Throughout history, smaller groups have often been misunderstood by society. In this way, the new approach that some spiritual groups have undertaken, different from the old dogmatic religious style has, therefore, entered into conflict. This situation has been raised several times in multiple forums. Although this concept is understood and has been raised by officials, the situation has not been solved and Soteria International considers it important to continue to raise the topic for debate. As an example of a case in which a small group was poorly understood, we are publishing the story of the Aumist community in Mandarom, France, through excerpts from a book written by the ethnologist, Maurice Duval who spent intimate time in the group conducting participant observation. The original article can be found on CICNS' website.
Maurice Duval’s book has two aims: the first is to highlight the difficulty in discussing or studying, in peace, everything related to what is called—in a biased and stigmatizing way—a "sect" in France. The second, is the ethnological study, itself, of the Mandarom.
Due to the purpose of the Information Center of the Council of New Spiritualities (CICNS), the extracts that follow, strive, particularly, to give an overview of the pressures and difficulties that Maurice Duval encountered during his study. The reader is, however, encouraged to read the book for the two aspects that strike his/her interest.
The Story of a Study
(...) This book reflects a single ethnological research...From the inside of the sect Mandarom, located atroughly 1200 m altitude in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (France)... The director of the laboratory to which I was then attached suggested to start a study of this group... Frightened by the idea of studying a sect, I initially declined... Upon learning that a Catholic nun in Montpellier was a "sect" specialist, I made an appointment with her. The nun... explained her way of dealing with these groups in order to "bring their members on the right path", meaning her path... The fact that she could get there without trouble, led me to believe that I should be able to go.
(…) October 21, 1996, I addressed a letter to the head of the Mandarom, Mr. Gilbert Bourdin, that his disciples (called: "aumistes") call "his Holiness the Lord Hamsah Manarah” (abbreviated: SHM) expressing my intellectual curiosity for his group and seeking permission to study them. I explained in the letter: "I'm a stranger to your belief system and your practices of which I know nothing, and it will be necessary for me to stay outside." This precaution was a response to the recurring reaction of many friends and colleagues who feared I "wouldn’t remain a non-believer for long"… The negotiations with the Mandarom were long, and agreements never seemed to be definitive, requiring my patience... But it was a fatal condition that the Mandarom accepted ethnological investigation, its method and its duration, or the inquiry would not be held... October 1, 1997, I spent my first day on-site... The favourable response received from the CNRS on December 1, 1997 announced that my project on the Mandarom had been ranked second (a tie) nationally.
(…) A monk stopped following me after a few weeks of work on the site... One of the obstacles I encountered was obviously linked to the media campaign which had targeted the Mandarom... Sometimes they still suspected me of being an agent of the General Information, but it became more and more rare... Another obstacle, more objective, was in the initiatory nature of the group because secrets are inherent to any initiation... Access to information was a fight from start to finish in this work.
(…) The ethnological method is to live as much as possible with the people you want to know... When the ethnologist is blue collar, as I really was there, one can easily imagine that I was not an academic as I was treated otherwise because I was perceived otherwise...
(…) There are many texts written on "sects", but for many of them, they have the tendency to repeat each other, apart from the articles and books emanating from sociologists of religion. It dawned on me that deep knowledge of these movements had to be done because few journalists have spent more than a few hours in the "sects" they're talking about. The debate is so passionate that one can write a book and publish it, because it sells well, without having ever set foot in the group about which it claims to have knowledge. Scientifically this is obviously unacceptable, and it seemed to me that this work had to fill a gap... So I began this study in a naïve way, disregarding what the media or the general public, whose purpose can sometimes be suspected to create a scandal rather than tell the truth... But abstraction of common sense, that which is understood, is not easy when it is also a mediatized topic. My friends and some colleagues shared their comments, advising my wife to watch me, testing me constantly to see if I was staying far from belief, asking me if I was not witness to the Mandarom of rapes, drugs, embezzlement, ensuring that I didn’t become ascetic, etc... As soon as I started this research, I was constantly on the defensive, ostensibly showing the drugs I was using to demonstrate that I was treating myself with allopathic remedies, not missing an opportunity to exhibit my disbelieving character, etc.
(…)The lack of intellectual enthusiasm for these groups, that seem to disrupt society is surprising... I regret that currently I am the only ethnologist in France who has studied what is called a "cult" using the method of this discipline, i.e. immersion in the study group... What we think we know about "cults", at least in the case of Mandarom, is based on speeches emanating from ascetics, and sometimes strongly stimulated by associations who have personal interests. All this is based on passionate debates so that we can give them credit. Even if the words of former followers are very interesting and should be allowed, we should also analyze them and not take them as systematic and absolute truths.
(…) Given the number of “sects” and the intensity of the debate on this issue, it is really very surprising that the State—which was concerned by the question of ostentation and recurrence—would suggest any research on these groups... I was sometimes asked if the Mandarom really deserved to be studied, adding: "their guru is crazy and his followers too."... But once I confirmed this merit, they would say: "They are all crazy!", have we gotten anywhere? What is more interesting is why one calls the followers of Mandarom “crazy”...To perpetuate the idea of madness before any scrutiny of the issue, is to discredit them in advance without any possibility of reflection.
(…) Working on a subject as sensitive as this one, the question of how to label is of first importance... The words are often polysemous, and where we think we express one meaning, the other can hear another. In this case, the words 'cult' and 'guru '... The struggle to label concerns especially the group as a whole: is it a cult and what does this word mean exactly?.. .saying today that a group is a cult, is stigmatizing them, or even criminalizing... Objectively, Mandarom set up a priesthood, rites, a body of beliefs, a dogma, and it relates to the divine, all of which require talking to a religious group, and more precisely a fringe religious group.
For Part II of the Mandarom story please click here