Cults, religious sects are not a thing of the past

The tragic and inglorious end of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, Osho’s Rajneeshpuram, Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and other such associations across the world by no means implies that cults are a thing of the past

Sonal Matharu February 09, 2019 05:00:09 IST
Cults, religious sects are not a thing of the past

Cults, religious sects, call them what you want, mock them as much as you want, but they are here to stay. The tragic and inglorious end of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, Osho’s Rajneeshpuram, Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and other such associations across the world by no means implies that cults are a thing of the past.

By the early 1980s, research on cults had branched out to almost all fields. The researchers were trying to understand what led to the boom of these so-called ‘religious sects’ in the 1960s and 70s. From digging the social, financial and emotional background of those who joined cults to accounts of grieving parents, ex-cult members and de-programmers, studies were assessing if cults provided a meaningful alternative to those looking to break free from conventional religions.

In India, the ashrams of Rajneesh — better known as Osho — continue to thrive 28 years after his death. The Peoples Temple, which started as a charitable organisation and ended with mass suicide, continues to be a hot topic as former members relive it in the media through their stories, books, movies and interviews.

In July 2018, the founder and 12 other leaders of Aum Shinrikyo, the Doomsday cult that released Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, were executed. But the cult lives on in the form of multiple splinter organisations that recruit close to 200 youth every year, writes Rohan Gunaratna, head of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore.

Unlike street corners and obscure towns, professional associations, academic institutions and the Internet are the favoured hunting grounds of new-age cults emerging with similar agendas and new names, writes Janja Lalich on her website Cult Research.

A few fundamentals remain unchanged. The cults offer a liberating, revolutionary path to religion, often through spirituality, and project their utopian communes as a haven from a conflicted, troubled and an unequal society. They provide a new perspective with which to view the social world and attract the lonely, anxious, troubled youth who feel trapped in orthodox social constructs.

People join these cults willingly, firmly believing in the idea to which they choose to submit. The feeling that they matter and are devoting their lives to the larger good under a divine, charismatic leader is a promising start.

Once concretised, these sects create a moral panic with its basis in reality, say James Richardson and Massimo Introvigne in their 2001 paper on Journal for the Scientific Study on Religions. They add that a sect is then integrated by providing a common enemy. And to defeat that enemy, the cults have been linked with serious crime and even radicalisation of its members. For instance, Rajneesh’s personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela was charged and sentenced for attempting to kill US government officials, poisoning salad bars in Oregon and attempting to meddle with elections.

Similarly, Aum Shinrikyo used murders and kidnappings against their opponents and made several failed attempts after 1995 by using chemical gasses for attacks in railway stations in Japan.

India’s cults are no stranger to controversy. Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of Haryana-based Dera Sacha Sauda, was sentenced to life imprisonment just weeks ago in a 2002 murder case of a journalist, while Asaram Bapu is serving a life sentence for raping a minor girl in 2013.

And late last month, China’s police (ministry of public security) warned its citizens that spiritual courses offered by some Indian religious schools are mired in ‘sexual assault’ cases, after Taiwanese actress Yi Nengjing, aka Annie Yi, promoted a spiritual course offered by south India-based Oneness University.

China in 2017 started a website, China Anti-Cult Network, to spread awareness about preventative measures and policies that China has for tackling cults.

Warnings notwithstanding, cults have sustained over centuries and will thrive with new names, evolving recruiting fields, modified agendas and no dearth of followers. The continuing popularity of movements whose leaders are in jail, bears eloquent testimony to this truth.

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