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Are You a Member of a Cult?

By Gurugaveska, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 18, 2013

Hong Kong, China -- What is a Cult? 

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘cult' as a system of religious worship, especially one that is expressed in rituals. It is often used in a derogatory sense with reference to a transient fad. Another definition, from The Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus, defines ‘cult' as an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices; an interest followed with exaggerated zeal; a religion or sect that is generally considered to be unorthodox, extremist or false.

Sounds familiar? Cultism exists in almost every religion, society and certain organizations, often led by charismatic leaders. The names of Jim Jones and Charles Manson, amongst others, often come to mind whenever the word ‘cult' is mentioned, due mainly to the reported mass suicide of hundreds of gullible followers who followed their leaders with utter blind faith. The problem with cultism is that it is a Catch-22 situation - people outside the organization can almost always see quite clearly the workings of a cult but for the members within, no amount of convincing and rationale can ever make them realize that they are in a cult organization. Therein lies the painful dilemma and conundrum for concerned friends and relatives. Many families have hopelessly lost their loved ones to such organizations. Family relationships are strained or broken.

Cultism exists in almost every religion. Cults often come into being whenever there are charismatic leaders who claim to possess certain powers or profess direct communication with gods or deities and are therefore empowered to speak on their behalf. They allege that they have the power to heal the sick or reverse one's misfortunes.   These leaders, preachers, monks, priests or even heads of corporations often have a wealth of knowledge, strong persuasive personalities, and are charming, manipulative and cunning.  They revel in a sense of power over others and some are even sex deviants! Their objective is often the attainment of wealth and fame but the ultimate goal is to control and manipulate their followers to do their bidding and be subservient to them.  In some religious organizations, the leaders expect unquestionable devotion.  Fund-raising is definitely a core activity.

Often, a cult leader is known as a ‘Guru'. In the normal sense, 'guru' is the equivalent of ‘teacher'. In Early Buddhism the teacher is not infallible, and it is part of the student's duty to point out his faults respectfully. The student also needn't stick to a teacher, should the teacher be deemed incapable. The guru is idolized and worshipped by his followers. He is regarded as infallible.

Profile of a Cult Leader

A typical profile of the personality traits of a cult leader1  is basically that of a sociopath or psychopath2 which may comprise any or all of the following:

Glib and Superficial Charm - the tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. A psychopath is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything - never gets tongue-tied. He can also be a great listener to simulate empathy while zeroing in on his targets' dreams and vulnerability, so as to be able to manipulate them better.

Grandiose Self-worth - a grossly inflated view of his abilities and self-worth. He is self-assured, opinionated, cocky, and a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings. 

Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom - excessive need for novel, thrilling and exciting stimulation.  He takes chances and risks. Psychopaths often have low self-discipline and fail to carry tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.

A Pathological Liar - shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever. In extreme form he is deceitful, underhand and unscrupulous.

A Manipulative Con-man - uses deception to cheat, con or defraud others for personal gain. This is distinguished from mere lying and deceit as exploitation and callous ruthlessness are present, reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one's victims.

Lack of Remorse or Guilt - lack of feelings or concern for the loss, pain, and suffering of victims. This is usually demonstrated by a disdain for his victims.

Affected Show of Warmth - superficial, open gregariousness and warmth.  This is a façade behind which lies emotional poverty, interpersonal coldness or a limited depth of feeling.

Callousness and Lack of Empathy - cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.  He is dispassionate, coldhearted and lacks positive feelings towards people in general

Parasitic Lifestyle - intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others.

Poor Behavior Control - expressions of irritability, annoyance and impatience stemming from inadequate control of anger and temper. He acts hastily and uses threats, aggression and verbal abuse to intimidate.

Promiscuous Sexual Behavior - variety of brief, superficial relationships; numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners. He has a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity (rape) or of taking great pride in discussing sexual exploits and maintains multiple relationships at the same time.

Early Behavior Problems - variety of behavior problems. Prior to age 13, problems include running away from home, lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, arson, glue-sniffing and alcohol-use. In his juvenile years there is criminal behavior that shows antagonism, exploitation and manipulation which reflect ruthlessness and tough-mindedness

Lack of Realistic Long-term Goals - inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals. He lacks direction in life and leads a nomadic existence.

Impulsiveness - acts on momentary urges. Actions are unpremeditated, without deliberation and reflection. He acts without considering the consequences. Being foolhardy, rash, unpredictable and reckless, he is unable to resist temptations. This results in frustrations.

Irresponsibility - repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments such as contractual agreements. He doesn't pay bills, defaults on loans, performs sloppy work, and is often absent or late for work.

Failure to Accept Responsibility for His Actions - reflected in denial of responsibility and antagonistic manipulation of others through this denial. He lacks conscientiousness and a sense of duty.

Many Short-term Relationships - lack of commitment to a long-term relationship  as reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life. This includes marital and familial bonds.

Violation of Conditional Release - fails to honor conditions of probation or other conditional release. This results in revocation of probation due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation or failure to report to his probation officer.

Criminal Versatility - commits a diversity of criminal offenses, sometimes with impunity. He takes great pride in getting away with crimes or wrongdoings.

Modus Operandi of Cult Leaders

Recruitment of new members is one of the main concerns of a cult.  In the beginning, a cult leader is very warm and sweet and being an intelligent being, he uses his charming personality to make you feel important and flatter your ego.  He knows your strengths and weaknesses and what makes you tick.

Sometimes he gives you presents and a position within the organization to make you feel special.  Other followers also try to impress upon you that the leader is a wonderful and compassionate person with special spiritual power.  Very often he is looked upon as a guru. This is the beginning of the spider's web!  And before you know it, you are a willing and enthusiastic member of the organization and proffer your services with zeal voluntarily. 

Thereafter, he will inculcate in you his spiritual philosophy and knowledge.  He loves giving long speeches and sermons, and often repeats himself - a ten-minute sermon can extend to 5 or 6 hours. He loves to listen to his own voice and impress his followers with whatever knowledge he may possess. In the process, he also demonstrates his healing powers to impress you. He may pass on profound teachings which are in tune with your state of mind and well-being.  In between sermons or spiritual lectures, he puts fear into your mind that if you should leave the organization and break certain rules or vows you and your family members will face misfortune or untimely death - in short, emotional blackmailing and brainwashing.   

You are assigned certain tasks within the organization and are loaded with more and more work until you have no time for your friends and family. This is how he isolates you and makes you dependent upon the organization.  You are made to work long hours to the point of exhaustion - mind, body and soul.  With the fear already inculcated in your mind, you have no choice but to carry on working as he controls your mind when you are hopelessly weak and exhausted. You have become an easy target for manipulation and influence.

So long as you are obedient, you are deemed a good member and will probably be promoted to a higher position or are roped into the leader's inner circle to make you feel even more special. In a cult organization, the leader always creates a cell within a cell. Each member in the cell is told he is the chosen favorite assistant, and to keep this to himself. So in such a situation, each of these members feels that he is very important to the guru and the organization.  However, what they don't realize is that each is independently asked to spy on other members. The guru thus controls the organization through divide-and-rule.

If a member is suspected of being insubordinate or disobedient, he or she is placed in the middle of a room and verbally, sometimes physically, abused by other members for hours or days under the guise of religious training or group therapy until the victim breaks or simply gives in to avoid further such punishment. The member is then forced to make false confessions verbally and in writing - much like an Inquisition! 

Sociopaths often act on short-term objectives and often shift their goal posts, moving from one place to another.  Except for temporal gain and fame, they often lack the vision of what they truly want to achieve as the principal objective of the organization.  Ultimately, organizations with sociopath-psychopath leaders destroy themselves.  It is interesting to note here that Jim Jones moved his whole congregation out of USA to Jonestown, Guyana as a mean to isolate his followers who eventually committed mass suicide. 

Are you a Victim of a Sociopathic-Psychopathic Organization?

Do you see yourself as a victim of a cult?  As I said, one is often in a Catch-22 situation.  However, the best way to know is to check its leader against the above personality profile! Ask yourself truthfully whether you are happy with the organization, church, temple, society or even a commercial enterprise, etc. and whether you feel abused and isolated from your friends and family. For those who are wealthy ask yourself whether you have donated more than your fair share for the good (?) of the organization that you belong to.  Charlatan leaders love wealthy members, often treat them well and make them feel important by giving them certain high ranking positions within the organization.  The fool and his monies are soon parted!

Recovery from a Sociopath-Psychopath Experience

If you do identify yourself as a victim of a psychopath and is still a cult member, I would advise you to quietly leave before you are subject to an inquisition! Never turn back.  If you were once a victim but have since left, you would probably have had some traumatic experience to the point of emotional devastation - everything you believed in was a lie.  Do you still have anger towards the sociopath and yourself for being duped?  So how do you overcome the trauma? 

First of all, you must realize that you joined the organization voluntarily because you were attracted by what you believed it stood for; usually for good and sincere charitable work or religious convictions. You believed the organization to be ably led by someone whom you thought was genuinely good and compassionate.  Realize that it is not your fault for being hoodwinked and coerced into joining the organization by the charismatic leader and his minions. There are millions of sociopaths and psychopaths on the planet and each has conned thousands of people. You are certainly not alone!

Secondly, get help - the right help. Do not expect your family and friends to understand. Remember, you broke their hearts when you were deeply entrenched in the organization.  Give yourself and your family time.  If you see a therapist, make sure he or she knows what it is like to be involved with a sociopath-psychopath. You need good counseling rather than anti-depressants to recover from your trauma. 

Thirdly, give yourself time and distance. One of the fastest way to heal yourself is to move on, find a new job and hobbies and cut off all your contacts with the sociopath-psychopath and his followers. 

Finally, if the organization continues to harass you even after you have left, you have the right to make a police report for harassment and emotional blackmail under Section 508 of the Malaysian Penal Code – Act, inducing a person to believe that he will be rendered an object of divine displeasure.  Also refer to Section 503 on criminal intimidation.

Do Not Lose Faith

Whatever nightmarish experience that you may have had in a particular organization, the one important thing is - never lose faith in the religion that you believe in.   One bad apple does not mean that all others are bad; society abounds with many good organizations with leaders who are spiritual friends or kalyana mitras, rather than gurus.   Read Sigalovada Sutta http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.nara.html which refers to true friends and how they treat each other, as well as to a healthy teacher-student relationship. Worshipping a guru with blind faith opens one to the danger of abuse if the guru is not devoid of greed, hatred and delusion. 

A good organization should allow you to make mistakes and the best it can do is to guide you along the right path with patience and compassion, not abuse and harassment. You will know a good organization, a temple or a church where members, lay devotees or volunteers are free to stay or leave for whatever reason without any fear of repercussions or reprimand. No organization is worth its salt if it is vengeful or resentful of its followers and volunteers who wish to leave. If you have left a cult organization, you should say to yourself “good riddance to bad rubbish”!  Be grateful to yourself that you had the courage to leave.

All These Shall Pass

Free your mind from the past and have no regrets – consider a past negative karma settled!  It is now time to move on to a new beginning, always remembering that when one door closes, another opens.  Remember that life is precious. Treasure it.


1 The List of Psychopathy Symptoms: Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare

2 Psychopath vs Sociopath - Difference and Comparison

Disclaimer: This article expresses the views of the writer alone and does not reflect those of this website or any organization that he is connected with.

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