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The psychology of why Gurmeet Ram Rahim and similar ‘godmen’ are so popular

Dressed in silken robes and floral headbands, the filmic version of him flying like superman and killing imaginary enemies, what could he possibly represent to his followers? It is important to see groups as a retreat to a mass of people who are unconsciously seeking a figure who can shelter them from the devastation of being disenfranchised.

analysis Updated: Aug 30, 2017 08:55 IST
Gurmeet Ram Rahim,psychology,cult
The Dera Sacha Sauda is one such sect – a deadly combination of magic and ruthlessness – that has existed for nearly 60 years. It is believed that 400 members of this sect have been castrated inside the sect’s headquarters to bring them closer to god. Its leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh aka Baba Love Charger was accused of murder and has been convicted of rape and found guilty of sexually assaulting 2 Dera sadhvis.(Manoj Dhaka/HT)

Confronted in the world mostly by our helplessness we find ourselves pining to belong somewhere we feel safer, less vulnerable. The family is the most basic group we have once imagined this comfort in. The disappointments intrinsic to living push us towards seeking affiliation with our groups which we become a part of sometimes by choice and at other times by force. Groups promise us a badge of belonging and something bigger than ourselves. There is a safety in numbers and the leader (either imaginary or real, elected or self-styled) comes to be reposed with the often unconscious wishes of the group.

In return for this, the group demands our allegiance and loyalty. The difference is between whether the group elects to be with a leader who is more or less omnipotent and hence whether the refuge is one of immunity to suffering or a strengthening of the capacity to suffer. Buddhism may offer us the serenity of surrendering to suffering, while many other cults offer omnipotent leaders who hold up an unconscious promise to combat it on our behalf; a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.

Groups vary in these body of assumptions, but what is clear is that groups have an identity which demands that all members subjugate themselves to the group. Freud (1920) observed that larger groups tend to regress more than smaller units. This may be because the commonality of the assumptions that bind them tend shrink with the size of the group. Unconscious fantasies seal together groups who share a body of assumptions. Basic assumptions that underlie groups vary. Wilfred Bion (1959) suggests that in small groups there are three types of leaders: caring leaders reflecting a basic need for a group to depend on somebody; ruthless leaders reflecting a basic unconscious need for the members to be protected from and led against frightening enemies (fight/flight assumption); and a messianic, omnipotent leader who could care for the group without the group having to think or work, in other words, a leader with magical skills. Leaders of large groups often exert a dramatic effect on the members who appear not to retain individual minds and throw themselves behind leaders who, under normal conditions, would be rejected, like cult leaders; Hitler being only the most notorious. Often impulsivity and violence run high, as some kind of mass cleansing is delusionally promised.

The Dera Sacha Sauda is one such sect – a deadly combination of magic and ruthlessness – that has existed for nearly 60 years. It is believed that 400 members of this sect have been castrated inside the sect’s headquarters to bring them closer to god. Its leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh aka Baba Love Charger was accused of murder and has been convicted of rape and found guilty of sexually assaulting two Dera sadhvis. Leaders of such groups may seize for themselves what other group members are forced to renounce and this is a part of what is expunged from the group’s consciousness. The hostility we witness today is to a judgement that threatens the fragile fabric of a group built on perversions and lies.

It is impossible to fathom the appeal of this cartoonish figure who can incite this hysteria and violence that can bring a country to a standstill. Dressed in silken robes and floral headbands, the filmic version of him flying like superman and killing imaginary enemies, what could he possibly represent to his followers? It is important to see groups as a retreat to a mass of people who are unconsciously seeking a figure who can shelter them from the devastation of being disenfranchised.

Ram Rahim (only pseudonyms proliferate) changed his clothes frequently and was seen waving to bands of followers who were often in coordinated attire. While he seemed quite removed from anything sacred or reverential, it is perhaps a sign of the disturbing times we live in – where Superman meets Hanuman waving the national flag – is no longer a scene from a slapstick movie but a figure of a religious leader. It seems the old religions are losing out to neon lights and Bollywood gimmickry.

Nilofer Kaul is a Delhi-based psychoanalyst

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 29, 2017 15:50 IST