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Religious fanaticism is something psychologically lowborn and ignorant — and usually in its action fierce, cruel and base. — Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 490

Those who use the term “fundamentalism” to describe the activities of religious groups or individuals must be very clear about what they mean by the word. Over the last thirty years, fundamentalism has ceased to indicate merely a particular sort of textual literalism in religious matters. More and more, it is used to refer to a religious orientation characterized by certain psychological attitudes and habits of action. There are similarities and differences among the meanings of fundamentalist, traditionalist, conservative, zealot, ideologue, and fanatic. Each of these describes in its own way a combination of belief and action that has often made religion a divisive and reactionary force.

Sri Aurobindo never wrote about fundamentalism per se (the term was coined after he had completed his major writings, and during his lifetime was confined to its original context: Protestant Christianity), but when he wrote of religious fanaticism he characterized it in ways that modern writers on fundamentalism would have no difficulty recognizing. He put his finger on the nature of fanaticism and much of what is now called fundamentalism in the sentence quoted above. Though the two words are not synonymous, both fanaticism and fundamentalism tend to be seen as characterized by “lowborn and ignorant” habits of thought and can lead to “fierce, cruel and base” modes of action.

Words with negative connotations often degenerate into vague terms of abuse. Words commonly employed in this way include “fascism” and “fundamentalism”. We wish to avoid any loose and imprecise use of the latter term. We undertake our analysis of the writings of the leaders of a loud and potentially disastrous movement among followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and practitioners or would-be practitioners of their Integral Yoga in a spirit of seriousness, marked not by enmity but by sadness. We find many troubling characteristics in the rhetoric and activities of the leaders of this movement, and believe that there are grounds for regarding their actions, prima facie, as signs of fundamentalism.

In what follows, we will see how closely the claims made and the language used by these individuals approach the characteristics of fundamentalism that are acknowledged by authorities on the subject. In our conclusion, we will consider whether the term “fundamentalism” can rightly be applied to the mindset and actions of these individuals.

We use for illustration the following letters, emails and compilations by the principal leaders of the movement (the abbreviations in parentheses are used for references in the discussion below):

These materials have been widely circulated by the leaders of the movement. Hundreds of copies have been mass emailed to people in various parts of the world, and hard copies freely distributed in Pondicherry.

Passages from these texts will be discussed under several heads, each of which represents a psychological posture or habit of action characteristic of fundamentalists, as described by Richard T. Antoun, Martin E. Marty, Judith Nagata and other authorities. (See this page.)

Characteristics of the Fundamentalist

  1. Rejection of complexity

  2. Demand for doctrinal purity

  3. Feelings of being threatened

  4. Control of information

  5. Exclusivism

  6. Opposition to discussion

  7. Abusive language

  8. Rousing the masses

  9. Atmosphere of violence

  10. Demonizing the enemy

  11. Heroic role in a great cosmic drama