These examples are only for educating the reader about the characteristics of delusional disorders. We have changed some details and names to clearly bring out these characteristics. 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 provided here is solely for one’s own education, introspection, and self-protection. No similarities or identifications, either express or implied, with any individual or organization, should be construed here.
In the last article, we gave examples of persecutory and referential delusions. The third, and probably the most common delusion in spiritual communities, is called grandiose delusion.
Grandiose delusion occurs when an individual believes that he or she has exceptional “talent or insight, or [has made] some important discovery, or [has] some special relationship with a prominent individual, or that they themselves are a prominent person. Grandiose delusions may have a religious content” (American Psychiatric Association). The person may believe himself or herself to be empowered as a savior of humanity
It is probably most difficult to recognize grandiose delusion because the person often has some extraordinary talent particularly in speaking on spiritual matters and/or his own experiences. He can explain the most ordinary incident in a highly esoteric and mystical manner that easily captivates the average spiritual seeker. Such a person is very charismatic, and can also perform impressive austerities with fixity of mind.
I had a well-educated godbrother from a priestly family near Calcutta named Mahesh Bhattacarya. When he first came in my contact, he was doing his PhD on rasa theory and he used to come and ask me questions related to it. I was very impressed by his knowledge and ability to express himself clearly. He loved to talk non-stop and what he said made a lot of sense; it was not just ordinary gossip. However, I noticed that he had an arrogance about himself. He once got into an argument with me on a very simple point and would not relent, although I was explaining from a shastric view. The argument became so intense that I had to ask him to leave my room and to never come back. But after some time, he came and asked for forgiveness and started attending my classes again. Although I had much respect for him, I realized that he was very egoistic with a very high opinion about himself. Repeatedly he would praise himself— how he was able to influence people whenever he talked, and how people always came to touch his feet.
He was studying Purva-mimamsa from a famous guru in the city, and he would tell me how he was the only one who understood the subject being taught. He would always give examples of how different rich or famous people were impressed by him, including his own father and other family members. In those days, one of the cabinet ministers of the central government of India was a friend of his father, and his father arranged for their meeting. Mahesh explained to me in great detail how when he spoke philosophy to the minister, he was so impressed with him that he praised him, and offered to help him in his mission. He had many such stories of his meetings with famous people, and how they were so impressed by him that they fell at his feet.
Whenever he came to visit Vrindavan, primarily to do research for his Ph.D. thesis, he would stay with me and we would attend my Guru Maharaja’s classes together. While walking back to my institute, he would explain his insights from the class, which were quite interesting and impressive. He would boast about how he was destined to become a great acarya; certainly he was always posing like one to my other godbrothers. Although he still showed respect for me, a few years down the road his behavior changed drastically, and he then expected respect from me as well. One day, he came to me to tell me that I could never become a guru, and that it was he who would be the successor of Guru Maharaja. I asked him why he was telling this to me. I had never said that I wanted to be a successor of our guru. Mahesh imagined that I was his competitor and thus he felt compelled to tell me that I had no chance – for something which I did not even aspired for!
Convincing himself that he would be the successor of Guru Maharaja was not enough for his grandiose delusion, for Mahesh had bigger dreams. One day, while praising himself, he revealed to me that he was the one who Nostradamus predicted would be the next world acarya. It seems that in the predictions of Nostradamus, it is mentioned somewhere that a world teacher would appear in the land from which Mahesh hailed. Clearly a megalomaniac, Mahesh interpreted this prediction as indicating himself. He said that time would come when he would be invited in the west to teach his message. He was specifically dreaming of becoming a famous teacher in America. He said that he would land there and speak, and big scholars would listen to him in awe and reverence and worship him. He bragged that he was preparing himself for this particular day.
One of his characteristics was that he always had a grandiose plan of how he was going to take over the world, but his modus operandi kept on changing for how he was going to do it. He talked about how he would have hundreds of centers and thousands of followers, and that he was the chosen one. In amusement and amazement, I would listen as his stories would constantly change. Every time he came, he would have another grand plan. In the beginning, I had some faith in what he was saying, but then I realized that he was just making these grand plans, none of which were coming true. He was even forgetting what his last plan was.
Gradually he became disenchanted with Guru Maharaja and started his own organization. The interesting thing about him is that he knew philosophy quite well, he was very eloquent in his speech, and he also had good character, therefore it was difficult for anyone to realize that he had some sort of delusion. He could impress you in the very first meeting because he loved to talk, and he believed what he spoke. It was not that you saw a dichotomy between his words and behavior, but if you lived with him for some time, you started to realize that he had a lot of delusion about himself and his abilities. He would continue repeating the same thing again and again, and didn’t do much to fulfill his vision. He primarily talked and influenced people who became his followers or even gave donations to him. His forte was glib-talk, which impressed anyone who met him for the first time. If one did not associate with him closely, one would remain impressed.
Joshika’s comment: A person in grandiose delusion can leave a trail of destruction in their lives and in the lives of others. Most spiritual seekers are suffering in material life and have come to spiritual life searching for the truth. Earnestly seeking the answer in bhakti yoga, they open themselves up to learn from the masters. But how do they know whom to trust? Who is a genuine master? Often times what looks attractive initially is just the opposite of what one should go for. This is a great trick of maya. However, even if we know this, how can we practically apply it? Often times people like Mahesh seekers suck up seekers who have the best intentions and innocent hearts. His words sound so convincing, and we can become easily swept away in the waves of his delusional “bliss.” Consequently, we end up further from Krishna than when we started our search. We could end up with some guy on a donkey, acting like an ass in the middle of the desert in Israel, like the story in our previous article. We end up feeling lost, confused, frustrated, dejected, and maybe we even give up the path of bhakti. So it is very important to use caution so we do not get swept away by a spiritual leader who is in grandiose delusion, despite how mesmerizing his words may seem to be. Some ways you can tell if the person is in grandiose delusion is to watch them over time. Observe if they are talking about plans that seem magical or too big in some way, and if they speak of themselves as if they were God. Watch closely if they follow through on what they say they are going to do. Notice if they exhibit any bizarre behavior that doesn’t make sense to you. Investigate on who this person has studied under. See if he is humble and respectful to his guru, or if he is trying to compete with his guru, thinking that he is better than him, and even trying to win over his disciples. Finally, trust your intuition. If you feel imbalanced and unstable after an interaction with this person, then slow down and introspect to if he really is a genuine master that you should follow.
I remember the story about a lady devotee who was in love with one famous guru from the days when I had just joined ISKCON in Detroit. She thought that this sannyasi was also in love with her, although there was no truth in it. The guru would travel to different temples of ISKCON and this lady would stalk him. When the guru realized this, he did not know what to do or how to get rid of her. Once he was visiting the Detroit temple, so the lady also followed him. She would try to find out what was the next destination was so that she could also book her ticket on the same flight. He was really troubled by her stalking, so he asked two senior devotees of the temple to help him. These devotees made a plan. They acted as if they were discussing the guru’s departure from the temple loudly, while passing in front of this lady devotee, so that she would hear and plan to go there. The plan was to say that he was flying to Chicago, when actually he was taking a flight to New York. This is how they fooled her and helped the guru escape her obsessive love. I don’t know the end of the story, but I do remember this part.
Obsessive love is a common phenomenon between a female disciple and the guru. There is actually a name for it: erotomanic delusion, which is defined as, “when an individual falsely believes that another person, usually of higher status, is in love with him or her. They are obsessed with the person with whom they think is in love with them and they may stalk him or her.” (American Psychiatric Association)
I observed a very severe case of such a lady devotee who lived in my ashram and thought that her guru was in love with her. She was so convinced about her guru’s love for her that she gave up her husband and three daughters and moved from Italy to Vrindavan. She would always talk about how her guru loved her and how she would have a child with him, even though the guru was not even remotely involved with her. She had just seen the guru a few times and never lived in his ashram nor done any personal service. Her conviction was so strong that even when the guru himself told her that he did not love her, asked her to return to her family and forbade her to ever come to see him again, she did not accept the order in a literal sense. Instead of understanding the real meaning of his words, even though they were direct and completely clear to everyone else, she twisted their meaning to fit her delusion. She said that the guru was making such statements so that her husband would not become upset with him, but secretly the guru loved her and he was even sending secret messages to her. She would not do any service, and said that there was no need for any spiritual practice, as love for guru was the perfection of life, and nothing else was needed. She also had hallucinations because she would recount how the guru visited her in her room. She said that her guru had special powers and he could manifest himself to give her messages, which no one else could see. She would act on his “messages,” like leaving her young daughters alone at home and moving to Vrindavan. However, when her husband or others close to her asked the guru if he was sending such messages to her, his response was negative. He even called her up and told her directly that she had a mental problem and that she needed to see a psychiatrist. She laughed it off by saying, “Oh my guru. He loves me so much that he has to make a show and act angry to hide our love from my husband. He plays like he is a tough guy to protect our love, but I know his heart and so I’m not bothered by what he is saying.”
This is how the life of people in delusion goes. You cannot change their conviction by any argument. Even if the guru directly orders them to go see a psychiatrist, a person in strong delusion will rationalize how the guru is wrong and how they are right so that they continue to live in their own world. Whatever argument you give, they will interpret it to support their delusional belief.
Joshika’s comment: Erotomania can become dangerous when the person starts acting on what they perceive as messages from the person that they think loves them. The disorder can also become dangerous because they may attempt to injure or kill people who they perceive as standing in the way of their relationship with the object of their affection; this has been shown in famous Hollywood films like Fatal Attraction.
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