The recent episode involving the violence unleashed by the followers of Dera Sauch Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, post his conviction by a special court in Panchakula, Haryana, is a pointer to the lethal power a cult following can bring about. We may call the followers rules breaking and law defying violent mob as they attacked media and security personnel, torched vehicles, and destroyed government buildings. It is, however, difficult to switch to their side to feel what they felt about their brutal aggression. But it was pretty obvious that they believed they had a right to take any despicable action in favour of their guru. Although most of them might have just carried the orders given by their managers, one should say that they acted with full conviction, sprung from the emotional bond with the convicted. It can only happen with cult following.
Cult figures and cult following must be a phenomenon that began as soon as humans started living in societies, forming communities based on some common parameters. Every community needs a head to mill around. While mythologies are nothing but the tales of cult figures, history too is beset with such personalities. After all, cult figures are at the root of several major and minor religions and religious sects. We also witness the rise of cult figures beyond the boundaries of organized religions from time to time. Hence, the coinage, ‘we are spiritual but not religious’.
First and foremost, humans are born with the tendencies to admire the heroics of the brave, appreciate the kindness of the noble, follow the dictate of the powerful, and derive self identity from the community. These tendencies are on a constant lookout mode for their ideals, and latch onto them when they appear. Of course, ideals may get replaced by new ones every now and then for a majority of people. But as humans, we find it difficult to live without some hero worshipping; some may do it openly and deliberately, others secretly or unknowingly and vaguely. But this act of hero-worshipping or self identification does not always breed cult following, or a resultant cult figure.
We only tend to cult follow someone who is able to deeply touch our emotional chord in a unique way. When a person touches a chord with a large number of people in this manner, he is greatly admired, loved, and followed. He becomes a cult figure as his influence spreads wider and deeper into the masses.
For the followers, what is presented to them should have enough elements to make them transcend their own little selves, as they perceive themselves, and make them reach and merge with the vastness around them in whatever form, whenever they seek connection with the cult figure. Such connection could be an act of remembering, or praying or seeing, or participating in activities linked to the cult figure.
When an individual experiences first hand such transcendence, she forgoes all resistance to losing her individuality. She sings the songs of the mass around, sways and swirls to match the bodily movements of the people around and becomes the mass itself. If not, she continues to remain a disintegrated body of the mass, confined in her diminutive self. Hence, her mergence with the mass has to be total in all manners. This is akin to the transformation of the water in a container, after being poured into the sea. The container water loses its very identity the moment it is spilled into the sea and it becomes the sea itself. With such a transformation, the individual derives immense pleasure, which none of her other actions could bring about. Once tasted this mode of enjoyment, she does not want to forsake it.
When cult following occurs in the context of religion or spirituality it becomes a heady mix of deep admiration and strong faith on the part of the follower. She ascribes whatever divine qualities and powers that she can imagine to the cult figure. And she integrates the spirit of such figure into her all major activities. Her dependence on the cult figure becomes so complete that she is not ready to let her umbilical cord cut under any circumstance. She never cares for what lies under the robe of the cult figure, flashy or otherwise. Only the image, which could be just her mental construction, is paramount. If a contrarian image emerges at some point of time, it threatens to uproot the very edifice of her emotional life. This makes her reject the new revelations. Outsiders may call it blind following.
As the mass base of cult following expands, the cult figure grows taller and taller and his influence wider and deeper, which in turn attracts more and more following. Slowly, an empire is built as the cult figure starts wielding all kinds of power. All kinds of divisions, as well as managers to man these divisions emerge, under whatever names and forms. Different coteries get formed, some of them as inner circles of the cult figure.
Public activities of the cult figure get more and more organized, and carefully calibrated to awe and mesmerise the mass as well as distance them from the real person, the cult figure. At the same time the cult figure’s private life becomes more and more opaque, which anyways is not a concern for the following masses.
It looks like an innocuous affair between the followers and the followed, but only till the other dimensions of cult are revealed. As societies evolve and states adopt democratic rules, cult following can become a dangerous element. As votes determine who should rule, politicians may look for easy routes to garner votes by tapping cult figures, instead of painstakingly work for the welfare of the state. While this may be happening in all democracies to some extent, like in the US, where we get to see popular personalities openly declare their preferences sending out a message to their followers, cults can literally dictate the fate of the vote in countries like India. After all India is one democracy that is riddled with religion and caste induced conundrums, when it comes to politics. Cults only aggravate the problem.
The main problem with cult is it makes the cult figure all powerful. As the cult expands, the power spreads beyond its boundary. Then, authorities and politicians get ready to bend rules to appease the cult figure. There are instances of granting undue largess and bequeathing swathes of lands to such figures. How the followers benefit from cult following can be debated, but clearly, state patronage given to cult is injustice done to the non-following common people. Authorities and governments need to keep cult figures at arm’s length for the larger interest of the society.