Maharaji and Élan Vital, the 80's Image Makeover

The many contradictions of the western Divine Light Mission inevitably led to conflict not only for the organisation, but for its adolescent 'leader'. As Prem Rawat grew to adulthood he looked to fashion an image for himself and the Mission that was more to his liking. The religious aspects of the early days became an encumbrance for Rawat and he sought the creation of an organisation that could deliver him as the 'branded' product. Spiritual teacher Guru Maharaj Ji became Maharaji "humanitarian giver of a practical way to peace", this image served Rawat from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s when the "inspirational speaker" label was subtly introduced.

Although it exists to this day in India as part of the Raj Vidya Kender organisation, at Maharaji's (Prem Rawat's) instruction the Divine Light Mission ashram structure in western countries was dissolved during 1982 and 1983. According to former DLM administrators, Maharaji was becoming concerned about the financial liabilities that loomed as ashram residents aged, became unemployed, and required increasing medical and dental care.

The closures caused considerable dislocation to many ashram premies, who had abandoned university, employment training and families to serve Prem Rawat. In one address, Maharaji complained angrily of learning that a US ashram had handed each of its former residents US$ 100, with which to start new lives. A few ashram residents got subsistence wage jobs as Rawat's personal servants - valets, cleaners, gardeners and the like. A few others were kept on as administrators, or as instructors (formerly 'initiators' formerly 'mahatmas'). But most began new lives in 'the world' - something which few were psychologically or practically prepared.

During the 1980s, Maharaji effected other transitions. The term mahatma had already been largely replaced with the term 'initiator' - referring to the task of 'initiating' new followers into the meditational practice that Maharaji calls 'Knowledge' in a ritualised Knowledge Session. All the 'mahatmas' had been Indian nationals except one British national, Mahatma Param Saphlanand but except for a handful these left Rawat and returned to the more familiar environment of the Indian ashrams, now controlled by the replacement Perfect Master, Satpal Maharaj. Rawat appointed increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans as initiators. The title 'initiator' was then dropped in favour of 'instructor'.

The closing of the ashrams and the other changes Rawat had made had halved the number of Westerners involved in Rawat's knowledge. Without enough funds to maintain full time initiators and with no ashrams to use as their bases Rawat decided he must heve been completely mistaken when he proclaimed that to be an initiator was a full-time job and it could not be done by part-timers. In 1986 he began a series of part-time instructors training conference in San Antonio, Texas. These conferences, like all of Rawat's meetings, were mainly Rawat talking and everyone listening. Hundreds of instructors were soon appointed and were on hand for the Rejoice events that began in 1987 and continued up to 1993 in which Rawat taught an altered form of the meditation techniques and tried to restart his following. While these were relatively successful he has never been able to restore his pre-1983 number of followers.

In late 1980s and early 1990s Maharaji to and froed with part-time and full-time initiators and no initiators hiring and firing at will. He had taken over the teaching of the meditation techniques exclusively. In 2000, he introduced his computer-based presentation of the techniques of Knowledge. It soon began to be used to teach the Knowledge techniques to new students. Rawat has always appeared to believe that only he has the charisma and skills and power to spread the Knowledge, he or a machine. Sometimes he tells his followers they're unnecessary and even a problem, other times he says the opposite. But in the end he has an insatiable need for money so the fund-raising always has to continue.

Now there can be a happy culmination of both by merely having an instructor's phone number on a card that you can give to an interested person.
"So then came a time when I said "Please you know do me a favour don't say anything just pass on a video or something."
"When it is my ball, why do I need you?" But I'm saying I need that support and I need that help."

"I'll tell you this story that happened with Shri Maharaj Ji. There were a few premies, and they said, 'Maharaj Ji, you cannot function without us,' you know, 'we helped you a lot.' And he said, 'Oh yeah? That's what you think? I'll tell you,' he says, 'all of you stay here, and let me go out.' - And It Is Divine, Volume 2, Issue 5
"From the time of Shri Maharaji whether he was sitting by his instructors, whether he's giving an event, it always took a team, it took a team effort to do it so let's not con ourselves into thinking it doesn't take a team."

Although the name continued to be attached to a United Kingdom based charity until 1995, from the early 1980s onwards the various nationally based Divine Light Missions were progressively renamed as Élan Vital. Prem Rawat said the name Élan Vital had been given to him by his father, in a dream. In addition to changing the name of the organisation Prem Rawat ceased to use the name 'Guru Maharaj Ji' and instead had himself styled 'Maharaji'. Westerners hearing this term for the first time would quickly relate it to 'Maharaja' but would not realize that Maharaji himself translates it as the Ultimate Ruler which certainly shows what he thinks of himself or what he aspires to.

Maharaji also instigated changes both to the presentation of his message and to his relationship to his followers. Whilst teaching that devotion was the path to a joyful, fulfilled life, he now publicly denied that he personally was divine, blaming the Mahatmas for introducing this 'misunderstanding' in the 1970s. Around the world, the nightly gatherings, called satsang, at which premies described their experiences and sang devotional songs were abolished. Thereafter premies only gathered at events attended by Rawat or to watch videos of Prem Rawat speaking. Premies were instructed to hand in their 'devotional' magazines, books and tapes, which were then destroyed.

Maharaji's views about premies' lifestyles remained unchanged despite the abolition of the ashrams. In an interview, Rawat's personal assistant, Michael Dettmers, said:

Dettmers: 'Even as late as '85 he was still very strict about being vegetarian and abstaining from sex. He was very strict about that and absolutely believed in it.'
Interviewer: 'But didn't follow any of that himself?'
Dettmers: 'Oh no, of course not.'

Michael Dettmers replaced the departing Bob Mishler in 1976 and had become Maharaji's personal assistant and Rawat's voice to the wider Divine Light Mission/Élan Vital. Dettmers managed Rawat's assets, personal affairs and 'presentation to the world' from 1975 till 1987. More than anyone else, Dettmers has provided detailed testimony of what Prem Rawat is really like.

Although unknown to all but a select few "inner circle X-rated" followers, Prem Rawat was drinking and smoking cigarettes and marihuana regularly in private and by 1985 with an "open marriage." On an internet forum on December 17, 2000, Dettmers wrote:

"He told me that there was a particular premie woman he had in mind, and he asked me to arrange that they meet, which I did. Soon, thereafter, he asked me to arrange a meeting with another woman. In the meantime, the first person was left high and dry wondering what was going on. He cut off communication with her, and her only recourse was to contact me …

After three such incidents, I told him that his reckless behaviour was backfiring, and that I did not have the time to take care of the negative consequences it produced. He responded by agreeing that I had more important things to handle for him than procuring women, and that he would now take care of that task himself - meaning that he simply delegated the task to someone who was more amenable to it. He continued to have numerous "affairs" of which I am aware."

Roger Koch reported that his final disillusionment came closer when he heard about the sexual conquest of an old acquaintence by Mr. Rawat. The idea that Rawat could seduce anyone who wasn't a devoted premie is so ludicrous as to not require any thought.

Gail Benton, an instructor, had witnessed Maharaji's drinking, smoking and the fact that he had a mistress and never disclosed any of it to anyone. She drew the line over his drug taking and getting his aides to procure premie women for sex. She thought that "the Lord Incarnate who is giving the Knowledge of all knowledges to transcend worldly attachment" shouldn't be doing such things. Most people would have thought the drinking, smoking and mistress were enough.

Until their closure the Divine Light Mission ashrams had served as local centres for promoting Prem Rawat. There appears to have been no planned replacement for this promotion function and on an ad hoc basis promotion devolved to small national offices of Élan Vital. Until Prem Rawat claimed the role exclusively for himself or at least a video of himself, instructors, (most of whom were only part-time) revealed the four meditation techniques (the 'Knowledge') to small numbers of 'aspirants'.

Instructors were also now the only people authorised to speak publicly about Maharaji and his teachings. This ruling was soon applied even to private conversations: Rawat instructed that premies should not tell new people about him or the 'Knowledge' - but instead "take them to a video event". These "video events", held in small local halls with no or minimal "low key" advertising - which began in the mid-1980s - were still the staple for 'coming together' and 'propagation' for 20 years but have been progressively superseded by the internet.

Maharaji and Mahatma Jagdeo One of Maharaji's senior instructors in this period was Jagdeo, one of the original Mahatmas from India, who conducted special 'children's satsangs' throughout the West. Several premie children of this era (now grown) attest that Jagdeo raped or otherwise sexually abused them. Their parents have stated that they sent word to Rawat of the abuse, and were ignored. Jagdeo's misdeeds against children were fairly well-known within senior Élan Vital circles at the time. Prem Rawat's critics believe it is difficult to credit his claim that he knew nothing of them. It is important to emphasise that there is no evidence of wide spread systemic child abuse in Prem Rawat's supporting organisations. Indeed Jagdeo is the only 'senior' offender who has come to light. But because the paedophilia reports were apparently ignored by Rawat or at least those who advised Rawat, when the reports did surface in 2000, they caused enormous damage to Prem Rawat's standing among the small number of premies who heard about it.

While the abuse of children appears thankfully to have been rare within the Rawat organisations, there have been many reports of abusive behaviours by Mahraji Himself, Mahatmas, Initiators and administrators against adult devotees. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was clearly inadequate protection of vulnerable people within Divine Light Mission/Élan Vital and associated organisations.

In 1985 the US Élan Vital Inc., then still registered as a church, filed initial papers to become a Private Trust without religious character, and in the following year the organisation was party to a project to raise US$4million to purchase a Lear 55 jet for Prem Rawat's personal use. The jet was acquired (not by Élan Vital) in 1987.

Acquisition of the Lear 55 was coincident with Maharaji embarking on an increased number of international speaking tours that were part of 'Rejoice' - an attempted rejuvenation and updating of his following and the techniques of meditation. He he began to personally oversee initiations into the 'Knowledge'. Whether the new plane was of particular significance is a moot point but other factors must also have played a role - not least the facility provided by the Élan Vital Foundation based in Switzerland to collect the funds amounting to over $1 million US per annum necessary to meet the cost of maintaining the aircraft and of meeting Maharaji's hotel bills.

The intention to change the status of the US Élan Vital Inc. was never pursued and the application fell in 1989 due to inaction by Élan Vital - it has remained registered as a church and as having religious purpose until early 2010 when the US Élan Vital Inc. website commenced carrying a notice announcing that the organisation would <a href= "">cease to operate</a> and indeed that link is as defunct as the organisation.

By the end of the 1980s the number of programs (subsequently termed 'events') at which Rawat spoke world-wide was increasing. He took to reciting self-composed poetry (which even the majority of premies regarded as being of poor quality). On a few occasions in Australia, US, India and other places he staged his unique vision/version of Holi, a traditional Indian festival, in which he sprayed his ecstatic premies with coloured water.

Also in the late 1980s, in a development which sought to monetise rather than merely promote Rawat's image, the Malibu based Visions International, a for profit subsidiary of Élan Vital Inc., began making and distributing Rawat-oriented video tapes and audio tapes of his speeches, souvenirs and publications for premie consumption world wide. From 2000 these were replaced by CDs and DVDs as the technology changed.

A private business called Aspirare also began marketing Maharaji related souvenirs in 2002, the company was eventually merged into the <a href="../"> defunct Dunrite Group</a> which provided event organisation and other services for the now defunct Visions International.