Definition and Comparisons
The definition of a cult is a controversial and complex issue, and there is no universal agreement on what constitutes a cult. The term “cult” can be used to describe a wide range of groups and organizations, from relatively benign and mainstream religious or spiritual groups to more extreme and harmful organizations.
Since no organizations want to be labeled as a cult, once they have been labelled, they will use its own definitions to defend that they are not a cult. For example, in NXIVM, the now convicted leaders used to have presentations and lectures on why the organization was not a cult, but rather a legitimate self-help program.
Atman Yoga Federation has also used the same strategy by proposing its own definitions of what a cult is. However, when compared with other known cults, many common characteristics can be found.
Atman Yoga Federation
- A charismatic leader who claims to have special knowledge or abilities: Gregorian Bivolaru is seen by many of his followers as a spiritual guide who is flawless in judgement. In some of their articles, books and propaganda they claim he is superior to the Buddha as ‘the buddha missed a step that Gregorian did not’. He claims to have supernatural abilities, be psychic, an aura reader (though to do this he must see naked photos of his followers), and be able to travel in space and time. He claims to be one of the very few ‘genuine spiritual masters’ alive on the planet at this moment. He has made it mandatory for the women to watch videos of him performing feats such as moving a compass, supposedly showing his immense energy field and power, in order to persuade the women to go through the sex initiation with him. In many of the rituals performed within the school, his name is invoked as it is believed that he is supporting these rituals energetically.
- An exclusive or closed group that separates itself from mainstream society: Many followers adapt to the views of the “superior” teachings of the organization. The people of mainstream society are seen as mindless sheep with inferior tendencies. The followers of Atman are encouraged to spend more time with other members in order to have higher spiritual aspirations. Many followers become full-time karma yogis (volunteers), working in the organizations’ many ashrams (collectives) and become fully dependent by the organization for food and accommodation. They are discouraged from doing activities which are not related to the yoga school or to their spiritual practice, and told these are ‘superficial’.
- A strict hierarchy with the leader or leaders at the top: Atman Yoga Federation is strictly hierarchical with Griegorian Bivolaru on the top. Then Nicolae Catrina and Mihai (Advaita) Stoian are managing his Romanian and European schools respectively. The followers are encouraged to abandon their ego and follow orders; to ‘surrender’ to those who are spiritually superior and ‘dedicate themselves’ to their ‘spiritual path’ in the school. Very often Bivolaru makes lectures, special announcements, or public shaming of certain followers on the organization’s own media channel – misa.tv . At the teacher training courses, the future teachers are taught that the organization’s hierarchy is like a chandelier hanging from a ceiling, with Bivolaru as a divine channel on the top untiringly “carrying” the whole weight of the organization.
- A system of beliefs or practices that may be seen as extreme or unconventional: Atman Yoga Federation believes that vaccination is part of the mark of the devil and followers are told to end relationships, and not engage in new relationships, with vaccinated people. They promote a whole range of conspiracy theories, racist, sexist and homophobic propaganda on their website yougaesoteric.com including anti-Sematic propaganda, they distribute anti-Sematic dvd’s at their holiday camps. They encourage extreme physical practices such as food deprivation (many followers are instructed by Bivolaru to fast for 2-3 days/week), bizarre diets such as Oshawa (eating only grains and water for up to 6 months), hours of enforced yoga and meditation practice daily. They glorify sleep deprivation as meaning you have awakened your kundalini energy. They tell followers that monogamy and having children are ‘spiritually inferior’ and promotes open relationships as a form of spiritual practice where sex between members are encouraged, and sex between students and teachers are also accepted and seen as beneficial for the students. Men are taught to never ejaculate, and women are encouraged to stop having periods. They have monthly unprotected group sex rituals in which hundreds of people participate The followers are taught to drink his/her own urine, and also the urine of the his/her sexual partner as it is considered to have beneficial spiritual effects. Sex between women are encouraged, sex between men is however discouraged. To have sex with the guru is promoted as a rare spiritual opportunity for a female follower.
- Manipulative or deceptive tactics used to recruit or retain members: By promoting hatha yoga, white tantra, women’s circles, pseudo-Christian angels groups, eroticism and tantric yoga, the organization recruits members under different banners. Sex initiation with the guru is not openly talked about or mentioned. The guru is portrayed as a political martyr when the questions about his warrant are asked. Members are taught the concepts of “karma yoga” (volunteering) as spiritual practice, they are also taught transfiguration (to ‘see beyond’ the physical appearance) and surrendering, so that they are open for multiple partners and in the case of women, to have sex with the guru later on.
- Control over members’ thoughts, emotions, and behavior: Members are taught to abandon their ego, whenever they show hesitations to follow. They are taught that certain words are ‘low resonance’ and their vocabulary is controlled. They are not allowed to eat meat or drink alcohol. They are discouraged from taking Western medication including any antidepressants they may be on. They are prescribed herbal medicine instead. They are taught that any questions or hesitations they may have are due to their ‘limitations’, and that in order to be part of this elite spiritual group, and progress spiritually, they must ‘go beyond’ their limits and ego. Women are taught that to be emotional is a flaw and ‘emotional incontinence’ is how they lose energy; they are taught to repress their emotions and be more ‘solar’ (the sun is viewed as a masculine energy). Women are conditioned with a lot of propaganda about ‘superficial fluctuating women’; that ‘inferior’ women change their minds and can’t be depended on, and this is why men look down on women. They’re conditioned to believe that if they change their mind they are an awful woman, they must stick by their decisions; clear conditioning in preparation for the coercive ‘sex initiation’. Before the coercive “sex initiation”, the women are told that they are stupid and egotistic if they pass on the opportunity to have sex with the guru. Negative emotions are to be circumvented by ‘sublimating’ negative feelings and meditation techniques. Criticism or sensitive questions from members are handled with public humiliation by the leaders.
- A sense of dependency or fear among members: Public humiliation is a common technique used to instil the fear of speaking out. On its own media platform, members with “demonic” behaviours are called out by Bivolaru in the form of lectures. Members receive punishments in forms of public apology, shaving their heads and doing karma yoga and tapas (practice for self-discipline) to repent. Once a member becomes a full time volunteer, he/she becomes fully dependent on the organization for basic amenities. They are taught that if they leave or are thrown out of the school, they will be spiritually doomed and will have to reincarnate many more times before reaching ‘liberation’.
- Financial exploitation of members: Members are encouraged to participate in karma yoga (volunteering) inside of the organization, men in the form of construction work, women in the form of sex work, such as adult websites, strip clubs and massage parlors. They are told that these are spiritual practices that help them ‘burn karma’ and therefore not need to be reincarnated, that will also make them more spiritual and ‘complete’ men or women. Most, if not all, of the income goes back to the organization. Some members have been exploited to donate money to build up new yoga schools. Some of the sex work houses have a debt system where women get into debt through paying ‘fines’ for minor transgression such as leaving a light on or not washing up a plate. The fines range from 50-500 Euros. This puts them into debt that most of them can only pay off through continued sex work.
- Abuse of power or authority by the leader or leaders: Bivolaru is currently wanted by the Interpol for aggravated sex trafficking and priorly charged for sexual abuse. There are numerous testimonies of sexual abuse and exploitation, including abuse of minors. Many former members have CPTSD and depression diagnosis.
Comparisons with known cults
NXIVM (pronounced “Nexium”) was a multi-level marketing organization that has been described as a “sex cult”. It was founded by Keith Raniere in 1998, who positioned himself as a guru and spiritual leader.
Here are some ways in which NXIVM exhibits characteristics of a cult:
- Charismatic leader: Keith Raniere was the charismatic leader of NXIVM, and members were encouraged to see him as a spiritual guide and mentor. His teachings were viewed as the only path to enlightenment.
- Manipulation and control: NXIVM used a variety of methods to manipulate and control its members, including sleep deprivation, isolation, and shaming. Members were required to attend multiple daily classes, sign confidentiality agreements, and submit to regular “collateral” checks (i.e., sharing compromising information about themselves).
- Groupthink: Members were expected to conform to the group’s beliefs and practices. Dissent was discouraged, and members who questioned the teachings were ostracized.
- Financial exploitation: NXIVM was structured as a multi-level marketing organization, and members were required to pay for classes and seminars. The fees were expensive and increased as members progressed up the hierarchy.
- Sexual exploitation: NXIVM had a secret sub-group called DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium), which was comprised of women who were branded with Raniere’s initials and coerced into providing sexual favors. Members were told that this was part of their spiritual development.
- Separation from the outside world: Members were often encouraged to cut off contact with friends and family who were not part of the group.
- Fear and intimidation: Members who questioned the group or Raniere’s leadership were often subjected to verbal abuse and threats.
Overall, NXIVM exhibits many of the classic characteristics of a cult, including a charismatic leader, manipulation and control, groupthink, financial exploitation, and sexual exploitation.
See the documentary Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult
Buddhafield was a spiritual group founded in the 1980s in California that gained attention for its charismatic leader, known as Michel (born Jaime Gomez) and his followers’ devotion to him. Buddhafield gained notoriety after a series of allegations of sexual abuse and mind control surfaced in the early 2010s. Several former members accused Catto of using his position of authority within the group to manipulate and exploit them, particularly in sexual contexts. Many members also reported feeling pressured to isolate themselves from friends and family outside the group, leading to concerns about cult-like behavior.
Here are some of the characteristics of Buddhafield that have been identified:
- Charismatic leader: Michael Roach was the founder and leader of Buddhafield, and his charisma and teachings drew many followers to the group.
- Isolation: Members of Buddhafield lived in a tight-knit community that was isolated from the outside world. They often lived together in shared housing, and many cut off contact with family and friends who were not part of the group.
- Control: Roach exerted a high degree of control over members’ lives, dictating everything from what they ate to whom they could date or marry.
- Manipulation: Roach was known to use manipulative tactics to keep his followers devoted to him, including love bombing, shaming, and guilt-tripping.
- Spiritual teachings: Buddhafield blended elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern spiritual traditions into its teachings, which Roach presented as a path to enlightenment.
- Secret practices: Some members of Buddhafield engaged in secret practices, such as nude “energy exercises” or sexual relationships with Roach, that were kept hidden from others in the group.
- Financial exploitation: Roach and other leaders of Buddhafield were accused of exploiting members financially, including pressuring them to donate large sums of money to the group or to buy expensive gifts for Roach.
The controversy surrounding Buddhafield was the subject of a 2019 documentary film titled Holy Hell. The film, directed by former member Will Allen, features interviews with several former members who share their experiences and allegations of abuse within the group.
Rajneeshpuram is a controversial religious movement that was based in central Oregon during the 1980s. The movement was led by a charismatic Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, who taught a blend of Eastern spirituality, meditation, and free love.
In 1981, the Rajneesh movement purchased a large plot of land in rural Oregon and began building a utopian community for its members, complete with homes, a large meditation center, and other amenities. However, the group’s presence in the area was met with resistance from the local community, which led to a series of legal battles and confrontations between the Rajneeshis and the authorities.
The situation escalated when the Rajneeshis plotted to take over the local government, using illegal tactics such as voter fraud and wiretapping. This led to a federal investigation and the eventual arrest and deportation of Rajneesh and some of his top aides.
Here are some of the characteristics of Rajneeshpuram that have been identified:
- Centralized control: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was considered the supreme leader of the movement and had complete control over his followers.
- Manipulation: The movement used various techniques to manipulate and control its followers, including isolation, indoctrination, and fear.
- Deception: The movement was accused of deceiving its followers about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s true intentions, as well as about the nature of the movement itself.
- Groupthink: The movement promoted a groupthink mentality among its followers, discouraging independent thought and critical questioning.
- Exploitation: The movement was accused of exploiting its followers, both financially and emotionally, by encouraging them to make significant financial contributions and devote their entire lives to the movement.
- Secret rituals: The movement was known to conduct secret rituals and ceremonies that were not disclosed to outsiders or even to all members of the group.
Wild Wild Country is a documentary series that follows the rise and fall of the Rajneeshpuram community, a controversial religious movement that was based in central Oregon during the 1980s. The documentary explores the complex history of the Rajneesh movement, including its controversial practices, the conflict with local residents, and the events that led to its downfall.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has been classified as a cult due to various practices and beliefs that meet the definition of a cult. The FLDS is a fundamentalist Mormon group that broke away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in the early 20th century.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has been characterized as a cult by many experts and scholars due to its strict and authoritarian nature, as well as its numerous allegations of abusive practices. Here are some of the characteristics that have led to this classification:
- Absolute authority of the leader: The FLDS is centered around the authority of its leader, Warren Jeffs, who is considered to be a prophet by his followers. His word is seen as law and members are expected to obey him without question.
- Isolation from the outside world: FLDS members are encouraged to live in isolation from mainstream society, with their own schools, businesses, and social structures. This creates a sense of “us vs. them” and makes it difficult for members to leave the group.
- Polygamy: One of the most controversial aspects of the FLDS is its practice of polygamy, with many members being married to multiple partners. This creates a power imbalance between men and women, with women often being treated as property rather than equal partners.
- Control of information: FLDS members are discouraged from seeking information from outside sources and are often only given access to information that supports the group’s teachings. This creates a sense of dependence on the group and makes it difficult for members to question its practices.
- Abusive practices: There have been numerous allegations of abusive practices within the FLDS, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of women and children. Members who leave the group often report trauma and PTSD as a result of their experiences.
Keep sweet, pray and obey is an American documentary miniseries surrounding the polygamous FLDS. Several former FLDS members, or survivors, are interviewed on both their experiences inside the church, as well providing testimony to Jeffs’ systematic coercion and exercises of power toward the members of the congregation.
Children of God
The Children of God, also known as the Family International (TFI), is a controversial religious group that was founded in 1968 by David Berg, who later came to be known as “Moses David” or “Father David.” The group started in Huntington Beach, California, and initially presented itself as a Christian evangelical organization.
The Children of God gained attention and notoriety for their unconventional practices, which included communal living, a rejection of traditional societal norms, and a radical interpretation of Christianity. Members of the group believed in a mixture of Christian teachings, free love, and communal child-rearing.
Over time, the Children of God faced numerous allegations of abusive and exploitative practices. The group encouraged “Flirty Fishing,” a practice where female members were encouraged to engage in sexual relationships to attract new members. Berg justified this practice as a form of evangelism. However, it led to accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse, including involving minors.
Here are some example of the cult characteristics:
- Charismatic Leadership: The group was founded and led by David Berg, who presented himself as a charismatic and authoritative figure. His teachings and writings held significant influence over the beliefs and practices of the group.
- Manipulation and Mind Control: The Children of God utilized various manipulative techniques to control and influence their members. This included strict obedience to leadership, isolation from the outside world, information control, and the use of fear and guilt to maintain loyalty.
- Exploitation of Members: The group promoted the concept of “total sharing,” which involved communal living and the pooling of resources. However, former members have alleged that this system was often used to exploit members financially and sexually. The practice of “Flirty Fishing” also involved the manipulation of sexuality for recruitment purposes.
- Separation from Society: The Children of God encouraged isolation from mainstream society, promoting an “us versus them” mentality and discouraging interaction with non-members. This contributed to a sense of dependence on the group and made it difficult for individuals to leave.
- Doctrinal Control and Thought Reform: The group had a strict belief system and imposed it upon its members. Critical thinking and questioning were discouraged, and dissent or doubt regarding the group’s teachings were met with punishment or exclusion.
- Abuse and Control of Children: Numerous reports and testimonies from former members detail the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse inflicted upon children within the group. Children were often subjected to inappropriate sexual behavior and were raised within an environment that normalized such practices.
There are several documentaries that have been made about the Children of God. Prophets Prey” is perhaps the most well-known and widely recognized. The film delves into the abuses within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) and its leader Warren Jeffs. While it primarily focuses on the FLDS, it also explores connections to other groups, including the Children of God (The Family International). “