Divine Enterprise – Lisa McKean     pages 53 - 57


With its iconic treatment of scientific instruments, the Gayatri Parivar represents science as a force at once complementary and subordinate to institutionalized spirituality. A few kilometers away from Shantikunj and Brahmavarchas, the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti at its Premnagar ashram adapts science for other uses. Built largely by a group of former bonded laborers from Madhya Pradesh who have become devotees of the guru and serve him as the organization's mobile construction crew, a twin tower of toilets connected to a biogas plant is this ashram's unique monument to the scientific age. These monumental facilities are meant to meet the needs of the ashram's visitors when they gather in crowds numbering over 100,000 for various celebrations throughout the year. At their New Delhi ashram, the organization's headquarters, devotees work on computers and modern printing equipment to produce monthly journals and other publications in several languages including English.

The somber and restrained atmosphere at the premises of the Gayatri Parivar, where armed guards sat outside the late Acharya Sharma residence, contrasts with the more festive and informal ambiance of the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti. Both organizations are far less exclusive than the Divine Life Society and claim to have millions of followers throughout India.

The Manav Utthan Seva Samiti is currently headed by Satpal Rawat, eldest son of its founder, Hans Rawat. (See appendix 1 for official statements by the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti concerning its teachings and activities.)1

The present organization is a portion of a previously larger one that had split into two after Satpal's younger brother, Balyogeshwar - the wondrous boy Guru Maharaj Ji - became both an international success and scandal in the 1970s. Balyogeshwar had been supported by a faction within the organization, a faction that after the death of the founding father had wanted to capitalize on the fashion for gurus prevailing in Europe and North America.2 Khushwant Singh reports an interview during which Balyogeshwar explained in the following terms the assets of being a guru: "Divine knowledge is like money in the bank. It is my money. I have the cheque book. But only after I write the cheque and sign it can you draw the money" (1975a, 70).

Satpal now heads the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti in India and spearheads its rapid expansion. The Samiti owns property in the United States and has followers there and in other foreign countries, but its principal operations and property holdings as well as the bulk of its supporters are in India. The Samiti's published accounts of its history report Satpal's smooth succession to his father's position. The Samiti is silent about Satpal's brother, Balyogeshwar, and the scandalous family feud.

Satpal, his wife, and two sons as well as another brother, this brother's wife, and three daughters constitute the focus of the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti's cult of the holy family. Devotees worship the holy family and regard Satpal and his relatives as divine beings with spiritual powers (see plate 11). Like the multiplicity of deities in the Hindu pantheon, the various members of the holy family multiply the symbolic forms through which devotees can experience their relationships with divinity. The use of Satpal's extended family for attracting a range of devotees is similar to the use of complexes of images by advertisers for particular products in order to diversify the types of consumers the products can attract (Packard 1975). To illustrate his point Packard quotes from a market research report on car owners written by social scientists: "A car can sell itself to different people by presenting different facets of its personality… Advertising is a multiplier of symbols. Like a prism, it can present many different facets of the car's character so that many fundamentally different people see it as their car" (1975, 53). Until her death in 1991, Satpal's mother, the second wife of the founder, was actively involved in the work of the Samiti. She and her deceased husband, along with the living members of the holy family, are worshipped by devotees with rituals similar to those performed for a Hindu deity in a domestic shrine or temple.

Prem Nagar As are many other gurus, Satpal is usually called Maharaji by his devotees, an appellation suited to his regal style of pomp and ceremony and his rajput caste status. The Samiti expresses the authority of Satpal with cultural imagery related to ideals concerning righteous Hindu kings, especially as elaborated in the Ramayana. As his father was before him, Satpal is likened to Janaka, the father of Sita. He is believed to share with that righteous Hindu king not only paternal concern for his devoted and loving subjects but also spiritual knowledge and power. Devotees' contact with Satpal and his family is generally limited to public appearances at celebrations marking the birthdays of holy family members or Hindu holidays. During these appearances devotees gaze upon the holy family, listen to their sermons, and line up - sometimes waiting hours under the scorching summer sun - to momentarily touch their feet, make offerings, and receive their blessings (see plate 12).

Folksy paintings of a king sitting atop an elephant on parade before his subjects decorate walls at the Prem Nagar ashram. When crowds throng the ashram for a three-day celebration of Satpal's birthday, his sons and nieces are sent forth on an elephant for a royal progress through the ashram grounds. Devotees enthusiastically join in the procession. The social distance between Satpal and his mass of followers, who are largely drawn from the urban lower and lower-middle classes and rural artisans and small landholders, is like that between a politician and electoral masses, a factory owner and factory workers, a corporate manager and clerical workers, or a rural landlord and landless labourers. Satpal's sons and nieces are enrolled in some of the country's most elite and expensive private schools in Dehra Dun. This social distance contributes to the charisma of the holy family. It is mediated by initiated disciples, who work full time to maintain constant and direct contact with followers at the organization's branches throughout India.

Satpal's Premnagar ashram in Hardwar, with its spacious gardens, swimming pool reserved for members of the holy family, and carefully maintained buildings, offers visitors an experience of proximity to the lovely delights of wealth. Devotees who have donated the requisite funds for building a room in the ashram are housed in well-appointed residential buildings. During major celebrations, however, most devotees camp on the ashram's grounds. A woman employed by the Delhi Municipal Corporation as a street sweeper once told me that she and her family are followers of Maharaji and regularly attend celebrations at the Premnagar ashram. She explained that Maharaji teaches the equality of all castes and that even sweeper families like hers are allowed to sit and dine with the "big people." Most devotees are indeed fed en masse during large gatherings. However, during crowded celebrations the really big "big people" dine separately, often from five-star style buffets laden with delicacies prepared by professional chefs. During one such epicurean luncheon, I noticed that the women of the holy family had changed out of glitzy costumes that sparkle under the spotlights and into heavy brocade saris, the attire favored by wealthy women for weddings and other important social occasions.

During the holy family's frequent tours of Samiti branches, devotees have opportunities for more intimate contact with them. Private audiences with family members and particularly with Satpal, the institutional big man, are considered a special privilege. Devotees who have had private audiences proudly recount to others their experience of proximity to divinity. Besides these public encounters, the blessings and protection of the holy family are believed to be bestowed upon devotees who meditate privately upon them.

Several hundred full-time workers live as ascetics in the Samiti's branches and ashrams throughout India. These men and women link the devotees with the guru, and they are the organization's preachers and administrators at the local level. Mangalwadi describes the relation between lay devotees and the guru's ascetic intermediaries, who are known as mahatmas: "serving the Sadguru in practice means obeying orders from the Mahatmas and propagating the knowledge" (1977, 196). He also notes that many of the mahatmas require lay devotees to demonstrate intense desire for the secret divine knowledge, which can involve begging them for initiation. About the secret knowledge obtained during initiation, Mangalwadi reports that an ex-disciple described it as entailing instruction in specific meditation techniques through which physical manipulation of eyes, tongue, and ears produced effects interpreted as divine light, divine nectar, and divine sound. During my many visits to the Samiti's ashrams in Hardwar and Delhi, mahatmas and devotees often asked me when I would "take knowledge" and why I had not yet done so. When I generally replied that my research did not require that I be initiated, many assured me that I would eventually experience the desire for divine knowledge so intensely that I would request initiation.

The holy family attracts followers from a range of class and caste backgrounds. It regularly stages events that draw over 100,000 people to its Hardwar ashram and draws even larger crowds to its annual celebration of the founder's birthday in Delhi. Although most of its followers are from the lower range of the socio-economic spectrum, the organization's recent expansion in south India and particularly in Bangalore is attracting a more educated and wealthier group of devotees. To an even greater extent than the Gayatri Parivar, the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti has a populist appeal. Social groups such as sweepers that are often shunned by other religious institutions are accepted as devotees of the holy family and participate in Samiti activities.

1. For a brief discussion of the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti see Hoens (1979).

2. For background material on the international commercial operations of Balyogeshwar's Divine Light Movement, see Cameron (1973). Refuting allegations against Balyogeshwar of smuggling, being involved in politics, and making "anti-India statements," a large newspaper advertisement placed by his organization in 1987 claims that the controversy surrounding him has persisted over the years (Times of India, 4 December 1987). He is described as having married only once, thus "it is quite baseless to say that he is a polygamist [his father had two wives]. He is a respectable householder having four children." It describes Balyogeshwar's mission as involving international tours during which he explains to "people in general without any distinction of caste, colour, race, stature or wealth that the source of happiness, peace and contentment lies within one's own self. He also provides practical techniques to get united with it in order to enable a person to have an access to that treasure which is full of joy, tranquillity, satisfaction and love. He is trying to prepare humanity to face and overcome the present day tussle and turmoil prevailing in the world in the name of achieving world peace, on individual basis. In fact, what Guru Maharaj Ji is trying to do is not being comprehended by most of the people, with the result that he is included in the category of those persons who have become mere machines to collect wealth, while Maharaj Ji has taken a pledge to complete this huge task without any monetary consideration" (Times of India, 4 December 1987).

Crouching Widow