Religion

Scenes from an Indian Scientology Graduation

I sang Sonu Nigam songs and was questioned about being a virgin.
25 June 2018, 12:30pm
From karaoke night at Delhi's Church of Scientology. Image: Scientology Delhi via Facebook

I know next to nothing about Scientology, but my interest was piqued when a friend sent me an invitation to a Scientologist graduation ceremony in Delhi. The religion, established by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, has been making inroads into India’s overcrowded local faith market since 2003. According to news reports from 2012, anywhere between 3,000 to 7,000 Indians have been involved Scientology—according to Abhishekh Kumar, a “junior executive” I spoke with, the number is now over 30,000.

The event on Saturday took place in a bungalow that serves as the Delhi headquarters and marked local students’ completion of courses such as “Knowing Who to Trust”, “Route to Infinity”, “Happiness Rundown” and others. The courses range from between five hours to two weeks, and cost between Rs. 1,200 to Rs. 10,000. Some, like “How to Improve Relationship with Others” are basic lectures, while others, like “Dianetics”,and “Auditing” involve equipment like the electropsychometer, or e-meter . The e-meter is said to measure a person’s mental state while a minister asks intimate questions in an attempt to cleanse the person’s Thetan, or immortal spiritual being.

Present at the event were about 30 graduates who had done courses over the last several years, their family members, and allies. One guy even flew in from Kuala Lumpur to collect a certificate. Before the ceremony, we were shown a clip from a game show from Scientology TV, where a host asks a contestant to choose from three curtains: One, “has more alcohol than he can consume”; another has “amazing drugs”; and a third offers “family and self respect.” This video was available at a discounted price of Rs. 1,000 for the day.

Scientology TV with strangers. Image: Parthshri Arora

At around 6 pm, we moved to the larger ceremony room, with images of celebrities like Lata Mangeshkar, Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan, and a couple of Kapoors. Men and women of all ages sat in the red plastic chairs.

The ceremony began with music, as members Pradip Bhatt and his wife Mukhta took the stage. He began strumming a Sonu Nigam’s “Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin” on a guitar, while she crooned along. The crowd sang and clapped. My 50-something neighbour, Vasu Yajnik-Setia, looked disapprovingly at me until I joined in too. We were given sheets of paper with lyrics on them to sing along to other songs too, like “Rim Jhim Rim Jhim” and “Tumse Milke Aisa Laga”. It all seemed a bit surreal, but with every passing note, felt oddly liberating too. I felt a lifetime of self-inflicted shyness over my jittery singing fall away.

One by one, students came up to the stage to receive certificates and a rose, all to raucous applause. I watched as 19-year-old Manav Gupta received his “Learning How to Learn” certificate. He told me he’s studying Computer Applications at Indraprastha University, and has recently gotten over a gaming addiction, though he’s still holding on to his Rs. 2 lakh rig. He then started the course, which he said taught him that the subjects like physics and math aren't as scary as they seem.

Song lyrics passed among the crowd. Image: Parthshri Arora

In between sets of students, convener Poulomi Bajaj read inspirational quotes. Eventually, she announced that a special student needed her own little ceremony, as she had completed a multitude of courses. It was Yajnik-Setia, who was awarded for her achievements in “Introductory auditing”, “Advanced Auditing”, “Purification Rundown” and other areas.

When she sat back down, told me that she books courses before current ones even end. “I like being a part of something greater,” my neighbour said. “You must do a course here.” Who knows? I had already been asked to join the group photo.

As the crowd trickled out around 8 PM, I struck up a conversation with 26-year-old Ankit Singh, who was getting ready to take off on his Bullet for Faridabad. I asked him which courses he liked, and he shot back, “Yaar, tum joint karte ho? Tumhaari aankhon se lagta hai tumhaara dil toota hai. Kya tum virgin ho?” [Do you smoke up? You look like you’re heartbroken. Are you a virgin?] I told him no, I’m a writer, which was, in hindsight, a peculiar reflex.

Singh though, misheard me as saying “rider”. He went on to give me a 20-minute lecture on how Scientology could increase my rider response rate in case of accident. “How many riders will show up if there’s an accident? Maybe 10 percent? Do a course—it’ll increase to 50 percent.”

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