ALTERNATIVE RELIGIONS: A Sociological Introduction
Stephen J. Hunt
This page on Divine Light Mission has an awful authorial/editorial blooper where the "Knowledge", "mahatamas" (sic) and "simple set of instructors" are mistakenly identified in the same sentence. It also has significant errors of fact: the so-called "Indian influences on his followers" were not a hindrance to the wider acceptance of his teachings. Since the early 1980's when he changed the name and public face of his organisation the number of his followers in the West has halved despite 30 years of proselytising. In fact, it is in India where Indian influences are paramount that any growth in his following has occurred and even there hs is not as successful as his eldest brother. Rawat does not claim that people need a teacher to reach their "true self" but that they need him, the only true master. Hunt has misunderstood Rawat's mention of two "Gods" - this is merely a way of characterising various ideas about God that some people have that differ from those concepts about God that Rawat holds - and Hunt is completely wrong when he claims Rawat has surrendered his "almost divine status" and that he does not teach that his personal charisma is paramount. Rawat claims that the "Knowledge" is his gift. Elan Vital provides no accurate statistics of active followers. As far as can be ascertained, Rawat now has about half the 20,000 followers he had in the West in the late 1970's. Rawat has always claimed he is the only person who can "reveal Knowledge" and at no time had an ascetic lifestyle.
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The Divine Light Mission
The leader of the Divine Light Mission (DLM), the Guru Maharaj Ji, was 13 years old when he spectacularly rose to fame in the early 1970s. It was his young age which made him different from other eastern gurus who had established similar Hindu- inspired movements at the time. He was the son of Shri Hans Ji Maharaji, who began the DLM in India in 1960, based on the teachings of his own variety of enlightenment through the acquisition of spiritual knowledge. When his father died in 1966, the Guru Maharaj Ji announced himself the new master and started his own teaching. His global tour in 1971 helped to establish a large following in Britain and the USA. In 1973, he held what was intended to have been a vast, much publicized event in the Houston Astrodome. 'Millennium '73' was meant to launch the spiritual millennium, but the event attracted very few and had little wider influence.
Perhaps because of this failure, Maharaji transformed his initial teachings in order to appeal to a Western context. He came to recognize that the Indian influences on his followers in the West were a hindrance to the wider acceptance of his teachings. He therefore changed the style of his message and relinquished the Hindu tradition, beliefs, and most of its original eastern religious practices. Hence, today the teachings do not concern themselves with reincarnation, heaven, or life after death. The movement now focuses entirely on the 'Knowledge' (formerly called mahatmas), which is a set of simple instructors on how adherents should live. This Westernization of an essentially eastern message is not seen as a dilemma or contradiction. In the early 1980s, Maharaji altered the name of the movement to Elan Vital to reflect this change in emphasis. Once viewed by followers as Satguru or Perfect Master, he also appears to have surrendered his almost divine status as a guru. Now, the notion of spiritual growth is not derived, as with other gurus, from his personal charisma, but from the nature of his teaching and its benefit to the individual adherents to his movement. Maharaji has also dismantled the structure of ashrams (communal homes).
The major focus of Maharaji is on stillness, peace, and contentment within the individual, and his 'Knowledge' consists of the techniques to obtain them. Knowledge, roughly translated, means the happiness of the true self-understanding. Each individual should seek to comprehend his or her true self. In turn, this brings a sense of well-being, joy, and harmony as one comes into contact with ones 'own nature'. The Knowledge includes four secret meditation procedures: Light, Music, Nectar, and Word. The process of reaching the true self within can only be achieved by the individual, but with the guidance and help of a teacher. Hence, the movement seems to embrace aspects of world-rejection and world-affirmation. The tens of thousands of followers in the West do not see themselves as members of a religion but the adherents to a system of teachings that extol the goal of enjoying life to the full.
For Elan Vital, the emphasis is on individual, subjective experience rather than on a body of dogma. The teachings provide a kind of practical mysticism. Maharaji speaks not of God but of the god or divinity within, as the power that gives existence. He has occasionally referred to the existence of the two gods -- the one created by humankind and the one which creates humankind. Although such references apparently suggest an acceptance of a creative, loving power, he distances himself and his teaching from any concept
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of religion. It is not clear whether it is possible to receive Knowledge from anyone other than Maharaji. He claims only to encourage people to 'experience the present reality of life now'. Leaving his more ascetic life behind him, he does not personally eschew material possessions. Over time, critics have focused on what appears to be his opulent lifestyle and argue that it is supported largely by the donations of his followers. However, deliberately keeping a low profile has meant that the movement has generally managed to escape the gaze of publicity that surrounds other NRMs.
Back Cover Blurb
Ranging from recently imported oriental religions, through Christian sects such as. Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses, to modern UFO-cults and Rock Stars, Stephen Hunt provides an accessibly written and useful introduction to many of the alternative religions to be found in the contemporary West.
Eileen Barker, Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics, UK
Hunt explores a wide range of systems of belief, behaviour and of organisations very broadly understood as religion or quasi-religion; the question of defining religion and, therefore, of the boundaries of the topic are discussed in a clear and balanced way. This will be a book that will prove enormously useful for courses in the sociology of religion and religious studies. It addresses issues and contemporary developments which are at the forefront of religious and spiritual life in contemporary society. Few if any other surveys of this sort set quasi- religion and what the author calls popular religion alongside the more usually covered sects and cults.
Malcolm Hamilton, Reading University, UK
Alternative religions attract great public, academic and government interest in our apparently post-Christian society. Yet how did all the 'alternatives' develop, what are their beliefs and practices and how significant is their impact in terms of the world's religions and society?
This book presents a comprehensive introduction to the major forms of alternative religions: Cults, Sects, New Religious Movements, the New Age, Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Ethnic Religions and Quasi-religions. Stephen Hunt presents sociological insights into the rise of alternative religions, their beliefs and practices, their impact, who joins them and why, and how they are being classified and could be re- classified in the future. Public and legal controversies surrounding some alternative religions, such as the so-called 'dangerous cults', are also explored. Offering a broad introduction to alternative religions, this book offers students added insights into contemporary themes such as secularisation, post-modernity, links between religion, healing and human potential, and changes in our global culture.
Cover image: Photo from May 1995 issue of Alpha Magazine, Trinity Square Ltd.