“Cult leader” is a term that gets such a bad reputation. Of course, a lot of times, it’s very much deserved.
But throughout history a lot of great spiritual thinkers were considered ‘cult leaders’, and some of them would eventually graduate to being thought of as founders of great spiritual movements or religious denominations. So here’s a list of some 20th century spiritual thinkers that were at one time or another classified as ‘cult leaders’, that were actually mostly awesome, or at least had some very interesting stuff to say. So as not to play favorites, they’re ranked in order of how long ago they died.
1. Hazrat Inayat Khan
His story: Hazrat Inayat Khan was one of India’s most famous musicians. But he was also a Sufi mystic. So after he’d reached the pinnacle of accomplishment in his music, he gave up his musical career to become a Sufi teacher. He eventually founded the Sufi Order in the West, which taught a Sufism that was based on a Universalist mysticism, teaching Sufism as a perennial philosophy.
His deal: In his teachings, he taught that there’s only a single divinity, only one true spiritual formula that is found hidden within all religions, only one truth, and only one brotherhood: humanity. From his background in music, he taught the “music of the spheres”, that life itself has a sound and harmony that anyone can tap into through meditation.
Controversy: Khan was seen as a radical for breaking with a number of Sufi traditions. He largely divorced Sufism from Islam in particular, and there was no requirement to either be or become Muslim to join his order.
His best book: The Mysticism of Sound and Music.
2. Aleister Crowley
His story: In the 1890s, when British occultism was the playground of upper-class dilettantes, Aleister Crowley (being an upper-class dilettante) gave it a try. By the time he was done, at his death in 1947, he changed western occultism forever. He transformed it into a profound and complete philosophical system on par with Buddhism or other great eastern spiritual philosophies. His ideas became the background of every style of occultism to come after him; and also a major influence on later religions like Wicca. His ideas would also work their way into pop-culture through rock music, science-fiction/fantasy, and comic books.
His deal: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will”. Every human being is an entirely sovereign individual, who must discover their own “true will” or full potential. A set of esoteric practices (which he called “magick”) can help one to obtain this awareness of their own nature, and to unite to the vaster universe.
Controversy: Crowley was once labeled the “wickedest man in the world” by a hostile press. He advocated free love, drug use, sex-positivity, weird art, trippy mysticism, pretty much everything that would become popular in the ’60s other than rock-music, and this made him pretty hated by the 1920s/30s mainstream. He was also not good at fitting the stereotype of what a ‘spiritual teacher’ should look like; mainly because of all the free love, drugs and wild living he was having. He spent his way through two huge inheritances, and he was so demanding and so difficult with people that he alienated 90% of the followers he had in his life.
His best book: Magick in Theory and Practice
3. George Gurdjieff
His story: Gurdjieff was a mystic of Armenian origins, who taught in Russia before World War I, and France afterwards. His teachings (which he called the “Fourth Way”) were inspired by but different from traditional Sufism.
His deal: Gurdjieff taught that human beings have a disconnection between their real consciousness and their regular everyday consciousness. So most people are like robots, going through 99% of their life on ‘automatic’. Only by a process of ‘self-remembering’ can people break out of this sort of ‘waking sleep’ and into full ‘awakening’. This process requires the use of “shocks” (events that expose you to some radically unusual situation) to break a person out of their normal understandings, to become conscious of areas of their being they have forgotten.
Controversy: Gurdjieff was a heavy drinker, smoker, and eater. He was in no way an ascetic and didn’t look much like what people expected from ‘spirituality’. He ran his school as a business and had no issues with spending money. At the same time, he was a brutal taskmaster to his students, demanding strict discipline in his school. He also liked fast cars, and nearly killed himself in driving accidents twice. Like Crowley, he alienated most of the students he had over his life.
His best book: Meetings With Remarkable Men
4. Ramana Maharshi
His story: Ramana Maharshi was an Indian mystic, remarkable as one of the most recognized 20th century Indian mystical-saints, recognized as genuine by almost all of the many branches of Hindu philosophies. Incredibly, in spite of this, he was still also probably not completely useless.
His Deal: He taught a system most closely related to Hindu nondualism (Advaita). The Self, he said, was a tangled mess of outer influences, which had to be overcome by a mixture of simple, silent meditation, spiritual devotion, and most importantly self-inquiry. His students were told to examine any of their activities, likes, dislikes, and definitions of themselves, asking “Who am I?”, and discarding anything that they could find had originated from some outside source. This practice of removing all the superficialities was meant to reach the experience of realizing that all your definition of your ‘self’ is actually a set of impressions or programming, and that the true self is limitless and undefinable.
Controversy: practically none. He did seem almost overwhelmed by the amount of attention he got as he became more famous, attempting on three different occasions to run away from his own school and go live in a forest or a cave, but his throngs of adoring fans stopped him. He inspired a bunch of successors, none of which seemed anywhere near as impressive as he was. His teaching seemed at times too simplistic to really be able to work for everyone, or maybe almost anyone (other than himself).
His best book: The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi
5. Meher Baba
His story: You’ll notice that Meher Baba doesn’t have a quote attached to his image. That’s because for almost all of his public life, for decades, Meher Baba didn’t speak a word. Born into an Indian Parsi family, Meher Baba taught his own system of union with God, a universalist system like most of the other mystics in this list. His teachings were communicated by a mix of sign-language and an alphabet-board he’d use for communicating with his students.
His Deal: There’s one quote of Meher Baba’s you’ve probably heard many times before, if only in song: “Don’t worry, be happy”. His teaching was a mix of devotion, practicing love, and a weirdly complex cosmology of overcoming a set of illusory levels of reality to achieve individual realization through union with the divine.
Controversy: Meher Baba was treated like a living god by his followers, and he encouraged this. He suggested on several occasions that he would at one point break his silence by declaring a word that would reach every heart in the world, but he died without ever breaking his silence.
His best book: God Speaks.
His Story: Nisargadatta Maharaj was a shopkeeper, owner of a shop that sold Indian cigarettes. He was also one of the most significant 20th century teachers of Nondualist Hinduism. He spent several decades teaching students from what was essentially his living room, achieving the peak of his fame by the early 1970s.
His Deal: While he taught some traditional Hindu techniques like meditation, devotion to the guru and mantra practices, his main emphasis was on a radical kind of non-dualism. He had a very no-nonsense approach to the path to enlightenment, saying that all one needed to do was realize that there is no definition of self outside of “I am”, and that one needs to just banish all the (delusional) self-definitions that get in the way of the pure experience of Truth.
Controversy: Nisargadatta had a reputation for being curt and something of a grump. He would often berate questioners for concerning themselves over stupid things. He didn’t fit the mold of a traditional guru, refusing to act all ‘holy’, and chain smoking his Indian ‘bidi’ cigarettes while he taught about universal transcendence. Like Ramana Maharshi, he had a bunch of ‘successors’ that were mostly very unimpressive, and his whole deal may have been too simplistic to really help most people.
His best book: I Am That.
7. Jiddu Krishnamurti
His Story: Krishnamurti’s story is pretty amazing. The guy was chosen as a child by the new-age Theosophical Society, declared the “World Teacher” and basically raised to become the future leader of their entire organization. After years of training and indoctrination, he was brought before the world congress of Theosophy, where he was expected to take control of the society and begin to issue his great teaching to spread Theosophy to the whole world. Instead, he got on the stage, said (in essence) that Theosophy was bunk, and disbanded the society. After that, he spent the rest of life (another six decades, more or less!) traveling the world and teaching a system of enlightenment that was totally skeptical of all systems, all religions, or any ideas of complex metaphysics.
His Deal: Krishnamurti, after dumping the Theosophists, taught a system of deeply personal mysticism based on very basic meditation, silence, and self-observation. He rejected any of the other trappings of spirituality, and especially clinging to any kind of dogmas. His emphasis was on putting absolute responsibility on your own self, not depending on any god or guru; and that anyone could choose ‘freedom’ (enlightenment) at any moment.
Controversy: Krishnamurti’s uncompromising rejection of dogmatic spirituality, when he could have lived a long and comfortable life as leader of a ready-made cult handed to him by devoted followers, was remarkably brave. But some think his own experiences led him to be overly forceful in rejecting all other aspects of spiritual practices and disciplines. His “just become free” philosophy, while very powerful and gaining many admirers, was very hard to achieve in practice; he produced no successors in six decades of teaching. At the end of his life, he declared that no one had ever managed to really understand what he was teaching. He was also aloof and distant from almost everyone, and seemed to have very little patience for his intellectual inferiors (which to him was pretty well everyone).
His best book: The First and Last Freedom
8. Chogyam Trungpa
His Story: Chogyam Trungpa was a Tibetan lama, of the generation that were forced to flee Tibet following the Chinese invasion of that land. He came to Britain originally (he’d later move to the U.S.), and was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers truly interested in teaching westerners. He put aside his monkish robes, broke most of the rules of his order, married a teenage westerner, and started his own tradition of teaching, which came to be known as Shambhala.
His Deal: Trungpa was very much an orthodox Tibetan Buddhist teacher, but he changed how Tibetan Buddhism and Tantra was presented, creating a new structure to suit westerners. It was actually much more in following with an earlier kind of Tibetan Buddhism which had been buried under centuries of monastic rules and dogma. He called his teaching style “Crazy Wisdom”, and it focused on very radical forms of meditation, disciplines, devotions, and trippy experiences, combined with an incredibly intelligent and charismatic method of communicating. He became enormously popular and influential in the west, but his intense methods were a challenge to more traditional Buddhist teachers. After his death in 1987, the Tibetan Buddhist orthodoxy made efforts to water down his teaching and to avoid other radical teachers from being able to have the same kind of influence. As far as I’m concerned, he was one of the only 20th century mainstream Buddhist teachers who was worth a damn.
Controversy: Trungpa was accused of being a ‘cult leader’, but so were most of the people in this article (except maybe Krishnamurti). He voluntarily defrocked himself, had sexual relationships with some of his female students, and married one of them when she was still a teenager and he was 30. He smoked, and drank very heavily, the latter almost certainly contributed to his death at 48 years of age. The westerner he chose as his heir turned out to have engaged in sexual activity with both male and female students, even after knowing he was HIV positive, which seriously damaged Trungpa’s legacy.
His best book: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He also produced the best English edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
His story: Osho was an Indian philosopher who became one of the most famous spiritual teachers of the 20th century. He was born into a Jain family, but systematically rejected the dogmas of Jainism, Hinduism, and then one by one all the other -isms of religion. Instead he taught a system of universal mysticism which valued the methods but didn’t cling to the doctrines of any of the great religious traditions.
His deal: Osho described himself as a “spiritually incorrect mystic”. He emphasized serious practices of a variety of meditations, drawn mainly from Tantra and Zen, that made use of the body and consciousness. He pushed experience over knowledge, questioning over beliefs, humor over seriousness. He gave around 700 different lecture series over the course of his life, where he condemned just about every religious and social norm, while commenting on the essence of most of the great holy books and philosophies of world religion. Like his contemporary Krishnamurti, which he admired but frequently argued with, he emphasized the importance of personal responsibility, that no one can ‘save’ you or ‘change’ you but yourself.
Controversy: Unlike Krishnamurti, Osho took on the trappings of an Indian Guru, and in spite of his teachings many of his students took their devotion to him to the extreme of apparent worship. He rejected the anti-materialist ideas of many other Indian teachers, and while he lived a relatively simple personal life, his school was lavish. He did indulge in his love of fine cars, owning dozens of luxury vehicles. He had a long (apparently monogamous) relationship with one of his female students; he also taught that sexuality was nothing to be afraid of and encouraged sexual liberation among his students (leading to claims he was a ‘sex guru’). He drew particular controversy during the 1980s where he personally entered into a period of silence, and the people who ran his school engaged in fairly extreme authoritarian behavior. When he came out of that period of silence he renounced all those who had been involved and taught it as an object lesson that his own students had mostly failed to understand his message of not letting themselves be led by ‘priests’ claiming spiritual authority and pushing dogma.
His best book: “Meditation: The Art of Ecstasy”; “The Book of Secrets” is a pretty awesome guide to 112 different kinds of meditation, too.
10. Idries Shah
His Story: Idries Shah was an Indian-born Afghani descended from a family of former tribal chiefs. He mainly grew up in England, and may (or may not) have later traveled the world in search of secret Sufi wisdom. In 1964 he produced a book called “The Sufis”, which became a blockbuster hit. It was a case of being at the right place at exactly the right time: the hippie era was beginning and westerners were eager for new spiritual wisdom from the ancient orient. His book explained the works of the mysterious Sufi order in a totally new way. He went on to become a prolific writer and teacher of a very modern reformation (or maybe, reinvention) of ancient wisdom.
His Deal: Shah basically claimed that Sufism was totally misunderstood by almost everyone, including many Sufi groups in the Muslim world that were no longer transmitting the genuine teachings. Real Sufi teaching had almost nothing to do with Islam as such, or even with what people think of as “religion”, which was mostly just a simplistic cargo-cult mockery of what the real teaching was about. Real Sufism (and all real mysticism, by extension) was about special techniques of discovering how to understand reality. If you practiced these right, they would unlock your consciousness to completely change your being. It was about radically shifting your human potential, in ways that might look like ‘magic’ or like ‘miraculous holiness’ to average people but was really almost like a secret science. We’re talking Matrix-like stuff of unlocking the programming code of human awareness and manipulating reality.
Controversy: Shah was accused of having faked some or all of his back-story, and that he had no real traditional Sufi authority at all. Academics didn’t like that he was taking Sufism seriously instead of as a curiosity to be investigated, and claimed he often said “x is Sufi” when there’s no proof “x” was. Traditional Sufis don’t like that he tossed out almost all their religious trappings; or maybe they were pissed off that he revealed things to the general public that were traditionally only revealed to an inner circle of advanced students. Several people also accused Shah of having broken business deals with them, or cheated them out of money in various ways.
His Best Book: Well, you pretty much have to say “The Sufis”; but the two-part series “Learning how to Learn” and “Knowing how to Know” are really amazing too.