Perils of cult following

Ram_Rahim Followers

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.


Inner Powers through Ashtanga Yoga in Kindle Store

Now, the digital version of the book, Inner Powers through Ashtanga Yoga, is available in Kindle Store.

Here is the link:



Inner Powers through Ashtanga Yoga, my tributes to Sage Patanjali

The International Yoga Day is around the corner. Yoga institutes, yoga teachers, government bodies, yoga practitioners and yoga aficionados are gearing up to celebrate it on June 21. We can rest assured that images of mass events, showing people in different yoga poses from across the world wood flood MSM as well as social media, perpetuating the notion, though, that yoga means Asana.

Chp 2-1The Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali, the first ever documented text on yoga in the history of mankind, offers yoga as a method to acquire self knowledge. As a tribute to the great Sage from the ancient India, I have written a small book on Ashtanga Yoga. The book is set to be released on this International Yoga Day by Sri Aurobindo Kapali Shatri Institute of Vedic Culture (SAKSHI), Bangalore.

Astanga Yoga Cover (1)

The book is an effort to convince people as to why we need to practise yoga in its entirety, going beyond Asana.

Susheela Hegde

Note: The above cited illustration (from the book) and the book cover are subject to copyright and all rights are reserved.

Go beyond the form this Maha Shivaratri


Followers of Lord Shiva are prepping up around the world for Maha Shivaratri festival tomorrow. On  Hindu calendars, the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalguna is marked for the worship of Lord Shiva.

Legends ascribe different events to the significance of this day. While one says Lord Shiva performed the great cosmic dance displaying the principles of creation, maintenance and destruction on the day. According to another, Shiva married Parvati on this day, signifying the union of Shiva and Shakti. Yet another legend says Lord Shiva saved the world by drinking the poison that had emerged during the great cosmic event of Samudra Manthana or the mythical ocean churning by the gods and the demons on the day.

Currently, for the majority of people, it is a customary annual celebration to earn the grace of the God, which helps lead their material life in a smooth manner.

For yoga practitioners, however, the festival should be all the more important, as Lord Shiva is considered as the root of the yoga system. Even yogasanas are attributed to him. He is Yogeeshwara or the God of yoga. According to some scriptures of medieval times, such as Goraksha Samhita and Gheranda Samhita, Shiva developed an asana for each species in the creation, which numbered 8,400,000. Out of them, 84 asanas were considered as prominent, and 32 of them were found to be useful in the world of mortals.

Lord Shiva is Mahayogi. Depicted as being engrossed in an eternal meditation, with semi-closed eyes and sitting cross-legged, He symbolizes the presence of a material body and a mind submerged in Universal Self. Shiva shows the way to liberation from the world of forms.  The ultimate aim of yoga is helping people attain oneness with the creator, or the Universal Self. This happens if one is able to go beyond the form.

This Maha Shivaratri, let us focus on the seventh limb of Ashtanga Yoga, Dhyana or meditation, and have the glimpse of the formless God, or Nirguna Brahma.

Why just Asana?

Asana is placed at the third place in the hierarchy in Patanajali’s Ashtanga Yoga. This limb, however, is the most popular part, followed by meditation and pranayama, in that order, of the yoga system. It is likely that, a significant percentage of people who practice some or the other asanas are not even aware of the preceding two limbs – Yama and Niyama.

Why it is so? Are these limbs not important enough, to be left out from the lexicon of yoga in the popular perception of the system? Why did Patanjali place them on the top of the list if their contribution to human development is insignificant?

If you take a closer look at the precepts contained in Yama and Niyama, you realize that they are nothing but code of conducts one ideally needs to follow to lead a happy and peaceful life. The precepts in Yama prescribe one’s ideal social behavior by denouncing violence, falsehood, stealing, over indulgence, and unnecessarily accumulation of material things. (Five precepts are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha)

On the other hand, the second limb, Niyama, provides principles to deal with oneself. The practitioner is expected to strive to correct her fault lines through the five precepts of this limb — Shaucha or personal hygiene, Sanotsha or positive state of mind, Tapa or austerity, Swadyaya or study of oneself, and Ishwar Pranidana or Surrender to God.

Clearly, the precepts prescribed by these limbs cannot be classroom instructions that can be executed immediately by the students in the class. They are qualities one needs to have, adopt and develop, which can happen over a period of time. Also, the instructor cannot check the progress of the students on any of these precepts, though it is possible to somewhat sense perceptible changes in the practitioner’s behavior or temperament. This could be the reason for not making these limbs a part of many popular yoga teachings.

On the contrary, the third limb, Asana, is the most visible part of the yoga system and the instructions can be executed immediately by the students. The instructor can also accurately check the level of perfection in each posture achieved by the practitioner. Even results of asanas are seen within a short time with the better functioning of the endocrine system, like it happens with any other physical exercise.

Also, Asana is the most glamorous part in yoga. The bending, stretching and balancing moves of asanas create the optics of beauty with the elements of serenity, agility and dynamism combined. This must be the reason for conducting mass yogasana sessions all over the world on the International Yoga Day. Similarly, yoga centres everywhere confine their teaching to some set of postures as a consequence of the demand for learning just asanas. It will, however, only heighten the already existing over emphasis on the body consciousness, making the other dimensions of the personality stunted.

Yama and Niyama provide the foundation on which the practitioner has to establish herself to proceed further on the path of yoga. Then, how to include Yama and Niyama in everyday yoga teachings?

There is a need to set aside sometime in every yoga session for helping the practitioner work on the precepts contained in these two limbs. The teacher may develop innovative ways, such as quiz, question answer sessions, story writing session, etc., to drive home the points. For, a person with five sheaths of existence cannot progress by focusing only on her body.

By Susheela Hegde


Stay with Yoga

Stay with Yoga

Now-a-days, yoga is part of curriculum in many schools. Even the corporate world is taking it on board by including it in their employee welfare programmes. Also, one can see a yoga school at every nook and corner of Indian cities and towns. Then naturally, one tends to believe that a significant percentage of the population is hooked to yoga by now. If you too are under this impression, try to dig deeper; you will see this is far, very far, from the truth.

It is likely that you come across many people who have learned yoga in the past; some of them even practiced it for some duration. But only a negligible percentage of people is found to have made yoga an integral part of their life.  What could be the reason for this indifference among Indians towards their ‘own’ wellness system? Is it a case of the proverbial ‘the plant in the backyard is not a medicine’? Is there no novelty factor in it as people grow up encountering the word all around, day in, day out?

It seems, it is all in the approach, with which one treats yoga. For many people it is just a form of physical exercise. They limit their objective of practicing it to rectify some physical problems. Such people mainly do asanas. Even if they take up pranayama and meditation, that is again to address specific problems such as breathing difficulties or stress. Such kind of pigeonholing truly keeps yoga as either a physical or a mental activity. In such activities, there would not be any attempt to unite the body and the mind. Yoga, etymologically, means the unification of two aspects of our being. At the grossest level, it is uniting the mind with the body. If this unification does not happen even at the grossest level, the practice becomes mechanical. This will result in abandoning it, sooner or later.

Then, change the approach. Do not specify your objectives in taking up yoga. If you enter the garden to see only some flowers you will not enjoy the beauty of the entire garden. Enter yoga with an open mind, and involve it in every movement during the practice. Even asanas, which many people see as physical, are equally mental. The practitioner needs to exercise her mind in the form paying attention to her breath in order to synchronize it with the bodily movements. Also, she needs to sense the pressure points that are generated in various parts of the body during the practice. In fact, one’s inner journey should start at this point.

Asana is the most popular part of yoga that is being practiced today. But it is just one limb or one part of Ashtanga Yoga, or the eight-limbed yoga system, propounded by sage Patanjali, thousands of years ago. The fourth limb, Pranayama, a breath regulating mechanism, also involves a highly attentive mind. The other six limbs, Yama, Niyama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi, are almost mental. In fact, Patanjali defines yoga as योगः चित्त वृत्ति निरोधः।, which means it is something that curbs the natural tendency of the mind. He puts forward the system basically for culturing the mind in order to reach the original state of one’s being. Physical benefits accrued in the process are just incidental.

In fact, being aware of all the happenings in the mind-body framework is a basic requirement in yoga, even while doing asana or pranayama. Many new practitioners, however, fail to cultivate such awareness. When an activity is carried out without awareness, it becomes mechanical. And naturally, the interest and enthusiasm, with which one begins her yoga practice, are bound to fade away.

If you, however, change the approach by considering yoga as more mental than physical, you will perform every move with full awareness. Then, you will open yourself for a transformation. The ever outgoing mind will start turning inward. Even asana will not remain just physical any longer; instead it will become the gateway for inner explorations. You will go on practicing the same asana day after day, month after month and year after year; but the novelty factor never fades out. At the same time, you will be eager to progress further and further in yoga, working through all the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. In other words, you will be hooked to yoga for the rest of your life

-By Susheela Hegde

Yoga, make it a habit for life


Physical exercise is not yet a routine activity for majority of people, including children, in India. In earlier days, apart from PT/Game sessions in their schools, children would get their body exercised through some sort of outdoor plays. Not anymore. Once out of school, most children now prefer to play on their gadgets.

Now people all over the world are taking up yoga in a big way. However, we Indians have not really warmed up significantly to this ancient technology for all round personality development. Studies show more foreigners than Indians are benefiting from it.

We, however, are never shy of bragging about Yoga. “It is our ‘own’ wellness system, developed by our ancestors thousands of years ago. It is India’s gift to the world”. When the United Nations decided to observe June 21 as International Yoga Day, our chests swelled with pride. Now, the day is a witness to spectacular yoga events not just in India, but many parts of the world every year. However, in India, most of them are token events led by some celebrities to exhibit some yogic postures. Regular yoga practitioners are still a minuscule minority in the society. While Yoga as a concept has established its place in the collective consciousness of the people, the practical aspect is yet to touch their life.

Almost everyone accepts yoga is good for physical health. Many also believe it is also good for mental health. And very few are aware of its spiritual dimension as well.

It is true that most learn and practice some form of yoga at some point in their life. But few make yoga a routine activity. One common reason offered is lack of time. Why people find no time for yoga? Those who go out for work get up in the morning with an idea of rushing to workplace. Their energy and activities are channeled towards logging into the office on time. When they get back home, they find their body in need of relaxation rather than exercise. Then it is time for dinner. Where is the time for yoga, then?

On the other hand, those who stay back home get up with a sense of bigger responsibility of seeing others — read husband and children– leave home on time, most of the times with lunch boxes. Then they have other household chores.

A simple solution to the time-constraint problem would be rising early in the morning. But modern way of living, in which the day ends with late night television shows, makes it impossible to do so.

As such, years roll by without yoga entering most people’s lives. Many of them awaken when they are past their prime due to some physical problems. Of late, even allopathic doctors are advising their patients to take up yoga to deal with some chronic diseases. Some people look for quick results, as it happens with allopathic drugs. Obese ones want to lose weight as quick as possible. Diabetic want to be off insulin doses at once.

However, yoga is not meant for quick fixes. You should make it a habit for life to really benefit from it. Then the benefits you get will surpass all your expectations in the long run.

-By Susheela Hegde