"Brainwashing" in Divine Light Mission / Élan Vital / etc

Brainwashing (or thought reform, coercive persuasion, mind control, psychological manipulation) has been one of the most controversial aspects of the study of the "cults" (or New Religious Movements) that began to proliferate in the 1970's. The apparently puzzling success of rapid religious conversions or recruitment into derided groups such as the "Moonies", the "Hare Krishnas", the Divine Light Mission, etc was explained as being caused by a coercive power that influenced people against their will. Much of this public concern might have been allayed if the claims and inflated statistics of groups like DLM were not accepted uncritically.

Based upon studies of those Allied POWs of the Korean War who were induced to become supporters of the North Korean communists the concept was popularised by Margaret Singer, Janja Lalich and Ted Patrick among others and was often used by the popular media throughout the 1970's and 80's though it was critically injured by ongoing research into the NRMs and was legally laid to rest in the late 1980's by the American Psychological Association's rejection of the "Report of the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control" written by a panel led by Singer. This report was rejected by two external reviewers, Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi of Haifa University and Professor Jeffrey D. Fisher. A legal brief provided by the APA and a group of academics of religion comprehensively rebutted the Singerian thesis and Singer's credibility was destroyed when she and Richard Ofshe tried to sue the authors of the brief for conspiracy rather than providing evidence for their claims. "Brainwashing" has continued to be a part of popular culture and it's proponents fight an ongoing battle to have it regain scientific credibility.

The major reasons for the failure of the DIMPAC report to be accepted were:

  • 1. The data on which Drs. Singer and Benson rely is undocumented and unverifiable.
  • 2. The sources of information on which Drs. Singer and Benson rely are not impartial.
  • 3. Drs. Singer and Benson have not shown that the harms they claim to have found in former church members were caused by affiliation with the church.

As time went on it became obvious that only a small minority of people who came into contact with these groups using aggressive methods of recruitment joined them, and of those, the large majority did not remain committed to the group else the streets would be awash with prancing Hare Krishnas, the airports clogged with Moonies and harlots of the Children of God would be offering free sex on every second street corner.

Brainwashing by Groups Related to Prem Rawat

Prem Rawat aka Guru Maharaj JiDivine Light Mission / Élan Vital / Words Of Peace Global / Human Development Through Self Knowledge is a prime example of this. After nearly 40 years of proselytising in the "West" there are probably considerably less than half as many members as there were around 1980 and only a small percentage of those who have been involved at any one time currently remain committed despite the constant stress within the group of "propagation" and the very large amount of resources that have been committed to this attempt. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated to Prem Rawat and his organisations. Much of this has been spent on Rawat's luxurious lifestyle and even much of the money supposedly spent on recruitment has actually been spent on private jets in which Rawat can fly around the world and five star accommodation for him wherever he stays. Nevertheless the significant funds spent have mainly been wasted.

The main value of Rawat's tours and speeches is to inspire his current followers to continue to provide his major source of income and to provide opportunities to gain respectability and respect as a tireless "Ambassador of Peace". Rawat has continued to change his organisations' names and the thrust of his public teachings and even after decades during which the number of his Western followers has halved there have been times when his followers have believed major success in recruitment was about to occur.

Throughout this time Rawat has remained upbeat when making speeches and has often claimed record recruitment growth. Recruitment in India recommenced in the late 1980's and starting from a very low number (low compared to his brother and the many successful Godmen who took advantage of the religious renaissance in the growing Indian middle classes) and using funds from his Western followers apparently impressive growth occurred.

Prem Rawat aka Guru Maharaj JiDivine Light Mission (Prem Rawat's organisation in the 1970's and early 1980's) did not use deceitful recruitment practices. Prem Rawat was loudly proclaimed as the 'Lord of the Universe', a Satguru in the succession of Perfect Masters including Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Rawat's father and Rawat's father's guru but definitely not his eldest brother. It did not remove potential recruits to places where they could be separated from normal members of society and unduly influenced as did the "Children of God" and the "Moonies". There was a heightened response to new people at the 1970's DLM nightly "satsang" meetings though it was not organised and depended upon individual motivation.

It did however, have practices that, when adhered to, provided strong reinforcement for members to accept and internalise group beliefs. These included "ashrams" where premies lived highly structured lives obedient to those higher in the cult hierarchy where all their wages went to the group or they worked for free for the group. There were nightly meetings which all members were expected to attend and all ashram members were ordered to attend in which different members would sit on a chair at the front of the room and give supposedly inspired, impromptu, confessional monologues about the effects of Rawat's grace and their practice of Knowledge while the congregation gave them their total attention. There were many attractive, committed, charismatic individuals at these meetings who repeatedly promised that practising Rawat's Knowledge would validate the beliefs being preached and provide unheard of joy and bliss. The process of persuasion could be powerful but it did not qualify as "brainwashing." Bob Mishler, 1970's president of DLM believed it was mainly social approval that powered the conversion process. These meetings could be very intense but without regular attendance people quickly drifted away from any involvement. The effect, if any, of the actual hours of meditation is uncertain though until the early 1980's Rawat continually criticised his followers for their poor efforts to meditate and exacerbated their guilt at any failures in this area.

It is particularly ironic that since the early 1980's Prem Rawat and his followers have attempted to rewrite his history (and theirs) and presented Rawat's position and his teachings in an increasingly false manner while having less and less success attracting new followers. This can be explained by the near total reliance on Rawat, himself, as the sole mouthpiece for his movement and the use only of videos and DVD's of him speaking in any advertised function held by his followers.

In the early 1970's a person could hear about Guru Maharaj Ji ("the Ultimate Ruler," as Rawat then called himself) and be sitting with a group of others in front of an Indian "Mahatma" being taught the bare bones of the Divine Light Mission dogma and the meditation methods within hours. While this meant large numbers of people could be initiated the individual response was extremely variable and the drop-out rate high. This was quite understandable as the techniques included having your eyeballs strongly squeezed, being instructed to curl your tongue backwards behind your uvula and up towards your sinuses, blocking your ears with your thumbs and thinking about your breathing. There has been constant attempts to improve the process of indoctrination and by 200? this has become an insistence on any aspirant first watching 70 hours of DVDs of Rawat trying to convince you of the unique nature of his Knowledge, the wonderful though invisible effects of practising it and the need to "stay in touch." This may not qualify as "brainwashing" but as Rawat's speechifying has barely improved despite 40 years of practice it probably qualifies as "cruel and unusual punishment" and means recruitment is poor. Circa 2010 Rawat has once again changed his organisation name, this time to "Words Of peace Global" registered in Holland and in the United Kingdom it is called HDSK (Human Development through Self Knowledge). By registering in Holland WOPG does not need to publish any financial figures. While very little of the money donated to The Prem Rawat Foundation goes on charitable work for the sick and poor much of the public relations output of Rawat's followers since around 2005 has been attempting to create an image for Rawat as an internationally renowned and respected presenter of a Message of Peace rather than directly recruiting new "students."

References: (These reports are complex and have been formatted for printing to paper to ease reading and maximise comprehension)

Excerpts from International Cultic Studies Review Thought Reform web pages