New-age gurus and cults

Have you ever been in a cult? So much so that you have never realised that it is a cult? It gives you an amazing feeling to be in the presence of “like-minded” people and a charismatic “guru”. I have been through one, albeit for only a short period of a few weeks.

I attended the Youth Empowerment Skills program of the Art of Living while I was in NUS. This was organised in collaboration with the NUS Hindu Society, of which I was the Vice President at that time. So naturally, I was not averse to trying it out, as it was also provided at a discounted price. We did surya namaskars, pranayama exercises and various other games and activities. The program was a success and I came out of it thinking that I made some new friends with whom I really enjoyed spending time.

We decided to keep in touch even after the 5-day program was completed and so we met every Wednesday evenings to continue doing our pranayama sadhana. During my first Wednesday meeting, the leader of the group announced very enthusiastically that “His Holiness” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar will be coming to Singapore for an event he will be hosting. I witnessed at first hand how happy and excited everybody there was to hear this news and the energy in that room at that moment was unbelievable.

The leader then started talking about ticket prices to attend that event and to see Sri Sri. It was at that moment I realised what I had previously noticed before and had not even given a second thought about. Thank God for my skeptical mind, I came out of it as soon as I realised that the people I have befriended were more enamoured by the teacher rather than the teaching. Even today I wonder why it was initially very attractive to me. The moment they started talking about donations and more money towards attending an event just to get a glimpse of their “Swamiji”, it was enough to open my eyes.

I am a happy person. I am naturally in-built to see the positive side of things all the time. I have accepted this as the truth in my life. Oh vey! Even my blood group is B+! So I imagine if the cult had this much effect on me, then what would happen to people who are in a sad and depressed state and are finding for an avenue to search some answers? How much they will be easily manipulated by such cults?

I call these groups like the Art of Living, Nityananda Sangha, and Isha Foundation as cults, because that is what they are! Just take a look at the characteristics of a cult:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and his/her beliefs and system are taken to be the Truth. (Every time they said something about Sri Sri’s method of pranayama, they used many reasons to justify it. Not only that. Each and every sentence was in praise of Sri Sri.) 
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even looked down upon. (The general tone in the room was of total contentment and agreement to whatever the youth leader was saying. None of them raised any questions against Sri Sri, although other questions were easily welcomed.)
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). (This is very true and it is seen happening in many of the cult-like groups I mentioned above. The devotee believes that he/she is well-taken care of by the cult leader through practising these meditation/chanting techniques, while at the same time paying loads of money to the organisation.)
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, to marry or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth). (We see this happening too, in the Nithyananda Sangha amongst their permanent residents of their Adeenam. Their livelihood is dictated by the rules set in the ashram, but they fail to see that they are just part of a large corporate structure, which is money-hungry.)
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members. (Nithyananda considers himself the Avatar of Super-Consciousness. What else is there to say?)
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. (The moment you join a cult disguised as a self-help group or a religious organisation, your family and friends may not like and may even discourage you from continuing in it. The cult instils this feeling of you versus your family/friends, and isolates you from your close circle. This way, it will be easier for them to manipulate you.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members and making more money. (This is self-explanatory.)
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group. (The so-called “withdrawal symptom” I felt when I decided to get out of AOL and sever connections with AOL members was a sense of “emptiness”. The daunting feeling of “what’s next”. I am sure this feeling will be more intense the longer you stay within a cult.)

I have come to abhor these religious organisations that are centered on a “guru”, who seemingly has no solid and proven sampradaya (or unbroken line of student-teacher tradition) to back them up. Although the teacher may be well-meaning, what is then the need for widespread marketing campaigns, over-priced meditation programs, and solicitation of celebrities and other VIPs into the organisation?

There are many appeasers and apologetics among the so-called “devotees” of these new-age gurus. One has to scrutinise every single detail before concluding the truth. Instead, excuses are often made solely on the basis of a blind faith and trust held on the “guru” personality.

Take “His Holiness Swami Paramahamsa” Nithyananda as an example. It is very important to note that the court proceedings against Nithyananda have not been quashed, as claimed by many of his followers. It has never been resolved yet because on 6 February 2017, the Supreme Court of India stayed the start of the trial proceedings noting that “a number of significant documents favouring Swami Nithyananda had been wantonly suppressed by the investigating authorities and that proceeding with the trial without these critical evidences would be unjust.” This most likely means that the evidence has been somehow mysteriously tampered with and most probably lost forever. Although Nithyananda’s followers are ecstatic about this news, we rational-minded Hindus should be well-aware that justice has only been delayed but not yet delivered. Truth will prevail at the end.

Are new age gurus causing more harm than good? Are we too satisfied that they are involved in philanthropic activities, that we are willing to close one eye even if a small detail about their largely hidden scandal is exposed to the world? Are we questioning the authority by which a guru can claim himself to be a living avatara (or incarnation) of God, other than his own experiences that he has written about on his website? Are we even taking efforts to check and authenticate the stories concocted by these so-called “gurus”, before we take greater efforts in getting enrolled into one of their 10,000-dollar programs?

Let me give you an exercise. Compare the following two religious organisations using the information provided in their websites. Using your God-given discriminating capabilities, are you able to authenticate which of the two is belonging to an established sampradaya? Are you able to tell which of the two has a genuine interest in the betterment of yourself? Are you able to see for yourself, which of the two is money-minded?  Are you able to identify which of the two is guru-centric instead of being knowledge-centric?

Website 1: http://www.dhyanapeetam.org

Website 2: http://www.arshavidya.org/home.html

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