Mind Control and Religious Cults



Date: 11-24-02

From: Mary Garden

Email: marygarden@bigpond.com

The following article by Mary Garden was published in 1990, following the 1988 publication of her book:

"The Serpent Rising. A Journey of Spiritual Seduction".

Mary's extraordinary experiences in India with several gurus, including Sathya Sai Baba, and in particular her observations and reflections on how easily some people can be persuaded to switch off  and surrender their powers of critical thought and discernment remain as topical and as poignant as when she wrote this article and her book. The new version to which she refers at the end of this article will be eagerly awaited. 

For correspondence or further information about her book, Mary Garden's e-mail address is given below.


Mind Control and Religious Cults

(originally published in Nature and Health, Australia, 1990)

Mary Garden (e-mail address: marygarden@bigpond.com) 

Even though I am now regarded as 'a dangerous witch' by some in the Sathya Sai Baba fraternity, and presumably other groups, I have come to believe that the e use of bizarre rationalisations by such cults - the Moonies' 'heavenly deception', for instance - is the essence of mind control. 

When I began writing The Serpent Rising - a Journey of Spiritual Seduction, I had no intention of exposing gurus and the kingdoms over which they reign. I was still quite ambivalent about my seven-year stint as a guru-junkie in India during the 1970s and, if anything, I blamed myself for not having been able to stand up to the rigours spiritual enlightenment demanded. 

The actual writing of this book, however, had a miraculous effect in that it began to unlock my mind from what I now see was a quite pernicious form of mind-control. A mind-control to which I succumbed in the first place for a variety of reasons: the temptation of spiritual power, a naïve gullibility, some need for authority, a sense of despondency about the meaning of life ... the list could go on. As I neared completion of the book, the desire to read, study and think for myself was re-awakened. I discovered numerous other writings by former cult-members and was astonished to find the same patterns of mind control were present. Autobiographies of ex-followers of Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, Rajneesh, Sai Baba, Maharishi Yogi, Ron Hubbard, Prabhupada and, more recently, Swaggart and Bakker (charismatic Christians), revealed alarming exploitation of members - sexual, financial, psychological and other abuses. 

Yet in spite of such exposés, people are still drawn, as if by a magnet, to these religious leaders and movements. Hugh Milne's Bhagwan, the God that Failed documents the hypocrisy that went on in the name of spirituality under Rajneesh. Although virtually the entire original 'inner' circle have since escaped and are slowly putting their lives back together again in various parts of the world, a new group has nestled around the 'Bhagwan', now back in Poona. Despite adverse media publicity over the bizarre events that unfolded at Oregon, not to mention Milne's revelations, people still flock to the feet of this man. Tal Brooke, former close devotee of Sai Baba, wrote Lord of the Air in which he claimed that this so-called avatar was in fact a deviant con-man, possessing extraordinary psychic powers by which he could prey on his followers, especially close male disciples. Yet people still rush off to Bangalore convinced that there is God on Earth.

Why? Is it the addiction to the bliss one can feel in the presence of these enigmatic beings? Or do people deliberately close their minds out of fear, because what is being reported in exposés is too threatening to their faith? And why do people assume that because a person exhibits unusual powers of clairvoyance, healing, or even materialisation of physical objects that this instantly seals his claim to divinity? 

The place in India where I spent the most time at (and where I suffered a wide range of abuse), was an isolated ashram near Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This was the kingdom of a powerful yogi, Balyogi Premvarni, who had a chameleon personality portraying not only god-like qualities but also revealing a cruel, almost demonic face. However, I later even came to believe that this darker side was in fact just divine 'lila' -  a test to wake us up!

It is  now clear that my dramatic changes of personality (which I regarded as spiritual) were in fact a total dis­ruption of my individual identity as a person. This disruption was in part facilitated by the imposition of a new name - a common initiation in most religious cults. When "Swamiji" bestowed on me the Sanskrit name 'Archanad' , he explained that my true spiritual path was one of adoration of the Divine. These new names have tremendous sig­nificance - they signify a re-birth, a cut­ting off from the past, as if what we were before needs to be somehow obliterated, forgotten.

However, the problem is that surrender to a guru-figure can lead to the disintegration of personality and individuality. Instead of the promise of increased awareness and humility, what can take place is increased robotism. In my own case, over the years I became more and more indecisive, since most major decisions were made for me. I became like a puppet to this yogi, who was able to manipulate my emotions, thoughts, behaviour often through his own psychic powers. Yet I stayed, convinced that he was the most enlightened person on this planet. (All the other self-professing god-men in India at this time were well down the ladder of course!) Plus there was the appeal of  '... the taste of the sublime kundalini fire rising up our spinal columns, our third eye centres opening into light and our hearts melting into ecstasy'.

One major contributing factor to mind-control is the gaining of control over a person's environment. That may mean something as drastic as literal isolation, such as attending a Moonie weekend camp, or getting a new recruit to attend one meeting after another. Behaviour control may soon extend to limiting a person's food and sleep, dictating the sort of clothes worn, the rituals adopted and the work done. The environment in our ashram was completely regimented in regard to all these things. Some of these impositions, if they had been less extreme, could have been quite good for us after the self-indulgent, pampered lives we had led in the West. But we were always getting sick, probably from a combination of lack of protein in our diet, physical exhaustion from long working hours, the water we were encouraged to drink from the Ganges, and at times sleep-deprivation. 

The use of guilt and fear is the most powerful way that cults and gurus gain emotional control over their followers. People become too frightened or paranoid to leave.

Whilst in Poona we were constantly reminded that if we left (or lost faith), we would miss out on this wonderful opportunity to be with an enlightened master - the Bhagwan Rajneesh. Moonies and other aberrant Christian cults are also warned that if they leave they'll be in Satan's hands. In the Himalayas, we were encouraged to develop a phobia of the outside world. That world out there, outside the ashram, was in some way evil, samsara, non-spiritual. When after a few months I asked Swamiji if I could go to Delhi to collect some money, he replied: 'Everyone comes here and wants to leave straight away. They use any excuse and go running back into the world again to get covered in dreams. They forget their guru who tried so hard to wake them up. Such is the pull of samsara.'

The most widely used and effective way to control a member's thoughts are thought-stopping rituals such as mantras, 'speaking in tongues', meditating, singing. These are used to such a repetitive degree that they become hypnotic or trance-inducing. Such rituals, normally useful and valuable, are perverted in cults since a person is taught to activate them at the first sign of doubt, anxiety, etc. Thus he/she is encouraged to block out a whole range of normal human feelings and thoughts, particularly those that are regarded as negative. Because the leader and the teachings are to be viewed as 'perfect', any problem that arises is assumed to be the fault of the cult member. Towards the end of my stay with Swamiji I was ordered to chant a new mantra continuously - a mantra for the Mother Goddess, Durga Devi. I was told that the rage, grief and other so-called negative emotions that had begun to plague me, were in fact deeply embedded samsaras cleansing themselves from my subconscious mind. (Sometimes "Swamiji" used to day that I was being possessed by an evil spirit.) In fact, looking back, these stronge emotions of mine were a natural reaction to the irrationality and cruel teachings of Swamiji., It wasn't me that was bad or 'possessed': rather the man I regarded as my guru was a madman. 

Leaders exalt themselves as an actual incarnation of God or a special divine messenger and they invariably demand absolute unquestioning obedience and surrender. Hence, cult members refuse to admit any information that he or she may in fact be otherwise: namely human like the rest of us, prey to normal lusts of the flesh and the ego. Members, have to construct endless rationalisa­tions to explain away contradictions, moral lapses or unethical behaviour of their guru. Thus sexual dalliances with male or female disciples may be seen as kundalini raising or tantric exercises. Swamiji used to laugh at me whenever I questioned why he preached celibacy and why the boys were not allowed to have sex. His reply was: 'This  isn't sex. Sex is what you had with your worldly men. I am just raising your kundalini.'  Tal Brooke, ex-devotee of Sai Baba, shares his similar experiences: 'Up till now I've kept pretty quiet about the whole thing. I thought it was some kind of purification or test of allegiance'. 

Leaders' outbursts of temper, physical beating of disciples, hypocrisy or inconsistencies may be rationalised as 'testing' the disciples' devotion or 'waking them up'. A leader's sickness may be explained as 'working off the karma of devotees' or even 'an attack by the enemy'! 

Members of some groups are encouraged to be dishonest in order to promote their cause as they believe 'the end justifies the means'. When one Hare Krishna devotee asked his partner about. the ethics of lying to people on the street about where the money collected was going, he was told: 'It is written in the holy scripture that we can deceive the uninitiated when we do it for Krishna. He who has the transcendental conviction stands beyond good and evil'. The Moonies believe that they can lie about the objects of their fund-raising methods because they regard it as 'heavenly deception'. One Moonie is reported as saying: 'Satan deceived God's children, so we are justified in deceiving Satan's children'. A leader may claim that he can lead a luxurious life-style because he says he is detached from material things. Why, then, are no cult leaders poor? 

Implicit in all these mental back-flips is the same message: I cannot trust my own feelings and thoughts. My own doubts are in some way evil or wrong; a barrier to faith. Impediments on my climb to enlightenment. Yet doubt and questioning must be an essential part of any sincere spiritual search. An unexamined faith is surely not worth having, for how else can we discern false prophets, charlatans. Right from the outset, it was explained that when I was able to surrender and accept Swamiji as my guru, only then would I be able to understand the strange pantomimes and bizarre situations that arose in the ashram. Rajneesh also encouraged the same Catch-22 situation. Leave your minds and your shoes outside the gate! Just have faith. But as Sally Belfrage said to Rajneesh, 'The world is full of phony gurus. How can we evaluate without the rationality, you'd have us drop? One can't always just feel who is right'. 

Hugh Milne, Bhagwan's former bodyguard for eight years, concludes: 'A false master has to have as many unquestioning people around him as possible, and Rajneesh was a brilliant manipulator of the unquestioning disciple ... Rasputin, Hitler and Mussolini were all powerful charismatic leaders who could draw people to themselves, seducing them and manipulating them into giving up their own principles and finally their own integrity. The obvious example in recent times is that of the Jonestown massacre'.

Even though a great number of people may have experienced benefits or profound changes in their lives from the burgeoning New Age movement and the recent revivals in both Christianity and Buddhism (or even perhaps from being at the periphery of cults), there is a dark side that has been largely dismissed and ignored. I think the questions we must be asking are: Why do many people lack the inner resources to resist a brainwashing attack? Why are the mind-control techniques of cults and gurus easily able to take control of people's personalities and alter them? Why are many of us so dependent on outside authority figures? How do we educate our children to think independently of the society around them, to have control over their lives? 

The perniciousness of cult mind-control is that in exchange for certitude and a sense of belonging, people give up their humanness and critical discernment to a leader and/or movement that seems to offer an easy way out of the complexities of life. And it is so easy to do, as Jeannie Mills found out: 'When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you've ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you've every met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all this sounds too good to be true it probably is too good to be true!' 

(Jeannie, a former member of Jim Jones' People's Temple, was assassinated following the 1978 Jonestown murder of 911 adults and children.)


A few copies of Mary Garden's book, The Serpent Rising, are still available ($15 plus postage). A revised edition is in preparation. Contact marygarden@bigpond.com. 


References and suggested reading:

Belfrage, S., Flowers of Emptiness, London: The Women's Press, 1981.

Brooke, T., Lord of the Air. Herts, Great Britain: Lion Publishing, 1976.

Brooke, T., Riders of the Cosmic Circuit, Herts, Great Britain: Lion Publishing, 1986.

Collin-Smith, J. Call No Man Master, Bath, Great Britain: Gateway Books, 1988.

Conway, E and Siegelman, J. Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1978.

Davis, D. Berg. The Children of Gad: The Inside Story, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1984.

Freed, J. Moonwebs. Toronto, Ont.: Dorset.

Garden, Mary, The Serpent Rising. A Journey of Spiritual Seduction, Queensland, Brolga Publishing, 1988.

Gordon, J. The Golden Guru: The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Lexington: Stephen Greene Press, 1987.

Hassan, S., Combatting Cult Mind Control, Rochester, Vermont: Park St. Press, 1988.

Hoffman, E., Dark Side of the Moonies, Sydney, Australia: Penguin, 1982.

Miles, A. Don't Call Me Brother, A Ringmaster's Escape from the Pentecostal Church, Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Miller, R. Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard, London: Sphere Books, 1987.

Milne, H. Bhagwan, the God that Failed, London: Sphere Books, 1987.

Vosper, C. The Mind Benders, St Albans, Herts: Mayflower Books, 1973.