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Next Stop Nirvana


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Next stop Nirvana
A managed society thrives on people surrendering their right to independent
choice. Gurus, cults, and the whacky world of pop psychology are all profitable
by products. Vancouver writer Tom Hawthorn takes a look.

Blissed out: Gurus do the thinking for their followers - for a modest fee.
Photo: R.B.Bedi / Camera Press

Nobody seems to like cults, except cultists. And then they don’t like any other cult but their own. This is a shame. I think cults are part of what makes America great. People have spiritual needs, and cult leaders promise to fulfill them - for a price. It’s unfettered free enterprise. What’s good for your average Swami is good for the country, I say. My guru, right or wrong.

Try this one out. Imagine yourself to be the doe-eyed eldest son of a wealthy Indian family, who tires of teaching philosophy at universities in India. Years later you find yourself heading a commune in the USA which, at last count, owned 68 Rolls-Royces.

Every day at 2 p.m. you take a spin down Nirvana Drive in one of the Rollses. The faithful, all clad in sunrise reds and purples. leave your fields, your shopping mall, your casino and your local outlet of the 35-unit Zorba the Buddha restaurant chain to line the road as you go by, all the while singing:

‘Bhagwan’s our master: we love life’s laughter.’

Such is the heart-warming tale of Bhagwan Shree Raineesh.

Mind you, he’s no Bhagwan come lately. A decade ago he opened an ashram in India, blending ancient Eastern religions with pop psychology and a healthy dose of free love. Thousands of the rich used to vacation with Bhagwan (literally. Blessed One) until India revoked the ashram’s tax-free status. Then it was into the ashcan with the ashram and savonora to the subcontinent.

The spiritual supermarket is crowded with goods and gods for the discriminating convert-to-be. Don’t like the Rajneeshies red? Go chant with CC. Ghaktiuedanta Swami Prahubada and his Hari Krishnas, they’ve got a blue god. If you do, though, don’t go dying while thinking about food, lest you be reincarnated as a pig. Die thinking of sex, you return a dog. If your spiritual needs have a material edge, you can visit Rama (ne Frederick Lenze) in Malibu. California, who advertises his spiritual group with posters of a woman meditating atop a Porsche.

Only feel like dabbling at this point? Take the Scientologist’s Personality Test, but if you are indeed one of the world’s losers, be prepared to fail. ‘You have no personality,’ they told one old aqusintance, who was so taken aback at this impossibility that he immediately proved it to be true by giving the church a $5 donation.

Some say we should ban these cults. That would be bad. Imagine having marauding bands of spiritually-starved young professionals rampaging through your neighborhood shopping centres. No Cuisinart would be safe. It’s better they have somewhere tax-sheltered to squander their hardly-earned dough.

The problem is folks think they can purchase their spiritual needs right off the rack like some el cheapo suit at a rummage sale.

Why is it people distrust themselves so much they prefer to rely on self-proclaimed experts, no matter how crazy? No one knows. After all, we’re all foolish consumers. Some of us have even bought rocks to be our pets, though they can hardly roll over, let alone fetch slippers. Maybe it’s because we can only appreciate something if it costs money. Why else would we point those coin-operated binoculars at scenic vistas? Or it could be because these experts have ‘pop’ answers to some real tough questions. A group called Est promoted a lecture last year on the question: ‘What is the being for human beings?’ That’s a toughie, indeed. Many didn’t know what the being is for human beings, while others were unsure of hazarding a guess. Anyways, some 2,100 paid $40 apiece to find out. Est flew in their founder, Werner Erhard (a.k.a. Jack Rosenburg, a.k.a. - while selling cars in sunny climes - Jack Frost), to answer the big question. ‘What is the being for human beings?’ Werner asked. ‘The possibility of being for human beings ... doesn’t exist!’ The 2,100 gave Werner a standing ovation. The suckers didn’t even stick to their seats.

Some prefer to hand over control of their private lives to a complete stranger right in the privacy of their own home. They buy self-help books at their corner drug store. (Authors of these books don’t make as much as full-fledged cult operators, but there are shrewd ones who write a book to test-launch a cult concept). My friend Dick Digby was a shy man and a bit of a social leper. so he ayoided cult get-togethers for the solitude of a book. His first was Games People Play, but he was never very good at games. Then there was transactional analysis, ‘I’m OK, You’re OK.’ Digby finally realized the author meant ‘I’m OK, You’re a Shmuck for Buying This Book.’ He was then involved in fads like biotics. aerobics, jogging, air guitar, primal scream (until the neighbours complained), televangelists and Dale Carnegie. So upset was he at not finding nirvana on those pages, he vowed to try but one last book called ‘How to profit from the coming depression.’ But it turned out to be about economics.

Poor Digby. There really was little wrong with him except his pervading sense of spiritual crisis. Cultists and the dime store pop psychologists feed on spiritual malaise like sharks at a hemophiliacs’ beach party. What is to be done?

1. Place all cult leaders in a room with a used ‘56 Edsel. See who sells it for the highest price. Immediately audit all their financial records.

2. When someone asks why Rajneeshies wear red, say it is because they are communists.

3. Tell your friends they should trust their common sense. Discourage them for paying you for this advice.

4. When organized churches or cult zombies come to your door, tell them you worship television and have no time for their false idols.

Some soft answers to tough questions.

How do I get in touch with my feelings?

It’s decidedly more fun to have someone else close to you touch your feelings, though most doctors today agree that touching your own feelings does not cause hairy palms or insanity.

Is it true that ‘what is, is’?

How much will you pay to find out?

Tom Hawthorn is not now, nor ever has been, a member of a cult. Really.

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New Internationalist issue 146 magazine cover This article is from the April 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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