In recent times there has been a lot of discussion about cults in the media and the word has been thrown around to express a variety of views. It must be clarified for all concerned that the idea of 'cult' does not exist in India. There is no corresponding word for it in Sanskrit or Hindi. The closest word that is used is sampradaya, which can be loosely translated as sect. The use of the language in this way indicates that the idea has never been part of the Indian mindset. Therefore, when someone says that 'Indian spirituality has thrived on cults', it indicates an incorrect understanding of the spiritual traditions of India. What Indian spirituality has thrived on is the wisdom of those who, through their intense inner exploration, developed a deep understanding of human life and its relationship with the universe. These were people who wrote the Vedas, the Upanishads and other systems of philosophy and practice.
What they realized and wrote did not die with them, however. They imparted their wisdom to other seekers who came after them, who expanded on it, passed it down further, and what was created was an unbroken chain of knowledge and understanding, which continues up to the present day.
The one who gave the knowledge came to be known as guru, 'the dispeller of darkness', and the one who received the knowledge came to be known as shishya, 'the one who learns'. The guru-disciple tradition became the pillar of the spiritual lifestyle in this part of the world, not only in India but in all of South-East Asia. Due to its inherent nature, where the guru can open up the doors that will lead the shishya beyond his or her limitations into a wider vision, the relationship has been held sacred and treated with the highest reverence.
In the guru-disciple tradition, the teachings that are given are in accordance with the level of mastery of the guru and the readiness of the seeker. Adept gurus impart the highest knowledge that they have realized only to the most capable disciples who can assimilate it, and to other seekers they give knowledge according to individual needs and understanding. This is what lends a certain secrecy or mystery to spiritual knowledge. The knowledge that has not yet been received is perceived as secret, but once one receives it one realizes why it had been withheld.
It might make for an interesting anthropological study as to why this tradition has been an integral part of the Asian society but has not achieved such prominence in western society. It may be surmised that the essential quality that is needed in the guru-disciple connection is the ability to say, 'I do not know enough, you know better, so make me an instrument of your higher wisdom'. This is called surrender of the ego. Such acceptance and acknowledgement of another, in fact, formed the bedrock of the vedic civilization, even in the larger framework of society and environment.
Living in harmony with others and nature was the principle the ancients abided by, which required accepting and placing the whole above one. Possibly in a place like Asia where nature was plentiful and survival was relatively easy, this attitude was easier to imbibe. However, in the western civilization, which developed by overcoming harsh climatic conditions and on the principle of survival of the fittest, personal ambition and projection become naturally prominent and gave rise to a state of mind that is contrary to the attitude that developed in India. Due to the above approach, a unique strand of philosophy came to existence in the east: merger of monotheism and polytheism. From the very beginning, the belief that overrode every other belief was that the Source is one. The ancient vedics called this Source hiranyagarbha, the later Vedantins called it Brahman, the Shaivas called it Sadashiva, and so on. In one of the oldest and most inspiring verses of the Rig Veda, the Hiranyagarbha Sukta, this One Source behind every facet of creation is eulogized (v.1):
In the beginning was the Divinity in His splendour, manifested as the sole Lord of land, skies, water, space and that beneath and He upheld the earth and the heavens. Who is the deity we shall worship with our offerings?
Other seers said: Ekobrahman, dwityonasti There is only one Brahman, and no other. Yet, it was this very belief in One, this very monotheism, that allowed room for many, and resulted in the subsequent polytheism. If the One Source was behind everything, then everything was worship-worthy as an aspect of That. The wind and waters were pervaded by divinity and worshipped as Varuna, the earth was pervaded by divinity and worshipped as Bhu Devi, the sun was pervaded by divinity and worshipped as Surya. Similarly, every individual who had realized that Truth was considered the same as the Truth. Such a one was an avatara, descended from That, and became worship-worthy too, whether in the form of Rama, Krishna, Buddha or Jesus.
The original wisdom of the ancestors allowed room for every stream of thought, every path to reach the end of the journey. This inclusive perspective, unique to Indian spirituality, continued through the ages, and as a result India has come to have 33 million gods and goddesses, and an equally large number of schools and paths. People followed the course that suited their temperament or which was predominant in the environment they lived in, whether family or society, yet in the backdrop the One Reality always existed. This is what resulted in a social milieu of religious tolerance. In the same family, the father could be a Shaiva, the mother an ardent believer of Gauri, the daughter a fan of Krishna, and the son an atheist. An example close to us is of Sri Swami Satyananda, whose mother was a Gandhian, father an Arya Samaji, sister a Catholic nun, and brother married to a Muslim. Indeed, the Indian mindset never faced any contradiction in recognizing Buddha as an avatara or Jesus as an enlightened one. Even in circumstances where the sects fought for differences, the prominent spiritual figures were able to bring them back together; all it required was a reminder of what was already a part of their genetic makeup: the ability to see the One in many.
Adi Shankaracharya resolved the differences between Shaivites and Vaishnavites through the simple act of installing a Vaishnava priest in a Shaiva temple. Tulsidas adopted a similar approach and called Rama and Shiva each others aradhyayas. The Lingayat Shaivites became a warrior sect around the 13th century but could not hold their sway and were assimilated back into the mainstream of Shaivism. There are many such examples.
This is not to state that there haven't been differences within society in the Indian system. The important point to understand, however, is that the differences did not arise due to religious ideology. The main factor behind social disparity was the misuse of the caste system. If we think about it, even when the brahmin did not allow the shudra to enter the temple of Rama, he would not say that My Rama is different from your Rama'.
In comparison, the individualistic approach of the West lent itself to religious acceptance of one versus unacceptance of another. This gave rise to a specific kind of monotheism, where belief in one meant rejection of others. The masters, whether Jesus or Mohammed, realized the Whole, but their realization did not become an attitude of the masses. The belief system that grew there was focused on one God or one messiah, and anything else was pagan or kafir. This tendency to label that which is different and to base one's beliefs on definitions 'definitivenotions' became an ingrained part of the western psyche. Terms such as monotheism and polytheism are also only labels created by the western way of thinking that exaggerate the differences. In fact, if we go back to the way of thinking of the vedic seers, we find that ultimately, labelling anything went against their grain. Form was only a way to reach the formless, and therefore they proclaimed, Neti Neti Not this, not this, as in the final analysis, definitions limit the limitless.
It was this width of perspective that led hordes of seekers to travel to the East. Once material prosperity had reached its zenith in the West, the new generation rejected the values that were on offer and sought the elusive something else.
Unfortunately, there were many among them whose search was sincere but who were hampered by the psyche they had inherited. The eastern perspectives seemed attractive but to integrate it with their inherent patterns of mind was a challenge. It was inevitable that rejection would follow and so would the associated pain, anger, and sadly, name-calling. The rare ones who saw through the mirage of their own mind, of course, became extraordinary people.
Undoubtedly not all who claimed to be masters in the eastern part of the world had reached the highest level of awareness either, nor was every path devoid of irregularities, and many of the spiritual groups did develop into an image of what the West calls cult. As is human nature, there will always be those who will use an idea as an opportunity to develop its counterfeit to derive personal benefit. In addition, many who started on an idealistic note could not maintain the ideal as the whirlwinds of the world caught them and threw them hither and thither.
An important phenomenon that also inevitably took place was that many seekers, irrespective of nationality, reached only a certain distance in the journey and then their own limitations overpowered them and they were unable to go further. Emotions such as fear, insecurity, or desire can become such a block for a seeker that it becomes impossible to see beyond it. In philosophical terms, it may be said that it is one's karma to go only so far in this lifetime and one will cover the next lap in another lifetime, for evolution is a continuous process. Nevertheless, what happens in reality is that many blame the master, the institution or the philosophy itself for the predicament they find themselves in, and ironically, create cults of hatred.
This continues to happen. As is human nature, when one experiences a lack of fulfilment, hurt or anger, one must find an external source to blame it on. To have the inner strength and the will where one can acknowledge one's own limitations, find their source within, then work through them to gradually free oneself from these, takes a rare seeker; and those who have that calibre do not have the need to indulge in casting aspersion on another. They are able to experience even an imperfect person, an imperfect path, an imperfect place, an imperfect time, as an opportunity to learn, grow and attain perfection. This has been the attitude prescribed and practised by the ones who reached the end of the journey in Indian history, and therefore the notion of cult could never find root here.
Instead, the guru was always treated with utmost respect and the spiritual journey considered a sacred pilgrimage. People and paths have come and gone, but what has sustained here is sanatana dharma, the eternal religion, based on the non-changing principles that carry a person closer to the experience of truth, auspiciousness and beauty, Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram.