Cult is a Four Letter Word


…is a four-letter Word

originally published in ‘The Laughing Man’, Vol6, NO 1, 1985

by Ggorg Feuerstein


Cult (kult) n.[>L. cultus, care, cultiva­tion]: a bunch of fanatics who share the same weird ideas or beliefs and who are led, or rather misled, by one or more psychotic individuals who act as their leaders.

This is so at least according to current popular understanding. In contemporary parlance, “cult” is a dirty word. And dirty words, used strategically, can be potent political weapons—a fact amply demon­strated by the anticult lobby in the United States and abroad.

Who or What Is a Cult?

The dictionaries, limping somewhat be­hind this popular pejorative usage, are as usual more innocuous and “hygienic” in their explanation of this term. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, for instance, offers four definitions, one of which (namely, “worship”) is now obsolete. The other three are:

  1. “the system of outward forms and ceremonies used in worship; religious rites and formalities”;
  2. “devoted attachment to, or extrava­gant admiration for, a person or principle, etc., especially when regarded as a fad”;
  3. “a group of followers; sect.”

Obviously, the term “cult” does not count among the most precise of our lan­guage! The term is applied to a wide range of phenomena. Thus, there are cults dedi­cated to the honoring or the worship of deities, heroes, saints, or other charismatic figures (such as Mary, Mother of Jesus); there are cults focusing on highly valued material goods (such as a totem animal or totem plant, a tribe’s staple food, an auto­mobile, or a motorcycle); and there are cults which have been created around a powerful idea (such as death or the enthronement of a world ruler) or an experience (like the mystic vision).

In other words, the term is elastic enough to fit all kinds of situations in sacred and secular contexts, so long as some element of ritualism is present. This ritu­

alism is fastened on a central object or idea that has supreme value for the group of cultists. It is, in a way, their “ultimate concern,” or religion. In this sense, all cults, even secular cults, have a religious or quasi­religious foundation.

The Roots of Cultism

The phenomenon of death, in its in­evitability, unpredictability, and finality, has always been of concern to humanity. In fact, one can regard the whole enterprise of human civilization as a gigantic effort to respond to the inescapable fact of our mortality. In this sense, human culture is a monumental Cult of Death. This is perhaps most apparent in the modern leisure in­dustry which is entirely devoted to pleasuriz- ing the body and titillating the mind as a direct means of evading the fact that our life is circumscribed and that Man is, as Blaise Pascal put it, a mere fragile reed bending in the wind.

Religion and the (cultic) concern with death are inseparable. This is borne out by the cult of the dead exhibited throughout the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic cul­tures. However, in these same cultures religion was most intimately linked to the “cult of life” or the ideal and celebration of fertility. An example of this was the female figurines, carved in bone, ivory, or stone, which were produced throughout the latter part of the Stone Age and then in the Neolithic Age. These were of mature, ex­cessively fat women with large breasts, exaggerated vulvas, and stylized heads and limbs. Such “Great Mother” statuettes were associated with the mystery of birth, fertility, and generation. They served a ritual pur­pose or were used as fertility charms.

The Neolithic “revolution” of the new lifestyle of sedentary existence in fortified settlements released a great innovative thrust in the field of religion. New “cults” sprang up in response to the new social environment and the challenges facing “civi­lized” Man. The involvement of women in agriculture and in the domestication of animals greatly enhanced the social status of the female. This remarkable change mani­fested itself in the creation of popular cults dedicated to the veneration of the Mother

Goddess, the Earth Mother from whose womb all life issued forth. In Canaan the Great Goddess was worshipped as Anat, in Mesopotamia as Ishtar, in Egypt as Isis, in Iran as Anahita, in Phrygia as Cybele, in Cyprus as Aphrodite, in Greece as Gaia, Demeter, and Kore, in Anatolia as Ma, and in ancient Italy as Diana. The cult of the Earth Mother was so widespread in the ancient world that some scholars have postulated a matriarchal stage prior to the reign of our present-day global patriarchy.

Indeed, our (patriarchal) world religions originated in opposition to the earlier “bar­barian” matriarchal cults which were essen­tially life-affirmative, vitalistic, and ecstatic. “Ecstasy” is not easily integrated into the kind of conventional existence formulated by left-brained men who expect life to be orderly and predictable and whose paternal­istic creator-gods tend toward abstraction, life-denial, asceticism, and concealed or overt hostility toward the female gender.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that throughout the history of patriarchal reli­giosity, cults and sects avowing a more ecstatic, experiential, body-positive, sex­positive, and even death-positive view of life have always been openly suppressed or surreptitiously undermined by the establish­ment religions and the state. Few ecstatic cults survived as long as the orgiastic cult of Dionysus, which had its deepest roots in the veneration of the Divine Mother. But even this influential antinomian cult succumbed, step by step, to the masculine rationality of post-Jesus Christendom, whose anti-ecstatic philosophy became the pulse of the occidental civilization at large.

“Western civilization, for well-known historical reasons, has traditionally es­chewed ecstasy as a threat to goal-oriented control of men, matter, and energy—and has suffered massive human unhappiness.”1

Master Da Free John is in agreement with this view; he observes epigrammatically:

“This world is mounted on the taboo against ecstasy.”2


  1. B. Leonard, Education and Ecstasy (New York: Dell Publishing, 1968), p. 17.
  2. Da Free John, The Bodily Location of Happiness (The Dawn Horse Press, 1982), p. 46.


In his talk “Radical Politics for OrdinaryMen and Women,” he summarizes the modern predicament with prophetic passion:

“Because individuals are afraid of their own vitality, afraid to be polarized to it whole bodily and to enjoy it intelligently and responsibly, we have the present-day world, which is a product of at least 3,000 years of patriarchal, anti-sexual, anti-Life indoctrination. The result is a society of morons and slaves. Many people in this present-day world are no less slaves than the poor beasts who built the pyramids. For the most part, we are an unconscious mass, controlled by shrewder people.

“In the most ancient days, men and women were oriented toward delight, to­ward vital life. They were positively, but not obsessively, polarized to the Life-Principle. But ever since the advent of the modern other-worldly religions, men have assumed that vital life is supposed to be manipulated, suppressed, and even eliminated. People are deeply troubled about their vitality. The whole of modern society is built around the manipulative suppression of Life. Even the State is in the business. Everything has become very humorless. You are supposed to work. That is the asceticism of the common man and woman. You are sup­posed to be a mere salt-of-the-earth worker, and you are not to be fundamentally and ecstatically involved in delight. You are not expected or permitted to be conscious. Consciousness is not valued. You are sup­posed to work and buy junk food and television sets, and you are not to be aware of anything fundamentally curious that might cause you to become erratic and profound.”3

Contrary to appearances, the situation is little different in the cultures of the orient. Mainstream Hinduism and Buddhism are positively ascetical and anti-ecstatic. Ecstasy or Bliss {ananda) is pursued as an other­worldly condition in the context of a dis­ciplinarian ideology and ritualism. How­ever, the overwhelming mystical orientation of these two world religions allowed the far more frequent and forceful emergence of ecstatic movements than has proved pos­sible in the dualist heritage of Christianity.

From ancient times on, the Indian social structure has made provision for ecstatic individuals and groups, (grudgingly) allow­ing them to live out their antinomian lives at the margins of conventional society. In the Vedic age it was the munis (“sages”) and the keshins (“long-haired ones”) who celebrated a life of ecstasy, with little regard for the established mores. Later it was the parama- hamsas (“great swans”) who abandoned themselves completely to the non-dual Bliss. Then came the tantrikas, the practitioners of the erotic mysticism of the Tantras, who restored the Female element to its rightful place in religious or spiritual practice. This inevitably signified the inclusion of bodily existence, notably emotion and sexuality, into the spiritual process.

  1. Da Free John, Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House'(The Dawn Horse Press, 1980), p. 89.


Tantrism reared its head in Hinduism as much as in Buddhism and Jainism and won over large numbers of theologians and lay followers. Its immense popularity led, in the end, to a general vulgarization of Tantric doctrines and practices. The excessive licen­tiousness of some of the orgiastic cults, such as the Vamacaris and the Vallabhacaryas, in the end led to a revival of the male-oriented establishment religion and the ousting of Tantrism as a living spiritual force.

Today, Indians are barely aware of their ancient tantric heritage and its once wide­spread influence. But notwithstanding the present puritanism in India, Tantrism is experiencing a quasi-renaissance in the West which appears to be awakening from a long anti-ecstatic slumber, or at least seems to be stirring uneasily in it.

Since the early 1960s, hundreds of thou­sands of primarily middle-class youths have turned to cults that hold out the promise of “altered states of consciousness,’’heightened awareness and sensitivity, and mystical ex­periences. They do not merely seek self­definition and meaning, but ecstasy.

“Ecstasy” means literally “standing out- side (oneself).” It signifies self-transcendence, usually understood as going beyond the threshold of our conventional percep­tual and cognitive capacities; but in its ultimate sense it is perfect ego-transcendence or Realization of Radiant Transcendental Being.

The desperation with which the younger generation is exploring religious avenues other than the homely ones of Christianity and Judaism is in direct symmetry with the spiritual aridity of our secular Western culture. The desperation is real enough, but seldom sufficiently crystallized to overcome the pitfall of mere fascination and sheer dabbling with the exotic, of uncritical es­capism, hedonism, or inflated narcissism. These dangers are age-old, and they have been the butt of the criticism launched by the establishment.

Equally old and serious is the danger of cultic monopoliza­tion as practiced by the religious majority. It purchases this ad­vantage at a high price, however. For, in order to remain in its unchallenged position as “civil religion,” it has to forfeit its esoteric dimension. It must curtail itself to become viable as “consumer goods.”

Thus, civil religions gain their su­premacy over marginal religious cults by sacrificing their potency as agencies of spiritual transformation. Master Da Free John regards the present fate of the Judeo- Christian heritage as an accurate portrayal of this historical mechanism. However, his reading of the contemporary cultural scene is not unqualifiedly bleak or pessimistic. He also perceives the initial waves of a possible spiritual renaissance of what he styles “the higher dimension of religion”:

“The higher dimension of religion has also always been practiced by a relatively few uncommon individuals. Indeed, it was largely the response to the more conven­tional or superficial aspects of such ex­traordinary personalities that produced the great cultic movements of exoteric religion among the masses. But such cultic move­ments are created by and designed for the instruction and social improvement of ordi­nary people, not men and women of the more highly evolved or awakened type. Therefore, alongside the development of exoteric religions there have always been secret societies and esoteric groups founded on practice of higher personal, moral, and biologically evolutionary disciplines.

“The esoteric societies of higher religion have recently begun to become publicly communicative, particularly since the late nineteenth century.”4

4. Ibid, pp. 49-50


But “higher religion” is generally not what is offered in the spiritual marketplace today. Rather, large numbers of inexperi­enced or unwise seekers are attracted to one or the other form of self-improvement or awareness therapy.

In their odyssey for ecstasy, not a few of them entertain the erroneous belief that spiritual life is a slot machine that can be activated by some mindless routine of mantra recitation, meditation, physical ex­ercise, or diet. They tend to expect great returns for very little effort. Those who actually commit themselves to a particular way of life in one of the new religious cults often do so with very little comprehension of the nature of authentic spirituality. Hence they are inclined to become neurotically dependent on the cult—its leader, fellow­members, ideology, and ritual. Their hope of ecstasy is thereby frustrated, for true Ecstasy thrives in and is coincident with freedom from the bondage of the ego.

Ecstasy cannot be taught or even learned. It is our inalienable native disposi­tion. What can be unlearned is the egoic contraction which throws us out of relation­ship or Ecstasy. However, and this is the Wisdom passed on in the esoteric schools of authentic spirituality, Ecstasy can be trans­mitted. And the transmission of Ecstasy is the sole purpose of the Awakened Adepts.

Master Da Free John elaborates:

“The mystical and evolutionary pro­ cesses of human development have been practiced and transmitted by various kinds or degrees of Adepts throughout human history. Certain founders of religion (such as Jesus and Gautama) were practicing Adepts of this kind. Other religious founders or leaders, such as Mohammed and Martin Luther, were not practicing Adepts, but they were inspired men of insight or pro­phetic urgency, whose personal activity was entirely within the domain of exoteric reli­gion. But most practitioners or Adepts of the mystical and evolutionary science were active outside the realm of ‘Everyman,’ and they were known only within the esoteric ‘inner circles’ of the religious and spiritual traditions.

“Lesser Adepts are individuals who have enjoyed remarkable mystical experiences and attained a degree of Wisdom that is helpful or useful to individuals who are less developed than themselves.

“However, the highest Adepts serve the awakening of radical insight and responsibility in others, and they guide others through and beyond per­sonal and subjective mysticism, into the domain of the evolutionary transformation and ultimate self-transcendence of Man. Therefore, the Work of the highest Adepts is fundamental to human culture as a whole.”

  1. Ibid., pp. 355 56.


No one has more thoroughly and incisively criticized cultic behavior than Master Da Free John, and the “cult” that has received the brunt of his criticism is his own following. Since the beginning of his teaching Work in the early seventies he has steadily addressed the tendencies of devotees to relate to him as some sort of magical being who will shelter them from the vicissitudes of life. He has time and time again decried the tendency to relate to him, to the Teaching, and to the community of practitioners in superficially enthusiastic terms, as if they had “found it.” He calls cultism a beginner’s orientation to practice, describing it as “prolonged exotericism.”

In general, cultism is expressed as either a childishly dependent or adolescently independent approach to an object, ideology, person, group, whatever. The childish approach is based on the need for an external, parental, consoling influence in one’s life. This tendency is everywhere in evidence—not merely among minority religious cults, but also within the worldwide “established” religious cults that look to God as an all-powerful parental Creator, eternally separate and unattainable. The flip side of the coin is the adolescent reaction, which is founded upon independence, immunity, and a self- sufficient, do-it-yourself relationship to life. It can manifest in the form of intellectual cleverness or abstraction, the need to dominate, or the doubting mood of the scientific materialist. The child reveals the wide-eyed, believing mind of the naive enthusiast, while the adolescent displays the overt antagonism or cool resistance of the doubting mind.

Ideally, an adult maturing in spiritual life will have outgrown his childish and adolescent patterns of reactivity. Most of us, however, have remained confined to earlier stages of emotional development and to the egoic identity thus enforced. The result is that we childishly embrace or adolescently attack or refute whatever person, place, idea, etc., occupies the focus of our attention. It is not the object of that attention which defines cultism, but rather the form of the relationship to that central interest as dictated by the childish or the adolescent ego. So it is that our refusal to grow up lies at the bottom of the cultic impulse.

Cultism is an inevitable expression of egoic existence, and its transcendence requires real human as well as spiritual growth beyond the self-enclosure of the ego. The Spiritual Master calls us to transcend this self-possession and discover the Ecstasy that lies beyond our limited self-sense. The childish cult of conven­tional religion and the adolescent cult of scientific materialism are influences in the world which effectively work to suppress even the possibility of such transcendent Ecstasy. The function, in fact the inherent obligation, of the Spiritual Master is to awaken in others the impulse to liberation, Ecstasy, God-Realiza­tion. And the relationship between Master and devotee exists solely and exclusively to accelerate the process wherein the devo­tee literally duplicates the Divine State and Condition which the Master himself has Realized. Central to this process is the release of any tendency to create a cult in relation to the Adept. Master Da Free John addresses this entire matter at great length in Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House! in which he makes the follow­ing summary statement of the right relationship to the Adept:

“A Transcendental Adept or true Spiritual Master is a Transparent Reminder of the Living One, a Guide to Ecstatic Remembrance of the One in Whom all conditions arise and change and pass away. Such an Adept is not to be made into the Idol of a Cult, as if God were exclusively contained in the objective person and subjective beliefs of a particular sect. Rather, right relationship to an Adept Spiritual Master takes the form of free ecstatic surrender to the Living Divine based on recognition of the Living One in the Revelation of Freedom, Happiness, Love, Wisdom, Help, and Radiant Power that Shines in the Company of the Adept.”1

  1. Da Free John, Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House! (The Dawn Horse Press, 1980), pp. 314-15.