Cults and Movements – Feroze Varun Gandhi

By Feroze Varun Gandhi

A dera was once defined as a place where people resided. The meaning later evolved to become a place where spiritual men, including Sufi saints, would gather. Such deras could simply be a thatched hut, or a house with a boundary wall and kutcha canopy. Others were structures that combined the architectural elements of temples and gurudwaras. Nowadays, however, one can find palatial homes and air-conditioned halls too.

In the West, such organisations are typically defined as cults. A cult is a social group that has a defined set of religious, social and philosophical beliefs, with a common interest, and often excessive devotion, to a particular person, goal or object. Cults often come in a variety of forms and shapes. Some are inherently termed as “destructive”, with a high risk of becoming abusive to members, as charismatic leaders become corrupted by power over their followers, leading to physical and psychological harm, and quite often, sexual abuse (Turner, Francis, 1995). Such cults often lead to significant behavioural and personality changes, with members losing their personal identity, becoming increasingly estranged from family and society in general (Kaslow, F., Marvin B., S., Cults and the Family, 1982). The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, a movement founded by Jim Jones in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1955, encouraged the mass suicide on November 18, 1978, of 918 people, including 276 children in Guyana, by a common drinking of cyanide laced, grape-flavoured Kool Aid.

In India, there has been a proliferation of new age gurus and cults in recent years – movements that seek to provide spiritual sustenance and meaning to various social classes, offering a simplified interpretation of traditional texts along with the guru’s personalised teaching, mixed in with yoga, meditation and social work (Sharma, J., June 2008). Some of these contribute in a healthy and effective manner towards combating social ills, while others turn into a promotion of the leader’s megalomania. In North West India, there has been a proliferation of over 9000 Deras (Ram, Ronki, 2016), especially in Punjab and Haryana, evolving into a space for people from backward classes to find acceptance and a secure place to assert themselves. Some however, have also evolved into militarily fortified camps, seeking to engender the power of their leadership. There have a range of idiosyncratic gurus as well – the Deoraha baba in the 1980s was famous for kicking devotee heads while seeking to live on trees.

It’s ironic that India remains replete with cults and movements based on singular personalities, despite a history of social reformation. The Bengal Renaissance, which was initiated by Raja Ram Mohun Roy (1772 – 1833), sought to transform Bengali outlook through a range of religious and social reformers, journalists, scientists and writers. The Young Bengal movement, espoused rationalism and atheism as the ideal for public conduct for upper caste educated Hindus. Despite the fervent enthusiasm of such reformers, such initiatives failed to strike to deep roots in India’s hinterland – the common citizenry, especially in formerly rich, agrarian areas with high underemployment like Punjab, prefer an immediate access to spiritual and material delivery, prioritising boons over a long drawn process of self-actualisation. Such areas are not atypical, we witness the formation of new cults in Palakkad in Kerala and North Karnataka. In comparison, peasants in historically distressed areas like Bundelkhand are still seeking to survive for another day. The era of rationality, which we once assumed would come naturally, remains further away.

People from subaltern social groups, especially in Punjab (with a 34% Dalit population) who have been disappointed by the failure of social movements (increasingly transmogrified into political dynasties), have sought to achieve social mobility through the agency of the dera – a place where no on discriminates against them; one they can increasingly call their own. Instead of seeking entry to temples, a preferred tactic of Gandhi and Ambedkar, dera followers from backward castes and class are building their own. Increasingly such communities, facing continuing social exclusion and segregation, have sought to build new identities. Such cults increasingly represent specific castes and regions, providing them the wherewithal to assert political and temporal power.

Such cults and movements have drawn sustenance from the tendency of followers to turn to an alternative world view after failing to find sustenance in mainstream religious and social movements (Pargament, K., 1997). The perceived power of such cults and movements, like those led by Billy Graham, Jim Baker or Jerry Falwell, has led to politicians courting them through policies that favour the religiously minded – after all, gaining influence over a religious vote-bank is a quick win. In India, the state has always been complicit in encouraging the emergence of new movements, seeking to turn a hankering for social mobility into voting decisions. Increasingly, societies are seeing the simultaneous emergence of strongman politicians, using religious cults and movements, led by godmen, both symbolising an innate heroism that offers a placebo for social ills, instead of self-actualisation or on-ground implementation. This co-option of local cults by politicians is symptomatic of lazy politics, getting votes on the cheap.

Fundamentally, deras, and other such cults and movements, reflect a society in evolution. Their integration into society, will continue to be a long drawn process. What remains to be seen is whether India will continue to maintain law and order, in the face of extreme devotion. Mixing politics with such religious groups can often lead to a volatile cocktail of social disorder, engendering social mobilisation and religious competition. To retain our society’s innate character, we must pursue a return to rationality in the public arena.