The Complete Story Behind India's Most Interesting Cults

The Complete Story Behind India's Most Interesting Cults
(L) AroundtheO ; (R) Navbharat Times

The term “cult” is a controversial one. According to the sociological classifications of religious movements, a cult is a social group with socially deviant beliefs and practices. Cults became the objects of sociological study in the 1930s. The ancient Indian civilisation has seen the emergence of many such cults through its complex social and political history.

Here are a few of them.

I. Dera Sacha Sauda

It was started as a non-profit social welfare and spiritual organisation on April 29, 1948 by the ascetic Mastana Balochistani. Its main centre is situated in Sirsa (Haryana), in the northern region of India. After the death of Mastana Balochistani, his movement was split into three groups, with Satnam Singh leading the Sirsa group, who selected Gurmeet Ram Rahim to be his successor. The organisation has 46 ashrams (divisions) across India and other countries. The Naam method of meditation was taught to the followers who accepted three principles of the cult for the rest of their life. Consumption of meat, egg, alcohol, drugs, tobacco etc were prohibited, along with illicit sex, or adultery. They were also asked to abstain from ritualism and from making monetary religious donations However, this cult in Haryana became prominent when Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial head of the organisation, was accused of rape and murder. On 25 August 2017, he was found guilty of sexually assaulting two Dera sadhvis (female followers).

II. Brahma Kumari

Founded by Lekhraj Khubchand Kripilani, a wealthy diamond dealer, the Brahma Kumari is a spritual organisation which was initially based in Hyderabad. This organisation was originally called “Om Mandali” because members would chant “Om” together before having discussions on spiritual matters. Krpilani, who was often called “Om Baba” by the members of the group, claimed to have seen a series of visions and other transcendental experiences around the year 1935, which eventually became the basis of his discourses. Most of his followers were women and children from the Bhaibund caste. However, the role of women went on the become a predominant feature of the cult. The right to dictate one’s personal choices was never something that women enjoyed; it was always the exclusive right of men. But in this organisation women were encouraged to exercise their rights. The group advocated that young women had the right to decide not to marry, and that married women had the right to choose a celibate life. Since the organisation empowered women to stand up for their rights, it was a threat to the men of the Bhaibund community who wanted to keep their women on a leash. Therefore, they formed an “Anti Om Mandali” committee and began disrupting the activities of the “Om Mandali” committee in various ways. Such difficult circumstances coupled with fear for life led the Om Mandali committee to shift base from Hyderabad to Karachi, and later to Mount Abu post-Partition. The Brahma Kumari lifestyle recommends celibacy (in or out of marriage), a strict lacto-vegetarian diet and an abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and non-prescription drugs. Today, the Brahma Kumari cult is both a spiritual organisation and an NGO, and is affiliated with the UN.

III. Rajneeshpuram

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, was an Indian mystic who started the Rajneesh movement in the 1970s. It was a spiritual group with ashrams in India and the United States. Born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931 in India, Rajneesh studied philosophy and spent the early part of his adult life traveling around his home country, speaking about mysticism and eastern spirituality. Long before the ashrams were established, Rajneesh lectured throughout India in the 1960s, regarding the ideals of free love, abortion, the irrelevance of marriage and the interference of the state in human personal relationships. He saw families as breeding grounds of dysfunction and destructiveness.

He was infamous for having been a staunch critic of Gandhi and socialism, and instead preached the ideals of capitalism, technology, science and birth control. He also criticised religious teachings that glorified poverty. The first eastern guru to embrace psychotherapy, Rajneesh delivered lectures on religious scriptures, combing elements of Western philosophy, jokes and personal anecdotes. He set up headquarters in Pune in 1974. In 1981, he left India and set up a huge base in Oregon, USA. The community formed around Oregon was called Rajneeshpuram, which eventually got embroiled in a lot of controversies. Sheela, Rajneesh’s spokesperson and a member of his inner circle, was found guilty of carrying out a bioterrorist attack on a local restaurant along with the other members of Rajneeshpuram. The attack left 45 in the hospital and over 750 people with a severe bout of food poisoning. This subsequently led to Sheela being extradited from Germany and charged for her crimes, and Rajneesh was deported back to India, where he lived until his death in 1990. On 16 March 2018, Netflix released a 6-part documentary entitled Wild Wild Country regarding the Rajneesh movement.


IV. Daayan

The daayan cult refers to a secret society which emerged during the 15th century in Harangul, a village in the Latur district of Maharashtra. In Harangul it is believed that daayan lives in an area of the village, and an evil spirit resides within them. Villagers believe these women destroy everything good. Daayans are reported in and around cemeteries, abandoned battlefields, crossroads, toilets and squalid places.

Folklore suggests that a woman treated badly by her family or who died in childbirth as a result of family neglect returns as a daayan, haunting the family and drinking the blood of male family members. Beginning with the youngest male in the family, draining his blood changes him into an old man before she progresses to the other men. The daayans communicate using a secret symbolic language, and their hair is supposed to be their most powerful tool, having mystical and magical powers.

In India, they are associated with worship of Kali and Durga. Many of these worshippers believed they were the handmaidens of these Goddesses and are also called Dakinis or Yoginis in local lore.

V. Thuggees

Thuggees, sometimes described as the world’s first mafia, were an organised gang of professional assassins who operated from the 13th to the 19th centuries in India. They were religious fanatics who were notorious for their ritualistic assassinations carried out in the name of the Hindu goddess, Kali. Thuggees worked by joining groups of travellers, after which they would proceed to gain their trust before surprising them by strangling them with a handkerchief or noose. Then they would quickly rob their victim and bury them carefully. They worked in a highly specialized manner. Each member of the gang had a special function such as luring travellers with charming words, acting as a lookout, or taking the role of the killer.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Thuggees were responsible for approximately two million deaths. However, this is just an approximation since there are no reliable sources.


VI. Aghori

The Aghori are followers of a Hindu sect believed to be 1000 years old. The present form of the Aghori sect may be traced back to Baba Keenaram (Kinaram), a 17th century ascetic who they say lived until the age of 170. The Aghori are usually found residing near cremation sites, most famously, in Varanasi. Nevertheless, they can also be found in other areas which are much more remote, including the cold caves of the Himalayas, the dense jungles of Bengal, and the hot deserts of Gujarat. One of the most famous practices of the Aghori is cannibalism. They consume the flesh of corpses brought to the cremation grounds.This human flesh is often eaten raw, though at times it is roasted over an open fire. The Aghori believe that distinctions are merely delusions, and are obstacles in the path of one’s spiritual development. Thus, they see no difference between good and evil, nor do they see a difference between human and animal flesh. The consumption of the flesh of corpses, therefore, is an affirmation of the Aghori’s belief system.

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