Understanding Eastern Groups
In the twentieth century, dozens of migrating new religions
and new versions of old ones have struggled to find acceptance in societies that
view them suspiciously.
Unscrupulous leadership styles, aggressive recruiting and
fundraising tactics, abuse of members, and an elitism that devalues or condemns
outsiders are traits that have earned a “destructive cult” label for many of
these new Eastern movements. In other cases strange rites, costumes, and
language confuse outsiders who might suspect deception or elitism when there is
More often than not the confusion comes from both sides of
the culture mix as exotic leaders recruit natives of a different culture who
neither understand the language nor grasp the real history of the group they
join. Often the new leader is as influenced or changed by the new culture as new
members are by the exotic teachings of a sect based on an old religion. As a
result many of the new sects that stem from Eastern religions develop a hybrid
character and content.
To better understand Eastern groups in American culture it
helps to follow certain guidelines. First and foremost is to gather information
by and about the group. Some notorious groups have accumulated a wealth of
commentary from scholars as well as journalists. The problem here is to sort
fact from distortion, so it is important to repeatedly ask the question, “what
factors might detract from the reliability of this claim?” It also helps to be
aware of one’s own bias, be it religious, political, scientific, or
experiential. Relatively unknown Eastern groups or small, emerging groups tend
to fit into some category of faith or philosophy: for example, Taoism, Mahayana
Buddhism, Bhakti Yoga, neoShintoism or heretical Sikhism. More often a maverick
leader has broken with a known sect or claims to revive or purify his or her
native religion. It is extremely rare for a leader of a new group not to be
influenced by a prior group. Sometimes the leader borrows from or syncretizes
ideas from many traditions. How that new leader has changed prior teachings and
rituals can help us understand the new purposes, meanings, and potential
directions the group will take.
Second, I suggest you adopt a set of standards that not
only apply to your own value system, but standards that reflect a wider,
intercultural model of a healthy group. Then
compare the evidence you have gathered from your most reliable sources and run
down the checklist. Some suggestions: Are there reliable checks and balances on
the authority figures? Are the techniques and rituals in and of themselves
potentially harmful? For instance, meditation is the most common technique of
Eastern groups, yet the Eastern traditions often relate warnings about the
dangers of meditation practice. Does the group have hidden agendas and double
standards? Is the group more like a lucrative business for the leadership than a
religion that serves all members equitably?
Eastern groups tend to revolve around the mystical
revelations or enlightened status of the founder or leaders. More often than
not, alleged magical and miraculous powers enhance the status of the guru. It is
not uncommon for devotees of such gurus to submit to them as they would submit
to “God.” Within some Eastern teachings total submission by a devotee is an
honorable and sacred choice. Since revelation and enlightenment are highly
subjective notions, the behaviors and actions of the leader and the group
members might be the only objective criteria one has to evaluate and understand.
It is not unusual for “enlightened” leaders to act as if the mundane morals and
laws of average human beings do not apply to them. What are the leader’s
“enlightened” attitudes and behaviors? How much power or influence does the
leader have over devotees? Does enlightenment equal entitlement? The elegant and
positive elements of any Eastern group are reflected not only through the
experience and actions of its devotees, but also in how those devotees affect
the society around them. The same holds true for corrupt elements.
Joseph P. Szimhart is an independent consultant,
researcher, and intervention specialist in the area of abusive groups and cults.
Reprinted from AFF’s Cults and Psychological Abuse: A
Resource Guide and AFF’s Cult Observer, Volume 14, Number 5, 1997.