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Scientology takes hold in India

A controversial religion has gripped India with its business principles and self-help routine.

Anti-scientology protesters
Anti-Scientology protesters demonstrate on the streets during opening night of the play "All My Sons" starring actress Katie Holmes in New York, Oct. 16, 2008. Katie Holmes and her husband Tom Cruise are both Scientologists. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — In India, where the most popular psychology books include such titles as “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “Who Moved My Cheese,” there's a new self-help guru in town: Scientology.

Founded in 1954 by United States science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is the religion of Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Isaac Hayes, claiming a worldwide membership of 12 million.

Ironically, however, in a country overcrowded with religions and beliefs, Scientology has taken a different approach: it's being taught as a business tool. With 19 "technologies," each focusing on a different area of life, Scientology courses give advice on business, disaster management, communication, the art of selling, even marriage and family. Scientologists, while not offering a direct explanation of what exactly these technologies entail, claim to have the best how-to manuals you'll ever need.

Branches are called "Churches of Scientology" in the West, but in India the words church and mission are curiously missing. "I don't think Scientology has anything to do with religion," said 25-year-old Meenu Raina who remains true to her Hindu faith. A graduate in environmental sciences, Raina has taken seven of the 19 courses, as she looks for a job in Pune. "Scientology has made me a better person, and while most of us know the rules to a good living, the courses have helped me want to implement those rules in my life."

The rules don't come cheap. A pamphlet received by this reporter offered an introductory seminar and "free" book for Rs 750 (approx. $16). Others have been charged anywhere from Rs 980 (approx. $21) for four hours of training to Rs 12,600 (approx. $270) for Hubbard's lecture packs. Booklets pertaining to each of the 19 technologies have been printed in several Indian languages, and are reportedly "selling like hotcakes."

Australian Scientologist and trainer Marion Whitta, however, says all her seminars are free and the only charge to the participants is the Rs 60 ($1.20 approx.) for the booklet. Raina confirmed that she paid only for the booklets provided.

In the last six years since Scientology came to India, approximately 5,000 Indians have become members, according to estimates. Centers exist in several cities across the country, including the capital New Delhi.

"We are not trying to convert people to Scientology," said 58-year-old Whitta. "We are giving people a technology, teaching them life skills. [Scientology] helps a Hindu be a better Hindu, a Muslim be a better Muslim. We're not, at the end of the course, giving them a certificate saying you are now a Scientologist."

Whitta, who came to India five years ago, started working in Melbourne's Scientology center in 1974, and then moved to Los Angeles, which is home to Scientology's headquarters.

"There are members, specifically people who sign up on a membership, and we do have centers," she explained. "But what I'm doing here is running a tour. We train hundreds, thousands, within a very short span of time. Many of these people then use the technologies. Whether they call themselves Scientologists at the end of it, I don't know."

But while controversy hasn't yet followed Scientology to India, it's well and kicking around the globe. A 1991 article in TIME magazine called Scientology a "thriving cult of greed and power." According the article, "eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, were sent to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations." The church has also been investigated by the Internal Revenue Service.

More recently, in October 2009, a Paris court convicted the Church of Scientology and six of its members of organized fraud and fined it almost $1 million, though stopped short of banning it outright. Unlike the U.S., France regards Scientology as a sect, not a religion. Other countries in Europe remain skeptical of it as well.