Culture

Of Gurus, Cults And The Future

Dera Saccha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh talks to the media in Gurgaon, India. (Sunil Saxena/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Why we must not allow the guru phenomenon to degenerate into a cult phenomenon.

The violence that erupted in Punjab and Haryana is more than unfortunate. It provides a dangerous precedence and brings out a disturbing development in our society. Just looking at the way masses have come out in support of a fallen baba, one finds that there is something fundamentally wrong here. There are angry young men, crying housewives armed with household weapons and agonising men, who could well be fathers and husbands inside their houses. In short, they can be just you and me.

What has made them so violent over the dispensation of justice? More importantly, even when taking into account the possibility of the movement itself clandestinely planning a violent show of strength, what made such a large number of people so dependent on the guru that his arrest seems to make such a traumatic experience that they erupt in such a violence?

Indian guru tradition has always placed the role of guru above the god himself. Once a guru is accepted by a seeker then the guru nurtures the worldview of the seeker. He or she becomes the spiritual mother and father, a guide. This necessitates a total surrender from the seeker. And in this total surrender, there is a great room for the abuse of the seeker as well as the fall of the guru.

The fall of a guru is an important dimension in guru phenomenon. The puranas depict this in the form of rishis regularly falling to the celestial nymphs. The rishi may not desire the throne of Indra, but Indra fears the spiritual austerities of the rishi as coveting his throne. No rishi is immune to the fall even if he has attained what can be called the enlightenment. The throne of Indra is then the symbol of the power of control. When a rishi becomes enlightened even without he or she wanting it, the rishi has the ability to control the destiny of many. And there is the possibility of abuse. The libido can erupt placing both the guru and the seeker in vulnerable position for mutual abuse – the guru using his place of authority and the seeker giving in and perhaps later emerge to control the guru himself.

Hence the path to become an enlightened master gets tested through the celestial nymphs – demanding sublimation of the libido. Whenever a rishi gives into his libido, he slips and then does penance and re-emerges. The puranic narrative of Viswamitra shows the testing of an emerging guru in a detailed manner.

Hindu calendar art: Celestial nymph Maneka dancing before Viswamitra Hindu calendar art: Celestial nymph Maneka dancing before Viswamitra

Unfortunately, we have not used this puranic framework to understand our guru phenomenon, which has often lead us to endure abuse and lead us to willing suspension of our rational judgment. The guru phenomenon, which is deep rooted in Indic traditions and the cult movement in the Western religious traditions are separated by a thin yet very important line. Though a clear demarcating line, it is also a fuzzy and blurred one. In the West, the cult movements are mostly rooted in Christian theology, often visions of Armageddon and many of the cultists have their origin in the charismatic evangelical movement.

The difference between the guru phenomenon and the cult movement can perhaps be seen in the temptations we see in the Christian mythology of the temptation of Jesus by Satan, and the temptation of Buddha by Mara. All the temptations, which Satan gives to Jesus are that of temporal power, of making him the king of all that he surveys etc. For Buddha, the Mara gives the visions of the sensual, the beautiful maidens dancing. The difference is very clear: while for the Christian, the temptation is temporal, for the Buddhist, the temptation is sensual. However, there is one Upanishadic narrative of that tests the seeker with both the temporal and sensual temptations. Dissuading and testing Nachiketa, Yama the death offers the seeker both the temporal power over the world and also the celestial nymphs. The temptation offered here is what the gurus of modern world face today.

Temptation of Jesus by Satan; Temptation of Buddha by Mara and Yama tempting Nachiketa Temptation of Jesus by Satan; Temptation of Buddha by Mara and Yama tempting Nachiketa

Curiously, the gurus (both Buddhists and the Hindus) when they fall, it is often in sex scandals, though land grabbing and financial frauds too are not ruled out. In the case of Christian cults, the motivation is often rooted in creating a worldly utopia, though sexual scandals and abuses do happen. A healthy development from all these should demand that the gurus become more accountable and develop as part of the Sadhana, an inner auditing based on the temptations offered to Nachiketa.

A frank initiative has been shown in the eleventh chapter of ‘American Veda’ (2010) by Philip Goldberg. Titled "Sex, Lies and Idiosyncrasies”, the chapter deals with the various sex scandals the guru phenomenon underwent during its heydays in the United States. He writes:

In most of these cases it is unlikely the allegations will ever be proved or disproved. But others are widely assumed to be grounded in fact, since witnesses and participants have come forward with consistent stories. …The reactions of the devotees to the charge against their gurus ranged along a continuum. At one extreme was outright denial… Next to that was spiritual rationalisation: …Some of the faithful adopted a nonjudgmental but loyal position… In the middle of the spectrum were rational and pragmatic responses… The others were devastated.

Then he highlights a real time model as to how to counter this in a positive way:

One institution Kripalu has earned respect for its mature response to its trauma. The secret of Amrit Desai’s dalliances had been festering among close disciples for years, according to a former devotee who compared it to a cancer that had been diagnosed but left untreated. It might never have been exposed at all had the visiting experts who taught at the centre not encouraged the residents to examine their communal dynamics. When the truth came out, friends such as Jungian scholar Marian Woodman helped them to face it head-on. The stunned followers confronted their guru, demanded his resignation, and forced him to publicly confess and make amends. Kripalu’s subsequent success would likely have been inconceivable had they responded with denial or circled the wagons defensively, as other institutions did in similar circumstances.

The problem of abuse and exploitation comes because often Christian-Islamist concept of god is confused with the veneration of guru. Guru is only a tool for the seeker in his or her quest for realisation. The seeker places himself in a very vulnerable position to the guru because he or she completely exposes all inner wounds and vulnerable spots to the guru. The guru is in a position to gain total control of the seeker. There is a great allurement of power in this for the guru. And there lies the trap and fall for the guru.

Jonestown cult mass suicide, left, and Branch Davidians cult goes up in flames, right Jonestown cult mass suicide, left, and Branch Davidians cult goes up in flames, right

In the West we see cults. They have a very long history. Christianity itself started as a cult. It became religion through Roman power. The most destructive cults in recent memory have originated from the vision of apocalypse and Armageddon, which are an integral part of Christian worldview. Jonestown massacre/mass suicide of almost 900 people (1978) was crafted by Jim Jones, who preached ‘apostolic socialism’ – a variant of liberation theology encouraged by the mainstream Church to create militant movements in post-colonial countries.

In 1993, Brach Davidians, a Christian religious group, believing in the second coming of Jesus as being near imminent went up in flames in Texas killing 70 inmates including women and children in an apparent mass suicide after an armed confrontation with law enforcing officials. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ cult (1997) performed a mass suicide with their vision that combined a cocktail of UFO-Armageddon beliefs. Between 1994 to 1997 ‘Order of the Solar Temple’ cult, which aimed at unifying Christianity and Islam, effected mass suicides of more than 25 people.

The only Eastern ‘cult’ which did such a gruesome mass murder was ‘Aum Shinrikyo’. Originally a yoga movement that combined Buddhist and Hindu thoughts, it became a doomsday cult after incorporating in it the vision of apocalypse from the Christian Book of Revelation and prophecies of Nostradamus. Obsessed with Biblical vision of the Doomsday, they struck the Tokyo subway in 1995 with poison gas killing 12 and damaging the visions of 5,000 people.

Another movement that combined the elements of guru and cult was the Rajneesh movement. When in Oregon, establishing their own township, the group got into conflict with local administration as well as Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. In 1983, Jamaat ul-Fuqra, an US and Pakistan-based Islamic fundamentalist group bombed a hotel with a ‘Zorba the Buddha’ nightclub run by Rajneesh group. In 1984, Rajneesh organisation tried to sway local elections by, if had gone undetected, what could have been the largest bio-terror attack in United States history. Rajneesh Chandramohan then Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh pleaded guilty and escaped imprisonment. Then he made a complete image makeover.

Alleging CIA-Christian conspiracies against him he became a genius of pop-spirituality. Today, Acharya Rajneesh alias Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh alias Osho is associated with absolute freedom and not Uzi-wielding private militia and centralised surveillance of every member of the commune – much less a bio-terror attack. Osho commune has also cultivated the art of associating with those in power. In 2004, when United Progressive Alliance came to power, they did not hesitate to offer the project of building meditation hall at Osho Commune of Pune to a little known engineering firm Backops, whose 85 per cent shares were then owned by Rahul Gandhi. Rajneesh (1931-1990) is now well entrenched in the mainstream spiritual legacy of India. Many of the so-called ‘corporate’ gurus today can be considered as ‘Rajneesh-clones’ none of whom, nevertheless could never match his original brilliance.

Rajneesh movement provides a good case study into how a guru phenomenon can transform into a cult and then retract back to become the guru phenomenon in the modern socio-political context.

Hard to associate iconoclastic pop-spirituality of ’Osho’ marketed today, with Uzi-wielding militia of Rajneeshpuram, Oregon in 1980s. Hard to associate iconoclastic pop-spirituality of ’Osho’ marketed today, with Uzi-wielding militia of Rajneeshpuram, Oregon in 1980s.

Now, for the first time in India, we are seeing a massive violent uprising related to the arrest of a guru-cult leader. It seems now with the digital connectivity the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh movement has combined the negativities of both the guru and cult phenomena. And with the possibilities of victimhood narratives that can be supplied by political vested interests (‘Brahminical conspiracy to suppress a subaltern movement’ etc.) what we are seeing may be a start of a dangerous precedent.

At the same time, it should also be said that the movement has stood as an effective barrier against extensive proselytising that has been carried out in rural Punjab among the Sikhs of scheduled communities. Dera Sacha Sauda, under the charismatic Ram Rahim Singh, has reached out to this section of society, which has been otherwise invisible to the rest of the state. The movement has worked where the governments have failed to reach. And it has also acted as a formidable barrier against the resurfacing of Khalistani terrorism and its recruitment among the already discriminated Sikh scheduled communities. The fallen baba has definitely moved millions of his followers to do social service despite his own lavish hypocritical lifestyle.

As a long term solution we need to develop through research in deep psychology and Indic traditions certain protocols to identify genuine gurus for the seekers so that they can avoid abuse, sexual and psychological. We also need to develop strict rules for separating religious movements from power politics. It is one thing for the religious or spiritual movements to help the development of the nation but it is another to dally with political parties offering them the vote bank of their followers in exchange for protection against legal cases. It is true not only for religious movements but also for institutional religions, which curry favour with the political parties in exchange for vote bank. Guru phenomenon is a uniquely Indic decentralised spiritual phenomenon. We will all be big losers if we allow guru phenomenon to degenerate into cult phenomenon.

Right now how to deal with the situation?

Perhaps we can take a leaf out of Kripalu and Rajneesh movements. Punjab cannot afford a big socio-spiritual vacuum, where the movement has made an impact. So now the movement and its humanistic ideals should be separated from the fallen baba. Instead of destroying the movement as a cult of violence, it should be transformed into a movement that brings social harmony, justice and peace.

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