Religious Studies 132W

Philip Jenkins





I use this book because it is well written and often funny, and also has a great deal to say about the major themes of the course. This page raises questions that you should consider while you are reading it. It also presents the structure of the class in which we discuss the book. Think throughout about what we learn here applies to other fringe movements. How, if at all, was this particular movement unusual?


We will discuss the book under eight main headings:


*The group itself



*Conversion and recruitment

*Organization and culture

*The cult as family

*Deviance and violence

*The official response


Do you think the book tells the full story? Is his account credible? Are there other questions you would have like to see answered?


What really surprised you about the book?


Are there any incidents or stories that really grabbed your attention?


What is Guest’s story? What happened to him?


What does he tell us about the cult milieu of the 1970s? Do you think this was a representative story?


What do we learn about his mother’s spiritual odyssey? What was her religious background? What brought her into this weird world? What was going on at the time in society, culture and politics that would have led her to this? How did this experience – eg communes  -prepare her for the Rajneeshis?


Do we see an instant “conversion experience” or does conversion happen in stages? What are the stages? How do the groups and their leaders make people more willing to believe or behave in ways that seem so abnormal to mainstream society?


What role did drugs play in creating this milieu?


One big theme of this book is childhood – it tells of Guest’s childhood, of course, but in other ways all the members of the group act like children. How? Does the image of the cult group as an extended family help us understand its appeal, and the social roles of members?


How did the cult treat regular family relationships and parent-child relationships? Why did they act like this?


What do you think of Guest’s childhood? What were its positive or attractive features? Was it restrictive and repressive, or oriented to freedom and the individual?


What sort of cult did his family join? Who were the Rajneeshis, where did they come from, what did they believe?


How did the cult support itself?


How stable or unstable was the group? What were its points of weakness?


How hierarchical was the group? How did members rise or fall, how did they gain or lose authority?


What do we learn about sexual relationships within the group? How normal or abnormal were they? How did the children become involved in these relationships?


The cult ends up being involved in serious violence. Why did this happen? What does this tell us about the linkage between violence and fringe religions more generally?


Does the organization deserve the title of “cult”? Why? Was it a harmful or anti-social organization? In what way?


Tell me about the cult leaders and the authority structure? Why did people accept this authority?


What picture emerges of the Bhagwan? How does he fit the usual stereotypes of the crazy cult leader? What incidents or sayings struck you about him?


BTW, there is a useful biographical sketch of the Bhagwan at


Do put the question in simple lay terms: was the Bhagwan crazy?


What means did the cult use to maintain its structure and discipline? How did people cut themselves off from the wider world?


What is meant by the concept of boundary control? How do small and fringe religious groups manipulate boundaries?


What role did language play in the process of creating boundaries? How about dress?


A sneaky question: based on what you read here – if you were designing your very own “cult”, how would you organize it to gain the maximum possible influence over people to do your bidding?


How far can we see the odd religious practices of the group as deliberate tactics to ensure obedience and orthodoxy?


Think throughout: how many of the cult’s activities and practices resembled those of regular religions, but carried to extremes – what examples might we point to here? What kinds of renunciations are common to mainstream religions?


What do people find in these groups that they don’t find in the mainstream society, and especially in mainstream religious groups?


How did members regard the outside world?


What do we learn about how authorities, social agencies and police responded to the cult? Should they have intervened sooner and harder?


What problems does a group like this for create for issues of religious liberty?


The book describes how and why people join and stay in groups that other people may regard as bizarre or dangerous. Why, in Guest’s view, does this happen?


Was there a particular individual case-study that really struck you as a revelation in explaining this process? Did you feel that these were people you could identify with? Take one person in particular and tell me about it.


If the group was so harmful, why did people join it and stay attached to it, often fanatically?


What happened to the movement in the end?


What does the book tell us about how and why people (a) joined and (b) left the group?


Cults are seen as much less of a threat or issue these days, compared to the 1970s. What is different today from that time? In other words, how has the “market” changed over time. And how have “suppliers” of religious experiences changed their wares accordingly? How do they market and advertise themselves?


How does Guest’s account agree with or differ from the standard images of cults? Does his cult upbringing seem to have scarred him for life? How does he look back on his upbringing? Does this surprise you?


At the end of the story, do you feel sorry for Guest as a victim? Or were there positive sides to his story? Has he forgiven?



Some memorable quotes:

"Bhagwan wanted us to let go; but it felt like all I'd ever done was let go. Bhagwan wanted the children of his communes to be free of history; but if I was to free myself, I needed a history."


“We were at once spiritual aristocrats and material refugees.”


"You have two millstones around your neck: your lover and your son. All you have to do is get rid of them, and you will fly."


What other lines or phrases struck you as especially illustrative or memorable?



You can find some reviews of the book at:,,1125460,00.html