Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America
J. Gordon Melton (New York/London: Garland, 1992;

revised edition, Garland, pages 218-223 (misspellings of 'Mishler' and 'Durga' were made by Melton)



The arrival in the United States in 1971 of a 13-year-old religious leader from India was met with some ridicule from a culture which assumed that the possession of religious wisdom could only follow some years of living as an adult. However, many young adults not only were free of such assumptions, but more importantly, demonstrated an extraordinary amount of interest in seriously examining the claims of this teenager of being able to impart direct knowledge of the Divine. From that initial support, Guru Maharaj Ji would go on to establish a flourishing American organization, the Divine Light Mission, only in the 1980s to disband it and replace it with a loosely organized, informal network of followers, which he labeled Élan Vital.


The original Divine Light Mission grew out of the Sant Mat movement, a spiritual tradition which developed in Northern India in the nineteenth century. It draws heavily on Sikhism, but posits a central role for the living guru as teacher and guide in spiritual realities. Over the years, as new gurus have appeared, a number of different Sant Mat groups have arisen. The Divine Light Mission was founded by Shri Hans Maharaj Ji (d.1966), the father of Maharaj Ji. Early in life he encountered Sarupanand Ji, a guru of the Sant Mat tradition by whom he was initiated. Though Sarupanand Ji reportedly had told his disciples to follow Hans Maharaj Ji, after the guru's death another disciple, Varaganand, claimed the succession and took control of the guru's


property. Hans Maharaj Ji began to spread the teaching independently in Sind and Lahore, and in 1930 he established an informal mission in Delhi. His following grew steadily. In 1950, shortly after Indian independence had been declared, he commissioned the first mahatmas, followers who had the ability to initiate and who devoted themselves full time to the work of propagating the teachings of Shri Hans Maharaj Ji. He also began a monthly magazine, Hansadesh. By 1960 followers could be found across northern India from Bombay to Calcutta, and the need to organize them more formally led to the founding of the Divine Light Mission (Divya Sandesh Parishad).

Just six years after the founding of the Mission, Shri Hans Maharaj Ji died and was succeeded by his youngest son, Prem Pal Singh Rawat (b. 1957), who was but eight when he was recognized as the new "Perfect Master" and assumed the title Maharaj Ji. Maharaj Ji had been recognized as spiritually adept, even within the circle of the Holy Family, as Shri Hans Maharaj Ji's family was called. He had been initiated (i.e., given knowledge) at the age of six and soon afterward gave his first satsang (spiritual discourse). After his father's death he heard a voice commissioning him as the one to take the knowledge to the world. He assumed the role of Perfect Master at his father's funeral by telling the disciples who bad gathered, "Dear Children of God, why are you weeping? Haven't you learned the lesson that your Master taught you? The Perfect Master never dies. Maharaj Ji is here, amongst you now. Recognize Him, obey Him and worship Him." Though officially the autocratic leader of the Mission, because of Maharaj Ji's age, authority was shared by the whole family.

During the 1960s, Americans in India searching for spiritual guidance discovered the Mission and a few became initiates (i.e., "premies," or "lovers of God"). They invited Maharaj Ji to the United States. In 1970 Maharaj Ji announced his plans to carry the knowledge throughout the world and the following year, against his mother's wishes, made his first visit to the West. A large crowd came to Colorado the next year to hear him give his first set of discourses in America. Many were initiated and became the core of the Mission in the United States. Headquarters were established in Denver, and by the end of 1973, tens of thousands had been initiated, and several hundred centers as well as over twenty ashrams, which housed approximately 500 of the most dedicated premies, had emerged. The headquarters staff expanded to 125, and social service facilities, such as a medical clinic in New York City, were opened.

Two periodicals, And It Is Divine, a magazine, and Divine Times, a tabloid, were begun. Enthusiasm ran high.

After a spectacular beginning in North America, the Mission suffered a major setback in November 1973. It rented the Houston Astrodome for "Millennium 73," an event celebrating the birthday of Maharaj Ji's father and designed to announce the beginning of a thousand years of peace and prosperity. The event failed; attendance was minuscule. The Mission was left with a $600,000 debt which required it to cut its staff and programs.

Millennium 73 was but the first of a series of events which gradually led the Mission to withdraw from the public scene. It was staged just as the anti-cult movement reached national proportions and turned its attention upon the Mission. Several deprogrammed ex-members became vocal critics of the Mission. Through his executive secretary, Maharaj Ji announced that he was replacing the predominantly Indian image with a Western one. Among other changes, he began to wear business suits instead of his all-white Indian attire. Many of the ashrams were discontinued.

To the problems caused by the debt and the attack of anti-cultists were added internal problems within Maharaj Ji's family. In December 1973, when Maharaj Ji turned 16, he took administrative control of the Mission's separate American corporation. Then in May 1974, he married his 24-year-old secretary, Marolyn Johnson, and declared her to be the incarnation of the goddess Dulga, usually pictured with ten arms and astride a tiger. Premies purchased an estate in Malibu into which the couple moved. Mataji, Maharaj Ji's mother, disapproved of the marriage and the life-style of the now-successful guru. Relations within the Holy Family were strained considerably. Accusing her son of breaking his spiritual disciplines, Mataji took control of the Mission in India and replaced him with his eldest brother. In 1975, Maharaj Ji returned to India and took his family to court. In a court-decreed settlement, he received control of the movement everywhere except in India, where his brother was recognized as its head. He failed to gain control of the Indian assets. Publicity about the marriage and the subsequent family quarrels caused many Western followers to leave the Mission, though a large membership remained.

Following the incident at Jonestown in 1979, the Mission, which had slowly assumed a lower and lower profile, all but disappeared from


public view. Maharaj Ji refused to give interviews, and contacts with non-members were largely avoided. By the end of the decade, an estimated 80 percent of the membership had left the Mission, though this left a sizable following (50,000+ in the United States and 1,000,000+ worldwide). (NB Melton's numbers are inflated. Numbers in North America were maximum 10,000 by 1992 with 4,000 contributing financially)

Finally, without public announcement, in the early 1980s, Maharaj Ji ordered all of the ashrams disbanded, though local informal gatherings (primarily in members' homes) were not discouraged. Maharaj Ji was no longer to be venerated as God. The Divine Light Mission was disbanded and in its stead Élan Vital was created as an informal organization to relate Maharaj Ji to his students on a one-to-one basis. He established a plan by which he would regularly travel the world speaking in those cities where a large number of his followers lived. He developed the "North American Sponsorship Program" to raise the financial support needed to undergird his travels. Meetings are held annually in approximately 75 cities (the largest number in the United States) and in 34 countries worldwide, primarily in India and Europe.

Beliefs and Practices

Élan Vital is derived from Sant Mat (literally, the way of the saints), a variation of the Sikh religion which draws significant elements from Hinduism. It is based upon a succession of spiritual masters generally believed to begin with Tulsi Sahib, an early nineteenth-century guru who lived at Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, India. It is believed that the person mentioned as Sarupanand Ji in Mission literature is in fact Sawan Singh, a prominent Sant Mat guru. (Sarupanand Ji is in fact, Sarupanand Ji) In any case Hans Maharaj Ji claimed a Sant Mat succession which he passed to Maharaj Ji. Maharaj Ji, as do many of the other Sant Mat leaders, claims to be a Perfect Master, an embodiment of God on earth and hence a fitting object of worship and veneration.

The Mission had as one of its stated goals the instruction of the world in "the technique of utilizing the universal primordial Force, that is, the Holy Name (Word) which is the same as the Divine Light and which pervades all human beings thus bringing to the fore the eternal principle of unity in diversity." In the Sant Mat tradition this practice is called surat shabd yoga, the practice of uniting the human spirit with the universal divine sound current. The particular methods of accomplishing that union vary from group to group and are one reason for their


separation. Within the Divine Light Mission, initiation into the yoga is by a process known as giving knowledge. Though those who received knowledge were instructed not to talk about their initiation to outsiders, details of the process were soon revealed by ex-members.

At initiation, an instructor (formerly called a mahatma), the personal representative of Maharaj Ji, introduces new members to four yogic techniques, all of which are quite common within Sant Mat circles, although equally unknown to the average person, even to the average Indian. These four techniques reveal the means of experiencing the divine light, sound, word, and nectar. To experience the divine light, one places the knuckles on the eyeballs, a process which produces flashes of light inside the head (and also pinches the optic nerve). To discover the divine sound or music of the spheres, one plugs the ears with the fingers and concentrates only on internal sounds. The third technique involves concentration upon the sound of one's own breathing. Finally, to taste the nectar, the tongue is curled backward against the roof of the mouth and left there for a period of time. Once learned, these techniques are practiced daily. Frequently, meditation is done under a blanket, both to block outside disturbances and to conceal the techniques.

Unlike many Sant Mat groups, the Divine Light Mission developed a social program during the 1970s. It was based upon Shri Hans Maharaj Ji's call for a balance between temporal and spiritual concerns. The original Mission's stated goals included the promotion of human unity, world peace, improved education for all (especially the poor), and relief from the distress caused by ill health and natural calamities. The Mission made provision for the future establishment of hospitals, maternity homes, and residences. This emphasis has been lost in the transformation of the Mission into Élan Vital.

Current Status

Élan Vital is virtually invisible in the United States. In 1979 the Denver headquarters of the Divine Light Mission quietly closed, and both it and Maharaj Ji moved to Miami Beach, Florida. From there, two periodicals were published, Divine Times and Élan Vital. In 1980, the Mission reported 10,000 to 12,000 active members in the United States.


Since the disbanding of the ashrams and local meetings, there has been no way to estimate the number of followers who have remained attached to Élan Vital. However, enough followers remain in the more than 25 U.S. and Canadian cities which Maharaj Ji regularly visits to warrant a stop.


During the first years of the Divine Light Mission in the United States, both it and Maharaj Ji were constantly involved in controversy. The teachings of the Mission, particularly the public discourses of Maharaj Ji, were condemned as lacking in substance. Maharaj Ji, who frequently acted like the teenager that he was in public, was seen as immature and hence unfit to be a religious leader. At one point, a pie was thrown in his face (which led angry followers to assault the perpetrator). Ex-members attacked the group with standard anti-cult charges of brainwashing and mind control.

However, as the group withdrew from the public eye, little controversy followed it except for the accusations of Robert Mishner, (Robert Mishler) the former president of the Mission, who left in 1977. Mishner (Mishler)complained that the ideals of the group had become impossible to fulfill and that money was increasingly diverted to Maharaj Ji's personal use. Mishner's (Mishler's) charges, made just after the deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, found little support and have not affected the course of the organization. Through the late 1980s, not only has there been no controversy, but even information has been rare since the organization has granted no interviews and publishes no general announcements of Maharaj Ji's visits.


Light Reading. Miami Beach, FL: Divine Light Mission, 1980. 77 pp.
Maharaj Ji, Guru. The Living Master. Denver: Divine Light Mission, 1978. 109 pp.
Reflections on an Indian Sunrise. Divine Light Mission, 1972. Shri Hans Ji Maharaj. Delhi: Divine Light Mission, n.d.


Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji? New York: Bantam Books, 1973. 303 pp.


Collier, Sophia. Soul Rush: The Odyssey of a Young Woman in the '70s. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978. 240 pp.
Downton, James V., Jr. Sacred Journeys. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. 241 pp.
Price, Maeve. "The Divine Light Mission as a Social Organization." Sociological Review27, 2 (May 1979): 279-96.