The lure of the cult
There is a deceptively light-hearted tone behind the narration of How To Become a Cult Leader, a new Netflix documentary series breaking down the eerie similarities between six of the most notorious and hypnotic God men of our times.
The “playbook”, the narrator says somewhat jauntily, is simply for the head of the sect to cultivate a mystical aura and offer a safe space of unconditional love, which the vulnerable and desperate (a sizable number) will gravitate to on their own. Intuitive manipulators understand that all of us, at times, feel lost and exhausted by life’s purposelessness: when the chips are down there’s a peculiar kind of appeal to absolute submission. Why people join, what makes them stay remains endlessly fascinating, explored repeatedly on shows like Wild Wild Country and Children of God.
Invariably though, apocalypse and doomsday preachers promising Moksha end disastrously, eventually outed as rapists, murderers or drug addicts (closer home, Asaram Bapu and Ram Rahim). So much so, the word “cult” carries a negative connotation but emotionally bereft people continue to fall for enigmatic speakers. Two months ago, a Kenyan televangelist convinced hundreds they needed to starve to death to attain salvation. And just a few years back, the patriarch of a Delhi family, obsessed by the occult, meticulously planned his family’s suicide in eleven diaries over eleven years, on a full moon night. Immortalised in the show the House of Horrors, the Burari deaths exposed the frightening consequences of radicalised adults.
As the Beatles hit Let It Be goes, in times of upheaval we seek words of wisdom but these days, not from conventional sources like Mother Mary. Traditional religions, somehow, are relegated to celebrating festivals like Diwali and Christmas, they no longer satisfy urban, spiritual needs. Hinduism, with all its multifaceted Gods, myths and legends may continue to serve a religious purpose. However, they don’t offer a blueprint to deal with our complicated lives. It comes as a shock to most people to discover that the narratives sold to us via popular culture, marriage, kids, careers, don’t provide lasting fulfillment. Modern ashrams like the Isha Foundation by Sadhguru that calls itself a social revitalisation organisation, offer more practical solutions to deal with life’s disappointments.
It is worth remembering that the roots of mangrove trees grow upwards and extend out to their neighbours, their denseness binding soil and reducing erosion. There’s no such thing as a solitary mangrove, they flourish only enmeshed together. Similarly, humans, too, need community to thrive. But we live in the age of aloofness where we’re encouraged to guard our boundaries and retreat to self-protect — individual needs first, above all else. The downside to being totally footloose, is a gnawing, existential isolation. In fact, the most seductive aspect of a cult or religion is a sense of belonging, a way out of a fractured, lonely life. It’s probably why so many of my friends, who, ostensibly have everything, spend hours in traffic to reach Bade Mandir in Chhatarpur, a casteless and classless space, where devotees queue up in silence for a simple langar prasad in the presence of India’s teeming millions. Ensconced in our ivory towers chasing the dream, we tend to forget the world consists mainly of ordinary people leading simple lives.
The quest to be remarkable is certainly a worthy one but the opposite, not striving for greatness may be equally inspiring. Society celebrates the mavericks not those quietly going about their lives, who, through trial and error, figure out their role in a world that isn’t as it appears. Ultimately, for everyone, it’s only by broadening experience, and asking questions of ourselves that we can hope to stumble on any insights.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films
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