Spiritual development and salvation, 101

John Doe

What do you make of this image? Chances are, not much. But to the followers of Allatra, a new-age religion originating in Russia, this orb-shaped light is nothing short of a miracle. What could have easily been mistaken as glare from a headlight is actually an unprecedented accomplishment, the first depiction of that elusive and mysterious substance, toil of philosophers and prize of theologians: it’s a picture of the human soul.

Snapshots of the spirit are just one of the many mystical realities offered to this religion’s adherents. Others include the true interpretation of major religions, the nature of the afterlife, and deliverance from suffering and worldly strife. The very fundamentals of spirituality, in other words, stand open and ready for the taking.

I’m drawn to all things eccentric, from flat earth conventions to pagan pride festivals, so when a well-placed flier tipped me off to this peculiar belief system, I knew I had to check it out. But it couldn’t have prepared me for just how bizarre the experience would be.

“So, is it alright if I put it on the floor?” I asked this question somewhat disingenuously: already a thick brown book was being lowered to the ground. Conditioned by a Muslim upbringing which had prescribed an almost obsessive reverence for religious texts, I was half expecting someone to jump at it — so it was somewhat surprising when the only response I got was muttered indifference.

Here was only one of several twists I would encounter that chilly Sunday afternoon. I was sitting in a bookstore in downtown Royal Oak, chatting with three volunteers from Allatra’s outreach organization: Olga, her mother Juliana, and yet another Olga. Both Olgas, it must be said, were unnaturally beautiful — a circumstance that no doubt helped their cause — and even Juliana, old as she was, was equipped with magnetic charm and elegance.

Not that these women relied on outward appearance alone. Almost immediately they began sharing their extensive knowledge of Allatra’s core tenets, most of which were encapsulated in that curious brown book, a text whose opening pages promised nothing less than “fundamental knowledge about the world and the human being”.

The book in all its glory

The teachings contained in its 600-odd pages had had a transformative effect on the women. Olga #2 told a triumphant story about overcoming a drinking problem, and Juliana said that she was inspired by the book’s anti-materialist stance to disavow her fondness for handbags and complete a 300-day no-shopping challenge.

A bottle of scotch and a Vera Bradley purse: both of these things are perceived by the followers of Allatra to be insidious manifestations of the ‘Animal nature’, a catch-all phrase for the worst aspects of mankind. Self-development can only be accomplished when we follow our ‘spiritual vector’, away from the vain and distracting impulses of the Animal nature and towards the limitless love of an Eternal God.

Far from being confined to the individual, the Animal nature has also extended its unwelcome vice-grip on society at large, resulting in a prevailing consumerist culture which distracts us from spiritual development. To illustrate this point, a wide-eyed Olga #1 made a connection between Adam and Eve’s apple and the Apple of Steve Jobs — noting that the first Macintosh computers were sold at a price of $666.

A curious claim that I had neither the time nor the inclination to look up. But when I asked the ladies whether they had iPhones, they both nodded at me, and to their slight annoyance I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I guess we’re all a little guilty of subscribing to the consumerist culture.

Successful tech company, or villainous foe?

To the person — follower of Allatra or not — who develops themselves spiritually and resists the multifarious manifestations of the Animal nature, their abode in the afterlife will be a self-effacing and blissful communion with God not unlike the Buddhist conception of nirvana. Here lies the ultimate attainment of humanity, a goal that underlies the teachings of all world religions and towards which our souls are naturally drawn.

After a while, we were joined by another volunteer named Jason, an intense encyclopedic fellow who had served in Afghanistan and practiced kung-fu. His contributions to the ongoing discussion were bold ventures into psychology and quantum mechanics — the latest findings of which, he adamantly claimed, validated the ideas of Allatra perfectly.

At one point, Jason’s gaze met a nearby bookshelf, and spotting a copy of Dale Carnegie’s infamous guide How to Win Friends and Influence People, he scoffed loudly. When I asked about this peculiar reaction, he waved his hand and said “false knowledge” — evidently, he wasn’t a fan of the self-help genre.

Soon a couple passed us by as they walked into the bookstore. Olga #1 looked up at them enthusiastically, gesturing to the large poster next to us and exclaiming, “Here’s a picture of the human soul!” The man was incredulous, but played along. He smiled and demanded, “Says who?”, causing his wife to laugh.

“It enters the body on the eighth day of life” she continued. I couldn’t help but interject here. “So a 5-day-old baby…” I tried to convey the absurdity of her claim, which I thought was self-evident, by trailing off inquisitively. But she turned to me with an unflinching smile, finishing my sentence: “…is really more like a monkey!”

A page from the book describing the origin of the ‘Allatra sign’

It was soon revealed that our new interlocutors were also Muslims, hailing from Palestine, and Jason was quick to showcase his extensive knowledge of the faith. He spoke of the Quran’s warning against the shaytan — Arabic for Satan — and a mysterious reference in the text’s final chapter to al-khannas, a demon who ‘whispers in the hearts of men’.

As Jason explained, the closest thing Allatra has to demons are so-called ‘subpersonalities’. For those whose self-work wasn’t sufficient for nirvana, their underdeveloped consciousness lives on as unwilling hitchhikers in the body of another human. Any given person, therefore, contains multiple of these subpersonalities, which are prone to intermittent flare-ups in the form of inexplicable bad moods and self-defeating tendencies.

“So it’s important to remember”, Olga #2 noted, “that when you have negative thoughts, they’re not coming from you! You have to ignore them and focus instead on your spiritual side.” A somewhat schizophrenic notion to be sure, but still admirable.

After about half an hour our Palestinian guests left, and I followed soon after. Of course, they wouldn’t let me leave before I was given a copy of that notorious brown book. “I hope it benefits you” I was told — by which of the Olgas I’ve since forgotten — and despite how strange a time it was, I took that in the most sincere way.

Whoever is guided is only guided for his own soul — and whoever errs only errs against it. So says the Quran, the holy text of Islam, but this might as well serve as the slogan for new-age religions too, a great many of which are based on personal development and self-improvement. We shouldn’t forget, for example, that Scientology —controversial as it is today— started out as a systematic and even somewhat promising self-help program (auditing being a dialectical process not unlike therapy).

In other words, new-age religions are decidedly pragmatic. The would-be-adherent stands to ‘unlock their full potential’, take control of their life, and reach heights that were otherwise closed off by negative thoughts and emotions. In turn, individual changes bring societal ones: a brave new era of harmony, justice, and social order is promised to the new-age community, making their attempts to proselytize a form of utopia-building.

A self-help program turned cult

Allatra was no exception to this rule. It prescribes to its adherents a strict regimen of self-development and awareness, warning them against their worst nature and encouraging them to enjoin towards others in truth and good-will. Yes, their discussion of body-trapped spirits, life energies, and zombie-babies was a bit eccentric. But from what I could ascertain by meeting a few of its members, it was clear that the guiding theme of this religion was empowerment and upbuilding.

This no doubt contributes to the conviction with which its followers profess the religion. There is nothing more certain than an idea that lends us clarity of thinking and transforms our lives for the better. To any decent and kind-hearted person, the tools for their own growth are shared with others enthusiastically.

So although it finds bizarre expressions in the otherworldly language of subpersonalities and soul-energies, Allatra is nothing less than an iteration of a simple and timeless principle: that an earnest desire for learning and self-development is among the highest goods that humans should strive for.

That, of course, plus a couple wacky beliefs sprinkled into the mix.

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Farid Alsabeh

Farid Alsabeh

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