The major fault in the academic research into Prem Rawat's Divine Light Mission is the uncritical acceptance of most information supplied by the organisation's administrators and members without appropriate skepticism. From it's inception in the West, DLM not only engaged in the normal exuberant exaggeration found in any rapidly growing millenial spiritual cult but had a policy of means justifying ends in which "protection" of the Divine Leader was the paramount unwritten rule.

The Cultic Resilience of the Divine Light Mission:
A Reply to Nelson
Thomas Pilarzyk

Review of Religious Research, Vol. 21, No. 1, Theory and Policy. (Autumn, 1979), pp. 109-112.
Urban Social Institutions Program
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to Nelson's commentary on my article "The Origin, Development and Decline of a Youth Culture Religion: An Application of Sectarianization Theory" (Pilarzyk, 1978). My response revolves around two related issues:

(1) the origin and attribution of the theoretical concepts utilized in the article, and
(2) conflicting theoretical interpretations of the Divine Light Mission's development in America.

As I suggested in my article (pp. 28-29; 39), Divine Light Mission members were part of a larger cultic milieu and yet movement beliefs were differentiated from their surroundings partly through hostility and confrontations with other, more dualistic, religious movements.2

One indication of the DLM's slow but increasing differentiation from its youth culture origins is the present shift in its recruitment and membership patterns. Stoner and Parke (1977) also noted this shift in the type of religious seekers that have more recently become members, partly due to the movement's new image promoted by its leaders. Present members do remain part of a larger metaphysical cultic milieu but are less likely to be countercultural types.3 This shift in its recruitment process may affect its functional importance as reintegrator of alienated youth into the larger society. Some Eastern religious movements in America have performed such a function over the past ten years (see Robbins 1969; Robblns, Anthony and Curtis 1975; Anthony et al. 1978).

The DLM, however, does continue to serve as a cultic "mediating structure" in post-industrial societies. Berger (1977) defines mediating structures as those social entities that mediate the split between public and private life. They are evidence of the trend toward the pluralization of life-worlds and the privatization of meaning in modernity. Berger hints that the modern age contains the seeds of its own destruction in the sense that it promotes such internal conflicts and crises that are seemingly irresolvable.4 The split between public and private life, then, forces the private sphere to become a refuge or "home" for the ongoing reconstruction of social identities, a problematic process in light of continued alienating effects of impersonal public institutions. Changes in various mediating structures (e.g., families, associations, sub-cultures, movements and neighborhoods) are partly a response to their success or failure at combating the alienation of larger institutional spheres or "megastructures." In other words, the Divine Light Mission, as a mediating structure, continues to provide personal well-being in private life but no longer provides extensive drug rehabilitation or reinforcement of countercultural views since members with different backgrounds have more recently been recruited into the movement.

Cult movements are guaranteed, then, a continued livelihood if they successfully adapt and cater to the privatization of meaning structures in pluralistic Western societies. "Watering down" the form and content of their beliefs is one such adaptation, Therefore, the Divine Light Mission can continue to maintain its doctrinal precariousness without fatal consequences for its "organizational health." Recent research by Anthony et al. (1978) and Foss and Larkin (1978) further substantiates the continued epistemological individualism of movement beliefs. Organizational shifts since 1975 in goals, recruitment patterns, and public relations also imply continued, yet tenuous, institutionalization as a world-affirming centralized cult.

In conclusion, I did not explain the demise of the Divine Light Mission in my article. Rather, I mapped a discernible growth and decline that took place from 1971 to 1975 and which affected and was influenced by changing leadership strategies, membership patterns, accumulations of capital, media interest, and the reorganization of ashrams. Since that period, the movement once again has stabilized in the United States after changes in public relations techniques, its membership, and the doctrinal claims of its leaders. The movement's precarious set of cultic beliefs remain epistemologically individualistic. While my original article explained only the DLM's early development, these later changes also can be understood by utilizing Wallis' theory of sectarianization within the context of modernity, contrary to Nelson's unsubstantiated claim to the contrary.


1. Richardson (1978) has recently dealt with the issue of conceptual clarification and competing definitions of cult. While I disagree with his formulation (which is similar to Nelson's), it is an interesting and long-needed examination of a pertinent issue in the sociology of social movements.

2. See Robbins, Anthony and Richardson (1978) for a discussion of monistic and dulalistic religious movements of the youth culture.

3. See Balch and Taylor (1978) for a discussion of metaphysical circles of religious seekers who seek personal growth within the American cultic milieu. Also see Pilarzyk (1978b) for a comparative examination of "sectarian conversion" and "cultic alienation" within a youth culture milieu.

5. It is interesting to note that the "watering down" of traditional Hindu Vedantic philosophy in the West which attracts a middle-class clientele has not overcome the essentially contradictory ontological assumptions of Western social science and Vedantic mysticism (see Pilarzyk and Rharadwaj, 1979.)

6. One indication of institutionalization is the development and spread of local centers or "ashrams". By 1979, a DLM ashram center was located in each of the seven largest metropolitan areas in the United States. An additional seven ashrams were scattered among the next 30 largest urban areas. A breakdown of ashram distribution amsng the thirty-seven largest U.S. metropolitan areas indicated that there was not a distinctively regional concentration of the movement's organizational strength as measured by formally established urban ashrams. However, size of metropolitan area was partially related to ashram location. In collecting the data, I utilized 1978 population projections for all standard metropolitan statistical areas of over one million inhabitants found in the Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide (1978).


Anthony, Dick, Thomas Robbins, Madeline Doucas and Thomas E. Curtis 1978 "Patients and pilgrims: Changing attitudes toward psychotherapy of converts to eastern mysticism." Pp. 65-90 in James T. Richardson (ed.), Conversion Careers: In and Out of the New Religions. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.

Berger, Peter I,. 1977 Facing Up to Modernity. New York: Praeger. Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide 1978 "Current population and sales data for standard metropolitan statistical areas. Pp. 55-59. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Foss, Daniel A., and Ralph W. Larkin 1978 "Worshipping the absurd: The negation of social causality among the followers of Guru Maharaj Ji." Sociological Analysis 39 (Summer): 157-164.

Martin, David 1965 Pacifism: A Historical and Sociological Study. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Nelson, G. K. 1968 "The concept of cult." The Sociological Review 16 (November): 351- 362. 1979 "A comment on 'the origin, development and decline of a youth culture religion'." Review of Religious Research 21 (Fall): 108-109.

Pilarzyk, Thomas 1978a "The origin, development, and decline of a youth culture religion: An application of sectarianization theory." Review of Religious Research 20 (Fall) : 23-43.
1978b "Conversion and alternation processes in the youth culture: A comparative analysis of religious transformations." Pacific Sociological Review 21 (October) : 379-405.

Pilarzyk, Thomas and Lakshmi Bharadwaj 1979 "What is real? Problems with the phenomenological approach in a field study of the Divine Light Mission." Humanity and Society 3 (February) : 14-34.

Richardson, James T. 1978 "An oppositional and general conceptualization of cult." Annual Review for the Social Sciences of Religion 2 (No. 2 ) : 29-52.

Robbins, Thomas 1969 "Eastern mysticism and the resocialization of drug users: The Meher Baba Cult." Journal for The Scientific Study of Religion 8 (June): 308-317.

Robbins, Thomas, Dick Anthony and Thomas Curtis 1975 "Youth culture religious movements: Evaluating the integrative hypothesis." Sociological Quarterly 16 (Spring) : 48-64.

Robbins, Thomas, Dick, Anthony and James Richardson 1978 "Theory and research on today's 'new religions.' " Sociological Analysis 39 (Summer) : 95-122.

Stoner, Carroll and Jo Anne Parker 1977 All God's Children. Kadnor, Pa.: Chilton Cool. Co.

Wallis, Roy 1978 "The rebirth of the gods? Reflections on the new religions in the west." Inaugural lecture delivered on May 3rd before the Queen's University of Belfast. Pp. 3-30. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Mouton.