SOCIAL SCIENCES PHILOSOPHY & RELIGION OCT 15 1990
Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions
JANET LIEBMAN JACOBS
Indiana University Press;
Change and Commitment
Three Case Studies of Religious Disaffection
The following case studies are intended to provide a view of conversion and disaffection as experienced within three different religious orientations: Hinduism, Buddhism, and charismatic Christianity. Each case describes entry into the religious movement, the conditions under which membership in the movement was sustained, and the changes that led to disaffiliation from the group. The individual accounts of the conversion experience, based on the perceptions of the devotees, offer a comparative analysis that illustrates the gradual nature of disaffection and the evolutionary quality of deconversion.
Case 1. Mark and Sandy: The Premie Experience in Divine Light Mission
In July 1972, Rapid City, South Dakota, experienced massive flooding. Mark had just been discharged from the military when he heard that they needed volunteers to help out with the clean-up. Within a few days of his discharge, he arrived at the flood site and immediately began work with the clean-up crews in the area. Among the debris and refuse of the flooded streets were pamphlets and leaflets that were being distributed by members of Divine Light Mission, the followers of the young Guru Maharaj Ji, who were called premies, which means "lovers of God."
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Mark picked up one of the leaflets and read it. Something in the words of the Hindu teacher touched him and when a premie sought Mark out a few minutes later, he gladly returned with him to the ashram that had been set up after the flood. Four days later Mark left for Montrose, Colorado, a small mountain community where Guru Maharaj Ji was then headquartered.
In Montrose, Mark was initiated into Divine Light Mission, receiving Knowledge from the guru with a small number of other followers. Before his initiation he had always thought of himself as a Christian and had briefly considered joining the charismatic Children of God sect. But now in Colorado, in the presence of a young spiritual master, he believed he had found God. Here he describes his feelings after initiation.
I was in this place where I was looking for the Lord to be on this planet. Maharaj Ji said accept knowledge and go on with your life so I did. I was really happy. To me the Lord was on the planet. Everything was going to be fine. I didn't have anything to worry about.
In the first year and a half that Mark was a premie he remained in Montrose. During this time he married Sandy, a young woman who was his neighbor in the mountain community. When he first met Sandy, she only vaguely knew what the Mission was about and who the young guru claimed to be. Before they married, however, she too received Knowledge, accepting Maharaj Ji as god on earth. Soon after their marriage, Mark and Sandy were transferred to Rapid City where Mark was given the position of representative for the Divine Light Information Center, while Sandy was given the responsibility of housemother in the local ashram.
In South Dakota their life as husband and wife centered around their spiritual practice and their respective duties in their service to the Mission. Sandy assumed all domestic responsibilities for the Information Center, while Mark took on the administration of the ashram and the recruitment of new members for the South Dakota district. In Rapid City, they lived among other premies, sharing meals and household maintenance, attending satsang (a daily meeting to share spiritual knowledge), and waiting for the next opportunity to see the Lord and to share in his vision for peace and happiness on earth.
Toward the beginning of Mark and Sandy's fourth year in Rapid City (1975), a change took place in the organization of the Mission. By this time the movement had grown very large with thousands of devotees forming a strong international following. Immense festivals were held every year, bringing premies from all over the world to gather quite literally at the feet of the spiritual master. At these festivals, Mark and Sandy found themselves among hordes of other followers, many of whom seemed to be more interested in fund-raising and money-making concerns than the more spiritual aspects of commitment. By 1976, it was clear that a schism was forming in the movement, creating a philosophical split among the premies who were the closest to Maharaj Ji in the Mission hierarchy.
On one side there were those high-status devotees who warned the young guru that he was in danger of becoming the kind of cult leader he had decried in other movements. These devotees encouraged Maharaj Ji to sponsor programs in which his divine right might be questioned. Thus, for a few months in 1976, such programs were initiated and Mark and Sandy attended discussion groups where the notion of total commitment was reassessed and questioned. Mark explained the change that was taking place in this way:
At the time they started all these workshops, they were questioning-type workshops. Who was Guru Maharaj Ji? What is knowledge? We would get into these groups and try to solve it as a problem, using these problem-solving techniques. What began to happen was that Maharaj Ji began to lose people; premies were leaving the ashrams.
Aware of the declining number of devotees, a new power faction emerged within the movement which challenged the liberalization program. These members of the administrative hierarchy supported a more rigid and doctrinaire approach to conversion, and a return to the authoritative structure in which the Mission had thus far flourished in the United States. Maharaj Ji was also in favor of resuming a more orthodox stance and so less than six months after the liberalization effort had begun, the guru made a radio broadcast in which he reasserted his position as god on earth to his followers. Immediately following the broadcast, a nationwide
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reintensification program was begun. Mark and Sandy now found themselves attending workshops that, instead of questioning the guru's deification, reaffirmed absolutely the godliness of Maharaj Ji.
Throughout the period of vacillation, Mark never stopped believing in Maharaj Ji. Whenever thoughts of doubt or negativity had entered his mind, he repeated Maharaj Ji's name over and over again to himself as he had been taught when he first took Knowledge, and with this chanting of Holy Name all doubt would vanish and reassurance and tranquility would return. The reintensification workshops helped to reinforce his faith. In the aftermath of the brief reformation period, the president of the Mission resigned and he and the other supporters of a more open approach to spirituality were labeled as heretics who had lost Maharaj Ji forever. According to Mark:
Even when the workshops happened, it was just the subculture being exposed. Maharaj Ji was still the source of creation, the lord incarnate on the planet. He continued to be that way and what they said was that his detractors were monmuts; they had surrendered to their minds. A monmut means someone who has totally surrendered to his mind. And we weren't supposed to talk to them or have anything to do with them.
In the year following the reintensification movement (1977), Mark graduated from college in South Dakota. He and Sandy had a child now and they moved to Boulder, Colorado, to be near the Divine Light headquarters in Denver, although Maharaj Ji was now living in Malibu, California. Mark and Sandy stayed in Boulder for about a year and then moved to Montana to join a commune of premies who had established a new ashram in that state. Sandy had just given birth to another son and the family moved into a communal living space with fifteen other followers.
Under the more rigid regulations that had been initiated after the controversial year in the Mission, ashram life seemed harsh to both Sandy and Mark, but particularly to Sandy. Children were separated from their parents so that they would not interfere with the devotion of the adults. Family time was not encouraged; devotees were required to either take care of their ashram responsibilities or to participate in spiritual practice.
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The person in charge of the Mission in Montana made it clear that the first priority of all premies was to serve Maharaj Ji, while children and spouses were relegated to a secondary place. The pressure that such demands placed on Sandy and Mark led to the first real test of their commitment. As ashram life became more unbearable, they suffered a great deal of emotional turmoil in trying to sort out and somehow allocate love for each other, for their two sons, and for Maharaj Ji as well. Finally, they made a decision to leave the Montana commune and move to California where they could live together as a family. At the time of this decision, they had been in the movement for seven years and they both feared that if they did not make the move, the pressures of ashram life would destroy the fragile family network they had established in spite of the demands of the religious life.
Just before moving to California, Mark and Sandy attended the annual festival of Divine Light Mission. Seeing Maharaj Ji once again, decked in flowers, awaiting the love and devotion of the premies, seemed to alleviate all the anxiety they had been feeling in Montana. When they kissed his feet and touched his robes it was as if they were young initiates again, receiving Knowledge and the Lord's love for the first time. In Maharaj Ji's presence at the festival, Mark felt as if he were entering a place of light where there was no one but himself and the spiritual teacher, a sensation of unification that had marked his first encounter with Maharaj Ji in Colorado. Experiencing once again this connection to the Lord, a feeling of wholeness and envelopment, he reaffirmed his commitment to Maharaj Ji, vowing, as he had during his initiation, to serve the Lord twenty-four hours a day, to follow all of his commandments, and to remember Holy Name always.
When the festival was over, Mark and Sandy moved with their two children to California where they lived by themselves for the first time since joining Divine Light Mission. Although they were no longer part of the ashram community, they felt renewed in their commitment, convinced that it had not been Maharaj Ji that created a crisis in their faith in Montana, but the other premies. Sandy explained the change she experienced:
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I felt wonderful after we left Montana. And for the next year I couldn't be around premies. I couldn't go to satsang. It was the weirdest thing in the world. I was totally committed to Maharaj Ji, but I couldn't be with premies. To me there was a difference. You see, Maharaj Ji was clean and pure. Premies were this other thing, this organization that was its own entity. It wasn't until after I came out that I began to see that there was a definite connection between the organization and Maharaj Ji. He had created the whole thing. But in my mind I had separated them. I had to in order to keep the faith in Maharaj Ji.
Living independently, Mark and Sandy tried to establish a nuclear family lifestyle in which devotion to the Lord would be shared with devotion to family members. They rarely attended satsang or meditated on their own. After a year of living in this state of partial disaffection, they moved once again, this time to Ventura where there was no premie community at all. While in Ventura, Mark experienced a new crisis of faith as a result of a visit by Maharaj Ji:
The thing for me was that I felt like Maharaj Ji was the Lord and we were not obeying him. I started to feel real guilty. I went through that whole year without doing any meditation. I went to satsang twice during the whole time. We moved to Ventura and right after that Maharaj Ji came there. There was no community there and I thought in my brain, in my mind, he loves me. He is just coming here for me. I did, I believed it was all for me.
After that visit, all the guilt that Mark had felt for not attending satsang, for not faithfully performing his devotion, came over him in a wave of emotional intensity and he felt both elated at his special relationship to the Lord and distraught by the lack of faith he had shown in rejecting the premie life. A few weeks after the visit, Mark left his job and rededicated his life to Maharaj Ji, attending satsang once again every night and putting all his energy and time into the Mission.
Increasingly, their family life again centered around their devotion to the Lord and their intense feelings of love and commitment to Maharaj Ji. During this period, Mark and Sandy would fantasize and dream about visiting his mansion in Malibu with a hope of catching a glimpse of Maharaj Ji at home. That year, as the guru's birthday approached, Mark
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and Sandy found a special kind of film that they knew he wanted. Although all presents were to be delivered to Mission headquarters in Los Angeles, they decided to hand deliver the film to his estate in Malibu. On the day before his birthday, they drove up to the gates surrounding the guru's immense palatial home. Sandy described what she felt as they surveyed the huge stone walls:
We heard through the grapevine that Guru Maharaj Ji really wanted this certain kind of film. We just thought this would be the perfect thing. It was from our hearts. We drove up to this mansion in Malibu and there were these big walls and just kind of subtly inside myself I felt like I was awed, but then I thought, for heaven's sake if the Lord were on the other side, why wouldn't he want to keep me out? It's just not practical for him to see thousands and thousands of people. We went up to the gates and that was as far as we got.
A few months later, Mark and Sandy left California and moved back to Colorado to be near former premie friends from earlier years of their membership in the Mission. In Colorado they reentered a communal lifestyle with other followers, devoting themselves to evening service and attendance at all devotee activities. Yet the more involved they became with the community, the more they felt a resurfacing of the tensions and anxiety they had experienced in Montana. The demands on the premies seemed endless. Now Maharaj Ji needed another new airplane, the jet they bought him last year was already inadequate. Two hundred thousand dollars had to be raised in a matter of weeks. Sandy and Mark and their two children joined the other premies in a massive fund-raising campaign during which all of their time and energy was spent in collecting money that was sent to California.
When Sandy complained to the local representative that devotion seemed to be measured according to one's ability to raise funds, she was told that a perfect devotee could show her love for the Lord through many forms of service and those who were lazy and unworthy were those who made false distinctions between spiritual devotion and other types of service to the one true Lord on the planet earth. Chastised for questioning the authority of Divine Light Mission, Sandy experienced pressure to be a per-
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feet devotee, to give what was asked of her and her family without question or complaints, but her doubts about such demands she now kept to herself or shared in private moments with Mark.
After the massive fund-raising drive for the new plane for Maharaj Ji, it was rumored that the guru would be visiting the ashram in Boulder. Another fund-raising drive was immediately initiated in order to raise money for renovations that were necessary to accommodate the guru. For weeks Sandy and Mark, along with the other devotees, prepared the ashram for his visit, painting and building, preparing special meals, and redoing an entire room for Maharaj Ji. And then the day of his anticipated visit arrived. He was to come in the early evening, lead satsang for the community, take dinner with them, and then spend the night under their roof.
Sandy and Mark and the two children took great care over their dress and appearance for the visit, and they brought gifts that the family had made for the Lord, embroidered pillows and small carved objects. They arrived at the ashram at 5:30 that evening. Many of the premies were already waiting in the meditation hall, which had been strewn with flowers and smelled of burning incense. At 7:30 the tension among the devotees was high as whispers and sighs passed among the waiting disciples. His plane is delayed. He is on his way. His motorcade is stuck in traffic coming out of Denver. At 9:30, the group began to break up. The incense had all burned down and the flowers were beginning to wilt and droop. At midnight Mark and Sandy took their sleeping children home, while others waited until dawn the next day, still not convinced that Maharaj Ji was not coming.
In the morning Mark and Sandy returned to the ashram to help dismantle the festival decorations. A few of the premies still sat in the hall where they had spent the night, crying quietly to themselves. One irate young man shouted at Mark to leave the cascade of flowers that had been draped around a makeshift throne. "He is coming," he screamed at Mark. "Just leave everything alone." Later that day, the Boulder community called the Denver headquarters. The premies in charge said they knew nothing about the Boulder visit.
The disappointment Mark and Sandy felt after this incident heightened the sense of loss and betrayal that had begun to permeate their
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relationship to Maharaj Ji. In spite of a desire to remain devoted, it was increasingly difficult to ignore certain contradictions that were becoming apparent. Reluctantly Mark began to consider the terms under which love and devotion were demanded:
I thought, this is a guru and he is supposed to love his disciples. And he is supposed to be a father to them and he lets rumors circulate about his presence to them, nothing factual, nothing practical, or considerate. People are waiting by the phone, is he coming, is he coming? No phone call but they are waiting. It struck me as a little crazy. Now there is a logical argument from Divine Light Mission, that it is a game. He wanted to see the commitment of his disciples. I can repeat the justification but I don't think that peace on earth would be manifest with people doing that to each other. To bring peace on earth you have to consider the mothers with crying babies, the people who have to wake up early and go to work; maybe you have to consider a lot of things.
In the nine years since Mark and Sandy had joined the movement, the organization had grown larger and more diverse and Maharaj Ji had grown more distant and inaccessible. Much of the time Mark and Sandy felt as if they were veterans among a group of new recruits who did not really understand the meaning of a true and loving relationship to Maharaj Ji. During this period of disillusionment, Mark thought back on the many festivals he had attended over the years. He tried to recall the feelings of light and love that images of the guru could sometimes engender. But more and more often his thoughts shifted to the many abuses he had witnessed, the times that Maharaj Ji had berated and humiliated disciples who were begging and pleading at his feet for a sign of love or a word of kindness. Such humiliations had always been excusable before; if Maharaj Ji treated his subjects in this way, there had to be a reason, part of God's plan for acknowledging his Being on earth.
Yet less and less were Mark and Sandy able to justify past abuses and the present sense of loss and hurt that they were experiencing. When their closest friends within the movement, the only premies to whom they still felt a bond, were kidnapped and deprogrammed in 1981, Mark and Sandy began to consider what had once been the unimaginable, that perhaps Maharaj Ji was not God, that perhaps they had been wrong in ac-
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cepting the Indian teacher as the Lord incarnate on the planet. Such thoughts, which for nine years had been repressed at every suggestion of doubt, now forced their way into the consciousness of both Mark and Sandy.
With the support of their disaffected friends, they began to reevaluate all of their beliefs and actions that were associated with their commitment to Maharaj Ji. In doing so, they recognized that their connection to the movement had only survived because of their faith in the Lord. Ashram life, the majority of premies, and the Divine Light Mission organization itself had all, at one time or another, posed obstacles to their commitment to the guru. And now, when all of these barriers had been removed, there was only the relationship between God and his devotees to consider, and they could no longer chant themselves into believing that this relationship was fulfilling or satisfactory in ways that had been rewarding in the first few years of their involvement.
The more they talked to each other and the more they interacted with other former premies, the greater the doubts became until Mark finally acknowledged what had been perhaps his greatest fear, his desire to separate from Maharaj Ji. Letting go of the ideal love, the god figure to whom he had sacrificed much of his adult life, proved very difficult for Mark, in spite of the support that Sandy and his friends provided. He entered a deep depression. He could not work; he could not play with his children nor make love to Sandy. He tried to feel nothing at all rather than the overwhelming sense of anger, love, sadness, and loss that alternately created feelings of desire for Maharaj Ji and feelings of hatred for the guru.
To extricate Mark from this state of depression, Sandy contacted a counselor who dealt primarily with disaffected devotees. Together they, attended a counseling session in which Mark recounted his experience, an emotional ordeal that released many of the feelings that he had wanted to repress. In the weeks following this first counseling session, he and Sandy continued to dialogue with each other, talking of nothing else but their experience and their feelings and beliefs with regard to the Mission and the guru who had so obsessed their lives.
Slowly, the intense feelings of anger and loss at being betrayed were replaced by a sense of freedom, an openness to thoughts and actions
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which had not been possible when Maharaj Ji had dominated all aspects of their consciousness. A simple experience like walking down the street took on new meaning. Mark could feel the warmth of the sun, experience that sensation, and his thoughts did not automatically revert to the guru as the source of all pleasure in life. For the first time since joining the movement in 1971, Mark experienced his feelings and his thoughts as his own. But such freedom was not without guilt as he thought of his betrayal in wanting to free himself from the "true path."
Although Mark and Sandy have completely disaffected, they still feel moments of anger when they regret all of the time that was wasted in ten years of devotion to a false god. Yet at other times a sense of doubt overtakes them and they wonder if they and their children will be left behind when Guru Maharaj Ji brings peace and love to the world. To cope with their spiritual loss, they now attend a small gathering of mystical Christians who meet weekly in the back room of a health food store in Denver. The group is led by an older woman who practices herbal medicine and spiritual healing which she ties to a belief in Jesus Christ. There are no rules or regulations imposed on those who attend the gatherings and membership in the group is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Like Sandy and Mark, many of the group members are disaffected devotees from other religious movements.
Both Mark and Sandy are more skeptical now. They do not believe in everything that their new spiritual teacher espouses. Still, they are attracted by her holistic approach to life, health, and spirit, and they are soothed by her soft exhortations to find the truth within. For now, at least, Mark and Sandy feel as if they have "come home" again, that their belief in God has found a familiar voice in the prayers and wisdom of a soft-spoken Christian healer.