This article is a continuation of the previous article, where we explained six types of delusions. Here we give examples of two of them: persecutory and referential delusions. All of the names in these stories have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
These examples are only for educating the reader about the characteristics of delusional disorders. We do not suggest that readers use this knowledge to ‘label’ others as having such disorders. A licensed clinical practitioner alone can do a diagnosis with certainty. If readers think that someone has such characteristics, they are advised to exercise their own prudent judgment and perhaps consult with a licensed clinician if necessary. The knowledge here is only provided for one’s own education, introspection, and self-protection. No similarities or identifications, either expressly or implied, with any individual or organization, should be construed here.
Persecutory delusion is defined as “a belief that an individual is being conspired against, cheated upon, spied on, followed, poisoned or drugged, harassed, or obstructed in pursuit of long-term goals. The affected individual may engage in repeated attempts to obtain satisfaction by legal action. Individuals with persecutory delusion are often resentful and may resort to violence against those they believe are hurting them.” (American Psychiatric Association, hereinafter “APA”)
Krishna Das, a long-time Indian-born devotee, had settled in Hungary. He got married and then joined a well-known religious organization in Hungary. After joining this organization, he gave up his profession and moved to Vrindavan. He served as a pujari, was very dedicated and also interested in studying scriptures. His wife and him were an exemplary couple in the devotee community. I never saw them in any conflict. In his old age, he moved back to Hungary for better medical facilities because he developed some serious health issues, and felt that Vrindavan was not the best place to get proper treatment..
While in Hungary, he kept in touch with me regularly. One day he called me and expressed his concern that the Central Bureau of Investigation of India (CBI) wanted to bring him back to India and prosecute him. He was terrified because he knew the conditions of Indian prisons. His justification was that he had provided some wrong information while forming a financial trust in India, and that someone had complained about it to the CBI. I tried to convince him that such a thing was not possible. It didn’t seem like a culpable crime and the trust was not even functional. Even if it was a crime, the CBI would have nothing to do with such a petty crime. Somebody would have to file a complaint with the local police in Vrindavan first, which nobody had done. Second, he was not an Indian citizen so there would be a tremendous hassle to indict him, which the local authorities would not go through for such a petty crime related with a non-existent trust.
Krishna Das’ counter-argument was that the cleaning lady in his Vrindavan house had asked him when he was coming back. Her question confirmed his theory that the CBI was out to get him. I countered that Krishna Das and his wife were very gracious and supportive of her so it was natural that she had asked such a question. Then he responded that his brother had called him and asked the same question. He thought both the cleaning lady and his brother were in collusion with CBI to trick him to come back to India. I tried my best to convince him otherwise, spoke with him over the phone and wrote emails to impress upon him that such a thing was not possible. But he was completely convinced and would not budge. Ultimately, he committed suicide out of fear of an Indian prison. At that time, I had no idea that he had suicidal thoughts. It was shocking to me and his family members, because none of us had any idea that he had delusional disorder. Now, when I look back and describe it in retrospect it sounds a very simple case and one might doubt why I didn’t inform family members. But actually at that time I didn’t realize that he was manifesting symptoms of serious mental health disorder, because I was never trained in this field. And I certainly didn’t know that this could lead to an extreme step of committing suicide.
This is certainly an example of delusion because there was no truth behind his conviction that CBI was chasing after him. There was no police complaint filed against him in Vrindavan, without which CBI would not come into action. He could not produce any tenable evidence of his beliefs. He had not received any legal notice from the police or court. This is a clear example of persecutory delusion: “fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in the light of conflicting evidence” (APA, p. 87).
Later, while deliberating on his delusion, I remembered another incident with him in Vrindavan. A pujari had been removed from his service, and Krishna Das thought that the pujari blamed him for it. He had found a broken pot in front of the main gate of his house, and he thought that the pujari had hired a Tantrika to kill him. I accompanied him to a Tantrika in Mathura to counteract the charm of the pujari’s Tantrika. But now, deliberating in retrospect, I think it was just Krishna Dasa’s delusion. And of course the Tantrika from Mathura was happy to confirm his delusion and make some good amount of money for his services.
Joshika’s comment: Although Krishna Das’ story of Persecutory Delusion is extreme as it ended in the loss of his life, there may be other not-so-extreme cases of people who are living functional lives in devotee communities. It is not an easy thing to detect delusion, unless one is trained in it. This article is just to bring an awareness about it and we don’t expect that readers will become expert in spotting it, but it could be helpful.
If you have to interact with a person in delusion what should be the appropriate behavior?
I have seen people take one of two main strategies to deal with those in delusion:
Neither option is ideal, and neither option helps the person in delusion. In fact, the only way a person in delusion can get better is by taking medication. Then, once they are out of it, then psychotherapy can help them.
In the previous example, the delusion can be explained away as caused by old age or the medications and isolation from the devotee community. However, delusion can also develop in apparently normal persons with healthy relations and without any medical problems. This story is about a young devotee‘s referential delusion which is defined as “the belief that certain gestures, comments, environmental cues, and so forth are directed at oneself when they are not. Taking hint on the basis of these cues, they act with confidence that they have received a divine message.” (American Psychiatric Association).
I had a godbrother, Pavana Kumar Das (PKD), (name changed) who was living with me. He was a young boy from Texas who was very serious about spiritual life. He used to attend my classes and ask a lot of questions. Every evening, I served in the goshala of my Guru Maharaja and after that, studied with him. PKD used to come along with me. PKD was a very hard-working boy and he liked serving cows very much. After some time, he actually moved to the Goshala so that he could serve more hours. He would come to have meals at my place and to attend my lectures.
After some time he stopped attending my classes. He was becoming a little arrogant. He would speak philosophy and give his own twist on it. I started having my doubts about his state of mind because he would always talk about receiving some divine message. One day, we were walking together and trailing a couple of sadhus who were in a conversation. In their conversation, they mentioned the word Navadvipa, referring to the birthplace of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, in West Bengal. When PKD heard the word Navadvipa, he told me that he had to go to Navadvipa. He exclaimed, “This is the hidden message!” I thought he was joking. But the next day, he actually left for Navadvipa.
When he returned from Navadvipa, he continued to look for cues for divine messages in other people’s words. He would suddenly go to Radha Kunda because he got a divine inspiration. This became more and more frequent until he finally left Vrindavan. He was very charismatic, and attracted those who did not have much basis in philosophy. It was easy for him to attract naïve western seekers, especially the girls, as they thought he was spiritually advanced. If one knows some basic concepts of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, it is not difficult to impress people in general. It is not a surprise that he began travelling all over the world like a Messiah, playing the flute and having a few girlfriends. I later came to know that once he went to Israel riding on a donkey surrounded by a few of his followers. He proclaimed himself to be the next Messiah predicted in the Old Testament.
PKD thought that he was situated on the prema platform and did not need to follow any principles meant for sadhakas. I remember one day he argued with me to prove his advanced state and compared himself to a butterfly and me to a larva. In his opinion, I still needed to grow and become free from all of these rules and regulations. He told me point-blank that I was just a neophyte. What could I say? My thought was that if he had actually attained prema, why did he give up the service to his Guru? A real siddha does not ride around with girlfriends and impersonating Krsna by playing the flute. The scriptures tell us clearly what the symptoms of a siddha are, and he was showing the opposite symptoms. I was amused by his revelation. PKD is a case of referential delusion.
Joshika’s comment: People in delusion can wreak havoc in the people’s lives around them, although they have no idea that they leave a trail of destruction. Because they are in delusion, they would not take responsibility for it or believe that the damage they caused even if they were told about it. Rather, they would blame others for it. In fact, it is not advisable to argue with a person in delusion or to try to prove them wrong. They will stick even more firmly to their beliefs and become angry, aggressive or even violent towards you. It is also not advisable to enable their delusion by agreeing with their faulty thoughts. So, it is very tricky being on the receiving end of someone with delusion. Ideally, we would like that they receive psychiatric treatment to snap them out of the delusion. But more often than not, they never take treatment because they don’t think they need to change. They cannot see their problem.
If you are suffering due to living with a delusional person, the best approach is the middle way. Respect them and listen to them. Do not validate their thoughts but do validate their feelings. I try to think of a delusional person as someone who is sick but doesn’t know it (for example, someone with advanced Alzheimer’s disease). If someone you love, and live with, is losing their memory, you would not become angry with them when they become more forgetful and tell you the same story day after day. You would not argue with them when they act like a small child or when they wander off and get lost. You would not criticize them and tell them that they are delusional when their thoughts come out all jumbled up and do not make sense at all. You may lose your patience with them or feel angry and frustrated with them from time to time. But, because you understand their problem, you would love them through it most of the time with kindness, compassion, and empathy. So, this is the best approach to take with any fellow devotee who may be in delusion.
We will continue this series on delusion by giving examples of the remaining four types of delusions.
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