Oneida Community


1768:  Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke was published.

1769:  Dartmouth College was founded as a school of Christian Congregationalist theology and the liberal arts in Hanover, New Hampshire.

1776:  Propertied colonialists cited Locke’s “natural rights” philosophy in their Declaration of Independence, asserting their inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and to combine as the United States of America.

1790-1840:  A “Second Great Awakening” of Protestant religious revivalism pulsed through the outlying Anglo-Scottish settlements in the new United States, particularly New York state and the Ohio River valley.

1784-1830:  Following the 1783 Treaty of Paris, many Oneida and other Haudenosaunee people were driven out of New York state.

1822:  Yale Theological Seminary, with a curriculum of Congregationalist Christian theology, was established by Yale College in New Haven Connecticut.

1830:  The Indian Removal Act was adopted as law by the United States government.

1831:  Charles Finney and others led Christian revival meetings throughout New York state and the northeastern United States.

1831:  A revivalist religious meeting was held at the Noyes home at Putney, Vermont. Shortly thereafter, the recent Dartmouth College graduate John H. Noyes decided to study theology at Andover Theological Seminary.

1832:  Noyes transferred from Andover to the Yale Theological School.

1833:  Noyes professed Christian Perfectionism, citing Paulist and other early Christian communalist practices. He was subsequently suspended as a Congregationalist minister and asked to withdraw from Yale Theological School.

1841:  Noyes, John Skinner, George Cragin, Mary Cragin, John Miller and others formed the Society of Inquiry at Putney, based on a theology of Perfectionism.

1843:  The Society of Inquiry members, now numbering thirty-five persons, re-characterized themselves as the Putney Corporation with pooled resources totaling $38,000, including funds inherited by Noyes and his siblings from their late father.

1844: Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament by John Wesley was published.

1846:  A Statement of Principles was drafted for the Putney Community. George Cragin, Harriet Noyes, Charlotte Miller, Harriet Skinner, Mary Cragin, John Skinner, and John Miller, pledged “to John H. Noyes as such we submit ourselves in all things spiritual and temporal, appealing from his decisions only to the spirit of God.”

1847:  Perfectionist conventions were held in upstate New York (Lairdsville and Genoa) and attended by individuals and groups from New England, New Jersey and New York. Some attendees, including the Putney Community, reconstituted themselves as the communal Oneida Association and took up residence on land obtained by Jonathan and Lorlinda Burt, formerly part of the Oneida tribal Reserve in central New York state.

1848:  The State of New York adopted the Married Women’s Property Act that provided limited rights to real property but not to wages.

1850:  The original Italianate “Mansion House” was built at Oneida.

1852 (March):  Oneida Community rescinded its practice of complex marriage.

1852 (December):  Oneida Community resumed its practice of complex marriage.

1855:  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a limited Married Women’s Property Act.

1860:  The Oneida Community borrowed $30,000 to construct a large brick water-powered factory along Sconondoa Creek.

1861:  The United States descended into civil war. No one from the Oneida Community was drafted into the Union army, but at least one member, Edwin Nash, enlisted.

1863: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill was published.

1865:  Noyes renounced “free love” and asserted “permanent union” in marriage.

1877:  A “new house” was designed for the Mansion House site to accommodate the Wallingford branch, but it was not completed due to lack of funds.

1879 (August):  Oneida Community abandoned complex marriage. Female members of commune were encouraged to assume the surnames of their monogamous partners.

1880:  The Oneida Community voted to transfer its communal property to a joint-stock corporation owned by shareholders.

1881 (January 1):  Oneida Community Limited assumed control of communal assets, formally ending the commune; many members dispersed.


Christian Perfectionism has a complex history of development. Modern conceptualizations draw from the teachings of John Wesley (and Methodism), who proposed that “instantaneous deliverance from all sin” was possible by living in accordance with the “ordinances of God.” Thereby, the Wesleyan could live a sinless life. Wesley grounded his theology in epistles of the Christian apostle Paul (Wesley 1827, 1844, 1847).

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the worldview that asserted the “natural rights” of human agency that acted in accordance with divine law proliferated in Europe and its North American colonies. The writings of notable “natural rights” theorists, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, were kept in the Oneida Community reading room and discussed in their newsletter (Locke 1768a, 1768b; Mill 1863, 1866; Circular 1869:375-76).

John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) [Image at right] is generally acknowledged as the principal leader of the Oneida Community. He was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, to John Noyes and Polly Hayes. The elder Noyes was a moderately prosperous capitalist and one-time Congressional representative for the state. John H. Noyes attended Dartmouth College and after graduation attended Andover Seminary and then the Yale College divinity school. Following expulsion from Yale College, ostensibly for his Perfectionist beliefs, Noyes returned to the family home in Putney, Vermont. There, three of his siblings (Harriett, Charlotte, and George), as well as his mother Polly, joined him in Perfectionist belief and, using funds inherited from the late father, formed the Putney Association. In 1847, that group decamped to central New York, in part to avoid prosecution. Noyes resided at Oneida, New York until 1878 when he reportedly fled during the night of June 27 for Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, to escape possible prosecution for polygamy. Noyes remained  at Niagara from 1878 until his death in April 1886. His body was returned to Oneida and is buried in the Community cemetery (Teeple 1985:2-3; G. W. Noyes 1931:25-33, 46-62).

As the Second Great Awakening pulsed during the early decades of the nineteenth century, Wesleyan thought found sympathetic minds in New England and upstate New York. Thereby a youthful John Humphrey Noyes (who had studied at Congregationalist-led Dartmouth and Yale colleges and Andover Seminary) encountered Perfectionism and was soon enthralled by it. That enthusiasm interrupted his divinity studies at Yale Seminary, specifically when he incorporated Perfectionist theology in his sermons to a Free Church congregation at North Salem, Connecticut. Noyes’s Perfectionist preaching drew the ire of some Free Church congregants and then of the Association of the Western District of New Haven County, which rescinded his license to preach. Noyes left New Haven for New York City where he attempted to meet with but was rebuffed by Charles Finny, one of the principal agents of the Great Awakening. Noyes knocked about New York for a time, becoming increasingly desolate, until he was rescued back to his father’s home in Vermont by a family friend (Parker 1973:22-29).

During this same period, and following a series of Perfectionist meetings held in central New York state, in 1847, Jonathan Burt, Lorlinda Burt, Daniel Nash, Sophia Nash, Joseph Ackley, Julia Ackley, and Hial Waters, formed the Oneida Association on land obtained by Burt from the State of New York. Joseph Ackley later recalled thinking that they had been “called of God …to build up a society where the love of God would be the prevailing spirit.” (Teeple 1985:xv)

In fact, the land had been a part of the Oneida Nation (Haudenosaunee) Reserve in central New York and near the site of the historic Oneida village of Kanonwalohale (now named Oneida Castle). The property included woodland, cultivated land, and a saw mill that Oneida nationals had built along Oneida Creek. During the 1790s and first decades of the 1800s, the Oneida people were compelled to concede their land in central New York to the state government, which intended to provide it to European settlers (OIN 2019).

In 1848, the Perfectionist Oneida group invited co-religionists living in Vermont to join them in central New York. The Vermont group included John H. Noyes, Harriet Holton Noyes, George Cragin, Mary Cragin, John Skinner, and Harriet Noyes Skinner. The merged groups renamed themselves the Oneida Community.

Although official histories written or commissioned by his son Pierrepont Burt Noyes and nephew George Wallingford Noyes, present John Humphrey Noyes as founder and leader of the Oneida Community, the documentary record suggests that he was one of several acknowledged leaders who only later was asserted (or asserted himself) to be first among equals.

During its first five years (1848-1853), the Community grew to include 134 adults. [Image at right] In 1868, they reported 280 members at Oneida; thirty-five at their Willow Place site; eighty-eight in the branch at Wallingford, Connecticut; and ten in New York City, where they kept a business office on lower Broadway. By 1872, membership at Oneida had declined to 205 at Oneida; nineteen at Willow Place; and forty-five in Wallingford. By the late 1870s, they had relocated all members to Oneida and group population hovered around 200. From 1850 through 1879, more than 150 members left the commune (Circular 1868:24; Oneida Circular 1872:9; “Ledger Showing Settlement, November–December 1880;” “Receipts and settlements with seceders” 1855-1892).

Members were primarily societal refugees from other parts of the northeast United States (Nordhoff 1875:263-64). The commune lived as an extended cooperative family, sharing property and affections with each other. Their polyamorous relationships were characterized as “Complex Marriage” and promoted as a means to civil equality and explicitly to free women from the slave-like conditions of coverture, which was law in many northeastern American states.

H. Noyes was a regular contributor to the Community’s newsletters and, according to those publications, wrote about theology and current affairs and presented weekly talks meetings in the great hall of their Oneida residence (c.f. every issue of The Circular and Oneida Circular). [Image at right]

Initial efforts in subsistence farming were unsuccessful, and the commune turned its economic focus to market horticulture and light manufacturing. They produced and sold preserved fruits and vegetables, silk thread, and iron-jawed animal traps (c.f. Oneida Circular 1868:8).

As their manufacturing operations expanded, the Community became a significant regional employer, especially of young women, hiring year-round and seasonal workers in the Community silk factory, cannery, sawmill, and metalworking shop. Most operations were conducted at a water-powered Willow Place mill complex built along the Sconondoa Creek. These market-driven operations became the central activity of the commune and were cited as proof of the theological righteousness of the “business communism” and espoused by Noyes and others throughout the 1860s and 1870s (Circular 1864:52; Oneida Circular 1872:242; Oneida Circular 1873:14).

The Community’s dependence upon waged employees and market exchange of manufactures was undermined by the same stressors affecting the rest of the nineteenth century capitalist world. Especially influential was the great depression of 1873-1880. The collapse of markets and increase in debt incurred before, during, and as a result of the collapse left the Community insolvent. That insolvency exacerbated the growing social inequities within the Community and prompted the leaders (who held the legal title to the Community’s property) to propose transferring all assets to a joint-stock company, which would be sold as shares to former members. The Oneida Community formally dissolved on December 31, 1880 (“Record of the proceedings of the Commission” 1880)

The failure of the Community’s “business communism” prompted many members to leave Oneida. Some attempted to reconstitute the commune in southern California. Others stayed on in Oneida as employees or managers of the company’s remaining metalworking operation. A few leaders of the commune became major shareholders, and J.H. Noyes’s son P.B. Noyes ultimately became chief executive of Oneida Community Ltd.

The principal residential buildings and the 1860 factory have remained extant at Oneida. The residential Mansion House complex is used as rental apartments and listed as a National Historical Landmark.


 Central to the Oneida Community’s belief system was the premise that persons were capable of living in a Perfect state of sinlessness, with proscribed behaviors obviated by Christian communal practices. This Perfectionist belief system was their interpretation of early Christian communities depicted in Pauline New Testament epistles. In this, they drew directly from the writings of John Wesley. Perfectionists believe that if persons follow the perceived “ordinances of God” they can lead sinless, “perfect” lives. This belief arose in contradistinction to other Protestant Christian beliefs, namely that human beings were inherently fallible and capable of sin.

Upon their foundational belief in sinlessness, the Oneida Community constructed a series of associated beliefs, which they conceptualized as following from divine “ordinances” and specifically practices described in various epistles written by the Christian apostle Paul (c.f. Hinds 1908:154-207; Parker 1973:89-119). First among those was living in community as civil and economic equals. That equality required full and equal participation of women in all aspects of communal life, whose economic and political equality in the outside world was constrained by law. Actualizing that sexual equality was the practice of “complex marriage” and the abolition of monogamous “special love.” Further enabling the full participation of women in the community, men were expected to practice a form of birth control they called “male continence” (Parker 1973:177-89).

In time, Noyes conceptualized the social stratification of “ascending fellowship” within the Community. Noyes himself claimed to be in regular communication with divine predecessors, specifically the apostle Paul, and thereby most perfect of the group.  As the Community matured in the late 1860s and early 1870s, it further articulated “ascending fellowship” as an inherited trait. Following on that biological determinism, the Community embarked on a eugenic program they described as “stirpiculture,” through which the more perfect among them would breed new Perfectionists. A committee of Community leaders received applications from prospective couples and either approved or denied requests to procreate. Fifty-eight children were born out of this process, including thirteen by Noyes with thirteen different women members (Parker 1973:253-64).

Mainline Christians denounced the Oneida Community’s practice of complex marriage as simply “free love” by another name. In practice, complex marriage was a communal life in which all men and all women acted as partners. Complex marriage effectively abolished the unequal property relationships then normative in nineteenth century law between men and women by abolishing the nuclear family as a basic economic unit. Individuals were discouraged from developing “special love” (pair bond) relationships with each other, but were not dissuaded from polyamorous relationships. Reportedly, sexual relationships in the Community were consensual, and combined with the birth control practice known as male continence to effectively limit child births. Complex marriage thereby enabled more equitable participation by women in communal affairs (Noyes 1849 [1931], 116-22; New York Times, August 10 1878; American Socialist 1879:282).

More importantly, however, the framework of “complex marriage” was the premise of the entire set of communitarian lifeways, and challenges to complex marriage threatened to undermine those practices, too. At several points in the Community’s existence, it voted to rescind the practice and to follow traditional marriage practices. In each of those instances, except the last instance in 1879, the Community recognized the existential threat that traditional marriage posed to their commune and subsequently decided to reverse itself and reinstitute “complex marriage” and the shared economy it enabled.

Fundamental to achieving Perfection was the Community’s conduct as an economic unit within the larger societal frame of industrial production and market exchange. Noyes and other Community leaders viewed financial success of the Community as an important proof of their theological probity, which Noyes and some others eventually described as “business communism.” The prolonged economic decline and especially the Great Depression of 1873-1880 greatly undermined that assertion and exacerbated internal tensions, leading to the Community’s dissolution in 1880 (Coffee 2019:8-12).


“I believe this is the gospel method of saving people from sin, and the old Primitive Church way. In respect to marriage Paul did not forbid it, but claimed the right of controlling and checking it by moderate measures, and set the standard of the resurrection, ‘where they neither marry nor are given in marriage’ as the ultimate state” (John Humphrey Noyes, “Tobacco Reform, Home Talk, 1853,” Circular, March 28 1868).

Complex Marriage sanctioned episodic polyamorous heterosexual relationships among members, ostensibly as an equitable alternative to the “special love” of monogamy in which women were subordinate to men. Although this non-monogamous love was officially advocated, the specific sexual activity of members was monitored by commune elders, who sanctioned liaisons and sometimes “initiated” the sexual activity of adolescent youth. [Image at right]

Weekly community meetings in the main hall of their Mansion House were venues for readings or sermons by John Humphrey Noyes and other leaders and for the discussion of communal business and individual duties (c.f. any issue of The Circular or Oneida Circular).

Community bonds and discipline were maintained through the practice of public and holistic “mutual criticism” meetings, during which individuals and practices perceived as transgressing Community principles were critiqued. Transgressors were addressed by their fellow members and especially by most-perfect elders, thereby reinforcing proper behavior and thinking. In a pamphlet about mutual criticism, they wrote that “our object being self-improvement, we have found by much experience that free criticism – faithful, honest, sharp, truth-telling – is one of the best exercises for the attainment of that object” (Mutual Criticism 1876:19).  Conversely and perhaps instead revealing its own Whiggish perspective, the August 11, 1878 New York Times reported “that Noyes could bind his followers together by the bond of mutual hate stamps him as a man of real, if perverted, genius.”

We are in suffering, but it is not caused by quarreling among ourselves; the Community is not hell in that respect. Everybody sees that we live in peace with one another, to a very remarkable extent. The tribulations that we have, are that deep kind of discipline of spirit by which God is refining, purifying and perfecting our characters. It would be very pleasant if we could hold up to the world a picture of unalloyed happiness; but until we are perfected it is a great deal better for us to have hard times. We ought not to wish to deceive people with the idea that it is nothing but child’s play to save our souls and go to heaven.” (John Humphrey Noyes, “The Helmet, Home Talk, March 14, 1868.” Circular March 30, 1868).

Thus, while residing at Oneida, J.H. Noyes fathered at least thirteen children with as many women members. Between 1848 and 1880, approximately 104 children were born into the commune (Teeple 1985:209). [Image at right]

Real property and money became joint property of the Community upon membership. However, legal title to real property, bank deposits, and debt was held by a small group of male leaders, including Noyes, Erastus Hamilton, William Woolworth, and Charles Kellogg (Charles A. Burt v. Oneida Community Ltd. 1889:195, 357).

Work was to be shared equally by commune members.  Episodically and increasingly in later years, some members were critical of perceived evasion of duties by other members, and of the unequal distribution of property when the Community was liquidated. Most productive work was performed by scores of waged workers, in service at the Mansion House or as industrial labor in a modern water-powered factory adjacent to the Seneca Turnpike and the rail line connecting Utica and Syracuse. All waged workers were overseen by commune managers.

Community operations were sufficiently profitable in the 1850s and 1860s to support more than 300 individuals. Among other endeavors, revenue was used to enroll several male children in Yale University for advanced education in medicine, law, and biochemistry. Ostentatiously, between 1850 and 1877, the Community commissioned construction of three large Italianate and one Victorian Gothic residential buildings near the site of Burt’s original landholding. Eventually comprising 90,000 square feet, this Mansion House [Image at right] featured some of the latest conveniences including indoor plumbing and steam heat. Waged employees prepared meals and maintained living quarters and grounds.


The avowed structure of the Oneida Community was as an extended family that shared all work and its results. The Community’s “bible communism” took its inspiration from the Christian apostle Paul and Noyes’s interpretation of early Christian communities (Handbook 1867).

J.H. Noyes and close confidants considered him to be prime theologian and “spiritual father” of the commune, more perfect than others and in communication with divinity. Noyes sermonized during meetings and in essays published in Community newsletters. His exalted position was further actualized by his selection of community women as “stirpicultural” sexual partners.

Noyes was at the center of an inner circle of older men and women who had participated in the establishment of the Community in 1847. These included his sister, Jonathan Burt, George Cragin, Erastus Hamilton, William Hinds, John Miller, and a few others. In the 1860s, the central core group was Noyes, Hamilton, Burt, Cragin, with an orbiting group of supervisors responsible for specific operations. With the crash of 1873, the Community reorganized under a Business Board whose membership morphed as operations were started or stopped (Nordhoff 1875:278-80).

Community organizational coherence was reproduced in part through the practice of “mutual criticism,” whereby individual members behavior was collectively examined and critiqued. Mutual criticism reinforced conformity as well as recognized abnormalities within the commune, according to the guiding ideologies of commune leaders.

By the late 1850s, most of the productive work at the Oneida Community was performed by scores of waged workers, overseen by commune foremen and managers. Workers were recruited from surrounding subsistence farms and, as elsewhere in the industrializing northeast, were predominantly young women. Waged employees also serviced the living quarters and grounds of the Mansion House.

No existing records indicate whether members questioned the egality or fraternity of living off the waged labor of others, although narrators do describe an occasional paternalistic act as the beneficence of the Community bestowed upon one or another domestic worker, such as providing time off to get married, or scheduling work breaks so that the “mill girls” could bathe in the mill pond.


The Oneida Community shared some of the characteristics of other American nineteenth century communitarian experiments. The unity of will expressed by the ideology of Perfectionism was repeatedly challenged by internal and external stressors.

Internally, divergent perceptions and rationalizations of daily operations-as-politics and of strategic objectives-as-ideologies were bound to arise. The Community’s efforts to resolve those contradictions via the forum of “mutual criticism” were only intermittently successful. During the life of the commune, at least one-third of all adult joiners quit. Included in that group were several young adults born into the commune, suggesting that dissension was not solely imported from “the world” or an expression of prior understandings (“Ledger Showing Settlement, November–December 1880;” “Receipts and settlements with seceders 1855-1892;” Burt v. Oneida Community Ltd. 1889).

Externally, the commune was pushed and pulled by social forces (subsistence agriculture, industrialization, debt finance, plantation slave labor) and was increasingly at odds with those social forces. The sweeping change to industrialization brought about by U.S. civil war, the subsequent period of Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression of 1873-1880, undermined political and economic relationships in America, including those that had engendered communitarian experiments such as the Oneida Community. The “business communism” espoused by the leaders of the Community was undermined by dramatic changes in finance and debt, by newly capitalized competitors in industrial centers with better access to labor and capital, and by evolving public attitudes about class and gender roles. Thereby, the fundamental challenge to the communitarian premise of the Oneida Community was its operation as a capitalist enterprise. The Oneida Community attempted to coexist with the subsistence farmsteads that surrounded it but in unequal relationships: as a major buyer of farm produce and as a major employer of waged labor (Coffee 2019).

Especially after the Civil War transformed the U.S. economy, the Community faced an increasingly industrial and finance capitalist society. The Community simultaneously competed with and depended upon other actors in the regional, national and trans-oceanic economy. The equation by Noyes and other leaders of financial success with blessedness was subverted by those transformations and most dramatically so when the larger economy collapsed in the 1870s.

However, several alternate explanatory analyses have been presented since 1880 with which to frame our understanding of the Oneida Community’s dissolution.


Dominant among those is the official history written by Pierrepont Burt Noyes, one of J. H. Noyes’s “stirpiculture” children who became chief executive of the Oneida Community Limited corporation. Leaning heavily on his own class prejudice to undergird his father’s premise of a theological elite, the younger Noyes wrote several memoirs that glorified that legacy (e.g. Noyes 1937). As head of the OCL company, P. B. Noyes also commissioned an “official history” written by historical fiction writer Walter Edmonds (1948). Edmonds has been taken as given by many subsequent scholars. Most notable of Noyes’s and Edmond’s histories is the assertion that the joint-stock company (eventually a silverware manufacturer) was the logical continuation of the commune’s Perfectionist beliefs. Adding to the irony of that assertion is the fact that the Oneida Limited company became insolvent in the late 1990s and its trademark was sold to a competitor.

A second thread of inquiry traces a renewed interest among historians and social theorists in the internal dynamics of intentional communities as key events in nineteenth and twentieth century United States history. This thread was partly animated by later twentieth century social movements for equality in the United States and throughout the world. Robert S. Fogarty (1990) especially situates the Oneida Community within a continuum of intentional and counter-cultural communal experiments. Fogarty (Miller and Fogarty 2000) and Lawrence Foster (1992) have also explored the lives of women in the Oneida Community, complex marriage, and consensual adult sexual practices. Important in this examination is Fogarty’s edited publication of the dairy of female commune member Tirzah Miller (Miller and Fogarty 2000).

A third thread of examination is more specifically focused on the sexual practices of the Community, especially intergenerational relationships. Important contributors to that thread are, separately, Spencer Klaw (1993) and Ellen Wayland-Smith (2016). Although importantly distinct from each other, these authors each focus on sexual practices as personal psychologies. Wayland-Smith specifically situates the Community’s demise in its subordination of the individual personalities of Community youth.

Those who formed or joined the Oneida Community in its first years sought to escape the chaos of trans-Atlantic capitalist society, and they were attracted to John Humphrey Noyes’s charismatic profession of the alternative based on an extended cooperative family, the validity of which was taken from readings of the New Testament. The Noyesians sought to build a regime of reason and eternal justice out of their own theology, which explicitly linked religious fidelity with economic profit. Viewed through that lens, the commune’s economic decline complicated the distinction between good and evil, between perfect and imperfect souls. A theocracy that equated blessedness with wealth turned in on itself. Fellowship dissolved, pitting member against member.


Image #1: John Humphrey Noyes.
Image #2:  Oneida community members circa 1860.
Image #3: An issue of the Oneida Circular.
Image #4: Front cover of Sexual Relations in the Oneida Community.
Image #5: John H. Noyes with his children.
Image #6: Mansion House


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Coffee, Kevin. 2019. “The Oneida Community and the utility of liberal capitalism.” Radical Americas 4:122.

Cooper, Matthew. 1987. “Relations of Modes of Production in Nineteenth Century America: The Shakers and Oneida.” Ethnology 26:1-16.

Edmonds, Walter D. 1948. The First Hundred Years. Oneida: OCL.

Miller, Tirzah and Robert S. Fogarty.  2000. Desire & Duty at Oneida. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Foster, Lawrence. 1992. Women, Family, and Utopia. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press.

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Locke, John. 1768b. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Vol. 2. London: Woodfall.

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Publication Date:
17 April 2021



Healthy, Happy, Holy (3HO)


1929 (August 26):  Harbhajan Singh Puri (Yogi Bhajan) was born.

1968 (September):  Yogi Bhajan arrived in Canada from India.

1969-1970:  Bhajan settled in Los Angeles and briefly taught yoga at the YMCA and the East West Cultural Center. He and students then founded the Healthy Happy Holy Organization.  Bhajan spoke and taught yoga at solstice celebrations and music festivals.

1971:  Bhajan and eighty-four students traveled to India. They originally stayed with Virsa Singh, who Bhajan referred to as his yoga teacher, but then left his center and began to visit Sikh sites, including the Golden Temple and Akal Takht, where Bhajan was received by authorities.

1972-1973:  Bhajan’s students increasingly embraced Sikhism, and Sikh prayers were added to an already established morning yoga and meditation practice. The Sikh Dharma Brotherhood was incorporated and the Guru Ram Das gurdwara was established in Los Angeles.

1972-1974:  Students established ashrams/teaching centers beyond Los Angeles, many quite small. Approximately ninety-four ashrams created.

1974:  The Khalsa Council was established as an administrative body for Sikh Dharma. Some of Bhajan’s students participated in the European Yoga Festival.

1976:  The Golden Temple of Oregon Inc., a bakery and distribution business, was established, combining previously existing smaller businesses.

1977:  3HO celebrated its first Summer Solstice, beginning a lasting tradition of solstice events.

1980:  Akal Security was created. It began by providing security to local businesses and later grew to become a major national security business.

1980s:  Ashrams consolidated as many adherents established families and moved to the suburbs from urban areas. Bhajan had arranged many of the marriages.

1983-1984:  The Yogi Tea Company was established. It grew into a successful national company.

1984:  Many leaders at the Espanola ashram left the organization complaining of intense discipline and excessive structure.

1985:  The head of the Washington ashram was arrested and indicted on drug smuggling charges. Many individuals left the ashram.

1986:  Two women ex-members brought a suit against Bhajan, the 3HO Foundation, Sikh Dharma Brotherhood and the Siri Singh Sahib of Sikh Dharma (a business holding company) on a number of counts.

1994:  The International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association was formed as 3HO began to focus increasingly on training yoga teachers.

1996:  Sikhnet, a digital resource for Sikhs worldwide, was launched.

1997:  The Miri Piri Academy was established in Amritsar, India,  the most recent of several Indian boarding schools to which many members sent their children.

2003:  As his health deteriorated, Bhajan centralized control of the profit and non-profit businesses.

2004:  Yogi Bhajan died of heart failure.

2007:  Management sold the bakery business.

2010:  The first Kundalini Yoga and Music Festival was held in the fall. It was renamed in 2011 as the Sat Nam Fest and became a regular event.

2011:  Members of Sikh Dharma International reacted to the restructuring of the businesses by bringing suit in  Sardarni Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa, et al v Kartar Singh Khalsa et al and State of Oregon v Siri Singh Sahib Corporation et al.

2012:  A court settlement was made final, and the Bhajan-related organizations began to restructure and plan for the future.

2019:  An ex-member, and a central figure in the early years of 3HO and Sikh Dharma, Pamela Saharah Dyson (who was named Premka by Yogi Bhajan), published her memoir.

2020:  In  reaction to Premka’s memoir, members and ex-members revealed incidents of abuse. An organization was hired to investigate accusations.

2020-2021   The investigation found reason to believe that Bhajan engaged in sexual abuse and harassment. Leadership hired consultants to advise on a process of “compassionate reconciliation.” Akal Security ceased operations.


As was the case for many of the alternative religions that originated in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the Healthy Happy Holy Organization (3HO) grew up around a central charismatic figure. Harbhajan Singh Puri was born on August 26, 1929 in modern-day Pakistan. His mother was Hindu, his father was Sikh, and his schooling was Catholic. In 1947, the partitioning of India resulted in the family becoming refugees and fleeing to to New Delhi. In 1954, he married Inderjit Kaur Uppal, and the couple subsequently had three children. In New Delhi he attended college, and 3HO accounts report that he obtained a degree in Economics at Punjab University and then was employed as a customs and security officer at Delhi airport.  He also pursued an interest in yoga.  Accounts of his early life and of the circumstances under which he came to North America vary, but most agree that he arrived in Toronto in 1968, expecting to take up a position teaching yoga. A 3HO history website states that Harbhajan taught yoga to James George, Canadian High Commissioner to India at the time, and that the Commissioner encouraged him to consider teaching yoga at Toronto University.  When Harbhajan arrived in Canada, however, the teaching position failed to materialize. The would-be yogi was aided by acquaintances and relatives and was finally invited to Los Angeles. There he began to teach yoga at a YMCA and at the East-West Cultural Center (Khalsa, Hari Singh Bird and Khalsa, Hari Kaur Bird n.d.).

His arrival coincided with a surge of interest in eastern religions as youth who had been active in the countercultural and political movements of the time increasingly embraced spiritual pursuits.  Thus, while many of his original students at the East-West Center were residual, older, students of yoga, Bhajan’s classes soon were joined by young hip students. Some of his early students belonged to communal groups: the Juke (or Jook) Savage performance group, the Hog Farm commune, and The Committee, a comedy collective, all significant in counterculture history.

Harbhajan’s stay at the East-West Cultural Center was brief, but one of his students, Jules Buccieri, and a number of figures in the Los Angeles music and countercultural worlds, offered support and a place to teach. They dubbed him “Yogi Bhajan” the name by which he is best known.  A building known as “the Castle” served as a gathering place for members of various communal groups, some of whom took yoga classes with Bhajan (Law 2000:93). Also, at the time, rock music festivals were becoming a significant cultural phenomenon, and various Eastern spiritual figures attended these festivals and related events such as Solstice celebrations and an event called “The Holy Man Jam” in June 1970 in Boulder Colorado. The spiritual teachers would speak or offer yoga classes. 3HO members locate Bhajan at a number of these early festivals (see Khalsa, H.S.B and Khalsa, K.B no date; Law 2000; Mankin 2012; Barrett 2007). [Image at right] Some of the attendees became his students.  One, for example, named Dawson, met Bhajan at a Solstice celebration. Dawson evidently wanted to try communal living and had purchased land for that purpose.  As soo[n as he met Bhajan he offered his twelve acres as an ashram site (Gardner 1978:123-28).

Thus Bhajan gathered many of his first students in a rather haphazard way, at such events or through contacts with his yoga students, but a certain amount of order and planning soon followed.  Both he and the students were disposed to create communities, and they quickly established centers which they referred to as ashrams. At first, their centers resembled the communes that were a hallmark of counterculture life, although the routines that residents followed within them were strict compared to the lifestyles of many of the communes formed at the time.  Bhajan advocated early morning yoga, meditation, and a vegetarian diet.  He trained students as yoga teachers and then sent them out to establish teaching centers, evidently intending to create a network of ashrams, just as other spiritual teachers were doing. He formed 3HO as an umbrella organization.

Bhajan led a group of eighty of his students to India in 1970. The original purpose of the visit was evidently to visit Maharaj Virsa Singh, who Bhajan referred to as his teacher or master. But there appears to have been a falling out between the two when Bhajan and his students arrived, and the group left Virsa Singh’s compound, Gobind Sadan, and went instead to visit a number of Sikh gurdwaras (See, Deslippe 2012:369-87). They eventually went to Amritsar and the Golden Temple where Bhajan and his students were recognized at an official reception, and some students took Amrit (initiation into the Khalsa, a community created by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh).  After that visit Bhajan and his students claimed that Bhajan had been named as the Siri Singh Sahib, which they rendered as Chief Sikh Religious Authority for the Western Hemisphere. The actual nature of the recognition has, however, been an occasional source of contention (See, Issues/Challenges).

After the visit to India, 3HO ashram residents who evinced an interest in Bhajan’s religion were encouraged to learn about it and even to become Sikhs. Slowly but steadily the numbers who adopted a Sikh identity, or at least increasingly oriented their behavior and outlook towards India, increased. Students began to adopt Indian clothing and soon to “tie turbans.” The organization had attracted a number of skilled musicians, and some of them began to learn to play and sing Sikh kirtan. In 1972, they opened their first gurdwara (Sikh temple) at the Guru Ram Das Ashram, in Los Angeles, and in 1973 they created a new organization, the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood (later renamed as Sikh Dharma International). Ashram residents were increasingly encouraged to convert to Sikhism. 3HO and Sikh Dharma remained separate legal entities, with 3HO dedicated primarily to yoga and Sikh Dharma to the religious faith, but in daily life their membership, beliefs and practices were often entwined.

Bhajan toured the country teaching at the different centers. He also served as a spiritual advisor and leader and soon began to arrange, or approve, marriages for ashram residents.  He encouraged them to settle down and become “householders,” saying that good Sikhs should not withdraw from the world, but rather live ethically within it. His adherents turned their attention to adapting to their new lifestyle, raising children, and finding ways to earn a living. As the 1970s ended, a recession made this more difficult, and practical matters loomed large. Ashrams were consolidated as students left center cities, seeking better places to raise children.

Although this was a time of establishing a lifestyle and legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of Punjabi Sikhs, the 1980s were also a time of considerable stress. The organization showed signs of fragmentation. Much of the leadership of the Espanola ashram left in the mid-1980s, complaining of “intense discipline” (Lewis 1998:113). 3HO and Sikh Dharma were embroiled in a number of legal cases. For Bhajan, upheaval in Punjab compounded the strain.

Nonetheless, businesses grew slowly and steadily through the 1980s and then surged in the 1990s. Yogi Tea, today one of the nation’s largest natural tea companies, originated with an entrepreneurial idea to market Bhajan’s version of spiced Indian tea. Similarly, a small bakery, Golden Temple Bakery, grew slowly through the 1980s and then began to expand along with a growing market for health foods in the U.S. A security company, Akal Security, began as a local business in New Mexico, then grew in the wake of the September 11 attacks and became a major U.S. security company before closing in February 2021. With the growth of successful companies and an intensifying interest in yoga in North America and Europe, 3HO and related organizations slowly changed.

By the 1990s, there was a culture shift. There were few communal businesses left, and rising early and overtly being a Sikh was considered more of an option than an implied directive. This period also saw an increased interest in yoga world-wide. To serve the changing times, Yogi Bhajan created the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association, dedicated to setting standards for teachers and the propagation of the teachings” (Sikhi Wiki n.d.).

Multiple centers of activity had arisen around Bhajan. But Bhajan’s health was failing, and he died of heart failure and related problems in 2004. Before his death he made plans for the future, laying out the nature of a future leadership structure. Rather than name a successor he divided leadership responsibilities among a number of roles. He also consolidated the for-profit businesses under a holding company. With several leadership roles and centers of activity it is probably not surprising that tensions surfaced, particularly when the management of one of the businesses, Golden Temple Inc., sold that company without consulting with the other related organizations and leaders. This led to a trial in 2011 that pitted different parts of the 3HO/Sikh Dharma family of organizations against each other as Sikh Dharma International (joined by the state of Oregon) took the managers to court and prevailed. (See, Issues/Challenges)

Early members strongly critiqued North American culture, depicting it largely as a wasteland, but, in spite of their critiques and roots in the counterculture, it is striking how closely 3HO and Sikh Dharma have followed broader cultural trends. The organizations grew out of the counterculture, music festivals, communalism, and experimentation of the 1960s and early 1970s.Then members grew more conservative, religious, family oriented, and entrepreneurial as did the country in the later 1970s and the 1980s. Their companies rode the wave when the natural food business grew dramatically in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. They also became larger and more assertive, as did corporations around the world. The recent discussions of abuse parallel the current revelations of the Me Too Movement, and the Sikh Dharma International website features a “mantra…for healing and support during this time of COVID-19.”


Bhajan and his students adopted what they called a “technology for living.” It consisted primarily of yoga, meditation, a vegetarian (mostly Ayurvedic) “yogic diet” and a variety of healthy routines. 3HO was created as a vehicle for sharing and elaborating on the lifestyle. As the website describes it:

There’s a yogic art and science to all aspects of human life. There’s a yogic way to get up in the morning, to go to sleep at night, to eat, to breathe, to brush your teeth, to take a shower, to communicate, to raise children. Every aspect of life has an enlightened, efficient, and effective way to do it. Yogi Bhajan studied and mastered this technical and spiritual knowledge in India, and brought this gift to the West (Healthy Happy Holy website n.d. “The Healthy Happy Holy Lifestyle”).

One of Bhajan’s particular skills as a leader was his ability to connect his students’ backgrounds to his own and to integrate a variety of values, beliefs and orientations. For example, as many early members brought countercultural and New Age values to their new life in 3HO, Bhajan borrowed from the New Age Movement and referred to the current time period as the Piscean, a time marked by greed, inequality, materialism and insecurity. He told his students that he would prepare them for the new age, the Aquarian.  This would be a better time, but the transition would be difficult and so they must strengthen and purify themselves to withstand the passage by following the lifestyle that he prescribed.

Values his students brought from the counterculture to 3HO included a holistic approach to life, a desire for community, a distrust of large-scale corporations and of bureaucracy and materialism, a commitment to social change, a willingness to experiment with lifestyles and individual consciousness, and a hunger for meaning, They also sought empowerment in the face of a culture they found at the least unsatisfying, or, at worst, oppressive and destructive. (Elsberg 2003:55-72; Miller 1991; Tipton 1982) Many of Bhajan’s teachings addressed these values and concerns.

Bhajan taught classes that he referred to as kundalini yoga classes, and others that he called “White Tantric.” The Kundalini yoga, he said, was suitable for daily practice, but White Tantric required his presence. Although Bhajan spoke about the two types of yoga as if they were separate entities, in fact, Tantra traditionally is the broader term that encompasses kundalini yoga. Bhajan taught that his yoga would eventually lead to individual enlightenment and to an experience of oneness with the universal consciousness. He taught that Kundalini energy, said to lie at the base of the spine, rose through the invisible “subtle body” with its channels and nodes (chakras) until it was finally united with pure consciousness. In addition to leading to eventual enlightenment, in 3HO the yoga was said to cleanse and heal, especially by strengthening the nervous system and balancing the glandular systems. Many physical positions and movements were also said to perform various practical functions such as easing stress, enhancing stamina, and improving digestion. These practices addressed his students’ interest in consciousness and change, their desire to create congruence in all arenas of life including mind and body, and their need for personal empowerment.

The early growth of 3HO coincided with the burgeoning women’s movement, and so gender roles were significant and even more so given the significance of Tantra in 3HO life.  In Tantra,  the divine is said to have both a male and a female aspect, and the feminine energy is sometimes referred to as a goddess or Shakti. Bhajan drew on such Tantric beliefs, sometimes referring to women as shaktis and as “the grace of God.”  He also favored traditional male and female roles, seemingly justifying them in part by referencing Tantra. He complained that women in North America had become “imitation men.”  A woman, he said, should be “a living tranquility, peace, harmony, grace and sophistication” (Bhajan 1986: 30).A woman was able to “change every negative thing around her to be positive” (Bhajan 1979:211).

Women, however, have to use their powers wisely. If they do not  then they can, and often do, cause great trouble. In fact, he often criticized women students, and women in general. He attributed some of what he perceived as bad behavior to exploitation and insecurity created by western society, and some to a failure to yield to men and simply be pleasant and womanly (Bhajan 1986:30, “Women in Training series”).

In its earliest manifestation, 3HO was influenced primarily by yogic and Hindu traditions.  But Bhajan soon added another layer of Sikh beliefs and practices and integrated those with the earlier teachings. Some adherents took organizationally specific vows which combined aspects of Bhajan’s “technology” with Sikh beliefs.  Some took actual Sikh vows (amrit).  They established Sikh gurdwaras (places of worship) and many began to wear the Sikh markers of identity. In fact, there was much to appeal to a countercultural sensibility and to the need to find a meaningful way to live in the world. Not only did the students gain through Sikhism an additional set of beliefs and practices that could structure their lives and provide meaning, they also learned to perform beautiful music (kirtan), and gained access to another continent and another culture with its traditions and stories, to a whole new identity in fact. They were told that yoga would awaken their spiritual energies, and empower them as individuals, and the Sikh teachings and practices would channel the unleashed energies in positive directions. Sikh values would foster “group consciousness” and piety (Kundalini Research Institute. 1978:18). And Bhajan clearly benefited as well, gaining increased stature and authority as he became not only a yoga teacher but a representative of a major religion.

In spite of the appeal of many Sikh principles and practices, there were difficulties implicit in taking a new and religious direction. The counterculture was not friendly to organized religion, valuing self-expression and improvisation over piety or submission. In fact, many members left when Sikhism was introduced. Bhajan had to take some care to continue to frame Sikhism in such a way that the remaining members could accept it and align it with their pasts and his yoga teachings.

One way that Bhajan did this was to offer a vision in which he and they created a western Khalsa (The Khalsa translates as “the pure ones” and refers to all initiated Sikhs. It is sometimes referred to as a brotherhood). Thus they would still be part of a movement, as they were in the counterculture and New Age circles, and could still bring about social change, but it would be embedded in the Sikh religion: “We will have our own industries, our own businesses, and we will provide our own jobs and our own culture. We will grow to be a nation of 960,000,000 Sikhs in fulfillment of the prophecy of Guru Gobind Singh” (Khalsa 1972:343).

Bhajan also maintained that yoga and Sikhism were historically entwined (a claim with which many Sikhs would disagree), and he merged Sikh and yogic traditions with his emphasis on “sound currents.”  From the earliest days, Bhajan included phrases from Sikh prayers and scripture into some of the yoga sets that he taught. Students chanted these although they did not know then that Bhajan was incorporating the Sikh Shabd Guru (the songs and words of the Guru). He emphasized the sounds and sound patterns of the prayers as much as the actual words. Also central is the idea that the Shabad Guru is another “technology” that enables users to cope with the rapid change associated with transitioning to the Aquarian age.

According to Bhajan’s predictions, November 11, 2011 marked the start of the transition to the New Age, and adaptation during the transition has remained a central concept. [Image at right] In his later years, Bhajan spoke more frequently about the coming pace of change and its impact on the “sensory system.”  He predicted that people would be “more perturbed, not able to bear enough, not having much tolerance, and very argumentative” (Bhajan n.d. 3HO website), and now 3HO yoga teachers talk about managing in the new environment and “beginning to evolve a sensory system that allows them to live as intuitive, multi-faceted beings” (Healthy Happy Holy Organization website n.d. “The Sensory Human”).

Given the growth of public interest in yoga, kundalini has increased its reach, and there are numerous teachers and teacher training courses. These courses have been taught with the requirement that all teachers carefully follow Bhajan’s instructions. Recently, however, accusations against Bhajan and some teachers have surfaced, and there are yoga teachers who no longer feel they should follow in Bhajan’s footsteps. There is considerable internal questioning and division, and the future outlines of the belief system are difficult to discern (See, Issues/Challenges).


3HO and Sikh Dharma offer a varied ritual life. Major rituals and practices include performing kundalini and white tantric yoga, Aquarian Sadhana, and attendance at Solstice celebrations. Specifically Indian or Sikh practices include wearing Indian clothing and Sikh markers of identity, including turbans, accepting arranged marriages, singing of kirtan, the celebration of Sikh holidays and rites of passage, and visits to the Golden Temple in India.

Bhajan told his first students that he was teaching them Kundalini yoga because it was a particularly powerful form of yoga, a practice that would answer the needs of youth as they faced rapid social change. Kundalini yoga, as Bhajan taught it, is physically vigorous, combining controlled deep breathing with a variety of yoga postures and mantra recitations, some of which may be maintained for long periods of time.

If Bhajan taught that Kundalini yoga would enable people to navigate the new Aquarian Age, he also taught that the yoga would empower each practitioner so that he or she was less at the mercy of personal needs and emotions and better able to shape the world, rather than simply respond to it. His students would be able to not only weather the changes wrought by the transition to the Aquarian Age but also to guide others who found the transition difficult.

All of these benefits were said to apply to white tantric yoga, along with other benefits as well. Tantric thought assumes an ultimate Oneness that has dual aspects: matter and spirit, formless consciousness and the natural world.  Spirit is identified with the male principle and matter with the female, with the feminine giving form to infinite consciousness (Pintchman 1994:110). “White Tantric” appears to build on these ideas, but with Bhajan’s distinctive additions. The classes include many of the same movements and chants that are used in a kundalini yoga session. One difference, however, is that white tantric is performed in rows, men facing women, each with a partner. [Image at right] Additionally, the anticipated effects are different. Tantra is said to “balance” male and female energies and to “cleanse” the individual.   Each person’s experience is said to be different, but each “gets what he or she needs at that point in their journey along the path. It is a very deep and transformational cleansing process…” (Khalsa 1996:180). Bhajan was said to take on the karma of participants so that leading a session was a difficult and painful process for him. Bhajan claimed to have inherited the title “Mahan Tantric,” which, he said, made him the only person who could officially teach White Tantric.  Originally, his presence was said to be necessary so that he could internalize and alleviate the pain and subconscious struggles of the individuals participating (Elsberg 2003:44-53) Later, he videotaped his classes, and the videos are said to have the same effects as Bhajan’s physical presence. Music also became an important part of the practice and Bhajan asked musicians to record chants and mantras. (Sikh Dharma website “50 Years of Music”)

Yoga and Sikhism are brought together in the practice of Aquarian Sadhana, which includes prayer, meditation, yoga and Sikh worship. Evidently Bhajan originally varied the format every year and then finally settled on a specific version that is continued today (Khalsa, Nirvair Singh n.d. Sikh Dharma website). As officially described, “Morning Sadhana is the daily practice of waking up in the amrit vela time (two-and-one-half hours before the sun rises) to meditate and chant God’s Name….”  (Sikh Dharma .org website). It begins with Japji, the Sikh morning prayer composed by Guru Nanak. That is followed by Sikh prayers, Kundalini yoga sets, and then by specific “Aquarian Meditations.” These meditations are short songs of praise which are performed for a designated period of time. They are said to accomplish specific purposes such as “protection against all negative forces, inner and outer, which are blocking us on our true path” (Aquarian Sadhana 3HO organization website). Sadhana may be performed individually or in a group and may last for two-and-one-half hours (See, Har Nal Kaur n.d. ). The recommendation to rise early and meditate during the “amrit vela” is a Sikh universal. The Aquarian Sadhana is the distinctive 3HO and Sikh Dharma version (See, Elsberg 2003: xiii-xvi, 174-77).

Kirtan refers to devotional chanting and song, and it has long been an essential part of Sikh practice and important in 3HO and Sikh Dharma. There is also a broader spiritual kirtan movement which appeals to practitioners from several religious traditions, including Sikh Dharma. Chants and mantras may be set to New Age or blues forms, or may reflect other musical genres and may be accompanied by dancing. Sites include yoga studios and yoga festivals, concerts, and gurdwaras. The tone may be devotional, or may tilt toward entertainment. A 3HO-related business called Spirit Voyage sells recordings of kirtan and organizes some events, and 3HO holds “Sat Nam Fests” in different parts of the country  (Khalsa, N.K. 2012:438).

Members of Sikh Dharma also participate in more traditional Sikh events. They may choose initiation into the Khalsa (amrit sanskar). They attend Sikh festivals, such as gurpurbs (celebrations marking historical events such as the births of gurus) and hold Sikh weddings [Image at right] and other rites of passage. They may join an Akhand Path, a continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib from beginning to end, to mark a gurpurb, a wedding, birth, death, or a move to a new home.

Sikh Dharma also helps to coordinate Baisakhi Day celebrations in Los Angeles.  This major festival marks the birth of the Khalsa (and is a harvest festival as well in Punjab). The Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture) is escorted to the Los Angeles Convention Center where kirtan is performed by major musical groups, there are speakers, langar (free meals), and a parade through downtown Los Angeles.

3HO was originally a syncretic form, blending a number of traditions.  It required some emotional and intellectual agility to maneuver between varied perspectives, and required considerable perseverance to follow the required discipline. Early adherents rose early, attended sadhana, worked a full day, and tried to maintain positive relationships in an ashram. They adopted Indian clothing and Sikh names and turbans and were sometimes mocked for their garb. Many had their marriages arranged by Yogi Bhajan. They aimed to reach enlightenment and to be constantly aware of a higher reality, yet had to live everyday lives and support families and an organization. Sadhana, kirtan, special clothing, and Sikh symbols have been aids in their effort to connect higher and everyday realities and to create a meaningful spiritual life. For those whose attachment is primarily as yoga teachers and students (not as Sikhs), there is perhaps less need to blend traditions, but the vision of the body as a series of energy channels and chakras, of the self-evolving towards a higher consciousness via diet, yoga, kirtan and discipline, and of the group as dedicated to the task of guiding people through the changing times still apply.  The symbolism, imagery and actions associated with their ritual life provide a means to tie self and organization, past and present, imagination and practical life.


Over the years, the original 3HO Foundation was joined by a number of related organizations as members converted to Sikhism, established businesses, and expanded the number of ashrams within and beyond North America. Indeed, 3HO members have evinced a propensity for creating organizations.  Bhajan encouraged his first students to become teachers and to establish ashrams, which they did, so that by 1972 there were ninety-four official ashrams, (albeit many quite small), as well as a number of teaching centers. There were over 200 3HO Kundalini Yoga centers in twenty-eight countries by 1995 (Stoeber 2012:351-68).  As they began to adopt Sikhism, the students also opened gurdwaras and created the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood (later Sikh Dharma and then Sikh Dharma International) to oversee and administer them. Bhajan and some students founded the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI) in 1972 to research the impacts of yoga, to publish yoga instruction manuals, and, later, to oversee the training and certification of yoga teachers. Today, the KRI website says its mission is to “uphold and preserve the authenticity, integrity, and accuracy of the Teachings of Yogi Bhajan through trainings, research, publishing and resources(Kundalini Research Institute website. 2020 “About”). Its Aquarian Trainer Academy lists 530 yoga teachers/trainers and 414 teacher training programs worldwide.  (Kundalini Research Institute Trainer and Program Directory 2020) There is also IKYTA, the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association created originally “to oversee teaching standards and propagate the practice,” and now also serving to provide resources and support to KRI certified teachers (See, IKYTA website 2020  “About;” Stoeber 2012:351–68).  As the women’s movement spread in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s, 3HO women established the International Women’s Camp, also known as the Khalsa Women’s Training Camp, which has continued. As their families grew, they also organized camps for the children as well, and soon their parents began to send them to boarding schools in India. The most recent is the Miri Piri Academy in Amritsar.

Bhajan encouraged his students to start businesses, and in many cases these newly-minted  entrepreneurs hired fellow yoga students or contributed some of their earnings to local ashrams or to the 3HO Foundation or to Sikh Dharma. These were known as “family businesses.”

3HO Foundation members are found nationwide in many professional and technical fields.  Some have started manufacturing businesses such as health food products, furniture, and massage tools; others have become very successful in sales and distribution of products such as insurance, health food, shoes, and school supplies; and 3HO Foundation restaurants can be found in many cities in the country….” (Khalsa, Kirpal Singh 1986:236). Other businesses have provided services such as counseling and therapy and treatment for drug addiction based on yoga.  (See, Mooney 2012:427)

The largest of the businesses have been Golden Temple Bakery, Yogi Tea (affiliated with East-West Tea Company), and, until recently, Akal Security.  The Bakery at one point was providing products for Trader Joes and Pepperidge Farm, as well as selling its own brands. Its managers, however, sold their cereal division to Hearthside Foods Solutions for $71,000,000 million in 2010, a deal which was followed by protracted internal legal disputes (See, Issues/Challenges). Yogi Tea is blended and packaged in Oregon and also overseas in Italy and Germany. The company describes the teas as ayurvedic, and many are intended to accomplish specific healing purposes (stress relief, digestive support, etc.). These teas are sold by Whole Foods, Giant, Trader Joes and CVS, among others.  Akal provided airport security and screening, facility security, and security for DHS Federal Protective Services (See, Issues/Challenges).  Through a subsidiary, Coastal International Security, it also worked overseas, providing security for consulates under construction, protective services consulting, and emergency response services.  (see Akal Global; Elsberg 2019:89-111;  Khalsa International Industries and Trade; Siri Singh Sahib Corporation; Yogi Tea Official Site.)

As the number and scope of businesses grew, Bhajan established organizations to train and support managers and oversee the businesses. He created an entity called the Core Management Team which consisted of individuals with business knowledge and experience.  Their task was to spot talent, provide guidance and advice, weed out ineffective managers, and report to Bhajan.

There were also charities established by people associated with 3HO/Sikh Dharma, to which the businesses contributed.  At the time of Bhajan’s death there was an entity called the Charitable Contributions Committee tasked with deciding how to allocate funds given by the for-profit businesses to the nonprofits, including 3HO.

As his health failed, he created holding companies for all of the businesses and left fairly complicated instructions for the governance of 3HO and related entities after his death. Administrative authority went to one of the boards he created, Unto Infinity LLC. The boards of directors and CEOs of the corporations were to continue in their positions.  Bhajan’s wife already held the title of “Bhai Sahiba for Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere.” Upon her husband’s death she was given the responsibility to advise Unto Infinity and the Khalsa Council (an advisory council made up of Sikh ministers) on religious matters and made “responsible for the perpetuation and standardization of the teachings on the practice of Sikh Dharma as taught by the Siri Singh Sahib.”

The various entities were all to be overseen by the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation (SSSC), which would be activated upon Bhajan’s death. Because of the trial, it was not actually functioning until 2012. It is described as “the highest governance authority for the Sikh Dharma-3HO Family of constituent organizations.” It is tasked with integrating the affairs of the profits and non-profits, managing assets, and serving an oversight role.

These arrangements appear to place significant power in the hands of Sikh Dharma personnel, perhaps because it was members of the Khalsa Council and Sikh Dharma International who prevailed in the lawsuit. The Khalsa Council, created in the 1970s and originally an organization of ministers appointed by Bhajan, seems, along with the SSSC, to have taken on new and broader responsibilities. The Khalsa Council did not meet during the 2011 trial and its aftermath.  Since then it has been trying to define a new role for itself and to addressed divisions between organizations, generations, and overseas and U.S. groups. In 2017, Gurujodha Singh, as president of the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation, reported to the Khalsa council and spoke on “Aquarian Leadership and group consciousness.” Agenda items reveal a number of concerns at the time: a desire to integrate Kundalini Yoga and Sikh Dharma, to update organizational practices, to clarify ethical standards, to improve oversight of boards, to better include and empower members of the millennial generation, to respond to younger people’s desires for efficient use of technology, and to find ways to work better with overseas constituents (Khalsa Council 2017).  At a 2015 meeting younger speakers said that they would like “the legacy generation and millennial generation to move forward with efficiency and purpose,” and “create an online showcase of the diverse programs and services being offered by our global sangat.”


Those of Bhajan’s students who embraced the Sikh religion found that they were required to position themselves within the wider world of Sikhism. The syncretic quality of 3HO life may have been at the heart of its appeal to many of its practitioners, but it also offended some ethnic Sikhs who thought that Bhajan’s teachings violated Sikh orthodoxy and basic principles. Criticism was particularly strong when 3HO and Sikh Dharma were first founded. Sikhs of Punjabi descent living in the United States criticized Bhajan for teaching yoga, for awarding a number of titles that do not exist in other Sikh communities, and for encouraging devotion to himself as if he were a guru (the only Sikh guru is the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib), among other criticisms.  Members of Sikh Dharma, in turn, criticized ethnic Sikhs for being insufficiently devout and for not always adhering to the dress and behavior standards of the Khalsa. They did not appear to recognize, or accept, the varying degrees of devotion and adherence that exist within the ethnic Sikh community or the extent to which identity has been rooted not only in the Sikh religion but in Punjabi culture. Bhajan and his adherents claimed that Bhajan had been appointed as “Chief Religious and Administrative Authority of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere,” and viewed this title as equivalent to appointing him as the leader of all Sikhs in the West, while ethnic Sikhs saw the title as being relevant only to Bhajan’s organizations. Such criticisms are muted now as 3HO/Sikh Dharma has been established for some time and has taken its place among many Sikh groupings that are not entirely orthodox. However, Bhajan’s tendency to draw on multiple sources when it suited his purposes remains an issue for scholars and many ex-members (Dusenbery 2012:335-48; Dusenbery 2008:15-45; Nesbitt 2005; Dusenbery 1990:117-35; Dusenbery 1989:90-119; Dusenbery 1988:13-24). Indeed, Philip Deslippe finds that in Bhajan’s spiritual narratives “there lies a progression of forgotten and abandoned teachers, figures invented and introduced, and a process of narration and mythologizing born out of cultural context, temporal events, and pragmatic necessity” (Deslippe 2012:370).

Initially, Bhajan spoke of his teacher, Maharaj Virsa Singh, and said that he had become enlightened as Virsa Singh’s student. But Bhajan appears to have broken with this mentor in the course of the visit to India in 1971. Bhajan later claimed to have studied with a different teacher, Sant Hazara Singh.  He said that Hazara Singh had anointed him as the “Mahan Tantric,” the only person in the world who had approval to teach Tantric yoga. This is the version of Bhajan’s yoga background that can be found today on the 3HO website, but it has been called into question.

A potentially serious issue is that of safety.  Sikhs of Punjabi descent living in the United States have been attacked by white nationalists and by individuals who evidently view them as potential terrorists or as unwelcome Muslims. The best known incident is the tragic shooting at the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012, but there has been other incidents of violence directed at Sikhs.

Sikhs worldwide are known for their entrepreneurship, and people in Sikh Dharma International have embraced that heritage. The results have included some impressive corporate successes (See, Organization/Leadership), but there have also been problems. In the 1980s, the then head of the Washington ashram and an associate were accused of “the importation of multi-ton quantities of marijuana during the 1983-1987 time period.”  (Elsberg 2003:211; United States of America v. Gurujot Singh Khalsa 1988) Several telemarketing scams have been prosecuted.

On a larger scale are the events that led to a trial which took place in 2011. Sikh Dharma International was directly involved, but the conflict reverberated throughout the various organizations related to Sikh Dharma and suggested tensions between different centers of power. In this case, the managers of the Golden Temple Bakery, working with one of the holding companies that Bhajan had established, Khalsa International Industries and Trades Company, created a joint venture, one which enabled them to sell the bakery for $71,000,000  and keep a considerable share of the profits. A final settlement in 2012 required the board members to step down, although they received settlements. It was a costly trial.

Another business, Akal Security, was a source of concern from time to time over the years and ceased doing business in February 2021. In 2007, the Department of Justice announced that Akal Security “will pay the United States $18,000,000 to resolve allegations that it violated the terms of it contract to provide trained civilian guards at eight U.S. Army bases” (Department of Justice: July 13, 2007). There have also been several filings citing alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (Shaak March 20, 2017).

Bhajan’s teachings about women reveal, at best, considerable ambivalence.  Although he referred to women as “shaktis” having great creative power, he also criticized them for being manipulative, sensual, loud-mouthed, changeable, shallow and even “obnoxious.” (Elsberg 2010:310-13) These attitudes, and Bhajan’s behavior towards women, appear to have had significant long-term consequences. In 1986, two female ex-members accused Bhajan of assault and battery and other charges. The case was settled out of court (Felt, Katherine v. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji et al; Khalsa, S. Premka Kaur v. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji et al). Recently, one of the Plaintiffs (then known as Premka, now as Pamela Saharah Dyson) published an account of her association with Bhajan. Her description of his manipulation of her own and others’ lives and his sexual relationships with his “secretaries” (Dyson 2019) has led to an outpouring of allegations and bitterness.  Members and ex-members have accused Bhajan of sexual harassment and abuse. The leadership sponsored a number of listening sessions (SSSC “Listening tour” 2020; “Committees and Commissions”). This led to the SSSC hiring a private firm to investigate, to whom thirty six individuals reported abuses. The firm also interviewed individuals who wished to defend Bhajan’s record and speak of the good that he had done. The resulting report finds that, more likely than not, “Yogi Bhajan engaged in sexual battery and other sexual abuse, sexual harassment and conduct that violates Sikh vows and ethical standards.” (An Olive Branch 2020:6) The report also finds instances of Bhajan, and some of his associates, using threats, slander and even armed guards to control members’ behavior.

These troubling allegations have led many to question their loyalty to 3HO and associated organizations. Some argue that the practices that Bhajan taught are valuable and can be separated from his personal behavior, others that all he touched is tainted and that it is unconscionable to continue as before. This is of immediate concern to Kundalini yoga teachers who are deciding whether to continue to instruct students in a practice so closely tied to Bhajan’s name and version of yoga. There is considerable polarization, distrust, and anger, along with a desire to find a way forward. Given the findings of the report and the loss of income from Akal Inc., 3HO and associated organizations are likely to face significant challenges in the months ahead. As the report concludes, “A key question for the community will be how to identify, restore, preserve, and take forward what is of value to the community as a whole.” (An Olive Branch 2020:71)

Image #1: Yogi Bhajan (Harbhajan Singh Puri).
Image #2: Bhajan at the pop festival in Palm Beach.
Image #3: 3HO Solstice class “Carrying Us into the Aquarian Age.”
Image #4: White tantric yoga ritual.
Image #5: Preparations for a wedding.


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Publication Date:
11 April 2021



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 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 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 on 3 March 2021.

Publication Date:
9 April 2021


Santa Muerte


850:  Zapotecs built Lyobaa, City of the Dead, later called Mitla (the Aztec appellation for it as it they saw it as linked to Mictlan, their name for the underworld). This was the most important religious center for the Zapotec where they worshiped their primary deities, two death deities, consisting of a couple who were sacrificed to and propitiated for healing. This was also where they honored their deceased ancestors.

1019:  Beneath the city of Chichen Itza, the Mayans built a series of cave chambers that represent Xibalba, the underworld. They held rituals to death deities such as Cizen, Ah Puch, among others.

1375:  Aztecs established their capital at Tenochtitlan (the site of modern Mexico City). Their empired dominates central Mexico culturally and politically until 1519. The Aztec belief system included Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death traditionally represented as a human skeleton or carnal body with a skull for a head.

1519-1521:  The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mayans and other groups who worshipped death deities such as the Mixtec took place, driving traditional Indigenous beliefs and devotions underground as the colonial era commenced. The Spanish brought in the figure of the Grim Reaper who was interpreted by some Indigenous groups to be a death deity and locals began to worship the figure.

1700’s:  Spanish Inquisition documents recorded that clergy castigated locals for worship of figures of the Grim Reaper and for conducting rituals in her honor, in some cases this figure was documented as being called “Santa Muerte.” The practice remained occult as those who practiced such worship were accused of heresy and punished; the deathly figures were destroyed by the clergy.

1860s:  On the northern frontier of what had been until recently the Viceroy of New Spain, in New Mexico and southern Colorado, a group of mestizo Penitentes were discovered worshiping death. The figure was venerated and referred to interchangeably as Santa Muerte and Comadre (co-godmother) Sebastiana.

1870s-1900:  There was virtually no mention of Santa Muerte in the traditional written historical record.

1940’s:  Santa Muerte reappeared in ethnographies penned by Mexican and North American anthropologists, primarily as a folk saint being appealed to by women seeking the saint’s help to bring back errant husbands and boyfriends.

2001:  On All Saints Day, Enriqueta Romero Romero placed her Santa Muerte statue outside the shop where she sold quesadillas. She thereby established the first public shrine dedicated to the devotion of death in the downtown Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito.

2003:  Self-declared “Archbishop” David Romo’s temple, the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA was granted official recognition by the Mexican government. On August 15, the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the church celebrated the inclusion of Santa Muerte in its set of beliefs and practices.

2003:  The Santuario Universal de Santa Muerte (Universal Sanctuary of Santa Muerte) was founded by “Professor” Santiago Guadalupe, a Mexican immigrant from the state of Veracruz, in Los Angeles.

2004:  One of Romo’s disgruntled priests filed a formal complaint over the church’s inclusion of the Santa Muerte in its devotional paradigm.

2005:  The Mexican government stripped the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA of its official recognition. However, Mexican law did not require such sanctions, and the incident provoked political controversy.

2008:  After the death of her son, Jonathan Legaria Vargas, who had erected the largest effigy of Santa Muerte in Tultitlan Mexico City, his mother Enriqueta Vargas established the largest Santa Muerte network of transnational churches to honor Santa Muerte.

2009:  A growing number of people, in particular women, started establishing shrines to Santa Muerte across Mexico.


Santa Muerte’s name reveals much about her identity. La Muerte means death in Spanish and is a feminine noun (denoted by the feminine article “la”) as it is in all Romance languages. “Santa” is the feminine version of “santo,” which can be translated as “saint” or “holy,” depending on the usage. Santa Muerte is a folk saint, that is to say a saint of the folk, who is not recognized by the Catholic Church. Unlike official saints, who have been canonized by the Catholic Church, folk saints are spirits of the dead.[Image at right] They are considered holy for their miracle working powers by the local populace, to whom they are linked by locality and culture. Generally, they are local people who died tragic deaths and who thereafter were believed to listen to prayers and answer them with miracles. In Mexico and Latin America in general, folk saints command widespread devotion and are often more popular than the official saints. Where Santa Muerte differs from other folk saints is that for most devotees, she is the personification of death itself and not of a deceased human being.

The folk saint was created by the folk from an admixture of Indigenous death deities and the Grim Reaper during the colonial era when the Spanish introduced Catholicism.  The most common version of the story of the saint’s indigenous identity in Northern Mexico gives her Aztec origins but others give her Purepecha, Mayan or even Zapotec origins. For those in Northern Mexico, Santa Muerte is thought to have originated as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death who, along with her husband Mictlantecuhtli, ruled over the underworld, Mictlan. Like Santa Muerte, the deathly couple was traditionally represented as human skeletons or carnal bodies with skulls for heads. Aztecs believed that those who died of natural causes ended up in Mictlan, and they also invoked the gods’ supernatural powers for earthly causes.

When Spanish clergy came as part of the colonial conquest of the “New World,” they brought with them the figures of Mary, Jesus, the saints and the Grim Reaper to teach catechism during their conversion mission. While for the Spanish the Grim Reaper was but a representation of death, Indigenous people, following on from their devotion to death deities, took the Grim Reaper as a saint of death to be venerated for favors just like other saints, and Jesus. Drawing on traditions of sacred ancestral bones, worship of death deities and interpreting Christianity through their own cultural lens, they took the church’s skeletal figure of death for a saint in its own right. She was worshiped covertly for hundreds of years in total secrecy, due to punishment by the Spanish when they discovered Indigenous worshipers supplicating Santa Muerte.

Spanish colonial documents from 1793 and 1797 housed in the archives of the Inquisition describe local devotion to Santa Muerte in the present-day Mexican states of Querétaro and Guanajuato. The inquisitorial documents describe separate cases of “Indian idolatry” revolving around skeletal figures of death petitioned by Indigenous citizens for political favors and justice. [Image at right] Neither Mexican nor foreign observers recorded her presence again until the 1940s.

The first written references to the skeleton saint in the twentieth century mention her in the context of acting as a supernatural love doctor summoned by a red candle. Saint Death of the crimson candle comes to the aid of women and girls who feel betrayed by the men in their lives. Three anthropologists, one Mexican and two American, mentioned her role as a love sorceress in their research conducted in the 1940s and 1950s.

From the 1790s until 2001, Santa Muerte was venerated clandestinely. Altars were kept in private homes, out of public sight, and medallions and scapulars of the skeleton saint were hidden underneath the shirts of devotees, unlike today when many proudly display them, along with T-shirts, tattoos, and even tennis shoes as badges of their belief.

The folk saint emerged publicly when Enriqueta Romero, a quesadilla-seller in Tepito, Mexico City placed her statue outside her modest home in 2001 in thanks to the folk saint for her son’s manumission from gaol. After this, devotion to death exploded, with many becoming devotees or declaring their faith publicly. Following in the footsteps of Romero, men and women began opening temples to the saint of death. Jonathan Legaria Vargas, aka Commandante Pantera, started a temple which was later expanded by his mother, Enriqueta Vargas, upon his death by gunfire. She established the largest transnational ministry to the skeleton saint in 2008, and many others followed suit, opening their own churches to the saint of death.

It is female leaders who have been at the forefront of this movement, given its focus on the female folk saint of death. Unlike the Catholic Church, which precludes women from accessing positions of power, Santa Muerte considers all equal before death, and that includes all genders. This has allowed women to emerge as prestigious and powerful spiritual leaders from Yuri Mendez in Cancun, who established the largest shrine in the city, and perhaps even in Quintana Roo. Over a decade ago Elena Martinez Perez established the largest shrine to the folk saint in the region of Oaxaca. A prayer to Santa Muerte for women, originally written by Yuri Mendez, reveals the importance of women not only in spreading devotion but also in the many needs they have, their desires, their fears and why they turn to the female folk saint of death who they believe will treat them as an equal.

Santa Muerte, I, your fervent servant, ask you for me and for all those women who work hard every day to bring sustenance to the home, that we do not lack prosperity, that the doors of success be opened, I also ask for those who are studying, help them to fulfill their objectives satisfactorily.
“Protect our path, remove all evil and danger that surrounded us.
Drive away any man who wants to harm us, bless our marriage or our courtship.
Ensure that love is not lacking in our lives.
Santa Muerte, whatever my problems are, I trust you and I know that you will not leave me alone and you will help me (here the devotee should make their request as per the problem that they are going through)
I am a woman, I am your devotee, and I will be until the last day of my life, my life is in your hands, and I will walk calmly because I know that you are with me and you will not leave me all alone.
Bless and protect my family, my friends, keep all falsehood and hypocrisy away from me.
I thank you, I know that you listen to me and that always will listen to whatever I have to say. Give me much wisdom and sufficient temperance to walk within this society.
And I ask for nothing but respect, because I am a woman and I have the same rights as anyone else.
You are fair, and you will not allow me to suffer any humiliation from anyone.
I am a woman, I am your devotee and I will be until the last day of my life, may my requests will be heard

Several notable men have also established churches, but these have been fleeting. For example, David Romo who established the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA was arrested in 2011 on various charges, including kidnapping, and his Church abruptly closed. Jonathan Legaria Vargas, also known as “Comandante Pantera” (Commander Panther) and “Padrino (Godfather) Endoque,” was a charismatically outspoken leader in the growing public devotional tradition surrounding Santa Muerte. He had built a towering seventy-five foot-tall effigy of Santa Muerte in Tultitlan on the gritty outskirts of Mexico City, and was on his way to becoming a centralizing figure in the loose knit community of Santa Muertistas.  However, in 2008 he was gunned down in his car as assailants sprayed it with 150 bullets, killing him instantly. His mother, Enriqueta Vargas however, made Santa Muerte spread transnationally by opening churches in Colombia, Costa Rica and across Mexico.

Trans figures have also been drawn to the folk saint. Since death judges no one since death comes to us all, the saint has a large LGBTQ+ following. One such trans leader in New York is Arely Vasquez who opened a shrine to Santa Muerte in Queens about a decade ago.

Santa Muerte is prayed to by a motley crew of followers from businesswomen and men, housewives to  lawyers to politicians and nurses. She is known above all for her appeal to those living at the margins of society and close to death. Indeed, much of the Saint’s popularity comes from a context of heightened awareness of death in Mexico, given the tragic amount of violence, death and destruction caused by the ongoing drug war which has been raging across Mexico for many decades and is only escalating under the current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose policy of “abrazos no balazos,” (“hugs not bullets”) has proved ineffectual and only worsened the lives of those who must face narcoviolence on their doorstep daily. Femicide is also a major issue in Mexico with ten women murdered daily and a woman is raped every twenty seconds. Such gendered violence is treated with impunity. In such an environment, many rather than fearing death have forged a relationship with a saint of death, whom they ask for life and for protection from the heinous violence on the streets on Mexico.

Santa Muerte provides miracles to devotees, granting them love, luck, health, wealth, protection, well-being and much more. Santa Muerte is the only female saint of death in the Americas. She is most often depicted as a female Grim Reaper outfitted with a scythe and wearing a shroud. [Image at right] Often, she holds a set of scales representing her ability to deliver justice to those in trouble with the law, or who require revenge. Santa Muerte sometimes holds a globe that symbolizes her global dominion over the world as death herself. She typically appears with an owl perched at her feet. In Western iconography, the owl symbolizes wisdom, and some Mexicans view this nocturnal bird similarly. However, the Mexican interpretation relates much more to death. Indigenous death deities, the underworld and night were often linked to owls in precolonial times. Owls and their linkage as a harbinger of death are encapsulated in the popular Mexican proverb: “When the owl screeches, the Indian dies.”

The Pope and many bishops have decried Santa Muerte as a narco-saint and those who follow her as heretical. Even the government has followed this tack, especially under Calderon, who destroyed thousands of shrines on the US-Mexico border in a futile attempt to expunge the drug trade. Sometimes exorcisms are even carried out by Catholic Clergy to expunge apostates of her spirit. However, most Santa Muertistas (followers of Santa Muerte) view devotion to the folk saint as complementary to their Catholic faith or even a part of it, despite condemnation.

Santa Muerte has many familiar nicknames. She is known variously as the Skinny Lady, the Bony Lady, White Sister, Godmother, co-Godmother, Powerful Lady, White Girl, and Pretty Girl, among others. As godmother and sister, and often described as a mother, the saint becomes a supernatural family member, approached with the same type of intimacy Mexicans would typically accord their relatives. She is seen as caring, kind but also like any woman who is scorned, may also be wrathful. As part of their offerings, devotees may share their meals, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco, as well as marijuana products, with her.

In some ways adherents view her as a supernatural version of themselves. One of the main attractions of folk saints is their similarities with devotees and often a favorite offering, such as a particular brand of beer is also the devotee’s favorite. For this very reason people feel closer to folk saints and believe they can establish stronger bonds as they typically share the same nationality and social class with their folk saint. This is much the case with Santa Muerte, who is said to understand the needs of her devotees. Additionally, many devotees are attracted by the leveling effect of Santa Muerte’s scythe, which obliterates divisions of race, class and gender. One of the most oft-repeated acclamations is that the Bony Lady “doesn’t discriminate.”

Herein lies one of Santa Muerte’s great advantages in the increasingly competitive religious marketplace of Mexico and in the greatest faith economy on earth here in the United States. Much more than Jesus, the canonized saints, and the myriad advocations of Mary, Saint Death’s present identity is highly flexible. It is largely dependent on how individual devotees perceive her. Despite her skeletal form, which suggests death and dormancy to the uninitiated, the Bony Lady is a supernatural action figure who heals, provides, and punishes, among other things.

It has been estimated that 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 Mexicans venerate Santa Muerte, but numbers are hard to gauge and no official polls exist to date. The folk saint appeals to a motley crew that includes high school students, nurses, housewives, taxi drivers, drug traffickers, politicians, musicians, doctors, teachers, farmers and lawyers. Because of her condemnation by both Catholic and Protestant churches, more affluent believers tend to keep their devotion to the saint of death private, adding to the difficulty of quantifying just how many individuals are devoted to the skeleton saint. The saint has a huge following among the most marginalized and those whose professions entail that death is always at their door. This could be drug dealers, but also policemen, prostitutes, prisoners, delivery drivers, taxi drivers, firefighters, or miners. In Mexico, many occupations we consider safe in the U.S. are perilous. For example, delivery drivers are at high risk of being held at gunpoint by criminals and having their merchandise and van stolen, they may not live to tell the tale. Poverty is also high in Mexico, over Sixty-two percent of people live on very low income and forty-two percent below the poverty line. Given lack of income, precarious living conditions and narco-violence, death is never far away, and so many poor feature among the Bony Lady’s faithful. Women are also very drawn to the folk saint because, as pointed out, the religion proffers them opportunities in leadership roles. But women also join as they are a high-risk group in Mexico given that femicide is a severe; over ten women murdered daily and many more kidnapped to be raped, killed or sold into prostitution. Narcos do not only peddle drugs, they also work in the sex trade, the slave trade and the organs trafficking trade, among other iniquitous industries.  Many women ask the Bone Mother to proffer protection to them from such nefarious characters, and to keep their families safe from them too.

In terms of regions, the saint is most popular in the following five areas:  Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Chiapas, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Mexico City. Guerrero, home to Acapulco has a fervent following due to high criminality in the area. However, the saint is venerated across the country where she occupies more shelf and floor space than any other saint in dozens of shops and market stalls specializing in the sale of religious and devotional items throughout Mexico. Her candles are often sold in mainstream supermarkets, especially in areas where many worship her. Votive candles are the best selling of all the Santa Muerte products. Costing only a dollar or two, they afford believers a relatively cheap way of thanking or petitioning the saint, but some unable to afford them may use any candle they can find.

Santa Muerte, as a new religious movement, is generally informal and unorganized and only recently became widespread in 2001. Because of this and the lack of any official body overseeing the faith, it has absorbed many influences from other religions such as Palo Mayombe and Santeria (in Veracruz and other places where Cubans interact with Mexicans, especially in such regions in the U.S.). New Age influences have also become integral to Santa Muerte, with the most obvious example of this being the use of the seven colors corresponding to the seven chakras being integrated into the faith as Santa Muerte’s seven powers.

Over the last two decades, the Bony Lady has been accompanying her devotees in their crossings into the United States, establishing herself along the 2,000 mile-long border and in U.S. cities with Mexican immigrant communities. It is in the border states where she is most popular: Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Arizona. The faith as practised by Latino/as, although similar, tends to differ in some respects, especially in second generation devotees whose praxis changes from that of their parents who brought with them more Mexican traditions. In the younger generations, praxis becomes especially syncretic, absorbing influences from other Hispanic faiths as well as incorporating Heavy Metal elements popular in the U.S. Beyond these border states, devotion to Santa Muerte has spread to cities and towns deeper within the U.S., as indicated by the increasing availability of her devotional paraphernalia.

Los Angeles is the American mecca of the skeleton saint. It has two religious article stores bearing her name (Botanica Santa Muerte and Botanica De La Santa Muerte), and most botanicas stock many shelves of Santa Muerte paraphernalia. The City of Angels offers devotees three places of worship where they can thank the Angel of Death for miracles granted or petition her for assistance: Casa de Oracion de la Santisima Muerte (Most Holy Death House of Prayer) and Templo Santa Muerte (Saint Death Temple) and one of the largest shrines to the folk saint, La Basilica de la Santa Muerte. These are three of the first temples dedicated to her in the United States.

In Mexican, Texan, and Californian penitentiaries, worship of the Bony Lady is so widespread that in many she is the leading object of devotion and even prison guards may worship her. In less than a decade the folk saint has become the matron saint of the Mexican penal system and is also popular in American prisons. Almost all TV news coverage of her rapidly increasing folk faith in the United States has been provided by local stations in border cities. These news reports tend to be sensationalistic, playing up Saint Death’s alleged ties to drug trafficking, murder, and even human sacrifice, but these fail to portray the more commonplace devotion among the many other groups who worship the folk saint. The mushrooming devotional base is a heterogeneous group with various afflictions and aspirations who turn to her for a range of favors the most popular of which tend to be love, health and wealth.

The media portray the skeleton saint as a dark deity turned to for dirty deeds, since like most folk saints she is amoral she can be asked for anything, including to bless criminal activities. Nevertheless, Santa Muerte as worshiped by most believers is neither the morally pure virgin nor the amoral spiritual mercenary who perpetrates all kinds of dark deeds but a flexible supernatural figure who can be called on for all manner of miracles and it is precisely her multifaceted miracle-working that has ensured her flourishing follower among devotees from all walks of life.

Much more than an object of contemplation, [Image at right] the Bony Lady is a saint of action. Santa Muerte’s popularity as a folk saint also derives from her unique control over life and death. This is especially appealing in spaces of violence, such as prisons or drug-riddled neighborhoods; however, this does not mean only narcos worship her, for their violence puts many other populations at risk, including children who also feature among her followers. Devotion, as I have noted in my fieldwork, can start very young. Children fearing danger for themselves or their parents may turn to the folk saint and although unable to buy her lavish offerings they may express their faith in other ways, such as cleaning an altar, gifting a candy they got to her or saying a novena (a nine-day prayer) to the folk saint. [Image at right]

Her reputation as the most powerful and fastest acting saint is above all what attracts results-oriented believers to her altar. Most devotees perceive her as ranking higher than other saints, martyrs, and even the Virgin Mary in the celestial hierarchy. Saint Death is sometimes conceived of as an archangel (of death) who only takes orders from God himself. At other times she may be even considered more powerful than God since death is the ultimate power and become Goddess-like in her omnipotence and omniscience.


The logic of reciprocity underlies the way in which rank and file believers seek divine intervention. Much as in Christian contexts, the request for a miracle begins with a vow or promise. Thus, devotees request miracles from Saint Death in the same way they would from other saints, both folk and official, they then promise to repay her, often with offerings of victuals or libations, but they might also offer to change their ways, such as to stop gambling, taking drugs, drinking or driving recklessly.

Since many devotees are extremely poor even the smallest offering can be of significance, such as a bottle of water, especially in a country where clean water is a precious commodity. What distinguishes contracts with Santa Muerte is their binding power. If she is considered by many to be the most potent miracle worker on the religious landscape, she also has a reputation as a harsh punisher of those who disrespect her. Santa Muerte is said to bring revenge on those who break their promises, [Image at right] this could be by causing minor misfortunes or even visiting death upon their family or friends.

Most devotees visit shrines to pay their respects to the folk saint and give her offerings; this is also where they say prayers and light candles. However, most largely practice the faith within the privacy of their own homes, at ad hoc altars that they have assembled. These may be simple or ornate, depending on the income of the devotee and the space they have. They might consist of nothing but a small statue of Santa Muerte or even just a votive with offerings to the folk saint, or the altar could contain many large and lavish statues of the saint and figurines, such as owls and other items related to the folk saint, like skulls. Offerings at altars and chapels often consist of alcohol, sometimes tequila or other hard liquors, such as mezcal and whisky for the more affluent and beer for the impecunious. Devotees also love to offer flowers, the colors of which general correspond to the favor being asked; the more lavish and larger the bouquet the better. They also gift her foods; these may be homemade items such as tamales, or they may be fruits. Apples are a favorite offering. They may also provide nuts, bread rolls chocolate and candy, among other foods. In Mexico cigarettes are typically offered, while taking from the Cuban influence in the U.S. cigars are also frequently offered. The Bony Lady is always offered glasses or bottles of water as, like her forebear la Parca, she is said to be perpetually parched.

Prayers, novenas, rosaries, and even “masses” for Santa Muerte generally preserve Catholic form and structure if not content. In this way, the new religious movement offers neophytes the familiarity of Mexican Catholicism along with the novelty of venerating an emerging folk saint. Most shrines and chapels hold a rosary once a month in the honor of the folk saint. However, witchcraft and folk medicine beliefs are also central to the faith. Devotees believe in hexes and the need to seek protection from the folk saint to break them. They also often believe in folk medicine and the importance of spiritual cleansing.


Drawing heavily on Catholic modes of worship, devotees employ a colorful range of rituals, however, they also practice witchcraft, and, as detailed, the rituals also incorporate elements from New Age spirituality. The general lack of formal doctrine and organization means that adherents are free to communicate with Saint Death in whatever manner suits them, and so there is tremendous heteropraxy, with some devotees using tarot, dreams or other methods to “talk” to their saint. Prayers are sometimes impromptu and designed ad hoc for the purpose. However, as chap books and other tomes, such as the Biblia de la Santa Muerte (a prayer book featuring petitions to the folk saint featured on amazon) circulate, a certain amount of orthopraxy is emerging.

One such typical prayer that has emerged was pioneered by the godmother of the new religious movement, Enriqueta Romero Romero (affectionately known as Doña Queta). She created the rosary to Santa Muerte (el rosario) by adapting a Catholic series of prayers dedicated to the Virgin. She took these prayers and largely swapped the Virgin’s name for Santa Muerte’s to honor the folk saint within a Catholic framework. Doña Queta organized the first public rosaries at her Tepito shrine in 2002, and since then the practice has proliferated throughout Mexico and in the United States. The monthly worship service at Doña Queta’s altar regularly attracts several thousand faithful.

Among the most common ways to petition Santa Muerte is through votive candles, often color coded for the specific type of intervention desired. Santa Muertistas may employ votive candles in the traditional Catholic way or they may add to this ritual with witchcraft rites. Spell books circulate which often advise devotees to recite prayers, light candles, but also use items as used in witchcraft during rituals. For example, a love spell may feature the use of a red Santa Muerte image, [Image at right] a red Santa Muerte statue but also a lock of hair or piece of clothing from a loved on that will need to be used in a specific way for the spell to be cast.

Most devotees use votive candles as mainline Catholics would, offering these wax lights as symbols of vows, for thanks or prayers. In addition to candles, devotees make offerings that correspond to things they desire. For example, red roses may be given for a petition for love, or money may be offered for good fortune. The main colors used in Santa Muerte rituals are red, white and black. This trio dominated in the earlier stages, but many have been added since then. Red has typically been for favors related to love and passion. White has been for cleansing, healing and harmony. Black has notoriously been said to be the color of black magic, hexing and for narcos and criminals seeking blessings and help with their nefarious activities. However, this is an incorrect portrayal; many use black for protection and safety and more recently, since COVID-19, this color is being used for protection and healing from the virus.

Votive candles, flowers and statue colors correspond to the favors being asked:

red: love, romance, passion, petitions of a sexual nature
black: vengeance, harm; protection and safety from coronavirus
white: purity, protection, gratitude, consecration, health, cleansing
blue: focus, insight and concentration; popular with students
brown: enlightenment, discernment, wisdom
gold: money, prosperity, abundance
purple: supernatural healing, for working magic, access to spiritual realms
green: justice, equality before the law
yellow: overcoming addiction
yellow, white and blue: road opener
yellow and green: business prosperity and money
black and red: reversing black magic and ill fortune, sending hexes back to sender
multicolored: multiple interventions


The long period of furtive devotion ended on All Saints Day, 2001. Doña Queta, [Image at right] who at the time worked as a quesadilla vendor, publicly displayed her life-size Santa Muerte effigy outside her home in Tepito, Mexico City’s most notoriously dangerous barrio. In the decade since then, her historic shrine has become the new religious movement’s most popular in Mexico. More than any other devotional leader, Doña Queta has played the starring role in transforming occult veneration of the saint into a very public new religious movement.

Just a few miles away, self-declared “Archbishop” David Romo founded the first church dedicated to the Santa Muerte. Borrowing heavily from Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine, the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church Mex-USA offered “masses,” weddings, baptisms, exorcisms, and other services commonly found at most Catholic churches in Latin America, but it was closed down in 2011 when Romo was arrested for multiple criminal charges, including kidnapping.

In the United States, the Los Angeles based Templo Santa Muerte offers a full range of Catholic-like sacraments and services, including weddings, baptisms, and monthly rosaries. The Templo’s website hosts a chat room and streams music and podcasts of masses to those who cannot make it to the services offered by “Professors” Sahara and Sisyphus, founders of the Templo. Both leaders emigrated to the United States from Mexico. The latter’s training included an apprenticeship with two Mexican shamans, one of whom “taught him to speak to Most Holy Death.” Their rituals are very much influenced by New Age rites and are highly syncretic due to the U.S. influence.

A few miles across town is the Santuario Universal de Santa Muerte (Saint Death Universal Sanctuary). The Sanctuary is located in the heart of LA’s Mexican and Central American immigrant community. “Professor” Santiago Guadalupe, originally from Catemaco, Veracruz, a town famous for witchcraft, is the Santa Muerte shaman who presides over this storefront church. Faithful believers visit the Sanctuary for baptisms, weddings, rosaries, novenas, exorcisms, cleansings, and individual spiritual counseling.

Enriqueta Vargas [Image at right] was one of the most famous leaders. She started The SMI (Santa Muerte Internacional) temple in Tultitlan in 2008, beneath the feet of the largest statue of Santa Muerte in the world, which her son had built before his murder. She established a network of shrines across Mexico and into other Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica, spreading the faith. Through her innovative use of social media platforms and digital communication tools, along with her charismatic Evangelical-style leadership, the organization has become a popular source for information on Santa Muerte. It is built upon a strong global community of devotees connected through live video coverage of regular worship services at the shrine and digital outreach on Facebook. When she died in 2018 from cancer, her daughter took over and continues her mother’s work.

Aside from these most famous shrines, innumerable chapels have been started across Mexico, with men and women spreading the faith. In large part it has been women who have established the most shrines to the Saint of Death, creating prestige and power for themselves and guiding community relations. Other famous female shrine owners and Santa Muerte leaders include Yuri Mendez, who over a decade ago established the largest shrine to Santa Muerte in Cancun; it is also the most prominent in the region of Quintana Roo.  The chapel features innumerable statues of the female folk saint of death, and some have Mayan-derived names, such as Yuritzia, the most important and powerful statue in the shrine with whom Mendez has a special bond. Mendez is considered a guide within her community. As a self-identified witch, shaman and healer, she offers services of healing, magic and curanderismo (curing through plant medicines). As a “bruja de la 3 virtudes” (witch of the three virtues), she offers red, black and white magic to devotes. Her rosary every second day of the month attracts hundreds of devotees. Mendez has a distinctly feminist outlook on devotion to death, using her prestige and social capital as a Santa Muerte leader to highlight women’s issues. These include femicide, and aiding women with distinctly feminine issues, such as domestic violence or men who do not pay for child support.

Elena Martinez Perez [Image at right] is another notorious Santa Muerte figure in the region of Oaxaca. The Indigenous Zapotec sabia (wise woman) established her shrine in Oaxaca to thank Santa Muerte for a miracle of healing in c. 2002. It has expanded from a small makeshift structure and has been rebuilt several times; it is now a large and renowned chapel that receives hundreds of weekly visits. Her family, largely the female members, help her run, clean and decorate it, while her sons and grandsons play a lesser but  still important role in construction and other tasks that require heavy lifting. Her daughter-in-law and daughter more recently opened a shop by the shrine where they sell candles to the many devotees who come to pray. The shrine is famous in the region for its incredible celebrations honoring Santa Muerte during Day of the Dead in November. This includes two days of rituals, music and festivities during which the shrine is decorated sumptuously. These celebrations are uniquely Oaxacan and influenced by Indigenous culture.

Other notable female shrine owners are Adriana Llubere who became a devotee in the year 2000 and in 2010 erected a chapel featuring a statue which she calls Canitas, in San Mateo Atenco. [Image at right] Measuring one meter eighty centimeters high, Canitas is perhaps the only representation of Santa Muerte that is capable of standing or sitting, as required for different times or circumstances. Llubere is known for rolling her statue around in a wheelchair, especially during special occasions. The statue is the unofficial matron saint of those who have been falsely incarcerated. After being freed from jail for what she claims was bogus charges, Llubere commissioned the prisoners of Almoloya de Juárez to make the statue for her. To this day the prisoners there, in penitentiaries across Mexico, and even in the U.S., have a special attachment to this effigy, especially those who believe they were innocent. Upon their release, many make a pilgrimage to thank Canitas, whose name means little inmate, as being “en cana” (slang for being in jail).

Other notable shrine owners are Sorraya Arredondo who owns a large chapel called “Angel Alas Negras” (Angel with Black Wings) in Tula in Hidalgo that is dedicated uniquely to Santa Muerte in her black form and features a large befeathered statue known as La Guerrera Azteca, the Aztec Warrior. It honors the folk saint as of Nahua origin. About an hour and a half away in Tizayuca Hidalgo, Maria Dolores Hernández owns a shrine known as La Niña Blanca de Tizayuca, the White Girl of Tizayuca where she offers tarot and other spiritual services. Michelle Aguilar Espinoza and her family own a famous shrine in San Juan Aragon called la Capilla de Alondra since its wooden effigy of Santa Muerte is called Alondra. It wields a wooden scythe that has been passed down for generations and is believed to have special powers.


The Catholic Church in Mexico has taken a decisive stance against Santa Muerte, denouncing the new religious movement on the grounds that the veneration of death is tantamout to honoring an enemy of Christ. [Image at right] The Church argues that Christ defeated death through resurrection; therefore, his followers must align themselves against death and its representatives, including Santa Muerte. The previous Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, was a member of the National Action Party (PAN), founded by conservative Roman Catholics in 1939. Calderon’s administration declared Santa Muerte religious enemy number one of the Mexican state. In March 2009 the Mexican army bulldozed dozens of roadside shrines dedicated to the folk saint along the US-Mexico border. However, under the current president, AMLO, there has been less pressure to destroy shrines.

A number of high-profile drug kingpins and individuals affiliated with kidnapping organizations are Santa Muertistas. The prevalence of Santa Muerte altars at crime scenes and in the cells of those imprisoned has created the impression that she is a narco-saint; however, this is due to press sensationalism. Many narcos worship St. Jude, Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Nino de Atocha (an advocation of the Christ Child), these figures have not attracted the same media attention. Many of her devotees are members of society who have been marginalized by the prevailing socio-order. This could be due to their sexual orientation or due to their class, since the working class is typically looked down upon. In either event, because of their low status in the eyes of the upper classes and the powerful, they and their faith are often dismissed as deviant.

** All photos contained herein are the intellectual property of Kate Kingsbury or R. Andrew Chesnut. They are featured in the profile as part of a one-time licensing agreement with the World Religions and Spirituality Project. Reproduction or other use is prohibited.

Image #1: A volcanic rock statue of Santa Muerte in the temple to the folk saint in Morelia, Michoacan with votive candles burning.
Image #2: An Indigenous depiction of Santa Muerte replete with Aztec plumed headdress.
Image #3: Santa Muerte depicted as she who delivers justice, holding the scales in her hand.
Image #4: Devotee of Santa Muerte holding his two statues, which he has brought to Tepito to be blessed at the Rosary held at Doña Queta’s famous shrine.
Image #5: Young female devotee of Santa Muerte clutching her statue of the Saint of Death just as she clutches onto life living in the dangerous neighbourhood of Tepito.
Image #6: A Santa Muerte Addiction card on which a devotee makes a pledge to the folk saint to stop drinking or taking drugs or engaging in other vices for a specific period of time.
Image #7: Santa Muerte Votive Candle burning brightly with the deepest desires of a Santa Muerte devotee who has lit it to supplicate the saint for a special favour.
Image #8: Doña Queta blessing a child in her shop in Tepito that abuts the world famous shrine she established to Santa Muerte.
Image #9: Enriqueta Vargas, the other major devotional pioneer, who established a transnational network of churches known as SMI (Santa Muerte Internacional) that extends across the Americas and even into the U.K.
Image #10: Yuri  Mendez, leader of the largest shrine to Santa Muerte in Quintana Roo, She self-identifies as a bruja (witch), curandera (healer) and shaman of Santa Muerte.
Image #11: Doña Elena, leader of the first and most important chapel to Santa Muerte in the region of Oaxaca. The  Zapotec leader stands before a statue of Santa Muerte depicted as Indigenous.
Image #12: Poster denouncing Santa Muerte as satanic.


** The material in this profile is drawn from the following papers and book: Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Mexican Folk Saint Santa Muerte: The Fastest Growing New Religious Movement in the West,” The Global Catholic Review;  Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2021. “Syncretic Santa Muerte: Holy Death and Religious Bricolage.” Religions 12:212-32; and R. Andrew Chesnut, Devoted to Death (Oxford 2012).


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Aridjis, Homero. 2004. La Santa Muerte: Sexteto del amor, las mujeres, los perros y la muerte. Mexico City: Conaculta.

Bernal S., María de la Luz. 1982. Mitos y magos mexicanos. Second Edition. Colonia Juárez, Mexico: Grupo Editorial Gaceta.

Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2012. “Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Devotion to the Saint of Death.” Huffington Post, January 7. Accessed from
on 25 March 2021.

Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2003. Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cortes, Fernando, dir. 1976. El miedo no anda en burro. Diana Films.

Del Toro, Paco, dir. 2007. La Santa Muerte. Armagedon Producciones.

Graziano, Frank. 2007. Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. 1974. “Godfather Death.” Tale 44 in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon. Accessed from on 20 February 2012.

Holman, E. Bryant. 2007. The Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint. Self-published.

Kelly, Isabel. 1965. Folk Practices in North Mexico: Birth Customs, Folk Medicine, and Spiritualism in the Laguna Zone. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Kingsbury, Kate 2021. “Danger, Distress and Death: Female Followers of Santa Muerte.” In A Global Vision of Violence: Persecution, Media, and Martyrdom in World Christianity, edited by D. Kirkpatrick and J. Bruner. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2021.”Death in Cancun: Sun, Sea and Santa Muerte.”’Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 46:1-16

Kingsbury, Kate. 2020. “At Death`s Door in Cancun:  Meeting Santa Muerte Witch Yuri Mendez.” Skeleton Saint. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2020. “Death is Women’s Work: the Female Followers of Santa Muerte.”’ International Journal of Latin American Religions 5:1-23.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2020. “Doctor Death and Coronavirus.” Anthropologica 63:311-21.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2018. “Mighty Mexican Mothers: Santa Muerte as Female Empowerment in Oaxaca.” Skeleton Saint. Accessed from  on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2021. “Syncretic Santa Muerte: Holy Death and Religious Bricolage.” Religions 12:212-32.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Holy Death in Times of Coronavirus: Santa Muerte, the Salubrious Saint of Mexico.” International Journal of Latin American Religions 4:194-217.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Life and Death in the Time of Coronavirus: Santa Muerte, the ‘Holy Healer’,” The Global Catholic Review. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Mexican Folk Saint Santa Muerte: The Fastest Growing New Religious Movement in the West,” The Global Catholic Review. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Not Just a Narcosaint: Santa Muerte as Matron Saint of the Mexican Drug War.” International Journal of Latin American Religions 4:25-47.

Kingsbury, Kate and Chesnut, Andrew. 2020. “Santa Muerte: Sainte Matronne de l’amour et de la mort.” Anthropologica 62:380-93.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “The Materiality of Mother Muerte in Michoacan: The Tangibility of Devotion to Saint Death.” Skeleton Saint. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

La Biblia de la Santa Muerte. 2008. Mexico City: Editores Mexicanos Unidos.

Lewis, Oscar. 1961. The Children of Sánchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Random House.

Lomnitz, Claudio. 2008. Death and the Idea of Mexico. New York: Zone Books.

Martínez Gil, Fernando. 1993. Muerte y sociedad en la España de los Austrias. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.

Navarrete, Carlos. 1982. San Pascualito Rey y el culto a la muerte en Chiapas. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.

Olavarrieta Marenco, Marcela. 1977. Magia en los Tuxtlas, Veracruz. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Perdigón Castañeda, J. Katia. 2008. La Santa Muerte: Protectora de los hombres. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Thompson, John. 1998. “Santísima Muerte: On the Origin and Development of a Mexican Occult Image.” Journal of the Southwest 40:405-436.

Toor, Frances. 1947. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. New York: Crown.

Villarreal, Mario. “Mexican Elections: The Candidates.” American Enterprise Institute. Accessed from on 20 February 2012.

Publication Date:
26 March 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 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 on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Online Classes.” Accessed from on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Rites of Passage.” Accessed from on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Touching Your Magic.” Accessed from on 15 January 2021.


Blumberg, Antonia. 2014. “A Woman’s Quest to Reinvigorate the Sacred Nature of Pregnancy,” HuffPost Religion, November 5. Accessed from 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 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 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 on 20 November 2020.

Cassadaga website. n.d. “List of Mediums.” Accessed from on 5 December 2020.

Cassadaga website. n.d. “Mediums and Healers.” Accessed from–healers.htmls on 5 December 2020.

Cassadaga website. n.d. “Who We Are.” Accessed from on 5 December 2020.

“Colby, George P. (1848-1933) .” Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . (October 16, 2020).

Compton, Natalie. 2019. “Interested in traveling to a spiritualist community? Here’s what you need to know.” Washington Post, October 29, 2019. Accessed from on 20 November 2020.

Fernandez, Alexia 2015. “Woman Certified As Medium At Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp.” Statewide, April 3. Accessed from 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 on 20 November 2020.

Schaleman, Harry. n.d. Casadaga: Just a Medium Place. Florida Virtual Library. Accessed from 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 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 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


Ānandamayī Mā. 2001. Words of Sri Anandamayi Ma. Translated by Atmananda. Kankhal: Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha.

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 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.

Mukerji, Bithika. 2002. My Days with Sri Ma Anandamayi. Varanasi: Indica Books.

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
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 on 5 January 2021.

Arica website. 2021. “The Trainings.” Accessed from 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 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 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