From Divine Light Mission to Elan Vital and Beyond:

An Exploration of Change and Adaptation

Ron Geaves
Nova Religio; Mar 2004; 7, 3;
pg. 45

Abstract (Article Summary)
The following article will put forward the argument that it is necessary to take into account the worldview of the insider in order to appreciate the coherence or "rationality" of actions of a religious-spiritual teacher or organization. As a case study, the article examines the transformations that have occurred in the organizational forms utilized by Prem Rawat (a.k.a. Maharaji). While bringing readers up to date with Maharaji's activities since the 1980s, I argue that these developments owe more to Maharaji's self-perception of his role as a master and his wish to universalize the message historically located in the teachings of individual sant iconoclasts, than to external or internal pressures brought to bear upon the organizational forms themselves.

Full Text (7790 words)
Copyright University of California Press Mar 2004

This article intends to explore the nature of change and continuity involved in the various organizational structures that have been developed to promote the teaching of Prem Rawat (a.k.a. Maharaji), and to suggest that the organizational adaptations that have taken place, and continue to develop, are not as influenced by internal and external crises as by the dynamics of the message itself embodied in the messenger. In addition, sociologists of religion who focus on "cult" and "sect" formation need to take into account a religious movement's unique worldview, as this can be the key to understanding motivation for change. In this regard, ethnography needs to develop an interpretive framework that takes into account emic reality constructions as well as edic understandings that often involve impositions of one worldview onto another. For this reason, the article provides an overview and critique of a selection of the early scholarly interpretations of Divine Light Mission published in the 1970s. Even though that organization ceased to exist in the early 1980s, any literature review requires examining these early articles. Since more recent scholarly attention to Maharaji's movement is notable by its absence, there is a need for a current reassessment of Maharaji's teachings and their growth worldwide.


Divine Light Mission first came into existence in the early 1960s, when a group of followers of Shri Hans Ji Maharaj requested their teacher to found a formal organization to develop and structure his growing activities across India. By this time, Shri Maharaji, as he was known to his followers, had been teaching for nearly 30 years without any formal organization, supporting the general contention that he had resisted the idea but finally had given in to growing pressures from a number of active disciples. In 1966 Shri Maharaji died and was succeeded by his youngest son, Prem Pal Singh Rawat, at the remarkable age of eight. I say remarkable because this was by no means a dynastic succession; the young Maharaji had three elder brothers who would have expected to inherit a dynasty ahead of him. From an early age, the young child had exhibited an extraordinary enthusiasm for his father's work and had spoken at several large public gatherings. A number of insider stories tell of his apparent precocious spirituality, and are highly significant in legitimating the young Prem Rawat's succession. However, I have refrained from including them because it is impossible to ascertain the degree to which they belong to a developing hagiography.

The story of young Prem Rawat's early years is well documented in both visual and print media published by various organizations that have supported his activities, but the most significant event would undoubtedly be his arrival in London on 17 June 1971 and his subsequent travels in the United States in July and August of that year. The response from the countercultural youth of both Britain and the United States was phenomenal, and by the early 1970s large rallies had been organized in both nations. Centers of activity, focused around ashrams consisting of highly committed celibate followers, appeared in most large population centers in western Europe, Canada, the United States, and even South America. Approximate estimates indicate that there were around 8,000 members in the United Kingdom and up to 50,000 in North America by 1973.

In 1971 a group of British followers had spoken to Maharaji concerning placing the activities in the United Kingdom on an organized footing, and subsequently Divine Light Mission was registered as a religious charity. In the United States, Divine Light Mission formally entered existence as a church-type organization. The rapid growth of the movement attracted attention from newspapers, television, and magazines, and from academics on both sides of the Atlantic who attempted to analyze the organizational forms but with scant attention to the teachings. Most of these studies were carried out by sociologists of religion responding to the opportunity of explaining the increasing diversity of religious possibilities throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Daniel Foss and Ralph Larkin noted that by 1973

[t]he organization had developed a centralized bureaucracy with rampant titleism and a penchant for office forms and organizational charts. Observations of the Mission led us to the conclusion that the primary function of the staff was monitoring of its own activities. In effect, the Mission represented the ultimate parody of bureaucracy in the wider society-functionally rational but substantively irrational. Failures and bungling on the part of the Mission staff were repeatedly demonstrated, yet the symbolic forms of the organizational seriousness and managerial competence had a compelling emotional appeal to both the Mission staff itself and to many potential converts.1

Foss and Larkin were intrigued by the contradiction offered by the manner in which large numbers of young people, including "political radicals, communards, street people, rock musicians, acid-head 'freaks,' cultural radicals, [and] drop-outs"2 were participating in Divine Light Mission. These young people were participating in and developing an organizational form that displayed many of "the elements of the social patterns of the wider society which they had rejected," in particular bureaucratic hierarchies. Foss and Larkin explained this anomaly by suggesting that the Mission was able to maintain the support of its ex-dissident members by claiming that it was carrying on revolution by other means and in the process "emphasized formal structure without substantive content."3

With this statement, Foss and Larkin declared their own bias in regard to religious or spiritual commitment. Maharaji's message, which had attracted thousands, was summarily dismissed as possessing no "substantive content" and this was further expressed by the suggestion that the organization was "functionally rational but substantively irrational."4 Maharaji's own behavior was described as "nonsensical" and "unpredictable."5 However, the label of "irrationality" applied to new or traditional religious forms needs to be reviewed. It is resonant of crude reductionism sometimes found in the social sciences in regard to religious phenomena, described by Stark as the "old paradigm" in which social scientists "dig as deep as possible" to penetrate the real causes of religious phenomena while dismissing the realm of the sacred.6 Stark asks his readers to acknowledge a new paradigm that argues that religion is rooted in the world of the rational and therefore to explore religious explanations for religious phenomena.7 Stark suggests that humans, when faced with choice, choose the "most rational" or reasonable option. In order to understand this process, the motivations and interpretations of the actors must be taken into account. It is only from the "inside" that the degree of rationality or reasonableness can be acknowledged.

Any exploration of the success of Maharaji needs a serious examination of the attraction of his message and the rational choices made by those who choose to adopt it, whether for a period or as a lifetime commitment. Sophie Collier, skeptical of the claims made by some of Maharaji's followers about his divinity, reported her own experience upon receiving and practicing the techniques taught by Maharaji:

After my initiation into Knowledge I found myself in an uncompromised state of bliss that lasted almost eight weeks without pause for a tear or a sad thought. Day after day I woke up to discover I was still overjoyed. The smallest things - walking to the Good Day Market with the cold on my face; drinking a cup of hot tea, smelling the steam; or seeing a tiny place where the ice on the street was melting, making beautiful colors as the light came through it-all were rich, precious experiences for me.8

Although Collier was speaking of an experience that transcends the rational, it can be argued that there is nothing irrational about desiring or enjoying "an uncompromised state of bliss." Collier was, however, aware of the inability of outsiders to comprehend her experience, explained succinctly in her encounter with an aggressive dog:

To some people this story may sound hopelessly spaced out. "The girl joins the guru and then can't even tell when a dog is attacking her," they might say. But when you are inside such an experience it is quite different. It is powerful proof that in a very practical way you can change the world by changing your consciousness. When I first met the dog I was feeling an indivisible connection with my own loving nature, and this feeling, like the alchemist's stone, transformed everything that I came into contact with.9

Foss and Larkin's inability to acknowledge or comprehend the internal logic of the insider's motivations resulted in a failure to see a crucial aspect of the relationship between those inspired by Maharaji's message, enough to commit themselves to initiation and practice, and active involvement with Divine Light Mission. There is, however, a paradox. Formal organizational structures replicated by Divine Light Mission appeared to echo hierarchical, bureaucratic forms of management and aspects of Indian religious organization similar to those found in Sant Mat lineages, which appeared incongruent to Maharaji's own focus on spontaneity and imminent millennial transformation and his firm denial of creating a new religion. When coupled with the alternative culture background of most of the original followers, who had rejected the morality and organizational forms associated with institutional religion and conventional society, it seems unlikely that the strictures and structures of Divine Light Mission would have been readily accepted by all.

Foss and Larkin seemed to recognize that the motivations of insiders needed to be taken into account when they suggested that this anomaly was accepted by Divine Light Mission volunteers because they were pursuing the same goals by other means. Namely, many of the devotees had crossed over from alternative political discourse, where they espoused a strong commitment to world peace, now rendered possible by the ideal of internal individual transformation leading to better societies. However, the two authors failed to recognize the element of cognitive dissonance involved in a problematic relationship with the organizational structures of Divine Light Mission. Volunteers used the organization as an outlet for their enthusiasm to commit themselves to their individual spiritual practice and to tell others of their experience. In many, a tension developed between the inner experience and the inspiration of the message offered by Maharaji, and the increasing institutionalization of Divine Light Mission as a bureaucratic organization and a developing new religion. If the dissatisfaction created by one became greater than the satisfaction offered by the other, it was likely that the individuals affected would cease their organizational activities or even their involvement with Maharaji and his teachings. Many chose to separate the two by blaming the shortcomings of the organization on its managers rather than Maharaji.

There is a body of evidence that suggests that Maharaji himself maintained a strong antipathy to organizational structures, or at least he was aware of the tension between his own inclination to function without any formal organization and the requirement of an organization to promote his message and retain his following.10 Maeve Price made the point that in the case of Divine Light Mission, Roy Wallis' claim, resulting from a study of the Children of God, in which he stated that the development of the movement as a social structure had altogether been defined and directed by the leader's specification, was not borne out in the case of Divine Light Mission, where a number of "forces have impinged upon any ideal structure which the leader might devise."11 Price argued that these forces were:

1. The beliefs and practices of the devotees;
2. The social composition and attitudes of the following;
3. The leader's degree of competence;
4. The wider cultural context within which the mission functions.12

Thus, Price set up the possibility of a conflict between Maharaji's attempts to balance his own commitment to the ideal of no structural organization and the need to continue teaching, on one hand, and the constraints or pressures arising from the above four factors, on the other. I agree with Price's analysis that Divine Light Mission transformed itself into a "sect" throughout the early 1970s. Price argued that the sect was marked by a degree of "epistemological authoritarianism" although she acknowledged that this was never total and, in reality, a high degree of "epistemological individualism" existed.13

I concur with Price's analysis and suggest that the reasons for this can be found in her own four categories. Firstly, the beliefs and practices of the devotees had begun to take on a very strong exclusivist claim to salvation, in which followers had begun to develop a worldview derived from certain forms of Hinduism commonly identified as "Sant."14 This claim was replete with ideals of monasticism, celibacy, and vegetarianism, combined with a range of Hindu-based customs to support the practice of the four techniques for inner-world access known as "self-knowledge," which were the heart of the movement's teachings. In addition, many of the active followers had also developed a powerful emotive epistemology of incarnation in regard to Maharaji, combining Hindu avatar ("descent") doctrines with strong millennial hopes arising out of a countercultural wish for an end to "straight society," which borrowed more from Christianity than from Hinduism. All these developing practices and beliefs were encouraged by the senior members of Maharaji's family, especially his mother and eldest brother, and the visiting Indian mahatmas ("great souls," here a title for monastics), who had taken on the leadership of the Mission during Maharaji's childhood and had been endowed with varying degrees of divinity by the followers.15 The composition of the considerable following that developed in the West reinforced the development of a definitive worldview and hierarchical structure, with its hope of inner transformation and outer revolution, embracing of Eastern philosophy and practice, and the need to discover alternative resources to counteract the psychic damage done to individuals through drug overuse and the pursuit of unconstrained hedonism.

It is Price's third factor, the leader's competence, which is significant in understanding the relationship between continuity and adaptation in the global promotion of Maharaji's message since the 1970s. As a child selected by his father as the most able person to take the teachings forward, Maharaji had not been particularly concerned with the organizational structures of Divine Light Mission in India. He toured the country speaking at large events during his school vacations, and he left the responsibility for running the Mission to his mother, elder brother and senior followers. The mahatmas, or members of the renunciate order begun by his father, were largely responsible for teaching the four techniques of self-knowledge to those interested.


It is certain that tension would have eventually appeared as Maharaji achieved adulthood and began to express his own vision. In fact, these divisions had begun to appear even earlier, when Maharaji decided to accept the invitation to tour in Britain, Europe and the United States. The Western following had from the beginning given allegiance to Maharaji rather than to his family members. It was their enthusiasm, combined with the efforts of a mahatma sent from India, that had begun to promote Maharaji's message in England throughout 1969 and 1970. However, Maharaji's decision to come to London in June 1971 was initially against his mother's wishes. The extraordinary success and adulation with which he was received by the predominantly counterculture youth, including speaking from the main stage at the first Glastonbury Festival, resulted in his decision to discontinue his education and commit himself fully to the task of spreading the teachings worldwide.

This decision was the first sign that Maharaji would take a stance independent from his family, showing that he was far more than a hereditary figurehead. This independence conformed to the pattern of behavior manifested by earlier masters in his lineage who had not been concerned with tradition or future heritage in the form of religious organizations or structures.17 Consequently, movements or organizations that were created existed with a degree of tension with each master's iconoclasm and insistence upon retaining primary commitment to the value of personal experience. Their focus was on spontaneity and their imminent eschatology, and this functioned to undermine an emphasis on lineage to pass on religious authority.

Thus, a more sophisticated analysis of parampara (lineage of teachers) is required. Daniel Gold has suggested a developmental movement from the first stage of a solitary figure, committed to the value of personal experience, to a lineage formed to perpetuate the teachings maintained through spiritual and material inheritance through a line of charismatic masters.17 Contrary to Gold's analysis, each unique master in the Advait Mat, the name given to the lineage of masters that preceded Maharaji's father,19 developed his own methods of promoting the message, which had little continuity with the previous master. The Advait Mat masters often disavowed the material inheritance consisting of any properties or monies accrued to the previous master by his followers' efforts to provide support for the promotion of the teachings, and sometimes departed from the previous master's disciples if they chose not to recognize the new claimant's authority. The new master derived his authority from his charisma, his desire to promote the teachings, and the authorization and blessings of the previous master.19 Authority was based on the charisma of the living master, his success in promoting the message, and the student's personal experience.

The most useful theory to elucidate the relation between Maharaji's charismatic authority and his institutions are those provided by post-Weberian discourse of sociologists such as Thomas O'Dea,21 combined with the work of Indian religion scholars focused specifically on the sant tradition, such as Charlotte Vaudeville and Daniel Gold. Maharaji does not see himself as bound by conventional beliefs or practices of any institutionalized religion or tradition-honored worldview. He is essentially an iconoclast who plots his route by pragmatic decisions to meet the demands and challenges that occur in his public career as a teacher striving to convince people of the value of self-knowledge. It is hard to ascertain exactly where the lines of strategic adaptation and continuation are drawn, except that they seem to lie somewhere around the inviolacy of the teacher/student relationship and Maharaji's own trust in the efficacy of the techniques to provide individuals with an inner awareness of what is permanent and unchanging within human beings. Although Maharaji does not see himself as part of a tradition or as having to conform to the behavior of any predecessor, in my view, the best way to place him is to identify him with Vaudeville's definition of the sant. Vaudeville describes a sant as

a holy man of a rather special type, who cannot be accommodated in the traditional categories of Indian holy men-and he may just as well be a woman. The sant is not a renunciate.… He is neither a yogi nor a siddha, practices no asanas, boasts of no secret bhij mantras and has no claim to magical powers. The true sant wears no special dress or insignia, having eschewed the social consideration and material benefits which in India attach to the profession of asceticism.… The sant ideal of sanctity is a lay ideal, open to all; it is an ideal that transcends both sectarian and caste barriers.21

However, I wish to make a clear distinction between Sant Mat, often associated with Radhasoami lineages, and individual founder-sants. Although early scholars often identified Maharaji with Sant Mat and even Radhasoami lineages, there is no evidence to link Maharaji or his predecessors with that tradition.23 Sant Mat lineages usually display organizational forms that conform to Gold's categorization of parampara or panth. Individual sant-founders in Vaudeville's terms are generally not concerned with organizational forms or institutionalized religion and display considerable iconoclasm in regard to ritual and doctrinal dimensions. Maharaji fits most aspects of the sant categorization by Vaudeville, even though he does not use this category as a self-definition. If being a sant implies an iconoclasm that breaks the bounds of tradition while maintaining an emphasis on the inner experiential dimension, then Maharaji would conform to that definition. However, Maharaji is insistent that he should not be categorized into any traditional definition, including that of sant. Yet it could be argued that ideal-type sants such as Nanak (1469-1539) and Kabir (1380-1460) would also have eschewed any attempt to label or categorize them or place them within an established tradition. Kabir stated:

I have given up all rites and ceremonies,
I bathe no more in holy rivers…
No longer could I live in the dust of subservience;
No longer do I ring the temple-bells, nor do I
Enthrone a divine image.23

Nanak, the founding guru of Sikhism, emphasized the sant's freedom from subservience to religious doctrinal or ideological worldviews even more strongly:

There are many dogmas, there are many systems,
There are many scriptural revelations,
Many modes to fetter the mind:
But the Sant seeks for release through Truth.24

A close analysis of Maharaji's discourse reveals a more tactful approach, but there is nonetheless a clear distinction between the realm of religion as manifested in dogma, doctrine and ritual practice, and the experiential dimension of self-knowledge for which prior commitment to any of the world religions is irrelevant.25 Once this is understood, post-Weberian sociological analysis can be utilized to elucidate motivation in the formation of the institutions to disseminate Maharaji's teachings.


Maharaji's 1974 marriage to Marolyn Johnson, a California follower, caused his mother, eldest brother and several senior mahatmas to break away and establish their own movement in India. By the decade's end, Maharaji had begun a process of removing his teachings from any association with Indian culture, instead focusing on universalizing the message. In the early 1980s, the community houses or ashrams were closed and the Indian mahatmas largely disappeared from the West. In addition, Maharaji was becoming aware of the inherent difficulties caused by Western followers translating the avatar concept in Hinduism into a messiah concept. It does not appear that he ever seriously considered the repercussions of Indian followers believing him to be an avatar, as this perspective is almost customary among bhakti (devotional) movements in India.26 Maharaji and his predecessors in India had always been known as Satguru (divine guru) in the sant idiom, and both the nirguna (formless aspect of the divine) and saguna (the divine in personal form) versions of the bhakti tradition had historically debated the divinity and the humanity of the guru. However, these debates are distinctly different from those concerning the nature of Jesus Christ and do not correlate easily, since the nature of divinity and the role of incarnation in Christianity and Hinduism arise from very different assumptions. To put it simply, it is almost commonplace for a Hindu to claim the divinity of a guru, whereas such a claim for a religious leader in a Christian milieu is highly controversial.

Although Maharaji had referred to his own humanity even during his childhood years, both Eastern and Western followers with their respective doctrines of avatar and messiah tended to interpret these statements as signs of humility, or even as the divine incarnation wishing to hide himself except to recipients of grace.27 From the 1980s forward, Maharaji consciously attempted to remove himself from identification with the divine, even dropping the title "Guru" from the publicly known epithet "Guru Maharaj Ji."

As Maharaji began the period of reassessing the way in which he and his teachings were represented, the academic world began to predict the decline of Divine Light Mission. Thomas Pilarzyk argued in 1978 that the decline was caused by a number of factors: internal dissent between Maharaji and his family, most notably over his marriage; financial problems caused by the debts incurred from the 1973 Houston Astrodome event and attempts to internationalize the movement from an American financial base; the loss of fully committed volunteers after the mass exodus of celibate ashram members following Maharaji's marriage; the shift away from Indian modes of expression; and power shifts as the now adult Maharaji increasingly intervened to shape the movement to his own vision.28 Maeve Price also argued that the decline of Divine Light Mission was inevitable unless the movement could resolve a number of problems with recruitment, membership commitment, and financial stability. Price concluded that problems would continue to occur regarding organizational structures within Divine Light Mission, because its following was comprised mainly of counterculture youth opposed to formal rules and bureaucratic disciplines; recruitment was limited to the victims of drug culture and friendship circles; and Maharaji, although he had gained sole control of Divine Light Mission, still needed to discover "how to manipulate the movement to achieve the ends" he manifestly sought. She argued that charisma was not enough.29

Ironically, Price admitted that Maharaji's style of leadership - preferring not to issue orders but to focus on providing inspiration to develop the ability to maximize the potential for self-knowledge - was likely to be problematic, since evidence from other newly established religious movements indicated that strict control over members by asserting a body of definitive rules for behavior was more likely to achieve success in organization building.30 Price concluded by suggesting that at the time of her writing, the movement had entered a new phase in which it concentrated upon the morale and well being of its existing members and "their salvation"; the earlier phases of rapid expansion and conflict were over.31

At this stage of the movement's activities, both academics and the media lost interest, and from the 1980s to the present time, the general view appears to be that Maharaji has ceased to function and that everything has been wound down, or is not dynamic enough to be considered worthy of scrutiny. In reality, the story is very different. Pilarzyk's assertion that the movement had gone into decline by the 1980s is not accu-rate.32 Certainly major transformations had taken place. Divine Light Mission had been disbanded and replaced by Elan Vital in the late 1980s, and Maharaji's teachings had moved away from the 1970s milieu in which they had been principally located. As mentioned earlier, Maharaji made concerted efforts to remove the outer trappings of Indian culture and doctrines that had accompanied the arrival of the teachings from their place of origin in North India. Yet, he has continued to promote the benefits of the experience of self-knowledge throughout the world and now has succeeded in establishing his message in over eighty countries. Throughout the late 1990s, more people were receiving the techniques of self-knowledge worldwide than in the heady days of the early 1970s.33

Although the anticult movement tended to see name changes as indicative of a deceitful recruitment strategy, the shift from Divine Light Mission to Elan Vital was substantive. First, it reflected Maharaji's continued suspicion of allowing a process of reification and institutionalization that would dilute his message or take the focus away from individual experience. Divine Light Mission had undoubtedly taken on the characteristics of a sect with definite borders that differentiated insiders from outsiders. Elan Vital was organized, wherever possible, as an educational charity or trust responsible for promoting Maharaji's teachings. Its main activity was the dissemination of Maharaji's message through the organization of various types of events, including national and international venues where Maharaji spoke in person, and smaller, local venues where his discourses were presented by video. It was also involved in sustaining the necessary financial base through donations to make these activities possible. The final closure of the ashrams in 1982 meant that there was no longer a pool of full-time volunteers to draw upon. Democratization followed closure of the ashrams, and the status of full-time mahatmas was demystified as they became instructors showing interested people the techniques of self-knowledge. The result was a wider active participation from the majority of followers who were now married and employed. The small numbers who were required to staff Elan Vital full time were paid salaries. The important shift resulting from these changes was that those who received the techniques of self-knowledge no longer felt themselves to be part of a sectarian movement known as Divine Light Mission. They were individuals who benefited from the teachings, but who came together on occasion to receive inspiration from their teacher.

In addition, the video events resolved a problem that had concerned Maharaji for some time. Although Price was correct to surmise that the young teacher did not want to be the kind of charismatic leader who controlled the lifestyles, morals and behavior of his students, Maharaji was concerned that his teachings should be conveyed without distortion from others' interpretations, especially influenced by particular cultures or religious worldviews. Maharaji solved this by considerably upping the tempo of his own world tours through a leased executive jet that he flew himself, spending less and less time at his home in California. At each event around the world, his speeches were videotaped and distributed down to the grassroots level. In this way, Maharaji freed himself from reliance on others to interpret his message. In addition, he took it upon himself to teach people the techniques of self-knowledge with the instructors providing support services. In this way, although open to criticism from opponents of increasing centralized control, Maharaji resolved the problem identified by Price of establishing his teaching without creating a "radical meditation sect," but still "maintaining loosely formulated objectives and unspecific demands."34 Thus the need for strict control was developed not in organizational terms, but to maintain the teachings in a form fully reflecting Maharaji's own perspective.

In addition, the language used to communicate the teachings began to change. Maharaji's own emphasis had always been on the centrality of experiential self-knowledge and the role of the master in providing inspirational guidance to his students. In his highly idiomatic discourses, Maharaji draws upon life experiences and a practical life-wisdom to illustrate his central message. As with his predecessors, he has not identified the teachings with a sampradaya (particular branch of Hinduism). In fact, he proclaimed that the teachings were independent of any religious tradition.35 In Maharaji's case, this has resulted in the disassociation of the techniques from any Indian location and the conscious loss of the North Indian sant idiom in his discourse. A close examination of the language, however, demonstrates that the key features of sant idiom have not been displaced but transformed. Satsang is now referred to as "keeping in touch"; satguru is translated as "master"; satnam has disappeared from usage but is refigured as "breath"; any reference to an unchangeable divine reality reemerges as "Life." Although it is arguable that the message has remained the same, Maharaji has recoded his language to meet the multicultural requirements of teaching in over eighty nations.


Maharaji is again showing his innovative and flexible approach to organization. New technology has made it possible to individualize further the impact of the teaching and move away from community structures to an increased focus on the teacher-student relationship. Recently, Maharaji has moved away from complete dependence on Elan Vital to promote his teachings. The creation of the Prem Rawat Foundation in 2002 provides a new vehicle by which Maharaji can represent himself to the world without the intermediary of an organization. Efforts have been made to ensure that the Foundation cannot merely replace the bureaucracy of Elan Vital. The board members are volunteers who work with a number of part-time consultants, many of whom are independent from the student/teacher relationship with Maharaji himself. The Foundation concerns itself only with creation of materials to promote the message and appears to be seeking ways to allow Maharaji's message to reach new audiences.

This move away from representation by an organization or movement is further enhanced by the use of satellite technology providing an alternative communication to video presentations. The broadcasts are originally made by a commercial company and are picked up by a variety of audiences worldwide. In many countries it is possible for any member of the public to find the channel as long as they have access to satellite TV. However, it is more likely that only those who are committed to the teachings regularly access these programs. The broadcasts are not advertised and members of the public would only discover them by accidentally coming across them or by being informed by a practitioner.

The satellite programs, broadcast seven days a week, consist of edited highlights of Maharaji's recent tours. As a result, the dependence on any organization is further reduced, as is the need for community or group identity. Many can now tune into Maharaji's discourses in the comfort of their own homes, and if they wish to have no contact with other practitioners, they can see others only when they attend Maharaji's live events. Websites provide the means for those who wish to communicate the message to download and create their own publicity materials.36 Increasingly, persons interested in Maharaji's teachings to the point of learning the techniques for inner focus will be able to pursue their own individual learning without leaving their homes. Consequently, Maharaji's audiences are more likely to be strangers to each other, rather than the close-knit "insider" gatherings of the Divine Light Mission or even Elan Vital periods. However, considerable networking takes place through email conferencing, local and national meetings of active volunteers, informal friendship circles, and, where technology is underdeveloped or unavailable, use of printed materials and video events.

The challenges of the latest period are different from those presented by the Divine Light Mission. The problem of promoting and financing the expansion of the teachings worldwide will remain. Maharaji's insistence on providing the techniques free of charge will always mean that promoting the teachings will rely on voluntary donations. It is hard to assess the impact that increased individualization will have on cash flow. In addition, the period of introversion and transformation that took place during the Elan Vital years has diluted the once-powerful impetus to promote the teachings. Many early followers from the counterculture milieu, who long ago told their friends and families about the benefits of self-knowledge, are now older and more respectable with families and careers. Maharaji will face the problem of renewing inspiration to support his efforts to reach out to a wider audience. In addition, he now faces the added difficulties of the cultural suspicion of new movements in the face of over twenty-five years of anticult publicity from the Western media. Although not attracting media coverage himself, a small but vociferous minority of ex-followers, unable to accommodate change and showing signs of considerable cognitive dissonance, has cornered the market as Maharaji's opposition, determined to destroy his reputation through public denunciation on their website.37

The shift away from Elan Vital could be viewed as a response to these new challenges, as previous writers regarded the dissolution of Divine Light Mission and the emergence of Elan Vital. However, I challenge complete dependence on this kind of analysis, as it leaves out the primary motivation that needs to be located in the kind of charisma represented by Maharaji and his single-minded determination to maintain his message. Any critical reflection on understanding the development of Maharaji from child guru to adult maturity and the corresponding organizational changes that have taken place needs to consider carefully his perceptions of himself as a teacher and his students' perceptions of both Maharaji and themselves in the wider realm of the "spiritual" or "religious" in both historical and contemporary terms.


Building on the analysis of Gold and Vaudeville of the sant tradition, it could be argued that Maharaji perceives himself as the solitary sant whose authority derives from his personal charisma and is not part of any overarching formal organization, and does not have to subscribe to any particular worldview. Maharaji's students echo this position and are united with their teacher on the primary value of personal experience. Gold argues that such figures have little inclination to establish a panth or sectarian institution,38 although these may develop later. Thus, any understanding of Maharaji's motivations would have to take into account the challenge to maintain the purity of his teachings from any sign of institutionalization. In Thomas O'Dea's terms, this is a classic confrontation between charisma and institutionalization. O'Dea argued that the founder-innovator is only concerned with communicating the message and maintaining the spontaneity of the transcendental experience.39 Although O'Dea perceived these conflicts and tensions chronologically as a way of exploring the development of charismatic authority to institutional authority, an analysis of this new sant phenomenon still at the first stage of development provides an example of how a contemporary sant master, the first to globalize fully his teachings, grapples with and seeks innovative solutions to the problems of institutionalization. Although there may be pragmatic problems, such as financial stability, the attitudes of the wider society, and the opposition of former practitioners, focusing on these as the prime factors of change and adaptation misses the opportunity for far more significant study of the relationship between charisma and institutionalization. In particular, Maharaji's movement promises fascinating insights into the fine balance of maintaining the integrity of teaching and experience over the apparently inevitable processes of organizational and sectarian development wherever a sant figure has gathered students around the experience of "self-knowledge" or inner realization of "truth." Maharaji has chosen a route of perpetual transformation in which organizational forms are created and utilized and then destroyed, thus providing flexibility to deal with rapidly changing social attitudes, to provide pragmatic solutions to internal problems, and above all to keep his students focused on the core message rather than the peripheral requirements of organizational forms.


1 Daniel Foss and Ralph Larkin, "Worshipping the Absurd: The Negation of Social Causality Among the Followers of Guru Maharaj Ji," Sociological Analysis 39, no. 2 (Summer 1978): 159.
2 Foss and Larkin, "Worshipping the Absurd," 157.
3 Foss and Larkin, "Worshipping the Absurd," 158.
4 Foss and Larkin, "Worshipping the Absurd," 159.
5 Foss and Larkin, "Worshipping the Absurd," 158.
6 Rodney Stark, "Rationality," in Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon (London: Cassell, 2000), 252.
7 Stark, "Rationality," 242, 246-50.
8 Sophie Collier, Soul Rush: An Odyssey of a Young Woman in the 70s (New York: William Morrow, 1975), 118.
9 Collier, Soul Rush, 119.
10 Maeve Price, "Divine Light Mission as a Social Organization," Sociological Review (February 1979): 280.
11 Price, "Divine Light Mission," 280.
12 Price, "Divine Light Mission," 280.
13 Price, "Divine Light Mission," 279.
14 I have deliberately avoided the use of "Sant Mat" (path of the sants) as it is used more specifically to describe the Radhasoami lineage, which has no connection to Maharaji's lineage of masters. Thus, I have used the non-specific term "sant." Charlotte Vaudeville defines a sant as a teacher or holy man who stresses "the necessity of devotion to and practice of the divine name (satnama), devotion to the divine Guru (satguru) and the great importance of the company of the Sants (satsang). The Name, the divine Guru and the sat-sang are the three pillars of the Sant sadhana." See Charlotte Vaudeville, "Sant Mat: Santism as the Universal Path to Sanctity," in The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India, ed. Karine Schomer and W. H. McLeod (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), 31.
15 Many Indian followers drew upon the teachings contained in the Ramayana or Tulsidas' Ramcharitmanas to find parallels for their particular mode of bhakti (devotion). It was a coincidence that Shri Hans Ji Maharaj had four sons as did Rama's father, thus the mythology of Rama provided a parallel of four avatars being born in the same family.
16 Ron Geaves, "From Totapuri to Maharaji: Reflections on a Lineage (Parampara)," unpublished paper delivered to the 27th Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, Regents Park College, Oxford, 22-24 March 2002.
17 Gold suggested that the various forms that sant lineages have taken are affected by their relationship to the charisma of the founder sant. He posited three stages in the life of a sant lineage: 1) It begins with a solitary figure such as Kabir, Nanak, or Ravidas. Authority is derived from personal charisma, and it is highly unlikely that there is any intention of beginning a panth (sectarian institution). The followers of an individual sant are part of no overarching formal organization, but are united with their teacher in being committed to the value of personal experience. 2) A lineage is continued by disciples who became noteworthy sants in their own right. Usually a disciple is chosen to continue as the guru by the original sant. A sant lineage is called a parampara as long as the dominant focus of spiritual power is still contained in the living holy person. Sikhism, for example, was a parampara until the death of the tenth and last guru, Gobind Singh. 3) The term panth is used for the final phase of a sant lineage, when it has become a sectarian institution. A panth claims to spread the teachings of the past sant(s), but the dominant focus of spiritual power now resides in ritual forms and scripture. A panth is usually headed by a mahant who looks after the ritual and administration. Often even the mahant is overseen by a committee of eminent followers as the panth becomes progressively institutionalized. The mahant's charisma is clearly derived from his position and his traditional connection to the original sant. See Daniel Gold, The Lord as Guru: Hindu Sants in the Northern Indian Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 85.
18 Although the two gurus, Advaitanand Ji and Swarupanand Ji, did not use the term Advait Mat themselves, a panth-type movement has been formed after the death of the latter. However, Shri Hans Ji Maharaj was not interested in receiving the material inheritance of the developing panth and branched out on his own with his master's blessing to continue the teachings. See Geaves, "From Totapuri to Maharaji."
19 Geaves, "From Totapuri to Maharaji." My discussion of the issue of inheritance is based on an interview with Akhand Yoganandji, a direct disciple of Swarupanand Ji Maharaj, at Nangli Sahib, Uttar Pradesh in February 2001, and study of the biography of Swarupanand Ji, Sri Swami Sar Shabdanand Ji, Shri Swarup Darshan (New Delhi: Sar Shabd Mission, 1998).
20 Thomas F. O'Dea, "Sociological Dilemmas: Five Paradoxes of Institutionalisation" in Man's Religious Quest, ed. Whitfield Foy (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1978), 298-305.
21 Charlotte Vaudeville, "Sant Mat," 36-37. Vaudeville here uses a number of technical terms that would be familiar to any student of Hinduism. In general terms like yogi (one who practices spiritual disciplines), siddha (perfected saint), asanas (special postures used in the practice of hatha yoga), and bhij mantras (words and formulas believed to contain special powers) refer to the general milieu of Hindu renunciate traditions. Vaudeville's point is that the sant figure cannot be assimilated into these traditions.
22 See Geaves, "Totapuri to Maharaji," for a detailed analysis of the claim that Maharaji's lineage was connected to Sant Mat or Radhasoami lineages.
23 Rabindranath Tagore, trans., Songs of Kabir (Boston: Weiser Books, 2002), 108.
24 Trilochan Singh, Jodh Singh, Kapur Singh, Bawa Harkishen Singh, Khushwant Singh, trans. The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs, 3rd ed. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973), 74-75.
25 This viewpoint is exemplified in the short statement that appeared at the end of many of Maharaji's satellite transmissions throughout 2002: "Knowledge is not a religion, a spiritual practice or a lifestyle. It is a practical way of experiencing a feeling that is already inside of you."
26 Gold, The Lord as Guru, 85.
27 Maharaji has commented consistently in public discourse on his humanity. His most common analogy is one that compares himself with the "light bulb filament" rather than the generator. In a public discourse delivered at Maharaji's center, Raj Vidya Kendra, in Mehrrauli, South Delhi, on 15 April 1994, Maharaji declared to an Indian audience of around 40,000 that one of the biggest problems he had faced in his life was caused by people who insisted upon calling him God.
28 Thomas Pilarzyk, "The Origin, Development, and Decline of a Youth Culture Religion: An Application of Sectarianization Theory," Review of Religious Research 20, no.1 (1978): 36-8.
29 Price, "Divine Light Mission," 293.
30 Price, "Divine Light Mission," 291-92.
31 Price, "Divine Light Mission," 283.
32 Pilarzyk, "Origin, Development and Decline," 23-43.
33 Although it is difficult to find accurate figures for the earlier period, those receiving the techniques were always recorded by the mahatmas. This was by no means an accurate process, as it depended upon the efficiency of each mahatma. Throughout the 1990s, Maharaji took sole responsibility for showing the techniques. He kept accurate statistics, giving them in annual reports to international gatherings. The figures are broken down to reveal national progress and show clearly the growth worldwide, especially in India. The techniques are now taught by utilizing the latest developments in technology, and a newly devised "auto-knowledge session" using video or DVD liberates Maharaji or other "experts" from the task of personally teaching the techniques. This is hoped to keep up with demands from around the world. For example, the organization estimates that 50,000 peo ple in India are waiting to be shown the techniques.
34 Price, "Divine Light Mission," 291.
35 Certainly by the time of Swarapanand Ji (1884-1936), the guru of Maharaji's father, a universalism was implicit in the teachings. People of all faiths were initiated and the teachings were promoted to all of India's religious communities. In a meeting with a group of Muslim peasants, Swarapanand Ji stated: "A faqir has no particular religion: he is common to all. Wherever I go there will be no dearth of devotees, as I belong to all, and all belong to me." See Sri Swami Sar Shabdanand Ji, Shri Swarup Darshan, 215-16.
36 The principal website used at the time of writing (April 2002) was . The newly created represents the new Foundation and provides materials for downloading. Elan Vital, wherever it is still maintained for legal reasons, has a number of national websites, e.g. .
37 For the perspective of this group of dissatisfied ex-followers see , accessed April 2002.
38 Gold, The Lord as Guru, 85.
39 O'Dea, "Sociological Dilemmas," 299.