Man’s
 Magazine, January. Accessed from http://people.vanderbilt.edu/~richard.s.stringer-hye/fuss.htm on 22 November 2008.

Clarkstown Country Club. 1935. Life at the Clarkstown Country Club. Nyack, NY: The Club.

Laycock, Joseph. 2013. “Yoga for the New Woman and the New Man The Role of Pierre Bernard and Blanche DeVries in the Creation of Modern Postural Yoga.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 23:101-36.

Love, Robert. 2010. The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. New York: Viking.

Randall, Monica. 1995. Phantoms of the Hudson Valley: the Glorious Estates of Lost Era. New York: Overlook Press.

Stirling, Isabel and Gary Snyder. 2006. Ruth Fuller Sasaki: Zen Pioneer. New York: Shoemaker and Hoard Publishers.

Swope, Robin S. 2008. “The Specters of Oom” The Paranormal Pastor, July 1. Accessed from http://theparanormalpastor.blogspot.com/2008/07/specters-of-oom.html on 3 March 2021.

Tantrik Order of America. 1906. Vira Sadhana: International Tantrik Order vol 1: issue 1. New York: Tantrik Press.

Ward, Gary L. 1991. “Bernard, Pierre Arnold.” Pp. 39-40 in Religious Leaders of America, edited by J. Gordon Melton. New York: Gale.

Watts, Alan. 2007. In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965. New York: New World Library.

Vitello, Paul. 2010. “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul” New York Times, November 27. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/nyregion/28yoga.html on 3 March 2021.

Publication Date:
9 April 2021


Sacred Living Movement


1970:  Anni Daulter was born.

2005:  Anni Daulter founded Bohemian Baby.

2012 (May):  Sacred Pregnancy: A Loving Guide and Journal for Expectant Moms was published.

2012 (November):  The first Sacred Pregnancy retreat was held in California.

2015 (June):  A campaign was initiated on the Go Fund Me crowd fundraising platform to raise money for a Retreat Center for the Sacred Living Movement.

2016 (July):  Anni Daulter and Niki Dewart published Sacred Motherhood: An Inspirational Guide and Journal for Mindfully Mothering Children of All Ages.

2017 (January):  Anni Daulter, Jessica Booth and Jessica Smithson published Sacred Medicine Cupboard: A Holistic Guide and Journal for Caring for Your Family Naturally.

2017 (August):  Anni Daulter published Sacred Pregnancy Journey Deck: Inspirational Guidance for Your Pregnancy

2017 (September):  Anni and Tim Daulter published Sacred Relationship: Heart Work for Couples: Daily Practices and Inspirations for a Deeper Connection


Anni Daulter was born in 1970. [Image at right] She attributes her early interest in storytelling to her mother, who she has described as unusually adept at making space for and encouraging others to tell their stories to her (Ramakrishna n.d.). She pursued her education at the University of Southern California and received a Masters Degree in Social Work.

Anni’s husband, Tim Daulter, earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware and in 2001 a MBA in Business Management from Pepperdine University. In addition to co-founding Sacred Relationship with Anni, Tim is Founder of Sacred Men. [Image at right] The couple has had four children (Zoë, Lotus Sunshine, Bodhi Ocean and River Love).

It was after the birth of their first child that Anni Daulter began a writing career, authoring four books on organic and healthy living lifestyles. She was founder and owner of Bohemian Baby, an organic baby food company, between 2005 and 2008. It was her fourth book, Sacred Pregnancy, published in 2012, that led her to shift her career emphasis and form the Sacred Living Movement with her husband.

As Anni Daulter describes, the Sacred Living Movement was born out of a need Daulter herself sensed as she negotiated the world of pregnancy, birth and early childhood as a young mother. Attending a prenatal yoga class, she noticed that the most meaningful experiences women enjoyed were the connections made around the water cooler or over tea after class. It was the connections, the story telling and community that women craved and that Daulter then strove to create. What began with a single Sacred Pregnancy Retreat in Ojai, California in November 2012 has grown to a movement that has held retreats in over ten countries and has trained hundreds of women to be instructors and practitioners in their own communities. While the movement began with small scale retreats focused primarily on pregnancy and birth, the movement has since grown to include retreats and trainings for rites of passage from girl’s first menstruation to breastfeeding to pregnancy loss, infertility, menopause and themes such as relationships, brotherhood, and financial success. In each of these retreats, the focus is to bring the sacred to the mundane and to infuse community into what has become individualized and isolated.

When Daulter talks about her hope for the movement and her motivations for creating it, she reflects on a return to primordial religion and to paradigms of the divine feminine, before patriarchy worked its way in, before society created barriers to religious and spiritual expression. In her retreats and communities, she hopes to create space where women (and occasionally men) can access the divine within them and connect with the sacred within themselves but also within the rites of passage in their own lives and in their connections to other women and men in their families and communities. She is not creating a new religion and does not seek exclusive commitment or a particular label. Her movement, her retreats, books, trainings are meant to help supplement, deepen, enrich whatever path people are already on just as they might chart a path for someone searching for a path anew.


The Sacred Living Movement does not profess any institutional doctrines or beliefs that its members, attendees, leaders, must adhere to or affirm. Instead, the movement welcomes participants from any religious tradition and does not suggest nor require that any participants renounce or replace any of those religious doctrines with those of the movement. As such, the books, websites and other publications of the movement do not contain belief statements or membership guidelines. The Movement instead is meant to supplement, enrich, and enhance the religious and spiritual life of the participant, whether that fits within an institutional religious tradition or not. In interviews, Daulter describes how this works in practice. Recognizing that some of the particular rituals or practices of the movement might conflict with the doctrines or practices of an individual participant, she encourages people to change the words, the meanings, abstain or reorient as they desire. The emphasis is not on conformity to a doctrine or orthodoxy or orthopraxy but rather to a deepening of experience and a sense of the sacred for the individual. In order for that to be authentic and true, it might look different for each and every person.

With these caveats in mind, a general philosophy can be gleaned from the offerings of the Sacred Living University website, from the various books published by Anni Daulter and her co-authors, from the content of the trainings, and from descriptions of the retreats themselves. The term “sacred” infuses the entire movement and belies a sense that all aspects of the immanent realm, from the mundane tasks of everyday life to the very basic of bodily functions and abilities, have the potential to be carried out with elevated focus and reverence. To see the sacred in the mundane but also in the less mundane (the rites of passage that mark the lives of women, in particular) those rites of passage that have been, of late, medicalized, isolated, and made impersonal, is both a radical and transformative move in the eyes of the movement. To elevate not just pregnancy and birth but menstruation, breastfeeding, menopause, sexuality to the level of the sacred means to embrace the human, the divine feminine, and life in new and powerful ways. [Image at right] The rituals practiced at retreats and suggested in the books all help to infuse the reader or attendees life with these new sensibilities. To do these rituals in connection with other people, either in a community at a retreat or with the support of a trained practitioner, deepens the experience of connection as well.

And it is this focus on infusing sacrality into life that is the most central belief of the movement. The wide spectrum of religions, spiritual and cultural traditions that influence the rituals and practices that the movement utilizes to achieve that goal demonstrate that the focus is on the goal more than on any commitment to orthodoxy or orthopraxy. The movement makes no attempt to define ultimate reality or even define the “sacred” but rather is a collective effort to elevate the human experience to greater connection, greater beauty and reverence. And it is this broad and intentionally vague language that makes the movement potentially accessible to a broad range of people. Participants range from devout practitioners of institutional religions that demand exclusive commitments but who are seeking something to supplement what they find in their religious community to the Spiritual but not Religious for whom this might be their only spiritual practice and community.


The Sacred Living Movement would have little meaning without ritual. Each of the retreats and trainings center around carefully designed rituals meant to build community, [Image at right] encourage reflection, and bring a sense of the sacred to the rite of passage. The rituals and practices of the Sacred Living Movement differ based upon the particular retreat and/or training but all borrow freely from a variety of traditions and cultures. Anni Daulter herself ascribes to a mix of Buddhist and Pagan traditions and has recently begun to integrate a variety of Wiccan traditions into the Movement’s offerings.

The rituals used are very much dependent on the focus of a particular training or retreat. For example, if a retreat or training is focused on a particular aspect of pregnancy, birth or postpartum care, the rituals will be a combination of emotional, spiritual, and physical focus. For a women taking part in a postpartum retreat, there might be opportunities for journaling and processing of the birth experience, recording of the story in a beautiful journal as a keepsake as well as sharing the story with other women for affirmation and community formation. Women might also take part in rituals that involve holistic care for the body, the use of herbal and traditional remedies to heal traumatized parts of the body as well as floral baths and tinctures to elevate the woman’s spirit and bring about a re-connection with her physical self. Rituals provide opportunities to recognize the power and beauty of the mother, encourage bonding with the baby, and care for and heal the body. Each ritual is performed with attention to the psychological effects of the dramatic and life-altering experience of giving birth and transitioning into motherhood, thus elevating even the most basic aspects of postpartum care to the level of spiritual ritual and sacred practice.


The Sacred Living Movement [Image at right] is now organized online under the title “Sacred Living University” as a means of emphasizing the use of retreats and online forum for training and community building. Anni Daulter is listed as the founder and creator and she is joined in the leadership team by her husband Tim Daulter and nine women. Each of these eleven individuals is connected to one, two, or three of the specific programs on offer. These individuals usually coordinate the specific trainings under their purview and lead in-person retreats when offered.

The movement now holds retreats throughout the world though its primary focus remains in the continental United States. Moreover, local groups often meet regularly, sometimes without direct connection to the national movement. The online presence of the movement has increased and now includes several avenues for training that enable trainees to use the skills and techniques gained to lead spiritual communities or to provide paid services to people in their communities. In recent years, the movement’s internet presence has evolved from advertising upcoming retreats to focusing on online trainings. Designed by Jessica Rose Booth, the website displays these offerings in the characteristic style of the movement.

What is now called “Sacred Living University” is a series of online trainings to enable individuals to gain training and certification in a variety of rituals and services that they might then offer to individuals and groups in their community. These trainings are grouped into three categories. The first, “Rites of Passage” focus on bringing “mindfulness, ceremony and beauty to life’s milestones & transitions” (Sacred Living University. n.d. “Rites of Passage”). These include Sacred Menarche, Sacred Blood Mysteries, Conscious Conception, Sacred Fertility, Sacred Mother Blessing, Sacred Pregnancy, Sacred Birth Journey, The Art of Sacred Postpartum, Sacred Belly Bind, Sacred Milk Tent, Sacred V Steams & Teas, and Sacred Menopause. In all cases, these classes are “grounded in heart work, and include practical skills, ceremony, intentional rituals and holistic wellness” (Sacred Living University n.d. “Rites of Passage”). The second category, “Intentional Living,” promises “approaches to life that help you thrive in all ways” but does not yet have any classes listed (Sacred Living University n.d. “Online Classes”). The third category of classes is “Touching Your Magic.” The track has two pathways: “Claiming Your Power” classes, which “focus on claiming your strength, your unfolding truths and your potent visions” and “Practical Magic” Classes, which offer guidance on specific daily practice of magic (Sacred Living University. n.d. “Touching Your Magic”). Among the offerings for “Claiming Your Power” are “I Am Sisterhood, Priestess Path and Sacred Brotherhood. For “Practical Magic,” they offer Intro to Spell Craft, Potions, Rebel Rose Reiki, Sacred Crystals, Sacred Elements, Sacred Money Manifestation, Sacred Ritual Dance, Sacred Ritual Dream, Sacred Sex Magick, Sacred Goddess Red Drum, Sacred Cacao Ceremony and Sacred Year.

As Daulter describes it, the movement has grown organically as the need for new and different retreats and trainings has arisen. Different members of the organization have been tapped to take on the leadership of these new initiative based on their expertise. The women and few men who now oversee particular aspects of the movement have expertise in those areas and thus have authority to develop the particular curriculum for trainings and agenda for retreats. All areas of the movement operate within the general philosophy of the movement, and all are influenced by the “beauty way” that Daulter infuses throughout the movement.

Though not listed anywhere formally on the Sacred Living Movement’s website, there exist a number of local affiliates of the movement that offer local retreats and community connections that build on the philosophy and model of the Sacred Living Movement. Often started by women who have attended Sacred Living Movement retreats and participated in trainings, these local affiliates have varying levels of conformity to the national movement and go by a variety of names.


The challenges facing the Sacred Living Movement are those shared by many similar movements that are loosely organized, relatively new, and geographically dispersed. Some of these challenges have also enabled the movement to pivot and grow in ways that are difficult for more established and institutionalized religious organizations and has also allowed the movement to continue its work in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021.

One challenge to movement integration is that the Sacred Living Movement does not have a central location and so any community gatherings that happen would be in varied locals or even only in cyberspace. The movement did undertake a fundraising campaign to raise money for a central retreat center (Crowder n.d.). This does not seem to have come to fruition. While the fundraising effort was begun in June of 2015 with a goal of raising $300,000 to establish a space for live retreats and a tiny house village for year-round living, the site has currently raised less than $5,000 and does not appear to be active. The last donation was made fifty-six months prior to this writing. Interestingly, the virtual focus of the movement and the transitory nature of the retreats has made the movement able to weather the financial strains of the Covid-19 pandemic in ways that other more geographically-fixed movements have not. While other movements have had to learn how to create community online or to complete instruction and trainings through the internet, this was already the model on which this movement operates.

A second challenge is the movement’s cultural appropriation of ideas and practices. A spiritual movement without ties to a particular religious tradition, the Sacred Living Movement frequently adapts and applies practices and ideas from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions as well as cultures from throughout the world. While attribution is sometimes given in the books that spell out particular rituals or in training manuals and materials, this is not always the case in the midst of a retreat or community gathering. This issue of potential cultural appropriation has brought some conflict or tension between the national and local movements. A predominantly white leadership and difficulty in diversifying participation in retreats and trainings have exacerbated these tensions. Local affiliates have been able to tailor their activities to cast a wider net and potentially to offer a more palatable experience to a broader cross-section of women.

The Sacred Living Movement is still in its organizational infancy and has evolved and changed substantially over its short history. It clearly has resonated, primarily with women, who are seeking to connect with the divine feminine they understand to reside within them. [Image at right] It has adopted easily to online presence. At the same time, though Anni Daulter provides strong creative leadership to the movement, the movement does not possess a number of the integrative mechanisms commonly found in emerging spiritual and religious movements: a clear set of doctrines and practices that define movement identity and boundaries, mechanisms for producing membership growth and a successor generation, and a geographic base. Though such challenges might affect the continued success and growth of the movement, its focus on sacralizing and elevating rites of passage and bringing the sacred to pregnancy and birth in particular, are likely to continue to have significant cultural relevance for years to come.


Image #1: Anni Daulter.
Image #2: Tim Daulter
Image #3: The cover of Sacred Pregnancy: A Loving Guide and Journal for Expectant Moms by Anni Daulter.
Image #4: Sacred Living Movement ritual gathering.
Image #5: Sacred Living Movement logo.
Image #6: Sacred Living Movement symbolism.

** Unless otherwise noted, the material in this profile is drawn from Ann Duncan.
“Sacred Pregnancy in the Age of the ‘Nones’.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85:4 (December 2017): 1089-1115.

Crowder, Sue. n.d. “Sacred Living Center.” Gofundme. Accessed from https://www.gofundme.com/f/sacredlivingcenter on 15 January 2021.

Duncan, Ann. 2017. “Sacred Pregnancy in the Age of the ‘Nones,.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85:1089-1115.

Ramakrishna, Asha D. n.d. “Claiming Sacred Witch in Modern Times with Anni Daulter.” Women on Purpose. Accessed from https://soundcloud.com/ashaisnow/claiming-sacred-witch-in on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Online Classes.” Accessed from http://www.sacredlivinguniversity.com/classes.html on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Rites of Passage.” Accessed from http://www.sacredlivinguniversity.com/rites-744908.html on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Touching Your Magic.” Accessed from http://www.sacredlivinguniversity.com/magic-467514.html on 15 January 2021.


Blumberg, Antonia. 2014. “A Woman’s Quest to Reinvigorate the Sacred Nature of Pregnancy,” HuffPost Religion, November 5. Accessed from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sacred-pregnancy-anni-daulter_us_563be540e4b0b24aee49af97 on 23 April 2020.

Daulter, Anni. 2017. Sacred Pregnancy Journey Deck: Inspirational Guidance for Your Pregnancy. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni. 2012. Sacred Pregnancy: A Loving Guide and Journal for Expectant Moms. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni. n.d. “Sacred Manifesto.” Sacred Pregnancy: The Deep Drink. Accessed from https://www.sacred-pregnancy.com/about-us on 20 April 2020.

Daulter, Anni, Jessica Booth and Jessica Smithson. 2017. Sacred Medicine Cupboard: A Holistic Guide and Journal for Caring for Your Family Naturally. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni and Niki Dewart. 2016. Sacred Motherhood: An Inspirational Guide and Journal for Mindfully Mothering Children of All Ages. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni and Tim Daulter. 2017. Sacred Relationship: Heart Work for Couples – Daily Practices and Inspirations for a Deeper Connection. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Publication Date:
29 January 2021


Cassadaga Spiritual Camp


1848 (January 6):  George P. Colby was born.

1875:  George Colby relocated to Florida.

1893:  The National Spiritualist Association (now the National Spiritualist Association of Churches) was established.

1893 (January):  George Colby announced in January 1893 that the National Spiritual and Liberal Association would soon meet at DeLeon Springs in Volusia County, Florida.

1894:  The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association (CSCMA) incorporated.

1895:  George Colby deeded thirty-five acres of land to the CSCMA to make a Spiritualist Camp.

1895 (February 8):  The Association opened for its first season and one hundred people attended the three-day event held at Colby’s home.

1922:  The original Cassadaga hotel was constructed on the Association grounds.

1926:  The original Cassadaga Hotel burned down. Reconstruction began the following year and was completed in 1928.

1933:  The community trustees sold the Cassadaga Hotel to a non-member purchaser.

1933 (July 27):  George Colby died in Deland, Florida.

1991:  Cassadaga Spiritual Camp was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

2019:  The 125th anniversary of the founding of Cassadaga took place.


Cassadaga, Lily Dale, and Camp Chesterfield are three of the most significant remaining spiritual camps in the U.S. (Compton 2019). While there remain a number of other active  camps in the U.S., such as Camp Etna in rural Maine (Yechivi 2019), most have shuttered or operate seasonally (Leonard 2020). Cassadaga (a Seneca Indian tribal phrase meaning “rocks beneath the water”), which was established in 1894, is the oldest spiritual camp in the South. The name for the camp was taken from Lake Cassadaga where Lily Dale is located. It is often referred to as the “Psychic Capital of the World.” 2019 marked the 125th anniversary [Image at right] of the founding of Cassadaga. Despite the camp’s prominence, there are only a few comprehensive historical sources on Cassadaga (United States Department of the Interior 1991; Schaleman n.d.; Leonard 2020, 2017).

George P. Colby, [Image at right] the principal founder of Cassadaga, was born on January 6, 1848 (the same year that the Fox Sisters made spirit contact in Hydesville, New York, which started the Modern Spiritualist movement and eventual religion) to Baptists James Colby and Elminia (Lewis) Colby in Pike, New York (Colby 2020; Mimna 2017; Leonard 2020). When Colby was eight years-old, the family moved to Minnesota. Colby was baptized when he was twelve. As a young teenager, Colby apparently began to develop his psychic abilities. He soon became known in the area for healing and  clairvoyant powers. He had left the Baptist church by 1867 and had begun traveling and making a living through displays of his abilities during private readings and seances as well as public appearances. He frequently visited Lily Dale in New York, as well as other Spiritualist associations and camps. As an adult, Colby remained unmarried, but he did adopt several boys and supported their education. He enjoyed a measure of prosperity during his life, [Image at right] but also experienced prolonged illness and poverty toward the end of his life.

Colby reported that early in his development as a medium he received a message from his uncle’s spirit that he would one day establish a Spiritualist camp in the South. Seneca instructed Colby to visit T. D. Giddings in Wisconsin, and the pair then traveled together to Florida to establish a spiritualist center, with the location to be determined by a “Congress of Spirits.” Colby also had begun to suffer from ill health and was advised by a doctor to seek out a warmer climate in order to convalesce (Awtry 2014:44; Karcher and Hutchison 1980:67).

Colby and his traveling party arrived at Blue Springs in Volusia County on November 1 (Karcher and Hutchinson 1980:67-68). They report that during the evening Seneca appeared to the party with a vision of the future community.

Most of the party had never before that night experienced the manifestation of a spirit entity but George Colby, in his convincing way, explained the phenomena and gained the confidence of his companions. That night, Colby had a dream about Spiritualism—how it would someday be organized as a religion. In his dream, he saw a small community in Central Florida which consisted entirely of Spiritualists—a place where people would come from all over the country to learn about and experience Spiritualism.

Well prior to locating the actual Cassadaga camp site, in 1875 Colby had already begun homesteading land in Volusia County, which he pursued for twenty years. In 1880, Colby filed a homestead claim and was granted a 145-acre tract in 1884. After a charter was granted to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association in 1894, he deeded the thirty-five acres of land to the association in 1895. The association later was able to acquire additional acreage increasing its area to fifty-seven acres (Leonard 2020).

On February 8, 1895, the Association inaugural took place with 100 people in attendance for a three-day event that was held in Colby’s home. Once the Association was established, Colby became one of the resident mediums. As time went on, however, his health continued to decline, as did his financial fortunes. He died impoverished on July 27, 1933.


Cassadaga subscribes to central tenets of Spiritualism (Cassadaga website n.d. “Who We Are”):

We believe in Infinite Intelligence.

We believe that the phenomena of nature, both physical and spiritual, are the expression of Infinite Intelligence.

We affirm that a correct understanding of such expression and living in accordance therewith constitute true religion.

We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death.

We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism

We believe that the highest morality is contained in the Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that others should do unto you, do ye also unto them.”

We affirm the moral responsibility of the individual, and that he makes his own happiness or unhappiness as he obeys or disobeys Nature’s physical and spiritual laws.

We affirm that the doorway to reformation is never closed against any human soul, here or hereafter.

We affirm that the Precepts of Prophecy and Healing contained in the Bible are Divine attributes proven through Mediumship.

Spiritualism bases its claim to be scientific on the assertion that life is continuous; that is, everyone is a unique, eternal entity. Validation is found through mediums who receive and share information from the unseen spiritual realm. At the same time, Spiritualism is also a religion. It teaches that there is a God, who is the infinite intelligence and force that created the Natural Laws which govern the universe.

Cassadaga is careful not to assert exclusive validity for its beliefs and practices, noting thatSpiritual Healing does not deny that physicians and surgeons are necessary. We believe Spiritual Healing complements traditional as well as alternative medical practitioners and we cooperate with them at all times.” Further, Cassadaga acknowledges that self-healing may be an important part of the process. The medium channels “God’s healing energies” to the individual, even when the individual is not physically present in some cases (Cassadaga website n.d. “Who We Are”).


The central rituals at Cassadaga are conducted by mediums and healers. A medium is understood to be “one who is capable of receiving communication from people who were once living on the earth and have passed into the spirit world. This communication from entities may be spontaneous or opened and comes in the form of seeing, hearing, smelling and sensing.” A healer is one who acts as a channel to convey God’s healing energies to others, whether for physical, emotional, mental or spiritual healing. This occurs through the laying on of hands.” (Cassadaga website n.d. “Mediums and Healers). Cassadaga underscores the authenticity of mediums and healers through its assertion that each must have a minimum of four years’ certification process (Cassadaga website “List of Mediums” n.d.). In addition to the spiritual power generated by individual mediums and healers, Cassadaga itself is understood to be a spiritual vortex created by the cumulation of psychic and spiritual activities within the community.

Several dozen mediums and healers are listed on the Cassadaga Camp website. [Image at right] Each provides a profile of their personal history, certification, services provided. In general, these profiles trace their medium and healing skills to a lifelong history of spiritual and psychic proclivities, transformative experiences, and professional training (See, Fernandez 2015). All mediums offering services within the camp are required to have certification, with the exception of the privately owned Cassadaga Hotel which provides its own mediums and healers.

The authenticity and power of healings and seances is buttressed by testimonials from clients. Williamson (2008), for example, reports

Once, he was in the temple’s seance room with seven people when money started falling from the air. Another time, a spirit holding a lighted candle followed him and five other people from the room.

“We have had the room get very cold and then real hot. We have also heard voices in the walls and people moving around,” he said. “It would take a long time to tell all the wonderful things that happen in that special room.”

“I have seen hands form of ectoplasm on the table next to mine and have had them touch me,” said Cassadaga medium Victor Vogenitz, 54, a veteran of hundreds of seances.

There are community services as well. On Sunday mornings there are services: an instructional services Spiritualism, a healing service, and a church service (hymns, a guided meditation healing, a lecture)


Cassadaga Spiritual Camp’s current legal status is an “unincorporated town;” it is located near DeLand, Florida (Basu 2020). The current camp was preceded by an attempt to establish a community organized by the National Spiritual and Liberal Association in nearby DeLeon Springs in January 1893. Dr. William Rowley is credited with founding the De Leon Springs site and naming it the National Spiritual and Liberal Association (NSALA). George P. Colby became its first President. Once the Camp had outgrown its property, Abbie Pettengill, Marion and Thomas Skidmore, and Emma Huff, all of the “City of Light” in New York (now the Lily Dale Assembly), were in full agreement with most of the membership to find it a new home. The Cassadaga community so much resembled the northern camp that the group of thirteen are credited with having incorporated the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association (SCSCMA) as a sister Camp to their northern camp (Leonard 2020).

In her book, Cassadaga:  Where Spirits Meet (2014:55), Marilyn Awtry identified George Colby as the founder of the actual geographic location of the camp, Cassadaga, and identified the following thirteen individuals as being the founders of the “Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association:”

Thomas Skidmore (Lily Dale, New York); Marion Skidmore (Lily Dale, New York); Abby L. Pettengill (Cleveland, Ohio and Lily Dale, New York); Emma J. Huff (Lake Helen, Florida and Lily Dale, New York); Frank Bond (Deland, Florida); Harvey W. Richardson (East Aurora, New York); Adailla C. Jewett (Cleveland, Ohio); Jerry Robinson (Lookout Mountain, Tennessee); Mariette Cuscaden (Tampa, Florida); Soledad B. Sofford (Tarpon Springs, Florida); George W.Liston (Forest City, Florida); George Webster (Lake Helen, Florida); and Maria H. Webster (Lake Helen, Florida).

Although the first gathering at De Leon attracted 1,000 participants, the project ultimately failed when founder George Rowley could not raise sufficient funds to purchase the proposed camp property. At that point George Colby offered his property as an alternative. After the camp was established, Colby went on to become a resident medium. The board of directors almost immediately amended its charter to require that the association would own all real estate within the camp boundaries. Residents were offered ninety-nine year leases on lots, but ownership would remain with the Association.

The original vision of Cassadaga was as a center and national winter resort for Spiritualists. There were seances and speeches along with outdoor activities. The camp attracted around 100 people seasonally but had only a few dozen permanent residents. Still, the community ranked as the second largest nationally after the Lily Dale Community in New York. The community expanded rapidly between the late 1890s and the late 1920s. Nearly three dozen houses were constructed by 1915. The community added major non-residential buildings, such as a post office in 1910, Colby Memorial Temple in 1923, and the reconstructed Cassadaga Hotel in 1927. Throughout the camp’s history, of course the Spiritualist church [Image at right] has, symbolically at least, been the center of the community as the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is a religiously-based association (Leonard 2020).


Cassadaga Spiritual Camp has encountered three major issues during its history that have affected its survival and development: maintaining financial viability, controlling the emergence of unconnected businesses around the borders of the camp, and dealing with scandal and the skepticism about Spiritualism generally in the broader community.

Dating back to the early formation of Cassadaga, there have been financial problems. Indeed, the camp was initially established primarily as a result of George Colby’s initiatives and willingness to deed thirty-five acres of his land to create the new camp. While the camp did draw a number of resident mediums who attracted Spiritualist visitors, interest in Spiritualism gradually waned. A further blow to the community was the destruction of the Cassadaga Hotel by fire in late 1926. [Image at right] Although the hotel had been rebuilt by 1928, the fallout from the stock market crash in 1929 and the 1930s depression left the community with a serious financial burden. It was at this point that the community decided that it could no longer support the Cassadaga Hotel, which had been important in generating visitation. Despite vigorous debate,the members of the Association who considered the hotel a burden prevailed. In 1933, due to its inability to pay either its taxes or the debt owed to the bondholders, the Association sold the Cassadaga Hotel” [to a private party] (Schaleman n.d.). Although the community survived the depression years, “By the beginning of World War II development in Cassadaga had come to an end” (Schaleman n.d.).

A related problem for the community has been loss of control over its boundaries. Unlike most Spiritualist camps, which tend to be in gated, fenced communities with clearly marked borders, Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp properties are intermingled with non- association buildings, homes, and businesses. [Image at right] The buildings and enterprises that are associated directly and officially with the camp are clearly marked, but the intermingling compromises a clear community identity for non-residents (Leonard 2020).

The sale and loss of control over the Cassadaga Hotel was particularly significant in this regard. The hotel hired its own mediums and also permitted some New Age practitioners to operate in the hotel (Basu 2020). As Blaogh (2013) described this two-culture issue:

The New Agers use tarot cards and stick to the Cassadaga Hotel. A stone’s throw away is the religious organization maintains the traditional belief system that Colby established in the 1800s. That’s not to say the Cassadaga Hotel and its hired psychics don’t stay true to Spiritualism as religion, but they’re a bit more relaxed about it. Its like Episcopalians and Catholics.

In response to this tension, Cassadaga-certified mediums emphasize that they are “SCSCMA Certified” (Leonard 2020).

The community identity problem has been compounded by the growth of population and businesses just outside the border of Cassadaga’s fifty-seven acre camp. As the camp acknowledged on its website (Cassadaga website n.d. “Who We Are”):

Over the years, metaphysical stores and businesses have sprung up in Cassadaga around the perimeter of the 57-acre Camp. Although many of these businesses are owned by like-minded people, they are separate businesses and unaffiliated with the Camp.

Finally, there was the problem of scandal. Along with the growth and popularity of Spiritualism, a cottage industry of skeptics emerged whose mission was advanced by scandals within the ranks of Spiritualism’s mediums. In probably the most noteworthy case, a confrontation in Boston, Massachusetts in 1896 followed the mediums to Cassadaga. According to Guthrie (1998) the incident

involved two popular practitioners at the Camp–the materializing medium O. L. Concannon and his wife, Edella, a platform test medium. While the details surrounding the episode remain sketchy, according to one eyewitness, when Mr. Concannon performed a seance in Boston a member of the audience called him a phony.

Although the accuser produced no evidence of fraud, the episode tested the relationship with residents around the camp. However, external resident-camp relationships had generally been cordial, and the local press sought to distinguish between imposters and authentic Spiritualists. In one editorial published in the Volusia County Record, for example, a county resident wrote (Guthrie 1998):

We have as much respect for a person who is sincere in his spiritualistic ideas as have for those happy in the enjoyment of any other religious belief. Because fraud and impostors have crept into the teachings of Spiritualism it affords no argument to denounce all those who are enjoying the comforts and promises they sincerely find in its doctrine.

Another wrote that “There are too many sincere and earnest believers in the faith,” it said, “to have [Cassadaga’s] plans upset by the exposure of frauds such as Concannon” (Guthrie 1998). For its part the Cassadaga community responded by immediately strengthening its certification standards.

Cassadaga, Lily Dale, and Camp Chesterfield continue to be the three most significant remaining spiritual camps in the U.S. (Compton 2019). There has been a long-term decline in broad public interest in Spiritualism, although there are a number of churches in the Spiritualism tradition. Most camps shuttered or operated seasonally after the “Golden Age of Spiritualism” (circa 1880s-1920s) (Leonard 2020). Those that have survived have tended to experience a resurgence of interest after major wars (e,g., the U.S. Civil War, World War I, World War II, and even the Vietnam War) when there was heightened interest in contact with the dead. It seems likely that the original concept of a retreat for Spiritualists will no longer prove viable; instead,  the longer-term future of even the most resilient camps will rest on some combination of practitioner loyalty and tourism interest.


Image #1: Logo celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of Cassadaga.
Image #2: George P. Colby.
Image #3: Photograph of a medium at Cassadaga.
Image #4: The interior of the Spiritualist Church in Cassadaga.
Image #5: The original Cassadaga Hotel.
Image #6: The entrance to the Cassadaga community.


Awtry, M. J. (2014) Cassadaga: Where Spirits Meet. Sanford, FL: Shen-Men Publishing.

Balogh, Christopher 2013. “Inside Cassadaga, the Psychic Capital of the World.” Vice, January 29. Accessed from https://www.vice.com/en/article/nn4g87/inside-cassadaga on 20 November 2020.

Basu, Moni. 2020. “In Search of Spirits in Cassadaga: A writer unlocks the truths of this mystical community, its energy healers and the supernatural.” Flamingo Magazine. Accessed from https://www.flamingomag.com/2020/10/30/in-search-of-spirits-in-cassadaga/ on 20 November 2020.

Cassadaga website. n.d. “List of Mediums.” Accessed from https://www.cassadaga.org/mediums.html on 5 December 2020.

Cassadaga website. n.d. “Mediums and Healers.” Accessed from https://www.cassadaga.org/mediums–healers.htmls on 5 December 2020.

Cassadaga website. n.d. “Who We Are.” Accessed from https://www.cassadaga.org/who-we-are.html on 5 December 2020.

“Colby, George P. (1848-1933) .” Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2020). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/colby-george-p-1848-1933

Compton, Natalie. 2019. “Interested in traveling to a spiritualist community? Here’s what you need to know.” Washington Post, October 29, 2019. Accessed from https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2019/10/29/interested-traveling-spiritualist-community-heres-what-you-need-know/ on 20 November 2020.

Fernandez, Alexia 2015. “Woman Certified As Medium At Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp.” Statewide, April 3. Accessed from https://www.wuft.org/news/2015/04/03/medium/ on 5 December 2020.

Guthrie, John. 1998. “Sweet Spirit of Harmony: Establishing a Spiritualist Community at Cassadaga, Florida, 1893-1933.” Florida Historical Quarterly 77:1-38.

Karcher, K. and Hutchison, J. (1980) This Way to Cassadaga. Sanford, FL:  John Hutchison Productions (Seminole Printing).

Leonard, Todd J. 2020 “A Contemporary Study of Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp:  Its Historical and Spiritual Legacy.”  Association for the Scientific Study of Religion 2020 Proceedings:  60-78.

Leonard, Todd J. 2017. “Camp Meetings and Spiritualism: A Report on the Status and Condition of Functioning Spiritualist Camps around America.” Association for the Scientific Study of Religion 2017 Proceedings:11-30

Mimna, Robin. 2017. “The True Spirit of Cassadaga.” Florida History, February 27. Accessed from https://medium.com/florida-history/the-mystery-and-spirit-of-cassadaga-8a0058b024b1 on 20 November 2020.

Schaleman, Harry. n.d. Casadaga: Just a Medium Place. Florida Virtual Library. Accessed from https://journals.flvc.org/flgeog/article/view/78709/76105 on 20 November 2020.

United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1991. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Historic District. Accessed from https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/2fc1fca3-b02b-475e-90c1-e321209a1423 on 20 November 2020.

Williamson, Ronald. 2008. “Since 1923 in Cassadaga, the Seance Room has been where they call upon and talk to the dead.” Florida History Network. Accessed from http://www.floridahistorynetwork.com/in-cassadaga-the-seance-room-is-where-they-talk-to-the-dead.html on 5 December 2020

Williamson, Ronald. 2008. Volusia County’s West Side: Steamboats & Sandhills. Charleston, SC: The History Press.

Publication Date:
20 January 2021




Ānandamayī Mā (Mā Ānandamayī)



1896 (April 30):  Nirmāla Sundari was born in Kheora, a very small village in Eastern Bengal, in present-day Bangladesh.

1909 (February):  Nirmāla Sundari was married to Shri Ramani Mohan Chakravarti (later called Bholanāth, a name for Śiva, by Nirmāla Sundari).

1918:  While Nirmāla Sundari was living in Bajitpur (now in Bangladesh), she undertook an intensive sādhanā (spiritual discipline).

1922 (August):  In Bajitpur, Nirmāla Sundari experienced self-dīkṣā (self-initiation) during the full moon.

1924:  Bholanāth and Nirmāla Sundari moved to Dhaka in Eastern Bengal (which is now the capital of Bangladesh), where she attracted devotees.

1925:  In Dhaka, she was named Ānandamayī Mā by Shri Jyotish Chandra Roy (known as Bhaiji).

1926:  The first ashram was built by devotees for Ānandamayī Mā in Dhaka near the Siddheshwari Kali Mandir (temple).

1950:  The Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha (The Śrī Śrī Ānandamayī Community) was founded.

1982 (August 27):  Ānandamayī Mā “left her body” at the ashram of Kishenpur in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India.


Ānandamayī Mā was born on April 30, 1896 in the small village of Kheora in East India (on the current eastern border of Bangladesh), to poor Vaiṣṇava Brahmin parents. They named her Nirmāla Sundari, which means “immaculate beauty” or “purity.” Later the surnames of Hasi (smile) and Khusir (the joyous) were also given to her. According to her spiritual biographies, [Image at right] especially the writings of Professor Bithika Mukerji, Nirmāla Sundari proved from her childhood to be a detached child who had little interest in the surrounding environment, so much so that many thought that she was intellectually disabled.

At the age of thirteen, Nirmāla Sundari was married to the much older Ramani Mohan Chakravarti, and at eighteen, she went to live with her husband, whom she later called Bholanāth, one of Śiva’s names. Although she went through with marriage and is described as being the exemplary housewife, the couple actually never consummated their marriage and had no children. She therefore distanced herself from the traditional forms of marriage, [Image at right] going against the ideal of pativrata, the perfect Hindu woman vowed to her husband.

In 1918, Nirmāla and Bholanāth moved to Bajitpur in Eastern Bengal, where she undertook an intensive sādhanā (spiritual discipline). For six years, she is said to have practiced every type of sādhanā. Although she never received any spiritual teaching from a master yogi, she spontaneously was able to perform yogic postures and to perfect mudrās (symbolic or ritual gestures). She called this her “līlā of sādhanā” (līlā meaning play, game) for, as it has always been the same for her, there was nothing to accomplish spiritually. Thus did Ānandamayī Mā later affirm that her state had always been one of spiritual realization and that she never had past lives nor would she have future lives, as she stated:

I am what I was and what I shall be; I am whatever you conceive, think or say. But it is a supreme fact that this body has not come into being to reap the fruits of past karma. Why don’t you take it that this body is the material embodiment of all your thoughts and ideas. You all have wanted it and you have it now. So play with this doll for some time (Bhaiji 2004:6).

Gopinath Kaviraj, a Bengali pandit (Hindu scholar learned in Sanskrit scriptures, philosophy and religion), viewed Ānandamayī Mā similarly: “Samadhi or no Samadhi, She is where She always has been; She knows no change, no modification, no alteration” (Kaviraj and Vibhusana 1967:169). (Samādhi in Hinduism is a term that refers to intense immersion of consciousness in God/dess, the Ultimate. The word samādhi is also used to refer to the tomb of a saint or guru)

During this time, Nirmāla often fell into trances and was believed to be sick or possessed by spirits. Observing this strange behavior, her husband asked exorcists to cure his wife’s madness, but instead of treating her as mad, they eventually saw her as an incarnation of Devī, the Divine Mother. According to historian of religions June McDaniel, Ānandamayī Mā’s divine status is linked to these trancelike states, [Image at right] which are signs of spiritual ecstasy in Hinduism (McDaniel 1989:202). In South Asia, divine madness is seen as a kind of divine intoxication and is one of the criteria for being considered a saint (Kinsley 1974).

Nirmāla Sundari continued her sādhanā by entering a period of silence (mauna) for three years. On August 3, 1922, she eventually performed an initiation (dīkṣā) on herself, becoming at the same time disciple (śiṣya), teacher (guru), and divinity (iṣṭa). [Dīkṣā, or initiation, can be defined as the communication of an energy, of a vibration, of an influx to the initiated, or as the transmission of a spiritual influence that is said to be necessary with regard to the work of spiritual purification. This process of purification refers to the dissolution of the ego. Initiation generally involves the transmission and support of a mantra, whose function is to convey spiritual force (śakti).] In December 1922, Ānandamayī Mā’s husband asked to be initiated by her and by so doing became her first disciple. This practice of self-initiation continues to the present with some female gurus, revealing that personal experience and mystical states rather than succession or lineage frequently determines the recognition of female gurus (Pechilis 2012; Warrier 2005).

In 1924, Bholanāth and Nirmāla left for Dhaka in Eastern Bengal. (Dhaka is now the capital of Bangladesh.) It was during this period that the first disciples began to flock to Nirmāla Sundari, and it was also at Dhaka that one of her closest disciples known as Bhaiji gave her the name Ānandamayī Mā, which means “Mother Full of Bliss,” or “Mother Saturated with Joy.” Little by little, people began to hear about Ānandamayī Mā and her states of ecstasy, and came to meet her. Some saw her as an incarnation of the Divine Mother, a manifestation of the goddess Kālī, from which came the name “Human Kālī” that was given to her. Others envisaged Ānandamayī Mā as a being that had attained the state of perfect realization (Jīvanmukta, one who is liberated while living) and possessed extraordinary spiritual powers. Among the powers that she was credited with are those of clairvoyance and healing, the latter often being the basis of a saint’s reputation (Keyes 1982:2). Ānandamayī Mā, though, would never attribute these powers and miracles to herself, as she always spoke of the action of God.

At this time Ānandamayī Mā began to take less and less care of her body, and so needed others to look after her. She stated that she could not tell the difference between fire and water and that if others did not look after her body it would be destroyed. In 1926, at the age of thirty, Ānandamayī Mā also stopped eating with her own hands and was instead fed by Didi, one of her closest disciples, and other brahmacārinis (novice nuns).

In the late 1920s, Ānandamayī Mā began to take on the role of guru, or spiritual master, giving dīkṣā to a small circle of devotees, even as she still maintained throughout her life that she was not a guru. She affirmed: “Only God is the Guru. It is a sin to regard the Guru as a human being” (Desjardins 1982:190). The numbers of her devotees, mostly male in the beginning, continued to increase and in 1926 they built the Siddheshwari ashram (retreat center) for Ānandamayī Mā at Dhaka. Despite this, she did not stay at the ashram and began to make pilgrimages all over India, moving around until her death, like “a bird on the wing,” as she liked to call herself. Ānandamayī Mā did not give any indication of where she would be going or when she was going, nor did she ever specify if she would return. She would simply go to the nearest train station, often in the middle of the night, and would take the first departing train. She would follow what she called her kheyāla, or divine inspiration.

During her travels, she met people from all backgrounds. Kings, politicians, and prominent gurus and saints alike also prostrated themselves in front of her. [Image at right] Among these were Swami Shivananda Saraswati (1887–1963), the founder of the Divine Life Society, and the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), as well as numerous politicians, including the President of the Republic of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad (1884–1963), the Vice-President and philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). [Image at right] She also had several meetings with Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), who viewed her as his daughter.

On August 27, 1982, Ānandamayī Mā “left her body,” to use her devotees’ expression, at the ashram of Kishenpur, in Dehradun, Uttarakand state, 256 kilometers north of Delhi. A procession took place during the day from Dehradun to Kankhal, close to Haridwar on the Ganges River, where Ānandamayī Mā’s samādhi (tomb) is now located, [Image at right] and her body was interred following the rules specific to the Hindu burial of a great spiritual being. Indian dignitaries came to pay tribute to Ānandamayī Mā, including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru.


Ānandamayī Mā’s community of bhaktas (devotees) reflected considerable diversity. Diverse social classes and castes, and even different religions are represented. Still, the predominance of a certain type of devotee was nevertheless fairly apparent, as Ānandamayī Mā’s followers were, for the most part, Hindu, especially from Brahmin castes as she was born as a Brahmin. They were predominantly from Bengal, like she was.

Her devotees also mainly came from urban environments and belonged to the upper levels of society. In this community, it was not rare to meet rich families of industry or political personalities taking refuge at the feet of Ānandamayī Mā. It was so during her lifetime and remains the case today. It is also noteworthy that she counted among her disciples many powerful political figures, such as Kamala Nehru (1899–1936), the wife of Jawaharlal Nehru, and her daughter Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as well as scholars like Gopinath Kaviraj (1887–1976). Ram Alexander, a disciple of Ānandamayī Mā, describes the rich and educated disciples thusly: “Often these were highly educated people who had to face serious social opprobrium, particularly as it was unheard of to receive such guidance from an uneducated village woman” (Atmananda 2000:23). It is evident that the presence of higher-class devotees, the wealthy and intellectual elites, played some role in the visibility of the worship of Ānandamayī Mā (Babb 1988:170).

Women also represented a large part of the community of devotees, and it seems that their number was greater than that of male devotees. Far from considering Ānandamayī Mā, the Supreme Goddess above all, as a source of empowerment or as a model for women, the presence of so many women devotees may be attributed to the fact that they could have more access to her body than men did (Hallstrom 1999).

There were also foreign devotees, although their numbers were far less than Indian devotees. Among the very close western disciples of Ānandamayī Mā was a Jewish doctor, Abraham Jacob Weintraub, a native of Metz, France and son of the main rabbi of that city. In 1950, he left France for Sri Lanka and India with the intention of staying only two months. Soon after his arrival, he met Ānandamayī Mā and decided to follow her. Later he became a monk (swami) in her organization, taking the name of Swami Vijayānanda (bliss of victory). Swami Vijayānanda never returned to France and spent nearly sixty years in India, including seventeen years as a hermit in the Himalaya mountains. Until his death on April 5, 2010 at the age of ninety-five, he welcomed westerners to Ānandamayī Mā’s ashram in Kankhal. Today Swami Vijayānanda is venerated at his grave in Père Lachaise, the historical cemetery of Paris, by a group of people who knew him or are attracted by his teaching. He serves as a bridge between East and West, as well as a central personage in the worship of Ānandamayī Mā.


Ānandamayī Mā embodied a great degree of universality in her doctrine. Individuals of many religious backgrounds and geographical origins were drawn to her. Her teaching suited each individual and could simply be summarized in her statements that the goal of life is the realization of one’s true nature, of oneness with God. In this regard, she spoke of the quest to know one’s true identity to escape from the world of death:

You study and you pass your exam; you earn money and you enjoy the use of it. But all this is in the realm of death in which you go on life after life, repeating the same thing over and over again. But there is also another path—the path of Immortality, which leads to the knowledge of what you are in reality (Atmananda 2000:41).

While being universal, her teaching nevertheless focused on the ancient Hindu tradition, the sanātana dharma (the eternal religion). Depending on the situation, she could refer to the nondualism of Advaita Vedānta formulated by the eighth-century monk-philosopher Śaṅkara (Shankara) based on the Upaniṣads (Vedānta, scriptures coming at the end of the Vedas); the qualified nondualism of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta formulated by the theologian Rāmānuja (ca. 1077–1157) also based on the Upaniṣads; or the dualism (Dvaita) of bhakti. However, she gave precedence to the monist tradition of Advaita Vedānta. According to Ānandamayī Mā, the real source of suffering (duḥkha) lies in the false perception of duality. She affirmed that darśana, to see and be seen by the deity, the true revelation of the divine (ātmadarśana), is not possible as long as there exists an “I”—“You have not had real darshan as long as the ‘I’ persists” (Atmananda 2000:478).

Ānandamayī Mā expressed her adherence to the doctrine of nonduality in other ways, such as referring to herself in the third person. She often called herself “this body” (Bengali, ehi śarira) or “this little girl.” To someone who requested that she describe her own experience, she said: “It would imply that the experiencer has still remained. This cannot be so here” (Anandamayi Ma 2001:61). (She often referred to herself using the term “here.”)

During her many pilgrimages and wanderings, stressing nonduality, she insisted on her everlasting presence to her devotees: “Why do you say I am going away? I am your little child and am always with you” (Atmananda 2000:496). She also stated:

You may want to banish this body from your mind. But this body won’t leave you for a single day—it does not and never will leave your thought. Whoever has once been drawn to love this body will never succeed in wiping out its impression even despite hundreds of attempts. This body rests and shall remain in memory for all times (Ganguli 1983:170).

These statements reveal Ānandamayī Mā’s understanding regarding her omnipresence beyond time and space and beyond death (mṛtyu) and birth (jāti).

Although Advaita Vedānta was to remain a point of reference in her philosophy, Ānandamayī Mā actually moved beyond it.

“A state exists where the distinction between duality and non-duality has no place. . . . But where the Brahman [unconditioned consciousness] is, the One-without-a-second, nothing else can possibly exist. You separate duality from non-duality because you are identified with the body” (Anandamayi Ma 2001:123).

Ānandamayī Mā’s view, therefore, was an encompassing vision of life, this Ultimate Reality that she defined as Yā tā, which means, “It is that which it is.”

In this regard, Gopinath Kaviraj, her disciple, shows that advaitic thought, which holds that everything is one, is actually itself inexact, in the sense that even unity dissolves when the True One is revealed: “Everything is one, the one is everything. And even this statement is not exact, for the True One is there where the meaning of the Unity no longer exists” (Desjardins 1982:200). Ānandamayī Mā also referred to the idea of totality to express the necessity of moving past ideas of duality and nonduality: “You will have to rise beyond consciousness and unconsciousness. The revelation of That is what is wanted” (Anandamayi Ma 2001:132). Scholar of religion Raimon Panikkar suggests that the term “adualism” rather than “nondualism” be used in order to eliminate this conceptual opposition (Panikkar 1998).


Ānandamayī Mā’s posthumous worship is viewed by devotees as a way to liberate themselves from ceaseless death and rebirth in the cycle of saṃsāra, as a path toward immortality. Expression of devotion to Ānandamayī Mā involves prayer, pilgrimage, and veneration of photos and other objects.

If one may always pray to Ānandamayī Mā, there are nevertheless certain moments of the year during which it is especially beneficial to pray to her. These are the great celebrations such as the anniversary of Ānandamayī Mā’s birth, Gurupūrṇimā, and the religious holiday Durgā Pūjā. These festivals are accompanied by other annual observances, such as Mahāśivarātri, the night celebrating Śiva’s cosmic dance; Holi, celebrating the defeat of evil by righteousness; and Rakṣabandhan, a vrata (vow) when sisters worship to protect their brothers; as well as participation in retreats such as the Samyam Saptah (concentrated meditation for seven days). It was so while Ānandamayī Mā was alive, and it is still the case today.

Pilgrimage is another ritual that devotees perform. Because of her great influence on all layers of Indian society, Ānandamayī Mā also represents one of the few Hindu female gurus to be worshiped in a cult at her tomb [Image at right] (samādhi), in spite of the fact that tombs of holy women are virtually nonexistent in India. With the exception of satīs (widows who reportedly burned themselves in their husband’s funeral pyres out of devotion to their husbands) worshipping a woman after her death is exceptional. However, because Ānandamayī Mā’s body was considered to be pure and sacred, she is being worshipped at her tomb in Kankhal. Her relics have become a site dedicated to the Divine Feminine, a kind of śaktipīṭha, seat of Śaktī (the Goddess and her power).

In addition, photos of Ānandamayī Mā also hold an essential place in her worship, [Image at right] whether among early or contemporary followers. Carried by devotees or placed in their homes, the pictures seem to reactivate the presence of Mā. More so even than her words or eyewitness accounts of her, photographs of Ānandamayī Mā are an essential way to mobilize new devotees. Another important element in her cult is worship by making offerings to images (mūrtis) of Ānandamayī Mā. A small number of western devotees, however, feel somewhat averse towards this type of devotional practice.


Ānandamayī Mā passed a large part of her life moving from sacred space to sacred space. To facilitate these movements, her [Image at right] devotees established ashrams all over India, especially in North India. There are today twenty-six ashrams, of which two are in Bangladesh. Although she never really wanted these ashrams, she nonetheless selected their locations. Far from being insignificant, her choice of ashram locations allows a vast network of sacred geography to become evident. This certainly had some influence on the development of the devotional movement focused on the worship of Ānandamayī Mā.

In 1950, the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha (the Śrī Śrī Ānandamayī Community) was established, making Ānandamayī Mā the first woman in India to be the head of such a large structured movement. Although today it is common for female gurus to found their own organizations and have their own ashrams, this institutionalization of the worship of a female guru was inconceivable before her time.

Within Ānandamayī Mā’s sangha traditional rules of purity prevailed and still do, such as the exclusion of menstruating women or the rules concerning pollution tied to the caste system. These are called jhuta or that which is dirty and inappropriate, and have for thousands of years been observed by the brahmanical orthodoxy, serving as a kind of preparation to mystical life. Ānandamayī Mā adopted this orthodoxy, contested by Sufism and Buddhism as well as by Tantric Hinduism, following a meeting she had with the pandit Kaviraj. In the beginning, she did not follow the purity rules, but there was increasing pressure on her to do so. Finally, one day, she said, “Whoever is coming today will decide.” Kaviraj arrived right after she made her statement and told her that rules of caste should be maintained in the Kālī Yuga, the age of decline in morality, to form a barrier against immorality. Though she opted for these rules, she was not attached to a particular system, as she always said, Jo Ho Jay, “Whatever has to happen, will happen.” Nevertheless, the non-observance of these rules of purity would have then constituted a major obstacle for orthodox Brahmins and would have prevented them from coming to Ānandamayī Mā (Lipsky 2005:58; Atmananda 2000:163).

In fact, Ānandamayī Mā did not really respect these rules of purity, allowing herself to transgress them openly. Her Austrian devotee Brahmacharini Atmananda reports what Ānandamayī Mā told her regarding these rules, “What are these rules to me? I have eaten the leavings of a dog” (Atmananda 2000:256). Her personal transgression of the rules of purity and impurity therefore appeared to be a way of affirming Ānandamayī Mā’s authority as spiritual leader, as she was the only person with the power to authorize the observation of these brahmanical rules within her community.

These strict brahmanical rules, however, weighed on the majority of westerners, who could feel excluded by virtue of their status as outcasts or mleccha (foreigners). They had to eat separately from high-caste Indians and be housed outside the ashram, so that Hindus, and especially brahmins, could avoid any polluting contact with them.


One of the major challenges related to Ānandamayī Mā and her worship is what would become of her movement after her death. The movement has been in decline since her departure and the death of her close monks. This diminishment seems to be significantly associated with the decline of its affiliated institution, the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha, originally founded to promote and safeguard Ānandamayī Mā’s teaching. As in the case of many other organizations founded by charismatic leaders, such as the SYDA Foundation or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, this decline can mainly be seen through power struggles, such as the choice of a successor to direct the sangha or in the division of authority between lay people and monks. Thus, the death of the charismatic founding figure represents simultaneously a challenge of and to institutionalization (Miller 1991).

There also exist some tensions within Ānandamayī Mā’s community regarding the preservation of brahmanical rules. These rules, which were described as inhuman by Brahmacharini Atmananda, may have been originally a way to reinvigorate the Hindu tradition, the sanātana dharma. In today’s globalized world, however, with the economic and social transformations that India is experiencing, these rules constitute a major obstacle to the expansion of Ānandamayī Mā’s movement. The attachment to brahmanical rules of purity by a small number of devotees within the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha reflects, for a large number of Indian and western devotees, something that keeps potential devotees away.

Ānandamayī Mā’s sangha then is split between two factions. On the one hand, many want to enlarge her movement, notably to an international audience, which necessarily would require both letting go of the brahmanical rules concerned with maintaining the “purity” of the traditionally designated “pure” castes and a rupture with the tradition of the group’s charismatic founder, the object of their worship and devotion. On the other hand, some desire the preservation of brahmanical orthodoxy, which is ineluctably associated with exclusion and which hampers the organization’s expansion. Ānandamayī Mā’s sangha is located in the midst of this dilemma between “authenticity” and “dirtying,” between “atrophy” and “expansion.” The future of her movement seems dependent upon reconciling competing interests with the requirements of Indian modernity.

In conclusion, in her lifetime Ānandamayī Mā became arguably the most famous female religious leader in India, with hundreds of thousands of followers. Due to the extent of her influence and her death in 1982, Ānandamayī Mā is a noteworthy illustration of the posthumous worship of a female Hindu guru, with both devotees who knew her and others who did not.

Through her life, Ānandamayī Mā emerged as a figure of rupture who, by means of her devotees’ perception of her oneness with the divine, dictated the terms of her own sanctity and produced a certain dislocation from the typical gender role for the Indian housewife in several key ways. Her self-initiation and her role as a female guru, as well as her status of avatar (“descent,” an incarnation of God), as Goddess, in a patriarchal society, placed her outside of an established, male-dominated religious order (Cornille 2004:134). Her spiritual position independent of her husband and her refusal to adopt the traditional forms of marriage by following the ideal of pativrata were transgressive. Her reforms promoted women’s equality, such as her introduction of upanayana, the Vedic sacred thread rite of passage as initiation into the student stage of life for high caste women, qualifying them to study Sanskrit and the Vedic scriptures. Finally, the scope of her religious movement and her impressive network of ashrams was something unheard of at the time for an Indian woman. Despite her conservative tendencies in relation to certain aspects of Indian culture, especially with regard to her approval of arranged marriage and her non-condemnation of satī, this ambassador of Hinduism can paradoxically be recognized as a charismatic figure, who represents a radical change in the Hindu religious landscape in regard to women gurus.

Due to her far-reaching influence on Indian society, today Ānandamayī Mā is the object of worship at her tomb, a practice that is usually reserved for male gurus and just a few women, who are worshipped because of their connection with a male guru, for instance Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) and The Mother (Mirra Blanche Rachel Alfassa (1878–1973). Ānandamayī Mā can thus be viewed as an iconic figure of female religious leadership, highlighting an innovative vision of holiness by revealing a new mode of veneration of female gurus, that of veneration of the teacher regarded as a living presence within her tomb.

Ānandamayī Mā, thus, represents a shift to female leadership in the world of Hindu gurudom, [Image at right] and her tomb, her samādhi, is a symbol of the affirmation of the Divine Feminine. With the growing acceptance of the role of guru for women, it is likely in the future that we will see a far more significant veneration of women gurus in their respective tombs emerge within the Hindu tradition. As such, the study of Ānandamayī Mā’s life and her postmortem worship represents a true milestone in the field of study of women in religions.


Image #1: Nirmāla Sundari at a young age.
Image #2: Nirmāla Sundari with her husband Shri Ramani Mohan Chakravarti (later called Bholanāth, a name for Śiva, by Nirmāla Sundari).
Image #3: Ānandamayī Mā.
Image #4: Ānandamayī Mā with Indira Gandhi and her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India.
Image #5: Temple housing the samādhi (tomb) of Ānandamayī Mā in Kankhal, Uttarakand, India.
Image #6: Priest standing next to Ānandamayī Mā’s samādhi (tomb) as he performs āratī, waving of lights before her image (murtī).
Image #7: A murtī, an image or statue, of Ānandamayī Mā on an altar that also includes her photo, a framed print depicting her footprints, and pictures depicting other Hindu deities.
Image #8: Ānandamayī Mā.
Image #9: Ānandamayī Mā’s blessing


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Atmananda. 2000. Death Must Die. A Western Woman’s Life-Long Spiritual Quest in India and Its Fulfillment through Her Guru, Shree Anandamayee Ma, edited by Ram Alexander. Varanasi: Indica Books.

Aymard, Orianne. 2014. When a Goddess Dies: Worshipping Mā Ānandamayī after Her Death. New York: Oxford University Press.

Babb, Lawrence A. 1988. “Sathya Sai Baba’s Saintly Play.” Pp. 168-86 in Saints and Virtues, edited by John Stratton Hawley. Berkeley: California University Press.

Bhaiji, ed. 2004. Mother as Revealed to Me. Kankhal: Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha.

Cornille, Catherine. 2004. “Mother Meera, Avatar.” Pp. 129-47 in The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, edited by Karen Pechilis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Desjardins, Arnaud. 1982. Ashrams. Grands maîtres de l’Inde. Paris: Albin Michel.

Ganguli, Anil. 1983. Anandamayi Ma: The Mother Bliss-incarnate. Calcutta: Eureka.

Hallstrom, Lisa L. 1999. Mother of Bliss: Ānandamayī Mā (1896-1982). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaviraj, Gopinath, and Padma Vibhusana. 1967. “Mother Anandamayi.” In Mother as Seen by Her Devotees, edited by Gopinath Kaviraj. Varanasi: Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha. Accessed from https://www.anandamayi.org/books/masbhd.htm on 10 January 2021.

Keyes, Charles F. 1982. “Charisma: From Social Life to Sacred Biography.” Pp. 1-22 in Charisma and Sacred Biography, edited by Michael A. Williams. Washington, D.C.: American Academy of Religion.

Kinsley, David. 1974. “‘Through the Looking Glass’: Divine Madness in the Hindu Religious Tradition.” History of Religions 13:270–305.

Lipsky, Alexander. 2005. Life and Teaching of Śrī Ānandamayī Mā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

McDaniel, June. 1989. The Madness of the Saints. Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miller, Timothy, ed. 1991. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Mukerji, Bithika. 1998. Life and Teaching of Sri Ma Anandamayi (A Bird on the Wing). Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Panikkar, Raimon. 1998. L’Expérience de Dieu. Paris: Albin Michel.

Pechilis, Karen. 2012. “The Female Guru: Guru, Gender, and the Path of Personal Experience.” Pp. 113-32 in The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Jacob Copeman and Aya Ikegame. New York: Routledge.         

Vijayananda, Swami. 1997. Un Français dans l’Himalaya: Itinéraire avec Mâ Ananda Môyî. Lyon: Terre du Ciel.

Warrier, Maya. 2005. Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission. New York: Routledge Curzon.

Publication Date:
13 January 2021




1931 (July 24):  Oscar Ichazo was born in Roboré, Bolivia.

1937:  Ichazo suffered from violent cataleptic episodes which caused out-of-body experiences.

1943:  Ichazo assisted in the dissection of cadavers at a La Paz medical school.

1948-1950:  Ichazo was a student at University of La Paz and also studied in Peru.

1950:  Ichazo was appointed Director of Bolivia’s Library of Congress.

1950-1952:  Ichazo participated in a group in Buenos Aires studying various esoteric philosophies and consciousness-raising techniques, including Gurdjieff’s teachings.

1952-?1953:  Ichazo traveled to the Middle and Far East and studied yoga, Buddhism, Indian and Chinese philosophies, martial arts and Sufism.

1956:  Ichazo began teaching philosophy and spiritual disciplines in Chile to small groups.

1960:  Ichazo completed and began teaching in Chile what has come to be known as his “Integral Philosophy.” Teachings included particularly his theory of Protoanalysis, including the Enneagram of Personality, as well as his logic of Trialectics.

1968:  Ichazo founded the Institute of Gnosiology in Santiago, Chile and delivered lectures at the Institute of Applied Psychology in Santiago, Chile.

1970 (July 1):  Ichazo led fifty-seven students in a ten-month training program in Arica, Chile.

1970:  Chilean psychiatrist, Claudio Naranjo, left the Arica training early and began teaching Ichazo’s enneagram of personality to small groups.

1971 (December 31):  Ichazo organized a three-month training in the Essex House Hotel, New York City (New York One) and founded the Arica Institute at 24 West 57th Street, New York.

1972:  John Lilly published The Center of the Cyclone, which included his account of the training in Arica.

1972:  Arica began offering “40-Day” and “Advanced” Trainings in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London, as well as other cities in the United States, Canada, South America and Europe.

1973 (July):  Sam Keen’s interview with Ichazo appeared in Psychology Today.

1976:  The Human Process for Enlightenment and Freedom was published.

1981:  Ichazo left New York City and moved to Maui, Hawaii where he established the Oscar Ichazo Compay (later the Oscar Ichazo Foundation).

1982:  Between Metaphysics and Protoanalysis: A Theory for Analyzing the Human Psyche and Interviews with Oscar Ichazo was published.

1982:  Ichazo lectured at Metamorphosis Training in Maplecrest, New York.

1983:  Arica trainings began to be produced by the Oscar Ichazo Company and increasingly were designed to be conducted by individuals or small groups in home settings and at Reunions held in Maui, Hawaii (1990, 1995, 2000, 2010).

1986:  Letters to the School was published, which included charges of plagiarism directed at the spate of books beginning to appear on the enneagram of personality.

1989: Arica Institute files a lawsuit against Helen Palmer and Harper & Row Publishers for copyright infringement with regard to Palmer’s 1988 book, The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life.

1991:  Ichazo wrote “Letter to the Transpersonal Community” explaining his account of the origins of the Enneagram of Personality and denying its links to Sufism and the teachings of Gurdjieff

1991:  Ichazo received the Award of Excellence from the Society of Writers of the United Nations.

1991-1992:  Arica Institute lost its lawsuit and its appeal as the court ruled “fair use” on behalf of Palmer.

1993:  Arica continued to present very few public trainings, instead offering a lengthy series of private, advanced trainings to a few hundred members. Ichazo’s written work after this point was generally accessible only to members of the Arica School.

2000:  Ichazo received the United Nations Society of Writers Award of Excellence.

2020:  The Four Killers of Humanity: The Ethical Solution to Our Existential Crisis was published and made available to the public.

2020 (March 26):  Ichazo died at his home in Maui, Hawaii.


In 1969, following glowing reports from fellow seekers in South America, a group of fifty-seven or so Americans traveled to the desert of Arica, Chile for a ten-month period of study with the Bolivian mystic and philosopher, Oscar Ichazo. [Image at right] Many of these individuals were from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, already a leading center of what has come to be called “the human potential movement.” As Dick Price, one of the founders of Esalen said at the time, “Arica cleared our bench” (Anderson 2004:227). The most notable of the participants in Ichazo’s program were the Chilean psychiatrist, Claudio Naranjo, and the neuro-scientist and dolphin researcher, John C. Lilly. Ichazo began teaching his theory and methods in 1956 to groups in South America, giving the first public presentation of his thought in 1968 to the Institute of Applied Psychology in Santiago, Chile, attended by Naranjo. While Naranjo and Lilly did not finish the ten-month training, they were impressed with Ichazo’s teachings and his ability to bring about higher states of consciousness in his students through many different practices and techniques culled from the world’s spiritual traditions but reconfigured and streamlined for contemporary western society. On their return from Chile, Ichazo and his students founded the Arica Institute in New York City and in 1971 offered a three-month training in Manhattan’s Essex House, guaranteeing enlightenment for a fee of $2,000.

Throughout the 1970s, thousands of people took Arica trainings and became members of the Arica School, modeled after ancient schools of human development in Greece, India and the Middle East. The Arica School still exists, although its membership is in the hundreds and it offers fewer public trainings than it did in its heyday. While Arica does not consider itself a religion, it is clearly religious and thus is often included in academic treatments of new or alternative religious movements. Indeed, Oscar Ichazo and the Arica School, largely through Naranjo and his students, sparked one of the largest developments within New Age spirituality in the last twenty years, the enneagram personality-type movement.

What is known of Ichazo’s history largely derives from his own personal accounts (Ichazo 1982b) or those of the Arica Institute (Arica website n.d.). He was born in Bolivia in 1931 and raised in Bolivia and Peru as a Roman Catholic, attending Jesuit schools. At an early age, Ichazo was afflicted with a physiological condition that at times caused him to undergo out-of-body experiences. In order to understand and control his condition, he underwent training in martial arts under a Japanese master and read widely in his uncle Julio’s vast library. He eventually studied medicine, psychology and philosophy at universities in Bolivia and Peru.

At the age of nineteen, Ichazo describes a meeting with “a remarkable man” who introduced him to a group of mystics in Buenos Aires, mostly European businessmen (Ichazo 1982b:7). Ichazo served as a kind of coffee boy to the group, which studied an eclectic mix of spiritual writings and methods, such as yoga, Kabbalah, Tarot, as well as the Gurdjieff work. (Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous was translated into Spanish in 1952 and his student, Rodney Collin, published The Theory of Celestial Influence in Spanish in 1953.) The only individual of this group Ichazo mentions is Leo Costet de Mascheville (Jehel) who was the son of Albert Raymond Costet-Conde de Mascheville, the man who introduced Martinism to Latin America. It was Albert Costet who apparently founded the esoteric study group in Buenos Aries that Ichazo encountered. His son, Jehel, at one point the President of the Martinist Order of South America, eventually becomes known as Sevananda, and went on to establish one of the first yoga ashrams in Latin America (Simões 2018). Ichazo studied with this esoteric study group for several years, practicing different spiritual techniques and eventually, according to Ichazo, clarifying for them some of the philosophical teachings they were studying, especially the Enneagram. These men then enabled Ichazo to travel to the Middle and Far East where he studied yoga, qigong, I Ching, Buddhist meditation and Sufism. According to Naranjo, Ichazo was thought of as a Sufi teacher by those in the original Chile group, and it was intimated that Ichazo had made contact with the same esoteric school that Gurdjieff claimed to have contacted, the Sarmoung Brotherhood (Naranjo 1970). Ichazo has denied, however, that his teachings are derived in any way from Sufism or the teachings of Gurdjieff himself (Ichazo 1991).

When he returned to Latin America in the mid-1950s, Ichazo began teaching philosophy and spiritual techniques to small groups in Chile. During this time, he synthesized these teachings and created his own philosophical system, developing his theory of protoanalysis, an analysis of the human psyche from its lowest levels of consciousness to its highest, including his nine-fold Personality Typology based on the Enneagram, as well as a new logic for understanding the unity of existence, trialectics.

After teaching his own work to small groups, Ichazo gave lectures on protoanalysis to the Institute of Applied Psychology in Chile in 1968. He subsequently invited a group of Latin Americans to train with him in Arica, Chile and then invited a number of Americans to join the training group. This ten-month, intensive training is described in John Lilly’s The Center of the Cyclone (1972). This training was followed by a three-month training in New York at the Essex House hotel at which Ichazo boldly guaranteed enlightenment by the end of the program. At the conclusion of this training, the Arica Institute was established in New York with satellite centers in major U.S. cities and elsewhere. Arica attracted significant attention in the early seventies, eventually enrolling thousands of students throughout the decade, with not insignificant cultural impact. Alexandro Jodorowsky’s film, Holy Mountain (1973), an allegory of the quest for enlightenment, bears the influence of Ichazo, who trained Jodorowsky and central cast members for three months prior to filming.

Meanwhile, Naranjo, who left the training in Arica, introduced Ichazo’s enneagram personality theory to his own students in Berkeley, California. Naranjo developed his own version of this typology and taught it throughout the 1970s where it eventually made its way to the Jesuits and Catholic retreat centers. By the mid-1980s books began appearing on the “Enneagram of Personality” (see, for example, Beesing, et. al. 1984 and Palmer 1988). In 1982, his book Between Metaphysics and Protoanalysis: A Theory for Analyzing the Human Psyche and Interviews with Oscar Ichazo was published. [Image at right] Ichazo, who had published very little of his own work (1976, 1982a and 1982b), preferring to keep his teachings to members of his own esoteric school, did not take kindly to what he regarded as the plagiarizing and distorting of his ideas. This gave rise to the so-called “Enneagram Wars” (Goldberg 1993; See also Effross, 2003). Arica filed a lawsuit against Helen Palmer and Harper & Row after the publication of Palmer’s The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life (1988). However, the court ruled against Arica in 1991, upheld in an appeal in 1992, maintaining that Palmer’s use of copyrighted Arica materials constituted “fair use.” The Arica School had a much smaller public presence for the next three decades with the formation of Oscar Ichazo Company in Hawaii and a shift in the teaching and practice toward individual home trainings. The nature of this work is largely unavailable to non-members of Arica. and members must sign non-disclosure agreements. The Arica website indicates that the new work is focused on the transcendental dimension leading to ultimate enlightenment or “theosis.” Indeed, after a period in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Arica work seemed to focus largely on what Ichazo described earlier as “symbol yoga” (similar to Vajrayana Buddhism with an emphasis on imagining oneself as a kind of Buddha or deity), recent years have brought the use of more Greek terminology. For example, in place of a Buddha, we are introduced to the “Divine Metatelos” as a name for a particular higher level of mind, and students are encouraged to participate in the One and the Good, suggesting a more western, Platonic character to the Arica School.


Since material from the last thirty years or so is largely unavailable to the public, this summary restricts itself to the basic doctrines of the Arica School. Even so, it is difficult to summarize as robust a teaching as what Ichazo calls his “Integral Philosophy,” especially a teaching that has developed over fifty years and that includes so many different spiritual practices. Arica claims to demonstrate and practically achieve “the human process toward enlightenment and freedom,” the systematic “clarification of consciousness,” and, in general, the unification of science and mysticism. Ichazo is regarded variously by students as the Qutub (the Sufi notion of the Perfect Man who acts as the spiritual pole around which other spiritual teachers revolve), the Maitreya Buddha, or simply a philosophical sage and teacher. Similarly, the Arica theory and method has been presented as the next development of Buddhism or as a contemporary version of a philosophical school modeled on ancient Greek wisdom schools. In brief, Arica is a method and theory of human development that draws from philosophy, religion and contemporary psychology and biology to forge a system of thought and practice designed to lead to spiritual enlightenment. Early on, Sam Keen described Arica as “the nearest thing we now have to a university for altered states of consciousness” (Keen 1973, reprinted in Ichazo 1982:7). Ichazo (described as a mystic, scientist and philosopher) proposes to unify reason and mysticism in a theory of the human psyche known as “protoanalysis.” It is structured according to the symbol of the Enneagram, and a new logic of the whole known as “trialectics.” The successful application of the Arica theory and method, Ichazo maintains, in the form of successive “trainings,” will lead to the transcendence of ego-consciousness and the awakening of divine consciousness. This, in turn, will bring about a transformation of human society and the establishment of a unified humanity, referred to as “Humanity-One.” This will occur in a new global culture or “metasociety,” characterized by a shared understanding of human nature and its spiritual potential, and no longer divided by tribal or national or religious discord. The long-awaited global utopia or heavenly kingdom on earth is thus to be achieved not simply through the good will of men and women but by reason and practical effort as a critical mass of individuals make the quantum leap to a new level of spiritual maturity.

Ichazo’s theory of the human being, or protoanalysis, is based on what he calls the “Divine Human prototype,” something like the model or Platonic Form of the person (Ichazo 1976:75). Born in a state of unity with God and the world, each person in their essence is a perfect reflection or manifestation of the divine reality. At some point, however, we begin to slip away from this unity as a sense of separate individuality arises and the ego develops. Thus, there is a distinction between the human being’s essence (one’s true nature) and the human being’s ego or personality (the false deviation from one’s true nature). The ego, as the distorted image of the divine-human prototype, is made up of the illusory beliefs, feelings, desires, etc., that maintain our separateness from God and each other, and that perpetuates our suffering. It is only when the ego is reduced or eliminated that human beings can be restored to unity with God and one another in the state of blessedness or supreme happiness and fulfillment. (In later teachings, the ego becomes synonymous with the Relative Mind and the essence with the Absolute Mind. Suffering is eliminated when the Absolute Mind is separated from the Relative Mind and then re-integrated, the Relative Mind seen as a reflection or “shadow” of the Absolute Mind in the state known as the Ornamental Mind.)

Ichazo’s now well-known Enneagrammatic theory of personality describes the ways in which the ego manifests and the how it can be restored to its essential nature. In general, the enneagram serves to structure the Arica theory of the human being, and all things, since all things manifest themselves according to this pattern (See Ouspensky 1949:286-94). And so, Arica theory presents itself as a kind of nine-pointed cylinder [Image at right] that could be sliced up into individual enneagrams that build upon one other in hierarchical sequence (Ichazo 1982c). For example, while pure consciousness is the primary reality and precedes its material manifestation, in the human being it manifests as nine constituents: materiality or elements, systems, mentations, senses consciousness, mental perceptions, domains, feelings or discriminative mind, willing intention, and access base. The nine constituents are akin to the Buddhist notion of the Five Aggregates that constitute the illusory “self.” Fundamental to an understanding of the ego is awareness of the nine physiological systems: sexual, skeletal, digestive, protective, circulatory, expression, coordination, central nervous system, unity system. These systems in turn give rise to energy centers, like chakras, that manifest in the psyche as the instincts, functions and drives that constitute what Ichazo calls the “hypergnostic systems”: the sexual pole, the function of space, the conservation instinct, the function of time, the relations instinct, function of expression, the function of coordination, the adaptation instinct, the spiritual pole.

The most important of these systems are the three instincts. Each instinct innately asks a “living question” fundamental to survival: “How am I?” (Conservation Instinct), “With Whom am I?” (Relations Instinct), and “Where am I?” (Adaptation Instinct). Each instinct also gives rise to different kind of reason (empathetical, analogical and analytical), and a different ego entity: the historical ego that hold on to past hurts, the image ego that is concerned with how one presents oneself and is regarded by the others, and the practical ego that is focused on making one’s way in the world. As in Plato’s tri-partite model of the soul, these three ego entities will be at war with each other until inner balance is achieved, resulting in the natural ego or persona which acts as a “witness” capable of self-observation and eventually self-actualization and self-transcendence (Ichazo 1982a:79-80).

One of the principal tools for self-observation is the realization of one’s “fixation,” that is, at what point on the enneagram one’s development is fixated or stuck due to the “karma” one has accumulated in one’s life, typically as a result of traumas of early childhood. These fixations, similar to what Gurdjieff called one’s “chief feature,” are what has come to be known in popular culture as one’s “personality type” or “Enneagram type.” The nine fixations are related to the nine Domains of Consciousness that correspond to the nine systems. The fixations and their Domains are as follows:

Ego-Resentment (Over-Perfectionist) fixated in the Domain of Sentiments

Ego-Flattery (Over-Independent) fixated in the Domain of Health and Security

Ego-Go (Over-Efficient) fixated in the Domain of Creativity

Ego-Melancholy (Over-Reasoner) fixated in the Intellectual Domain

Ego-Stinginess (Over-Observer) fixated in the Domain of Social Interaction

Ego-Cowardice (Over-Adventurer) fixated in the Domain of Work and Activities

Ego-Planning (Over-Idealist) fixated in the Domain of Hierarchy and Authority

Ego-Vengeance (Over-Justice-maker) in the Domain of Laws and Morals

Ego-Indolence (Over-Nonconformist) in the Spiritual Domain

As in Aristotle’s virtue theory, each fixation habitually errs on one side of a dichotomy within a Domain of Consciousness. So, the Ego-Vengeance “personality type” (the Eighth), for example, tends to be either too strict or too unconstrained with oneself or others. This type is plagued by remorse for which one attempts to compensate or seek release by inflicting cruelty on oneself or others. The vice or “passion” at work here is excess, which may be overcome by “karma cleaning” (working through one’s past experiences to see how these tendencies developed) and cultivating the virtue of innocence. Meditating on the Holy Idea of Truth aids in the cultivation of the virtue and leads to a pacification of the psyche. And so on for the other fixations (See, Ichazo 1982b:13-17).

In another way of linking body and mind, Ichazo insists that thought is not a product simply of the brain or the central nervous system but the entire body (Ichazo 1982b:12-13). Dividing the body into twelve parts, Ichazo assigns each part with a particular cognitive function or mentation. So, the ears, for example, perceive the meaning or substance of things; the eyes see forms; the nose detects possibilities, etc. One way in which the ego distorts reality is through deviations in these mentations. A person might mistake possibilities for substance, for example, and understand what something is simply in terms of the thing’s possibilities. Just as knowledge of one’s fixation or personality type aids in self-observation and eventual freedom from the particular habits and tendencies that limit one’s development, so too does the awareness of these deviations help one to see how skewed patterns of thinking might perpetuate one’s subjectivity and consequent suffering.

And in yet another way of dividing things up, in recent years the Arica system has been organized in terms of Five Realms, each corresponding to five primary body cavities: the Vital Realm (pelvic cavity) the Physical Realm (abdominal cavity), the Emotional Realm (thoracic cavity), the Mental Realm (cranial cavity) and the Spiritual Realm (dorsal cavity). Each realm also corresponds to one of five basic elements: fire, earth, air, water and space. Given the connection to body cavities, physiological systems and natural elements, it is tempting to suggest a biological or materialistic basis for the Arica system. Yet, the teaching asserts that the body is an expression of consciousness and that, in fact, all is consciousness. At the root of each element and realm, for example, is a Divine Mind or Deity, each an aspect of the One Supreme Reality, God, understood primarily as Absolute Mind or infinite, eternal consciousness. Metaphysically, therefore, the philosophy of the Arica school is a version of Idealism, for consciousness is the fundamental reality. In this, it is most similar to the Yogacara or Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism, focusing on the way the subjective or Relative Mind constructs a false image of reality until it ceases and realizes at its base is the immovable, unchanging, adamantine Absolute Mind. It also bears a strong similarity to the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus with its insistence on the ultimate unity of all things in the One and the procession or manifestation of reality from Mind and Ideal Forms. But its version of idealistic monism is theistic, as seen in its credo or Declaration of Unity: “God is eternal, is in all of us, is in everything, is One without second.”

The emphasis in Arica theory on consciousness (its metaphysical primacy as well as the practical aim of clarifying and raising it) includes a map of the levels of consciousness. A main feature of John Lilly’s presentation of Arica theory in The Center of the Cyclone (1972) is an early version of the levels of consciousness which span, metaphorically from hell to heaven, that is, from the lowest levels of suffering in which one is as removed as possible from reality as it truly is, to the experience of reality as such, namely, oneness with the Absolute or union with God. Four levels of “satori” are described, corresponding to spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical centers (like chakras) of the person, and numbered from three at the highest to twenty-four at the lowest (Lilly 1972:148-49). So, state twenty-four, the first level of satori or enlightenment, occurs when one is centered in the lower belly, like the t’ai chi or kung fu master, whose mind is silent and alert rather than distracted by the dream-like constant chattering in one’s head. This state of the pacified mind, “permanent 24,” in which one lives what is described as a “divine life,” is the level of consciousness the early trainings of Arica aimed to achieve. Above this level is state twelve, the opening of the higher emotional center, described as the “blissful state” in which experiences divine grace (baraka) or cosmic love, as well as a oneness with and love for all things. This state is one of extreme joy and high energy, leaving one unable to speak as one enters what Lilly calls the “happy idiot country,” a state highly desirable but rarely achieved. And so on up to further indescribable states of spiritual attainment. State forty-eight is a neutral state of normal waking consciousness in which one is capable of objective understanding using trialectical analysis. Below this are the negative states of increasing subjectivity and suffering. More recent presentations of the levels of consciousness eschew the numbered states of satori and propose nine lower levels of subjectivity which are the negative image of the nine higher levels of objective awareness.

Although Ichazo is most well-known for his Enneagrammatic theory of personality types, the foundation of his thought is his proposed new logic of trialectics. Trialectics is regarded as the logic of unity, a logic that bridges science and mysticism. By “science,” Ichazo means largely experiential or experimental observation leading to universal laws of nature. As such, it can be tested and verified, and this is what differentiates science from faith or religion, the other home to mysticism in world history. The aim of trialectics is to capture the “logos” that governs nature and, indeed, all that is, in a grand metaphysical manner; a way of thinking that grasps the way things are, the fundamental laws or principles or reality. It is mystical logic in its emphasis on unity: it is a way of thinking that overcomes dualisms. Traditional logic or dialectical thought is fundamentally dualistic. It is binary with its chief operators, true and false. In this it is machine-like with the digital “0 or 1” toggle-switch mentality of digital computers the best contemporary example. In recent years many of sensed the need for new way of thinking, for a new holistic logic to replace, or at least supplement, the dualistic and mechanistic rationality inherent in the Cartesian, Newtonian model of the universe. Trialectics is an attempt at giving expression to this new holistic logic (See Dell’Olio 2012).

The basis of trialectics is what might be called “triadic reasoning,” that is, the overcoming of duality by a third, mediating principle that unifies two opposing principles. According to Ichazo, this idea is actually quite old and may be found throughout the world’s wisdom traditions (Ichazo 1982a:74). Similar to Gurdjieff’s Law of Three, trialectics asserts that any phenomenon can be analyzed in terms of three factors: an active force, an attractive force and a third function that mediates the interaction of the two forces. In this way, trialectical logic sees the unity behind seemingly opposing forces; in a sense, its triadic reasoning attempts to capture the coincidence of opposites. Yet, trialectics is more than a method of reasoning that sees unity in opposition. As a metaphysical description of the world of phenomena, it is also an account of the laws of reality. Ichazo typically presents trialectics as bearing on the issue of “identity,” that is, of what is. As metaphysical propositions, the laws of trialectics go beyond triadic thinking per se to include basic principles describing way things are from the point of view of the whole, that is, from the perspective of the unity of reality.

The three laws of trialectics do for cycles what the three classical “laws of thought” of Aristotelian formal logic do for space and what the three laws of Hegelian-Marxian dialectical logic do for time. For Ichazo, formal logic describes a static world while dialectical logic captures a changing universe but in terms of conflict rather than cooperation. In this, formal logic reflects the mentality of the child while dialectical logic reflects the mentality of the adolescent. Similarly, formal logic reflects the ancient and medieval time periods of western culture, a time of slow change where the social order seemed fixed and stable with static hierarchies, while dialectical logic reflects modernity with its rapid pace of change, its political religious and intellectual revolutions, its class struggles, and its belief in progress and limitless expansion.

But as much as each logic captures its own time in thought, neither fully manifests the mature mind since neither thinks in terms of limits, and maturity, for Ichazo, comes with the recognition of limits (Ichazo 1982b:163). The mature person accepts what can and cannot be achieved, that there are limits to action, growth and development. So, the thinking inherent in the modern age, rooted in competition and win-loss scenarios, that sees endless growth and limitless resources, must give way to a new logic that describes change but within prescribed limits and stable patterns.

The laws of trialectics are as follows: (1) The law of mutation from one material manifestation point (MMP) to another MMP. This law states that the universe has pre-established laws and points in which change occurs within fixed patterns. The material manifestation of phenomena take place at “neutral points of retention of energy,” that is, MMPs. (2) The law of circulation. This law states that opposites are in a state of equilibrium where “inside everything is the seed of its apparent opposite.” Change is a harmonious process of circulation of energy rather than a conflictual war or struggle of antagonistic forces. (3) The law of attraction. This law states that things do not remain stable but more toward higher or lower MMPs on a fixed hierarchy of levels (Ichazo 1982a:75).

The law of mutation gives expression to a dynamic universe of energy forming stable but temporary patterns we experience as material objects or substances. As matter or energy transforms into new stable patterns, it does so, not gradually but in discontinuous jumps and at fixed points, both at that micro-level as water changes to ice at 0 degrees centigrade and changes to steam at 100 degrees centigrade, or at that macro-level, as in the “punctuated equilibrium” theory of evolution. More obvious examples in nature include the stages of any life-cycle, as in the egg that becomes a caterpillar then a chrysalis and then a butterfly. As in the case of the stages of human development from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the transformation occurs in jumps at fixed manifestation points.

The process of change, as we have already seen, is described by Ichazo in terms of the triadic relationship between an active principle, an attractive principle and the function that unites them (Ichazo 1982a: 74). The simplest example of this triadic relationship is in the generation of life itself with the mother as attractive principle, the father as active principle and the love between the two as the function that results in the child. The active-attractive-function triad is also at work in the law of circulation. Rather than conceive of change in terms of contradictions in nature, change is conceived in terms of interdependence between active and attractive elements. Both elements contribute to each other and, through a process of attraction or love, join in unity. Seen from the perspective of unity, pace Heraclitus, night is attracted to day, not at war with it. The harmonious circulation of energy between the active and attractive principles maintains the equilibrium and unity of the process.

Attraction is also at work, of course, in the law of attraction. Rather than conceive of change occurring through the dialectical notion of “the negation of the negation,” the third law of trialectics posits a less destructive principle. The law of attraction states that “everything is attracted to expansion or contraction,” (Ichazo 1982a: 64) that is, everything is attracted to higher or lower levels of manifestation of energy or MMPs. Rather, than think of the seed as “negated” by the plant, the trialectical mode of thought thinks of the seed as attracted to becoming a plant. In trialectics, as in Dante’s vision of the universe, it is love that moves the moon and stars, not strife or conflict.

For Ichazo, the notion within trialectics of fixed points of change or MMPs has implications for psychological and spiritual growth. Just as there are levels of material manifestation, from cells to stars, there are levels of psychological or spiritual manifestation. From the madman to the Buddha, the stages of human development are pre-determined, as pre-determined as stages of water from fluid to vapor. Ichazo’s program of spiritual development is based on the existence of these stages or levels of self-realization, and it is because he believes he has the map of the entirety of the human process, in Arica he has produced a scientific approach to mysticism based on the new logic of trialectics.


The primary vehicle for the transmission of Arica teachings have been residential group training programs. These trainings typically make use using a special high-protein diet, including a special drink known as “Dragon’s Milk,” a physical exercise regimen known as Psychocalisthenics, a special deep-tissue massage known as “Chua K’a,” a form of qigong known as kath generation (the lower belly is referred to as the kath center), and meditations which involve yantras and specific kinds of breathing. Beginning levels of study would focus on “karma cleaning” or the systematic review of one’s life experiences across the nine systems and domains, etc., to clarify issues and patterns that hold back one’s personal development and keep one from living a fully awakened life. This process of analyzing and freeing oneself of one’s ego, also known as ego-reduction, includes tools for self-observation. These inlcude knowing one’s “fixation” or personality types, developing “witness” consciousness, and eventually learning how to separate the Absolute Mind from the Relative Mind then re-integrating them in the Ornamental Mind of the enlightened individual. Other practices include chanting and singing, Sufi dancing (or Zhikr), theater exercises, and attending the lectures of Oscar Ichazo. The Line of the School Level trainings are arranged from beginning to advanced and are categorized in terms of the Five Realms (vital, emotional, social, mental, and spiritual), as well as a separate set of Transcendental State trainings. Individual, non-residential trainings are also offered in addition to the residential group trainings (See, “The Trainings” 2021).


Arica Institute [Image at right] is a non-profit organization run by a Board of Directors. Ichazo had not been a member of the Board since moving to Hawaii in 1981 when he formed the Oscar Ichazo Company, now the Oscar Ichazo Foundation, which is distinct from Arica Institute but has served as the source of new trainings and communications to the Arica School. The Arica School consists essentially of its dues-paying members, who also pay tuition for trainings, supporting the work of Ichazo. Ichazo was assisted primarily by his wife, Sarah Hodge Ichazo, and a small team in Hawaii. Since Ichazo’s recent death, the Arica School continues under the leadership of Sarah Ichazo.


From the beginning of the Arica School there seems to have been a tension between the need for it to be closed group (a secret or esoteric school) and its “mission” to save humanity and the planet by establishing “Humanity-One” or the metasociety. There has also been a tension between Ichazo as the supreme leader and teacher (guru?) and the idea that Arica is a democratic organization (“Arica is you”). After leaks of its teachings and practices early on by Claudio Naranjo led to the popularization of enneagram of personality and “the Enneagram Wars,” Arica became hyper-vigilant about copyrighting seemingly everything in its storehouse of concepts and techniques. But such a proprietary stance regarding its offerings runs against its stated aim of reaching as many people as possible and its being a force for the positive transformation of the culture as a whole. It also runs counter to aspirations of intellectual legitimacy for its theory and method since, as the court stated in Arica’s failed lawsuit against Helen Palmer, a purported factual discovery (such as the claim that there are nine distinct ego fixations) could not be protected under copyright laws.

Similarly, many students over the years, including some prominent early ones such as Naranjo, Lilly, and Dick Price of Esalen, have been turned off to what they regarded as the hierarchical, autocratic, dictatorial organization model of the school and the corresponding “group-think” of its membership. (Price’s experience of his participation in Arica is recounted in Kripal 2007:178-79). The authoritarian reputation of the school, along with the high cost of its trainings, has likely inhibited growth in its membership and influence.

The inability to produce in a timely manner a successful publication of the long-awaited complete Arica theory and method has also likely inhibited Arica’s influence, and no doubt was a factor in its challenges with others publishing material derived from its teachings. Ichazo’s own writings are often obtuse, and his lack of solid academic credentials has also likely made it difficult for them to gain wide acceptance.

One might also point to the seemingly interminable nature of Arica’s training program. The first residential training in New York City guaranteed enlightenment in three months, but for the next fifty years new trainings have rolled out promising ever higher attainments of enlightenment. A skeptical observer might wonder why a theory and method touted for its velocity in achieving enlightenment has taken so long to produce an enlightened student.

Ichazo himself has said that mystical schools such as Arica come into being for a period of time and for a specific mission (Ichazo 1982b:119). Perhaps Arica achieved its mission in first few years of its existence, helping to accelerate the raising of consciousness of modern Western society and assisting in opening it up to the significance of spiritual disciplines for personal and social transformation. Yet, Arica gave itself the lofty mission of transforming enough people to achieve a new level of humanity, a global metasociety where we recognize and realize our oneness, and where we avert the “four killers” of over-population, uncontrolled pollution, nuclear Armageddon or fallout, and the abuse and exploitation of natural resources. But since there has been no shortage of such disasters in recent decades, a case could be made that the Arica School has failed in its aim. After all, we seem further from the metasociety or a unified humanity than ever before. Still, perhaps this achievement is simply too high a bar to judge any spiritual teaching or school, not to mention most major world religions and philosophies which, in many if not most cases, share this noble, if ever elusive, aim.


Image #1: Oscar Ichazo in 1976.
Image #2: The cover of Interviews with Oscar Ichazo.
Image #3: The Enneagram. Image courtesy of Rob Fitzel. Accessed at http://www.fitzel.ca/enneagram/index.html.
Image #4: The Universal Logos, symbol of the Arica School.


Anderson, Walter Truett. 2004 [1983]. The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.

Arica website. n.d. Accessed from www.arica.org on 5 January 2021.

Arica website. 2021. “The Trainings.” Accessed from https://www.arica.org/system/abttrain.cfm on 9 January 2021.

Beesing, Maria and Robert J. Nogosek and Patrick H. O’Leary. 1984. The Enneagram: A Journey of Self Discovery. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books.

Dell’Olio, Andrew J. 2012. “The Arica School: Towards a Logic of Unity?” Pp. 153-73 in Philosophical Explorations of New and Alternative Religious Movements, edited by Morgan Luck. Farnham: Ashgate.

Effros Walter A. 2003. “Owning Enlightenment: Proprietary Spirituality in the ‘New Age’ Marketplace.” Buffalo Law Review 5:483-678.

Goldberg, Michael J. 1993. “Inside the Enneagram Wars.” L.A. Weekly, October 15, 16-26.

Ichazo, Oscar. 1991. “Letter to Transpersonal Community.” Pp 87-117 in The Arican. New York: Arica Institute Press.

Ichazo, Oscar. 1982a. Between Metaphysics and Protoanalysis: A Theory for Analyzing the Human Psyche. New York: Arica Institute Press.

Ichazo, Oscar. 1982b. Interviews with Oscar Ichazo. New York: Arica Institute Press.

Ichazo, Oscar. 1982c. “Metamorphosis Lectures.” Maplecrest, NY (author’s personal notes).

Ichazo, Oscar. 1976. The Human Process for Enlightenment and Freedom. New York: Arica Institute Press.

Keen, Sam. 1973. “’We have no desire to strengthen the ego or make it happy.’ A Conversation with Oscar Ichazo.” Psychology Today, July. Reprinted in Interviews with Oscar Ichazo, pp. 3-24.

Kripal, Jeffrey J. 2007. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lilly, John C. 1972. The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space. New York: Julian Press.

Naranjo, Claudio. 1970. “Report from Chile: Oscar Ichazo and the School.” Tiburon, CA: Big Sur Tapes.

Ouspensky, P.D. 1949. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Palmer, Helen. 1988. The Enneagram. New York: Harper & Row.

Simões, Roberto Serafim. 2018. “Early Latin American Esoteric Yoga as a New Spirituality in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.” International Journal of Latin American Religions 2:290–314.

Publication Date:
10 January 2021





1948-1950:  Land was granted in Shashemene to the black people of the world (Ethiopian World Federation members).

1954:  The first Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) members from Montserrat settled on the Land Grant.

1955:  Mayme Richardson, Ethiopian World Federation international organizer, came to Jamaica to publicize the Land Grant and seek membership.

1964:  The first Rastafari Ethiopian World Federation member from the U.S. settled in Shashemene.

1965:  Jamaican Rastafari Noel Dyer walked from the U.K. to Ethiopia.

1968:  Jamaican Rastafari (Ethiopian World Federation members and non-members) arrived in small groups in Shashemene.

1970:  The Shashemene Land Grant was divided among twelve families.

1972:  The first settler from The Twelve Tribes of Israel settled in Shashemene.

1974:  The Ethiopian revolution brought a military junta to power.

1975:  All rural lands were nationalized, including the Shashemene Land Grant.

1986:  Land was granted back to eighteen families in Shashemene.

1992:  A celebration of Centenary of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I (HIM) in Ethiopia took place and arrivals resumed.

2007:  A celebration of the Ethiopian millennium took place, and the number of arrivals and settlements in Ethiopia peaked.

2018:  The Rastafari in Ethiopia received resident identification credentials (foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin).


Shashemene is the name of a southern market town in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia; it is situated 250km from capital city Addis Ababa. Today it is on the southernmost tip of the regional federal state of Oromia. This secondary town has witnessed steady growth since the 1950s and counted at least 150,000 inhabitants in 2020, many of whom were migrants from various regions in Ethiopia. Shashemene, however, is known worldwide because of several hundred Rastafari who “fulfilled prophecy” and live there. They settled on land granted by the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, and they form a unique community of “returnees” to the African continent. As a consequence, the name Shashemene is often used, in Ethiopia and internationally, to designate this community and the symbolic centre of the Rastafari movement. It is sung as such by reggae artists, for example, Sydney Salmon’s Shashemene on my mind (Salmon 2000).

The Emperor of Ethiopia granted land in Shashemene to thank the “Black people of the world,” members of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF), for their moral and financial support during the war with Italy (1935-1941). The EWF was founded in New York in 1937 by Ethiopian Melaku Beyan in order to sensitize public opinion and to centralize support for the cause of Ethiopia. As a token of appreciation five gashas of land, or 200 hectares, were granted to the members of the EWF. The oral tradition of the Rastafari movement gives 1948 as the year of the Land Grant, while archival research points to 1950. This land was in a rural environment in the 1960s, but it is now to be found within town limits and administration. It is known locally as “Jamaica sefer” or Jamaican neighbourhood.

For various reasons related to the political dynamics shaping the Back to Africa claims among the African diaspora in the Americas, settlement in Shashemene started slowly. It began with first settlers Helen and James Piper, [Image at right] Black Jews and Garveyites originally from Montserrat, arriving from the U.S. in Ethiopia in 1948, and in Shashemene in about 1954. They established their farm and a school, and developed social ties with surrounding Ethiopians. They were followed by a handful of African Americans of various denominations, including pharmacist Gladstone Robinson, the first Rastafari from the U.S. in 1964, and Baptist Rev. William Hillman from Georgia U.S. in 1965. Other African American and African Caribbean residents in Ethiopia were sporadic visitors, and the early Shashemene settlers did go occasionally to Addis Ababa, then a full day journey away.

The spectacular journey of Noel Dyer, a migrant Jamaican Rastafari who left the U.K. in 1964 and walked to Shashemene, illustrates the faith and the passion with which Rastafari have engaged with Ethiopia and Shashemene in particular. A couple years after the 1966 landmark state visit of Emperor Haile Selassie I [Image at right] in the Caribbean, groups of Rastafari from Jamaica started arriving in Shashemene. Some were members of the EWF while others were not. They were a couple family units, a few single sistren, and a majority of brethren, painters, builders, masons, carpenters and bakers. The Rastafari petitioned the Ethiopian Crown on various occasions and were granted support, mainly in terms of employment and access to land. In July 1970, the Shashemene Land Grant was divided nominally among twelve persons or households, while more people were arriving in the country, including the first members sent by the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This organization, an offshoot of the EWF with a distinctive theology, was founded in 1968 in Jamaica by Vernon Carrington (Prophet Gad). It focused on repatriation to Ethiopia, and it was closely associated with the growth of reggae music. In 1969, both the Prime minister of Jamaica, Hugh Shearer, and opposition leader, Michael Manley, visited Ethiopia, and Rastafari’s presence and culture were instrumentalized in view of the 1972 elections in Jamaica, eventually won by the socialist opposition.

The small but growing community living on the Shashemene Land Grant was harshly impacted by the revolution taking hold of Ethiopia and dethroning Haile Selassie I in September 1974. Despite coming from impoverished background in Jamaica, the Rastafari settlers were identified as beneficiaries of the Crown in Ethiopia, and as such were directly threatened by the violent change of regime. By March 1975, the military junta ruling Ethiopia (called the Derg) nationalised all rural land in the country, including the Shashemene Land Grant. The Pan African motive of this grant did not hold in front of social change in Ethiopia. Rastafari residents lost most of the land, secured only a few of their houses, and many decided to leave the country. Only a handful of young members from the Twelve Tribes of Israel arrived in the late 1970s. They survived in a context of civil war, curfew, and food ratio, with very few visitors, including Bob Marley in December 1978. Following various petitions to the government, some land in Shashemene was eventually granted in 1986 to eighteen families in order to ease their living conditions.

Following another change of regime in 1991, an international coalition of Rastafari organized in Ethiopia a three-week long celebration of the centenary of Haile Selassie’s birthday (1892). With Shashemene anew on the diasporic agenda, diasporic arrivals resumed with peaks in 2000 and in 2007, the millennium year in the Gregorian and in the Julian calendar (the latter in use in Ethiopia). A striking feature of these decades was the increasing diversity of the “returnees” to Shashemene, who did not come only from Jamaica, but from the many places where the Rastafari movement had bloomed. The EWF had been revitalized in the U.K. during the 1980s, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel had developed a dozen international branches. Thus, Rastafari from all the Caribbean islands, and from the Western metropolises (U.S., U.K., Canada) started arriving in Shashemene. In addition, two of the historic “houses” of Rastafari in Jamaica, The Theocratic Order of Nyahbinghi and the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC, also known as Bobo Ashanti), sent members to reside in Shashemene.

If Shashemene represents a form of enclave, [Image at right] it is one with porous social and spatial borders. With Rastafari of about fifteen nationalities and many Ethiopian-mixed households, it is a cosmopolitan community that entertains strong links with family members abroad and fellow Rastafari worldwide. The habitat of the neighbourhood is mixed, Rastafari and Ethiopians live in the same streets, and of course, the population of Ethiopians grows much faster than the pace of settlement by Rastafari. Rastafari in Shashemene do not represent a separate territory from their surrounding, they are tightly knit in the local fabric, that remains under the control of the Ethiopian administration and people.


The first settlers on the Shashemene Land Grant were Black Jews from the U.S., and oral history has it that Black Muslims came as well in the late 1950s. One of the early settlers was a Baptist minister, from the U.S. as well. These various religious affiliations illustrate the oecumenical character of the EWF in its early days. This was a particularly striking character of the EWF in the U.S. and up to the late 1950s, until International Organizer Mayme Richardson came from New York to Jamaica in 1955 seeking to renew the membership of the EWF. By then, Jamaican Rastafari who had previously struggled to enter into the EWF were empowered and developed their own local branches of the EWF in Kingston. The first groups of Jamaican Rastafari to settle in Shashemene came from these branches. They were followed by members of The Twelve Tribes of Israel who still represent a numerical majority on the Shashemene Land Grant. Thereafter, Rastafari representing various “houses” (like The Theocratic Order of Nyahbinghi and the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress) settled, as well as non-affiliated Rastafari.

Today, the Shashemene community is a Rastafari community, made up of various denominations and affiliations, therefore displaying a variety of doctrines and beliefs that reflect the international Rastafari movement. Still, all commit to hailing the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of Juda, Emperor Haile Selassie I; and they show deep love for Ethiopia as well as a strong claim to Redemption through Repatriation to Africa. Symbolically, they consider Africa as Zion (a Holy land where God resides), [Image at right] which stands in opposition to Western spaces, values and institutions called Babylon (a place of exile and depravation). More than any other community, Rastafari have a specific claim to Shashemene: land was granted by Haile Selassie I, their God and King, the central figure of their cosmology and worldview. As a result, they feel therefore particularly concerned and entitled to it.


The Rastafari calendar is celebrated in Shashemene, and two dates in particular draw both local and international crowds to the community: July 23, the Earthday (birthday) of Emperor Haile Selassie I, and November 2, the Coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Other significant dates include Empress Menen Asfaw Earthday (April 3), Marcus Garvey Earthday (August 17), as well as Ethiopian Christmas (January 7) or New Year (September 11). Some Rastafari, in particular the Bobo (EABIC), observe the Sabbath.

The main place of worship is the Nyahbinghi Tabernacle, [Image at right] a sacred circular space, where the drums of Rastafari are beaten, and the Fire Key lighted. Depending on the presence and engagement of residents, weekly or monthly ritual gatherings take place, in addition to the main celebrations of the Rastafari calendar. The Bobo hold their own ritual services, in the Bobo camp that had various locations in time.

Regular meetings, music and entertainment take place regularly in the Twelve Tribes of Israel HQ and in the EWF HQ. On specific occasions, like the July 23 celebration, the day could start with celebration in the Tabernacle and finish late in the night with a sound system or a reggae concert in the Twelve Tribes HQ. On that particular date, a motorcade was organized with drums, flags and families climbing in colourful trucks that would drive slowly from the neighbourhood to the centre of Shashemene town and back, thus displaying Rastafari’s presence and aesthetics to the wider Ethiopian population.


The formal representation of the Shashemene community has always been a matter of contention. Various factions of the EWF have long opposed each other, and while EWF has a historical legitimacy on the Land Grant, Twelve Tribes members have been a numerical majority since the 1970s. As of today, most dialogues and procedures vis-à-vis the Ethiopian local and national governments follow two channels, one through the EWF, which is now revitalized with a strong leadership, and the other one through the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

There are in addition a number of community associations. The oldest one is the Jamaica Rastafari Development Community (JRDC), which has functioned since the early 2000s. It brings together the various Rastafari houses in Shashemene, except the EWF, and runs a primary and secondary school. Other organizations were short-lived; but some are enduring, like Ancient of Days, that focuses on Elder’s care, and Positive Action Charity Organization, which runs the Yawenta School. Furthermore, a number of organizations abroad support local initiatives, like the Shashemene Foundation and IDOR in the U.S., Sick Be Nourished in the U.K., and Yawenta France, thus inscribing Shashemene both locally and in a wide diasporic space.


The Shashemene community faces a number of challenges. Some are internal challenges, related to the building of a community of people coming from various backgrounds and bound by faith and experience. [Image at right] Most challenges though are related to the Ethiopian environment: economic survival  and local social integration are major issues. Many returnees develop various businesses, and have valuable skills to implement, but cash and capital for investment are often hard to come by. Further, while job opportunities are scarce, the price of labour is always considerably under international standards. This community has survived a revolution (1974), civil war and a violent change of regime (1991). It never engaged actively in Ethiopian national politics, but it is often associated with the Ethiopian Crown, and as such it meets the animosity of Oromo nationalists who consider former Emperors Menelik and Haile Selassie as colonialists. Shashemene, as a major town of southern Oromia, sees recurrent eruptions of violence motivated by larger political and ethnic tensions. These outbursts of violence do not target the Rastafari community directly, but it remains a small and vulnerable community and an easy prey to arbitrary land spoliation and local practices of corruption.

The 2017 announcement by the Ethiopian government that the Rastafari living in Ethiopia would be granted formal rights to residence was implemented in the following couple of years, marking a major step in the legal integration of Rastafari residents in Ethiopia. For the Rastafari and their children, after decades without papers and without rights to either residence or access to Ethiopian citizenship, this formal recognition came with a sigh of relief. Despite this important gesture, the larger international picture of “returnees” from the old African Diaspora to Africa remains an unaddressed human rights issue. That issue is located at the core of the contemporary discussion of and struggle for reparations for slavery.


Image #1: Helen Piper, Gladstone Robinson, and James Piper in front of the Pipers’ house in Shashemene, ca. 1965. Private archives, G. Robinson.
Image #2: Emperor Haile Selassie I.
Image #3: Welcome sign at the entrance to the Shashemene town.
Image #4: Wall painting of a Rastaman in Ethiopian-inspired iconography.
Image #5: The Nyahbinghi Tabernacle in Shashemene.
Image #6: A Shashemene community gathering.

Community gathering in the tabernacle

** Unless otherwise noted, the content of this profile is drawn from Giulia Bonacci, Exodus! Heirs and Pioneers, Rastafari Return to Ethiopia, University of the West Indies Press (2015).


Aarons, David. 2020. “From Babylon to Ethiopia: Continuities and Variations of Utopianism in Rastafari Reggae Music.” Popular Music and Society. Accessed from https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2020.1795480 on 15 December 2020.

Bonacci, Giulia. 2018. “‘It Would Have Pleased the Great Spirit of Mr. Garvey’: Helen and James Piper and the Return to Ethiopia.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 5: 293–31.

Bonacci, Giulia. 2016. “The Return to Ethiopia of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.” New West Indian Guide 90:1–27.

Bonacci, Giulia. 2015. Exodus! Heirs and Pioneers, Rastafari Return to Ethiopia. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.

Bonacci, Giulia. 2013. “The Ethiopian World Federation: A Pan-African Organization among the Rastafari in Jamaica.” Caribbean Quarterly 59:73–95.

Christian, Ijahnya. 2018. “No Migration, Repatriation. Spiritual visionings and political limitations of Rastafari repatriation.” Pp. 316-32 in Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics, edited by Olivia U. Rutazibwa and Robbie Shilliam. London: Routledge.

Gomes, Shelene. 2018. “Counter-Narratives of Belonging: Rastafari in the Promised Land.” The Global South 12:112-28.

MacLeod, Erin. 2014. Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land. New York: New York University Press.

Niaah, Jahlani. 2012. “The Rastafari Presence in Ethiopia: A Contemporary Perspective.” Pp. 66-88 in Rastafari in the New Millennium, edited by Michael Barnett. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Salmon, Sydney. Shashemene on my mind. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdvnENC_u0E on 15 December 2020.

Publication Date:
19 December 2020




International Association of Exorcists



1925 (1 May):  Gabriel Amorth was born in Modena, Italy.

1954:  Amorth was ordained a Roman Catholic priest.

1986 (June):  Father Gabriel Amorth became an official exorcist.

1991 (September 4):  The International Association of Exorcists was founded with Father Amorth as President.

1994:  The first official international conference of the association took place.

1999:  A new rite of exorcism published, replacing the 1614 rite 385 years later.

2000:  Father Amorth retired as President of the International Association of Exorcists and became its Honorary President for life.

2013:  The association, together with the Sacerdos Institute of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, began sponsoring week-long training courses for priests and lay people in the ministry of exorcism.

2014 (June 13):  The Congregation for Clergy approved the Statutes of the Association and conferred its legal status by recognizing it as a Private Association of Faithful under canon law.

2016 (September 16):  Father Amorth died of pulmonary complications at age ninety-one.


The International Association of Exorcists (IAE), which is today led by Father Francesco Bamonte, was founded in Italy in 1991 by Father René Chenessau, exorcist of the diocese of Pontoise (Paris), and by Father Gabriel Amorth (1925-2016), [Image at right] a famous Roman exorcist of the Society of San Paolo, and member of the Pontifical Mariana International Academy (not by chance, since in the Christian tradition it is the Virgin Mary to whom God the Father gives the power to crush the serpent’s head with her feet, and it is to Mary that exorcists consecrate themselves).

Its origin lays in Chenessau’s and Amorth’s observation of their society in the 1980s, specifically that there was an increase of occult practices and in the numbers of the faithful who turned to an exorcist for help. They thought it necessary for them to create an international network composed of those who dealt with this phenomenon. The official founding date of the IAE was September 4, 1991, the date of the first meeting of the group of exorcists. By the year 2000, the association claimed to have 200 members (Collins 2009).

From their first meetings, the IAE exorcists realized the need to involve psychologists and psychiatrists in their activities. At the second official conference organized by IAE in 1993, seventy-nine exorcists participated. In 1994, the first official international conference was organized, and was conducted in several languages with simultaneous translation, with eighty-one participants. During the 2005 international conference, the participants were also received by Pope Benedict XVI (1927 – ). Among the activities promoted by the IAE since 2000 are the School for Exorcists, held for a few days a year, and various spiritual exercises for exorcists.

At the time of the association’s foundation, there were forty IAE members; in 2017 there were more than 500 (130 of whom are lay auxiliaries). Initially, almost all the members of the association were Italians, but today Italians comprise only a little over half of the members. Every two years, since 1994, the association organizes a large five-day international conference. The recent ones attracted more than 100 Italian priests and exorcists and about eighty foreign priests and exorcists. Auxiliaries (such as lay people belonging to prayer groups, psychologists, doctors, lawyers, pastoral workers) also attend, coming from all continents. In the odd years, however, an Italian national conference is organized. Given the increasing number of exorcists and hence the greater demand for training, in 2017, for the first time, the IAE also organized a Neo-exorcist Training Course that was held in Rome.

Each year since 2013, the IAE, together with the Sacerdos Institute of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, [Image at ritght]  has sponsored a week-long training course, providing a theoretical and practical base course for priests and lay people in the ministry of exorcism. During the first two academic years (2004–2005 and 2005–2006), the course lasted four months; since 2007, to meet ever increasing demands coming from various parts of the world, the course has become more focused and thus more intense, lasting only a week. It is interesting to note that in 2008 the training course, which had made the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University known throughout the world, was suspended. The organizers requested a “sabbatical” year of reflection to reconsider the organization of the course, due to the tremendous international media impact that the course had had in its first year.

The fifth course, in 2010, anticipated the release of the film, The Rite, which occurred in early 2011 and almost coincided with the sixth course. This film, starring Anthony Hopkins, produced by New Line, and distributed by Warner Bros. It was inspired by the 2009 essay The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by journalist Matt Baglio (2009), who participated in one of the first courses at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. After the eleventh course, in 2016, the documentary film Liberami was produced by director Federica Di Giacomo, who took part in the tenth course by filming and interviewing some of the participants. In 2017, a discussion forum on these films was also held during the course.


The association believes in the increased presence of the devil in our society and the deficiency of the Catholic Church to deal with these attacks. Its founders had experienced a time period when exorcisms were in sharp decline and even rare (Young 2016). The association was created to revitalise the practice of exorcism in the church, provide a support for exorcists to exchange perspectives and ideas, and train the new generation of professionals.

The Catholic ritual of exorcism is undertaken when people are understood to be affected and/or possessed by the devil. Father Gabrielle Amorth (2016:66–75) differentiates diabolical possession, which is rare, from diabolical vexation (physical or psychological attacks by a demon), obsession (disturbances or hallucinations initiated by a demon), and infestation (demonic disturbances inflicted on houses, objects or animals). He has claimed to have dealt with 50,000 cases, of which only eighty-four were, in his assessment, authentic.

Father Amorth claims that exorcism existed before Christianity and that it was known in “practically all ancient cultures” (Amorth 2016:97). He states that ancient magical rituals were simply the precursor to Christian rituals before they became “illuminated by the truth of Christ.” Making reference to the secularisation process, Father Amorth makes the claim that “[w]hen faith in God declines, idolatry and irrationality increases; man [sic] must then look elsewhere for answers to his [sic] meaningful questions” (2016:53).  He believes that this has led to an increase of practice in the occult, which has attracted the attention of the devil. However, at the time he wanted to create this association, he was concerned that exorcism was better organized by protestant groups. Indeed, in the 1999 translation of his best-selling book, Amorth (1999:15) admits to wanting to bring back an interest in exorcism, “which was found in times past among Catholics but is now found only among Protestants.” He confirms his claim later in his book by stating that

as in the study and dissemination of the Bible, Catholics are lagging behind some Protestant denominations. I will never tire of repeating this: rationalism and materialism have polluted a segment of theologians … (Amorth 1999:173).

His aim is thus to contribute to re-establishing the pastoral practice of exorcism in the Catholic Church (Amorth 1999:174). Acknowledging how difficult it is for someone in need to find an exorcist, he even advises people to go instead to a Catholic Charismatic Renewal group (Amorth 2016:100), a movement that developed in the U.S. that is influenced by Pentecostalism’s prayers of deliverance (1999:120). Amorth (1999:34) claims that “while possessions are still relatively rare today, we exorcists run into a great number of people who have been struck by the devil in health, jobs, or relationships.”

The full ritual of exorcism in Christianity is still regarded as the purview of the Catholic Church; however, Amorth is making reference to his Church’s inability to provide a ministry of deliverance (i.e. rituals to cleanse people of the presence of the devil even if not possessed). The significance, we read, of the increase in the number of professionals of exorcism is not necessarily that it allows for the wider provision of the Roman Ritual, but that it allows Catholicism to keep step with Protestantism in addressing a gap in the ministry that some Protestant groups appear to have filled. Amorth (1999) claims that the current ritual does not address those cases where people are affected by an evil influence; he also refers to the scarcity of exorcists in European nations other than Italy, and notes, almost with envy, that some Protestant denominations take the matter more seriously than does the Catholic Church. In his book, Amorth does not engage in any theological discussion with regards to their differences from the Catholic Church; instead, he writes very positively that ‘[t]hey investigate an occurrence, and when after their process of discernment, they find evidence of diabolical activity, they exorcize with an efficacy that many times I was able to witness personally’ (Amorth 1999:172). However, this exorcist does not accept the Charismatic distinction between simple and formal exorcism. He argues that exorcism should be limited to priests and that Charismatic “deliverance prayers” do not fit with exorcism. For him, exorcism is part of a sacramental Christian lifestyle (Collins 2009:172). On the other hand, Francis MacNutt, a highly educated Roman Catholic priest, advocates deliverance ministry as a form of minor exorcism that can be practised without reference to Church authorities. This priest claims that cases that require major exorcism are so rare that he has never encountered a single one (Collins 2009:56–57). However, a Belgian Archbishop, Leon-Joseph Suenens, refutes the Charismatics’ practice of deliverance as a type of “minor” exorcism and states that it is up to the Roman Catholic Church to formalize the guidelines for the practice of exorcism and deliverance (Collins 2009:.81). Fr Driscoll (2015:128) writes of Catholics wanting to drive demons out “in the same dramatic fashion as their Pentecostal counterparts” and emphasizes that prayer and the sacraments are the most adequate means to fight these demons. Driscoll even refers to deliverance as the Wild West of demon fighting (2015:181), and states that

the Catholic Church has no official deliverance doctrines, ministers, or rites. The deliverance concept, including its theology, procedures, and terminology, has been borrowed from Pentecostalism and/or invented by the deliverance professionals themselves. Prayer and the sacraments are the traditional Catholic means of fighting low-level demonic attacks (2015:141).

Around the time that Paul VI (1897-1978) got rid of the order of exorcists within the Catholic Church (Muchembled 2000), the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was developing, in the U.S. in 1967 and internationally in the 1970s (Csordas 2007). This is a movement that synthesizes elements of Catholicism and Pentecostalism. One of its leaders was Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, who wrote a book published by Pauline Editions in 1982, with a foreword by Cardinal Ratzinger. Amorth (1999:173) quotes a useful passage:

At the beginning, many Catholics tied to the renewal movement discovered the practice of deliverance among Christians of other traditions, belonging mainly to the Free Churches or Pentecostals. The books that they read, and still read, for the most part come from these denominations. Among their literature there is an enormous wealth of information on the devil and his acolytes, on witchcraft and its methodology, and so forth. In the Catholic Church, this field has been left almost fallow. Our directives for specific pastoral response are inadequate for our times.

Amorth (1999:186–87) then criticizes Cardinal Suenens for not regarding exorcism as a sacrament. In the quoted statement above we can see a strong link between renewed interest in exorcism and the importation of a deliverance ministry into the Catholic Church through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which has been a driving force to the creation of this association within Catholicism.

Father Amorth (2016:87) insists that anyone from any religion or non-religion can be attacked by demons but that exorcism and prayers of deliverance can only work for people who live in “God’s grace.” The former leading Italian Catholic exorcist is here making a claim about a practice of deliverance heavily promoted by Pentecostals.

With regards to Catholicism specifically, the push from people like Amorth is not necessarily to bring more priests into the Church, but to train more of the Church’s existing priests on how to expel the devil.


According to Giuseppe Ferrari, one of the organizers of the training courses,

what characterizes this academic initiative is its multidisciplinary approach, in fact, the theme of exorcism is with dealt from various aspects: theological, canonical, anthropological, phenomenological, sociological, medical, pharmacological, psychological, legal, and criminological. This setting, which has proven its success, allows wide-ranging training, and is unique in the field of university education programmes.

In his opening speech to the course of 2017, Ferrari highlighted the danger posed by a new spiritual phenomenon, “spiritual Satanism,” which refers to presenting Satan as a good spirit and thus opening the door to the negative actions of the malignant one. He also asked attendees to reflect on the fact that “in the field of exorcism and of the liberation prayer, there is a growing need for thorough preparation to avoid practices not allowed by canon law.” According to Ferrari, one should note “the increase of certain ecclesiastical groups who, under the guidance of lay people, find themselves to make supplications for the precise purpose of obtaining liberation from the influx of demons;” in this regard, Ferrari quoted the letter to bishops on exorcism rules written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (September 29, 1985) outlining some of the norms of canon law (Canon 1172). That letter  stated that no one could legitimately perform exorcisms on a possessed person if he or she had not obtained a special and formal license from the local bishop, that the lay faithful are not allowed to use the formula of exorcism against Satan and the rebellious angels, and that bishops are invited to be vigilant so that those who do not have the formal licence should not lead exorcism rites. It would thus seem clear that there is a need for the Church to keep in check a growing phenomenon that is otherwise likely to escape the control of the institution.


The Congregation for Clergy approved the Statutes of the Association and conferred its legal status on June 13, 2014  by recognizing IAE as a Private Association of Faithful under canon law. [Image at right]

Article 3 of the Statute describes the association’s objectives: a) to promote the first basic training and the subsequent ongoing training of exorcists; b) to encourage encounters between exorcists especially at the national and international level; c) to favor the inclusion of the ministry of the exorcist in the community dimension and in the ordinary pastoral care of the local church; d) to promote the right knowledge of this ministry among the people of God; e) to promote studies on exorcism in its various aspects; f) to promote collaboration with experts in medicine and psychiatry.

All these objectives highlight some problematic aspects related to the role of the exorcist which will be faced and addressed by the Association. From an institutional standpoint there is a need to give initial training to priests who intend to become exorcists in order to avoid magical experiments or even abuses of the practice of exorcism. There is the need for exorcists to network, to prevent them from becoming individual entrepreneurs, sometimes mistaken for magicians. It is necessary to make known the role of the exorcist within the communities in order to prevent the faithful who think they are possessed from resorting to rites of other religious confessions, such as those of the Pentecostals. There is also the cultural dimension, the need to give a foundation of “credibility,” reasonable if not rational, to the practice of exorcism and the beliefs that are connected. Finally, it is important to seek collaboration with doctors and psychiatrists in a search for legitimacy by science.

According to the Statute, those who can belong to the Association are the members (exorcists) and the aggregates. Exorcists must have received explicit permission from their bishop to be able to practice the rite of exorcism. The aggregates are the Catholic faithful, both priests and lay people, who help the exorcists in carrying out their ministry. In order to belong to the Association, the aggregates must make a written request to the central secretariat, attaching a letter of presentation written by the exorcist with whom they are collaborators.


Some groups engaging in the fight against the devil were born at the margins of the Catholic Church. For example, the USEDEI, the International University of Specialized Sciences on Exorcism, Demonology and Eschatology, operates in Turin. The University, counting among its professors priests, bishops and lay professionals, regularly offers conferences and courses on various topics related to exorcism and possession. Among these are: “Exorcism practice,” “Angelology and demonology,” “Basic elements of physiology and human pathology for exorcizing healing practice;” “Exorcism in the history of religions and cultural anthropology;” “Agiography of saints in history: Exorcist saints and saints possessed;” “Modern forms of esotericism and relationships with alternative medicine;” “Mariology: Mary’s role in the battle against Satan;” “Eschatological themes: Hell, purgatory, paradise, limbo;” “Subliminal messages in mass media and music;” and “Psychosomatic spiritual disease: Causes and therapies with prayer for healing and liberation.”

The greatest challenge facing IAE may well be creating a sufficient base of trained exorcists. For more than twenty years, therefore, Italy has played a leading role in organizing and systematizing the Catholic fight against the devil. This is not only because the number of exorcists has substantially increased in this country, but also because several dioceses have officially opened special offices dedicated to receiving people who feel that they are possessed. A greater number of seminars are being held in order to prepare the exorcists for their mission, and almost always such initiatives receive considerable attention in local and national newspapers. In the diocese of Milan, one of the largest dioceses in the world, with more than 1,000 parishes and 5,000,000 inhabitants, the number of exorcists has more than doubled in the last ten years, increasing from four to ten priests engaged in such rituals. Since 2012, the diocese has opened an office with a dedicated telephone line through which every day a person is available to give direction to those who need to contact the nearest exorcist. Further, attendance at the Lombard Episcopal Conference, headed by the diocese of Milan, grew from eighteen exorcists in 2003 to thirty-two in 2016. The Episcopal Conference brings the exorcists of that region together every year, for a day in which they talk about the problems they have encountered and seek common solutions.

In the same way, the Bishops’ Conference of Triveneto, in the North-East of Italy where the city of Venice is located, is also being organized: the bishops in the last ten years have appointed at least one exorcist for each diocese. If at the beginning of the 2000s the exorcists in this ecclesiastical region were just over ten, recently the number has risen to almost fifty. Some dioceses (such as that of Verona, Padua, Vicenza, Trento) have several priests who are authorized by the bishop to celebrate the rite of exorcism.

As an exorcist we interviewed told us (Giordan and Possamai 2018), the greatest challenge for the future is to prepare “professionally” priests capable of carrying out this service because, according to his experience, the number of people seeking help is constantly increasing. And in addition to priests who can legitimately perform the rite of exorcism, there is also the need to train lay people, men and women, who assist the exorcist in the preparation of the rite as well as helping those affected by the “discomforts of the soul” in their daily life.

In addition to the professionalization process, the exorcists we interviewed also highlighted the need to structure the presence of exorcists in their locality. The objective is for the exorcists not to appear as something “extraordinary” but rather as an aspect of their “ordinary pastoral care in healthcare.” In this way, exorcists may assist people who are affected by physical illnesses in the same way as people who think they are being attacked by the devil.

Image #1: Father Gabriel Amorth.
Image #3: Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.
Image #3: The logo of the International Association of Exorcists.


Amorth, Gabriel with Stefano Stimamiglio. 2016. An Exorcist Explains the Demonic. The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press.

Amorth, Gabriel. 1999. An Exorcist Tells His Story. San Francisco: Ignatius.

Baglio, Matt. 2009. The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. London: Simon & Schuster.

Collins, James. 2009. Exorcism and Deliverance Ministry in the Twentieth Century. An Analysis of the Practice and Theology of Exorcism in Modern Western Christianity. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Csordas, Thomas. 2007. “Global Religion and the Re-enchantment of the World. The Case of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.” Anthropological Theory 7:295–314.

Driscoll, Mike. 2015. Demons, Deliverance and Discernment. Separating Fact from Fiction about the Spirit World. El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press.

Giordan, Giuseppe. and Adam Possamai. 2018. Sociology of Exorcism in Late Modernity. Basinkstoke: Palgrave McMillan.

Muchembled, Robert. 2000. Une histoire du diable XIIe-XXe siècle. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Young, Francis. 2016. A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. London: Palgrave.

Publication Date:
1 December 2020


C3 Church



1952 (May 21):  Phil Pringle was born in Masterton, New Zealand.

1971:  Phil had a vision of the devil circling him. Frightened, he called out, “Jesus!”

1971:  Phil and then-girlfriend Christine (known as a “Chris” within the movement) responded to an altar call at an Assembly of God Church in Sydenham, a suburb outside of Christchurch. They were born again.

1971 (August 8):  Phil and Chris were married.

1972:  While living in Oxford Terrace, New Zealand, a pastor from Sydney, Paul Collins, attended one of Phil and Chris’s house meetings. He made the comment, “Oh, we need something like this in Sydney,” thereby planting the seed of Phil’s vision that he would one day start a church in Sydney.

1973:  Pastor Dennis Barton was ousted from the Sydenham Assembly of God Church. Phil and Chris followed him to his new church in Christchurch, where they become Youth Leaders.

1978:  Phil received an invitation to preach in Madras, India. On his route back to New Zealand from South Asia, his plane landed in Sydney. He then heard a voice (which he interpreted as the voice of God) saying, “I want you to come to Sydney.”

1979:  In Lyttleton, New Zealand, Phil envisaged starting a church in Sydney that had an associated Arts and Bible College.

1980:  Phil and Chris moved from Lyttleton to Sydney to start Christian Centre Northside Church.

1980:  The church hosted its first service (an Easter Service) at Dee Why Surf Club in Oxford Falls. Only twelve people attended.

1984:  Oxford Falls Grammar School and C3 College were established.

2008:  At the “Here We Go” global conference held in Hawaii, Christian City Church announced that it would officially change its name to “C3 Church.”

2020:  C3 Church oversees 594 churches in sixty-four countries, and a global membership of more than 100,000.


Phil Pringle was born on May 21, 1952 in Masterton, New Zealand to an upper-middle class family. When he was very young his mother passed away from brain cancer. Christine Pringle (known as “Chris” within the C3 movement) came from a lower-class background, and her father died when she was only an infant. The two first met as young kids growing up in Masterton, but it wasn’t until they both attended Wairarapa College, where they took the same English and History classes, that they became friends, and eventually, high school sweethearts. The two connected over their shared passion for art, music, and drama (Shin 2014). After high school Phil began working as a garbage-collector and attending Arts School, while Chris studied to become a Kindergarten teacher.

Coming of age in the 1960s, the couple were heavily involved in the New Zealand hippie movement; in their teens they grew their hair long, experimented with psychedelics, and studied Eastern philosophy and religion. According to Chris, at the time, “the only people we knew were clairvoyants or card readers” (Shin 2014). In 1971, while living together in Christchurch, Phil had a vision of the devil while in a semi-conscious state. In a panic, he woke up and cried out, “Jesus!” Deeply frightened, the couple said the Lord’s Prayer together. The next morning, they phoned a friend of theirs, Dorothy, for advice. Dorothy, who read tarot cards, recommended they visit a psychic society. However, Dorothy’s mother, May, who had just converted to Christianity three weeks earlier, overheard the conversation. May got the couple’s number from Dorothy and phoned them back, putting them in touch with an Assembly of God (Pentecostal) church. The following Sunday, Phil and Chris visited the church, which was located in Sydenham, a suburb outside of Christchurch, and led by a pastor named Dennis Barton. At the end of the service, the pastor invited all of the congregants to receive Jesus Christ. Both Phil and Chris walked to the front and were born again. Three weeks later, at the request of the church, the couple got married (Barclay 1987). [Image at right]

Under the direction of pastor Dennis Barton, Phil and Chris became Youth Leaders at the church. They also moved into a large house with other church members, holding prayer meetings on Monday nights that attracted between seventy to one hundred people. In 1972, a pastor from Sydney, Australia, Paul Collins, attended one of their house meetings. He made the comment, “Oh, we need something like this in Sydney.” Phil recalls this event as the moment God gave him the vision that he would one day lead a church in Sydney (Barclay 1987).

In 1973, pastor Dennis Barton was asked to step down as pastor and leave the church. This caused massive rifts within the congregation. Phil and Chris struggled with the decision over whether or not to leave. In the end, they followed Barton and helped him plant a new church in Christchurch (Barclay 1987).

Sometime after serving as an associate pastor with Barton in Christchurch, Phil felt a strong call to start a church in Sydney. He received an offer from pastor Paul Collins to serve with him at his congregation in Sydney. Phil convinced Chris to make the trip, confident that his vision would soon come to fruition. However, after only five months in Sydney, it became clear that this was not the right time. Having found little success in their new venture, the couple were forced to return to Christchurch. Phil fell into a deep depression. He decided to quite the ministry for good, and he took up a job as a postman (Pringle 2005:71).

While working as a postman, Phil’s desire to become a pastor gradually returned. He and Chris made the decision to move to Lyttleton, a suburb outside of Christchurch, to start their own church. They ran this church for three years. During this period, Phil allegedly received signs from God that he would one day plant a church in Sydney, as well as found a Christian College. In 1978, Phil received an invitation to preach at a crusade in Madras, India. On his return trip back to New Zealand, his plane stopped in Sydney. Upon landing, Phil heard what he interpreted as the voice of God say, “I want you to come to Sydney” (Barclay 1987).

Later that year, Phil and Chris put a deposit down on a home in Lyttleton. However, soon after placing the deposit, Phil regretted the decision, feeling strongly that he and Chris needed to make the trip to Sydney to plant a church. He convinced her to forfeit the deposit, and in 1980 they made the move to Sydney with their three children, Daniel, Rebekah, and Joseph. They were followed by Simon and Helen McIntyre, Alison Easterbrook, and Phil’s brother.

In 1980, Phil and Chris started Christian Centre Northside Church, which they took over from Paul Collins, who had moved to Hong Kong to do mission work. Their first service, an Easter Service, was held at the Dee Why Surf Club in Oxford Falls and had only twelve people in attendance. However, within four years, their church grew to four hundred members.

Throughout the 1980s, Phil spearheaded a number of church plants, first around Sydney, and then into other parts of Australia. Over this period, they renamed the church, “Christian City Church.” In 1984, Phil founded the Oxford Falls Grammar School as well as Christian City Church (now C3) College. In 2008, at the “Here We Go” global conference held in Hawaii, the church officially changed its name to “C3 Church.”

C3 Church has come a long way from its humble beginnings. While Oxford Falls still houses the church’s primary campus, C3 SYD Oxford Falls (which includes an arts and bible college, a grammar school, television studio, café, art gallery, and auditorium), one can find C3 Churches around the globe (on every continent except Antarctica). [Image at right] As of 2020, C3 Church Global boasts more than 500 churches in sixty-four countries (C3 Church Global 2020a).

Much of the success of the C3 movement is the result of Phil Pringle’s leadership skills and relentless entrepreneurialism. Since the movement’s beginnings, he has doggedly sought to expand the reach of C3 to the four corners of the earth, which he has accomplished by means of energetic preaching, impressive charisma, stoking intense missionary zeal, and harnessing the most up-to-date mass media technologies and marketing methods. Phil has long been a sought-after public speaker, both in religious and secular (business) contexts, speaking on topics as diverse as Christian faith, leadership, personal finances, and church planting. He regularly travels around the world to speak at conferences, [Image at right] preaching a combination of neo-Pentecostal and prosperity theology, which is highly tailored to appeal to contemporary late modern (and secular) sensibilities.

In many respects, Phil’s message resembles a kind of Christianized self-help, focused on empowering individuals to become prosperous leaders. However, his counter-cultural and artistic backgrounds also shape his teachings. For example, he places a sizeable emphasis in his talks on the themes of creativity, personal authenticity, and self-realization. Phil also hosts a television program, “Your Best Life with Phil Program,” which has appeared on ACC in Australia and TBN in Europe, and is today broadcast on YouTube. And in addition to speaking publicly, Phil has penned over seventeen books, which include: Moving in the Spirit (1994), Keys to Financial Excellence (2003), Faith: Moving the Heart and Hand of God (2005), Parable of the Dog (2014), and Leadership 101 (2018). Though none of his books have become international best-sellers they have nevertheless served to give substance and form to an overarching “C3 Culture.”

Chris Pringle has also played a significant role in spreading the reach of C3 Church. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was a singer in a Christian rock group. As co-leader of the movement, she regularly preaches at C3 conferences and events, and has from the start served as Senior Minister at the main church campus in Oxford Falls. And since 1998, Chris has led the Everywoman Gathering, an annual women-only C3 conference meant to empower and strengthen C3’s female community. In 2005, she published Jesse: Found In Heaven, which recounts her experience suffering a miscarriage, and how she grieved her unborn child.

As of this writing, Phil is the President of C3 Church Global, the President of the Oxford Falls Grammar School Board, and the President of C3 College. Moreover, Phil and Chris are presently the Senior Ministers of all of the C3 Churches in Sydney [Image at right] (though in November 2021 they plan to step down and become Pastor Emeritus (C3 Church Sydney 2020). Thus, while C3 Church may be an international movement, encompassing hundreds of churches around the world, Phil and Chris’s personal imprint are never difficult to detect.


As of November 2020, the C3 Church Global website lists the Church’s core beliefs as follows:

There is one God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

In the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God; we believe in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His victorious and atoning death, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, His constant intercession and in His imminent return.

In the person and work of the Holy Spirit with His fruits and gifts available in the Church.

The Bible is the living word of God. It is infallible, authoritative and everlasting and is the foundation of all Christian doctrine.

In the existence of an evil spiritual being known as the devil.

In the spiritually lost condition of all people and the essential need for the new birth by faith in Jesus Christ.

In the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a gift available to believers subsequent to the new birth, with normal evidence of speaking in other tongues

In the sacraments of the Lords Supper and baptism by full immersion in water for all believers.

In the resurrection of both the saved and the lost, the one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting separation from God.

In the church being the body of Christ, and each member being an active part of a local church, fulfilling the Great Commission.

Marriage was instituted by God, ratified by Jesus, and is exclusively between a man and a woman. It is a picture of Christ and his church.

Sex is a gift from God for procreation and unity, and it is only appropriate within and designed for marriage. (C3 Church Global 2020b)

As this statement of beliefs makes clear, C3 Church falls squarely within the conservative evangelical camp inasmuch as it subscribes to traditional positions on doctrines, such as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the reality of miracles as reported in Scripture, and the imminent return of Christ. And in addition to theological conservatism, C3 Church likewise espouses social conservatism, viewing marriage as the exclusive remit of heterosexual couples, and same-sex sexual relations as sinful. However, C3 Church also clearly belongs to the “Pentecostal” family, stressing as Phil and Chris do, [Image at right] baptism in the Holy Spirit, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), the existence of spiritual warfare, and the promise of divine healing.

The Pentecostal aspects of Phil and Chris’s version of Christianity can be traced back to their conversion in an Assembly of God Church in Sydenham. However, it’s clear that, if the couple did ever subscribe to classical Pentecostalism (and this is doubtful), over the years they have increasingly deviated from it (for instance, C3 Church does not belong to the wider Pentecostal church network in Australia, the Australian Christian Churches (ACC)). In fact, C3 theology is best thought of as a synthesis of Pentecostal or Charismatic Christian motifs and ideas with the prosperity gospel.

The prosperity gospel has its principal roots in the nineteenth century religious movements, New Thought (sometimes called “mind-cure) and Christian Science, which, in one form or another, espoused a high anthropology, conceived of the inner self as itself divine, and championed a universal right to prosperity and physical healing (Coleman 2000: 47). Having said that said, twentieth-century prosperity preachers liberally blended these metaphysical religious traditions with secular modes of thought such as positive thinking, self-help, and positive psychology, a trend that is becoming increasingly common (Coleman 2000:127). In any case, the prosperity gospel stands firmly within the American tradition of rugged individualism and self-reliance.

According to historian Kate Bowler (2013) the prosperity gospel centres on four themes: faith, wealth, health, and victory (2013:7). Each of these themes is prominent in C3 theology. For instance, in Faith: Moving the Heart and Hand of God, [Image at right] Phil Pringle (2005) writes, “Faith is a time rebel. It travels through time into the future; it feels the experience of a yet future event. But it feels that event in the ‘now.’ Faith is not pretending that it’s there. It is not hoping that it’s there. It is not imagining that it’s there. Faith knows it’s there because it has the substance of the experience, or the thing, in itself. Faith is the substance of a ‘thing’; it feels the ‘thing’ existing within the heart right now. Because it exists inside me, I know that it exists” (2005:66).

What Phil is championing here is a form of “positive confession,” which refers to the idea that “words spoken ‘in faith’ are regarded as objectifications of reality” (Coleman 2000: 28). According to C3 theology, real faith is not passive but active, capable of manifesting things in the external world. Interestingly, in this way, C3’s prosperity message has striking resemblances to New Age Spirituality (Watts 2019).

Furthermore, the accumulation of wealth plays a pivotal role in C3 teachings. Not only are C3 members encouraged to become affluent, but wealth is generally considered a sign of divine blessing. In Keys to Financial Excellence [Image at right] Phil Pringle (2003) writes, “Those who spend copious amounts of time embracing the tenets and teachings of Scripture are going to inherit the same spirit and principles of success and abundance that accompanied the lives of the wealthy and accomplished men who wrote it” (2003:45). He adds, “the Lord wants to give us an overflowing abundance!” (2003:50). Of course, if God wants all faithful Christians to be rich, then it stands to reason that if someone is poor it is because they lack faith. And indeed, this idea is intimated, if not outright endorsed, in Phil’s writings (see for example, Pringle 2005:186) (see picture of book cover).

And as for the themes of health and victory, it is a basic tenet of C3 theology that to become prosperous is not only to be financially well-off, but also to have good health and a positive self-image. According to Phil (2005), “A poor self-image is not just a minor handicap in life. It is not just some extra baggage that is unpleasant to carry around. It is a serious problem for our lives in God.” Accordingly, he counsels changing our “self-loathing” into “self-love” (2005:151). Moreover, Phil Pringle’s conception of spiritual warfare is couched almost entirely in therapeutic terms: “The Devil is the one who wants to keep you feeling unworthy and undeserving” (2005:154). Thus, within C3 thought, a mentality of victory (which entails feeling good about oneself, having self-confidence, and being upbeat) is idealized, while a victim mentality is tacitly pathologized. Phil sums this up, “Faith is an attitude of victory within” (Pringle 2005:32).

While C3 Church may fall within the conservative Protestant camp in terms of its stated beliefs, it is quite evident that in terms of both style and substance, it has eagerly embraced the counter-cultural and therapeutic ethos of the 1960s. Anthropologist Simon Coleman (2000) refers to this as the “‘Californication’ of conservative Protestants,” which refers to the way certain religious conservatives “have accommodated to the anti-institutional, therapeutic, cultural preferences of the baby boomers” (2000:24). One stark example of this accommodation shows up in the ways Phil and Chris regularly proclaim that C3 is “not a religion,” so much as a “faith,” a rhetorical strategy which mirrors the claim to being “spiritual but not religious” that has become commonplace in late modern societies (Watts 2020). Indeed, it is in large part owing to the church’s accommodation to the expressive individualism that defines mainstream Western culture in the twenty-first century that C3 Church has been uniquely successful in attracting young “hipsters” who see the church as an innovative and rebellious way to “do church” (Watts 2020b).


 While not all C3 churches can be considered megachurches proper (those with over two-thousand regular attendees), even the C3 campuses which have smaller congregations seek to recreate the aesthetic, style, and feel of the Oxford Falls campus. The reason for this is that C3 worship services have proven extremely effective at enabling the church to attract and convert members.

A critical factor in their success is the role of worship music. C3 Church has long marshalled the use of the most innovative sound equipment and performance technologies in order to give their Sunday services the feel of a contemporary rock concert [Image at right].

Moreover, at every C3 service one generally finds attractive young people (singers and instrumentalists) performing songs whose lyrics are projected on massive screens which hang at the back of the stage. They sing a combination of popular Christian worship music and music recorded and produced at C3 College. Indeed, the creation and dissemination of their original worship music has been pivotal to the church’s mission strategy (one can easily download C3 music on most streaming apps). However, the role of those onstage is not merely to perform for members in the audience, but also to “model the correct way to experience the presence of God” (Jennings 2008:163). Thus, from the moment one enters a C3 worship service, one is being trained in the art of “metakinesis,” a term which anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann (2004) uses to refer to the various ways individuals learn to identify and discern the presence of God in their subjective experiences (2004:522). It follows that the use of worship music in Sunday services plays a key role in creating a distinct auditory environment, which increases the likelihood that attendees will experience the presence of God (Wellman et al. 2014).

Another reason for C3’s success revolves around aesthetics. In order to attract newcomers, C3 church seeks to remove the potential barriers to cultural participation. So, instead of hymns, popular Christian music that closely resembles Top-40 radio is played; rather than taking place in old church buildings, services commonly take place in warehouses or amphitheatres; and rather than traditional vestments, a dressed-down hipster dress code is tacitly normalized. Indeed, C3 churches tend to resemble other common sites of leisure in modern societies, such as the mall, the sports arena, or the movie theatre (Maddox 2012:153). [Image at right]

Of course, in keeping with their neo-Pentecostal background, C3 Church leaders do practice supernatural healing, full immersion baptisms, and speaking in tongues, however, these practices are often shielded from the general public. That is, they tend only to take place at exclusive C3 services and conferences, where media is generally prohibited. Thus, the church goes to great lengths not to alienate those whose cultural sensibilities might align with the mainstream in late modern societies.

Finally, in evangelical fashion, C3 members are regularly encouraged, while away from church, to read their bibles daily, participate in C3 activities and events, socialize with other Christians, and closely monitor their emotions and experiences for evidence of both God and the Devil. In this way, C3 theology asks of its members to stringently discipline themselves in conformity with its message of personal empowerment and material prosperity.


C3 Church Global, registered as a charity based out of Sydney, oversees the international church movement. C3 Church Global’s Board of Directors, headed by Phil Pringle, provides direction, vision, and goals for the movement at large. Under them sit the Regional Directors (all of whom are heterosexual married couples) who oversee the various C3 churches within a particular geographic region. These regions include Australia (with 106 churches), the Americas (with forty-six), Canada (with nineteen), East Africa (with eighty), Mena (with forty-six), East Asia (with three), Europe (with thirty-eight), South Asia (with eighty-four), South East Asia (with seventy-five), Southern Africa (with twenty-six), West Africa (with nine), and Pacific (with fifty-five) (C3 Global 2020c). Within specific regions, Church Oversees are tasked with providing structure and support to local pastors. And each C3 Church is headed by Senior Pastors, who are sometimes supported by Junior Pastors.

The overall coherence and consistency of the Church Movement is maintained through annual events and conferences, which draw C3 leadership and members from around the globe. The largest of these is the annual “Presence Conference,” [Image at right] held in a different location each year, which offers an opportunity for local C3 groups to hear their Senior Pastors preach in person, as well as an opportunity for leadership to announce new goals and directions for the movement.

At the same time, C3 College in Oxford Falls has long functioned as an incubator for aspiring C3 pastors; many who now hold leadership positions completed a degree at the college. At C3 College, students can take courses in biblical studies and theology, music, film, and media, both in person and online. [Image at right]

There is a strong focus on media communications and digital marketing within the movement. The church relies on the free labour of its creative-class members to produce and disseminate C3 Church publicity, and promote the “C3 brand” around the world. Indeed, consumers can purchase C3 merchandise and products online from the “C3 Store,” which now sells everything from apparel, to books, to digital courses on personal development, leadership, and a Masterclass on church planting. And in recent years, the church has even developed its own app, “C3 Church Global App,” which individuals can use to locate C3 Churches in their local cities and towns.

While C3 Church Global seems on the surface to be a highly decentralized operation, it nevertheless exhibits a striking degree of standardized features. Indeed, the church operates much like a transnational corporation inasmuch as it is led by entrepreneurial Senior Pastors who espouse a top-down management style and command “obedience to an organisational culture” (Maddox 2012:152). In this way, C3 Church squarely belongs to what J. B. Watson and Walter H. Scalen (2008) call “the church growth movement,” which they contend is defined by the following four principles: an emphasis on quantitative measures of success such as worship attendance and number of new converts; a focus on “contextualixation, that is, a church delivers its message within the context of the culture”; the application of modern marketing techniques; and the value of net-working with like-minded churches (2008:171).

Finally, given that C3 Church has risen to prominence during the very same years that the Welfare State in Australia has been steadily dismantled, a number of scholars argue that its success owes much to its elective affinities with neoliberal economic policies (Shanahan 2019).


Phil Pringle, and C3 Church more generally, have been widely criticized by other Christian leaders and groups for preaching a version of Christianity that they consider heretical, shallow, and corrupt. In fact, self-described ex-C3 members have setup a Christian watchdog website, “C3 Church Watch,” meant to bring attention to what they see as the church’s unbiblical teachings and dissuade others from joining the C3 movement. [Image at right]

Additionally, C3 Church has been forced to weather a number of public scandals in recent years. In 2017, a C3 pastor, Nicholas Dimitris, was found guilty of participating in a “straw borrower” scheme to defraud local banks (Weaver 2015). In 2017, Mosaic Defredes, a C3 pastor was convicted of a major piracy racket (Dunn and Sutton 2017). And another C3 pastor, Anthony Shalala, was allegedly paid $300,000 as compensation to leave the church following claims of sexual misconduct (Passi 2019).

Lastly, in 2019, the Australian television news program, A Current Affair, ran an exposé of the church. Showcasing negative testimonies from ex C3-members, along with footage of C3 events and an impromptu interview with Phil Pringle, [Image at right] the program took a critical stance on the church’s theology, funding practices, approach to mental illness, and views of same-sex relations (Passi 2019).

In response to the allegations, the church publicly denied any wrongdoing, and claimed that with respect to the issue of same-sex relations, “our approach is to embrace everyone and care for them on the basis of our overriding belief that our God is full of love and compassion for everybody, regardless of their personal circumstance or sexual orientation” (C3 Church Sydney 2019). The seeming conflict between the church’s official stance on same-sex relations (as represented in their official statement of beliefs) and public statements like this has become a heated source of controversy, especially in those cultural contexts where same-sex relations are generally considered unproblematic and entirely normal. For instance, C3 Toronto in Canada has been publicly criticized by an ex-member for deceiving her as regards their position on the issue of homosexuality (Garrison 2019).

It would seem, in turn, that there exists a real tension at the core of the movement insofar as it seeks to retain a commitment to traditional theological and social positions, while simultaneously accommodating to the latest cultural fads, embracing the most up-to-date forms of technology, and taking a strongly world-affirming stance. However, whether or not this tension will have negative consequences for the movement itself, only time will tell.


Image #1: Photograph of Phil and Chris Pringle at their wedding.
Image #2: The C3 Church logo.
Image #3: Photograph of Phil Pringle preaching.
Image #4: Photograph of Senior Ministers Phil and Chris Pringle.
Image #5: Photograph of Phil Pringle praying over parishioner.
Image #6: Cover of Faith: Moving the Heart and Hand of God.
Image #7: Cover of Keys to Financial Excellence.
Image #8: Musical performance at a C3 church service.
Image #9: C3 church in Calgary, Canada.
Image #10: The Presence Conference.
Image #11: Students participating in a class at C3 College.
Image #12: C3 Church Watch welbsite.
Image #13: Impromptu media interview with Phil Pringle.


Barclay, John. 1987. Arise! The Story of Christian City Church. Sydney: Covenant Publishing.

Bowler, Kate. 2013. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press.

C3 Church Global. 2020a. “Home Page.” Accessed from https://c3churchglobal.com on 27 November 2020.

C3 Church Global. 2020b. “What We Believe.” C3 Church Global website. Accessed from https://c3churchglobal.com/what-we-believe/ on 27 November 2020.

C3 Church Global. 2020c. “This Is Us.” C3 Church Global website. Accessed from https://issuu.com/c3churchglobal/docs/this_is_us_-_c3_global on 27 November 2020.

C3 Church Sydney. 2019. “Media Response To A Current Affair.” C3SYD, December 5. Accessed from https://c3syd.church/media-response/ on 27 November 2020.

Coleman, Simon. 2000. The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dunn, Matt, and Candace Sutton. 2017. “Pastor Mosaic and his ‘disciple’ Allison masterminded Australia’s biggest piracy racket worth $21m.” News.com.au, March 21. Accessed from https://www.news.com.au/technology/online/hacking/pastor-mosaic-and-his-disciple-allison-masterminded-australias-biggest-piracy-racket-worth-21m/news-story/2b80939ce4e53ff17f304e68d23857ce on 27 November 2020.

Garrison, Alyssa. 2019. “I Fell For a ‘Progressive’ Church, and It Was a Mistake.” Flare.com, December 10. Accessed from https://www.flare.com/identity/c3-church-anti-gay/ on 27 November 2020.

Jennings, Mark. 2008. “‘Won’t you break free?’ An ethnography of music and the divine-human encounter at an Australian Pentecostal Church.” Culture and Religion 9:161-74.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. 2004. “Metakinesis: How God Becomes Intimate in Contemporary U.S. Christianity.” American Anthropologist 106:518-28.

Maddox, Marion. 2012. “‘In the Goofy parking lot’: growth churches as a novel religious form of late capitalism.” Social Compass 59:146-58.

Passi, Sacha. 2019. “Scott Morrison linked to controversial ‘miracles for money’ church.” A Current Affair. Accessed from https://9now.nine.com.au/a-current-affair/c3-church-scott-morrison-link-to-scandal-former-pastor/6579a36b-5a9e-462d-bcd4-ccae869081d1 on 27 November 2020.

Pringle, Phil. 2005. Faith: Moving the Heart and the Hand of God. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House.

Pringle, Phil. 2003. Keys to Financial Excellence. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House.

Shanahan, Mairead. 2019. “‘An Unstoppable Force for Good’?: How Neoliberal Governance Facilitated the Growth of Australian Suburban-Based Pentecostal Megachurches.” Religions 10:1-16.

Shin, Yong Tung. 2014. “Interview With the ‘Blonde Nana’: How Mr And Mrs Pringle Met.” City News, March 14. Accessed from https://www.citynews.sg/2014/03/14/interview-with-the-blonde-nana-how-mr-and-mrs-pringle-met/ on 27 November 2020.

Watson., J.B., and Walter H. Scalen. 2008. “‘Dining with the Devil’: The Unique Secularization of American Evangelical Churches.” International Sociological Review 83: 171-80.

Watts, Galen. 2019. “Religion, Science, and Disenchantment.” Zygon 54:1022-35.

Watts, Galen. 2020a. The religion of the heart: ‘Spirituality’ in late modernity.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology. Accessed from https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00106-x.

Watts, Galen. 2020b. “A hipster evangelical church is taking Toronto by storm,” CBC, July 8. Accessed from https://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/cbc-docs-pov/a-hipster-evangelical-church-is-taking-toronto-by-storm-1.5619110 on 27 November.

Weave, Emily. 2015. “Seven Falls conspirators to be sentenced June 2” Blue Ridge Now.com, April 23. Accessed from https://www.blueridgenow.com/news/20150423/seven-falls-conspirators-to-be-sentenced-june-2 on 27 November 2020.

Wellman, James K., Katie E. Corcoran, and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk. 2014. “‘God Is Like a Drug…’: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches” Sociological Forum 29:650-72.

Publication Date:
30 November 2020


Universal Medicine



1964:  Serge Benhayon (Benhayon) was born in Uruguay.

1970:  Benhayon emigrated to Sydney, Australia with his parents where he attended school and developed a sporting career.

1990s (Early):  Benhayon moved with his wife Deborah and their children to Northern Rivers of New South Wales, Australia where he continued his career as a Tennis Coach.

1999:  Benhayon had a series of esoteric revelations communicating alternative healing modalities and began practising from his home in the Northern Rivers. Benhayon named his philosophy “Universal Medicine.”

2002:  Serge and Deborah Benhayon separated.

2003: Benhayon offered the first courses and training workshops in his methods.in Northern New South Wales, Australia.

2004:  A course called The Arcane School was challenged by lawyers from Lucis Trust; Benhayon ceased using this title.

2005:  Benhayon began offering workshops twice a year in Somerset, United Kingdom.

2006:  The Universal Medicine website established.

2007:  UniMed Publishing, Universal Medicine’s dedicated publishing enterprise, was established.

2008:  Benhayon offered the first five day live-in “Retreats in Vietnam and Australia.”

2010:  Benhayon married Miranda who had been a long-standing friend of the family.

2011:  Benhayon established The College of Universal Medicine, a charitable organisation.

2012-2013:  Esther Rockett created blogs dedicated to discrediting Universal Medicine.

2013:  Natalie Benhayon, Serge Benhayon’s daughter, launched her mobile App, Our Cycles and establishes a company, Esoteric Women’s Health.

2014:  Students of Universal Medicine launched a web blog called The Facts about Universal Medicine to counter negative claims being made in the media.

2016:  Benhayon made a formal accusation of defamation against Esther Rockett.

2018 (December):  The New South Wales Supreme Court found against Serge Benhayon.

2019:  The content of the Web Blog site called The Facts about Universal Medicine was removed.

2020 (May):  The Universal Medicine website seemed to have returned to an earlier iteration and appeared in process of redesign.

2020:  Under COVID19 restrictions, Benhayon was offering his teachings online instead of at face to face meetings.


Serge Benhayon [Image at right] was born in Uruguay in 1964. He emigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1970 with his parents where he attended school and developed a sporting career. In the early 1990s, Benhayon moved with his wife Deborah and their children to Northern Rivers of New South Wales, Australia where he continued his career as a Tennis Coach.

Benhayon founded Universal Medicine in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, Australia in 1999. He was inspired by esoteric revelations in which knowledge of new methods for alternative healing were communicated to him. Benhayon describes his experience in a manner similar to the ways others report revelations (See, Stark 1992). Names like “the Hierarchy” and “Sanat Kumara” were presented to him, which he later discovered in the works of theosophist Alice A. Bailey (1880-1949). He developed and began practising a repertoire of esoteric complementary and alternative healing practices. Benhayon’s background reveals familiarity with a variety of religious traditions and experience with complementary and alternative therapies (Coco 2020).

In his youth, Benhayon was exposed to an assortment of religious influences, though neither his parents nor his grandparents practiced religion. He remembers that his father, born of Moroccan Jewish and Catholic lineages, studied different religions (S. Benhayon 2017). Benhayon’s mother’s religious lineage was Russian Jew. During his schooling, Benhayon pursued an active interest in Church of England religious education, reading booklets on the Christian Gospels and attending church on his own terms. At school he excelled in athletics and later developed a career in professional tennis training. The growth of Universal Medicine (UM) is characterised by word of mouth networking, public demand, and later, by initiatives that were created and continue to be maintained by Benhayon family members and other dedicated associates.

Initially, Benhayon worked from his home, testing his healing techniques amongst friends and family. At the end of 2000-2001, he moved his practice to a hired room in a colleague’s practice. He eventually established the first UM Clinic in a refurbished old house in Goonellabah, [Image at right] Northern New South Wales. Serge and first wife Deborah separated in 2002 though Deborah continued to be involved with UM. By 2003-2004, he had ceased tennis coaching and was offering multi-level training workshops in his healing modalities at various public locations in the Northern Rivers. He also began conducting monthly meditation sessions based on the metaphysical worldview underpinning his healing methods (S. Benhayon 2017). A course called The Arcane School was offered briefly in 2004.

Benhayon named his religious vision “The Way of The Livingness” (TWL). [Image at right] Around the time he began voicing his esoteric impressions publicly, a friend handed him a compilation of writings by Alice Bailey (Bailey 1971). In Bailey’s writings, which Benhayon asserts that he has not read very closely, he encountered a worldview that resonated with his own revelatory insights. He maintains that his methods extend the esoteric goals of the Ageless Wisdom tradition by developing practical applications to guide people in their evolution (S. Benhayon 2018). In 2008, Universal Medicine ran the first of what were to become recurrent yearly five-day retreats, in Vietnam and Australia (Unimed Living 2014c). These retreats were later extended to the United Kingdom.

Many UM activities have been prompted by participants seeking avenues for sharing the UM worldview. Participants designed and launched the UM website in 2006. Volunteers also established UniMed Brisbane Pty Ltd, a clinic which began offering complementary and alternative healing therapies to the public in 2010. Benhayon established The College of Universal Medicine (CoUM) in 2011 as an organisational vehicle through which UM practitioners could offer services to the broader community. Benhayon opened the Hall of Ageless Wisdom, the main venue for delivering his teaching and training sessions, in Wollongbar, Northern New South Wales in 2016. This Hall is used for public gatherings where he delivers his esoteric teachings and engages participants in a variety of personal development programs. A significant expansion of TWL first offered in 2017 is The School of Initiation (TSOI), a course offering training in improving one’s grasp of esoteric principles and awareness of the energetic nature of reality. TWL teachings are supported by an ever-growing base of published books which are available through the UM web site. The title pages of Benhayon’s books indicate that they are authored by “Serge Benhayon and The Hierarchy.” The Hierarchy is understood as the tradition of evolved beings, the Masters, who have passed but whose wisdom is available to those like Benhayon himself who are able to receive it.


Western esotericism originated in part from the works of theosophist Helena P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) (Hammer 2004). The “Way of the Livingness” teachings exhibit clear affinities with this tradition particularly in its iteration in the works of Alice A. Bailey (1880–1849). In its broad features, TWL embodies the key themes of western esotericism as identified by Hammer (2004). Tenets include the beliefs that: human souls originate from one original source of light and it is their evolutionary task to work toward returning to the pure original source; all forms of life are interconnected and thus the improvement of the individual’s energetic state contributes to their’s and other’s progress; types of energy permeate all living organisms, and; by means of understanding correspondences between types of energies on different planes of existence, human beings may work towards balancing the play of energetic fields in their minds and bodies, thereby promoting spiritual evolution.

“Esoteric” refers to invisible wisdom of the body which carries the knowledge of interconnectedness with all being. Benahayon proclaims that a “new soul-full light” was introduced to the world by Christ in 2000-2001 (S. Benhayon 2009:18). This new Christ consciousness, referred to as the “Second Coming,” infuses love energy into the world making possible an evolutionary change from oppositional to harmonious human relations. A catalogue of social problems including, “gender suppression, bullying, rape, paedophilia, the need for war, greed and hate” (S. Benhayon 2015:140) is frequently recounted in presentations. At the core of Benhayon’s message is the belief that individuals need to cultivate respectful relations, both internally within their own bodies and externally with others. While Benhayon and others have been able to source Ageless Wisdom and apply it in their lives, Benhayon observes that lay persons are not able to access it so readily. His healing methods and metaphysical teachings are designed to help people awake to this spiritual wisdom. Pertinent features of Benahyon’s worldview are the ways he interprets the concepts of gender, prana and intelligence, which are key to understanding the principles of his healing therapies and personal development courses.

Similar to the gender characteristics of new religious movements observed by McGuire (1994), Benhayon asserts that in modern society people are estranged from their essential natures. He teaches that women embody the sacred, but also that the godhead is both female and male, and, in reality, not gendered. Different and complementary energies are aligned with female and male bodies; the female essence is stillness and the male’s is movement. Femininity and masculinity are not understood as prescribing social roles but as qualities of energy in femaleness and maleness. Benhayon teaches that women should return to their sacred feminine energy and men must learn to relate to it. The emphasis is on people’s need to discover their true natures by balancing both feminine and masculine qualities. For Benhayon, it is the excess of masculine solar energy that is overly affecting human bodies in the form of harmful prana.

In Western culture, prana is commonly used singularly to refer to the life force but in Eastern doctrines, prāṇa is used in a variety of ways which reference a range of movements and inputs of various mental states and senses throughout the body (Blezer 1992). Following theosophical teachings, Bailey, whose writing has informed aspects of Benhayon’s system, incorporates these more extensive understandings of prana. In her view, while prana is necessary to the continuance of life, it may also inhibit an individual’s energetic evolution. Incarnational debris also contributes to a person’s pranic condition. In Benhayon’s canon, “discarnate beings” or “the lords of form” are the sources of evil energy that constitute harmful prana (S. Benhayon 2009:292) which invades the three lower chakras of the body. Thus affected, people are constrained by “false and misleading beliefs and impressions that lie hidden in the Mental and Physical Causal Bodies” (S. Benhayon 2006:16).

According to Bailey, what is known as “intelligence” is the accumulation of all sensory inputs from people’s experience and past lives (Bailey 1934, 1951). In Benhayon’s reasoning, what society calls “intelligence” is the assemblage of thought constructs, emotional sensations, and relational behaviour formed by excessive masculinist energy. This intelligence is an incomplete form of knowledge uninformed by the body’s and soul’s input. Women have been the ones to suffer most from the overemphasis of masculinist solar pranic energy, which manifests in cultural phenomena that objectify and sexualize their embodiment (S. Benhayon 2011:518). Consequently, Western science has been unsuccessful in solving humanity’s relational and health problems (S. Benhayon 2013b). A practitioner aspires to transcend these pranic influences and access their fiery soul energy by learning to recognise and deconstruct unhelpful feeling and thought patterns and heal those parts of the body where harmful prana has taken hold.


Universal Medicine’s primary activities are imparting its Ageless Wisdom beliefs, teaching and training in esoteric healing techniques, and supplying complementary healing services. While these philosophical and commercial facets of the movement are managed by different organisational entities, they are thoroughly intertwined in practice. UM’s stated religion, The Way of the Livingness, is not registered officially as a religion in Australia. The organisation has grown and spread its influence through networked entrepreneurial activities coordinated through the main UM web site which is available in five languages (Dutch, French, German, Spanish or English). It contains information about Serge Benhayon, the movement and the many products and services on offer. Events are advertised there, and one also registers and pays to attend UM programmes through the web site. Individuals driving UM’s activities are its founder and leader, Serge Benhayon, family members and people dedicated to the UM worldview, who are referred to collectively as The Student Body.

Benhayon personally delivers The Way of the Livingness sermons and training workshops. Expression and Presentation sessions devised by students are first perused by Benhayon to ensure that they accurately interpret and apply his teachings and are informed by the appropriate form of energy. At a Unimed weekend, sessions are individually advertised and priced, though TWL sermon is always free of charge. A person may choose to attend one or any combination of events.

Benhayon’s immediate family, partner Miranda, [Image at right] and children Simone, Michael, Curtis and Natalie also contribute to UM’s activities. Miranda manages the organisational aspects of the Goonellabah clinic, training workshops and public events. Simone, who lives in the United Kingdom, teaches and practices esoteric healing methods and is the main contact for Benhayon’s biannual visits to UM’s base in United Kingdom. Michael and Curtis possess mainstream qualifications in acupuncture and remedial massage respectively and have incorporated TWL principles and esoteric healing styles into their practices. They work at the Goonellabah Clinic as well as helping out at Unimed weekends and engaging in a range of other UM related activities.

Natalie is highly active at Unimed weekends and shares the stage with Benhayon during TSOI sessions, but she has also set up and led independent initiatives. She instituted Esoteric Women’s Health (EWH) as an organisational entity for her smartphone App called Our cycles, a technology which enables women to track their menstrual cycles. EWH evolved into a business with its own web site. It coordinates a wide range of “services, events and products that provide the opportunity to return to living in ways that allow women to honour their body and innate stillness whilst keeping up with their many commitments and demands” (N. Benhayon 2013a). The Girl to Woman Festival (in hiatus since 2019) is an initiative under the EWH umbrella (N. Benhayon 2019). Practitioners qualified in complementary healing therapies, as well as people who are experts in their fields, for instance law or education, partner alongside the Benhayons in offering services through EWH and the College of Universal Medicine.

The College of Universal Medicine is governed by a Board of Directors comprised of members of the student body (College of Universal Medicine 2020a). The College offers both free and fee-paying events including  “workshops, lectures, online courses, well-being days and community presentations” (College of Universal Medicine 2020b). Students also established Unimed Living, a large media and communication platform which brings together facets of UM teachings and applies them to all aspects of life. Information ranges from food recipes to workshops on anxiety for men (Unimed Living 2014b).


Benhayon’s movement faces several challenges: non-acceptance of the authenticity of his spiritual revelations, rejections of the movement’s claims to provide a legitimate complementary therapy to established medical practice and allegations of cult-like behaviour.

Benhayon understands himself to be the recipient of the messages from the ascended Masters in the line from Helena P. Blavatsky, Alice A Bailey to himself. Lucis Trust, the guardians of the Alice Bailey legacy reject suggestions that Benhayon is the one to come that some claim is predicted in Alice Bailey’s writings (S. Benhayon 2018). Benhayon is essentially accused of charlatanism in regard to his Ageless Wisdom teachings. UM healing practices also have been challenged, particularly in Australia where the New South Wales Supreme Court reports that Benhayon made “false claims” about his healing methods (New South Wales Caselaw 2019). Benhayon’s esoteric breast massage which is the focus of much media attention, has been examined by the Health Care Complaints Commission in Australia and the Australian Medical Registration Board. Neither of these authorities took action as they concluded that Benhayon’s breast massage techniques did not cause harm to patients (Dwyer 2013). The Therapeutic Goods Administration, the regulatory body responsible for the assessment and approval of therapeutic products in Australia, instructed UM to remove therapeutic claims from their promotion of herbal preparations and creams that UM had recommended for breast health.

The combination of Benhayon’s charismatic claims, his unorthodox healing practices, and abuse claims from some former members has created a situation in which UM has become a target of “cult-like organization” claims. For example, the jury in the New South Wales Supreme Court case mentioned above described UM as a “socially dangerous” and “socially harmful cult.” As a result of the Court’s decision against Benhayon, the cult label has been used in proceedings in cases such as divorce settlements, challenges to the dispersion of estates through wills, removal of people from workplaces and the breakup of relationships.

The range of controversies experienced by UM reflects topics typically experienced by other new religious movements (see Melton 2004). These are amplified by considerable negative media coverage in Australia and in other countries in which UM has established organizational centers. While UM participants have contested all allegations, with the ongoing negative media attention, the organization does face significant challenges in its quest for legitimacy and acceptance.


Image #1 Serge Benhayon.
Image #2: Universal Medicine: The Way of Livingness sign.
Image #3: The first UM Clinic in a refurbished old house in Goonellabah.
Image #4: Serge and Miranda Benhayon.


Bailey, Alice A.. 1971. Ponder on this. London: Lucis Publishing Company.

Bailey, Alice A. 1934 [1951]. A treatise on white magic or The way of the disciple. New York: Lucis.Benhayon,

Benhayon, Natalie. 2019. “The Girl to Woman Festival.” Universal Medicine. Accessed from https://www.esotericwomenshealth.com/girl-to-woman-festival on 7 October 2020.

Benhayon, Natalie. 2013. “Esoteric Women’s Health.” Universal Medicine. Accessed from http://www.esotericwomenshealth.com/ on 30 September 2020.

Benhayon, Serge. 2020. “Welcome to Serge Banhayon TV.” Unimed Publishing. Accessed from https://sergebenhayon.tv/ on 6 October 2020.

Benhayon, Serge. 2020 [2000]. “The Way of The Livingness – Lectures 2020.” Unimed Publishing. Accessed from  https://study.universalmedicine.com.au/livingness/general on 6 October 2020.

Benhayon, Serge, 2000. “Healing therapies.” Unimed Publishing. Accessed from https://www.universalmedicine.com.au/services/healing-therapies on 7 October 2020.

Benhayon, Serge. 2015. Time: a treatise on energetic truth. Volume 1.Time, space and all of us. Goonelabah: UniMed Publishing.

Benhayon, Serge. 2013. An open letter to humanity. Goonellabah: UniMed Publishing.

Benhayon, Serge. 2011. Esoteric teachings and revelations. Goonellabah: Unimed Publishing.

Benhayon, Serge. 2009. The living sutras of the hierarchy: a treatise on energetic truth. Goonellabah: UniMed Publishing.

Benhayon, Serge. 2006. Universal Medicine presents Sacred Esoteric Healing: Advanced Level 4 . Goonellabah: UniMed Publishing.

Blezer, H. W. A. 1992. “Prana: aspects of theory and evidence for practice in late-Brahmanical and earlt-Upanisadic thought.” Pp. 20-49 In Ritual, state and history in South Asia: essays in honour of J. F Heesterman, edited by A. W. Van den Hoek, M. S. Kolf and M. S. Oort. Leiden, New York, Köln: E. J. Brill.

Coco, Angela. 2020. “The Way of The Livingness and Universal Medicine.” Nova Religio 24:55-76.

Coco, Angela. 2018. “Interview 4.” Edited by Angela Coco. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University.

Coco, Angela. 2018. “Interview 4” [Benhayon, Serge]. Edited by Angela Coco. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University.

Coco, Angela. 2017. Interview 3 [Benhayon, Serge]. Edited by Angela Coco. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University.

Coco, Angela. 2017. “Field Notes” [Natalie Benhayon]. Lismore: Southern Cross University.

Coco, Angela. 2015. “Field Notes.” Lismore: Southern Cross University.

College of Universal Medicine. 2020a. “Board.” College of Universal Medicine. Accessed from https://www.coum.org/about/board/ on 7 October.2020.

College of Universal Medicine. 2020b. “College of Universal Medicine – A charatible institution.” Universal Medicine. Accessed from https://www.coum.org/ on 16 October 2020.

Dwyer, John. 2012. “When ‘Healing Hands’ Start Grasping.” Australasian Science 34:44.

Hammer, Olav. 2004. Claiming knowledge: strategies of epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

McGuire, Meredith B. 1994. “Gendered spirituality and quais-religious ritual.” Pp. 273-87 in Between the sacred and the secular: research and theory on quasi-religion, edited by Arthur L. Greil and Thomas Robbins. Greenwich, CT and London: JAI Press.

Melton, J. Gordon. 2004. “Perspective: Toward a Definition of “New Religion’.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 8:73-87.

New South Wales Supreme Court. 2019. Benhayon v. Rockett (No. 8) [2019] NSWSC 169. New South Wales Supreme Court. (Formal orders reflecting jury’s findings). Accessed from https://www.caselaw.nsw.gov.au/decision/5c772e44e4b0196eea404c09 on10 December 2020.

Stark, Rodney. 1992. “How sane people talk to the gods: a rational theory of revelations.” Pp. 9-34 in Innovation in religious traditions: essays in the interpretation of religious change, edited by Michael W. Williams, Collett Cox and Martin S. Jaffee. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Students of Universal Medicine. 2014a. “Universal Medicine.” Unimed Living. Accessed from https://www.unimedliving.com/serge-benhayon/uni-med/universal-medicine.html on 23 October 2020.

Students of Universal Medicine. 2014b. “The webcasting of Universal Medicine presentations.” Unimed Living. Accessed from https://www.unimedliving.com/serge-benhayon/uni-med/worldwide-webcast/the-webcasting-of-universal-medicine-presentations.html on 23 October 2020.

Unimed Living. 2014a. “About Serge Benhayon.” UniMed Living. Accessed from https://www.unimedliving.com/serge-benhayon/who-is-serge/about-serge-benhayon.html on 31 July 2020.

Unimed Living. 2014b. “Unimed Living.” Unimed Publishing. Accessed from https://www.unimedliving.com/ on 16 Ocotber 2020.

Unimed Living. 2014c. “UniMed Retreats.” Unimed Living. Accessed from https://www.unimedliving.com/serge-benhayon/uni-med/experiencing-universal-medicine/unimed-retreat.html on 5 October 2020.

Publication Date:
11 December 2020


Shirdi Sai Baba


1838:  According to Shri Sai Satcharita 10:43, Shirdi Sai Baba was born around the year 1838 (i.e., 1760 in the Shaka era).

1886:  Shirdi Sai Baba suffered an asthma attack and declared that he would enter a state of deep concentration, or samadhi. He rose from his death-like state three days later, as promised.

1892:  Shirdi Sai Baba miraculously lit lamps in his mosque with water instead of oil. Note that B.V. Narasimhaswami’s Life of Sai Baba holds that this event happened in 1892, while the Shri Sai Satcharita details this event without specifying its date.

1903:  G.D. Sahasrabuddhe, alias Das Ganu Maharaj, wrote Shri Santakathamrita, a Marathi hagiographical text in sixty-one chapters on various Hindu saints. Chapter fifty-seven of this work was the first written source about Shirdi Sai Baba.

1906:  G.D. Sahasrabuddhe (Das Ganu Maharaj) wrote Shri Bhaktililamrita, a Marathi hagiographical text in forty-five chapters on various Hindu saints. Chapters thirty-one, thirty-two, and thirty-three of this work focused on Shirdi Sai Baba.

1916:  G.R. Dabholkar, alias Hemadpant, retired from his position as a first-class magistrate, after which he began to write Shri Sai Satcharita, a Marathi hagiographic text generally considered to be the most authoritative source on Shirdi Sai Baba’s life.

1918 (October 15):  Shirdi Sai Baba died (or rather, attained full and final absorption into God (mahasamadhi)) in Shirdi on Vijayadashami (i.e., Dussehra). He was believed to be around eighty years old.

1918:  Shortly after Shirdi Sai Baba’s death, G.D. Sahasrabuddhe (Das Ganu Maharaj) wrote the 163-verse hymnody known as the Shri Sainatha Stavanamanjari.

1925:  G.D. Sahasrabuddhe (alias Das Ganu Maharaj) wrote Shri Bhaktisaramrita, a Marathi hagiographical text in sixty-tree chapters on various Hindu saints. Chapters fifty-two and fifty-three of this work focused on Shirdi Sai Baba, while Chapter twenty-six told the story of Venkusha, the enigmatic figure some identify as the guru of Sai Baba.

1922:  On the order of the Ahmednagar District Court, the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust was formed to oversee the ritual activities and finances of the Sai Baba’s tomb in the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi.


Over the last century, Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918) has emerged as one of the most popular figures in the South Asian religious landscape. [Image at right] He lived between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a dilapidated mosque in the small village of Shirdi on the frontier of the Ahmednagar District in the Bombay Presidency of British India. Especially in the last two decades of his life, Shirdi Sai Baba attained renown throughout the region for offering miraculous blessings that could address virtually any sort of crisis. Another aspect of his burgeoning popularity was his reputation as a saint, with practices that blended Hindu and Islamic traditions and teachings that emphasized the ultimate oneness of God.

The resident of Shirdi’s dilapidated mosque came to be known as “Sai Baba,” a name combining the idea of saintliness (the title, sai) with a fatherly sense of love and care for others (the informal term of address, baba). Scholars have argued that sai is a derivative of sa’ih, a Persian term for a Muslim “wanderer” (Rigopulous 1993:3; Warren 2004:35-36). Some hagiographers alternatively suggest that sai is related to the Sanskrit term swami, meaning “master” (Chaturvedi and Rahula 2000:38), or gloss sai as a contraction of sakshat ishwar, meaning “God made manifest” (Sharma 2012:1). Hagiographic literature also refers to Sai Baba interchangeably as an avatar, guru, and fakir, the latter being the term for a Muslim mendicant that Sai Baba occasionally used to describe himself. Hagiographic and academic literature alike refer to Sai Baba as a saint to denote his status as a charismatic religious figure.

Shirdi Sai Baba’s birth and earliest years are completely unknown, or rather, this is the position of G.R. Dabholkar’s voluminous Marathi poetic work Shri Sai Satcharita (1930). Dabholkar states in Satcharita 4:113, 115: “Baba’s birthplace, lineage, and the identity of his mother and father – no one knew anything about these matters… Having left his parents, loved ones, and all ties with others in the world, he manifested in Shirdi for the welfare of humanity.” The text, however, estimates that Sai Baba must have been around eighty years old when he died in 1918, thereby placing his birth around the year 1838 (See, Satcharita 10:43). An earlier hagiographic work, Das Ganu Maharaja’s Bhaktililamrita (1906), reports that Sai Baba once spoke enigmatically about his origins, saying that the world is his village and that Brahma and maya are his father and mother (See, Bhaktililamrita 31:20).

Much more additional information about the saint’s birth and earliest years come from the hagiographer B.V. Narasimhaswami (1874-1956), author of the four-volume text in English prose, Life of Sai Baba (1955-1969). This text, which seeks to introduce its subject to audiences across India, contains much of the same content presented in earlier hagiographic works, but it also draws from the author’s own ethnographic research and interviews with devotees who knew Sai Baba when the saint was alive. An example of this new information is the testimony of Mhalsapati, one of the first devotees of Sai Baba, who purportedly heard Sai Baba call himself a Brahmin from Pathri, a small town about 250 kilometers east of Shirdi. What results in Narasimhaswami’s Life of Sai Baba is a new theory about the saint’s hybridized upbringing: his birth to Brahmin parents; his short tenure in the care of an anonymous Muslim fakir (probably a Sufi, Narasimhaswami suggests); and his longer period of tutelage by a Brahmin guru named Venkusha. This marks an important hagiographic shift in the description of Shirdi Sai Baba: from “neither Hindu nor Muslim” in the Satcharita and other early Marathi works to the one in Life of Sai Baba who becomes “both Hindu and Muslim,” the epitome of Narasimhaswami’s hope for the harmonious future of religion in newly independent India (Loar 2018). This hybridized upbringing becomes further embellished through Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi (1926-2011), the self-declared reincarnation of Shirdi’s mendicant. Through revelations given to his devotees, Sathya Sai Baba adds mythological elements to his predecessor’s origin, including the notion that the Hindu god Shiva promised to take birth as the son of the childless Brahmin couple named Ganga Bhavadiya and Devagiriamma (see more detail in Rigopoulos 1993:21-27). While elements of Narasimhaswami and Sathya Sai Baba’s interpretations of Shirdi Sai Baba occasionally appear in contemporary hagiographic texts and film, it should be noted that many devotees continue to hold Dabholkar’s Satcharita and its description of the saint’s unknown parentage as the most authoritative account on this period of his life. The Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust, which oversees the saint’s tomb in Shirdi, prioritizes information from Dabholkar’s Satcharita, too.

The various accounts of Shirdi Sai Baba’s birth and earliest years notwithstanding, there is relative consistency among hagiographic sources with regard to the major events in his life after arriving in Shirdi around the year 1858. This is the date assigned to his encounter with a Muslim man named Chand Patil, a village officer from Dhupkheda around 100 kilometers west of Shirdi. At the time, Patil was searching the countryside for his horse. He came across a young man dressed in the garb of a Muslim fakir, namely, a headscarf (topi) and long robe (kafni), sitting underneath a mango tree and smoking crushed tobacco in a chillum. Over conversation, the fakir told Patil exactly where to find the missing horse at a nearby rivulet. Further astonishing Patil was the fakir pulling a burning ember out of the ground with tongs and then hitting the ground with his walking stick to draw out water. Both of these miraculous actions were to assist the saint in smoking his chillum. Toward the end of their meeting, Patil invited the young saint to his village Dhupkheda and then to Shirdi, where Patil’s relatives were traveling for a wedding. Upon arrival in Shirdi, the young saint was seen by the caretaker of the village’s Khandoba temple, Mhalsapati, who called out, “Sai, please come” (ya sai). From this day onward, the Sai Baba of Shirdi took up residence in his namesake village.

Sai Baba spent his sixty-year tenure in Shirdi as a mendicant. Most of his time was spent in his mosque known as Dwarkamai, sitting in contemplation in front of its sacred fire (dhuni) and occasionally wandering the village. The residents of Shirdi initially kept their distance from the aloof saint until two demonstrations of miraculous power greatly increased his stature in the public’s eyes. The first major miracle occurred in 1886 when the saint suffered an asthma attack and declared that he would voluntarily enter into and return from a deathlike meditative state of samadhi in seventy-two hours. Some were convinced that Shirdi Sai Baba had actually died and moved to bury him, but the saint returned to life three days later, as promised. The second major miracle, which took place around 1892, was the miracle of lighting lamps in his mosque with water instead of oil. When Shirdi’s grocers lied about the availability of the oil that they had regularly given as alms, Sai Baba returned to his mosque and mixed water with a tiny amount of leftover oil, drank the mixture as a religious offering (See, Satcharita 5:109), and miraculously lit the mosque’s lamps. According to Das Ganu Maharaj, this event was the catalyst in the public’s perception of saint from a “madman” to “God on earth” (See, Bhaktalilamrita 31:35, 46).

These two miracles coincided with the introduction of two important individuals into the devotional community: N.G. Chandorkar and G.D. Sahasrabuddhe. Chandorkar, a district collector who met the saint in 1892, promoted the miracle-working saint among his many contacts throughout the colonial middle classes (e.g., clerks, police inspectors, solicitors, judges). His influence was so great that he has been called the “first and foremost of Baba’s apostles” and “Baba’s St. Paul” (Narasimhaswami 2004:249). Chandorkar convinced Sahasrabuddhe, a police constable with a great skill for writing religious poetry, to visit Shirdi around 1894. A series of close calls proved to Sahasrabuddhe that Shirdi Sai Baba was protecting him from certain harm. Resigning from the police force, Sahasrabuddhe felt that the saint was pushing him to a higher calling, namely, the writing of the lives of saints. He adopted the penname Das Ganu Maharaj and wrote Santakathamrita (1903), which featured a chapter that become the earliest written account of Sai Baba’s teachings. Additional hagiographic works followed, most notably Bhaktililamrita (1906) and Bhaktisaramrita (1926), as well as many works performed orally in his role as a talented kirtankar.

Another important devotee and hagiographer was Abdul, whose arrival in Shirdi in 1889 preceded Chandorkar and Sahasrabuddhe. Abdul was a close devotee of the saint and briefly in charge of his tomb before the establishment of the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust in 1922. Abdul’s handwritten notebook containing the saint’s Sufi-inspired teachings is prominently featured in translation in Marianne Warren’s Unraveling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism, first published in 1999 and later as a revised edition in 2004. The notebook is a key piece of evidence in Warren’s argument that Sai Baba was actually a Sufi holy man and that his legacy underwent Hinduization through the medium of Hindu-authored hagiography following his death.

In the last two decades of Sai Baba’s life, many more people began to visit Shirdi, including one of Ahmednagar District’s deputy collectors and settlement officers H.V. Sathe (1904); the lawyer S.B. Dhumal from Nashik (1907); the sub-judge Tatyasaheb Noolkar from Pandharpur (1908); the prominent Bombay solicitor H.S. Dixit (1909); the Amravati lawyer and political activist G.S. Khaparde (1910); and the first-class magistrate and Satcharita author G.R. Dabholkar from Bandra (1910). In the 1930s, these individuals were interviewed by Narasimhaswami, who then published Devotees’ Experiences of Sri Sai Baba (1940) as a collection of seventy-nine first-person testimonies about the saint’s miracles and teachings. This work offers an important snapshot of Sai Baba according to devotees who knew the saint when he was alive, but it must be further contextualized by the fact that the voices are predominantly from well-educated, high-caste Hindu males from the colonial middle classes.

The growing regional popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba paralleled the increase in accounts of his miracles, many of which involved blessings to cure diseases or protect people from harm. For example, the thirteenth chapter of Dabholkar’s Satcharita reports instances where Sai Baba prescribed unconventional means to successfully treat various diseases: sitting near the saint in his mosque for pulmonary consumption; feeding a black dog near a Laskhmi temple for malarial fever; and eating a mixture of nuts and milk for diarrhea. The same chapter includes three short anecdotes on a similar theme: an ear infection cured with the words “Allah will make everything okay” (allah accha karega); loose motions cured by roasted peanuts blessed by the saint; and a longstanding case of colic cured by the saint’s blessing (ashirvad) cured. Narasimhaswami’s Devotees’ Experiences includes a great number of additional stories beyond what is covered in the voluminous Satcharita. The lawyer S.B. Dhumal recounts how he was saved from plague by following Sai Baba’s advice, even though it went against the notions of “common sense,” “medical opinion,” and “rules of prudence” (Narasimhawami 2008:31). Many such miracles, especially those involving healing, have recurrent themes, such as the transformation of a skeptical devotee’s disbelief into belief in Sai Baba and the demonstration of a saint’s power as superior to “modern” or “western” medical practices (Hardiman 2015; Loar 2016).

About one month before Shirdi Sai Baba’s death, the brick upon which he rested his head was accidentally broken by a devotee. The saint interpreted this event as the breaking of his karma and an omen of his passing. He died after a prolonged fever on the afternoon of October 15, 1918. This was Vijayadashami, also known as Dussehra, the final day of the Hindu festival of Navaratri. Following his death, a debate quickly emerged among Hindus and Muslims in Shirdi with regard to burial. Muslims wanted to bury the saint on open land, a custom common in the construction of a dargah for a Muslim saint. Hindus, however, maintained that Sai Baba wanted to be buried in a large building under construction by Bapusaheb Buti, a wealthy devotee from Nagpur (See, Satcharita 43:158). The revenue officer of nearby Kopergaon arranged for a vote between the two parties, and the majority favored his burial in Buti’s building, which became known as Shirdi Sai Baba’s Samadhi Mandir (Rigopoulos 1993:241). The saint’s Muslim devotee Abdul became the custodian of the new tomb until the establishment of the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust in 1922.


One of the central beliefs about Shirdi Sai Baba is that he represented religious unity, particularly between Hindu and Islamic traditions. The Satcharita states in several verses, notably 5:24, 7:13, and 10:119, that he was “neither Hindu nor Muslim.” Related to Sai Baba’s non-affiliation with a single tradition are his statements about the equality of Hindu and Islamic notions of God, an example of which is the non-difference between Ram and Rahim expressed in Satcharita 10:50. The third chapter of the Satcharita also showcases Sai Baba professing the equality of Brahmins and Pathans, that is, Hindus and Muslims, each of whom expresses the same spirit of devotional worship in different ways. It is also important to note that these statements of religious unity in the context of Sai Baba hagiography come predominantly from Hindu hagiographers. Consider Satcharita 23:4, in which the Hindu hagiographer Dabholkar balances Hindu interpretation with Sai Baba’s self-expression which uses Islamic vocabulary: “We may regard [Sai Baba] as an avatar because he has all of those characteristics. About himself, he used to say, “I am a servant in the service of God (Allah).”

According to most hagiographic texts, Shirdi Sai Baba was not one to give lengthy lectures on philosophy and doctrine, although a notable exception is Das Ganu’s Santakathamrita (1903) featuring the saint’s lengthy conversation with N.G. Chandorkar on brahmajnana, caitanya, and other topics within Vedanta. Instead, Sai Baba offered simple blessings to those who approached him with phrases like “God will make it alright” and “God is master” (allah malik). Today, the Hindi phrase closely associated with Shirdi Sai Baba is “the master of all is one,” or sab ka malik ek hai. Early Marathi hagiographies neither directly nor indirectly attribute these words to the saint nor use them to describe his teachings. Given this statement has become ubiquitous on posters, calendars, and other printed works bearing his image, one might suggest that these words derive from the saint’s mass-produced iconography. The type of religious unity exemplified in the phrase sab ka malik ek hai has been seen to appeal to Hindus as well as non-Hindus as a unifying force of moral good in contrast to exclusivist and nativist worldviews, such as Hindu nationalism (McLain 2011, 2012).

Devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba profoundly believe in his reputation as an efficacious miracle worker to whom anyone can easily turn. Hagiographic texts are full of testimonies to Sai Baba’s unfailing ability to help people with all sorts of problems, from diseases and life-threatening situations to material concerns, like jobs and money. As with many sacred figures in South Asian religious traditions, Shirdi Sai Baba is imminently accessible even after death. Narasimhaswami, for example, had a powerfully transformative experience at the saint’s tomb in Shirdi in 1936, after which he embarked on a career of sai prachar, or the mission of making Sai Baba known throughout India (McLain 2016b; Loar 2018). Contemporary hagiographic literature continues to report new miracles attributed to Shirdi Sai Baba helping people in need and curing various diseases either through his posthumous presence or the ritual use of the sacred ash (udi) obtained from the sacred fire (dhuni) in Sai Baba’s mosque in Shirdi (Chopra 2016). Miraculous events occasionally receive media coverage, such as the appearance of Shirdi Sai Baba’s face on the wall of a temple in Mississauga, Canada (Loar 2014).

Driving this belief in miracles are the eleven assurances that Shirdi Sai Baba purportedly made before his death in 1918. These assurances do not exist in codified form in the early Marathi hagiographies, but they seem to have coalesced out of exact or very similar entries in Narasimhaswami’s Charters and Sayings (1939), a compendium of more than 600 aphorisms and parables attributed to the saint. The following is a common English rendering of the eleven assurances (Rigopoulos 1993:376):

Whoever puts their feet on Shirdi soil, his sufferings will come to an end.

The wretched and miserable will rise to joy and happiness as soon as they climb the steps of my mosque.

I shall be ever active and vigorous even after leaving this earthly body.

My tomb shall bless and speak to the needs of my devotees.

I shall be active and vigorous even from the tomb.

My mortal remains will speak from the tomb.

I am ever living to help and guide all who come to me, who surrender to me, and who seek refuge in me.

If you look to me, I look to you.

If you cast your burden on me, I shall surely bear it.

If you seek my advice and help, it shall be given to you at once.

There shall be no want in the house of my devotee.

Slightly different versions of these assurances, whether in English or South Asian languages, also circulate in Shirdi Sai Baba devotion. (Image at right] For example, assurance number seven reads differently vis-à-vis the rendering above: bhajega jo mujh ko jis bhav mein paunga us ko main us bhav mein. The common English translation of this assurance, which is especially visible in online devotional spaces, is: “In whatever faith men worship me, even so do I render to them.” Throughout all of the assurances in whichever form and language, the main theme holds that Shirdi Sai Baba is an approachable and accessible spiritual resource. He serves as an open-access spiritual resource who wants to solve people’s problems and defines his work thusly in Narasimhaswami’s Charters and Sayings, #55: “My business is to give blessings.”

The Satcharita reports Shirdi Sai Baba’s prediction to return among his devotees as an eight-year-old child, but some devotees do not accept Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi as the reincarnation of Shirdi’s mendicant. Sathya Sai Baba further understands his predecessor as a component of a triple avatar: Shirdi Sai as a form of Shiva, Sathya Sai as a form of Shiva together with Shakti, and Prema Sai, the forthcoming incarnation that will be Shakti alone (Srinivas 2008). One way that some devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba distinguish the two Sai Babas is the difference between the “real” (asli) in Shirdi and “fake” (nakli) in Puttaparthi (Loar 2016). However, further research into this matter is necessary to provide greater nuance into our understanding of the place of each Sai Baba in the devotional context of the other.


According to hagiography, Shirdi Sai Baba’s ascetic lifestyle and religious practices reflected his blended approach to Hindu and Islamic traditions. According to the seventh chapter of the Satcharita, he had pierced ears and was circumcised, a combination of Hindu and Muslim physical features. His long white robe and headscarf were similar to the garb of a Muslim mendicant, or fakir, in the Deccan region, and he lived in the village’s dilapidated mosque. But he referred to the mosque as Dwarka or Dwarkamai in reference to the holy city associated with the Hindu god Krishna. Inside the mosque, the saint kept his constantly burning sacred fire from which he prescribed its ash (udi) as a healing substance. He either read or had someone else read passages from the Quran and he once demonstrated his knowledge of Sanskrit grammar by interpreting the Bhagavad Gita for a Hindu devotee. He occasionally spoke about Hindu metaphysical concepts like brahmajnana and maya, while the name of God that was always on his lips, per Satcharita 7:30, was Allah malik (“God is master”). This religiosity that resists and critiques the social act of categorization is not unprecedented in South Asia, as scholars have explored Shirdi Sai Baba in light of similar antecedents, such as the Nath community of ascetics, the god Dattatreya, the poet-saint Kabir, and other Maharashtrian saints like Gajanan Maharaj and Swami Samarth Maharaj (White 1972; Rigopoulous 1993; Warren 2004).

Another genre of action associated with Shirdi Sai Baba is the miracle. English-language literature often uses the word “miracle” to describe Sai Baba’s supernatural actions and events, both those that took place during his lifetime and those that continue to happen in the present. Works in South Asian languages, such as Hindi and Marathi, typically describe the saint’s miracles as camatkar (lit. “that which astonishes”) and lila, a Hindu theological term that means “play,” as in, a divine figure’s playful manipulation of reality. The saint rarely performed largescale miracles in public during his lifetime, with the notable exceptions of his three-day period of death and revivification, and the miraculous lighting of lamps in his mosque with water instead of oil. Much more common throughout Shirdi Sai Baba literature are the personal testimonies from individuals who recount personal experiences of a miraculous cure, life-saving protection, or material result (e.g., a new job, acceptance into a college, success with a new business).

Despite the blended nature of Sai Baba’s practices and the ecumenical nature of his teachings, many of the rituals of Sai Baba worship fall under the umbrella of Hindu practice, such as puja, arati, and darshan. The major festivals celebrated in Shirdi and Sai Baba temples around the world are Hindu   celebrations: Ram Navami, Guru Purnima, and Vijayadashami, which also commemorates Sai Baba’s mahasamadhi. A major moment in the development of Sai Baba worship was the establishment in 1954 of a marble image (a murti consecrated in Hindu fashion) above the saint’s tomb in the Samadhi Mandir. [Image at right] Similar consecrated images are found in some Hindu temples, and smaller murtis and devotional posters or framed prints may be found in people’s homes and businesses alongside virtually any other sacred figure. The generally Hindu character of Sai Baba worship reflects the predominantly Hindu demographic of his devotees, including hagiographers, past and present. Exact numbers are impossible to ascertain, but one study of Shirdi as a site of religious tourism shows that visitors are mostly Hindus (ninety-two percent), with Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Sikhs all together in a distinct minority (Ghosal and Maity 2011:271).


In 1922, the Ahmednagar District Court ordered the formation of the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust, the organizational body that would oversee the tomb’s activities and finances. Shortly after its formation, the all-Hindu board of trustees ousted Abdul as caretaker (Warren 2004:347). Today, the Sansthan and Trust continues to manage the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi, a town that has undergone tremendous transformation over the last century. It has been estimated that 25,000 devotees visit Shirdi daily and around 80,000 over weekends, with substantially more during major festivals (Shinde and Pinkney 2013:563).

A notable feature of the Sansthan and Trust is that it routinely ranks among India’s wealthiest religious organizations, alongside Hindu sites like the Venkateshwara Mandir in Tirupati and the Vaishno Devi Mandir in Jammu. Large donation amounts to the Sansthan and Trust are sometimes reported in the media, especially around holidays and festivals. While exact figures are hard to discern, a Marathi article by Vijay Chavan and Manohar Sonawane provides some insight into the increase in the Sansthan and Trust’s finances during the last half of the twentieth century. In 1952, when the organization was registered with the Indian government, it reported an annual income of 214,000 Rupees. By 1973, this amount had climbed to 1,800,000 Rupees, and by the end of the 1980s, annual income spiked to upwards of 60,000,000 Rupees. The turning point in the Sansthan and Trust’s finances, according to Chavan and Sonawane, was the release of director Ashok Bhushan’s 1977 Hindi film Shirdi ke Sai Baba, which introduced the saint to the large audience of Hindi filmgoers. The authors further cite a 2004 report from the organization’s management committee that listed its income as approximately 870,000,000 Rupees and deposits valued at more than 2,000,000,000 Rupees (Chavan and Sonawane 2012:37-38).

While the Sansthan and Trust manages the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi, there are a many other Sai Baba organizations and temples throughout India and around the world. For example, B.V. Narasimhaswami founded the All India Sai Samaj in Madras in 1940 with the purpose of propagating devotion to Sai Baba beyond the movement’s center in Shirdi. This organization ultimately established hundreds of branches and dozens of Shirdi Sai Baba temples in India over the following decades. One such temple in suburban Bengaluru, which presents the saint more as a Hindu deity than a figure with composite heritage, is discussed in Smriti Srinivas’s 2008 In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement. Srinivas finds that the temple’s “bourgeois incarnation of Baba” exclusively appeals to middle-class Hindus aspiring to lead successful lives in a thriving metropolis, and that the consequence of this perspective is that the saint’s “Sufi heritage has passed into a zone of cultural amnesia in the suburban landscape of believers” (Srinivas 2008:233, 239).

Another ethnographic study by Karline McLain is a counterbalance to the understanding of Sai Baba’s story as one of simple Hinduization. McLain’s field research at the Shri Shirdi Sai Heritage Foundation Trust in New Delhi highlights Hindu and non-Hindu voices who express little interest or concern with the politics of religious identity in the saint’s legacy. Rather, she finds devotees “drawn to this new movement because they perceive Shirdi Sai Baba’s life and teachings as a syncretistic example of spirituality that defies rigid religious boundaries” (McLain 2012:192). The organization’s founder C.B. Satpathy, who is also a prolific author of Sai Baba hagiographic literature, echoes Narasimhaswami’s earlier vision of the saint as an example of composite spirituality, which crosses divisions and brings people together. McLain’s work also importantly connects the notion of Sai Baba’s compositeness to the practice of seva, or humanitarian service rendered as worship to one’s guru, which can be practiced by anyone of any faith.


The initial academic study of Shirdi Sai Baba focused on reconstructing his life through various hagiographic sources and attempting to locate the “real” Sai Baba, whom many have argued was likely a Sufi fakir (Shepherd 1986; Rigopoulos 1993; Warren 2004). More recent scholarship has approached additional topics in the history of the Shirdi Sai Baba hagiographic tradition and prominently highlighted the works of Das Ganu Maharaj, an understudied voice in the early devotional community (Loar 2016; McLain 2016a). Scholars have also adopted new and fruitful perspectives, such as his many shrines in urban public space in Mumbai (Elison 2014), the competing visions of religious pluralism situated between the local and the global (McLain 2016a), the intersection of his healing miracles and the modern Indian nation (Hardiman 2015), and the ways in which individuals and communities find inspiration in his message of peace and unity within religious diversity (McLain 2011; 2012).

Perhaps the most important issue yet to be more fully explored is the nexus of the sainthood embodied by Shirdi Sai Baba in the rural Marathi-speaking region in late colonial India and the region’s broader history of droughts, famines, epidemics, and economic transformation with the advent of new technologies (e.g., railroads) and the shifting of agricultural practices (e.g., sugarcane cultivation). To this effect, Smriti Srinivas has made three very important points: that “congregational worship” in Shirdi “was paralleled by a shift in the economy of the Godavari river region in which Shirdi lies;” that the saint’s “polyvalent personality” enabled him to acquire devotees, especially from among the emerging middle classes from diverse communities; and that his knack for miracles “contravened or interrogated bourgeois rationality that exerted increasing power over these classes” (Srinivas 2008:37-38). Each of these points deserves more scholarly attention to further historicize the popularization of Shirdi Sai Baba in colonial and postcolonial India. While this certainly does not discount the saint’s connections to earlier modes of religious expression (e.g., references in hagiography to Sai Baba as a reincarnation of Kabir), it nonetheless speaks to the sense that Shirdi Sai Baba is both a product of and also a saint for the “modern” and rapidly changing world.

The perennial issue animating much of this recent scholarship is the attempt to explain how this simple fakir from the colonial frontier became so popular, so fast in postcolonial India. Karline McLain, the scholar who has currently written the most extensively on Shirdi Sai Baba, echoes three reasons previously posited by Marianne Warren (2004) to explain the saint’s popularization over the last century: the guarantee of material results obtained through prayer; the proliferation of hagiographic books and films on him; and Sathya Sai Baba’s self-declaration to be his reincarnation. McLain adds a fourth reason: Shirdi Sai Baba’s embodiment of India’s “composite culture.” Adding nuance to the earlier theses about Shirdi Sai Baba’s Hinduization, McLain finds, both textually and ethnographically, that there are multiple understandings of the saint as an incarnation of Dattatreya, a figure who recalls the example of the Prophet, and someone who shows the path to God in ways consistent with Sikh teachings. A particular manifestation of this compositeness is the poster that inspired McLain’s article, “Be United, Be Virtuous,” which features Shirdi Sai Baba wearing the colors of the Indian flag and framed by a mosque, temple, gurdwara, and church (McLain 2011).

My previous work on the Shirdi Sai Baba hagiographic tradition has reframed this “composite culture” as the politics of compositeness, in which there are dominant Hindu and subordinate Muslim aspects to Sai Baba’s legacy. One locus of this process is N.V. Gunaji’s The Wonderful Life and Teachings of Shri Sai Baba, Adapted from the Original Marathi Book Shri Sai Satcharita by Govindrao Raghunath Dabholkar alias ‘Hemadpant’ (1944). As an adaptation and not a full translation, Gunaji’s text warrants close scrutiny. (A dutifully comprehensive translation of the Satcharita is available through Indira Kher’s 1999 publication). There are very detailed accountings of the hagiographic Hinduization evident in Gunaji’s adaptation of the Satcharita and how it omits, suppresses, and glosses over the many connections between Sai Baba and Islam in the original text (Warren 2004; Loar 2016). For example, Gunaji inserts a footnote to his rendering of the Satcharita in reference to Sai Baba’s circumcision; the footnote clarifies that a Hindu devotee closely inspected the saint and confirmed he was actually not circumcised. Another example is Gunaji’s handling of Satcharita 11:62-63, in which Sai Baba describes himself as a Muslim by birth who nonetheless welcomes the worship offered to him by a Brahmin man named Dr. Pandit. In his adaptation, Gunaji simply omits Sai Baba’s self-description of his Muslim-ness, thereby changing the tone of the story: from a teaching on sincere devotion to one’s guru as beyond religious categories to a simple example of the saint accepting worship from a Brahmin (Loar 2016). Following Gunaji’s attempt to create a more Hindu and less Muslim saint, I have followed this politics of compositeness to the next major figure in the saint’s reconfiguration, B.V. Narasimhaswami, author of the English text Life of Sai Baba. Narasimhaswami focuses his attention on the saint’s mysterious origin and draws together other devotees’ testimonies to create the theory of Sai Baba’s hybridized upbringing: Brahmin parentage, Muslim (Sufi) foster care, and Brahmin tutelage under Venkusha. Here, it is more accurate to refine the Hinduization in Sai Baba hagiography as actually a form of Brahminization, an act of assigning caste to a figure previously described as having unknown parentage. But this hybridized upbringing is very important to Narasimhaswami. He writes in the third volume of Life of Sai Baba: “From Hindu parentage… [Baba] passed to Muslim hands and from Muslim care again to a Hindu saint’s care. The fusion of Hindu and Muslim had to be perfected first in his own person before he could affect any fusion of the Hindu-Muslim elements in society” (Narasimhaswami 2004:595). This language of syncretism, which is evident throughout Life of Sai Baba, evidences Narasimhaswami’s rebranding of the saint for a postcolonial audience and a postcolonial discourse, namely, the discourse of national integration in independent India. In doing so, we see Sai Baba’s elevation from a primarily regional to increasingly national figure of religious unity (Loar 2018).

Not everyone, though, is a fan of Shirdi Sai Baba. In particular, there are some voices aiming to challenge the legitimacy of the saint’s notion of Hindu-Muslim unity. My study of anti-Sai Baba rhetoric on several Facebook pages finds that the Muslim elements of the saint’s life have become the subject of harsh critique. Polemical memes proliferate on such pages, suggesting that Shirdi Sai Baba is part of a “bhakti jihad,” an essentially Muslim figure who has tricked Hindus into worshipping him and defiling their religion (Loar 2016). These pages also lend support to a leading a voice of anti-Sai Baba rhetoric: Swami Swaroopananda, the nonagenerarian head of the Dwarka Pitham in Gujarat.  In the summer of 2014, Swami Swaroopananda launched several critiques of Sai Baba worship that were picked up in the Indian news media. On June 23, Maharashtra Times reported the swami’s claim that Shirdi Sai Bab was not a divine figure and therefore unworthy of worship. On June 30, the Deccan Chronicle covered his attempt to provoke Hindus into rejecting their worship of a “Muslim fakir.” In August, he led a gathering of 400 Hindu leaders during a religious conclave, or dharma sansad, which passed a resolution on the incompatibility of Shirdi Sai Baba and Hinduism, or sanatan dharma. The Sansthan and Trust in Shirdi quickly condemned Swami Swaroopananda, while devotees in several states filed court cases against the swami by citing sections of the Indian penal code that criminalize statements that outrage and hurt the religious sentiments of others. In September 2015, Swami Swaroopananda presented an apology for his critical statements before the Madhya Pradesh High Court, although he continued to make occasional inflammatory comments, such as blaming Maharashtra’s drought in 2016 on the continued worship of Sai Baba alongside Hindu deities. While the swami’s public campaign against Sai Baba was ultimately ineffectual, he became another example of the many fundamentalist religious figures in modern India who claim the authority to define what is and is not properly “Hindu” but are not recognized universally by all Hindus as having the power to do so (Loar 2016).


Image #1: Photograph taken around 1916 that shows Shirdi Sai Baba wearing headscarf (topi) and robe (kafni) while leaning against his mosque in Shirdi with several male devotees. Source: Wikipedia commons.
Image #2: Hindi placard from Shirdi: “Shri Sadguru Sai Baba’s 11 Assurances.” Source: Jonathan Loar.
Image #3: Murti at the Shri Shirdi Sai Baba Mandir in Kukas near Jaipur in Rajasthan. Source: Jonathan Loar.


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Publication Date:
20 November 2020