January 10, 2004

Cults: Idealism or Insanity?

Most of us harbour Utopian desires despite reading of the negative Utopia of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four‘. And that being so, shutting the door on someone who offers us the opportunity to realise idealistic dreams and desires in a confusing an often, confused world becomes almost impossible.

However, most cults simply take control of the lives of their members by enveloping them in a ‘loving-caring-sharing’ atmosphere, and providing ready-made answers to complex questions. And what’s sad is that the ‘loving-caring-sharing’ atmosphere often simply disappears into thin air, as a British national who had come to India once complained. He had joined a well known cult, only to find that the moment he developed jaundice, the members of his cult promptly abandoned him. They were supposedly his ‘brothers and sisters’.

Needless to say, instead of taking the first flight home with memories of a ‘mystical and magical’ India, he left after learning ‘not to trust a sadhu in Adidas shoes’, to borrow a phrase Gita Mehta used in ‘ Karma Cola’. This strange thing though, is that the gentleman is probably one of the luckier ones.He learnt that in many cults today, commercialism has become so important that the main aims of the cult are set aside for its benefit.

A law student who happened to bump into some members of a religious cult describes his experience. ‘I met them on a train. First they latched on to my roommate and they discussed life, the universe and everything else for about three hours. At the end of it he found his wallet 150/- bucks lighter for one of their books. I snickered and called him a sucker and other such terms. Then they turned on me but I was ready for them. They tried to turn on the old mantra but and I countered them with ‘objectivism’, ‘postmodernism‘ and such like high-flying theories. I was enjoying myself because they seemed to be at a loss for what to say next. I was congratulating myself on victory, but then, inexplicably, at the station I found myself sporting a string of newly acquired wooden beads around my neck that had cost me a hundred rupees (and they actually wouldn’t have been worth more than twenty). Oh how my friend laughed and what names he called me. The beads now adorn my bed post, unloved and unused. I don’t know what to do with them.’

One allegation that has been levelled against most cults is that they brainwash their members. Considering that members of cults often incessantly spout unconventional theories with the faith of fanatics, it’s hardly surprising. Consider this one from the owner of an advertising agency: ‘The aim is to use transcendental meditation to achieve bliss and a state of mind called ‘no mind state’ in order to unleash one’s individuality. The individual self on one hand and the mind, thought and ego on the other assume a master/servant relationship and when the master forgets that he is the master the servant becomes strong. Therefore it is important to drop one’s conditioning to attain self-realization.’

Getting out of such situations is never easy. Some families of cult members resort to kidnapping and ‘de-programming’ the individual. This is, however, does not guarantee ’success’. And so, many other families, like that of a North Indian girl I heard of who was ‘missing’ for years and finally surfaced in a cult, choose to do nothing at all. This family, for example, simply hopes that some day she will develop misgivings about her beliefs and her sheltered existence, and leave.
However, leaving a world of fantasy and getting to the real world is difficult. But what is probably an even greater challenge is to create suitable and constructive outlets for one’s idealism.