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Moscow Times Tuesday, August 8, 2006 by Alastair Gee Staff Writer
A member of the university giving a lesson at Lefortovo last month. A spotlight was shone onto the wall behind her. Two-thirds of Russian men smoke, more vodka is consumed per capita here than anywhere else, and recent surveys have ranked Russians among the world’s most promiscuous people.
The Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University wants to change all that. And time is of the essence. “Follow [Brahma Kumaris’ teachings] and you will go to the land of happiness and halt The Cycle. Give everyone this message,” said Sister Sudha Rani Gupta, one of the organization’s leaders in Russia. “Everything will be destroyed. Only a short time remains.”
The university once taught that the current age, or cycle, would end in nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. This teaching was dropped after the fall of the Soviet Union, said Brother Karuna Shebby, the organization’s chief spokesman, said by telephone from the group’s Mount Abu headquarters in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Brahma Kumaris instructs students to strive for purity. Dedicated followers meditate regularly during the day, starting at 4:30 a.m. They are not allowed to eat meat, onions or garlic. They change their clothes after using the toilet. And they abstain from sex.
Around 500 practitioners are regulars at the organization’s Russian base in Lefortovo, near the Aviamotornaya metro station, and at a school in Kolomenskoye. Advanced students arrive every day at 7 a.m. for meditation. Many dress entirely in white to symbolize purity, sometimes wearing a badge reading “Om Shanti,” a Hindi phrase that means “I am a peaceful soul.”
On a recent morning, around 100 mostly middle-aged and elderly women sat in the building’s auditorium meditating to synthesizer and sitar music. Later, Gupta recited a lesson from a large armchair on stage, her words broadcast to every part of the center by loudspeakers. Students took notes as she spoke. Although to the outside observer Brahma Kumaris might appear to be a religious organization, Gupta said that, in this case, appearances were misleading.
“Religion today has become a ritual or a drama. People do it just for the sake of it, without grasping the meaning behind it,” she said. “We are different from religions, in that they ask for forgiveness, while we achieve it ourselves.”
Under a 1997 law, only officially registered religious organizations are permitted to operate in this country. Brahma Kumaris is registered as a civic organization. The Indian directors of Brahma Kumaris have created a network of 32 centers throughout the former Soviet Union since arriving in 1989, mostly in apartments in major cities such as Novosibirsk and Perm. Gupta and Brother Vijay Uttanoor, another leader of the organization’s Russian operation, have expansion on their agenda. They are aiming to boost membership from the current level of 2,000 and to set up centers in every region of Russia.
The walls that ring their Lefortovo base are topped by flags printed with a red oval resembling an eye. The symbol, a representation of divine light, also glows above the entrance hall of the 19th-century building. Cherubim drawn onto the ceiling face pink and green paintings of the group’s founders and the Hindu elephant god Ganesh. The building was leased in 1998 with funds obtained from donations, Uttanoor said. He could not provide details of the organization’s finances.
“The wonder is that the bank balance is always sufficient to pay for the rental of our buildings and for our programs,” he said by e-mail.
A letter written this year by Patriarch Alexy II wishing the group a happy Easter hangs in the corridor. The Orthodox Church does not have any relations with the university, a church spokesperson said. Alexy’s letter hangs alongside a copy of a note confirming the university’s consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Brahma Kumaris attends UN meetings and lobbies for women’s rights in India.
Gupta, 53, said she was initially invited to Russia in 1989 by the Soviet sports authorities to teach meditation, and operated out of scattered rooms in the capital before moving to the current headquarters. She grew up in New Delhi, began attending Brahma Kumaris classes as a teenager, and now leads a life of asceticism. Gupta said the only things she owned were her saris. She has no personal care products, such as makeup or a razor. She rarely watches television and dislikes using the telephone. The university pays her living expenses; the only time she earned money was when she gave English lessons as a student. Like two of her biological sisters, also Brahma Kumaris members, Gupta is opposed to sex, although she said she had never tried it.
“I can advise on the basis of the experience of listening to the experience of others,” she said. “If someone puts their hand in the fire, it burns. I don’t have to put my hand in the fire to know that it burns.”
After a recent meditation session, Georgy Segal, 20, said his mother had attended a Kazakh center for a year, and visited Moscow to study at Lefortovo.
“People can find peace here,” he said. “The limitations are the reason there aren’t many young people. I don’t know how they can say no to sex.”
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