The A to Z of New Religious Movements
George D. Chryssides
Compiling a historical dictionary of new religious movements (NRMs) is a daunting task, not only on account of the prestigious nature of the historical dictionaries series but also because of the sheer extent of new movements. The term historical in the series title requires a diachronic as well as a synchronic approach, making the undertaking all the more demanding. How can one possibly do justice to the origins, ideas and developments of so many movements in so many diverse cultures?
When faced with a reference work, readers with a critical eye will no doubt scan it to see whether their favorite topic has been omitted, or question the inclusion of certain items. In such a controversial area as new religious movements I doubt whether any author can devise a range of entries that will satisfy every reader or interest group. The usual methodological problems abound: What is a religion? When is a movement "new"? Does an author include movements in the sense of nebulous currents of thought, or only identifiable organizations?
Several organizations have been at pains to emphasize their professed nonreligious nature, notably the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE), Emin, est, Transcendental Meditation, Elan Vital, and the Rosicrucians. Others, whose claim to be religious is sometimes questioned - for example, the Church of Scientology - have insisted that they are religions. Still other movements (notably the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Jehovah's Witnesses) claim that they are not new, but are rather reviving or restoring an ancient tradition. Despite academia's insistence that the term new religious movements is considerably preferable to "cults," "sects," or "fringe religions," numerous NRMs still dislike the term, fearing that it tars them with the same brush as the groups that have attracted notoriety through adverse media publicity.
To pursue theoretical and methodological issues concerning definitions could occupy a volume in itself, and I can do no more than be somewhat dogmatic here. I have defined a new religious movement as an organization or current of thought that has arisen within the past 150 or so years and which cannot be uncontentiously placed within a traditional world religion. Being thus classified carries no value judgment: a movement's inclusion does not make it a "destructive cult" or a "spiritual counterfeit." The principal criterion for inclusion is a pragmatic one: I have endeavored simply to create entries that the informed reader would expect to find. These include the names of new religious groups and their leaders, as well as key concepts used within NRMs and in the study of them, for example, Akashic Records, "brainwashing," and Jesus People Movement.
No single-volume reference work can hope to do justice to the vast range of the world's new religions. Despite the various public commentators who, after some "cult" incident, appear on television screens bearing the subtitle "cult expert," there can be no such being as a cult expert in general. In a number of cases these self-styled experts lack formal qualifications and have limited direct acquaintance with new religions - sometimes no more than brief former membership of a single NRM. Such presumed omnicompetence might be justifiable if all new religions were much the same - a claim frequently implied when these "experts" talk about a "typical cult." However, even a superficial acquaintance with NRMs makes their diversity obvious. The five "killer cults" that gained notoriety in the past 25 years have little in common: Jonestown was a liberal, socially involved Protestant group; Waco a fundamentalist millennialist Adventist sect; the Solar Temple a revival of Templarism; Heaven's Gate a UFO-religion drawing largely on its leader's homespun interpretations of Revelation; and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments an indigenously African post- Catholic organization.
The last mentioned of these five highlights the point that NRMs are a global phenomenon, and by no means a purely Western one. J. Gordon Melton has documented more than 2,000 alternative and emergent religions in the United States alone; Great Britain is said to have 600, Africa 10,000, and Japan 220,000. In selecting which NRMs to include here, a number of considerations have been taken into account: their numerical strength, media and anticult publicity, their likely fu- ture significance, their impact on the West, whether they seem distinctively religious, and whether they still exist. Some of these criteria are nebulous - in particular, whether a group or movement is religious rather than a therapy group, a mutual interest society, or simply a "cult" in the sense of being loosely organized, or unorganized, interest group. In what follows I have tended to focus on what W. S. Bainbridge calls "client cults" rather than "audience cults": thus someone like T. Lobsang Rampa does not feature in this dictionary, being a popular author, rather than a religious leader. Techniques such as Reiki, although religious in origin, appear to be more forms of therapy than religions. Other groups have been included despite their denial of a religious status: Emin, Elan Vital, and TM have some religious characteristics, but - more importantly - they remain prominent in anticult literature, and I think readers would expect to find them here.
My selection has also been influenced by the fact that there already exist a Historical Dictionary of the Baha'i Faith, a Historical Dictionary of Mormonism, and a Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, and at the time of writing the possibility of a forthcoming Historical Dictionary of New Age Movements is under consideration. I have therefore tried to avoid substantial overlap, and readers who are seeking information on schismatical Mormon groups, modern Sikh sects, or New Age ideas can be safely referred to these companion volumes.
One problem about new religions is that they frequently undergo name changes, or adopt a variety of names for different purposes. To avoid having multiple entries that simply cause the reader to embark on a paper chase around the book, the principal entry is listed under what I have judged to be either the best- known or the most current name. To avoid taking up undue space with entries that simply redirect the reader, this volume (unusually for the series) has an index to help readers who may have difficulty in locating an entry that deals with a particular topic under a different heading.
Brief mention should be made of methodology. I write as a scholar in the field of religious studies, rather than a sociologist, a counselor, or a Christian theologian attempting a "cult critique." These other perspectives have their place, but followers of new religions themselves normally claim that their teachings and practices are of supreme importance. In what follows I have therefore tried to focus, as far as possible, on origins, beliefs, and practices and to convey the impression that the ideas of most NRMs have a definite train of thought and internal coherence. All too frequently, writers in this area (even academics) have done little more than convey odd unrelated points about NRMs, often simply focusing on their misdemeanors. I have therefore tried to avoid short, staccato entries, making them fractionally longer than is usual for this series, in the hope that something of their internal logic will be apparent, even if the reader (and indeed the author) cannot in the long run accept their truth. I have avoided scurrilous scandalmongering, although at times it has been necessary to mention atrocity tales when these have affected an organization's development, for example, by causing schism, reappraisal of beliefs and practices, or dissolution.
In compiling any work of NRMs, it can at times be difficult to adjudicate on conflicting information. Media reports are frequently unreliable, and these are often the first source of information that the public (and sometimes academics) receive about a new religion. Once errors appear in print, they tend to become replicated in subsequent literature and difficult to identify and correct. Some NRMs keep meticulous records and make these readily available to researchers, but others do not: hence there are inevitably gaps in one's information about people, events, and past publications. Readers will notice in what follows that it has not always been possible to resolve conflicting evidence. While, for example, I have usually been able to provide dates of birth and death for key individuals, some details have been unavailable, and readers should not necessarily assume that an NRM leader is still alive where no date of death is provided. At times, too, extant information is simply unbelievable and can only be presented as a movement's hagiography, or as incorrect guesswork on some writer's part.
Wherever possible, I have given some indication of the numerical strength of specific NRMs. This can at best be a very rough guide: statistics come from different sources, some of which want to exaggerate, while others may want to minimize an NRM's impact. Some groups provide their own statistics, while others do not, and different groups measure their allegiance in different ways. Some count formal membership, others measure presumed adherents, while others again report attendees at key events or successful completion of seminars. It would be a mammoth task to disentangle the various meanings of all the available religious statistics, and while I have endeavored to present statistical information in as clear a way as possible, it could be misleading, for example, to make judgments about the relative allegiance to various groups simply by comparing the figures that are given here.
Finally, a word on "political correctness": I am aware that some academics, as well as some religious believers, take exception to terms like "Old Testament" and justifiably object to nongender-inclusive language. When speaking in my own voice, I have tried to offend as few people's sensitivities as possible, but not all religions subscribe to present-day Western liberal expectations. It would be grossly misleading to suggest that the Unification Church, for example, talked about a "Hebrew Scriptural Era," and I have therefore resisted any attempts to change a religious group's official vocabulary. As I say when my students question such vocabulary, I do not invent religions, but simply expound them!
With all these caveats, I hope this volume will make a useful contribution to the understanding of religions and ideologies, and that it will help to advance a difficult, although fascinating, area of religious studies which its students are gradually piecing together.
108 Divine Light Mission DIVINE LIGHT MISSION (DLM). A.k.a.: Dirya Sandesh Parishad.
Founded in 1960 by Shri Has (sic) Ji Maharaji (d. 1965) 1, also known as Pratap Singh Rawat-Balyogeshwar 2, this organization's leadership was assumed on his death by his son, Guru Maharaj Ji (q.v.) (the preferred Western spelling of "Maharaj Ji"), then only eight years old. Guru Maharaj Ji visited the United States in the early 1970s and began to attract a Western following. By the mid-1970s around 30 ashrams had been established in the United States, where "premies" (or "devotees" - the name given to Maharaji's followers) could receive "the Knowledge." Maharaji was regarded as the satguru, the Perfect Master who is self-realized, and he claimed to come from a lineage of satgurus, of which only one exists for each age.
Members were expected to give up their possessions 3 and to lead a lifestyle free from alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, meat, and any food brought in from external sources 4. Members engaged in four meditation practices ("procedures"): Divine Light (contemplation of the eternal light
within oneself); Divine Nectar (water of life that flows within); Divine Harmony (meditation on inner sound); and Divine Word or Name (the primordial vibration which serves as an object of meditation). Fundamental to the movement was satsang (literally "company of truth") - spiritual discourses which premies receive from the satguru or one of his mahatmas 5.
Guru Maharaj Ji's marriage in 1974 to an American woman, without parental approval, caused controversy within his family. His mother, disapproving of Maharaji's apparent Westernizing tendencies 6, assumed control of the Indian branch of the organization. Maharaji dissolved the ashrams in the West 7 and went on to deny both his divine status and status as a guru (q.v.) 8. The Divine Light Mission continues as a movement in India, led by Maharaji's mother and elder brother, while Maharaji now leads Elan Vital (q.v.), which continues to be supported by his numerous Western followers and which is regarded more as an organization for disseminating "the Knowledge" than as a religious organization 9. In 1990 there were said to be 1.2 million followers of DLM worldwide, with 50,000 in the United States. 10 See also ISHVARA.
115 Elan Vital
Following the dissolution of Guru Maharaj Ji's Divine Light Mission (DLM) (qq.v.) in the West, Elan Vital was set up in the 1980s as a nonprofit organization 11 aiming to promote Guru Maharaj Ji and his teachings. Elan Vital insists that it is not a religion: Maharaji is not regarded as a god; DLM's ashrams no longer exist; members are no longer referred to as "premies" (devotees); and satsang (discourses given by a master or a follower) is no longer central, but is now generally maintained through listening to Maharaji rather than nightly talks by followers. Those who assist Maharaji in the process of giving "the Knowledge" are called "instructors" rather than "initiators." Elan Vital has a lower profile than DLM, attracting less media publicity. However, Maharaji still delivers the four meditative techniques known as the Knowledge 12 which featured in DLM and which afford self-understanding and self-realization, 13 but he insists that such Knowledge is independent of culture and is by no means bound to the religious traditions of India. 14 As well as lectures given to his supporters, dissemination of Maharaji's teachings is mainly through videotapes of his discourses around the world. Elan Vital produces little written literature, apart from brochures and information on its web sites. Some 15,000 are estimated to practice the knowledge in the United States and around 5,000 in Great Britain. 15 Knowledge is practiced in over 80 countries. 16
Web Site Master's Notes:
1. Shri Hans Ji Maharaj died in 1966
2. Balyogeshwar - "Born King of the Yogis" was the name given to the son, not the father.
3. Only followers moving in to an ashram (a small minority) gave up all their possessions.
4. Only followers living in ashrams abstained from food brought in from external sources
5. Any follower of Rawat was able to give 'satsang' though those from Rawat had the most credibility
6. Rawat's mother specifically stated it was his alcohol abuse and playboy lifestyle that alienated her.
7. The closing of the ashrams in 1976 was done against Rawat's wishes and they were re-opened with much encouragement from Rawat to his single followers to enter. He subsequently and ???? closed them in 1982/3.
8. Rawat's followers were told not to say he was God publicly but there was no such denial and he continued to act as the divine leader with only some terminology changes.
9. Elan Vital is registered as a church in the USA.
10. While 50,000 may have been initiated in the USA, mostly before 1974, it is unlikely that even 10,000 were active by 1990 and the 1.2 million followers were those in India who were now mainly following his eldest brother, Satpal Maharaj.
11. Elan Vital is registered as a church in the USA.
12. "delivers the four meditative techniques" - Rawat teaches 4 meditation techniques as part of his "Knowledge"
13. "afford self-understanding and self-realization" - Rawat claims to give the gift of "self-understanding and self-realization" but there is no evidence that this actually occurs
14. Rawat insists that the "Knowledge" is only efficaceous if taught through him and if practitioners listen to his speeches and involve themselves in his movement
15. Elan Vital doesn't release figures of active members but these numbers appear inflated when compared to the number of people attending Rawat's major festivals outside of India which has been no more than 10,000 since the late 1980's
16. By only a tiny number in nearly all these countries