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organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Notes on the Aumist Religion

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

The need to study Aumism has often been emphasized, because “the Aumist religion is an ideal, living laboratory for examining a number of classic and contemporary theories on religion: the exceptionality of the leader, the routinization of charisma, the institutionalization of belief, the issue of the tomb, the function of the holy city” (Perocco, 2001: 86). It is no coincidence that a detailed ethnological study of Aumism has been conducted in France, and that the publication of its results constitutes not only a valid example of investigation, but also a clear example of the paradoxical difficulties – not strictly methodological, but rather socio-political and cultural – that the scholar (particularly in France) may encounter (Duval, 2002).

Biography of the founder: Gilbert Bourdin

Gilbert Bourdin (1923-1998), better known to his disciples as His Holiness The Lord Hamsah Manarah, was born on June 25, 1923 to a Catholic family in Martinique and left the island in 1956. He chose to surround his autobiography in a veil of inaccessibility; for example, by placing the following sentence in the frontispiece of one of his books: “High tradition demands that one not ‘speak of a holy man’s past’” (Hamsah Manarah, 1995: 9). Nevertheless, he did include a few autobiographical hints in his works, from which one may deduce, first of all, that his childhood and early youth were spent in a particularly hostile family environment (Hamsah Manarah, 1993a: 401-403), seeming to constitute a dramatic existential preface that could provide interesting guidelines in a psychological context. After leaving his family, he studied law, philosophy, economics and medicine, and “after a period of virulent atheism, the youth, by now well-integrated in society, became interested in mystical studies […]. As often occurs to great missionaries, destiny ordained that an event at the age of 28 would reawaken the spiritual flame that burned in him […]. A battle raged in him between his desire to climb the social ladder and his desire to search for the Supreme Divinity” (Hamsah Manarah, 1993a: 405-406).

This turning point in Gilbert Bourdin’s life seems to be connected to his lively interest and involvement in various esoteric and occult environments. He was a member of the Theosophical Society and of the Masonic Grand Lodge of France, he actively participated in Rosicrucian, Martinist, cabbalist and alchemist societies, and also took part in organizations interested in the “Knights of the Holy Grail.” Thus, “through assiduous participation in esoteric groups to which I pay homage, I became aware that there existed a strange world, occult, invisible, populated by afflicted souls, demons, angels, bizarre divinities. […] I began to study all the occult sciences to become more aware of those forces which cannot be seen, but which – secretly – make and unmake the world” (Hamsah Manarah, 1993b: 323-324).

But Gilbert Bourdin’s spiritual search did not end with these esoteric and occult experiences. In the early 1960s, he traveled to Rishikesh, in the Himalayas, and entered one of the most important genealogical lines of Indian gurus to have influenced the West: that of Swami Sivananda Sarasvati (1887-1963, born Kuppuswani Iyer), the founder of the Divine Life Society, as well as author of about three hundred publications with which he popularized yoga techniques throughout the world. On February 13, 1961, at the Swami’s ashram (founded in 1934 at a place now called Shivanandanagar, three kilometers from Rishikesh), Gilbert Bourdin was initiated as a sannyasin (i.e. Renouncer devoted to God) and received the name Hamsananda Sarasvati from Swami Sivananda. Although Gilbert Bourdin’s spiritual journey was far from over, it may be said that Sivananda’s influence on the founder of Aumism was fundamental. After being initiated as a sannyasin, Hamsananda Sarasvati returned to France where, during the winter of 1962-1963, he withdrew to an isolated cave in Vaucluse, and thereafter began to gather disciples to whom he taught yoga. In the years that followed, he began popularizing yoga by publishing eight highly successful books (the first of which he dedicated to the memory of Swami Sivananda), subsequently translated into Spanish, Dutch and Italian (Hamsananda Sarasvati, 1976).

In later years, Hamsananda Sarasvati received other honorific titles and initiations associated with the Hindu teachings of Swami Sivananda Sarasvati, ranging from esoteric Shingon Buddhism to Indian Sufism, from Jainism to Tibetan Buddhism, and to some African religious currents as well. In 1967, he founded the Association of the Knights of the Golden Lotus (replaced in 1995 by the current Association of the Triumphant Vajra), and in 1969 the ashram (holy city) of the Mandarom (near the current Holy City of Mandarom Shambasalem, in Castellane in the Provencal Alps), which combined the first three French centers: Centrom (in Vaucluse), Celestom (a 150 kilometers from Paris) and Anandom (30 kilometers from Marseilles).

If read a posteriori, the 1970s-1980s marked the period that separated the founding of the Mandarom ashram – still spiritually distinct from Hinduism, yoga and meditation – from the birth of the Aumist religion, which more precisely describes this movement from the end of the 1980’s to the present. In this arc of time, as briefly mentioned above, Hamsananda Sarasvati (not yet considered Lord Hamsah Manarah by his disciples) had already conducted an extensive series of spiritual studies, which led him: (1) to participate in esoteric and occult environments; (2) to be initiated as a sannyasin; (3) to experience the austerities of asceticism; (4) to receive his first pupils in meditative yoga; (5) thereby planting the first seeds of his future movement; (6) proceeding in the collation of further religious and spiritual affiliations (mainly of oriental extraction); (7) lastly, creating his own ashram. Thus, one step at a time, emerged what came to be perceived as his mission, aimed at producing a “spiritual revolution” and establishing the “Universal Religion of the Unity of the Faces of God.”

On this premise, we may begin to trace the “step up” that seems, on the one hand, to be based on Gilbert Bourdin as yoga instructor and acknowledged spiritual teacher of a Hindu-derived school, guru, Hamsananda Sarasvati; and on the other: “His Holiness Lord Hamsah Manarah […] the Cosmoplanetary Messiah, the Avatar of Synthesis, merging in Himself all Energies and all Religions. He is Maitreya, the Buddha of Synthesis, who opens the doors to the Diamond Age. He is the Imam Mahdi Manarah, the Unity of the Faces of God. He is the Total Avatar Kalki, Master of the Maha Kundalini. He is Melkitsedeq, who erased all Curses and granted the Great Pardon to the people of the earth. He is the Cosmic Christ, who destroyed the Roots of Evil and of original sin. He is the Adi Bouddha Mirchoan, the Synthesis of all God’s Lights. […] He is the Hierokarantine, Master of the Selection of Souls […], the Great Pontiff of the Cosmic Diamond Order” (http://www.aumisme.org/gb/titre.htm).

But what happened in the interval between these two points in time? This is precisely one of the interpretive difficulties with Aumism as we now know it: Gilbert Bourdin gradually began to interconnect “various prophesies regarding the avatar of synthesis,” (Hamsananda, 1990: 19) until he linked them to himself. Thus, during a lavish ceremony on August 22, 1990 – and in a certain sense at the end of an osmotic process shared, supported and strengthened by his followers – Gilbert Bourdin revealed and crowned himself “Cosmoplanetary Messiah.”

A kaleidoscope of initiatic titles, heterogeneous religious references, forceful proclamations on the founder’s spiritual nature: all seem to confuse anyone who approaches Gilbert Bourdin’s spiritual biography. It would seem useful at this point, therefore, to provide some background information on how the movement freed itself from its original context, and to ask, above all, whether these affirmations have been placed in a context of continuity and tradition.

For such a purpose, given that Gilbert Bourdin’s link to Swami Sivananda Sarasvati’s Hindu lineage is, in my view, absolutely crucial, it must be considered that in the Hindu religion it often occurs that the quality of divine incarnation (avatar) is acknowledged among the spiritual attributes of a guru. In Aumism, the fundamental difference with regard to the attributes acknowledged in Hamsah Manarah is the insufficiently polysemic quality of the term “Cosmoplanetary Messiah,” to the extent that it is linked to a conceptual universe of Judeo-Christian imprint in which avatar and messiah are different concepts.

Moreover, apart from the discussion on the difference between avatar and messiah, I believe that there is – at least conceptually – a thread of continuity between Gilbert Bourdin’s experience in the path of Sivanada, and that it is worth examining. In truth, where Hamsah Manarah reveals himself as “Avatar of Synthesis”, and to the extent that the Aumist religion presents itself as a “Religion of Synthesis”, the essential message of which is a “Message of Synthesis,” there seems to be a strong echo of the eclectic approach of Sivananda, who, not coincidentally, presented his system of yoga as a “yoga of synthesis” (Sivananda, s.d.).

The Aumist doctrine in synthesis

Gilbert Bourdin’s spiritual itinerary thus presents a transition from the Hindu substratum to universalism, which the founder defined as a “spiritual revolution.”

Let us now examine a few of the main doctrines professed by the Aumist religion, according to the twenty-two volumes left by Hamsah Manarah, and apparently based on a dualistic theology and on a cosmology that includes a cyclical theory of time and a relation with other planets and solar systems.

Aumism is presented as the universal religion of the new era (the Golden Age), an active and dynamic philosophy: the “Universal Religion of the Unity of the Faces of God” (authentic dogma of the Aumist movement). The foundations of the Aumist doctrine are summed up in “five Truths”: (1) the truth on death, which is nothing but a change of state; (2) the truth on suffering, suffering arising from the fear of moving forward; (3) the truth on pain, which makes one take giant steps toward God; (4) the truth on evolution, based on a law according to which every being that is born must have, as its purpose, the attainment of a higher level; (5) the truth on the ultimate goal to be reached (Hamsah Manarah, 1991: 43-44).

The essential message of the Aumist religion is eclectic, one of synthesis contained in the sound AUM, which Hamsah Manarah’s disciples consider to be the source of creation, the primordial sound, the sound that gave birth to all other sounds, the first and highest vibration, also called pranava (from prana, vital energy, and va, vehicle), i.e. the driver of energy. In this sense, the three letters of AUM correspond to three principles: the primordial A of the world before the creation (physical level); the U of the creation (mental level); the M of the expansion of creation (spiritual level). Thus, AUM corresponds to the past, the present and the future, and as such propels toward the absolute, destroying ignorance and evil, uniting Heaven and Earth; it is both liberating and liberator, the name of God, symbol of the supreme reality. According to Aumist doctrine, the sound AUM acts differently depending on how it is pronounced: when enunciated aloud it purifies the environment, crystallizes good vibrations and eliminates evil; when voiced quietly it calms the mind, prepares for concentration and promotes healing; when spoken mentally, it helps concentration and meditation.

The concept of reincarnation, linked to the first of the “five truths” (the truth about death), plays an essential role in Aumist doctrine, and Hamsah Manarah dealt with the subject of visible and invisible worlds (including transmigration of souls) by stating that “there are billions of inhabited worlds in intersidereal space, but at different stages of evolution” (Hamsah Manarah, 1991: 13). After death, the soul passes through all levels of the evolutionary scale, from the mineral kingdom to plant, animal and human, finally reaching the Divine (its real nature). In 1985, Hamsah Manarah declared that he had created the Column of Light, an instrument aimed at receiving souls that have left the body, and which currently houses about 620 billion evolving souls. The Column of Light is composed of six arms, each with twenty-one levels of consciousness. Considered an “enormous post mortem university,” it serves to direct the souls and stimulate them in their evolution toward God, integrating the astral world, the celestial planes, the hells and heavens of the various religions, thus promoting the crystallization and perpetuity of the Golden Age on Earth.

To understand this concept, it must be remembered that for Aumists, all worlds are governed by the Law of Cycles. They are born in a Golden Age, but – due to the rebellious nature of the spiritual bodies that inhabit them – soon decline, thus causing the Golden Age to be followed by a Silver Age. In this Age, gurus and Buddhas prefer to rest in artificial paradises rather than act to protect the world. Their refusal to act constitutes one of the ways by which karma is accumulated. Such decline is even greater in the Bronze Age that follows: corrupt science dominates and conquers the lazy hyperborean Silver Age civilization. In this age of science, a tremendous battle breaks out between Lemuria and Atlantis. Atlantis, which is also the hyperboreans’ means of revenge, destroys Lemuria, but in turn is destroyed by a revolt by Nature itself, which is no longer willing to be tyrannized by science. The destruction of Atlantis leads to the fourth age, the Iron Age, dominated by the law of karma, by division, by conflict, and by religion that has transformed itself into superstition. God becomes incarnate in all ages, and in ours He presents Himself on Earth in the person of Lord Hamsah Manarah, who eliminates corruption and superstition from all religions in order to put an end to karma and to the Iron Age, and to hasten the coming of the Golden Age. Since Lord Hamsah Manarah revealed himself as messiah, the law of karma was abolished whereby all souls can be purified and take their place in the Golden Age (or be destroyed if they refuse to purify themselves). It is absolutely certain that the Golden Age will arrive on Earth, because the consequences of the Law of Cycles are inevitable. Nevertheless, accepting or refusing Lord Hamsah Manarah as messiah is important for determining whether the Golden Age will arrive soon or must still be awaited.

A few notes on symbolism

Aumist teachings emerge not only from the doctrine described briefly above: they refer to a complex symbolism as well. From this point of view, the entire Holy City of Mandarom Shambasalem constitutes an effective compendium of the Aumist religion. Mandarom follows a peculiar “holy geography” dotted with monuments which relate to Aumist doctrine. This holy space contains:

      The Lotus Temple (built in 1977, eleven meters high), symbolizing the restored Order of the Cosmic Lotus, and which was the founder’s home during his lifetime.

      The Statue of the Bouddha Maitreya (built in 1981, twenty-two meters high), considered the synthesis of Eastern spiritual energies.

      The Statue of the Cosmic Christ (built in 1987, twenty-one meters high), reuniting Western mystical energies.

      The Temple of the Golden Age Trimurti (1988), receptacle of the holy energies of “Para Trimurti.”

      The Statue of the Cosmic Maria (1989), symbolizing the “Primordial Divine Mother.”

      The Statues of the four Archangels of Aumism (1989), assigned to protect the messiah’s mission.

      The Mosque of the Imam Mahdi (1989), symbol of the regeneration of Islam.

      The Temple of the Column of Fire of the Avatar Kalki (1989), the presence of purified Hinduism.

      The Golden Temple of the Lord Melkitsedeq (1989), representing illuminated Judaism.

The return to the unity of the creator word is represented by the Hexamid, the true symbol of the Aumist religion: a multi-sided pyramid with the colors of the rainbow representing the various religions (natural religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Jainism) that merge at the top in the sound OM, a white light of synthesis.

The presence of these buildings has generated bitter debate and controversy, especially with regard to the Statue of the Cosmoplanetary Messiah and the Pyramid Temple of the Unity of the Faces of God. Aumists assert that the Pyramid Temple of Unity (the construction of which has never begun, although the first stone was laid on August 22, 1992) was on the Earth well before the Great Flood, and aspire to erect it because – it being the most perfect symbol of the unity of man and God – it would allow the reconciliation of humanity.

The iconography and architecture of the Pyramid Temple of Unity, but more generally of the entire Aumist symbolic system – from the existence of Mandarom itself to the Hexamid, from the statues to the temples, etc. – are vitally important to the movement’s doctrine. In sociological terms, one could say that an increase in power of the symbolic element produces an increase in the power of the generalization, with dynamics applicable, among other things, to the formation of the neosyncretist school.

While construction of the Pyramid Temple of Unity is the object of considerable dispute, the matter – tragically concluded – of the Statue of the Cosmoplanetary Messiah, one of the fundamental symbols of Aumism, was a much greater harbinger of bitter conflict. Consecrated on August 22, 1990, this thirty-three-meter high monument erected in the Holy City of Mandarom Shambasalem was considered by Aumists to be the receptacle of the energies of the return of God into matter. Erected with a complex symbolism, the statue represents the Cosmoplanetary Messiah on whose heart gleams a lotus with 1008 golden petals, at the center of which beams the Diamond of the Sublime Patriarch. Erection of the statue quickly set off a violent dispute (Introvigne, 1999), which ended with its destruction by means of military intervention on September 6, 2001.

On the other hand, Aumism is well accustomed to controversies – including the refusal to entomb Gilbert Bourdin at Mandarom after his death on March 19, 1998 – to the point of its being considered a particularly interesting case (especially in France), because it is considered by anti-cult activists, and by an important part of the French media to represent the epitome of “cult.” On the whole, there was a climate of growing tension: “a typical case of exaggerated social reaction” (Berzano, 1996: 318). It was a singular case, however, especially if one considers that the Aumist religion is not a large movement and is nonetheless often described as the quintessence of the “danger of cults.” There was also a lawsuit brought against Gilbert Bourdin by a former member (whose mother still remains a faithful Aumist), who claimed that she was raped by Hamsah Manarah in the early 1980s. The suit led to Gilbert Bourdin’s arrest on June 12, 1995 (the very day on which the French State Council was to rule on whether permission should be granted for the construction of the Pyramid Temple of Unity), and to successive legal consequences.

A religious or esoteric movement?

 On the socialized level, Aumism simultaneously presents itself as a church-like structure and as an esoteric order. At the exoteric level, the Aumist Church – composed of bishops (about one hundred worldwide), priests and priestesses (about three hundred worldwide) – is the structure set up to receive Aumists from among those who have received Aumist baptism. Aumism performs five sacraments: baptism, confirmation, renewal of vows and promises, matrimony, and transition (Hamsah Manarah, 1994).

On the other hand, at the esoteric level, Aumism has its Association of the Knights of the Triumphant Vajra (formerly the Association of the Knights of the Golden Lotus). Aumism cannot really be understood unless one sufficiently emphasizes that it is essentially an esoteric order, much more than a religious order. And as one may easily understand, such assertion forces us to change our perception of what has been said up to now with regard to Aumist doctrines, cosmology and symbolism. But, in perfect “Aumist style,” the reality is even more complex: in fact, the Association of the Knights of the Triumphant Vajra is nothing but “the moral initiatic base […], the exotericism of the Association of the Diamond” (Hamsah Manarah, 1993b: 45). The alliance between the Association of the Knights of the Triumphant Vajra and the Association of the Diamond involves a system divided into twenty-two initiatic steps. To sum up, the Association of the Knights of the Triumphant Vajra is the esoterism of Aumism, and the Association of the Cosmic Diamond is the esoterism of the Association of the Knights of the Triumphant Vajra.

In non-conclusion

As we have noted from this overview of the founder’s spiritual experience, description of doctrines and complex symbolism, Aumism’s original Hindu-based identity was followed by a transition to universalism, in which Christianity and Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, Islam and Judaism blend as a result of the identification of the Cosmoplanetary Messiah, Gilbert Bourdin. This “new recomposition of sense […], of rationality and irrationality, of consciousness, possessed by all new forms of religiosity,” (Berzano, 1996: 319) would apparently confirm Aumism’s definition of itself as a religious movement. At first glance, this analysis would seem to indicate that Aumism is a new form of syncretism, if to this term we attribute the habitual meaning given it by scholars of religion, i.e. the need to conciliate and synthesize differing positions, “processes of symbiosis and fusion among different religious traditions, characterized by the fact that the components in question have been independent for a great length of time and/or are still recognizable and, in all cases, by the fact that their union is not theoretical, but rather the result of a meeting of vital religious forces, able to generate formations destined to endure” (Filoramo, 1993: 703).

It seems, however, that the results emerging from a study of Aumism can be fully comprehended once one correctly understands the importance that esoteric, initiatic, occult traditions play in it, and which constitute the “second pillar” on which Aumism has gradually been built as a separate “tradition” emerging from a pre-existing substrate. One cannot help but note the importance that the esoteric approach to the sacred assumes in Aumism. On the other hand, esoteric study constituted Gilbert Bourdin’s original spiritual experience, and there are references to esoterism in the context of doctrine as well, such references seeming to lead basically to a post-theosophical approach. Moreover, if such observation is true in a historical and doctrinal context, it is no less so when related to a sociographic study of Aumism. In such a study, we discover that from among the approximately 400 current followers (there have been 2000 initiates from the late 1960s to today; in the early 1990s, there were almost twice the number of current members; in 2001, there were 11 resident monks at Mandarom, 23 in the late 1990s, and about 40 in the early 1990s), “56% of members say that they experienced an attraction or performed an esoteric activity […] before discovering Aumism” (Duval, 2002: 155).

The study and observation of Aumism in the above-described context, brings us with increasing awareness to the observation that such a movement seems to elicit from the context that elsewhere I have proposed to call the “esoteric paradigm” (Zoccatelli, 2000). I therefore refer the reader to such a study, specifying that it be placed in the context of a methodological approach aimed at satisfying the need to overcome the current distinction between religious movements and cult movements, because the call to elaborate a criteriology of approach of fundamental types of approach to the sacred, has often been expressed. If, on the one hand, the religious approach does not apparently exhaust relational potentials with transcendent aspects neither, on the other hand, does the initiatic approach seem to be conclusive. Rather, it seems the pars of a genus: the “esoteric paradigm” as a true alternative (as “fundamental type”) to religious reality, especially with regard to a movement such as Aumism, at the center of dispute and controversy for many years, perhaps because “its sin is its very visibility” (Introvigne, 1998: 104).



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