Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America
J. Gordon Melton (New York/London: Garland, 1986;
D. DIVINE LIGHT MISSION
The arrival in the United States in 1971 of a 13 year old religious leader from India was met with some ridicule but, more importantly, an extraordinary amount of interest from young adults who were willing to seriously examine his claims of being able to impart direct knowledge of God. From that initial support, Guru Maharaj Ji was able to establish a flourishing American branch of the Divine Light Mission.
Founders and Early History
The Divine Light mission was founded by Shri Hans Maharaj Ji (d. 1966), the father of Maharaj Ji. Early in life he encountered Sarupanand Ji, a guru of the Sant Mat tradition by whom he was initiated. Though Sarupanand Ji had told his disciples to follow Hans Maharaj Ji, after the guru's death another disciple, Varaganand, claimed the succession and took control of the guru's property. Hans Maharaj Ji began to spread the teaching independently in Sind and Lahore, and in 1930 he established an informal mission in Delhi. His following grew steadily. In 1950, shortly after Indian independence had been declared, he commissioned the first mahatmas, followers who had the ability to initiate and who devoted themselves full time to the work of propagating the teachings of Shri Hans Maharaj Ji. He also began a monthly magazine, Hansadesh. By 1960 followers could be found across northern India from Bombay to Calcutta, and the need to organize them more formally led to the founding of the Divine Light Mission (Divya Sandesh Parishad).
Just six years after the founding of the Mission, Shri Hans Maharaj Ji was succeeded by his youngest son, Prem Pat Singh Rawat (b. 1957), who was but eight when he was recognized as the new Perfect Master and assumed the title, Maharaj Ji. Maharaj Ji had been recognized as spiritually adept, even within the circle of the Holy Family, as Shri Hans Maharaj Ji's family was called. He had been initiated (i.e., given knowledge) at the age of six and soon afterward gave his first satsang (spiritual discourse). After his father's death he heard a voice commissioning him as the one to take the knowledge to the world. He assumed the role of Perfect Master at his father's funeral by telling the disciples who had gathered, "Dear Children of God, why are you weeping? Haven't you learned the lesson that your Master taught you? The Perfect Master never dies. Maharaj Ji is here, amongst you now. Recognize Him, obey Him and worship Him." Though officially the autocratic leader of the Mission, because of Maharaj Ji's age, authority was shared by the whole family.
During the 1960s Americans in India searching for spiritual guidance discovered the Mission and a few became initiates (i.e., "premies," or "lovers of God"). They invited Maharaj Ji to the United States. In 1970 Maharaj Ji announced his plans to carry the knowledge throughout the world and the following year, against his mother's wishes, made his first visit to the West. A large crowd came to Colorado the next year to hear him give his first set of discourses in America. Many were initiated and became the core of the Mission in the United States. Headquarters were established in Denver, and by the end of 1973, tens of thousands had been initiated, and several hundred centers as well as over twenty ashrams, which housed approximately 500 of the most dedicated premies, had emerged. The headquarters staff expanded to 125, and social service facilities, such as a medical clinic in New York City, were opened. Two periodicals, And It Is Divine, a magazine, and Divine Times, a tabloid, were begun. Enthusiasm ran high.
After a spectacular beginning in North America, the Mission suffered a major setback in November 1973 It rented the Houston Astrodome for "Millennium 73," an event celebrating the birthday of Maharaj Ji's father and designed to announce the beginning of a thousand years of peace and prosperity. The event failed; attendance was miniscule. The Mission was left with a $600,000 debt which required it to cut its staff and programs.
Millennium 73 was but the first of a series of events which gradually led the Mission to withdraw from the public scene. It was staged just as the anti cult movement reached national proportions and turned its attention upon the Mission. Several deprogrammed ex members became vocal critics of the Mission. Through his Executive Secretary, Maharaj Ji announced that he was replacing the predominantly Indian image with a Western one. Among other changes, he began to wear business suits instead of his all white Indian attire. Many of the ashrams were discontinued.
To the problems caused by the debt and the attack of anticultists were added internal problems within Maharaj Ji's family. In December 1973, when Maharaj Ji turned 16, he took administrative control of the Mission's separate American corporation. Then in May 1974, he married his 24 year old secretary, Marolyn Johnson, and declared her to be the incarnation of the goddess Dulga (sic) usually pictured with ten arms and astride a tiger. Premies purchased an estate in Malibu into which the couple moved. Mataji, Maharaj Ji's mother, disapproved of the marriage and the life style of the now successful guru. Relations within the Holy Family were strained considerably. Accusing her son of breaking his spiritual disciplines, Mataji took control of the Mission in India and replaced him with his eldest brother. In 1975 Maharaj Ji returned to India and took his family to court. In a court decreed settlement, he received control of the movement everywhere except in India, where his brother was recognized as its head. Publicity about the marriage and the subsequent family quarrels caused many Western followers to leave the Mission, though a large membership remained.
By the late 1970s the Mission in the United States had almost disappeared from public view. Maharaj Ji continues to travel the globe speaking to premies, and the Mission, while growing little in the United States, has expanded significantly in Southern Asia, the South Pacific and South America.
Beliefs and Practices
The Divine Light Mission is derived from Sant Mat (literally, the way of the saints), a variation of the Sikh religion which draws significant elements from Hinduism. It is based upon a succession of spiritual masters generally believed to begin with Tulsi Sahib, an early nineteenth century guru who lived at Hathrash, Uttar Pradesh. It is believed that the person mentioned as Sarupanand Ji in Mission literature is in fact Sawan Singh, a prominent Sant Mat guru. In any case Hans Maharaj Ji claimed a Sant Mat succession which he passed to Maharaj Ji. Maharaj Ji, as do many of the other Sant Mat leaders, claims to be a Perfect Master, an embodiment of God on earth, a fitting object of worship and veneration.
The Mission has as one of its stated goals the instruction of the world in "the technique of utilizing the universal primordial Force, that is, the Holy Name (Word) which is the same as the Divine Light and which pervades all human beings thus bringing to the fore the eternal principle of unity in diversity." In the Sant Mat tradition this practice is called surat shabd yoga, the practice of uniting the human spirit with the universal divine sound current. The particular methods of accomplishing that union vary from group to group and are one reason for their separation. Within the Divine Light Mission, initiation into the yoga is by a process known as giving knowledge. Though premies were instructed not to talk about their initiation outside of the Mission, details of the process were soon revealed by ex members.
At initiation, a mahatma, the personal representative of Maharaj Ji, introduces new members to four yogic techniques, all of which are quite common within Sant Mat circles, although equally unknown to the average person, even to the average Indian. These four techniques reveal the means of experiencing the divine light, sound, word, and nectar. To experience the divine light, one places the knuckles on the eyeballs, a process which produces flashes of light inside the head (and also pinches the optic nerve). To discover the divine sound or music of the spheres, one plugs the ears with the fingers and concentrates only on internal sounds. The third technique involves concentration upon the sound of one's own breathing. Finally, to taste the nectar, the tongue is curled backward against the roof of the mouth and left there for a period of time. Once learned, these techniques are practiced daily. Frequently, meditation is done under a blanket, both to block outside disturbances and to conceal the techniques.
Unlike many Sant Mat groups, the Divine Light Mission has had a social program from its beginning. Shri Hans Maharaj Ji called for a balance between temporal and spiritual concerns, and the Mission's stated goals include the promotion of human unity, world peace, improved education for all (especially the poor), and relief from the distress caused by ill health and natural calamities. The Mission made provision for the establishment of hospitals, maternity homes, and residences. This emphasis upon social programs was transferred to the United States.
Three holiday festivals which members are expected to attend are held annually. The Holi festival is in March or April. The Guru Puja (Maharaj Ji's birthday) is in July. Hans Jayanti (Hans Maharaj Ji's birthday) is in November.
Since 1974, the Divine Light Mission has increasingly kept a low profile and at present is virtually invisible in the United States. In 1979 the Denver headquarters quietly closed, and both it and Maharaj Ji moved to Miami Beach, Florida. From there, two periodicals are currently published, Divine Times and Elan Vital.
In 1980, the Mission reported 10,000 to 12,000 active members in the United States. The Mission is headed by Maharaj Ji, its Spiritual Leader and the Board of Directors which supervises the 23 branches. Ministers (mahatmas) lead the Mission centers around the world. Many of them travel from center to center to give initiation and satsang (spiritual discourses). Members are required to participate in meditation daily and attend satsang each evening.
During the first years of the Divine Light Mission in the United States, both it and Maharaj Ji were constantly involved in controversy. The teachings of the Mission, particularly the public discourses of Maharaj Ji, were condemned as lacking in substance. Maharaj Ji, who frequently acted like the teenager that he was in public, was seen as immature and hence unfit to be a religious leader. At one point, a pie was thrown in his face (which led angry followers to assault the perpetrator). Ex members attacked the group with standard anti cult charges of brainwashing and mind control.
However, as the group withdrew from the public eye, little controversy followed it except for the accusations of Robert Mishner (sic) the former president of the Mission, who left in 1977. Mishner complained that the ideals of the group had become impossible to fulfill and that money was increasingly diverted to Maharaj Ji's personal use. Mishner's charges, made just after the deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, found little support and have not affected the progress of the Mission.
- Shri Hans Ji Maharaj (Delhi: Divine Light Mission, n.d.).
- Guru Maharaj Ji, Reflections on an Indian Sunrise (Divine Light Mission, 1972).
- The Living Master (Denver: Divine Light Mission, 1978).
- Light Reading (Miami Beach, FL: Divine Light Mission, 1980).
- Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji? (New York: Bantam Books, 1973).
- James V. Downton, Jr., Sacred journeys (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979)
- Maeve Price, "The Divine Light Mission as a Social Organization," Sociological Review 27, 2 (May 1979), 279 96.