The Cults Intro





From Journeys With A Sufi Master

By Bashir M. Dervish, London 1982



Chapter 6 – THE CULTS


A dervish said to a devil: ‘Why are you sitting there
making no mischief?’ The demon replied sadly:
‘Since the would-be teachers have appeared in such
numbers there is nothing left for me to do.’  ~ Ghulam Haidar


The story of the Sufi who was able to get on with his work because pseudo-teachers drew off sensation-mongers and gave him peace, was, Halim Jan told me, being widely duplicated at the present time.
    He had been involved in observing and assessing the ‘occultist explosion’ which had been taking place right across Western countries for close on twenty years.

    Beginning about 1960, masses of people in the West, suddenly and almost as if of one accord, had ‘discovered’ Eastern mysticism; or what the West thought was Eastern mysticism.
    Perhaps the decline of religion in the West had left a vacuum. Perhaps the dehumanising effect of modern technology had suddenly become intolerable. Perhaps people genuinely felt that there had to be more to human life than the sterility and hopelessness that many modern conditions implied. Whatever the reason or reasons, millions of people in the West had tried to turn to the East — and to the past. People started to play oriental music, to fill their houses with joss-sticks and saris, to wear fur jackets from Afghanistan, kurtas from India, kaftans from Morocco. They developed a taste for koftas and kebabs, tried to understand the Tibetan Book of the Dead, puzzled over the I-Ching, wore Pharaonic Egyptian ankh charms suspended around their necks. Yoga became a pastime for housewives and a subject offered at municipal evening classes.
    Then, slowly at first and then more rapidly, it all started to look ridiculous. Fakes — and rackets — were unmasked. Meditation was seen to produce no better results than hypnosis; and was widely referred to as ‘the rediscovery of the siesta’. The Chinese officially admitted that they had fooled Western doctors with ‘demonstrations’ of acupuncture anesthesia. Zen was filleted for its ‘martial arts’ content and flowed on in various diluted popularisations. The speed with which the balloon burst was proportionate to the West’s impatience for results. When these were not forthcoming, the restless experimenters sought elsewhere. And suddenly there was nothing left.
    Or next to nothing. As the occultist tide receded and ordinary people lost interest, a number of societies, groups, or cults became more or less stabilised around the ‘developmental’ idea. These groups had one concept in common: mankind has a potential for psychological or spiritual growth which is not realised in the conditions of ordinary life.
    Many of these groups or societies had a leader who, his supporters believed, alone possessed the secret of how to activate and guide this inner development.
    Halim Jan said that this was no new phenomenon. Sufis knew the mechanism and the precise stages which every ‘occultist revival’ went through. They could predict the course of the process or as Halim described it, ‘this disease’.  They also knew that until a certain stage had been reached there was nothing to be done. ‘What impresses me’ he said ‘is not what people have found out in twenty years of occultist revival — but how much of what is really there they haven’t even suspected.’
    The leaders of these cults were sometimes sincere: but even when they were, they were rarely much more than half educated in the subject they professed. For the most part they were opportunists or charlatans combining the opportunity to indulge their vanity or lust for power over others, with a convenient and easy method of making money. Some of them were millionaires.
    Shah was, and still is, in the forefront of the battle against the cults; for Sufis see themselves as educating, not manipulating. One of the most fascinating results of this was when, in an interview with the editor of Psychology Today Shah stated (without naming them) that some Indian gurus were frauds, he received scores of protests from gurus’ disciples. Evidently the cap fits.
    Once Shah was invited to visit a supposedly spiritual group, alleged Sufis, somewhere in the heart of the English countryside. He took me and two other people with him.
    We found that, although the Press had reported favourably on the community, it was sustained by mumbo-jumbo, exercises and ideas borrowed from anywhere, and peopled by a disturbingly excitable and odd-looking range of characters. We examined it in detail; and I remarked that it seemed nonsense from beginning to end.
    Shah stroked his chin and smiled. ‘Now you all know just how to organize a cult. It is possible only because, so far, people in general do not realise a very simple fact, namely, that the human being responds emotionally to almost any kind of stimulus. And if he can be excited about a certain point, he may be convinced that he is having a spiritual experience. However, there are certain types who respond best. These are the depressives. The process is likely to work especially well among people whose feelings are repressed by social constraints. Here, read this. The situation is actually known in scientific observation.’  He handed Halim Jan a clipping from the London ‘Times’. It said ‘By Our Medical Correspondent. — Rioting in Belfast has had a beneficial effect upon some forms of mental illness in the city, a psychiatrist states. He has found that depression is least common in the areas of the city most affected by the riots and he claims his statistics support the psychodynamic theory that depression is the result of the inhibition of aggressive responses to frustration. . . In contrast, depression has become more common in the rest of the United Kingdom. . .
     ‘”In the riot area,” he says, “even those inhabitants who took no active part in confrontation with the security forces or rival religious groups could not escape involvement. Violence was a main topic of conversation and the high emotional content of such talk could be expected to have a beneficial effect on those prone to depression. The rise in the peaceful areas of Co. Down could possibly be due to the men there feeling frustration at being unable to take part in the violence described by the news media.”‘
    ‘You see,’ Shah continued, when the item had been read out by Halim, ‘when people who have been inhibited from showing emotion are allowed to do so they will feel better. Their depression will be lightened. The people who run these pantomimes, as one of you has called them, do not usually know what they are doing. Indeed, they may themselves imagine, through misunderstanding what is happening, that something divine has entered the situation. Yet this is really a fairly well-known common denominator of many religious cults.’
    ‘But’, I asked, ‘if some scientists know this, how is it that the facts are not thoroughly understood by the world at large?  If medical people, and social scientists, know the mechanism, why isn’t it common knowledge?’
    ‘First, it certainly is well known. The shelves of bookshops overflow with paperbacks explaining the mechanism of cult-formation and conditioning. So this material should be common knowledge to the readers of such books, which are published for the general public. More time may be necessary, and more educational effort, before this material percolates to the general level.
    ‘Second, the slowness of the acceptance of these facts may well be because the mechanisms which are used by cults are the same as those which are employed in implanting more generally acceptable ideas into the mind. Since no way of distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ inputs of this nature is known, people will tend to look the other way. The days are long gone when one could have said, in the formerly acceptable formula, “Yes, this is how it is done, but in the case of the cult it is the devil, and in our case the church.”‘
    I asked what could stop the cults. ‘Only education. But before people can educate, they have to find a way of bringing to people the truth which is higher than, and a replacement for, manipulating them. The Sufis have clean hands in this respect: but how many other current institutions can say, “Such-and-such a thing is indoctrination: it is treating human beings like programmable machines.”?’
    ‘The present position is that, as I have said, most conventional belief-systems have little to offer other than inducing belief. They have to research the alternatives before they can teach.  Further, though there is a good deal of talk about “harm” and “evil” from the cults, this has never been quantified, and many reasonable people are not at all convinced that all cults are harmful or evil.  The cults will, one day, have to be studied side by side, for good and harmful effects, with all other belief-systems. Only such a study can claim to be scientific, and could command general respect.’
    We visited one cult headquarters, as much, I suspect, for my benefit as any other reason: and were met at the door by a morbid-looking individual who asked who we were. Shah said ‘just visitors’ whereupon the door was slammed in our faces. Shah then telephoned the grandly-named ‘Sufi’ who was the leader of this group and asked to speak to his secretary. To this the man Shah said ‘I want to make an appointment for the Ambassador of Central Arabia’.
    The ‘Ambassador’ was instantly invited: and when we went to the place the red carpet was well and truly out in our honour. We were treated to an exhibition of holy gymnastics and given a ‘sacred reading’ as a prelude to meeting the Master. After a few minutes, during which he stressed both the importance and the secrecy of his work, he calmly demanded that the ‘Ambassador’ give him a donation of a million pounds towards his work!
    On the way home Shah said, ‘If these are what ordinary people know as Sufis, no wonder the man in the street expects us to be mountebanks and frauds.’
    In encounters with self-appointed teachers, Shah was taking no active part and was only providing illustrative material for me and the others of our party. Months later I was to see him in a more active confrontation. The inner meaning of this incident was by no means clear to me when I witnessed it but an analysis of the encounter illustrated not only the precision and economy employed, but also the several levels of understanding simultaneously available when a Sufi engages in a demonstration.
    The leader of a certain cult attended a meeting addressed by Shah and after a bit stood up and started shouting: ‘I defy you to show that your so-called teaching isn’t false. . .’  He ranted on, embracing all the audience in his anger and indignation till he finally ran out of breath. When he did, Shah inquired, ‘Does the chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?’
    The protestor became so red in the face I thought he might collapse. He finally declaimed: ‘And that shows you are an empty buffoon who cannot even respond to a simple question’ and stormed out of the room.
    I asked a Sufi to comment on this incident. He said, ‘The ordinary person has no conception of what takes place between Sufis: because real Sufis communicate by direct perception and not by words. When they are dealing with those who do not understand this, they will use a certain form of language which has one meaning for a ‘raw’ person and a quite different meaning for those who have undergone certain experiences.
    ‘Sufis do not debate one with another. Only scholars and pseudo-Sufis do.
    ‘Had this man been a Sufi, he would have addressed Shah mind to mind, silently and would have been given an answer in the same way. By answering him in words, Shah was demonstrating, to those present and able to understand, that this man was not a Sufi.  Second, by giving the reply he did, Shah was showing that a silly question deserves a silly answer. Third, he punctured the fellow’s self-esteem and thereby showed that since he could be provoked, he couldn’t be a Sufi. And finally, he showed that a dozen words was all that was necessary to get rid of a noisy pest.’
    The Sufis may use jokes to convey an idea so that it ‘penetrates’, when a laborious exposition of the same idea would become entangled in, or blocked by, the hearer’s conditioned responses.
    I have always suspected that there is some awareness of this principle in quite ordinary exchanges; and people often use jokes in a very similar way. A joke somehow touches a nerve on the raw. Some quite instructive ones are found in the West, as well as in the East.
    In one tale, following the Middle East version, a Sufi was to pay a business visit to Europe and was given one or two names which would prove helpful. He was duly passed from contact to contact and had a very successful trip. When he related his experiences to friends at home they noted that his contacts appeared to be university professors, bankers, diplomats, authors and the like, all of them Sufis. One of his friends said, ‘This is very gratifying; but did you get any impression of how ordinary people in, say, England and France are responding to the present Sufi work?’
    ‘That, I’m afraid, I don’t know. You see, I was only dealing with the top people.’  The Scots have a closely similar joke.
    During my stay in England I had been impressed by the large number of professional people whom Shah met. Some, it is true, were inquirers; but many were already following the Sufi way. The idea that in the West responding to Sufi ideas there was a disproportionate number of influential people had indeed struck me. When I heard the ‘top people’ joke in Arabic, I ventured to ask Shah if there was in fact some hidden elitist element in Sufi work.
    He said, ‘Absolutely not. Indeed the reverse. But, in a Sufi operation, certain known mechanisms are followed because they have been shown, historically, to work. A human trait of imitativeness can be encouraged deliberately though normally it manifests mechanically. For instance, in the 18th century the great mass of people in France wouldn’t eat potatoes. But when it became known that the King was not only eating them but was growing them, people clamoured to have their share of “King’s food”.
    ‘Centuries ago when it was necessary to open up communications in one area of the world, six hundred years ago, the Sufi Bahauddin Naqshband of Bukhara actually spent years building roads with his own hands. Afterwards, road-making became an almost compulsive activity because people wanted to follow the holy example of a Saint.
    ‘Again, you may or may not have noted how major religions spread. To begin with they were trivial and local, then a sudden huge expansion took place. This almost always happened as soon as the top people had been converted.
    ‘Just as in mundane matters people imitate those whom they respect, so in Sufism, the inner qualities of one person may help to transmute the learner. People who are real and worthy professionals communicate this higher element through a generally unperceived current.
    ‘You will meet, in the West, large numbers of our people who are not of the elite.’
    And I did.




Chapter 14 – PREDICTIONS, STUDENTS, MONKS — pp. 214-217


    Those of us who ‘travelled’ with Shah were for long unable to match his use of humour together with teaching: it was and is one of his hall-marks.
    But we did succeed in staging some practical jokes which were recognised as coming close: for they worked on the level of exposing triviality which masquerades as something deep.
    Of these, the ‘Indian Rishis’ hoax was our favourite. We did several variations of it, with businessmen, scholars, self-styled holy people, and so on.
    The joke first came into being because Burke, Adil, Firoz and I were getting tired of a number of monks who had taken to visiting the house which had been lent to Shah for one Summer.
    In spite of the many ways which we used to try to discourage them, they came again and again. We gave them lectures to expose their shallowness, which they took with dignity, admitting that they were far from perfect, and revelling in their confessions of inadequacy. When we gave them food, they preached the bounty of God. When we denied it to them, they claimed that they had had it in mind to fast that day, anyway.  In short, they were incorrigible sensation-seekers and dreadful hypocrites. The Press and the pulpit, however, extolled their ‘godliness’.
    Everything was interpreted on the most superficial level, association of ideas, and this was then regurgitated to us as a part of the great, cosmic, spiritual plan and teaching which had once been vouchsafed from on high.
    I have never known people anywhere who were so given to platitudes, and repeated them so much. Firoz said they had been sent ‘by the Father of all conditioning and brainwashing as his most triumphant samples’.
    They were very keen on ‘facts’. They ransacked the writings of the saints of the Middle Ages to provide ‘facts’ about holiness, about God, about revelation, about everything they could think of.  Shah, for some reason that escaped us all, treated them kindly but was heard to mutter: ‘Some people’s “facts” are so wrong that one can only hope that their fantasies are of better quality!’
    So we decided to provide some ‘facts’ of our own.
    Five of the monks, we agreed, were the worst. Shallow intellectuals, with a repressed emotionality which they thought was religion, is the only way I can begin to describe them.
    So, one day, we invited them to meet some very holy men — Indian Rishis — who had arrived on a visit. One of them, we said in a confidential tone, was really a saint.
    Their delight knew no bounds, and each one wanted to know which one would be the ‘saint’. Each of the monks was told separately ‘in confidentiality’, which of the visitors would be the saint, and he was asked not to tell the others. The first monk was told that the ‘man in the red turban’ would be the great man, the second was tipped off that the saint would be the one in the blue turban, and so on.
    Meanwhile, we had got hold of five rather avaricious and down-market Sikh peddlers, who travelled the country with suitcases selling clothes, mostly women’s underwear, from door to door. We told them we had some Western customers for them who should be a pushover for a bit of salesmanship.
    The Sikhs arrived first and we seated them in front of a large rockery, on a plank covered with red silk. Then the monks, eyes gleaming with heaven knows what expectation of holy revelation, were led from the house.
    We coached the Brothers to treat the Sikhs with the utmost respect, and then showed them onto the lawn which abutted the bushes in front of which the itinerants were settled.
    At the sight of the holy ones, the monks broke into a run. Then, remembering our instructions, they fell to their knees and approached the Indians as best they could in that fashion. When a short distance from their goal, each monk gave a small cry in Punjabi (which we had made them memorise and which really meant ‘show me your wares please’). Then each took the hand of his appointed ‘real saint’ and kissed it.
    I will say one thing for some Sikh peddlers: it takes a lot to surprise them.
    Without turning a hair, each of the ‘Saints’ led his appointed monk by the hand, past the rockery and into the bushes. There he gravely displayed, from his battered suitcase, his full range of largely feminine garments before the glazed eyes of the celibate fact-worshipper.
    Such arguments as were possible, given the extreme limits of communication, were not long in breaking out.
    The monks got the worst of it. They lacked an understanding of the strong sense of injustice which assails the Punjab small businessman when he finds people failing to appreciate the necessity of making a purchase from him after showing interest.
    The monks left in high indignation and never came back. The Sikhs were compensated for the deals that had fallen through.
    Shah was told of our deviation from the straight and narrow. He said: ‘One of these monks used to ask me to “describe a Sufi”. Describing a saint as a man you can recognize by a coloured turban is just about what they deserved.
    ‘As practical jokes go, this was a good one. But, having savoured it, let us remember what Saadi says in the Orchard, and exercise our himmat (aspiration) that it should be so in this case: “One places a seed in the earth/So that on the day of need it shall give fruit.”‘
    Omar Burke, after the manner of the Sufis who use quotations to keep an event in the mind, cited one attributed to the Master Gharib-Nawaz: ‘He is indeed in a prison-house who claims to be pious.’
    One of the fruits of this seed, breaking out of the prison of assumptions and hypocrisy, was the delight which so many Indians expressed when they heard this tale.  For them, it seems the burden of false gurus and equally false Western admirers, as well as of certain itinerant and sometimes rascally trading compatriots in the West, was becoming too much to bear.
    Indeed, I am still hearing of versions of this practical joke, which are perpetuated by members of the Indian immigrant community in Britain, ‘to keep the ball rolling’, to keep the process alive, as one of them recently informed me.
    But after this I spent less and less time in the United Kingdom, for my duties took me to the new and in many ways different field of America.