From Divine Light Mission to Elan Vital and Beyond: An Exploration of Change and Adaptation,
Ron Geaves,

Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, March 2004, Vol. 7, No. 3, Pages 45-62


The Following article will put forward the argument that it is necessary to take into account the worldview of the insider in order to appreciate the coherence or "rationality" of actions of a religious-spiritual teacher or organization. As a case study, the article examines the transformations that have occurred in the organizational forms utilized by Prem Rawat (a.k.a. Maharaji). While bringing readers up todate with Maharaji's activities since the 1980s, I argue that these developments owe more to Maharaji's self-perception of his role as a master and his wish to universalize the message historically located in the teachings of individual sant iconoclasts, than to external or internal pressures brought to bear upon the organizational forms themselves.


Daniel Foss and Ralph Larkin noted that by 1973 [t]he organization had developed a centralized bureaucracy with rampant titleism and a penchant for office forms and organizational charts. Observations of the Mission led us to the conclusion that the primary function of the staff was monitoring of its own activities. In effect, the Mission represented the ultimate parody of bureaucracy in the wider society–functionally rational but substantively irrational. Failures and bungling on the part of the Mission staff were repeatedly demonstrated, yet the symbolic forms of the organizational seriousness and managerial competence had a compelling emotional appeal to both the Mission staff itself and to many potential converts.1 Foss and Larkin were intrigued by the contradiction offered by the manner in which large numbers of young people, including "political radicals, communards, street people, rock musicians, acid-head 'freaks,' cultural radicals, [and] drop-outs"2 were participating in Divine Light Mission. These young people were participating in and developing an organizational form that displayed many of "the elements of the social patterns of the wider society which they had rejected," in particular bureaucratic hierarchies. Foss and Larkin explained this anomaly by suggesting that the Mission was able to maintain the support of its ex-dissident members by claiming that it was carrying on revolution by other means and in the process "emphasized formal structure without substantive content." With this statement, Foss and Larkin declared their own bias in regard to religious or spiritual commitment. Maharaji's message, which had attracted thousands, was summarily dismissed as possessing no "substantive content" and this was further expressed by the suggestion that the organization was "functionally rational but substantively irrational."4 Maharaji's own behavior was described as "nonsensical" and "unpredictable."5 However, the label of "irrationality" applied to new or traditional religious forms needs to be reviewed. It is resonant of crude reductionism sometimes found in the social sciences in regard to religious phenomena, described by Stark as the "old paradigm" in which social scientists "dig as deep as possible" to penetrate the real causes of religious phenomena while dismissing the realm of the sacred.6 Stark asks his readers to acknowledge a new paradigm that argues that religion is rooted in the world of the rational and therefore to explore religious explanations for religious phenomena.7 Stark suggests that humans, when faced with choice, choose the "most rational" or reasonable option. In order to understand this process, the motivations and interpretations of the actors must be taken into account. It is only from the "inside" that the degree of rationality or reasonableness can be acknowledged.


The most useful theory to elucidate the relation between Maharaji's charismatic authority and his institutions are those provided by post-Weberian discourse of sociologists such as Thomas O'Dea,20 combined with the work of Indian religion scholars focused specifically on the sant tradition, such as Charlotte Vaudeville and Daniel Gold. Maharaji does not see himself as bound by conventional beliefs or practices of any institutionalized religion or tradition-honored worldview. He is essentially an iconoclast who plots his route by pragmatic decisions to meet the demands and challenges that occur in his public career as a teacher striving to convince people of the value of self-knowledge. It is hard to ascertain exactly where the lines of strategic adaptation and continuation are drawn, except that they seem to lie somewhere around the inviolacy of the teacher/student relationship and Maharaji's own trust in the efficacy of the techniques to provide individuals with an inner awareness of what is permanent and unchanging within human beings. Although Maharaji does not see himself as part of a tradition or as having to conform to the behavior of any predecessor, in my view, the best way to place him is to identify him with Vaudeville's definition of the sant. Vaudeville describes a sant as a holy man of a rather special type, who cannot be accommodated in the traditional categories of Indian holy men–and he may just as well be a woman. The sant is not a renunciate…. He is neither a yoginor a siddha, practices no asanas, boasts of no secret bhij mantrasand has no claim to magical powers. The true sant wears no special dress or insignia, having eschewed the social consideration and material benefits which in India attach to the profession of asceticism…. The sant ideal of sanctity is a lay ideal, open to all; it is an ideal that transcends both sectarian and caste barriers. However, I wish to make a clear distinction between Sant Mat, often associated with Radhasoami lineages, and individual founder-sants. Although early scholars often identified Maharaji with Sant Mat and even Radhasoami lineages, there is no evidence to link Maharaji or his predecessors with that tradition.22 Sant Mat lineages usually display organizational forms that conform to Gold's categorization of parampara orpanth. Individual sant-founders in Vaudeville's terms are generally not concerned with organizational forms or institutionalized religion and display considerable iconoclasm in regard to ritual and doctrinal dimensions. Maharaji fits most aspects of the santcategorization by Vaudeville, even though he does not use this category as a self-definition. If being asant implies an iconoclasm that breaks the bounds of tradition while maintaining an emphasis on the inner experiential dimension, then Maharaji would conform to that definition. However, Maharaji is insistent that he should not be categorized into any traditional definition, including that of sant.



Building on the analysis of Gold and Vaudeville of the sant tradition, it could be argued that Maharaji perceives himself as the solitary sant whose authority derives from his personal charisma and is not part of any overarching formal organization, and does not have to subscribe to any particular worldview. Maharaji's students echo this position and are united with their teacher on the primary value of personal experience. Gold argues that such figures have little inclination to establish a panth or sectarian institution,38although these may develop later.Thus, any understanding of Maharaji's motivations would have to take into account the challenge to maintain the purity of his teachings from any sign of institutionalization. In Thomas O'Dea's terms, this is a classic confrontation between charisma and institutionalization. O'Dea argued that the founder-innovator is only concerned with communicating the message and maintaining the spontaneity of the transcendental experience.39 Although O'Dea perceived these conflicts and tensions chronologically as a way of exploring the development of charismatic authority to institutional authority, an analysis of this new sant phenomenon still at the first stage of development provides an example of how a contemporary santmaster, the first to globalize fully his teachings, grapples with and seeks innovative solutions to the problems of institutionalization. Although there may be pragmatic problems, such as financial stability, the attitudes of the wider society, and the opposition of former practitioners, focusing on these as the prime factors of change and adaptation misses the opportunity for far more significant study of the relationship between charisma and institutionalization. In particular, Maharaji's movement promises fascinating insights into the fine balance of maintaining the integrity of teaching and experience over the apparently inevitable processes of organizational and sectarian development wherever a sant figure has gathered students around the experience of "self-knowledge" or inner realization of "truth." Maharaji has chosen a route of perpetual transformation in which organizational forms are created and utilized and then destroyed, thus providing flexibility to deal with rapidly changing social attitudes, to provide pragmatic solutions to internal problems, and above all to keep his students focused on the core message rather than the peripheral requirements of organizational forms.