Daniel Foss and Ralph Larkin wrote a particularly bizarre paper called "Worshipping The Absurd" on 1970's Divine Light Mission which was doubly unfortunate as they had studied it more closely than any other writers. This article published in Sociology of Religion (1979) 40 (3): 262-264. comments on their work.


On Foss, Daniel A. and Ralph W. Larkin. 1978. "Worshiping the Absurd: The Negation of Social Causality Among the Followers of Guru Maharaj Ji." Sociological Analysis 39, 2:157-164.

Participant observation studies are fraught with difficulties, even when conducted on relatively straightforward subjects such as youth gangs, public bar behaviour or industrial work groups. The central problem in participant observation is to maintain a balance between becoming so involved in the participation that objectivity is lost and remaining so detached so that observation only yields a relatively superficial and sometimes mistaken interpretation of the subject matter. The study of religious movements poses particularly acute problems of involvement and detachment by virtue of the centrality of a system of beliefs and experiences which provide the entire basis of, and rationale for, such phenomena. Indeed, if we are to understand religious movements or cults at all, participant observation is almost the only manner in which meaningful data can be collected. It is for this reason that participant observational research by trained sociologists into a movement such as the Divine Light Mission (DLM) is to be welcomed since it is both methodologically highly problematic and potentially of great value.

Unfortunately, judging by Foss and Larkin's article, their research falls sadly short of the high standards needed to ensure that a reasonably objective picture can be drawn of the DLM. The basic problem in Foss and Larkin's presentation is that they have neither identified sufficiently with members of the DLM to enable them to produce sensitive data, nor maintained sufficient detachment to permit them to exercise objectivity in the organization and interpretation of the data.

Instead, it is clear that the researchers have reacted antipathetically towards the DLM


and thus become emotionally involved in their research in a manner which precludes both sensitive, insightful observation and objective analysis. This is most concretely manifested in the highly emotive language used by Foss and Larkin to describe their observations. Expressions such as "absurd," "preposterous," "nonsensical" and "ludicrous," tell us more about the predispositions of the researchers than about the nature of the subject matter. Indeed, the deeply hostile presentation is itself sufficient to cast considerable doubt upon the objectivity with which this particular piece of participant observational research was conducted.

Equally serious, there is a complete absence of data of any kind-observed (e.g., patterns of behaviour) or statistical-other than anecdotal. The paper gives no information on the organizational structure of the DLM which is described as "… a highly incongruent, even self-contradictory organization" and "… the ultimate parody of bureaucracy in the wider society" (159) other than to define it as "… a centralized bureaucracy with rampant titleism …" and to argue that the main function of the staff was to monitor its own activities (159). Neither are there any data even of the most rudimentary kind on the socio-economic background of members, nor the various different forms of participation which are possible in the DLM. Most surprising of all, in view of the dependence by the researchers on participant observation, there is no description of the central activities of satsang, service, and meditation, which, for members, provide the whole rationale and basis for the organization. (For a useful description of this aspect of the DLM see Messer (1976).) Without an understanding of what these mean to premies and other participants most of the purpose of conducting a participant observational analysis is vitiated.

Another important problem with the analysis presented by Foss and Larkin concerns the theoretical focus of the research. Foss and Larkin describe the purpose of their study as "… an attempt to understand the fundamental reasons for the existence of the Divine Light Mission …" (158). This suggests quite clearly that the main concern is a very broad one involving placing the analysis into a general framework so that the DLM can be understood as part of wider social forces at work to produce a range of cultic phenomena of which the DLM is only one manifestation.

However, it is clear, both from the introduction and the general drift of the discussion that the principle focus of the study is in fact a much narrower one. Foss and Larkin appear not to be interested in the DLM as such, but only insofar as it represents a means for reintegrating certain social groups into mainstream U.S. society. Foss and Larkin focus upon the way in which the DLM was used by "freaks" and other youth culture elements from the various radical movements of the 1960s once these movements disintegrated. This is therefore not so much a study of the DLM as a study of one strand of social recruitment into the DLM. Yet the discussion is ambiguously generalized in such a manner that it appears as a critique of the whole movement. Indeed, Foss and Larkin's previous work in this area (1976, 1977) suggests that their interest is much more in the study of youth movements than in the DLM itself.

The significance of this is that much of the criticism which Foss and Larkin level against the DLM is more accurately a criticism of certain elements in the DLM rather than of the movement itself. This is precisely the sort of ambiguity of focus which would have been resolved had a careful participant observational study been carried out. The overall impression which Foss and Larkin give is that the DLM is a monolithic movement consisting entirely or at least overwhelmingly of "… political radicals, acid-head freaks (cultural radicals), communards, street people, rock musicians, drop-outs and inhibited types (sic) …" (Foss and Larkin, 1978: 157). There is no doubt that the DLM did recruit a large number of such elements during the early nineteen seventies, especially in the U.S.A. However, this is to gloss over the diversity of recruitment to the DLM and to


equate the DLM with what the authors call "post-movement groups" which arose in response to the decline of the nineteen sixties youth movement (Foss & Larkin, 1978: 157).

This points to a fundamental weakness in Foss and Larkin's presentation: its essential ethnocentricity. The study is not so much a study of the DLM or even of ex-youth movement elements in the DLM as of ways in which the DLM was influenced by such patterns of recruitment in the first half of the nineteen seventies in the U.S.A. The DLM is, of course, a movement with deep spiritual roots and a long tradition in Indian history. However, during the general (and by no means the first) revival of interest in oriental religion in the western world in the last twenty years, the DLM, like many other movements such as Hari Krishna and Transcendental Meditation, has become a worldwide movement. It would have been much more to the point had Foss and Larkin wanted to understand "the fundamental reasons for the existence of the DLM" if they had placed it in the context of other similar movements and their significance in industrial societies rather than ex-youth movement in the U.S.A. Indeed such an analysis would have also shed considerable light on Foss and Larkin's main concern.

Nor would such a context have been precluded by the participant observational nature of the research. One of the most notable features of the DLM is the importance of international festivals to which premies come from all over the world to be in the presence of large numbers of meditating followers, mahatmas and Guru Maharaj Ji. Such international festivals would have provided an excellent opportunity to broaden the investigation into some of the implications of the DLM's international structure as a movement, such as the high proportion of middle-class middle-aged premies in certain Latin American countries. The diversity and complexity of the DLM is not at all apparent from Foss and Larkin's description. The emphasis in the study upon young ashram dwellers plays down the wide basis of recruitment to the DLM among more mature (especially middle class) elements, including professionals, housewives and other social groups who essentially retain their normal lifestyles and restrict their participation to weekly evening satsang meetings and the occasional festival. The study of such groups and how they tend to become involved in the DLM may well have shed considerable light on the fundamental appeal of the DLM and its role in modern society.

In summary, then, Foss and Larkin's study is not a study of the DLM. Rather it is a deeply hostile participant observational study into ex-youth movement recruitment into the DLM during the early nineteen-seventies in the U.S.A. The two most serious consequences of this are that the study is methodologically flawed and theoretically misfocussed. "Worshipping the absurd" has therefore failed to understand the basic significance of the DLM, and, more seriously, misrepresented it. Sadly, a golden opportunity to further our understanding of a significant religious movement has been missed.


Foss, David and Larkin, Ralph. 1976 "From 'The Gates of Eden' to 'Day of the Locust': an analysis of the Dissident Youth Movement of the 1960's and Its Heirs in the Early 1970's-the Post Movement Groups." Theory and Society 3:45-3:45-64.
1977. Roar of the Lemming: Youth, Post-Movement Groups, and the Life Construction Crisis. (Unpublished).
1978. "Worshiping the Absurd: the Negation of Social Causality among the Followers of Guru Maharaj Ji." Sociological Analysis 39:157-64.
Messer, Jeanne. 1967. "Guru Maharaj Ji and the Divine Light Mission" Pp. 52-72 in Charles Y. Glock and Robert N. Bellah (eds.) The New Religious Consciousness University of California Press, Berkeley.

Jim Kemeny The University of Adelaide