Journal of Contemporary Religion

Forget Transmitted Memory: The De-traditionalised 'Religion' of Prem Rawat

Ron Geaves

ABSTRACT This article uses the case study of Prem Rawat, a teacher of Indian origin who arrived in the West in 1971 and inspired several organisations, including Divine Light Mission, Elan Vital, and The Prem Rawat Foundation for the dissemination of his teachings. Identifying Prem Rawat as a contemporary form of a solitary Sant unconcerned with organisational forms or institutionalised religion and displaying considerable iconoclasm with regard to ritual and doctrinal dimensions, the article offers fresh insights into the debate in the study of religion between those who maintain that religion exists as a sui generis category and those who argue that religion is merely a sub-set of cultural phenomena. In particular the article focuses on the work by Danièle Hervieu-Léger who argues that religion exists when 'the authority of tradition' has been invoked 'in support of the act of believing'.


This article originates in a series of arguments and counter-arguments regarding the sometimes acrimonious debates between those who that maintain that religion is a sui generis entity and those, such as Timothy Fitzgerald and Robert Segal, who hold a reductionist position in which any scholar who uses a sui generis definition of religion is negatively labelled as a 'theologian' or a 'religionist'. The ideas for this article arose from the specific responses to Segal's contribution to the BASR Bulletin ("Turning Point") by Paul-François Tremlett and from a keynote lecture by James Cox, which introduced the ideas of Danièle Hervieu-Léger regarding religion as a chain of memory or authority of tradition invoked in support of an act of believing.

Tremlett responded to Segal insisting that both sui generis and reductionist positions need to be historically located as part of the advent of modernity; this is what aroused my interest as a scholar of particular kinds of Indian religion. Tremlett suggests that reductionist studies of religion function in modernity in such a way as to signify a pre-modernist past whose mentalities in the form of "erroneous religious beliefs" require correction. He also argues that they belong to the category of "orientalism" in that they contrast a "rational secular West and non-rational mystical East" (Tremlett 49). In this respect he contrasts with Fitzgerald (45) who claims that phenomenologists and their predecessors had used the cultural/institutional model of Christianity to understand other cultural contexts. The same claims and counter-claims with regard to the accusation of orientalism require further analysis.

Segal (Association) answered citing eight criticisms of Tremlett's position. I was particularly interested in Segal's third criticism: that "reductionist theories do not pit the West against the East. They seek to account for religion wherever it is found" (51). As Cox had drawn upon Hervieu-Léger to provide a universal methodology to analyse religious phenomena, which endorsed the view of religions as social and cultural expressions, I was curious as to whether Hervieu-Léger's theory stood up to Segal's claim that reductionist theories account for religion wherever it is found. In particular, I was interested in whether the theory that religion was a chain of memory could stand up against the case study of a religious movement which tended to deconstruct its own continuity. As an example, I chose the teachings of a contemporary Sant, Prem Rawat or Maharaji, as he is more commonly known. Although a modern Indian guru who could be compared with others, such as Rajneesh, Sri Chinmoy or Mahesh Yogi, who have all had to deal with issues of continuity and charisma in new cultural settings, Prem Rawat is unique in that his teachings are best described as a modern occurrence of a 'solitary Sant', echoing mediaeval North Indian nirguna bhaktas (devotees of the formless) who were equally iconoclastic towards the traditions of established religions.

In recent years, the study of religion has once again felt the impact of a previous debate which goes back to functional and substantive definitions of religion, but this time the arguments appear in a form that endangers the discrete study of religion in British universities. The historic debate is between those who pursue reductionist analyses of religious phenonema typical of the social sciences and those who regard religion as a sui generis entity requiring a unique realm of study, as manifested in a number of theology and religious studies departments in British universities. Although not new, the division between the two groups of scholars becomes particularly significant during a time when a number of such departments have been closed as a result of student numbers declining. The reductionist argument that religion is merely a sub-set of cultural phenomena, taken to its logical conclusion, would see the study of religion removed to cultural studies or social science faculties. Indeed, Timothy Fitzgerald (4), arguably the main proponent of the reductionist position, not only suggests that "work of outstanding originality" is only produced by such scholars, but adds that such scholars might "legitimately be in departments of history, anthropology, cultural studies or area studies instead". Although Fitzgerald does not actually say so, the implication is that any worthwhile study of religion cannot be achieved by scholars who consider religion a sui generis entity and those who are carrying out original study in the area do not need discrete departments for the study of religion. The suggestion is that such departments, founded in the strategic partnership between theology, comparative religion, and phenomenology, compound a sui generis understanding of religion and that the study of religion as influenced by Ninian Smart and the Lancaster model is really a contemporary form of theology, which Fitzgerald (5) labels ‘‘liberal ecumenical theology’’ disguised by affirming that religion is a natural category that all human beings have an innate capacity to experience.

The Debate about Religion

The keynote lecture was given by James Cox and originated from fieldwork undertaken in Zimbabwe, which explored the relationship between the spirit world and the hierarchical ordering of society among the Shona. Cox concluded that "indigenous groups in Zimbabwe have passed on their traditions and customs authoritatively from generation to generation", but significantly asserted that his research endorses the view of religions as social and cultural expressions, but without carrying forward Ninian Smart's "essentialist idea of religion as transcendentally focused". Thus substantive definitions of religion should be avoided, as they tend to maintain 'religion' as an ontological category, which - as argued by Fitzgerald (6) - is a surreptitious form of theology. In arriving at his conclusions, Cox is heavily influenced by the work of Danièle Hervieu-Léger (76) in which she argues that religion exists when "the authority of tradition" has been invoked "in support of the act of believing". Cox quoted Hervieu-Léger (81) taking a passage from Religion as a Chain of Memory:

The case study of Prem Rawat or Maharaji (formerly known as Guru Maharaj Ji) is illuminating in the context of the debate and in particular of Hervieu-Léger's theory of religion as a chain of memory.3Prem Rawat has, on a number of occasions, publicly stated that he is not creating a new religion and that his teachings cannot be defined as 'spiritual'. I would define his message as 'experiential iconoclasm' and have previously argued that the constant transformation of the organisational structures created to promote his message, apparently detrimental to continuity, can be explained by Prem Rawat's imperative to resist institutionalisation and to avoid the processes which make an institutionalised religion dependent on a chain of memory or ritual elements (Geaves, "Divine Light" 45).

From Guru Maharaj Ji to Prem Rawat

The arrival of the 13-year-old Prem Rawat, then known as Guru Maharaj Ji, in Britain on 17th June 1971 attracted a large amount of media attention that mostly focused on the young guru's age. Although Prem Rawat was only 13 on his arrival in the West, he had already been teaching for five years in India since taking up the challenge of continuing the teachings of his father Shri Hans Ji Maharaj, who had died in 1966. However, it was the success of the movement founded in the West, then known as Divine Light Mission, that attracted scholarly attention in the 1970s and, to a lesser degree, in the 1980s. By the 1990s, both scholarly and media attention had moved on and the general assumption was that the movement had gone into decline and almost disappeared.

During the early 1970s, Divine Light Mission experienced phenomenal growth. Prem Rawat's teachings, 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 US. However, it was in the US that the movement attracted the largest numbers of adherents and by 1973 it was estimated that 50,000 people had been shown the four techniques known as Knowledge (Downton 5; Pilarzyk 30). Consequently, it was in the US that most scholarly activity took place. However, Pilarzyk's assertion that the movement had gone into decline by the 1980s is not completely accurate. Certainly, major transformations had taken place: Divine Light Mission had been disbanded and replaced by Elan Vital and Prem Rawat's teachings had moved away from the counter-culture milieu in which they had been principally located in the 1970s. Prem Rawat had also made concerted efforts to remove the outer trappings of Indian culture and doctrine that had accompanied the arrival of the teachings from their place of origin in North India. Yet Prem Rawat has continued to promote the benefits of the experience of Knowledge throughout the world and has succeeded in establishing his message in over 80 countries.

Prem Rawat and the Sant Tradition

The continuous process of deconstructing existing patterns of behaviour and belief exhibited throughout Prem Rawat's career can best be explained by using the post-Weberian discourse of sociologists such as Thomas O'Dea, combined with the work of scholars of Indian religion who have focused specifically on the Sant tradition, such as Charlotte Vaudeville and Daniel Gold. Prem Rawat does not see himself as bound by the conventional beliefs or practices of any institutionalised religion or tradition honoured 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 inviolate nature of the teacher/student relationship and Prem Rawat's own trust in the efficacy of the techniques he teaches to provide individuals with an inner awareness of what is permanent and unchanging within human beings. Although Prem Rawat does not see himself as part of a tradition or as having to conform to the behaviour of any predecessor, in my view the best way to place him is to identify him with Vaudeville's definition of the Sant:

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 yogi nor a siddha, practices no asanas, boasts of no secret bhij mantras and 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. (Vaudeville 36-7)4

Individual Sant founders in Vaudeville's terms are generally not concerned with organisational forms or institutionalised religion and display considerable iconoclasm with regard to ritual and doctrinal dimensions. Prem Rawat fits most aspects of Vaudeville's Sant categorisation, even though he does not use this category as a self-definition. If being a Sant implies an iconoclasm that breaks the bounds of tradition while maintaining an emphasis on the inner experiential dimension, Prem Rawat would conform to that definition. In the Indian context, both Prem Rawat and his father denied the possibility of the use of rituals or outer forms of religion to access the inner divine. In addition, they initiated people from all castes and backgrounds and were thus generally dismissive of brahmanical Hinduism.

However, Sants are not exempt from the processes of institutionalisation as identified by Thomas O'Dea and tend to develop into traditions that do concur with Hervieu-Léger's understanding of religion. Daniel Gold (85) has identified the various forms that Sant lineages have taken and suggests that they are affected by their relationship to the charisma of the founder Sant. He posits a three-stage theory in the life of a Sant lineage. It begins with a solitary figure, such as Kabir, Nanak or Ravidas. Their authority is derived from their own personal charisma and it is highly unlikely that they had any intention of beginning a panth. The followers of an individual Sant were not part of any overarching formal organisation, but they were united with their teacher in their commitment to the value of personal experience. In the second stage, these lineages are sometimes continued by disciples who became noteworthy Sants in their own right. Usually the disciple is chosen to continue as the guru by the original Sant.A Sant lineage is called a parampara as long as the dominant focus of spiritual power is still contained in the living holy man. Sikhism, for example, was a parampara until the death of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. The term panth is used for the final phase of Sant lineage, when it has become a sectarian institution. The panths claim to spread the teachings of the past Sant(s), but the dominant focus of spiritual power now resides in ritual forms and scripture. A panth is usually officiated over by a mahant who looks after the ritual and administration. Often, even the mahant is overseen by a committee of eminent followers, as the panth becomes progressively institutionalised. The mahant's charisma is clearly derived from his position and his traditional connection to the original Sant.

However, the pattern of institutionalisation is not quite as linear as Gold presents it. Pnina Werbner has identified a pattern of 'waxing and waning' in her work on Sufi shrine centres on the sub-continent; she argues that the balance between institution and charisma can shift, as new teachers arise from within a shrine tradition who renew the message of the founder and develop a new charismatic impulse.6My own study of Prem Rawat's predecessors reveals a different pattern. Earlier masters in his lineage had not been concerned with tradition or future heritage in the form of religious organisations or structures (Geaves, "Totapuri"). Consequently, movements or organisations that were created existed with a degree of tension with each master's iconoclasm and insistence upon retaining primary commitment to the value of personal experience. Their focus was on spontaneity and on their imminent eschatology and this undermined an emphasis on lineage to pass on religious authority. Their position could be described as 'experiential iconoclasm' in which they struggled against institutionalisation to create a 'traditionless tradition'. Thus each master developed his own methods of promoting the message that had little continuity with the previous master, usually disavowing the material inheritance that had accrued to the predecessor, which in turn became the substance from which rival paramparasor panths were created.

Each master developed his own strategies for dealing with the processes of institutionalisation occurring during his lifetime. On his death, the new master would deal with it by walking away from or disowning the structures left behind by the previous master. Analysis of Prem Rawat's behaviour is interesting to the scholar of religion because it provides the opportunity to examine the rare phenomenon of Gold's first stage, that of the solitary Sant.

Prem Rawat's continuous attempts to keep his teachings free from tradition can be categorised in terms of deconstruction: organisational, doctrinal, linguistic, and pragmatic. These four ways of destruction will be examined in the following.

Organisational Deconstruction

The first vehicle which Prem Rawat used to disseminate his teachings was the now defunct Divine Light Mission. Begun by the followers of Prem Rawat's father Shri Hans Ji Maharaj, Divine Light Mission could be said to display the characteristics of Gold's second stage, the parampara. On arrival in the West, Divine Light Mission was established in a number of countries, but was most successful in the US and Britain. It brought with it from India:

  • a) a hierarchical structure (Prem Rawat and his family members followed by a renunciate order of mahatmas, celibate ashram devotees, and the wider body of non-celibate followers;
  • b) the ashram tradition which led to the establishment of a network of renunciate communities across Europe and North America, whose members provided the backbone of Divine Light Mission's activities;
  • c) a lifestyle which lauded vegetarianism, renunciation, and celibacy, even if not all adhered to it;
  • d) some Hindu practices familiar to bhakti traditions, for example, daily arti or the veneration of the guru;
  • e) a set of doctrines which used the narratives of nirguna bhakti, displaying a particular form of that tradition where the guru is isvara or the personal Lord

The result of all these elements was the founding of a new religious movement, even though Prem Rawat had always indicated that he had no inclination or purpose to establish a religion. On reaching adulthood (between 1975 and 1977) he attempted to deconstruct the whole edifice, yet with only partial success. The devotees' counter-culture background remained fresh in their memories and the removal of the boundaries formed by the lifestyle of Divine Light Mission (DLM) resulted in a return to counter-culture mores and a loss of commitment to the practice of Knowledge. In the period of 1977–1982, the ashrams were reopened and a more gentle approach was taken towards deconstruction. In the 1980s, the edifice of DLM was replaced by Elan Vital, which simply functioned as an organisational tool for correct usage of resources–both human and financial–and the co-ordination of Prem Rawat's continuous world tours. In recent years, Elan Vital has shrunk in size, only responsible for ever decreasing functions. It now remains the vehicle for the organisation of international tours and the effective, but legal use of financial resources. Prem Rawat has effectively made use of ever developing technology as the most efficient method to promote his message. As Elan Vital takes a background position, with far less influence on the lives of students, Prem Rawat has formed the Prem Rawat Foundation as a vehicle which allows him to disseminate his vision as an individual rather than a guru with a worldwide following.

Doctrinal Deconstruction

Alongside the deconstruction of institutions and organisations has been the radical attempt to remove any indication of the doctrine of 'guru as Lord' accepted readily in India and of forming part of the traditions created from the teachings of 'solitary Sants' or even earlier from the multiplicity of sages that make up the history and legends of Indian traditions. This has also led to the decline of Indian practices associated with the veneration of the guru. When Prem Rawat, or Guru Maharaj Ji as he was then known, introduced his teachings to the West in 1969, the practice of the four techniques was introduced within a discourse that emphasised the salvationary role of the Master who was perceived to be a living avatar or incarnation of the Divine. As a living 'God' Prem Rawat received a high degree of adulation manifested within the recognisable forms of saguna bhakti (devotion to a form of God) traditions associated with the Sant sampradayas of North India. Initiates were asked to commit their lives to a discipline consisting of satsang (attending discourses), saiva (participating in activities that promoted the guru's teachings), and meditation (normally one-hour sessions in the morning and evening). Today, students of Prem Rawat are more likely to listen to his discourses on DVD and practice of the four techniques is recommended for a minimum of one hour. Those who benefit from the practice still have the opportunity for participation, but all traces of a meta-narrative of salvation around the person of Prem Rawat have disappeared–they are replaced by a teacher/student relationship based on inspirational guidance.

Linguistic Deconstruction

The language which Divine Light Mission used for dissemination was in all respects identical to that used by the Sant Mat tradition, developed from the teachings of the 'solitary Sants' such as Kabir and Nanak. DLM drew upon the central features of satnam, satsang, and satguru, as identified by Charlotte Vaudeville, and the use of four primary metaphors to describe inner experience, which were also applied to the four techniques of Knowledge taught to initiates, namely prakash (inner or divine light), nad brahman or anahat shabd (unstruck sound), amrit (nectar), and the shabd brahman or satnam (the Word or Name of God).7 DLM also taught that this experiential dimension could only be fully apprehended when the techniques were in the possession of a living satguru. In doing this, Divine Light Mission placed itself both inside the Sant tradition and outside its institutional and routinised formations. The language which is identical to that used by Sant Mat even fooled a number of scholars, who identified the movement as part of Radhasoami, a modern revival of Sant Mat. Today, the language of the Sant tradition has disappeared completely from Prem Rawat's teachings, remaining only a memory among the original cohort of followers. The techniques of Knowledge are simply identified by the numbers one to four. No indication of the kind of experience to be expected is given to candidates for Knowledge. Today, the language of transmission bears close resemblance to the discourses of self-discovery and self-knowledge associated with New Age. However, knowledgeable and discerning listeners will still hear the echoes of the universalist message delivered by the mediaeval Sants, if they are aware of the tradition and its teachings.

Pragmatic Deconstruction

There can be no doubt that there is a note of pragmatism in the above deconstructions. Those around Prem Rawat who act in any advisory capacity have been long aware of the change of Zeitgeist, the high-profile disasters among a small numbers of new religious movements, the negative consequences of the rapid creation of Divine Light Mission, all leading to the less tolerant critique of cults and anti-cult movements. However, on the positive side, Prem Rawat would have been intently aware of the responsibility required of the first 'solitary Sant' to enter the world stage to universalise the message in such a way as to maintain the core teachings, but lose any reference to culture, traditions or religion. Prem Rawat's opponents who argue that the strategy of transformation was propelled by the desire to 'revise' the past in order to avoid the negative impact of being branded a 'cult' have to be asked why Prem Rawat has recently begun the same processes of deconstruction in India, where he is ever more successful, now spending up to six months a year there and regularly attracting crowds of over 250,000. In India, such experimentation with deconstruction is fraught with the danger of losing the affection of the common people, whose daily existence is embedded in the very traditions that he is attempting to eradicate from his message.

Prem Rawat's Critics

The process of deconstruction is continuous, for it seems inevitable that a religious institution would form and begin to cement itself, if constant efforts of transformation were not made. The process is not without its challenges. In maintaining the emphasis on experience rather than tradition, dogma or ritual, the students of Prem Rawat can be loosely compared with charismatic Christians, in that the various deconstructions can destroy intensity and, in Martyn Percy's (97) words, become "a less intense form of religion, a resource pool to dip into, rather than a river that carries one in a particular direction". Although Prem Rawat's strategies may have reduced ritualisation, replication, domestication, and fossilisation, the challenge remains to maintain authenticity. In addition, the leadership has largely stayed with the people who were leading 30 years ago. Prem Rawat seems to be aware that he needs to develop potential young leaders, but, as Percy (97) points out, they may lack the charisma of the founder leaders who entered Prem Rawat's orbit with much greater expectations than those who came later. In addition, newer students enter the environment of the deconstructed world without knowing the past. The challenge is to fire them with the same passion and enthusiasm which the founder-leaders have demonstrated. The changed religious environment of the twenty-first century in the West, which Percy defines as pluralist and post-modernist, may result in new practitioners adopting the characteristics of consumers: they may relate to the practices they are taught without pursuing them wholesale. As Percy observes (97), a form of 'cognitive dissonance' may set in. In charismatic Christianity, this will take the form of psychological disassociation resulting from failed prophecy. In the case of Prem Rawat's followers, the process of constant deconstruction can actually manufacture a type of cognitive dissonance which may leave practitioners hanging on to former structures, feeling that they have been betrayed. This process is apparent in the motives of a minority of ex-members who have turned into vociferous critics–ex-premies, as they call themselves.8

Percy's (99) argument that the experiential form of religion must eventually become part of the establishment, giving way to 'maturity and participation', fits into the church–sect typology, but the phenomenon of Prem Rawat is not a religious revival. There is no teaching concerning restoration or an attempt to go back to an ideal past–on the contrary, the challenge is to maintain the spontaneity of the present. Although it could be argued that the 'solitary Sant" stage exists as an ideal within Sant traditions, there is no attempt on the part of Prem Rawat or his followers to show that their practices and teachings are part of the original Sant teachings–in fact, the deconstruction of language and doctrine has removed that possibility.

Andrew Yip (143) states that speaking about the self as the basis of religious commitment can be explained as part of a journey out of a religious institution and into the self, as is apparent in Western society. If this is the case, Prem Rawat's followers could be described to be on a journey towards personal fulfilment, the course of which is steered by the self, integrating the contemporary Zeitgeist and a particular and new manifestation of an ancient tradition. The paradox is that, in this case, the tradition needs to be kept traditionless in order for it to maintain the authenticity provided by a 'solitary Sant' type leader. It thus becomes very difficult to ascertain which direction the movement may take in the future. It could follow the traditional pattern outlined by Gold and O'Dea, which would certainly appear a strong possibility, as it will be difficult to build in strategies which maintain Prem Rawat's constant transformations, once he is gone. Prem Rawat's students have ceased to be distinguishable or recognisable or noticeably different from members of society at large; they now reflect the pluralism, individualism, and crisis of meaning common in the West. As described by Grace Davie (192), this is typical of post-industrial societies where the space for the sacred appears in forms which are different from those that went before. They are alternatively looser and less compartmentalised; varied, fragmented, and almost amorphous in some cases (Green 184).

In the earlier manifestations of Divine Light Mission, a sense of communitas was developed through initiation, giving a special sense of 'elect' secrecy, which was shared by an intimate community and maintained strong boundaries to demarcate the 'insider' from the 'outsider'. Initiation into the four techniques, known as Knowledge, functioned as a type of liminal rite of passage: inward spiritual experience believed to be unique to the initiated created a sense of 'outsiderness' and formed strong bonds, relationships, and obligations within the group. However, when DLM became Elan Vital, this stage brought with it a shift away from shared expressions of inner experience and the consequent cementing of social ties. The strong sense of identity was now lacking or was deconstructed by Prem Rawat's efforts to destroy the obvious manifestations of religion demonstrated by Divine Light Mission. Since it was no longer necessary for everyone to have been seen to have participated in a similar experience in order to be part of the group, inevitable dispersal and dilution took place. Thus a pattern of 'waxing and waning' results, as a consequence of the constant deconstruction processes. The resultant dispersal and dilution lead to 'waning', with Prem Rawat usually responding by finding new avenues for restoring a heightened sense of experience, but the 'waxing' that results from this can lead once again to the sense of 'elect moral status' and the renewal of boundaries. If this brings with it the formation of a new movement which is distinct from the society at large, Prem Rawat once again deconstructs. The danger is that the constant waxing and waning may lead to psychological and spiritual exhaustion.

Premies, like Wiccans and other New Age participants, correspond to cultural norms in most respects but for their involvement with the practice of Knowledge; although they are completely 'normal' in most respects, embedded in the prevailing social order and part of contemporary spiritual journeying, the continuous involvement with the internal dynamics of the 'waxing and waning', which are created by Prem Rawat's efforts to maintain the clarity of his message and to avoid the processes of institutionalisation, places them in a simultaneously marginal activity, in a world secluded from the wider society.

Prem Rawat's emphasis on the present, using the experience brought about by the techniques, undermines the potential to create a tradition based on a sacred past and has no place for a perfect or imperfect future, as predicted in some religions. Thus his teachings cannot be described as utopian in any sense. Like Foucault ("Spaces" 24), he would regard utopias as "fundamentally unreal spaces". Yet in Foucault's terms, the unsettling effect of the constant process of transformation, the avoidance of tradition, the waxing and waning cycle all work together to create a 'heterotopia', a sacred space in which assumptions are challenged and conceptual frameworks are disturbed (Foucault, Order). The unsettling impact is offset by the continuity of the inner practices, but it is possible to argue that, in spite of no longer being distinguishable from the wider society, devotees maintain a life at the margins, in a heterotopic space which challenges the conventional processes through which routinisation unfolds. The constant undermining of tradition, in the pursuit of being ever new, provides an alternative way of living, which is practised and witnessed to, a form of resistance, albeit mostly invisible to anyone but the initiate.


Prem Rawat's brand of 'experiential iconoclasm' supplies a case study that can be used to revisit Hervieu-Léger's theory of religion as a chain of transmitted memory, which allows for some comments about the debate on religion as culture or religion as a sui generis category. Prem Rawat's efforts to undermine the processes of routinisation and institutionalisation in order to maintain the primacy of the experiential dimension invite us to categorise him as a 'solitary Sant'. However, to do so would create a paradox. Since solitary Sants have previously emerged in the history of Indian religious traditions, they constitute a feature of tradition themselves. Consequently, Prem Rawat could be defined as belonging to a 'tradition' that is in opposition to tradition, as generally understood by sociologists of religion or by those more used to ecclesiastical and doctrinal structures of Christianity. In fact, the conflict predates the mediaeval Sants and goes back into early Indian history, at least as far as the Upanishads. The clash between a hereditary priestly caste whose authority rested in the control of sacred ritual and language and sages who contested their hegemony by citing their own experiential awareness of the atman/brahman provided a dynamic tension known to both scholars and insiders alike. In failing to give priority to the experiential dimension, Hervieu-Léger overlooks a crucial element in the formation of Indian traditions and perhaps other traditions, such as Sufism. In addition, her emphasis on linear time, essential to chains of memory, privileges a Judaic/Christian narrative, whereby providence gives way to progress. I suggest that the development of Indian traditions is best understood as cyclic, with renewals of 'experiential iconoclasm' creating from time to time a heterotopic space within the chain of memory maintained by both Vedic and non-Vedic religions. The problem of Hervieu-Léger's notion is that it gives too much emphasis to doctrine, which is so significant in the development of Christianity and partly responsible for the centrality of tradition and therefore to chains of memory within the mainstream forms of that religion. Hervieu-Léger's analysis highlights one of the problems of Western social scientific discourse on religion. In attempting to travel from the particular to the universal, it is overwhelmingly reliant on one particular, namely Western Christianity, framed within the challenge that arose to its dominant worldview, known as the Enlightenment, and therefore can never arrive at the universal, until other particulars are equally part of the investigation. A more useful reflection on the nature of religion as a category of study than that of hardline reductionists such as Fitzgerald and Segal comes from James Beckford, who argues that there is a need to move away from the acceptance that 'religion' is a generic object at the heart of various entities known in the world religions paradigm as 'religions'. He states that it is necessary to descend from the generic level "in order to examine precisely what each religion actually means in terms of social interaction and social significance at particular times and places" (Beckford 19). Beckford argues for an approach that acknowledges the way in which individual and collective actors understand and make use of the term. In this way both the arrogance associated with reductionism and the essentialism of crude phenomenology can be avoided. The case study of Prem Rawat raises problems for both sides of the argument. The overriding Durkheimian, Freudian or Marxist meta-narratives run into difficulties with religious forms that are subversive, while Prem Rawat's resistance to the label 'religion' causes problems for the underlying essentialism of the sui generis schools of analysis.

Although the social science discourse is itself part of the development of secular humanism arising out of the Enlightenment critique of Christianity, its error is to conflate Christianity with the wider category of religion and thus finds itself guilty of a form of Orientalism which privileges the patterns of Christian development over other world religions, especially Indian traditions whose dynamics are very different. Although I recognise the invaluable analyses of the reductive in the study of religion, I argue that it is essential to maintain the study of religions alongside the study of religion, in order to supply the widest possible material available to analysis, and that as scholars of both categories we need to keep the motivations of religious insiders in our sights as well as look beyond them when considering causal analysis.

Ron Geaves is Professor of the Comparative Study of Religion in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University. He is a co-editor of the journal of Fieldwork in Religion and the Journal of Religions of South Asia. CORRESPONDENCE: Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Liverpool Hope University, Hope Park, Liverpool, L16 9JD, UK.


  1. 15–16 December 2003, "Religious Studies: What is the Point?", Lancaster University and PRS-LTSN Learning Centre.
  2. 13–16 September, 2005, "The Study of Religion: Mapping the Field", 50th Annual Conference of the BASR, Harris Manchester College, Oxford.
  3. Consequently, this article will be limited in its exploration of Prem Rawat and Elan Vital and will only explore such aspects of the teachings and organisational structures that are relevant to the issues explored herein. Consequently, there will be no exploration of the views of Prem Rawat's followers, either in the West or in India. These lie outside the remit of this article and could be the subject of further research.
  4. Vaudeville (36–7) uses a number of technical terms here that would be familiar to any student of Hinduism. In general, terms like yogi (one who practises the disciplines associated with the loss of ego to gain identity with Brahman, ultimate reality), siddha (perfected saint), asanas (special postures used in the practice of hatha yoga), and bhij mantras (words and formulas believed to contain special powers) refer to the general milieu of Hindu renunciate traditions. Vaudeville's point is that the Sant figure cannot be assimilated into these traditions.
  5. This viewpoint is exemplified in the short statement that appeared at the end of many of Prem Rawat's satellite transmissions throughout 2002: "Knowledge is not a religion, a spiritual practice or a lifestyle. It is a practical way of experiencing a feeling that is already inside of you."
  6. Werbner (319–21) observed a process of 'waxing and waning' among localised movements within the broader Sufi tariqa. She suggests that new movements appear "energised through the emergance of a charismatic saint, which revitalises the old tariqa". She states: "although shrines of illustrious saints, once established, remain points of personal pilgrimage and seasonal ritual celebrations, such shrines no longer extend as organisations far beyond a relatively localised area, and cannot continue to control, as the founder did, a series of sub-centres, and sub-sub centres over a vast region."
  7. The four terms were used in initiation during the period of Divine Light Mission and were also frequently referred to in discourses (satsang). It was claimed that the four techniques taught by Prem Rawat and the previous masters of Advait Mat provided access to each inner component of consciousness. Anahat shabd (unstruck sound) and shabd brahman (Word of God) or satnam (true name) were distinguished from each other. The former was regarded as a sound current or inner 'music' heard within when all external sounds ceased, while the latter referred to a feeling of deep peace within, the exhalation and inhalation of breath arising from a primordial energy that maintained the life force within the body. These Yogic techniques link Prem Rawat's teachings indirectly to Sant traditions: the Nath Yogis of Gorakhnath and even revivals of Sant Mat, such as Radhasoami, although it must be made clear that the techniques are different from those taught by the latter.
  8. The main forum for ex-followers expressing their criticisms of Prem Rawat or of various organisational forms that may been constructed and deconstructed can be found on www. Interestingly, most of the criticism seems to be directed at the way things were in the 1970s and 1980s, expressed in a style of language that current new members would not recognise. Generally, the ex-premie critics take the line that Prem Rawat's efforts of transformation are a strategy to avoid 'cult' and 'anti-cult' discourses and are thus a public relations exercise.


Beckford, James. Social Theory and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Cox, James. "The Contentious Term 'Religion': A Methodological Discussion." Keynote address presented to the 50th Annual Conference of the BASR, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, 13–16 September, 2005, "The Study of Religion: Mapping the Field".

Davie, Grace. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Downton, James. Sacred Journeys: The Conversion of Young Americans to Divine Light Mission. Columbia:

Columbia UP, 1979.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Spaces. London: Tavistock, 1977.

– – –. "Of Other Spaces." Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 16.1 (1986): 22–7.

Geaves, Ron. "From Totapuri to Prem Rawat: Reflections on a Lineage (Parampara)." Ed. Anna King. Indian Religions: Renaissance & Renewal. London: Equinox, 2007. 265–90.

– – –. "From Divine Light Mission to Elan Vital and Beyond: An Exploration of Change and Adaptation." Nova Religio 7.3 (2004): 45–62.

Gold, Daniel. The Lord as Guru: Hindu Sants in the Northern Indian Tradition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Green, S. J. D. "Alexis de Tocqueville, Pantheism and the Religion of Democracy." Eds. Grace Davie, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead. Predicting Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. 183–90.

Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. Religion as a Chain of Memory. Cambridge: Polity P, 2000.

Katz, Steven. "Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism." Ed. Steven Katz. Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. London: Sheldon P, 1978. 22–74.

O'Dea, Thomas, F. "Sociological Dilemmas: Five Paradoxes of Institutionalisation." Ed. Whitfield Foy. Man's Religious Quest. Milton Keynes: Open UP, 1978. 298–305.

Percy, Martyn. "A Place at the High Table? Assessing the Future of Charismatic Christianity." Eds. Grace Davie, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead. Predicting Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. 95–108.

Pilarzyk, Thomas. "The Origin, Development, and Decline of a Youth Culture Religion: An Application of Sectarianization Theory." Review of Religious Research 20 (1978): 23–43.

Segal, Robert. "Turning Point: Sigmund Freud Totem and Taboo." British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) Bulletin 102 (June 2004): 36–9.

– – –. [no title] British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) Bulletin 103 (November 2004): 50–2.

Segal, Robert, and Frank Whaling. "Empathy or Diagnosis." British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) Bulletin 100 (November 2003): 57–9.

Singh, Trilochan, Jodh Singh, Kapur Singh, Bawa Harkishen Singh, Khushwant Singh, trans. The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs. 3rd ed. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973.

Tagore, Rabindranath, trans. Songs of Kabir. Boston: Weiser, 2002.

Tremlett, Paul-Franc¸ois. British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) Bulletin 103 (November 2004): 49–50.

Vaudeville, Charlotte. "Sant Mat: Santism as the Universal Path to Sanctity." Eds. Karine Schomer, and W. H. McLeod. The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass, 1987. 21–40.

Werbner, Pnina. "Stamping the Earth with the Name of Allah: Zikr and the Sacralizing of Space among British Muslims." Cultural Anthropology 11 (1996): 309–38.

Yip, Andrew. "The Self as the Basis of Religious Faith: Spirituality of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Christians." Eds. Grace Davie, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead. Predicting Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. 135–46.