From Totapuri to Maharaji: Reflections on a Lineage (Parampara),
paper delivered to the 27th Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions,
Regents Park College, Oxford, 22 - 24 March 2002
During the early years of the 1970s, Divine Light Mission experienced phenomenal growth in the West. The teachings of the young Guru Maharaj Ji (now known as Maharaji), based upon an experience of fulfilment arrived at by four techniques that focused attention inward, spread quickly to Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia, Japan, South America, Australasia, Canada and the USA. Today, the teachings have gone worldwide to over 80 countries.
This paper will firstly demonstrate that these various scholars who identify Maharaji's roots as Sant Mat, or more specifically Radhasoami, are mistaken. Secondly, it will show that a more accurate exploration of Maharaji's historical background provides an excellent opportunity to study the complexity of the various ways of organising such lineages and can demonstrate how intricately major strands of Hinduism can interweave with each other to create new paradigms to assert an ancient teaching capable of transcending discrete religious borders. Thirdly, this investigation of lineage will throw light on the relationship between charisma and institutionalisation in the Indian context and will allow for a revisiting of Gold's classification of Sant tradition in particular.
the main focus of scholarly interest came from sociologists who were primarily concerned with issues of membership, charisma, and debates concerning cult/sect definition and formation. Very little attention was received from scholars of religion and the little that was received tended to come from those who were aware of North Indian sant tradition and its lineages. The majority of these assumed that the teachings of Maharaji could be placed in the Sant Mat revival, best represented by the Radhasoami movement. Some even went as far as to establish Shri Hans Ji Maharaj's credentials by asserting that he had been taught the four techniques of Knowledge by Radhasoamis, probably in the period of his life when he relocated in East Punjab from his birthplace near Bodrinath. Olsen (v) asserts that Divine Light Mission was a Radhasoami-inspired movement that had the "greatest public American presence". Dupertuis goes even further and claims that "the gurus of Divine Light Mission traced their spiritual lineage from Sant Mat and Radhasoami traditions" (vi). Melton further compounds the theory by identifying Shri Hans Ji Maharaj's guru as "Dada Guru" who he claims is of the Sant Mat tradition and who initiated Maharaji's father into surat shabd yoga (the yoga of the sound current) (vii).
This paper will firstly demonstrate that these various scholars who identify Maharaji's roots as Sant Mat, or more specifically Radhasoami, are mistaken. Secondly, it will show that a more accurate exploration of Maharaji's historical background provides an excellent opportunity to study the complexity of the various ways of organising such lineages and can demonstrate how intricately major strands of Hinduism can interweave with each other to create new paradigms to assert an ancient teaching capable of transcending discrete religious borders. Thirdly, this investigation of lineage will throw light on the relationship between charisma and institutionalisation in the Indian context.
The scholarly literature that ascribes a Radhasoami background to the life of Maharaji's father has been used by a small but vociferous dissatisfied opposition of ex-members as evidence that Maharaji himself is a fraud who has constructed a false account of history that reinvents himself. However, Maharaji's history is linked to the lineage of Advait Mat, a north Indian cluster of movements which perceive themselves as originating from Totapuri, the teacher of Ramakrishna Paramhans with claimed ancient links back to Shankaracharya through a succession of Das Nami sadhus. Maharaji has referred to this lineage as his own on his website as follows:
Shri Totapuri ji Maharaj (1780-1866)
Shri Anandpuri ji Maharaj (1782-1872)
Param Hans Dayal Shri Advaitanand ji (1840-1919)
Shri Swarupanand ji Maharaj (1884-1936)
Yogiraj Param Hans Satgurudev Shri Hans ji Maharaj (1900-1966)
There is no doubt that Shri Hans Ji Maharaj was a prominent disciple of Shri Swarupanand Ji. This was confirmed on field research at Nangli Sahib in Uttar Pradesh in February 2001.
The lineage from Anand Puri to Maharaji provides an interesting source of research for those interested in the relationship between founders, paramparas and panths. It is clear that the lineage is not proven to be connected to the Radhasoamis although it develops historically in the same period and in the same region of Northern India and has some similarities regarding organisation and symbolic language at various stages of its development. It is also questionable to label the lineage as Advait Mat as opposed to Sant Mat as the term Advait Mat seems to have been developed by the institutionalised developments after the death of Swarupanand Ji. It does not figure in the language of the masters themselves, including Shri Hans Ji Maharaj and his son Maharaji. Although Advaita forms of nirguna doctrine would have permeated the movements which developed particularly under the first two gurus, because of their origins in Das Nami renunciate traditions that emerged from the teachings of Shankacharya, these would have become less important when Swarupanand Ji was alive. His promotion of the teachings on a large scale to the common people of the Punjab brought about both organisational changes and a transformation of the symbolic language used to express the teachings. It is this change which appears to bring the tradition closer to Sant Mat and has probably created the confusion of a Radhasoami connection. The response of the masses who received the techniques from Swarupanand Ji was to declare their master an avatar of Krishna. This is not a usual feature of the nirguna bhakti of northern Sant tradition and probably arises from the Hindu devotion to Krishna in the region combined with the remnants of Advaita symbolic language that focuses on the Bhagavad Gita.
It is certainly possible to label the two other traditions at Anandpur and Nangli Sahib which appeared as offshoots from Swarupanand Ji as Advait Mat to differentiate them from Sant Mat, but each of the masters who formed the lineage from Anand Puri to Maharaji were unique in their own right and are not easily bracketed into any parampara tradition, other than their focus on the need to find a master who is able to transform human existence through correct knowledge of the immanent divine and their promotion of the need for experience. Their lineage is akin to that of single charismatic masters such as Kabir or Nanak who had little interest in founding institutions. The point for scholars of Indian traditions who are interested in the formation of sampradayas, is how the meeting with a charismatic master and the apparent fulfilment of a "truth search' can create the possibility for a leap across traditions. Both Advaitanand Ji and Swarupanand Ji maintained the Das Nami suffix of "Puri' when renaming their renunciates on initiation to the order but neither indicated any particular affiliation to the Das Namis and also used the Sannyasi suffix of "Anand'. Shri Hans Ji Maharaj, as a householder guru, dropped the suffix "Puri' completely from his own order of renunciates and used only the "Anand' suffix, this removing any connection to Das Namis. Prem Rawat (Maharaji) has dropped any association to a Hindu renunciate order in recent years and appoints instructors with no lifestyle commitments linked to Indian renunciate orders who assist him in teaching and disseminating the four techniques. It would appear that this kind of fulfilment is able to cross the boundaries of traditional Hindu darshanas and sampradayas and assist in the creation of new forms of both institutional and charismatic organisations.
The various offshoots from Swarupanand Ji demonstrate the complexity of sampradaya formation after the death of such a charismatic master, and as such provide the opportunity for study of the process. As a result of this research, Gold's categories can be adapted as follows:
a) The solitary figure such as Kabir, Nanak, or Ravidas can become a line of masters whose authority is derived from their own personal charisma and focus on individual experience. An institutionalised parampara need not develop if a strategy of seperating the material inheritance from the spiritual inheritence is developed. In this case, the lineage consists of a series of solitary figures such as exemplified by the succession from Anand Puri to Maharaji.
b) As stated by Gold (viii), a lineage can develop in which the dominant focus of spiritual power is still contained in the living holy man but the institutionalisation process develops alongside charismatic authority. Such a lineage develops into a parampara. This kind of organisation is not manifested in this case study as there was always a loss of the previous master's material inheritence when the new master succeeded the previous one.
c) A panth, as defined by Gold, where the teachings of the past Sant(s) are claimed to be represented, but the dominant focus of spiritual power now resides in ritual forms and scripture and officiated over by a mahant who looks after the ritual and administration is seen at the progressively institutionalised lineage from Vairaganand Ji in Anandpur. The mahant's charisma is clearly derived from his position, and his traditional connection to the original Sant.
d) A panth can develop around the samadhi of the deceased Sant in which the focus of worship manifests as veneration of the deceased master. Although the shrine will be administered by successors of the sant (either by blood relatives or mahants), their authority derives from the spiritual presence of the dead Sant embodied in the remains and within the follower's heart.
The samadhi panths are looser knit organisations than sectarian institutions and can provide the inspiration for new forms of the traditon to emerge as a result of contact with the blessings of the deceased master. Such shrine forms of religious organisation develop into pilgrimage centres and this can be seen materialising at Nangli Sahib. More research needs to be done by treating each form of organisation as a unique case study as well as comparative studies. Swarupanand Ji was not an insignificant figure in the history of North Indian nirguna bhakti traditions. Contemporary sources suggest that he had ten thousand followers and over three hundred ashrams in Northern India. Shri Hans Ji Maharaj extended this activity throughout India. Both masters require more scholarly attention to place them in modern Indian religious history. Finally, it is time to reconsider the work of Maharaji who has successfully brought these ancient teachings from India to the world arena and given them such a unique new form in which they are able to be uprooted from their origins in the subcontinent whilst maintaining the essential message of the previous master. Maharaji's mode of teaching and delivery of the message provides an insight into the iconoclasm, universalism, spontaneity and renewal that was also a feature of the teachings of the mediaeval solitary Sants and he is also an important figure in any assessment of emergent forms of spirituality in contemporary western society.
(v) Olsen, Roger (1995), "Eckankar: From Ancient Science of Soul Travel to New Age Religion" in Miller, Timothy (ed), America's Alternative Religions, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp 363-364.
(vi) DuPertuis, L (1986) "How People Recognise Charisma: The Case of Darshan in Radhasoami and Divine Light Mission",
(vii) Melton, Gordon J. (ed) (1996 5th edition), Encyclopaedia of American Religions, Gale Research, p.890.
(viii) Gold D., (1987) The Lord as Guru: Hindu Sants in the Northern Indian Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.85.