From Osho to Ram Rahim: What draws crowds to godmen and cults

Apr 14, 2018, 07:55 IST | Heli Shukla and Rupsa Chakraborty

With a documentary series on Osho's Oregon utopia bringing their foregone craze back into the spotlight, mid-day breaks down what draws crowds into the religions of the absurd

Illustration/ Ravi Jadhav
Illustration/ Ravi Jadhav

From Osho to Ram Rahim Insan, godmen and their cults have left behind an outlandish and at times, dangerous and unlawful legacies. With a documentary series on Osho's Oregon utopia bringing their foregone craze back into the spotlight, mid-day breaks down what draws crowds into the religions of the absurd

What is a cult?
The word 'cult,' according to the Oxford dictionary, is derived from the French culte or Latin cultus 'worship'. It originated in the early 17th century and originally denoted homage paid to a divinity. The primary definition of a cult is 'A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.' Another way to understand cults is through the BITE (behaviour, information, thought and emotional) model, developed by American mental health counsellor Steven Hassan, which is based on theories about brainwashing and cognitive dissonance, to describe the means employed by cults to recruit and control people. BITE describes how cults modify behavioural aspects such as sexuality and dependence, distort or gaslight information, instil us versus them thoughts and often promote changing one's identity and instil emotional control through irrational fears or showering one with praise and affection.

The types
Eastern: Draw from eastern philosophy from religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism or Sufism and seek to provide some sort of spiritual enlightenment. Example:
Osho Rajneesh's cult.
Religious: Characterised by belief in god or a higher being. The leader of such a cult claims to be a prophet and interprets existing religious scripture. Example: the many godmen and women in India like Ram Rahim Singh Insan, Radhe Maa, etc.
Political, racist or terrorist: Founded on belief to change society, establish racial supremacy, or overthrow of a perceived enemy. Example: Scientology, Manson Family.
Occult: Established on the belief in supernatural powers.
Personality: Led by a charismatic leader, they promote his lifestyle and thoughts. Example: Jim Jones.
(Source: Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias)

Why do people join them?
The reasons behind people joining cults vary, as the choice is often dependant on what one seeks to get out of a cult or brainwashing that urges one to be a part of such a community. There is no way to generalise this choice. However, it has been observed that people join cults to find a purpose in life, escape societal norms they don't agree with, to try and change the world through their different way of living or because they have been brainwashed into being a part of it by a charismatic leader or their persuasive followers. Research has proven that the brainwashing is so effective at times that a lot of people who join cults are unbeknownst to the fact that they are a part of one.

Their characteristics

  • Following characteristics serve as an analytical tool, not a diagnostic one.
  • Unquestioning commitment to their leader – alive or dead — and their teachings.
  • Discouraging questioning or self-doubt.
  • Using mind-altering practices.
  • Dictating thoughts and actions of members/ followers.
  • Polarising mentality with rest of the society.
  • Encouraging living/socialising only with fellow members.
  • Inciting feelings of shame or guilt for influence and control.
  • Preoccupation with bringing in new members and making money.
  • (According to research by Janja Lalich and Michael Langone)

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