Charisma and the Will to Deceive is All You Need to Start a Cult

When I was studying dark personality traits in my organisational behaviour class, it reminded me of the short documentaries about the two most infamous American cult leaders – Tony Alamo and Jim Jones.

The Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo traces the life of televangelist Tony Alamo, who established himself as a prophet of God and built his own ministry along with his wife. Initially, the ministry was revered by Christians seeking the true meaning of the Bible but later it converted into a cult in its own ways.

The film also shows how Alamo used to marry and sexually exploit girls who were as young as eight-years-old.

The other documentary was about the deadliest mass suicide in modern times that claimed lives of over 900 people and their leader Jim Jones.

The common thread between the two was that these cult figures were feeding on vulnerable people who faced difficulties in making ends meet. These leaders would promise them free meals, a sense of purpose and, of course, a closer connection to the one true God.

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This reminds me of our very own Indian godmen – Asa ram, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, Sant Ram Pal, Osho Rajneesh and the ‘miraculous’ Nirmal Baba who once asked a man to change his preference of cold drink so his wife could conceive a child.

Starting a cult doesn’t take a lot in India: a plain garment, some malas and a giant teeka on your forehead and you’re good to go!

Oh, and you’ve obviously got to convince people that you have a solution to all their problems.

Some of these godmen have been arrested for various offences, often resulting in a string of violent outrage in the public domain.

On August 25, 2017, widespread riots broke out in North India after the arrest of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of Dera Saccha Sauda. Earlier that day, the rioters had picketed Singh’s ashram and asked the police to ‘go through them’ if they wanted to arrest their guru.

I remember asking my Dad: “Why are these people rioting to save a rapist and a murderer?”

Isliye India mein tarrakki nahi ho parhi hai, kyonki logon ko apne aap se zyada inn dhongiyon pe bharosa hai! (this is the reason why India is unable to progress because people have blind faith in these kind of saints),” he said.

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Our homegrown-international-superstar Osho Rajneesh, who made us proud by representing India globally before Priyanka Chopra, even has a Netflix documentary series about him.

His journey from an ashram in Poona to a commune in Oregon is unique and interesting.

He advocated indulging in sexual relations freely and openly, which didn’t go down well with the sentiments of the majority, nor with the government of India.

According to an article about a kid whose parents took him to the ashram, eating Hash cakes at the age of six, getting drunk at the age of ten, his parents’ struggles with being members, the cult leader’s charisma and supposedly liberal values increased memberships manifolds.

But eventually, US feds were able to crack down on Osho’s commune.

Most of the former members of this cult talk about being exhausted most of the time.

Some mention working continuously for long hours to sustain themselves. But some also say that keeping them exhausted was one way to ensure there was nothing else on their minds beside working for the cult.

Most cult leaders know high-profile politicians and other powerful personalities, which essentially makes them impervious to convictions for their crimes. Sexually harassing women, murders and tax evasions are some of the crimes such cult leaders are known to perpetrate.

What is common between these cult leaders is their charismatic personality traits.

They have managed to convince people that this is the purpose of their life and this is how they will achieve salvation.

They have also managed to evade the scanner of the income tax department by setting up ‘charities’ for social causes.

But that scarcely hinders their popularity. Whenever these cult leaders are convicted, we often find their pictures with prominent celebrities on social media with thousands of people fawning over them, proclaiming their innocence. Some of these celebrities are even well-educated and support social causes.

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Regardless, they continue to at least tacitly support such cults, thereby turning a blind-eye to how these Babas openly coax their followers to commit hate crimes.

But how do we let ourselves become a part of something like this?

Some studies suggest that most of the members of such cults are psychologically healthy.

The question then arises – how and why are they stuck there?

Cults lead people to believe that they are different and their actions can make a change (which is absolutely true, but we refuse to believe in ourselves unless we achieve some sort of approval from others).

I think people usually fall for this BS because being a part of some ‘greater cause’ with people appreciating you at every step while also being free of responsibilities, stress and surviving in this competitive world yields a strange sense of Nirvana.

This gradually transforms a person as he/she dives deeper into the structure of these cults. They tend to conform to group thinking, which slowly changes their personality. This is the reason why so many families of the members of such cults, who’ve been trying to free themselves from such influence, say that they do not recognise this person anymore. Perhaps, a severe brainwashing will make that possible.

So, no matter how many movies we make (OMG, PK, Dharam sankat main), these babas and matas will continue to instil fear in the minds of people – either by their miracles or by convincing non-believers of dire outcomes if they don’t believe them.

I think people just want to believe in something, so it is the need of the hour to help them believe in themselves.

Manisha is a student from Delhi University pursuing Bachelors in Commerce. She loves to paint, sketch, watching TV series and sci-fi movies. She is curious about the cults in India and how its impact is increasing.