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Death of Gilbert Bourdin (Hamsah Manarah), Leader of the French Aumist Religion of the Mandarom - Controversy About Bourdin's Burial in the Disaffected Cemetery of Castillon

Gilbert Bourdin (1923-1998), aka the Lord Hamsah Manarah, the founder and leader of the French Aumist religion, died at the Hospital of Grasse, France, on March 19 at 8 a.m.

The name of the Aumist religion comes from the sacred Eastern sound AUM, the only common element with the Japanese Aum Shinri-kyo. Bourdin was a native of French Martinique. In 1961 he was initiated by the Indian master Sivananda in Rishikesh (later, he received other initiations, inter alia by the 16th Karmapa) and started gathering followers as an ascetic practising austerities in Southern France. He also became quite well-known as a yoga teacher and author of some 22 books (some of them translated in several languages). In 1967 he established the Association of the Knights of the Golden Lotus (replaced in 1995 by the current Association of the Triumphant Vajra) and in 1969 he founded the holy city of the Mandarom. Gradually, Bourdin revealed himself as the Messiah: the Lord Hamsah Manarah. In 1990 he was publicly crowned as the Messiah at the Mandarom; some of the ceremonies were open to the media. At that time the movement hoped to crown the existing constructions at the Mandarom (temples representing all the great religions of the world and huge statues) with a larger Temple-Pyramid, a building of great spiritual and cosmic significance for the Aumists.

The public ceremonies of 1990 were interpreted as an arrogant challenge by the anti-cult movement and the media. The Mandarom with its huge constructions was, simply, too visible. Two TV networks, Antenne 2 and TF 1, started a campaign exposing the Mandarom as a "cultic concentration camp". Among the anti-cult activists emerged militant psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall. He went on record on TV commenting, about Aumism, that "notwithstanding what they claim, cults are not religious movements, but rather criminal movements organized by gurus who use brainwashing to manipulate their victims", a nice summary of the anti-cult ideology. The campaign against the Mandarom was largely organized by ADFI, the largest French anti-cult movement, and from 1992 it was joined by an ad hoc ecologist group lead by Mr. Robert Ferrato. The latter claimed that the Mandarom is an offense to the ecological equilibrium of the mountain where it is built and called for its destruction. Anti-cult activists are somewhat taken more seriously in France than in other countries, and even an extreme character such as Dr. Abgrall managed to become one of the two "experts" in the national Observatory of Cults established in 1996.

The Mandarom was raided repeatedly between 1992-1995 by tax and police officers in a military style. ADFI, Mr. Ferrato, and a reporter for the TV network TF1, Bernard Nicolas, played a key-role in making an apostate, Florence Roncaglia (whose mother is still with the Mandarom), "remember" that she had been molested and raped by Bourdin in the 1980s. A complaint was filed in 1994, just before the expiration of the legal delay. Later, other female apostates also "remembered". Based on Roncaglia's complaint, the Mandarom was raided again on June 12, 1995 and Bourdin was arrested. Coincidentially, at the same date the French Council of State should have rendered its final decision on the question of building permission of the Temple-Pyramid. The decision was finally unfavourable to the Aumist Religion. On June 30, 1995, Mr. Bourdin was released and the proceedings against him are still pending. For the Aumists, the fact that the Temple-Pyramid can no longer be built is extremely serious. They are also concerned with the climate surrounding the prosecution against their leader, most recently manifested in October 1997 in the media comments about the criminal procedure against a local politician, Pierre Rinaldi, for alleged corruption in connection with the building of the road leading to the Mandarom.

"There is little doubt -- commented Dr. Massimo Introvigne, managing director of CESNUR -- that the claims the Aumists made for their founder were quite extreme. Generally speaking, claiming to be the Messiah does not make any religious leader particularly popular. The Aumist literature combines Eastern themes and Western esotericism, and it is difficult to distinguish between actual and symbolic claims. For example, it is argued that the Messiah has destroyed millions of devils threatening Planet Earth. These and similar claims are routinely quoted by anti-cultists to ridicule the Mandarom. In short, Mr. Bourdin was an unpopular religious leader, and Aumism is an unpopular minority. This circumstance makes Aumism an excellent case to test religious liberty in France. When a group is protected by its own popularity, there is no need for constitutional or international guarantees".

The scholars who have taken the time to study the Mandarom (others are simply scared away by controversy) have raised doubts about the possibility for Bourdin, had he survived his terminal illness, to obtain a fair trial. These scholars certainly do not suggest that sexual abuse by pastors or religious leaders should be condoned. They agree that it should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. However, the French judges in charge did not seem to be familiar with doubts raised in the United States and elsewhere about belated memories of sexual abuses surfacing after many years in therapy or within the frame of national controversies. In fact, in the last few years, most cases of so-called "recovered memories" have been dismissed by U.S. courts. It is in fact too easy to accuse public figures of sexual abuses allegedly taking place ten or fifteen years ago. Second, the Court of Digne has regarded it as necessary to appoint an expert to investigate "the doctrines and practices of the Mandarom and their connection, if any, with the facts of the case against Mr. Bourdin". A point confirming the dubious objectivity of this proceeding is that the Court of Digne had appointed Dr. Jean-Marie Abgrall as its expert -- not only a militant anti-cultist but an author who had written in a book that Bourdin is "a fraud" and "a paranoid," and that Aumism is a "clownesque caricature of a cult" (Abgrall, La Mécanique des sectes, 1996, pp. 31, 91). The verdict of a similar "independent expert" had been rendered in advance. Finally, irrespective of the personal problems of Mr. Bourdin, one wonders why, in connection with his prosecution, the Mandarom was repeatedly raided, Waco-style, by paratroopers, and a number of members of the movement other than Mr. Bourdin were handcuffed and taken into custody (although no charges were ever filed against any of them).

Scholars are often asked whether there is a risk that groups such as the Mandarom may become involved in violent confrontations with the authorities, or commit mass suicides like the Solar Temple. These questions are now raised again after the death of the leader.Scholars normally answer that the Aumist doctrine is firmly against violence and suicides. This is, however, only part of the story. Writing on the situation at the Mandarom, Italian scholar Luigi Berzano (a professor of sociology at the University of Turin and a Roman Catholic priest) mentioned the sociological theories of amplified deviance (Berzano, "La déviance supposée dans le 'phénomène sectaire': l'exemple de la religion aumiste", in Pour en finir avec les sectes. Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire, Paris: Dervy, 1996: 315-320). According to these theories, the hostile official responses to a movement regarded as deviant may in fact amplify its deviance. In a sense the movement is "deformed" by official and anti-cult harassment. Excessive reaction against a movement, thus, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and may cause the very evil it is supposed to avoid. "It would be appropriate -- concluded Dr. Massimo Introvigne -- to leave the Aumists alone while they try to make sense of what happened and elaborate their grief in symbolic ways. At this stage, further attacks or ridicule by the anti-cultist, the press, or the authorities may have catastrophic consequences".

In fact, anti-cultists have been influential in causing the Prefet of the French region Alpes de Haute-Provence to deny, by a decision dated March 24, 1998, the permission needed under French law in order to bury Bourdin at the Mandarom as he had requested. The Prefet cites possible "troubles to the public order" and also objections by "some important associations" (with the press mentioning among them the anti-cult association ADFI). At that stage it seemed possible that Bourdin would be buried in Grasse (he did not want his grave to be in either Castellane or La Baume, the two cemeteries closest to the Mandarom), although followers still hoped that the Prefet's decision may be reversed. Both Maurice Duval, an ethnologist with Aix-en-Provence's Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l'Homme, and Dr. Massimo Introvigne argued that the public order would be better served by allowing burial at the Mandarom, a comparativey faraway location, rather than compelling the Aumists to carry on the 108 days of ceremonies at the grave of their founder prescribed by their religion in a public cemetery, who will become for them a new pilgrimage site. As if to confirm these concerns, the mayor of Grasse, Mr. Jean-Pierre Leleux, vetoed on March 25 the burial in the Grasse cemetery, scheduled to take place on March 26. In fact on March 26 after Grasse's refusal the body was transported to Castellane and provisionally "deposited" in the local cemetery following a new order by the Prefet. This started a conflict between the Prefet and the mayor of Castellane, Michel Carle, who did not want Castellane's cemetery to become a pilgrimage site for the Aumists. Carle organized a march with some 200 citizens of Castellane (a city largely devoted to tourism and afraid that an Aumist pigrimage to the cemetery may disturb the usual business). Carle and his followers do not want Bourdin buried in Castellane's main cemetery but they say that they are equally against burial at the Mandarom. Carle granted originally a provisional permission for the body to stay in Castellane's cemetery for ten days only, and claimed that the Prefet and the national government shall find a solution. On April 2 Carle informed the Aumists that he will have the body buried on Monday April 6 at the small disaffected cemetery of Castillon, within the common but in an area remote from the city of Castellane, a solution the Aumists and Bourdin's own son particularly dislike. The burial took place in Castillon on April 6 under the protests of both the Aumists and local residents. Burial at the Mandarom is still pursued by the Aumists and would seem the most logical solution. It would not create a new pilgrimage site, since Aumist pilgrims will continue at any rate to visit the Mandarom, where the main holy places of their religion are situated, whether or not their founder is buried there.

The Aumists do no expect to appoint or designate a new leader. They believe that the Lord Hamsah Manarah will be reincarnated, and that they will be able to detect the male infant who will be the next leader as the reincarnated Lord (a procedure similar to the one existing in Tibetan Buddhism in order to designate the next Dalai Lama). They are not sure whether this will happen anytime soon. In the meantime a college of high priests will govern the movement. Elder Aumists will guide the boy to assume his responsibilities as the reincarnated Lord as soon as he will be identified.

More information is available in a paper on the Mandarom read by Dr Massimo Introvigne at CESNUR 1996 conference in Montreal.

Books by or about the Aumist religion are listed in CESNUR library catalog.

Aumist Religion's Own Web Site

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Thursday, April 26, 2007