The Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual practice started 80 years ago in colonial India by a wealthy Hindu businessman that now claims 1 million regular members worldwide, is looking to expand on Long Island.
The group, which founded its North and South American center in Great Neck in 1992, now hopes to open another center in Suffolk County, said Sister Anjani, a teacher at the center.
That would help accommodate group members who travel from Suffolk to Great Neck for classes and meditation sessions, she said. The group has not selected a site.
The organization, which is open to anyone but since its founding has put women in charge, says that it seeks to create an inner world of peace, love and happiness amid an outer world often filled with stress and strife. Group members meditate every day at 4 a.m. for 45 minutes, and later attend classes.
"I think they are a really fascinating phenomenon," said the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, an umbrella group of churches from all denominations. "Just the fact they had a founder who decided that women should lead the movement I think is really rare."
The Great Neck center, called Global Harmony House, offers courses in raja yoga meditation, positive thinking, stress-free living and anger management.
Many say they find a peace there that they find nowhere else. "You enjoy that moment of true bliss," said Vida Sookram, 43, a hospital administrator from Queens who frequents the center. "You forget about what is on the outside. It's a beautiful meditation for me in my life."
The Brahma Kumaris, which means "daughters of Brahma" in Hindi, honors some Hindu traditions and beliefs, such as reincarnation and adherence to a vegetarian diet, but it is distinct from that religion. For instance, it recognizes only one deity -- the Supreme Soul -- while Hindus worship thousands.
The group's presence in the United States is tiny: Up to 5,000 people, including 500 or so in the New York metropolitan region, regularly participate in activities, said Anjani, who prefers that her last name not be used. Other centers locally are in Manhattan, near the Empire State Building, and in Elmhurst, Queens. They also run a retreat center in the Catskills called Peace Village.
The group has no formal membership, charges no dues or fees and relies on donations to operate.
Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck), who has known the Brahma Kumaris for more than four years, said she visits the center occasionally and group members visit her office. She thinks they are a calming influence and "a model for other people for how to behave."
"I find them to be excellent partners in the community," Schimel said. "I'm pretty high-energy. Sometimes I need to bring it down a notch. When I go there, they seem to know that."
The movement's focus on female leadership dates to its origins. In 1936, founder Dada Lekhraj Kripalani, a wealthy 60-year-old jeweler, had a series of visions about "the nature of the soul, of God and of time." He gave up his business and spent the remaining 33 years of his life teaching and sharing these visions.
By 1937, he had put eight women in charge of the movement, and the next year turned over all his property and money to them.
That, together with the group's assertions that women had the right not to marry and that married women could choose a celibate life, set off protests in patriarchal India.
"Young women were saying, 'I prefer to follow this spiritual path than you marry me off to someone I don't know,' " said Erik Larson, a leader of the Great Neck center. "It was quite dramatic."
The group persevered and its feminist stance continues today, though men also can hold leadership positions.
Anjani, who devotes herself full time to the movement, is among members who wear all-white clothing as a symbol of the purity they seek. They also spurn alcohol, tobacco and nonprescribed drugs.
Among the Brahma Kumaris' other practices is an encouragement of celibacy, saying it helps people focus on their spiritual journey.
"It's a commitment that you make to yourself," Larson said. "It is something that allows you to have clarity of the mind and deeper experiences. It's not a limitation, but actually a kind of platform to build from."
Members also believe the world moves through 5,000-year cycles, punctuated by a 100-year "transformative" period in which the planet will experience massive destruction, followed by a rebirth.
Many followers engage in the 4 a.m. meditation in their homes, though Anjani does it at the center along with other adherents. After that, there is a 6 a.m. class in which the faithful listen to and reflect on readings from the movement's founder, known as Brahma Baba. Weekends bring other meditation and reflection sessions, which typically draw about 150 people.
The predawn meditation session is a special time for members, said Larson, who grew up Roman Catholic and graduated from Notre Dame University.
"The world, the souls, are silent," he said. "Most of them are sleeping. The atmosphere is a little clear. It's a very quiet time, a still time without other energy, vibration."
Larson said some Great Neck neighbors were skeptical of the group when they first moved in to the mixed residential-commercial area, but those suspicions have long since vanished.
Schimel called the Brahma Kumaris "lovely neighbors."
Indu Jaiswal, of Garden City, a leader of the Indian and Hindu community on Long Island, said the Brahma Kumaris are viewed by many Hindus as "very welcoming. They're a nice group. They do a good job."
Kala Iyengar, a pediatrician who runs the upstate retreat center, said their spirituality helped save her from burnout as a doctor in Queens and continues to help other medical professionals she knows who are in high-stress positions.
"It's very practical and very necessary," she said. "This is like a natural high."
Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization
Founded in 1936 in colonial India by Dada Lekhraj Kripalani, a wealthy businessman raised as a Hindu.
They say they aim to foster a person's "spiritual reawakening," and focus on the soul or spiritual being rather than the material and physical.
The group has about 8,500 centers in some 120 nations. One of three separate campuses at the headquarters in Rajasthan state, in west-central India, can house 15,000 people, hold 20,000 people in its auditorium, and serve 25,000 meals three times a day.
Part of the New Religious Movement, composed of about 800 groups in the United States that were founded over the last century or so. Most are small in number.
First arrived in the United States in the mid-1970s. In 1992 bought a closed Christian Science Church in Great Neck and turned it into Global Harmony House, its North and South American headquarters. The number of centers nationwide has grown from about a dozen in the mid-1990s to nearly 35, according to Sister Anjani, a teacher at Global Harmony House.
An international, nongovernmental organization recognized by the United Nations, the group has worked with governments, police agencies, schools, hospitals, prisons and businesses around the world.
Locally, participants are founding members of the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum and have presented workshops at The College at Old Westbury and Adelphi University, among others.