I. Eckankar: The Light and Sound of God
Come to modern form in the fertile grounds of the new age spiritual practices of the 1960s, Eckankar melds its roots in Indian Radhasoami (Olson, 1995, p. 363) traditions with Western religious beliefs. The term Eckankar likely comes from the Sikh phrase Ek Onkar, which means “one God” (Kalsi, 2005, p. 224).Paul Twitchell, the founder of Eckankar, is considered to be the 971st spiritual leader of Eck – also known as the Mahanta, or “living manifestation of God” (Robinson, 2007, ¶ 3). Eckankar claims to be the first religion, from which all others are drawn from, with the unbroken lineage of Mahantas keeping its teachings alive through time. After translation (death), the Mahanta’s soul advances to a higher spiritual plain where they continue to learn and teach, much like the Ascended Masters of Theosophy, as “advanced spiritual beings who once lived on earth” (Chryssides, 2005, p. 442).
Each person has an eternal Soul, “a particle of God sent into the lower worlds (including earth) to gain spiritual experience” (Eckankar, 2003, p. 1). Eckists believe in reincarnation and a karmic cycle, and trust that through conscious spiritual exercise they can reach a state of spiritual enlightenment, both in this life and the next, where they become “Co-workers with God” (Eckankar, 2010, ¶ 6). Soul travel, dream work, and guardian spirits are also important facets of the Eckist teachings.
Eckankar recognizes the validity of other religions as ways to spiritual enlightenment, but says that Eckankar provides “the most direct teachings on the Light and Sound of God” (Eckankar, 2010, ¶ 7), the two pillars of Eckist faith. There is no doctrine of sin, with Eckankar teaching a lesson of personal responsibility, advising that one follow the guidelines established by Richard J. Maybury: “1) Do all you have agreed to do and 2) Do not encroach on other persons or their property” (Eckankar, 2003, p. 6). Membership is renewed yearly, and is estimated at upwards of 50,000 active members in over a hundred countries worldwide (ReligionFacts, 2008, ¶2).
II. Life without Compromises: Queer and Eckist
For this paper, I interviewed Frank Martorelli, the Regional ECK Spiritual Aide (RESA) – or spiritual director – of Washington State, and discussed what it meant to be both queer and spiritual. Frank was first introduced to Eckankar in 1976, shortly after graduating from college. He had been raised Catholic, and felt keenly the dissonance between his personal need for a spiritual practice and his identity as a gay man. Regretfully, Frank distanced himself from the Church. He explored various spiritual teachings, and found a wide array of beliefs which resonated with him. Frank says that “this included the ideas of reincarnation and past lives, karma, out-of-body experience, dreams, visions, meditation and contemplation, intuition, light, sound, spiritual guides and teachers, and others…. and they are all integral to the teachings of Eckankar.”
Through Eckankar, Frank found a spiritual home which he continues to value more than thirty years later. In 1999, Frank was asked to step up to the position of RESA by Sri Harold Klemp, the current Mahanta. Frank describes the honor, saying “[Sri Harold Klemp] was aware that I am gay when he invited me to serve in this position, and it has been deeply humbling to think that, as a gay man, I would be serving in this way. I simply did not grow up with the message that ‘gay’ and ‘spiritual’ were in any way compatible. The [Catholic] church taught that I was an abomination, condemned to hell. To have found a teaching that not only does not espouse this message, but actually teaches the opposite, is a great blessing to me.”
As we continued to discuss what it means to be openly queer and spiritual, Frank mentioned the importance of individual choice and responsibility for followers of Eckankar. He notes that identifying as queer or transgender is seen as a personal decision and that Eckankar “as an organization takes no stance. I know many ECKists who are gay/queer, and also have an ECK friend who is considering SRS. This again is a personal decision, and Eckankar takes no stance either for or against.”
When it comes to gay marriage, though, Eckankar does take a legal stance, albeit one which follows the laws of the local government. Frank elaborates: “In areas where gay marriage is legal, Eckankar allows and performs same-sex weddings. In areas where gay marriage is not legal, Eckankar does not perform same-sex weddings.” Eckankar makes this distinction out of respect for the rules of government. Frank also touched on the fact that not all individual Eckists are accepting of queer people, but that his overall experience as an openly gay man within the Eckankar community has been positive.
When asked if he would recommend Eckankar as a spiritual home for queer people, his response was enthusiastic. “Eckankar is a beautiful spiritual teaching and all are welcome…. No matter who you are, no matter your lifestyle, Eckankar is not here to put any more labels on you. Eckankar is here to help people find their way home to God again. It is a teaching rooted in love, not fear or condemnation. Would I recommend Eckankar to others in our community? Absolutely!”
III. Queer People: Human or Devil? Other Religious Views
The challenges of finding a spiritual home for a queer person can be many, as Frank experienced. In many religions, a person can be seen as inherently sinful simply for identifying as other than heterosexual or cisgendered. Many Christian denominations still believe in ‘traditional family values’ which declare marriage (and, perforce, sex) for any purpose other than begetting offspring and homosexuality as sinful (Woodhead, 2005, p. 340 & 343). Zoroastrianism, while not possessing a doctrine of sin, also places emphasis on procreation being the focus of marriage (Hinnells, 2005, p. 250). Even the Bahá’í faith, a newer religion with strong focus on humanitarian issues, strongly encourages members of the faith to commit to a heterosexual marriage with the aim of procreation (Momen, 2005, p. 427).
By and large, it is not until one approaches religion either from the ancient past or looks at modern developments that one sees a space where it is safe to be perceived as openly queer. Ancient Rome is notable in its laissez-faire attitudes towards homosexual expression (Smith, 2005, p. 79), although its policy changed with the death of the Classical age and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. As Christianity gained a hold on Rome, homosexuality was deemed a sin punishable by death (ReligionFacts, 2005, ¶ 8). In many world religions, having a queer identity became analogous to being at best, a damned soul, and at worst, a willing creature of the Devil. This attitude was prevalent through the late twentieth century, and can still be witnessed in many religions today.
IV. Finding a Spiritual Home in Eckankar
The options of finding a relevant spiritual practice for an openly queer person are more numerous now than ever, although it still remains a challenge within the framework of many modern religions. In closing our discussion, Frank shared with me a passage from We Come as Eagles by Sri Harold Klemp:
Many of us grew up under strict moral codes, both religious and societal. The moral code of the religions taught that love between people of the same sex was very wrong. But with the more open consciousness of today, we find that people of the same sex do love each other, and often more truly than do many people of the opposite sex. So we realize, finally, that love loves, without regard for human opinion and human laws.
Eckankar clearly provides a welcoming atmosphere for queer identified people. Perhaps it is with eyes looking forward to new religions and those that are open to progressive change that some queer people may find the best answer for their spiritual homes. Such religions may be less likely to judge a person on the basis of perceived labels and to accept a person as they are, for who they are – a spiritual seeker.
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Eckankar (2003). About Eckankar: An overview of Eckankar and its teachings. Chanhassen, MN: Eckankar.
Eckankar (2010). Official main site of Eckankar, religion of the light and sound of God. Retrieved Aug 15, 2010 from http://www.eckankar.org/
Kalsi, S.S. (2005). Sikhism: Beliefs. In C. Partridge (1st Ed), Introduction to world religions (p. 224-227). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Klemp, H. (1994). We come as eagles: discover your greatness as Soul. Chanhassen, MN: Eckankar.
Momen, M. (2005). The Bahá’í faith: Family and society. In C. Partridge (1st Ed), Introduction to world religions (p. 427-431). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Olson, R. E. (1995). Eckankar: From ancient science of soul travel to new age religion. In T. Miller, America’s Alternative Religions (p. 363-370). New York: State University of New York Press.
ReligionFacts (2008). Eckankar. Retrieved Aug 15, 2010 from: http://www.religionfacts.com/a-z-religion-index/eckankar.htm
ReligionFacts (2005). Timeline of homosexuality. Retrieved Aug 15, 2010 from: http://www.religionfacts.com/homosexuality/timeline.htm
Robinson, B.A. (2007). Eckankar™ religion of the light and sound of God. Retrieved Aug 15, 2010 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/eck.htm
Smith, C.C. (2005). The ancient religions of Greece and Rome. In C. Partridge (1st Ed), Introduction to world religions (p. 74-88). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Wilhelm, N. (2010). TransEnough lexicon. Retrieved Aug 15, 2010 from: http://transenough.com/2010/01/21/transenough-lexicon/
Woodhead, L. (2005). Christianity: Family and society. In C. Partridge (1st Ed), Introduction to world religions (p. 340-343). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
 SRS: Also sexual reassignment surgery. A term for the surgery or surgeries wherein a person’s physical characteristics are altered to better match their gender identity. (Wilhelm, N., 2010)
 Cisgendered: A person whose assigned gender is synchronous with their gender identity. (Wilhelm, N., 2010)
This paper was written for Theology 301: Comparative Religions, taught by Dr. Lioy at Marylhurst University, Summer 2010.