Thomas Pilarzyk
Marymount College of Kansas

A proliferation of new religious movements took place with the emergence of the youth culture as an alternative within the life-worlds of modern Western societies in the 1960s. Such distinctive sects as the Jesus People, the Moonies, the Children of God, and the International Society for Krsna Consciousness -- as well as numerous meditation and esoteric cultic groups -- were embodied in this religious revival. While some movements catered specifically to spiritual needs in the youth culture milieu, others offered therapeutic orientations for the general societal population as a whole. The scholarly literature on the religiosity of the American youth culture emphasized three distinctive elements: (1) its "consciousness" as a whole (e.g., Roszak, 1969, 1973; Reich, 1970; Baum, 1970), (2) its different religious manifestations as expressed in ideology and ritual (e.g., Greeley, 1970; Tiryakian, 1972; Shepherd, 1972; Gutmann, 1972), and (3) the specific sectarian and cultic groups which emerged within the larger movement (e.g., Adams and Fox, 1972; Robbins, 1960; Robbins and Anthony, 1972; Truzzi, 1972; Peterson and Mauss, 1973; Richardson, 1973; Robbins et al., 1975). Unfortunately, most analyses failed to adequately analyze the different processes by which some individuals in the youth culture altered their subjective world views through participation in a religious movement.

This article addresses this important omission by exploring the nature of resocialization processes in two religious movements within the youth culture from a contemporary phenomenological perspective. The author distinguishes the processes undergone by members of different religious movements by focusing on the transformation of converts' sub-universes of meaning or subjective apprehensions of social reality. In so doing, the background and situational factors affecting such shifts in Weltanschauung are taken into account. These transformation in world view, meaning, and


52 Brainwashing/Deprograming Controversy Thomas Pilarzyk 53

identity include (1) attempts to reinterpret a period prior to contact as one of partial or total discontentment, crisis, alienation, or suffering (a constituent of what structural-functionalists refer to as the "antecedents" of conversion),(2) different resocialization processes, and (3) expressions of commitment as members of a religious organization. These elements, often interrelated in everyday life, are examined through the use of ethnographic data.

Largely qualitative research was conducted among members of the cultic Divine Light Mission Movement (DLM) of Guru Maharaj Ji and the sectarian International Society for Krsna Consciousness- (ISKCON) of Swami Prabhupada at "ashrams" or temples in the Midwest. Field sites included the Midwest headquarters of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (more commonly known as the Hare Krsna movement) in Evanston, Illinois and communities of the Divine Light Mission in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois. Participant-observation techniques, intensive taped interviews, and content analyses of movement literature were utilized. Numerous visitations were made to each field site for over two years (1972-1974); correspondence and interviews with national leaders of both movements were also utilized as sources of data. The interview data, presented below in the form of percentages, were collected among 104 Divine Light Mission members and 63 individuals affiliated with the Hare Krsna movement. Let us now turn to the theoretical perspective that will aid our understanding of the processes of religious transformation.


Sociological approaches to the study of religious conversion have commonly outlined the various social and social-psychological factors involved in the shift of an individual's world view.' These include background characteristics of the group making it "conducive" for conversion, thus stressing the importance of social identification or group reinforcement for changes in subjective outlook (e.g., see Lofland and Stark, 1965; Richardson, 1973). Few studies argue for the equal importance of emotionally charged "shock experiences" which have intrinsic spiritual or existential significance for the convert apart from group constraints.2

A conceptual paradigm which may adequately take both objective and subjective aspects of personal transformation into account is commonly referred to as phenomenological or existential sociology (e.g., see Tiryakian, 1965; Psathas and Waksler, 1973; Bogard, 1977; Douglas and Johnson, 1977). One important trend within this intellectual movement which is especially promising for my purposes is the theoretical perspective of Berger (1963, 1966, 1967). While not restricting himself specifically to instances of religious conversion, he stresses the potential convert's need for a cognitive redefinition of social reality in order to justify any new Weltanschauung. Berger (1963:51-52) notes that each of the multiple world views of modernity carries its own interpretation of social reality. Transformations between alternate systems of meaning commonly take place. Alternation, for Berger, is that process of alternating back and forth between logically contradictory yet fully elaborated meaning systems which are radical attempts at reorganizing everyday life. Alternation, or the "instance of transformation that appears total if compared with lesser modifications," requires a process of resocialization involving both social and conceptual conditions. It commonly includes the availability of an effective social group which serves as the "Laboratory for transformation through (which) significant others…act as guides in its ability to provide such an indispensible plausibility structure for this new reality."

The importance of the religious group is reflected in its ability to provide such a plausibility structure. The convert is reinforced so that he continues to take his new world view seriously. With Luckmann (Berger with Luckmann, 1966:97-98), Berger has argued that the religious group as a symbolic universe

provides for the subjective apprehension of biographical experience. Experiences belonging to different spheres of reality are integrated by incorporation in the same, overarching universe of meaning. …The integration of the realities of marginal situations within the paramount reality of everyday life is of great importance, because these situations constitute the most acute threats to taken-for-granted, routinized existence in society. … Thoughts of madness and terror are contained by ordering all conceivable realities within the same symbolic universe that encompasses the reality of everyday life -- to wit, ordering them in such a way that the latter reality retains its paramount, definitive…quality.

They emphasize the overriding importance of participation in the religious group in reinforcing personal transforma-

54 Brainwashing/Deprograming Controversy

tions, as well as the role of its system of beliefs and practices in the reinterpretation of past biographical events. A religious collectivity then constitutes the social base of symbolic meaning for the convert.

Travasino (1975) has modified Berger's statements on alternations, noting that they involve a wide range of transformations, which vary in degree with changes in perspective, identity, and situation. Following Travasino, the term conversion in this paper will denote a "radical alternation" or a complete and thorough transformation of the individual's world view, suggesting the phenomenological import of viewing it as a dynamic process of resocialization. In conversion, the individual's past life is radically reorganized and reinterpreted as one's identity is reintegrated into a new set of meanings. This transformation of subjective reality usually involves an all-encompassing, absolutist organizing principle. In the case of religious groups, this principle is typically furnished by a sectarian ideology and organization. "Sectarian conversion" then implies complete disruption and change in life within the confines of an all-inclusive system of religious meanings and a rather authoritarian social structure. On the other hand, Travasino views alternation as a milder cognitive transformation. It is a relatively easy change in life, meaning, and identity. In this paper, the term "cultic alternation" will be used to denote this rather transitional change in the individual's identity and lifestyle which is not all-inclusive but which allows for the simultaneous holding of multiple organizing principles in the reinterpretation of subjective reality.

Table 1 presents each type of religious transformation within the youth culture. The scheme remains faithful to Berger's phenomenological perspective and to Travasino's necessary modification. Alternations and conversions then differ in the degree and type of change in identity, subjective meanings, and ties to social organizations. Both conversions and alternations do include emotional episodes of illumination, sometimes giving rise to an insight upon which a cognitive change is based or merely reinforcing the newly formed world view of the social group. Let us first explore these types of transformations in relation to sect and cult followers' prior lives in the youth culture.

Thomas Pilarzyk 55


Types of Religious Transformation in the Youth Culture

Sectarian Conversion
Cultic Alternation
1. demands drastic changes in life, meaning and identity
1. involves a transitional change in life, meaning and identity
2. demands negation of former "mundane" identity
2. involves an extension of or minor break with former identity
3. radically reorganizes past life and identity within new meaning system
3. permits reorganization within existing meaning system or subcultural orientation of past life and identity
4. includes a prior period of unrest or confusion over life, meaning or identity
4. includes a prior period of partial, mild unrest or confusion over life, meaning or identity
5. involves an all-encompassing absolutist organizing principle for the radical reinterpretation of subjective reality
5. allows for segmented, simultaneous or multiple principles for the reinterpretation of subjective reality


The relationship between the youth culture and the members of the two movements under study becomes more explicit once we analyze the process by which an individual shifts his subjective conceptions of reality from that of "hippie" or "freak" to that of ISKCON 'devotee' or DLM "premie." Therefore, some of the factors which disenchant members of the youth culture and influence them in "shopping around" on the youth culture's religious marketplace (Berger, 1967) must be considered. Conversion to contemporary religious movements cannot be understood without referring to the quality of their members' prior experiences.

Life within the youth culture of the early 1970s provided a symbolic universe of meaning in the biographical pasts of both the Divine Light Mission and Hare Krsna members. Among other things, the set of symbolic meanings of the American youth culture reflected interests in a diver-

56 Brainwashing/Deprograming Controversy

sity of cultural themes including Eastern and Western mysticism and the scriptures of the world religions, political-revolutionary writings, hedonism, pop psychology, and the traditional American values of individualism and independence (Partridge, 1973). This pluralism of cultural themes had at least two effects. First, it increased the disorientation ofbroadalienated middle-class youth searching for a single, „,broad, overarching conceptual framework of meaning by which to interpret, understand, and simplify their lives. Second, it provided for the growth, development, and elaboration of numerous groups utilizing one or more of these symbolic constellations, typifying and reinterpreting them as their own.

Recent research suggests that there were a number of difficulties associated with the personal fulfillment of needs within the youth culture, including problems with drug use, competing values, and unstable organizations. In the late 1960s, hallucinogenic drugs were viewed as the vehicle carrying the message of love, sharing, and spontaneity. But as Robbins and Anthony (1972) have suggested, promiscuous drug use over the years became drug-dependence as an end in itself. This necessitated the manipulation of peers to obtain drugs through unethical means, contradicting the original "love ethic" of the hip community. Another problem was evident in the conflict between human needs for "community," or "groupism," and for autonomy and individualism. Greeley (1970) and Slater (1970) identify the need for community with the sociohistorical conditions giving rise to modern society and the intensity of such needs for 1960s youth. However, the satisfaction of needs for community were jeopardized by the greater interpretative meaning many youth gave to individual freedom and autonomy, or "doing one's own thing." Miller (1971) argues that this dilemma generated a paradox which further frustrated and alienated the young. Other writers, however, viewed the failure of the youth culture in its array of organizational problems reflected in the short-lived nature of many youth communes. Kanter (1972) and Zablocki (1973) argue convincingly that hippie communes were based largely on themes of antinomianism and communitarian anarchism, neither of which provided a sufficient ethos for building viable communities.

One personal resolution to these interrelated problems was for the individual to submit to the teachings and authority of a charismatic leader. The cognitive and experiential acceptance of his framework offered the prospective convert a common set of symbolic meanings by which to interpret one's existence. This was the alternative taken by members of both the Divine Light Mission and the Inter-

Thomas Pilarzyk 57

national Society for Krsna Consciousness in the mid-1970s. Interviews with communal members of both groups indicate the prevalence of stereotyped behavior patterns associated with youth culture lifestyles. The backgrounds of many Hare Krsna people, for example, reflected a specific preoccupation with drug use. Sixty-six percent of those interviewed felt that prior drug use became highly problematic. A Brahmin of ISKCON reflected on his past preoccupation with hallucinogenic drugs and the alleviation of related problems through conversion.

Man, I was so into acid that I could hardly talk without stammering and stuttering. Then one day I heard some devotees rapping on the street corner and I went over to listen (to them). …They made a lot of sense and I kind of needed a place to call home, to feel like I was wanted. …I guess Krsna was just looking after me. …After staying at the ashram for a month, I began to realize that I could "get high" by chanting,… that I didn't need drugs,…and my stuttering slowly went away.

Not all devotees reflect such dramatic changes. Another Brahmin saw his entry into the group as basically an "untraumatic process." However, the majority of those interviewed indicated some type of stereotyped youth culture behavior. Eighty-five percent had used hallucinogens, almost half had cohabitated, and another 30% had lived communally. Informal conversations suggested that unrest, tension, or conflict associated with such activities in their previous lives was typical of many members. Intensive interviews and conversations with premies at the DLM ashrams affirmed a similar and yet less seriously perceived disenchantment with such behavior as hallocinogenic drug use (89%), cohabitation (49%), and communal living (49%).

Many DLM members specifically interpreted only certain aspects of prior lifestyles as "sick," "obsessive," or "existentially meaningless," manifested by indiscriminate, multiple drug use and open value conflicts with societal systems of meaning. Such feelings reflected the youth culture's failure to establish a viable meaning system as well as the DLM's ability to fulfill certain needs not met in conventional everyday life. The Hare Krsna communalists, on the other hand, expressed little ethical confusion or value-conflict in their personal biographies, but the ubiquitous problems of identity-construction related to indiscriminate drug use, unsuccessful love relationships, and unsatisfactory family ties. In many instances, especially in the interviews, ISKCON devotees stressed the all-

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pervasive anomic, alienating aspects of everyday life within the youth culture, rather than a specific conflict in meaning with the wider society.

In sum, past experiences associated with the youth culture and selectively interpreted by movement members as conditions of crisis, value-conflict, or existential insecurity, reflected in dependency upon drugs were more related to conversion to the Divine Light Mission than to ISKCON. The DLM's cultic belief system was more universalistic, syncretic; its religious experience was said to fulfill existential needs for love and understanding while providing ethical and moral guidelines for its members. On the other hand, prior situations characterized by all-pervasive feelings of anomie, drug dependency, unsuccessful love relationships, and family trouble were more frequently associated with complete engulfment of the individual in the conversion process to the ISKCON ashram. Therefore, crisis-alleviation held different implications for each movement. Though contact with the DLM and ISKCON ashrams did not reflect significant differences in the performance of a crisis-alleviating function in their followers, the Divine Light Mission and Hare Krsna members did exhibit different interpretations of that function.


Background factors alone do not determine whether or not conversion or alternation will occur, or the form it will eventually take. As Robbins (1973) suggests, each social actor must choose which movement to join, interpret why s/he joined, and determine who or what helped influence the decision. In other words, it is not the level of felt-alienation of disenchantment reflected in prior contact with problematic aspects of the youth culture alone which influence association with these movements. Such factors are intimately interrelated with the individual's ability to choose between various symbolically meaningful alternatives assisting in overcoming feelings of estrangement, unrest, or crisis (see Wieder and Zimmerman, 1976). These various alternatives have traditionally included religious and political resocialization. These two alternative systems of meaning existed within the youth culture.

Timothy Leary, John Lennon, Phillip Slater, and other youth culture exponents expressed concern in the late 1960s over the differences among the youth culture's membership. A general split was believed to have existed between the politically leftist activist and the "hippie" or "freak"

Thomas Pilarzyk 59

oriented toward psychedelia, mind-expansion, and spiritualism. While the former was allegedly more determined to change the wider society's institutional structure through violent or nonviolent political revolution, the latter saw the only viable revolution as based on an internal, even spiritual road to self-realization.

Members of the Hare Krsna and Divine Light Mission have been associated previously with both types of problem-solving perspectives. Over 25% of both the DLM and ISKCON members expressed past participation in such political youth groups as SDS, Yippies, Zippies, local campus organizations of liberal persuasion, and draft-information and draft-resistance centers. Sixty-six percent of DLM members and 68% of Hare Krsna followers had at least some contact with political organizations in general. In addition, Hare Krsna members reported contact with other, similarly authoritarian religions with absolutist meaning systems. Sixty-eight percent of all those interviewed at the Hare Krsna ashram reported past affiliation with such religious groups; over one-third were associated in varying degrees with groups in the current Jesus movement.

My girlfriend became heavily involved in the Jesus Movement and therefore pressured me into some kind of spiritual uplifting. …But she was too much. Our interests, views and needs for each other's friendship outgrew.

I originally came to the ashram to interview the president of the Society for Krsna Consciousness and to share with him the gospel of Jesus Christ. …But after talking to him I wasn't certain if the Bible was the complete message. I later returned to speak to devotees and joined the ashram about three months later.

I was a real believer in the "heart-way" in Jesus Christ. I felt I was saved at twenty-five and freed from sin and its guilt. But I didn't realize at the time that I had a lot more karma to burn off.

Such comments reflected alternations between or "shopping around" among structurally similar religious groups and radical transformations in meaning and identity from one absolutist system to another. They may also point to the existence of larger recruitment patterns within the youth movement which encompass a considerable number of those who previously used a religious problem-solving perspective.

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DLM members expressed a slightly lower incidence (45%) of such "shopping around." When occurring, it commonly took place among groups which were also highly syncretic and cultic, such as the International Meditation Society, mind expansion institutes, various hatha and raja yoga groups, and even astrological cults. Many DLM members even held simultaneous memberships in more than one of these cultic groups, suggesting the cultic nature of its alternation process.

The differences between those associated only with religious or only with political groups were not significant in either movement. In addition, many members of both movements reported prior participation in both religious and political groups -- 45% of DLM members and 57% of those affiliated with ISKCON. Therefore, recruitment patterns were not selective along spiritual or political lines as hypothesized above. On the contrary, recruitment patterns were more selectively based on structural aspects of youth culture movements. A strict dichotomy between spiritual and political types of "hippies" may not exist, or there is a greater association between the two types than had previously been thought. Such findings, if reliable, may also point to certain developments or historical convergences within the youth culture itself.

Analyses of alternation, Berger argues, beg a multitude of related questions for sociological research. For example what actually constitutes an "insider" and "outsider?" What guarantees membership? What constitutes alternation? Let us turn to such questions in attempting to understand the different processes involved in the subjective transformations of reality among members of both the International Society for Krsna Consciousness and the Divine Light Mission.


Like other youth culture sects, the Hare Krsna movement is decidedly "oppositional." It facilitates the exodus of alienated individuals from the wider society or reinforces existing alienation and makes it manageable. Such sects as the Hare Krsna movement and certain radical groups of the more diffuse Jesus movement totally reject the commonsensical Weltanschauung of the wider society and are therefore largely countercultural, marginal, and structurally insulated groups. Sectarian conversion involves then the immersion into an all-pervasive, absolutist world view and social structure. Highly insulated lifestyles also

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guarantee severance of ties to the outside world and redefinition of prior lives in that world as sinful, evil, mundane, and/or illusory. As Howard (1974:207) claims:

Krishna Consciousness offers a relatively safe vehicle for the expression of deep estrangement from mainstream culture. It also provides a way for youth, facing a personal crisis concerning the values and life-style of the counter culture to back off without dropping back into mainstream society (emphasis added).

Therefore, such sectarian groups provide alternative forms of community within which the convert can attain intragroup goals and status positions while alleviating feelings of crisis, disenchantment, and alienation, and devaluating outside interpretations of everyday reality.

Actual entry into the ISKCON ashram was quite simple. An individual who showed serious interest in attaining "Krsna Consciousness" through continuous visitations to the temple was commonly invited by the ashram president, or head of the community, to remain for a probationary period. There were no official standards of admission other than a simple promise by the prospective convert to keep the basic rules of conduct of temple life, including prohibition from eating meat, fish, or eggs, illicit sex, intoxicants, and from gambling. Other formal regulations included prohibitions against blaspheming Krsna, speaking against the movement leader Prabhupada, and contradicting the traditional Vedic scriptures (Daner, 1973).

Prabhupada's philosophical position grounded in the Hindu religious tradition of the Bengali Vaisnavas held important implications as an interpretative framework for daily life at the ISKCON temple. Great stress was placed upon the attainment of personal perfection through devotional and individual chanting which ideally leads to experiencing the "transcendental vibration." More importantly, the caste system organized and simplified existence for the devotees while it minimized and managed sexual, economic, and family needs. The emphasis placed upon loving service and devotion through the ideal of bhaktiyoga also formed a basis for communal life and provided a rationale for "getting the work done," for proselytizing in the outside world, and for insuring social insulation through various intragroup mechanisms.

The first few weeks of residence at the Evanston ashram were crucial in the individual's decision to ultimately join or leave. Attrition was highest among those affiliated

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for the shortest period of time. The temple president estimated that 50% of all those entering the ashram for the first time left within a month. In comparison, he felt that only 10% left after taking up residency there for over a month. Most crucial for the novice was the initial adoption of a new lifestyle, not necessarily acceptance of the movement's conceptual worldview. The devotee community recognized that the radical break in lifestyle from one characterized by casualness, informality, and leisure to an austere, rigid, and structured one was the single most important factor in the individual's initial decision to remain or leave. This was one indicator of the sectarian nature of the ISKCON conversion process (Daner, 1973; Stillson, 1974).

Most interested individuals became affiliated with the movement through friends, family members, or devotees proseltyizing on the street. Approximately 41% visited the ashram largely out of curiosity, and 26% had previously established effective ties to certain devotees. Establishment of such ties was an important determining factor in attending a Hare Krsna vegetarian feast, a devotional chanting service, or in visiting the ashram. A sizeable number (31%) also initially visited for reasons specifically associated with religious participation and consciousness-expansion. Regardless of these more mundane reasons, devotees typically gave a spiritual explanation for their initial entry into the temple. The more committed the individual devotee was to attaining Krsna Consciousness and to the group, the more likely s/he was to give a spiritual interpretation for initially joining or visiting the ashram. These spiritual explanations were themselves indicative of internalization of the rather complex, absolutist meaning system of the sect.3

The "uninitiated devotee" who decided to stay at the ashram was normally assigned to one or two "student devotees" who assisted in the adjustment to various routines of everyday life in the community, including the internalization of both group behavioral expectations and the elaborate Vedic scriptures. Preliminary resocialization to the demands of Ashram life was successfully undertaken when it was felt that the new devotee began to give devotional service to Krsna out of love, not by recitation of Sanskrit phrases or by habitual action. Individual devotees were aware of this change in perception and reconceptualization as indicated by increasing importance of the community in the devotee's evaluation of the alternation process. For example, one member exhorted, "Realizing that it's not this material world, that I'm going the right way, and that I've

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found so many beautiful people who also know this and are going the right way too." At this point, the community's distinctive symbolic worldview was accepted without question as the "nature of things." In phenomenological terms, the devotee's worldview began to constitute "the worldtaken-for-granted."

The temple president usually determined when this internal transformation had taken place. A recommendation was then sent to Prabhupada requesting permission to formally initiate the devotee into the movement. If granted, a "holy name" ceremony marked this step in the conversion process. The novitiate was given a Sanskrit name, was formally made a "student devotee," and his dedication to the movement was made clearly visible to the rest of the community. He might also receive a set of new social duties. This initiation commonly took place after a period of about six months from the time of initial entry into the movement. New Spiritual demands attached to the position of student included greater ego detachment, total celibacy, and "greater loving service to Krsna."

After a period of further commitment, some devotees were eligible for a second initiation, a "fire ceremony," which marked passage into the brahminic or priestly order of the movement. They received a secret mantra which aided them in attaining a higher level of spiritual consciousness. This new position also enabled devotees to perform certain ritual ceremonies, to lead certain communal projects, and to gain further prestige among the communal membership. Although conversion as social insulation had effectively taken place by this point, the process was not considered complete by ISKCON standards. There were two "higher" forms of spiritual existence further along the road to enlightenment and consequently more detached from the mundane nature of everyday life in the ashram. These included the vanaprastha, or retired order of individuals, and the sannyasas, or ISKCON's order of mendicants.4

The degree of social insulation implicit in the conversion process to the Hare Krsna movement guaranteed that almost all affective ties are kept inside the community. Even with an emphasis upon active proseltyization, the distinctive dress, jargon, beliefs, and practices help insulate members from the outside world. The extent to which insulating mechanisms worked with regard to outside affective ties was expressed by various devotees. A common response of many parents to their children's participation in the movement was reflected by a woman devotee's experiences with her family.

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My parents could not understand why I would be interested in this lifestyle. They thought it was too far out. We began having "run ins" about my going (to the temple), and we began to grow apart. I began to dislike their morals (edited field note excerpt).

Another devotee/believed that his parents actually disapproved of his current status within the ashram. However, because of his previous dependency upon drugs, he felt that they had to accept, albeit reluctantly, this decision to live as a devotee to Krsna. Most interpretations of family relationships were believed to be subject to the karmic laws operating in the illusory world (maya), a central component of ISKCON's belief system. Many devotees felt a general parental disapproval of their decision to join the movement. However, such strain was redefined in terms of the illusory nature of their family's lifestyle and the devotee's past association with them. Similar reinterpretations were made of previous peer ties in the youth culture, so as to remain consistent with the teachings of the sect. Greatest emphasis was placed upon friendship within the communal structure of the ashram and the alleviation of prior feelings of social alienation.

In sum, communal life at the Evanston ashram provided the setting for the radical transformation of the individual's identity and worldview through total immersion in its all-encompassing, alien ideology and social structure. Precipitating factors included disenchantment with the wider society previously manifested in youth culture-associated patterns of behavior. Comments by devotees suggested that the youth culture was unable to provide a meaningful symbolic framework to explain and/or fulfill their basic spiritual needs. Prior experiences of devotees also included both a felt-alienation -- expressed literally as a state of confusion and ambiguity -- as well as a high incidence of selective "shopping" among similarly absolutist and highly structured religious movements. Therefore, the Hare Krsna movement represents a viable sectarian "plausibility structure" in Berger's terms by providing a social structure for cognitively restructuring the individual's total worldview, minimizing the managing human needs, and providing a status sytem for the attainment of spiritually pragamatic goals. The all-encompassing, absolutist system of meaning and the comprehensiveness of communal life also reinforce felt-alienation from competing ideologies and primary and secondary ties to the outside world.

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The Divine Light Mission is an exemplar of the many youth culture cults -- these include astrological, mind control, the yoga groups, Sabud, Zen, and other Hindu Vedanta movements such as that of the late Meher Baba and the Church Universal (see Robbins, 1969; Damrell, 1977). These rather syncretic groups stress the internal, individualistic transformation of subjective worldviews through contact with a "hidden reality' beyond the world of appearances. The significance of individual experiences is typically reinforced only by a loosely structured set of religious symbols and boundary-maintenance mechanisms which do not insulate its members from competing commonsense assumptions of reality or to promote intragroup solidarity. Therefore, there is minimal "bridge-burning" of past relationships and even an enhancement of existing affective ties to the outside world.

Most cults provide a meaningful rationale for individual action through seances, meditation, and/or emphasis upon "service" -- specifically in everyday life -- helping to resocialize or reintegrate members into either the institutionalized occupational structures of society, or the more fluid organizational hierarchy of the movements (see Robbins et al., 1975). While they may make "everyday realities" more understandable and manageable from a spiritually "higher" perspective, such cultic movements commonly attract individuals with varied types of backgrounds which create problems of membership commitment, solidarity, and stability (see Wallis, 1974; Pilarzyk, 1978). In any case, their integrative nature is indicative of the acceptance of multiple frameworks of meaning and reinterpretations of biography and identity.

The alternation process by which an individual becomes a DLM "premie" (literally, "lover of God") is very different from the conversion process within the ISKCON ashram. For instance, there is no real "process of entry" into the movement since there are few identifiable group boundaries. There are also few formal standards of admission. Individuals interested or curious about the group usually attend a nightly "satsang" meeting, where spiritual discourse concerns the mystical experience and Guru Maharaj Ji. Satsang was the focal point of communal life at DLM ashrams and the single most important function served for the movement's large cultic community of 40,000 Americans in 1974.

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Members initially visited the DLM centers in Chicago and Milwaukee for a variety of reasons. Both curiosity and the prior establishment of relationships with premies were common situational factors affecting initial entry. Ashram premies (13%) were less likely to interpret their first contacts as merely curiosity-seeking or friendly visitations than were nonashram members (65%). Ashram members felt their initial contacts with the Divine Light Mission to be motivated largely by a need for spiritual meaning in life (85%). They commonly interpreted past situations through their present condition as active cultic community members. However, the search for religious meaning also reflected the typical premie's prior contact with frustrating youth culture lifestyles. An ashram premie in Chicago expressed this search for meaning and its fulfillment through membership in the movement.

Since I was…in high school I had realized that the normal state of awareness that I and the people I knew had lacked something and that "something," if known, would allow people to open up both inside themselves and outside in relationships to others. At that time I consciously started seeking a way of finding that goal. This took me through a couple of years of hatha, raja and karma yoga and I even taught for a short period of time. My intellectual understanding greatly increased, but I knew that the key of actually experiencing that which I talked about was missing. …I ended up going to the Divine Light Mission ashram in Minneapolis in late September of 1972 and heard satsang there and felt that the people were actually experiencing that which I longed for. I received knowledge … and later moved into the ashram here Chicago (field note excerpt).

As with the Hare Krsna communalists, the more committed an individual premie was to meditation and to the movement (as reflected by ashram residency), the more likely he was to give a spiritual interpretation for initially contacting the ashram.

As noted above, the ashram community stressed the importance of hearing satsang (spiritual discourse). The individual frequently used nightly satsang to raise questions or to resolve doubts concerning the importance of the guru and his mystical knowledge. DLM communities were highly aware of the cognitive worldview restructuring taking place through satsang and ultimately through the mystical exper-

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ience in meditation. They typically regarded satsang as the best means to achieve communal solidarity. Therefore, the potential premie was asked to return to a nightly sat-sang service in order to "cleanse" himself of any doubts and to "open oneself up to the knowledge." The continual, gradual change in worldview through satsang was believed to affect the individual's cognitive and cathectic existence, preparatory to the receipt of mystical knowledge. The individual recognizing the spiritual significance of the mystical experience after continual attendance at satsang was considered adequately prepared to "receive knowledge." The group's rather diffuse and precarious belief structure stressed the symbolic universality of its religious experience as exhibited in all scriptures of the major world religions. In addition, the establishment of personal ties within the cultic community provided added reinforcement for becoming a serious follower by receiving the meditative techniques.

Contrary to ISKCON, the path to alternation cannot be understood through a timetable of integration into the group. The highly tentative nature of the "knowledge session" and the variability in time needed for spiritual preparation reflected the cult's highly individualistic orientation. Both factors were determined largely by the "mahatma" or disciple of guru Maharaj Ji.5 Mahatmas commonly traveled from city to city, staying at DLM ashrams, giving spiritual discourse, and revealing secret techniques of the mystical knowledge. They were considered to be further along the path to God-realization as apostles of the guru and therefore commanded much respect from the premie communities. They alone determined if the individual was adequately prepared to receive the knowledge or if a knowledge session would be granted at all.

The mahatma personally selected those individuals whom he felt to be spiritually prepared through a personal meeting. He questioned them on the diffuse, precarious belief system of the movement and on the importance of the religious experience. For those selected, the knowledge session lasted from five to fifteen hours. It usually included more satsang as well as the revelation of techniques by which one mediated upon the "fruits of the knowledge." Premies commonly stressed the intensity of their initial spiritual "shock experiences" (Schutz, 1970; Schutz and Luckmann, 1973) in the knowledge session and the feelings of love and peace that accompanied them. As one premie declared, "receive Guru Maharaj Ji's knowledge! It was the most thrilling experience I have gotten out of anything I did." Participation in a knowledge session and receiving the mystical

68 Brainwashing/Deprograming Controversy

knowledge formally marked entry and membership into the cultic community at large, temporarily suspending prior commonsense notions of what constituted "reality." This finding is consistent with ethnographic data gathered among other Vedantic cults (see Damrell, 1977).

While the experience was considered to be a very intense and illuminating event in the lives of most premies, it was regarded as the beginning of a life-long path toward self-perfection through daily meditation. The premie who sincerely accepted this long-range view of the alternation process normally asked the general secretary or community leader for permission to join the ashram. The individual was accepted into the ashram if he could gain the general secretary's approval. The latter usually considered the advice and counsel of other ashram members who knew the novitiate personally. If admitted, the new ashram member and the general secretary then talked over his background skills and the existing needs of the premie community in order to determine his new position and set of obligations. The member usually was asked to secure an outside job to raise money for the movement.

Adjustment to the communal lifestyle, regardless of prior experiences with alternative living arrangements, was considered an important aspect of the alternation process in DLM communities. The daily schedule within the community provided structure for only those aspects of premie life considered most essential: meditation, satsang, and proselytization. Satsang commonly took on a different subjective meaning for a new premie after the alternation experience and admittance into the movement ashram. It became something to be "given" to fellow premies or to interested outsiders, rather than merely a religious meeting or something the individual "hears" or "receives." The new premie also became aware of the public dimension to satsang, namely, that of proseltyization. Closely related to the idea of satsang was the notion of "selfless service." Service referred to the acceptance and accomplishment of actions in everyday life offered in devotion to Guru Majaraj Ji, the cultic leader and exemplary role model for all behavior. Thus, service justified the acceptance of the more profane activities outside the community.

The DLM community's fluid organizational structure contributed to the higher rate of attrition among DLM members. The lack of mechanisms which insulate communal life was evident in the large number of noncommunal members and the lack of "bridge-burning." Seventy-two percent of interviewed ashram premies felt relationships with their families had

Thomas Pilarzyk 69

improved. Only 90% of these attributed such changes to their personal transformations through meditation. Many members reported similar changes in peer relationships due to Maharaj Ji and the Divine Light movement, though some ashram members felt a general disapproval from past friends over their allegiances to the guru. These later relationships were frequently redefined as artificial vis-a-vis the "real" understanding of love and friendship available through meditation and the cultic community.

In sum, the alternation process into the Divine Light Mission movement was highly individualistic in orientation. It involved only a partial transformation of identity and subjective reality by cultivating a religious experience through meditation without a rigorous internalization of numerous group norms and values. Demands for inculcating the group ideology were minimal. Background factors among members included disenchantment with the wider society reflected by patterns of behavior associated with the youth culture. Many premies also expressed displeasure over aspects of prior youth culture lifestyles which were unable to supply satisfying interpretive frameworks of meaning or to fulfill their needs for love, belongingness, and security. "Shopping around," sometimes simultaneously among other syncretic cultic groups, was another manifestation of feelings of disaffection and of the cultic nature of the alternation process. Its ashrams provided a setting for alternation, facilitation of spiritual growth, management of economic needs for ashram members, and for cultic meetings and organizational activities. The movement further provided its large number of noncommunal members, located within the traditional occupational structures of the wider society, with a practical means for dealing with personal stress through meditation. The symbolic and universalistic nature of DLM ideology and the diffuseness of the movement's social structure allowed its members freedom to maintain and cultivate ties with the outside world. No attempts were made to keep all affective relationships within the commune. Therefore the alternation process involved a rather easy break with a former identity and a transition to a new set of meanings.


There are at least two distinctive processes of personal transformation among members of youth culture religions. They are sectarian conversion, as exemplified by socialization into the Hare Krsna movement, and cultic alternation, as represented by affiliation with the Divine

70 Brainwashing/Deprograming Controversy

Light Mission movement. They differ in the degree of subjective change in worldview, lifestyle, and biography undergone by group members as well as in the objective conditions of each movement's ideology and social structure. The theoretical orientation of Berger has provided the author with the possibility of examining the interface between each movement's set of subjective meanings and their objective conditions.

In this paper then, the author has sought to clarify and extend Berger's phenomenological perspective on alternations between meaning systems. This article can be considered part of the monumental task, recently begun by Damrell (1977), Hall (1978), and others, of filling the empirical void in the largely theoretical writings of phenomenological sociology. In addition, this article has hopefully provided some direction for future research in the sociology of religion. For example, a comprehensive, systematic analysis of the relationship between the processes discussed above and the functions performed by the great variety of youth culture religions would help to further test the generalizability of this author's contentions.


1. For example, see the structural functionalist perspective presented by Lofland and Stark (1965) which analyzes predisposing or background factors (external social conditions which facilitate contact with specific religious groups) and situational factors (internal conditions which lead to recruitment of predisposed individuals and to the functioning and social cohesion of the group). By contrast, Hine (1970) has characterized conversion to a specific fringe religious movement (Pentacostalism) in terms of two commitment-generating events: (1) a subjective experience which restructures the individual's cognitive worldview and self-image, and (2) a "bridge-burning act" which cuts the individual off from his social ties to the outside world while identifying him with the group in which such an act is highly valued. She does suggest that commitment-generating acts and experiences differ for different types of movements, an issue which is directly relevant to the argument presented in this article.

2. Sociological perspectives on conversion grounded in structural-functionalism have stressed the sole importance of the social processes in alternation of a worldview. However, our analysis suggests the impor-

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tance of the shock experience in cultic alternations. Schutz (1970) noted the finite provinces of meanings which constitute "shock experiences" and which disrupt the routine aspects of everyday life. These include religious experiences, hallucinations, fantasies, daydreams, incidences of existential humor and sex, and the like. In this article, the mystical experience of the DLM is regarded as a prototype of such a "shock." Such religious peak experiences are subjectively associated with feelings of love, joy, and blessedness and are so profound and intense that they may frequently outshine the individual's previous existence. Their deliberate cultivation promotes a subjective redefinition of past experiences and self-conceptions. The specific study of such peak experiences is commonly associated with the late humanistic psychologist Maslow (1964). The mystical experience was frequently extolled by Maslow as the paradigmatic peak experience. Greeley (1974) has argued that the sociological community has ignored the importance of mysticism for human existence and has thereby misunderstood or misinterpreted it.

3. These "rationalizations," "justifications," or "explanations" are common to most transitions in personal biography, including the transition from "lay person" to "sociologist." As suggested by an earlier reviewer of this paper, sociologists are also prone to giving rational accounts of their transitions into the profession, although they were initially affected by rather mundane events and happenings.

4. Sannyasas of the Hare Krsna movement are East Indian followers appointed by Prabhupada who have "renounced the world," traveling from city to city while studying and preaching the Vedic scriptures as translated by him. They are not subject to ashram rules and regulations although they adhere to a special set of responsibilities assigned by Prabhupada. The ashram community views this renounced stage of Vedic life as the ultimate aim in attaining Krsna Consciousness, reflected in the individual's status as a bhakie or a "pure, loving, selfless devotee of Krsna" (see Daner, 1973). The vanaprastha consist of individuals who have become more isolated from the outside world for spiritual reasons.

5. There were over one thousand mahatmas within the Divine Light Mission movement around the world in 1974.

Almost all were middle-class East Indian males. Little information exists on them, especially regarding the decision-making processes by which an individual becomes a mahatma or is "de-mahatmatized."

72 Brainwashing/Deprograming Controversy


* Originally published in Pacific Sociological Review 21 (October 1978a):379-405.