Syncretic Religions & cults

One of the interesting dimensions of human coexistence is the fact that people have different ideologies and religious beliefs. As a result, where people have lived together for millennia,  conflicts along with famines and droughts,  would make people leave their homes and start life anew. 

The present global crises with continual disruption of everyday lives, and the sorrow and travail that follow are very vivid, as we hear about destruction and death every day.  When  North Korea sends off nuclear missiles, we do not know where they land. If in the sea, we can imagine how much damage to deep sea life it causes. President Trump’s “flesh and bones” exhortation to the US army is dread in it’s Dracula invocation. We can imagine what it does to the psyche of a TV watching audience which is being spooked to believe that the world is ending, and that we should prepare to get onto spaceships 600 years from now, so that the human species can survive. With the manipulations of digital technology and radiation, people believe that the real quest for survival of human beings as we understand the term, means niche cultures which  will permit the relic appearance of farming communities set on fending off cancers, wars and local conflicts by prayer and organic agriculture. It is not surprising, therefore, that we do find representations of cultic and sacred organisations, which provide believers the notion of one humanity, one planet, one nurturing world view, in all parts of the globe.

These cults always have images of many divine representations, often have a spiritual leader, and combine qualities of care and shelter for those who come looking for comfort and blessings. The Bahai faith, with its exquisite temple in South Delhi, shaped like a lotus, presents itself as accessible to all. Along with the peacefulness of its meditation hall, it always provides a green and serene appearance. Through  its water harvesting, composting and novel method of using earthworms, (which are bred in long cement tanks to produce good and fertile mud) they are an advanced example of post modern ecologically sensitive theologies. Quite often, such cults, with syncrestic world views, welcome people into their gardens and guest houses, and in the simple and austere surroundings, the visitors share the beliefs and rituals of the people who belong to the cult. As visitors they are introduced into a new world where time stops still, and in the crowds and the effervescence (Emile Durkheim’s term) they find themselves again.

This idea of the search for the self is not always present, but most syncrestic cults, which draw from legends from all around the world, or locally, bring to the temporary visitor, the possibility of imagining a peaceful world, which is forever in existence. That it  exists in the mind of the perceiver is not a detriment, as the believer has a sixth sense. It is not personal or subjective either, since hundreds of people begin to congregate to assert the presence of the divine. From here grow the institutions, the prevalence of literature and art and music. Today, religious tourism and photography have become very important since tradition has  great significance in the way in which cults are promoted digitally. People feel they are right in the heart of the event, they can hear and see, and the sight of the sacred is immensely satisfying.

One of the offshoots of a prescribed traditionalism is that the value systems that go with this phenomenon also stand a chance of being re-inscribed. If 50 lakh men turn up at Shabari mala, in Kerala, in search of the loner god, who appears to them by the presence of a flame, then the imminent  desire of women  to participate,  causes male torment. Essentially, men believe that tradition gives them power, and  the digitally enhanced planet must accept that women are born to serve men. 

Intelligent and educated women ask too many questions, and they are not able to take care of the family, including old parents. Why give them freedom? Simply put, this means that women would be in danger, if they were to accost men who have been celibate and fasting, and would endanger the men too. This idea that women seduce men, and put them at risk, is a constant burr in the sides of holy men. The interesting thing about Ramana Maharshi was that he was completely confident of his status, having many loyal women followers.  While his  widowed mother served him,  his followers integrated her, building her a simple kitchen in the monk’s quarters on the hill, an Archaeological site called Skanda Ashram. Cults and syncrestic religious beliefs have an immense quality of encompassing the believer regardless of his or her faith. This is what religious fundamentalists fear most.

(The writer is professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Susan Visvanathan