‘Pretty harmless’ to ‘personality cult’: Experts analyze the Denver House

Three colorful tapestries featuring humanoid figures, representing Hindu gods, hang on a wall.
The Denver House contains numerous depictions of Hindu gods, including the pictured tapestries. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

The 5Cs were abuzz with speculation and discussion this week about the spiritual group living at the Denver House, following TSL’s recent article in which residents of the house discussed their beliefs and lifestyle.

With rumors continuing to fly and some students speculating that the Denver House is a cult, TSL consulted two experts, who gave differing opinions on the topic.

Rick Alan Ross is a cult specialist and founder of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute, which keeps records of cults, as well as controversial groups and movements.

Ross said he considers the Denver House to be a “personality cult” — a group of people who admire or devote themselves to one leader — with the group’s spiritual teacher, Satguruyogiprabhu Jnandamokshabrahmananda, who goes by Jnanda, as the cult leader.

However, he said he needs more information from former followers to fully analyze the risks or dangers of the group.

Ross is a well-known cult expert, but has faced criticism for his methods of reversing cult indoctrination, including an accusation of kidnapping. The incident led to his arrest for unlawful imprisonment in 1995, according to The Seattle Times. Ross was acquitted of those charges.

“My opinion of Jnanda is that he fits the classic profile of a cult leader,” Ross said. “It appears based on the money that they have given him that he is basically living off of them.”

Jnanda couldn’t be reached for comment, but previously denied claims that the Denver House is a cult.

“If you look up the word ‘cult,’ there’s many definitions and it’s been morphed over the years because of misqualified cults,” Jnanda said. “Cults take on a bad name.”

Ross said Jnanda appears to be the defining element and driving force who shapes the group based on the beliefs he’s assembled from various religions. He said the groups’ isolation and Jnanda’s lack of accountability concerned him as well.

“It’s all about what he’s picked, what he’s chosen to include and what he teaches and his supposed spiritual wisdom and power and presence,” he said.

Ross said “excessive” meditation is common in neo-Eastern groups — such as the Denver House — which induces a trance state, making people more susceptible to suggestion.

“My opinion of Jnanda is that he fits the classic profile of a cult leader” — Rick Alan Ross, cult expert

Nori Muster, a researcher, author and former member of the Hare Krishna sect, which has been frequently labeled a cult, disagreed and said she doesn’t believe the Denver House is a cult, but saw several warning signs.

“My take on [the Denver House] was that it’s probably pretty harmless at this stage,” she said. “It just seems like a little commune … [Jnanda] looks friendly enough, but you can’t tell by just looking at someone what’s going on inside.”

Muster said William Latta PO ’19’s statement to TSL that he would rather be shot than stop practicing his spiritual beliefs is “cultish” and “a really troubling thing.”

“I admit that the statement was reactionary and understand the concern,” Latta wrote in response. “The essence of it is a relationship at my core with the Divine that transcends any group that I am with. I invite anyone to reach out for clarification.”

Muster also said cult leaders convince their followers they can read minds and therefore can tell if they’re thinking about leaving the group.

“[Jnanda] leads the people to believe that he has supernatural powers that other people don’t have and that he has some kind of special connection with God,” Muster said. “It’s a way to control people; that’s a red flag.”

Muster said a primary characteristics of cults is isolating members through new words, languages, outfits and living situations.

“[Cults] have their own language, they often have their own costumes,” she said. “There’s a lingo that you learn when you move in with them.”

Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, brought his “Sociology of Religion” class to the Denver House after spring break.

Every week, the class visits a different religious group in the area, from Scientologists to Quakers. Isabel Kelly PO ’20, who now goes by Sundara Shakta Vinyasa Ananda, is in the class and a member of the Denver House.

She suggested the visit to the house, according to Zuckerman.

Zuckerman, an atheist, said he was excited to visit the house to examine it from a sociological perspective.

“To me, there’s no difference [from other religions],” he said. “[The members of the Denver House] think [Jnanda’s] divine, well, people think the Pope is divine. Every religion is based, to me, on unsupported claims, unsupported assertions.”

Zuckerman recalled sitting in the backyard with his class while the Denver House’s teacher, Jnanda, sat cross-legged, dressed in a robe, with jewelry adorning his body.

Having observed the group, Zuckerman said he doesn’t think it’s a cult.

“These are adults who have chosen to follow this guy. To me, if you think people are being brainwashed, I would say the kid that’s being taken to Sunday school at four or five years old, that’s brainwashing, they truly don’t have a choice,” he said. “If 19- or 20- or 21-year-olds choose to follow this bald dude, why do we care? If it makes them feel enlightened, why do we care?”

Zuckerman said his students’ two main concerns were Jnanda’s anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric and alleged cultural appropriation.

“[My students] illuminated [the cultural appropriation] a bit for me,” he said. “They really helped me see that it’s not an equal exchange. There is a history of oppression, colonialism [and] imperialism.”

If 19- or 20- or 21-year-olds choose to follow this bald dude, why do we care? If it makes them feel enlightened, why do we care?” — Phil Zuckerman, Pitzer college professor

Jnanda told TSL last week that he sees it as “silly” to say that his teachings and students are culturally appropriative.

“So people who think [our spirituality] is cultural appropriation, I forgive their ignorance because they just don’t understand what’s going on,” he said.

Zuckerman said students questioned why Kelly didn’t change her name to the English meaning of her Sanskrit name and criticized how she can choose to switch between names.

“She can always just flip back to Isabel Kelly when she needs to,” he said. “A person from India doesn’t have that option; they can’t just switch.”

Kelly addressed Zuckerman’s students’ comments about her privilege.

“With full transparency, I admit that transitioning to publicly going by my spiritual name has been a very sensitive process for many reasons. The relationship I have with this name is profoundly personal one, and I do not consider it to be a mere ‘decoration’ or shallow aspect of my being,” Kelly said via message. “At this point, I respect the need to be culturally aware of how my use of this name might be offensive to some people, but I prefer to keep my relationship with my name personal.”

While the board of the The Claremont Colleges Hindu Society told TSL some Hindu students might not view the group as culturally appropriative, others expressed frustration with their use of Hindu practices.

Shayok Chakraborty PO ’19, who is Hindu, criticized the Denver House residents’ use of Hindu and other South Asian iconography.

“It’s just bizarre to see these same gods and goddesses plastered up around these people’s rooms like these novelty decorations when they mean so much more to me and so many others,” Chakraborty said via message. “I don’t think these are bad people and it’s great that they found spiritualism in their lives but why does it always have to mean wearing South Asia like a costume?”

This story was last updated April 25 at 11:55 p.m.

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