Print Edition - 2019-05-12  |  Free the Words

The scourge of cults

  • Personality cults are dangerous. And even more so for democracies.
- Naresh Koirala

May 12, 2019-

Indian religious cults dominate Nepali religious life. Photographs of the cult leaders (gurus) alongside traditional Hindu gods are ubiquitous in Nepali households. Stories of miracles performed by the gurus, told with passion and conviction, energise the devotees’ social gatherings where everyone lends an eager ear.  Reverence to the guru’s powers subsumes the environment. No questions are asked. Critical thinking goes out the window.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cult as “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object” or  “A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing”. Therefore, understanding the genesis and character of cults is key to appreciating how cults can damage individuals and society at large.

Development of Cults

Cults developed as a result of people’s search for alternatives when traditional religions failed to respond to changing social norms. The growing urbanisation broke communities and traditional extended family units. Lives became increasingly lonely and stressful in an urbanised, crowded world. The enlightenment—revolution in scientific thinking—upended traditional deities’role in people’s lives. Societies became increasingly open. Religious rigidity of and caste or gender discrimination in traditional religions became social stigma. These changes destabilised societies and created concerns for the future.  That is when cult figures came up with ideas to respond to the new challenges promising quick, easy answers to  life’s contemporary problems.

leaders are powerful orators who have the ability to captivate their audience and work on their emotions.  They demand unquestioning loyalty from their followers. Defiance risks excommunication, emotional harassment and even physical harm. Not to mention, affluence becoming the norm.

They operate as non-denominational; non-discriminatory; humanitarian; and altruistic communities, which promote service to all. Their followers carve an identity for themselves. Big cults have millions of followers particularly in countries where religion has historically played a big role and where the tradition of unquestioned submission to authority is strong.

The cult of Sai Baba; the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church all run hospitals, schools and water supplies. They are financed by donations from the guru’s followers. Reports suggest much of the donation ends in the coffers of the cult leaders.

Cults in Nepal

The Sai Baba and the Osho International Foundations, both with roots in Hinduism, are amongst the most popular cults in Nepal. Christian cults like the Church of Scientology of the United States and the Unification Church of Korea are also entering Nepal’s open cult market as the trend of Christian proselytisation grows in the country. The leaders of all of these cults have been accused of maleficence.  

Numerous reports on Sai Baba’s nefarious deeds—sexual exploitation of his devotees and harassment of whistle blowers have been published. For example the BBC video The Secret Swami SatyaSai Baba 2004).Indian rationalists publicly replicated the so-called ‘Baba’s miracles’ and demonstrated that they are no more than a magician’s sleight of hand.

A search of Sai Baba’s residence after his death in 2011 revealed he had hidden gold (98 Kg), silver(307 Kg) and cash (IRs. 11.56 Corer) in his private chamber.  No one, including members of the Sai Baba trust, knew of this.

Osho’s dead leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, started his cult in India and moved to Oregon, USA where he bought a vast ranch and set up an ashram. He became so rich he owned a stable of eleven Rolls-Royces. He was expelled from the USA on charges of complicity in the first bio-terror attack (food poisoning of 751 individuals) and re-established himself in India. He died in 1990, but his followers continue to operate in Nepal and elsewhere in the world as the Osho International Foundation.

The Church of Scientology is a very rich US based organisation aggressively promoting itself as a religion. According to the Scientology website, “ In Nepal there are no mandatory registration requirements for religious groups. In 2004, the Chief District Officer in Nepal registered the constitution of the Scientology Mission in Nepal, giving it the authority to operate as a religious organization”.

In contrast, despite intense lobbying by Scientology, their application to be registeredas a religion was denied by many European countries. “The German government considers Scientology a commercial enterprise that takes advantage of vulnerable people”. French courts considered it a fraudulent organisation and fined it $800,000. Many of its previous followers became whistle blowers exposing the coercive tactics used to try and swindle them.

The Unification Church was established in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon of Korea. Its business is to promote Christianity and the commercial interests of its leader. It is masquerading around the world promoting its brand of Christianity and its business empire in various guises. Moon and his wife, HakJa Han, were banned from

entry Germany and the other 14 Schengen treaty countries (26 European countries under identical Visa regulations), on the grounds that they are leaders of a sect that endangered the personal and social development of young people.

But in developing countries where influence pedding using is common and in the lacks proper oversight, cults like Scientology and Unification Church are spreading aggressively. The government has been complicit in the

cults’ recruitment campaigns. Only recently Prime Minister KP Oli, for example, invited Sun Myung Moon to inaugurate the so-called “Asia Pacific Summit”—a public relation front of the Unification Church.

Government’s Responsibility

Cults provide a sense of identity and a community for their followers. When the cult starts unraveling, cult members are already entrapped. They are unable to leave, because this means acknowledging that their years of life was surrender to a swindle. Abandoning a community that has given them identity over time requires courage. There is also the possible threat of damnation and even physical harm from cult gangs.

Cults have destroyed many lives. They create ‘clapper boys’ and stifle critical thinking. They are misleading and, like the French say, dangerous to society.   Personality cults are the religious equivalent of financial Ponzi schemes—a scam where followers are misled by the promise of a meaningful life dependent on constant engagement and financial input. The government has a duty to monitor them, to develop appropriate regulatory policies and to bring their operations under the ambit of the law.  

Koirala is a geotechnical consultant in Vancouver, Canada.

Published: 12-05-2019 11:04

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