By Rick Ross

In a recent opinion/editorial New York Times piece titled “The Cult Deficit” columnist Ross Douthat stated, “the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms.” He concluded, “Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.”

Interestingly, Deepak Chopra was a disciple of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was often called a “cult leader.” Maharishi was the founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a group frequently included on cult lists and still quite active amidst allegations of abuse.

Douthat doesn’t seem to care much about destructive cults or the damage they do. He laments that the Branch Davidians were “mistreated and misjudged.” Apparently the columnist hasn’t bothered to do much research as he has ignored the facts reported in the press about the Davidians and as established through the congressional record, the Danforth Report and submitted through court proceedings. Suffice to say that despite anti-government conspiracy theories David Koresh was one of the most vicious cult leaders in modern history. He was a deeply disturbed man that sexually preyed upon children and stockpiled weapons for the purpose of a violent end.

Journalist Tony Ortega at Raw Story points out that “The same week the US goes to war with one, NYT’s Douthat asks, where are the cults?” Ortega recognizes that many terrorist groups today are little more than personality-driven cults, such as al-Qaeda once was under the influence of Osama bin Laden. History is strewn with examples of the destruction wrought by totalitarian cults from the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler to the family dynasty that continues to dominate and control North Korea.

Not surprisingly following up Douthat doesn’t quote Ortega’s response, but instead prefers “Reason Magazine,” a Libertarian leaning publication that essentially agrees with him. Calling a column written by Peter Suderman a “very interesting response” Dauthat again ignores the facts and reiterates his opinion, as supposedly supported by a “religious historian” and venture capitalist. Suderman doesn’t dispute Douthat’s claim that cults are in decline, but rather uses it as a hook for his own spin about the “rise of subcultures.”

However, despite all the liberal or Libertarian posturing performed by these pundits the cult phenomenon has actually expanded around the world.

Unlike the United States, other countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East have taken steps to respond to cults both through regulation and law enforcement. For example, in Japan and Germany cults have been closely monitored and in China some have been outlawed. Recently in Israel cult leader Goel Ratzon was convicted of sex crimes. Ratzon’s criminal conviction followed a lengthy government investigation and raid by law enforcement.

In addition to malevolent cult movements that have captivated nations the old familiar groups called “cults” that Douthat thinks have faded away actually are still around such as Scientology, the Unification Church, Hare Krishnas, Divine Light Mission, International Church of Christ, and Est (the Forum), although they may now use new names to avoid easy recognition.

In fact the United States has become something of a destination point and haven for groups called “cults.”

Dahn Yoga, led by Ilchee Lee, which started in South Korea, later set up shop in Arizona and now has a following across America.

Another recent arrival is the World Mission Society Church of God led by Zhang Gil-Jah, known to her devotees as “Mother God.” Not long ago Zhang opened her first church in New Jersey. Since then the group has grown rapidly across the US and Canada. Mother has even rented space in Manhattan not far from the New York Times.

Exiled “evil cult” leader Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong, had to leave China, but found refuge in New York. According to researchers Li now has a flock of about !0,000 followers in North America. He claims to channel miraculous healing powers, which has allegedly led to medical neglect and death. The group has regular parades and demonstrations in NYC, Apparently Mr. Dauthat missed that.

Just as there will always be con men running schemes to take people’s money, there will always be destructive cult leaders exploiting the vulnerabilities of humanity. For con men and cult leaders it’s a business and it seems to be quite profitable. When Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986 his estate totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, Scientology reportedly has a billion dollars in cash and vast real estate holdings. When Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died he left behind a spiritual empire valued in billions. Rev. Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, likewise left behind a hefty financial legacy, which is now managed by his children. Whenever there is cash and assets someone will step in to take over. And in the United States cults can operate with relative impunity as an unregulated industry.

No one knows exactly how many cult members there are in the United States. But almost every day I learn of a new group or organization that seems to fit the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for most definitions of a destructive cult. These core criteria were established by Robert Jay Lifton back in the 1980s. Rather than focusing on what a group believes Lifton’s criteria focus on the structure, dynamics and behavior of a group.

First, the single and most salient feature of a destructive cult is that it is personality-driven and animated by a living, charismatic and totalitarian leader. It is that leader who is the defining element and driving force of the group. Whatever the leader says is right is right and whatever the leader says is wrong is wrong. He or she determines the relative morality of the group and its core identity.

Second, the group engages in a process of thought reform to break people down and then redevelop them according to a predetermined mindset, which includes a diminished ability to think critically and/or independently. This is accomplished through a synthesis of coercive persuasion and influence techniques, relentlessly focused on individuals subjected to the group process.

Finally, the third criteria, is that the group does harm. This may vary from group to group as some groups are more harmful than others. One groups may simply exploit its members financially or through free labor, while others may make much more intense demands such as sexual favors, medical neglect or even criminal acts.

Whatever the group may present as its facade, be it religion, politics, exercise, martial arts, business scheme or philosophy, it is the structure, dynamics and behavior of the group that sets it apart and aligns it with the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for a definition of a destructive cult.

For those who would attempt to diminish the power of persuasion used by cults we have only to look at the pattern of behavior within such groups. Why would people act against their own interests, but instead consistently behave in the best interest of the cult leader? Why would cult members allow their children to die due to medical neglect or surrender them for sexual abuse? The most compelling explanation for such otherwise improbable behavior is that cult victims are under undue influence and therefore unable to think for themselves independently.

The dirty little secret about cults and their bag of tricks, is that we are all vulnerable to coercive persuasion and influence techniques. And this is particularly true when we are at a vulnerable time in our lives. This might include a period of grief, financial instability, isolation or some other personal setback. It is at these times that cults can more easily and deceptively recruit people. No one intentionally joins a cult. Instead, people are tricked by cults, through deceptive recruitment practices and a gradual indoctrination process that doesn’t immediately fully disclose the group’s expectations and agenda.

If people were not vulnerable to persuasion and influence techniques there would be no advertising or political propaganda. Every person approached isn’t taken in by cult recruitment tactics, just as everyone doesn’t buy a product promoted by slick advertising. The question is not why don’t cults recruit everyone, but rather how do they recruit people and why do those people often stay to their determent.

Instead of denial and fanciful claims about the decline of cults our best response regarding such groups is education and increased awareness. Understanding the basic warning signs of a potentially unsafe group is a good start. And utilizing the Web to find information about specific groups before becoming more deeply involved is always a good idea. More information helps people make more informed choices. Ignorance may lead to devastating consequences.

As Tony Ortega concluded, “As long as the media remains in the dark about destructive cults and the way they work, we’ll continue to get bewildering statements about ISIS, and ignorant columns from the New York Times.”

Critics of Wikipedia have often questioned the credibility of the on-line encyclopedia as a reliable resource for objective information.

Wikipedia’s disclaimer warns, “Please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information.”

Therefore the disclaimer concludes, “Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here.” And this statement does appear in bold black type.

Now it seems Wikipedia participants cannot even rely upon its editors to remain neutral and that some may have come to the on-line encyclopedia with an agenda.

Recently one Wikipedia adminstrator/editor has been outed by The Register regarding his bias and questionable behavior. It seems that this editor has used the Web site to promote his spiritual guru and attack any of his mentor’s critics.

Wikipedia administrator Jossi Fresco is a long-time devotee of the controversial Indian guru Maharaji, once proclaimed by his followers “Lord of the Universe.”

prem_rawat.jpgGuru Maharaji led the group “Divine Light Mission,” which was often referred to as a “cult” by the media.

Maharaji received so much bad press he later changed his name to “Prem Rawat” (see photo left), settled upon the title of “motivational speaker” and now calls his group “Elan Vital.”

Jossi Fresco has worked for Prem Rewat, though he is rather vague about his current job, which seems to include using Wikipedia to promote his guru.

Jossi not only has used his editor’s position to stiffle criticism of Prem Rawat, but has also more generally manipulated Wikipedia entries on the subject of cults and related topics. Jossi’s efforts have at times included the Wikipedia page about me (Rick Ross), creator of CultNews.

But here is the real kicker.

If anyone thinks that Jossi Fresco’s actions at Wikipedia represent a “conflict of interest” what can be done?

Well, complaints would likely go to Wikipedia’sConflict of Interest Noticeboard.

But don’t be shocked if you receive something less than a “fair shake” at this Internet location.

After all, Jossi Fresco created this board.

So it seems there is a “conflict of interest” at the Wikipedia “Conflict of Interest Noticeboard.”

jimmy_wales.jpgReportedly Wikipedia’s “elite” have been informed and are “well aware” regarding the details about Jossi Fresco. And those informed notably includes Wikipedia creator Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales (see photo right).

But nothing has been done about Fresco to date.

Jossi Fresco is a glaring example of why Wikipedia is at times a less than credible Internet resource and per its disclaimer no one should automatically accept “the validity of information found” there.

Once upon a time there was teenage boy who said, “I am Lord of the Universe.” And the little “Lord” came to America and set up shop–with ashrams, devotees and work crews.

The little “Lord’s” disciples worked and worked for their guru, hoping to please him and attain “enlightenment.”

The guru boy became fat, rich and retired.

But that’s not the end of this story.

The self-proclaimed “Lord of the Universe,” decided that the guru business was just too good to quit, so he came back for another round, with a new name.

Now a fat middle aged man, the ex-”Lord of the Universe” once known as “Guru Maharaji” of the “Divine Light Mission,” is now just Prem Rawat. And he runs something called “Elan Vital.”

However, Prem Rawat hasn’t really changed that much, since the old days when he was often called a “cult leader.” The ex-guru is still marketing “enlightenment.”

But one former disciple says, “He is nothing more than a fraud and fat cat who is living in the lap of luxury at the expense of his followers,” reported the Courier Mail.

There are quite few “ex-premies” who apparently would agree with this observation and they have websites and discussion groups on the Internet (see links page listing).

The former “Lord of the Universe” denies all their allegations of abuse and exploitation.

Rawat is now in the midst of a tour throughout the United States, which has proven to be fertile ground for the guru in the past. And historically he has harvested quite a few followers from college campuses.

His first stop was at UC Berkeley sponsored by Elan Vital.

“He’s coming to Berkeley doing an introductory program, which means he’s trying to recruit more people,” a former member said. And added, “What they are not telling the public is that he used to claim he was the living incarnation of God,” reported the Daily Californian.

But the message of the ex-”Lord of the Universe” has been modified somewhat and the “God-man” now talks largely in generalities that are puffy and peaceful. It’s not easy to pin him down.

Rawat eventually admitted in an interview that he’s promoting a type of meditation.

“You could say this is meditation, but it’s not meditation because it’s so far beyond that…So, it is like meditation and it is very unlike meditation,” he said.

Huh?

Rawat goes on, “You have to feel for yourself. It’s a feeling…But that doesn’t mean anything because, unless you have felt it, you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

The old guru appears to be promoting a type of trance induction achieved through various techniques.

“You just need to be free from distractions so that when the techniques are being taught, you can learn them. And…practice…every day when you can sit down quietly to do that,” he says.

One ex-premie put it more bluntly, “It’s all about surrender. Unfortunately that includes surrendering your money.”

The ex-”Lord of the Universe” tour is scheduled to make stops in Pittsburgh, New York and Miami.

Many of his devotees, like “dead heads,” follow their old guru from venue to venue. One diehard fan some might say is in denial insisted, “I don’t see any connection between Mr. Rawat and a cult,” reports the Daily Californian.

“Prem Rawat’s inspiration and guidance is what gets me through school,” extolled an exuberant new Berkeley recruit and avid practitioner of his techniques.

Well, it appears that the “incarnation of God” is back in business and judging from the naive attitude of some college kids, he might just have a new cash crop.

Once upon a time there was a teenage guru from India named “Mahariji.” He came to the United States in the disco days of the 1970s and created a “cult” following he called the “Divine Light Mission.” The boy wonder made a mint and then retired. Some say his money came from exploiting his “brainwashed” followers, by taking their cash and/or free labor. But as the 70s faded so did the guru—or it least that’s the way it seemed.

Well, perhaps the 70s really never faded at all. The divine Mr. M is back, living proof that you just can’t keep a good guru down, or maybe a bad one.

Guru Mahariji is now a middle-aged man with a gut, but he can’t seem to give up his teenage persona. He calls his current enterprise “Elan Vital.” 4,000 of his devotees flocked to Australia recently to hear the word from their old guru. They paid $275.00 per head to attend, which means that Mahariji made more than a million dollars.

But one ex-follower of Mr. M decided to crash the party. That former fan was Neville Ackland, who was stopped by police from entering the event. He calls Mahariji a “false guru,” and claims that he took him for $500,000. Ackland had a petition signed by hundreds of other ex-disciples who seemed to feel the same way, reported the Courier Mail.

Never mind the bad press though, the money in the guru business is just too fat to pass up. And like an old disco diva playing Vegas, you just can’t seem to keep this 70s guru guy from staging his act. After all, why stay at the ashram when the money is this easy?