Practice Question – Distinguish between sects and cults with illustrations. (UPSC 2015)

Approach– Introduction. Define Sects and Cults, Point out differences, Make the differences pronounced by giving suitable examples. Conclusion. 



A religious organisation grows out of and after the religious experience of charismatic personality (as for example, Christ, Mohammad, Buddha). This religious experience of a charismatic personality gets organised and institutionalised. Its developmental process operates at three levels : (i) formation of the pattern of worship, i.e., the cult; (ii) formation of the pattern of ideas and definitions, i.e., development of myths and theology; and (iii) formation of association and organisation. The problem of interpreting the original religious experience can also be added to this.
Sociologists generally speak of four types of religious groups-the ecclesia (The Church), the sect, the denomination and the cult. Known as the Church-Sect Typology, this differentiation of religious groups is based mainly on the pioneering work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch and on the basis of development of Christianity in the West.



Sects as a typology was created by Troeltsch (1931) which identifies the unique characteristics of this religious organisation. A sect has an informal organisational structure with a charismatic leader persuading and encouraging others to follow them. Generally, they attract members from the lower classes whom have become disillusioned with society. Encouraging members to reject the mainstream values of society. In terms of demands, sects require a deep commitment from their members and expect them to withdraw from life outside of the sect. Sects do not identify with the state and are in direct opposition to the state. However, sects do believe they possess the monopoly of religious truth.



Cults tend to lack a fixed religious doctrine, and typically have very loose religious beliefs, which are open to a wide range of interpretation by members. They tend to be more individualistic than other forms of religion. Members tend to be more like ‘customers’: they are free to come and go as they please, and choose which aspects of the cult’s activities to take part in. Unlike sects, they tend to lack strict rules. There is very little commitment involved with being a member. They are tolerant of other religions beliefs.



Denominations as a typology was created by Niebuhr (1929) which identifies the unique characteristics of this religious organisation. A denomination would have a formal organisation structure with a hierarchy of paid officials but as an organisation it is smaller than a church. Generally, they would be accepting of wider society drawing in a variety of members from differing social backgrounds but their appeal is not universal. They place minor restrictions on their members meaning they will have a few key regulations which must be followed. Denominations do not identify with the state and believe that the church and state should be separated. However, denominations do not claim to have monopoly on religious truth and they are tolerant of other religions.



The genesis of religious organisation lies in social groupings which are a part of the society. It also lies in the routinisation and institutionalisation of charisma and in the structural differentiation of society. The solid foundations of a religious organisation are often laid down by the disciples and not by the founder. His religious experience provides a breakthrough.  The crisis of continuity is generally met by collecting, recording and communicating the sayings, precepts, sermons and deeds of the founder.

A religious group originates as a primary group, dividing the humanity between believers and non-believers. But, it also grows and multiplies because of inner differentiation of the total society and the group itself and growing enrichment of religious experience. With the emergence of religious specialists such as priests and son on there appears the organisation distinction between laity and clergy. The clergy owes its existence to the hierarchy or ordained offices, having the elements of bureaucracy.

Acquiring a revolutionary character, a religious group may recognise and accept the established society. Or, it may reject the established society only in spirit to promote the attitude of equality within the group, as was the case in Buddhism. It opposed the conservative society and took equality as an ideal. The internal structure of religious group is a dynamic process. It operates at two levels. On one hand it creates internal differentiation and on the other hand it organises and institutionalises itself.



In the Indian perspective, a religious group primarily originates in a math. In the given context, it would mean opinion or viewpoint of a charismatic person (the Original Preceptor) and/or of a group about the existence in on-existence of God and meaning of man’s social existence. In this perspective even the atheistic Buddhism in a math, the Buddha math.
A marg (i.e. path) is essentially defined by the rituals of worship relation to its . The marg also defines the relationship between the preceptor and his successor and followers in relation to God/Dharma and in relation to themselves. It defines the social circle of the math.

When the complex of a math-marg grows into a tradition of dogmatic knowledge, handed down both in time and space through an organised body of believers and expounders, it takes the form of a sampradaya. Reaction against dogma and/or its interpretation precipitates a new math. Hinayan,. Mahayan and Virayan are referred to as Sampradayas and as Buddha Math. As a hypothesis, it may be propounded that religious groups arise out of the dynamics of matha, marg and sampradaya. Out of this dynamics, in different periods of India’s social history, have arisen religious groups, the main ideal types of which are the Sangh, the Mat, and the Panth and the Samaj.

As a religious organisation, the Panth (meaning path) is a distinct type though it draws much from the traditions of the Sangh and the Math. Tlie Panth grew out of the protest and religio-social reform and reorganisation which was generated in India under the politico-religious domination of Islam. The Panth-tradition continues since then.  It is also a product of Nirgun School of Bhakti (devotion to the Formless), also called the Nirgun &nth. Though monistic, it denies the concept of eternal moksha. It is more this-wordly than the adwait of Shankar. Socially, it hinges on the Bhagat (the initiated) and the Guru (the initiator). The Bhagat is attached to a guru and his path.

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