cults and the body

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cults and the body Everybody knows what a cult is. But few realize that the word ‘cult’ has both a common and a technical meaning, and that these meanings are significantly different. What most people seem to mean by the word is a social group whose members adhere to a strange, unorthodox, and even dangerous set of religious beliefs and practices. Cults vary in beliefs and scope of activities, and range from zealous and satanic groups at one extreme to New Age religions and healing circles at the other. The more famous cults are often organized around a charismatic leader, like Vernon Howel, a.k.a. David Koresh, of the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists, or science-fiction-writer-turned-guru, L. Ron Hubbard of the Church of Scientology, or Elizabeth Clair Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant. People are beginning to realize that Hitler's Nazi movement in Germany was also a kind of mystical cult.

Cults pop up all over the world, and have done throughout human history. Hinduism has spawned cults of this sort, as with the groups centred around such charismatic teachers as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. Such religious groups may advocate beliefs and carry out practices that sometimes lead them into trouble with authorities, and may, in certain extreme situations, lead members to bodily injury and even death, as with the tragic Jonestown cult. Groups of this sort may or may not be loose-knit in their organization, and may or may not endure much beyond the death of their leaders.

Social scientists who study religion use the word ‘cult’ in a more technical sense. For scientific purposes, a cult is simply a set of institutionalized beliefs and ritual practices pertaining to cosmological, spiritual, and religious knowledge. Used in this sense, all societies on earth, as well as all religious institutions in our own Euro-American societies, have their cult aspects. The Roman Catholic Church has its set of standardized beliefs and ritual practices, such as the Mass, ‘doing the rosary’, marriage ceremonies, and baptism services. Buddhists have the teachings of the Buddha pertaining to awakening and the cessation of suffering, and carry out pujas and other kinds of devotional and meditative rituals. It is important to understand that all the world religions began as ‘cults’ in the more common sense of the term. They began as small, localized organizations led by charismatic leaders like Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha. But instead of falling apart after the death of their leaders, these ‘cults’ endured, continued to attract adherents, and grew into vast, world-wide organizations.

The body in cultic systems

In religious terms, the human body is simultaneously a symbol, an agent, and a problem. The human body is often a profoundly meaningful cult symbol. Most cultic systems place the human form at the very centre of the cosmos as they understand it. The body is viewed as a microcosm which reflects within its nature the organic principles that motivate the greater universe. Thus, in the cosmology of the Navajo people of the American Southwest, the body is symbolically positioned within the hogan, or traditional house, and the hogan is positioned in proper relation to the four cardinal directions within Navajoland (which is defined by four sacred mountains), and Navajoland is positioned at the centre of the world. The human body is sacred to the Navajo precisely because of its relationship to everything in the world. When they wish to heal someone of a disease, this relationship between body, house, land, and world is enacted in a ceremonial way to bring all the proper relations back into alignment.

Parts of the body may have particular significance relative to a cult's belief system. For example, the sexual organs (phallus or vagina) may signify the generative or fertility principle operating in the universe. Dismemberment of the body may be symbolic of a stage in the development of one who has become wise in the ways of the cult. Footprints along a path may symbolize the many way-points in the process by which a novice becomes an adept.

Most cultures on the planet alter the form of the body of their members in symbolically meaningful ways. Very few, if any, cultures leave the body unchanged through life, and these changes often have sacred significance. As many writers have noted, our English words cosmos and cosmetics derive from the same ancient Greek root for universe and ornamentation. The hair is styled or a wig donned, the skin is pierced, tattooed, painted, the body is adorned with often elaborately patterned raiments and ornaments, and the face is covered with paint or a mask. Alteration of the body may be severe and even brutal, as among those cults that require scarification and cicatrization of the face and body, physically injurious ordeals that leave scars, elongation of the neck, deformation of the head (usually done in infancy), circumcision, or clitoridectomy.

Put in a word, our body is a symbol to ourselves — a symbol of our gender, our group membership, our status, our role in life, our aspirations, and, in many cultic systems, our place in the universe. Our body is not merely an object to ourselves. If we are a cult member, it may be a symbol of our sacred relations to the divine principle operating in the universe. We may wear a costume (robes, cassock, prayer shawl, etc.) that signals both to others and to ourselves that we are practising members of a cult. All these transformations of the body are meaningful within the cultic system of beliefs and practices that gives rise to the changes. Stages of entry into the cult may be marked by transformations of the body or its adornment. Buddhist monks everywhere shave their heads and wear distinctive robes. Tibetan Buddhist monks in addition signal the status of the religious hierarchy by even more elaborate robes and headgear.

Moreover, the movements of the human body may also be meaningful, particularly when they are used to communicate. Formal postures and gestures often go hand in hand with dress and ornamentation in signalling important information about the beliefs of the cult to members and to others outside the organization. The signalling aspect of the body may become quite elaborate, as in the case of Balinese sacred dance, where costume, posture, movement, and gesture are all highly choreographed for the purposes of religious performance.

As the signalling function of human actions suggests, the body is the central agent of cult activities. No religious system is ever comprised solely of beliefs, but rather of beliefs and their actualization through behaviour. It is insufficient merely to believe; one must act in accordance with belief. And cultic actions are at least partially ritualized. Ritual by definition is a set of appropriate formal acts established by custom and directed toward some socially appropriate goal or purpose.

For most people, the body also presents a profound existential problem. The body is universally recognized as the locus of both health and disease, both life and death. People everywhere experience those around them getting sick and sometimes dying. Disease and death pose a dilemma for people everywhere, for they must ask themselves, ‘If my body gets sick or grows old and dies, what happens to my spirit?’ Such questions are what Paul Tillich in his book Systematic Theology called ‘matters of ultimate concern’ for people in all cultures. As a consequence, cults and religions always provide some kind of account of disease and death in their belief system, as well as some means for alleviating suffering and for facilitating the dying process. This is why all religions incorporate some form of healing system and such systems almost always involve rituals.

Dualism and cultic systems

Moreover, virtually all cult systems develop some view of what happens to the human spirit or psyche after death. As Ernest Becker noted in his book The Denial of Death, it is as though people cannot fully come to terms with the implications of their ‘creatureliness’ — with the implications of being a physical being with an embodied consciousness — without the notion of some form of an afterlife. Again, the problem is an existential one. People everywhere perceive that the physical body dies and decomposes, and at the same time there seems to be a need to view the psyche, or some inner spiritual essence, as passing on to another form of existence, be that a new world, another plane of existence, or reincarnation back into this earthly realm. For this reason, all cultures show to at least a minimal degree a mind–body dualism. Cultic systems everywhere hold that, at least to some extent, the mind is separate or separable from the body. There is usually a soul or some spiritual essence that does not depend upon the body for its existence and that survives the dying process to pass on to some kind of continued existence.

The ritual control of experience

Whether we consider cults from the popular or the technical point of view, we find that rituals are the single most common and effective means of controlling and transforming the mental state of cult members. This is because, embedded within many rituals, there are activities and stimuli that directly act upon the body in such a way as to alter the state of consciousness of practitioners. A very common cross-cultural example is the use of ritual among the Umbanda cult, a tradition of healing that arose in the 1920s and that continues to the present day in Brazil. In Umbanda rituals, trained practitioners lead patients into a trance state in which the patient identifies with and acts out the role of the spirits. It is by contact with the power of the spirits that the healing is accomplished. This identification with spirits is in no sense a ‘brain-washing’ exercise, but appears to have distinct therapeutic effects on the subsequent well-being of the patient.

The components of rituals that alter states of consciousness are called drivers, because they activate various combinations of body functions, and particularly those of the nervous system. It is by way of drivers that ritual activities actually penetrate into and evoke the physiological processes that underlie mental processes. A useful way to think of drivers is to distinguish between those that are extrinsic and those that are intrinsic to the body. Extrinsic drivers are elements such as drumming or concentration upon an icon — they depend upon stimuli external to the body. Intrinsic drivers, such as fasting or breathing techniques, are staged within the body. The table overleaf lists some examples of both types of drivers.

Intense concentration upon a cult's core symbolism may result in profound transformation of the state of mind and body — as is the case in the trance induction techniques of the Umbanda practitioners. A core symbol may be presented to a practitioner as a meditation, or the practitioner may imagine the symbol before the mind's eye (as in visualization practices). This would be driving the mind and body ‘from the top down’, so to speak. On the other hand, fasting (intrinsic driving) or ingesting psychotropic substances (extrinsic driving) may result in significant alteration of sensory and cognitive activity of the nervous system and thus alter the state of consciousness ‘from the bottom up’. Much of a cult's ritual activity may be directed toward significantly altering the state of consciousness of its members, which in turn may produce radical changes in the members' sense of identity, their value orientation, and their cultural affiliation. Possibly it is the power of ritual to alter states of consciousness that is the source of the fear people feel about cults. They perhaps become concerned that the cult is ‘brain-washing’ its members. While it is not true that a person can be literally ‘brain-washed’, in the sense of erasing their identity and previous cultural conditioning, ritual procedures do have the power to alter these in profound ways, in part by driving the body and its processes into alternative states. But most of the social science evidence on cultic ritual practices suggests that, in the case of most cults, the effect of these rituals is harmless and even therapeutic.

Types of drivers used in ritual production of experience

Intrinsic drivers


breathing exercises

Buddhist meditation



Hindu and Buddhist mantra


vision quest

Plains Indian vision quests

dream incubation

Tsimshian shamanism


Iroquois Handsome Lake

movement, Tsimshian


circadian rhythms


physical exertion

long-distance running,

Tibetan trance-running


vision quest


Navajo stargazing, Zen

koan meditation

directed intention

Jungian active imagination


Tsimshian shamans

sensory deprivation

Kogi mamas (with seclusion)

Extrinsic drivers




Bushman trance dancing


Tsimshian healing

group chanting

Tsimshian healing

flickering light

psychotropic drugs

Southwest US datura




Navajo sandpainting


shaman's mirror

Meditation symbol

Buddhist basic 10



Tsimshian power songs


scary task

firewalking, snake

handling, drinking



plains vision quest, burial in

ant hill


Plains Indian Sundance,

sweat lodge


Tibetan cham dances


Maya ritual bloodletting

In conclusion, cults, whether in the popular or the technical sense, are concerned with the body as symbol, the body as agent, and the body as a source of existential dilemma. The body, its parts, and its transformations often provide a symbolic reference point upon which to ground and centre cultic beliefs. The body is also the principal agent for the realization of the cult's belief system. The belief system is enacted through ritual practices that frequently alter the state of consciousness of cult members. And because the body is perceived to sicken, age and die, cults everywhere must account for how the consciousness or spirit of the being may transcend the death of the body.

Charles D. Laughlin


Lewis, I. M. (1996). Religion in context: cults and charisma, (2nd edn). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Rambo, L. R. (1993). Understanding religious conversion. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
Wallace, A. F. C. (1966). Religion: an anthropological view. Random House, New York.

See also body mutilation and markings; religion and the body.