Cults and organized religion

On the way back from Mysore last week, my mom asked to go to an orphanage in Srirangapatnam which is run by one Mr Halagappa, a follower of the Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi (ok I must mention that followers of the Sai Baba get pissed off if you call them followers – they claim to be “devotees”. In other words, they consider the Baba to be God. I had a long argument with my aunt once about this). It’s a nice place, located on north bank of the south stream of the Cauvery river.

We were led to the prayer hall where a little girl from the orphanage gave us prasad – something that seemed like sweetened honey and vibhuti. The atmosphere in the hall reminded me of the meditation hall in my school (Sri Aurobindo Memorial, Bangalore). There was an “om” record playing perennially. At one end, there were several photos of the Baba. The interesting thing was that surrounding the “altar”, there were symbols of various religions – om, crescent and star, fire, the cross, the star of david, etc. Maybe it indicated that the Sai Baba was all those gods combined in one.

Now, the thing with people belonging to the Sai Baba cult believe that he is God. They believe that he is God and his previous incarnation was the Sai Baba of Shirdi. Interestingly, most of his followers are also deeply religious with respect to another organized religion. For example, my mother is an extremely devout Hindu – to the extent that she believes that miracles can be caused by doing certain rituals, etc. And she is also completely into the Sai Baba cult.

Then, no organized religion has room for godmen. They do have room for religious leaders – who are supposed to interpret the teachings of the religion and explain them to the mango person, but they certainly don’t approve of religious leaders who claim to be God themselves. In fact, when a religious/spiritual leader proclaims himself to be God, he is implicitly stating that he is alone the true God and all other religions need to be rejected. Yet, he seems to get zillions of followers who are more often than not major followers of some other organized religion. Isn’t there a contradiction?

Spiritual leaders come in two forms – godmen and gurus. The former make their followers believe that they are God. The latter don’t make any such claims – they just claim to be carrying the word of some god of one or more organized religions and passing them on to the mango person. I wonder what it is that makes deeply religous people (wrt organized religion) go after godmen and become “devotees”. Don’t they see it as being contradictory to their belief in their own organized religion? Again – some of them might just be accepting these godmen as gurus and not as godmen, and that makes some sense. But what about the rest?

I know I can confront my mother directly about this, but I also know that she won’t like the idea that I’m asking her uncomfortable questions and she’ll just end up getting angry with me.

12 thoughts on “Cults and organized religion”

  1. nice post! i think the simple answer is that when it comes to religion, all rationale break down. people interpret anything they see to fit a theory they believe is true … conformation bias (i think you blogged about it a while back).

    My mom and her family are also followers of Sai Baba. When they see him tired and sick, that say that he has absorbed all the sins and that had rendered him weak. They seem to have explanation anything that is not god-like (like getting sick). I am sure people are going to interpret the holy books the way they like when you ask them about this.

  2. I think these godmen are very smart people who have learnt the art of manipulating human emotions.There must be some theory behind how they do it or some bias in humans that is repeatedly exploited.Need to see if some research is available on this.

    1. one of the alternate careers i’ve considered is to become a godman. i don’t have a good b-plan and i’m not pedophile, so not yet putting.

  3. wow. i get an ad for scientiology for this post in my RSS feed! I suppose we must be glad that people around us are into sai baba cult and not into scientiology. Things can be worse people…

    1. why is sai baba cult better than scientology? and i’m getting that dx too, followed by an ad asking me to believe in haysoos

  4. I don’t think there is any contradiction with Hinduism. The concept of Gods taking avataara as ordinary humans is well established. Followers of other religions may have a problem, but then, I don’t think too many muslims and christians are devotees of these babas.

  5. Hinduism is not organized religion, in fact it is disorganized religion, we dont restrict ourself to A temple,(in contradiction to church system, where mostly people attend one church, also temples are differant from churches in many aspects). Unlike semitic organized religions we dont have one book, we dont have one god etc etc. Basically everything is up in the air and deeply left to personal interpretation, that is why i call it disorganized religion.
    SO your contradiction is not well substantiated in referance to hinduism

  6. Just to put fundae – not supporting the Sai Baba cult or anything: Does Jesus qualify as a godman? If so, there is an entire religion organised around him, no? Of course, that there have been no other in the religion has immensely helped the fact.

    And what about Buddhism, and their Lamas? They have proper procedure and all to select their avatars.

    Islam also has this, but at a different level, where people claim to be prophets – which is also huge thing.

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