The word cult is derived from the Latin word cultus meaning a group of people who perform certain rituals to cultivate the favour of the gods. This was predominantly used to describe the Jewish faith by the Romans of that era. In modern times the idea of cults survives in a new and often sinister fashion. Think of a charismatic leader with a strong hierarchy, feeding the hopes of many, offering salvation and an egalitarian world. Modern-day cults are exploitative, offering empty rhetoric in place of actual solutions and prey on the weak and suffering. They tend to satisfy the needs of the upper echelon of their organization either monetarily or sexually, often leaving victims in a worse condition than they were found.
Sometimes the word cult is used to describe a phenomenon of extreme and dedicated loyalty like some films have a cult following or a rock band with a cult following, say The Beatles. While the idea promotes the level of passion, cults inherently have a negative connotation, a common example would be chocolate being sinfully exquisite or the ice cream being wickedly tasty. We understand these terms in context but when it comes to cults we are often uninformed which is why it also becomes hard to identify and differentiate them. Then why then do these cults form and what are the tactics they use? This article was written to explore these ideas with the negative connotation of the word cult in mind.
How is a Cult Started?
The cult always has a leader, a charming, narcissistic one who manages to garner support for himself through a loyal base, promising answers to difficult questions like death, the meaning of life, the secret of success or some other fanciful notion. They thrive on the hopes of frustrated individuals and give them answers possible only in an alternate hypothetical reality which these cult members strive to achieve.
For example, they offer wealth, safety from disease and judgement, polygamy and free unfettered access to orgies and other attractive benefits.
The loyal base then functions like a pyramid scheme gathering more followers and then the cycle of exploitation begins. Critical thinking (questioning the motives and cause-consequence system of things) is forbidden, leading to members being in a perpetual state of denial (as they feel loved, wanted and approved of, by a group of like-minded individuals who have “seen the truth”) and cognitive dissonance (the painful mismatch in your head about what your rational brain expects or what is logical versus the external doctrine fed to you) and unwilling to admit the exploitation. Guilt, shame and peer pressure are tactics used to keep the members in check and elevate the leader to almost god-like reverence. The cult often targets family, friends and coworkers who find it difficult to refuse the invitation and post this, the indoctrination begins.
While most cults masquerade as new age religions, they are often not just restricted to religion. They have a political agenda behind them as well. Some are therapy-based or focus on self-improvement offering little to no useful content but just enough to keep the followers wanting more. In the era of internet-based communication systems, geographical boundaries no longer restrict the reach of these cults who have taken enthusiastically to promoting their ideologies across the world wide web. These present a danger to bullied kids online and other vulnerable groups and may cause irreparable damage stunting both psychological and emotional growth of individuals.
Classic Cult Examples from History
The dangers of cults don’t end there, there are those who promote polygamy like the FLDS cult under Warren Jeffs and others who twist religious beliefs into a perverted mess of morality promoting orgies and drug-fueled rampages, but the grizzliest case was in 1978 when Reverend Jim Jones and 909 men, women and children drank juice laced with potassium cyanide. Other incidents include the Tokyo station incident by the Aum Shinrikyo where toxic nerve gas was released, the mass suicides of 39 members in 1997 in the Heaven’s Gate group, the deadly standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians in 1993 killing 75. The Family International has been accused of severe child abuse and similar trends continue world-wide. An example closer home would be Rajneesh aka OSHO, the sex guru whose followers orchestrated a mass food poisoning attack in Oregon in 1984 as well as an aborted assassination attempt .
The Cult Ideology
In some sense, the cults preach a doomsday variance and offer absolution to its members. They all, however, preach some extreme ideology, political, religious, or otherwise and demand absolute loyalty. In reality, they are simply redefining good and evil to suit their own purposes. The danger with subjective morality is that you can justify anything as long as it suits your needs and purposes. One need for moral objectivity hence can be found in the dangers of a cult. They re-purpose what is good and twist it in the name of God and take advantage of the disillusioned and this is a terrible business. As humans, we long for community and isolation while in small doses and with purpose is beneficial, prolonged loneliness is dangerous making one vulnerable to join any organization offering solace. This adversely affects the individual because the demands of the organization requires them to relinquish free will for “the greater good”.
Some break out of cults on their own, but a majority remain, till the cult collapses or some external agent like the law or a family member take action. It’s sad to see people we love, beguiled and seduced through direct and indirect means of brainwashing, influence and control into joining and remaining in a cult. Some argue the same about organized religion making the comparison that cults over time become a religion. Cults, however, emphasize hierarchy and suppression of tolerance and are based on empty vague references rather than evidence. While they bear a striking resemblance to organized religion, they are far more sinister and exploitative, requiring excessive devotion, often to the detriment of the individual. Another striking difference is that organized religion has integrated itself quite well into the fabric of society as we know, while cults remain in isolation and promote such thinking to keep their members enslaved.
Cases of cults in India are numerous as well. Most involve self-styled god-men who prey on the needs of the masses, who seek some respite from their socio-economic troubles. While some turn to conspiracies, others turn to cults seeking answers and freedom from pain. The practice remains abhorrent, and hard to distinguish from genuine help but like most things in life, if it’s too good to be true, well, it’s often a trap. We all want a free lunch, but nothing in life is truly free, every action you take has a consequence and while for some you may not pay the price immediately, it does come around eventually. In an even worse case, you don’t pay but someone else eventually ends up paying the cost. That’s the truth of life.
Think Outside the Cult
The solution to this doesn’t present itself easily. Every situation is different and requires a unique approach to dealing with increased isolation and disillusion of an individual. While cults may not be the answer, they do promote what the need of the hour is, a community.
On one hand, it requires immense effort in the midst of pain and suffering to recognize the path which will eventually lead to some good and resist the temptation to take the easier route out.
On the other, it’s also a product of our failure as a civilization globally to recognize the needs and sufferings of a fellow individual. We have all been given to the false notion of every
man for himself, rather, it is through cooperation and loving each other as a community of like-minded individuals can we have any hope of equitable growth, sharing in the larger pie than fighting for the crumbs that fall. This solution itself is bleak and doesn’t offer a proper guideline because there isn’t one.
The efforts to fight cults begin at the level of an individual who can offer a comforting word or two to his fellow in need.
They also manifest at the community level where discrimination needs to be handled to provide a unique niche for every individual and at the level of the government to maintain checks on the activities of groups in a passive, even self-reporting manner, or promoting some form of proactive engagement whereby rates of exploitation can be kept in check.
The onus, however, lies heavily with the individual to love his neighbour as himself. A hard task, but one we are all called to do.
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