The Origin, Development, and Decline of a Youth Culture Religion:
An Application of Sectarianization Theory

Thomas Pilarzyk

Review of Religious Research, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Autumn, 1978), pp. 23-43.
Department of Sociology
Marymount College of Kansas

In this paper Wallis' theory of sectarianization is applied to data collected on the Divine Light Mission, a contemporary cultic movement of the American youth culture. Its development is discussed in terms of intra-organizational changes within the social context of American pluralism. The movement's short history to date largely substantiates Wallis' writings concerning the effects of cultic fragility, sectarianizing strategies and organizational constraints on movement development. The paper contributes to recent conceptual writings within the sociology of religion on youth culture movements in modern Western societies.

The growing interest in "mystical occultism" in the 1960s and 1970s was noted by religionists and social scientists alike as participation in Eastern religions became increasingly popular among college-age youth. Various scholars of religion offered different, and at times conflicting, explanations for its occurrence (see King, 1970; Needleman, 1970; Baum, 1970). Sociologists tended to explain the rise of interest in similarly "esoteric" forms of religious expression with structural or functional theoretical frameworks (see Robbins, 1969; Eister, 1970; Richardson, 1973; Robbins, Anthony, and Curtis, 1975). Little theoretical attention, however, has been given to the interaction of societal and intra-organizational factors affecting the development of such movements. It is my contention that the theoretical perspectives of Wallis and Robertson can be integrated to analyze the growth and development of contemporary religious movements over time and to elucidate factors crucial to the process of sectarianization.

Theoretical discussions of sectarianism historically have been a significant part of church-sect debates in the sociology of religion. Recently, a considerable amount of attention has been directed toward redefining the terminology and re-examining factors relevant to understanding religious movements. The concepts sect and cult havc been examined specifically in light of research on contemporary movements in modern industrialized nations. This paper seeks to make a contribution to these discussions by applying recent theoretical advances to data collected on a cultic movement of the contemporary American youth culture: the Divine Light Mission (DLM)


of the guru Maharaj Ji. The purpose of this paper is to explain theoretically the set of inter-related factors which affected the growth, development, and decline of the movement over a period of five years.


Sociological theories of religious organizations historically have been concerned with conditions under which certain processes and patterns of social structure are likely to occur. Theoretical perspectives on sectarianization attempt to explain the processes through which various non-institutionalized religions are maintained or changed. In other words, they must specifically address the process of sectarianization occurring among religious movement organizations. The church-sect debate recently has revolved around the specific parochial uses of concepts such as sect and cult and their empirical inter-relations over time (Wallis, 1973, 1974, 1975; Richardson, 1973, 1975). Let us briefly examine the theoretical approaches of Wallis and Robertson on religious movement development.

Wallis' approach (1974, 1975) locates the sociological importance of the process of sectarianization with changes in organizational form, authority relations, membership commitment and relations with the outside world-rather than in the "belief content" of a particular movement. Wallis critiques and incorporates existing theoretical perspectives on cult and sect development (most notably, Robertson's) into his analysis of the sectarianization process. He focuses on and traces temporal changes and variations in organizational elements over time. While such changes are considered to be the result of interaction between the religious organization and its wider sociocultural environment, Wallis places major emphasis upon each movement's intra-dynamics.

In his analysis, Wallis notes that lack of prior usage of the term "cult" is largely due to conceptual confusion. He dismisses those definitions of cult which characterize such groups as "deviant" by either the content of their belief system (e.g., Martin, 1962. Clock and Stark, 1965; Lofland, 1966) or their particular type of religious experience (e.g., Troelsch, 1931.) He argues that such characterizations are of little sociological use, and preclude discussions of sectarianization as a process involving changes in organizational and ideological form.

Wallis further critiques those theories which have utilized the ideal-type concept "sect." Sectarian characteristics in the West such as asceticism, an ethical orientation, achieved membership status, and egalitarianism, Wallis (1974: 302) argues, are "a consequence


of historical circumstances in which religious protest was legitimated by an appeal to the presumed characteristics of the early church, [rather] than part of a universal characterization of sectarianism." Contemporary religious sects in industrial societies tend to stress other characteristics such as voluntary membership commitment.

Wallis defines the cross-cultural features of religious movements, conceptualizing them as a continuum ranging from sect to cult, with an intermediate concept of centralized cult. Sects are defined as "minority groups claiming authoritative and privileged access to the truth or salvation" (Wallis, 1974: 303). They are deviant and yet are "uniquely legitimate" as an access to truth (Wallis, 1975:90). They possess an "ultimate source of legitimate authority beyond the individual member which determines what does or does not fall within the ideological boundaries of the movement" (Wallis, 1974: 303). Sects, therefore, are epistemologically authoritarian. Their belief systems are all-encompassing, typically including a highly developed theodicy and metaphysics. They also demand a strong, centralized system of authority usually organized around charismatic leadership.

The cult, on the other hand, is "epistemologically individualistic." Each member determines which elements in the loosely-structured belief system of the movement are personally acceptable. The cult also is "pluralistically legitimate" in that it is conceived as one of many alternative paths to salvation. There are no clearly articulated doctrines and, therefore, cultic group boundaries are largely undefined and beliefs are somewhat arbitrary, superficial, and syncretic. In fact, cults normally emerge as spontaneous or charismatic "local cults" which synthesize eclectic doctrines and practices available in a larger cultic milieu or subculture. There usually is no locus of authority which regulates the way in which the individual interprets the mystical or psychic experiences, therapies, and techniques offered by the cult. Cults, therefore, are inherently fragile institutions due to doctrinal precariousness and problems of authority and commitment. Cultic fragility fosters other constraints on long-term organizational growth, such as internal conflict, multiple leadership roles, and doctrinal schism. All work against effective institutionalization.

In theoretical opposition to Nelson (1968 a & b, 1969), Wallis argues that new religious movements can emerge at any point on the sect-cult continuum and can develop in either direction-toward greater cultism or greater sectarianism. Those groups which emerge closest to the conception of the cult are least likely to undergo sectarianization. However, Wallis identifies a variety of organizational "strategies" which cope with the cult's institutional fragility


and, thereby, enhance its chances at development into the more structured and stable form of centralized cult or sect. These strategies include the centralization of cultic authority which erects clearer cognitive and ideological boundaries; the expansion and differentiation of movement doctrines and beliefs; and the emergence of charismatic leadership and a structured set of religious functionaries. As we shall see, the Divine Light Mission "employed" many of these in its rather short history in the United States.

Movements which develop more sectarian strategies commonly do so only after a transition has been made through the intermediary stage of centralized cult which involves a radical break, when necessary, with previously-held syncretic beliefs. The ability to mobilize sectarianizing strategies as ways of coping with cultic fragility is located by Wallis in the motivations of the cultic leadership. Unfortunately, he fails to analyze the concept of centralized cult in any systematic fashion (see Richardson, 1975).

Wallis' theoretical perspective gives overriding importance to intragroup factors. His theoretical perspective does try to show how maintenance of cultic fervor or development of more sectarian features also are dependent upon the movement's ability to attract interested individuals and specific socio-cultural elements in the outside world. Recruitment, after all, is partially dependent upon the organization of the movement as a sect or cult, the wider socio-cultural milieu, and the inter-relationship of these two factors. The nature of this interaction forms the movement's dynamic response to the outside world and affects its growth and development.

Robertson (1970:120), on the other hand, has stressed the explicit inter-relation of four factors in the growth and development of religious organizations. They include the prevailing environmental culture; the wider social structure and the constituency upon which the movement draws its support; the cultural or ideological nature of the group; and the collectivity's internal organization. He uses these factors to explain the development of the Salvation Army and other sects in England. These four factors, which can be categorized as either environmental or organizational, constrain the movements in relationship to the wider society.

Robertson (1970: 113-149), like Wallis, has argued that church-sect issues are infiltrated by culturally-biased "problems of parochialness" and that specific attention must be paid to the socio-cultural levels at which cross-cultural applications of terms take place.1 He is concerned with the relationship between the collectivity's self-conceived basis for legitimacy (as either exclusive or inclusive). These variables correspond respectively, (though not exactly) to Wallis' distinction between cultic individualism-sectarian authori-


tarianism, and cultic inclusiveness-sectarian exclusiveness. Robertson uses these variables to classify various religious organizations and to examine their interrelation with the social environment, using the four factors outlined above.

Robertson's analysis of different types of religious movements, however, is not the focus of this paper, since he largely disregards the sociological significance of the term cult in addressing the process of sectarianism. He also accepts most of those traditional attributes associated with the term sect by the classical theorists and which are critiqued by Wallis. Rather, we will stress Wallis' theoretical approach to examine the balance between environmental and organizational factors in sect development in modern societies. We also will elaborate on certain elements of Wallis' theory of cultic organizations by tracing the growth, development, and decline of the Divine Light Mission movement in America within the context of Robertson's interactive approach.

The author engaged in largely qualitative analyses of various ashrams or "temple-shelters" of the DLM movement over a period of two and a half years. Visitations included participation in religious rituals, discussions, and meetings; many casual conversations; and intensive, recorded interviews. Conversations with national leaders of the movement and content analyses of movement publications were especially useful as primary and secondary sources of data in the ex post facto tracing of its organizational development in the United States. The historical examination in this paper focuses specifically upon those factors which made an impact upon organizational developments within the Divine Light Mission movement. To borrow from Robertson's work, two fundamental elements contributed to stabilization, change, dissension and conflict in movement development. These were cultural or environmental factors and intra-organizational factors (such as ideology and social structure). Let us examine each in order to understand the development and decline of the DLM.


American pluralism has different implications for different types of youth culture movements. Environmental responses to the emergence of religious movements are the result of the prevailing mood in the dominant religious and political institutions as well as of the ideological battles between competing sub-cultural systems of meaning. Religious movements, in turn, react to a pluralist situation in different ways, even though they may share certain orientations toward directly experiencing the sacred and are critical of certain


trends of modernity. Cultic movements, as pluralistically legitimate, are more comfortable in a secularized environment than are the more dogmatic sects. Sectarian movements, as epistemologically authoritarian, find it harder to live in a society with competing religious and secular meaning systems which are neither "pure" nor "true."

The more pervasive response by the outside world to modern Eastern religious movements is couched in a general intolerance of any lifestyle which is in the least bit esoteric. For example, "hippies" have been known to undergo much ridicule, condemnation and persecution for choosing to live by "alien" moral codes (see Brown, 1969). Condemnation and persecution of Eastern-oriented "guru freaks" or chanting barefoot "saffron-robed sissies" also are understandable in terms of a general dissatisfaction with anything which threatens the subjective worlds and civil religion of straight America. As Berger and Luckmann (1966) have noted, the institutional order of contemporary mass society is "continually threatened by the presence of realities that are meaningless in its own terms." The wider society's "official" institutional response to the Divine Light Mission has been largely positive. For example, former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty proclaimed a "meditation day" in honor of guru Maharaj Ji, and the Wisconsin and Connecticut state legislatures passed resolutions acclaiming his "service to mankind." However, other responses have been more negative. Some "concerned parents" of premies affiliated with FREECOG (Free Our Children From The Children Of God) have extended their attempts at reclaiming their sons and daughters to such "fanatical religious groups" as the Divine Light Mission.

Greater significance lies with the response by the DLM's most immediate environment, the youth culture which acts as the movement's "cultic milieu." The great majority of the Divine Light Mission's membership has been recruited from the youth culture. The American youth culture is, among other things, a conglomeration of spiritual groups which includes Jesus Freaks, satanic cult worshippers, zen mystics, chic astrologers, guru followers, and other spiritualists. With the establishment of such esoteric "subuniverses of meaning," a variety of perspectives on the youth culture religions have emerged, each viewing the others from the angle of its own belief system. Consequently, the youth culture varies in its responses to the different groups, from minimal and covert toward cultic movements to the overt and aggressive responses toward such sects as the Jesus and Hare Krsna movements. The esoteric ways of some sects generate a more negative and overt response from their immediate


youth culture milieu than do the less threatening belief systems of cults.

The youth culture's response to the DLM was somewhat ambiguous, combining indifference with some instances of overt hostility. Its most visible response came from media accounts by youth culture publications.2 Most of these responses were made from a decidedly leftist political ideology. Such criticisms usually focused upon the alleged phoniness of the "blissed-out premies" (followers of the guru), the "hocuspocus" aspects of the meditation, and the "materialistic fixations" and the physical condition of the guru (Reed, 1973; Kelley, 1974; Levine, 1974; Baxter, 1974). These accounts commonly pondered the authenticity of conversions of past political activists who became premies. Others questioned the use of movement funds (Kelley, 1974. Morgan, 1973). Premie and former political leftist Rene Davis became a popular target of such publications (see Davis, 1974). In general, most accounts have been quite negative and full of distortions from the DLM's point of view. However, it should be noted that the movement has received positive comments from such youth culture "folk heroes" as anti-war activist Rev. Daniel Berrigan, radical lawyer William Kunstler, and singer-songwriter Cat Stevens. Typical reactions by DLM converts to the negative reports varied from bewilderment and amusement to extreme defensiveness.

Most of the serious confrontations which border on harassment involved other youth culture religious movements. The Hare Krsna and Jesus movements were especially vehement in their reactions to the DLM claim that "Maharaj Ji is God." Overt confrontations took place in Houston where the DLM held its Millennium festival in November of 1973. Jesus people carried signs denouncing guru Maharaj Ji as the "anti-Christ" and some Hare Krsna devotees blocked doorways to the Astrodome and were subsequently arrested. Such harassment was evident in another incident also witnessed by the author, involving a Hare Krsna devotee who attended a Maharaj Ji visit to Chicago in the winter of 1974. He assaulted the guru and had to be escorted from the building twice. Less authoritarian religions have been more congenial, as indicated by favorable responses to the DLM's "interfaith programs" in 1974. Various local religious cults participated in community, service-oriented functions in large American cities.

The greater relative importance of environmental vs. organizational factors in the rise of cultic movements must be viewed as historically and culturally conditioned as well as a product of the unique nature of each new movement. It is my contention that pluralism in contemporary American society is an important en-


vironmental factor which influences the shape and direction of the sectarianization process presented by Wallis. The lack of continual, intense hostilities with the wider society negates the establishment of strong group boundaries and solidarity among cultic followers as "oppressed minorities." The seemingly greater importance of a anovement's sub-culture of origin also is neutralized by the inconsistent and ambiguous reaction of the American youth culture to the DLM. The absence of continued repressive conditions on the American scene comprises an important variable in cultic development.

Interaction between environmental and intra-organizational factors, then, is considered instrumental to explaining development of a movement from a local cult to centralized cult to sect. However, the most crucial factor (as Wallis' theory stresses) remains the movement organization: the decisions, tactics, goals, and collective actions implemented by the organization and their consequences. This latter factor is especially important for new religious movements in modern America. While they are commonly "agents of demodernization" (Berger et al, 1973), such movements' leadership typically is concerned with the calculation and planning of organizational goals and tactics only insofar as these goals affect changes in their movement. Let us turn to those organizational aspects of cultic development which explain the rapid growth and decline of the Divine Light Mission in America.


Like some of its youth culture counterparts, the Divine Light Mission movement experienced rapid growth from its inception in the United States in 1971. By the summer of 1974, the American movement had grown to a total of 27 ashrams which housed over 1200 of an estimated 50,000 members or "premies." However, its development was not as simple, gradual, consistent, nor as longlasting as changes within other "Eastern imports" such as the Hare Krsna movement (see Pilarzyk 1975).

Since its inception, the Divine Light Mission has been decidedly cultic in Wallis' terms. The importance of the mystical experience, the few loosely-structured rules and regulations, democratic decision-making processes, the lack of doctrinal sophistication or scriptural finesse, and weak group boundaries and social control mechanisms represent a cultic form of group life at its ashrams. In addition, the movement, like most cults, remains basically integrative: it offers its large peripheral, non-communal milieu a meditative means by which to deal with and strive for institutionalized


goals through traditional occupations. The DLM has functioned to reintegate alienated individuals into the mainstream of the wider society. Such "integrative movements" (see Robbins, 1969) with a large constituency of cultic followers commonly have rather inclusive social structures.

Origin And Early Development

Wallis argues that local cults, as either "charismatic" (whose activities are a result of a charismatic leader) or "spontaneous" (which develop through members' common interests), must negotiate a stage of centralization if they are to develop in the direction of viable institutionalization or sectarianism. The process of centralization involves strategies to cope with the institutional fragility of local cults - their doctrinal precariousness, conflicts in authority relations and problems of membership commitment. The Divine Light Mission originated in America as a number of geographically dispersed local cults. In May of 1971, the first five American "premies" or followers of guru Maharaj Ji who received his mystical knowledge in India returned to the United States to proselytize immediately prior to the guru's first visit to America in July of that year. They set up an ashram in Denver, Colorado which later served as the American headquarters for the movement. Shortly thereafter, "mahatmas" or apostles of the guru visited the U.S. revealing the meditative techniques in large numbers, thereby "anointing" new premies. During this initial phase of development in the American movement (1971-72), premies frequently were encouraged to return to their hometowns to set up local ashrams and to maintain contact with the original five premies at the emerging "national headquarters" of the movement jn Denver. By August, 1971, the Divine Light Mission was formally established as a loosely-structured cultic movement. In taped information interviews, older members of a few Midwestern ashrams characterized the early DLM premies as individuals who were "really on spiritual trips" with many different, at times competing, conceptions of what "spirituality" and the "spiritual person" were. Many were "counter-culture types" interested in Eastern philosophies and drug-induced experiences who combined their experiences of the mystical knowledge with chanting mantras and ingesting psychedelics. The movement's cultic origins also were reflected in the use of the I Ching, meditation and astrology by initial members. Adhering to a wide array of occult practices, these premies expressed a great deal of alienation from the traditional values and lifestyles of mainstream American society. This collection


of occult beliefs and the lack of a real process of socialization into the movement contributed to a high attrition rate.

The DLM's early development was characterized, then, by the organization of numerous local cults in various U.S. cities. Meditative practices and discussions concerning the mystical knowledge were individualized. The movement lacked both centralized control of its ideology and a standard interpretation of the religious experience. Rather, the emerging belief system consisted of a loosely-bound set of precarious cultic beliefs and practices which only later were formalized into a simplified version of Vedanta closely approximating the classicaal hindu non-dualist philosophical position.

While Biblical and Vedic literature predominated, all the major world religious scriptures were interpreted in universalistic terms. Much room was left for individual interpretation in the movement's evolving symbol system. In comparison to the inception of the Hare Krsna movement, little emphasis was placed upon scriptural finesse or organizational control of membership (see Pilarzyk, 1975). The mystical experience among DLM premies was considered the basis for all world religious scriptures. Continual meditation on the "Divine Light" and its effects guaranteed salvation for the individual and became a theme reinforced through the selective use and interpretation of various scriptural references. Little devotional ritualism developed and although verbal lip-service was paid to the illusory nature of the external world (maya), greater emphasis was placed upon the "practIcality" of meditation for daily living. Therefore, at its inception, the DLM's belief system was highly syncretic, individualistic, and doctrinally precarious.

By July of 1972, the first national conference of DLM leaders took place, and guidelines were laid down which specified certain rules and regulations for U.S. ashrams. DLM officials note that this led to an initial departure of followers who viewed ashram life more as an economic convenience than as a step toward the enhancement of the spiritual path to God-realization. The "Guru Puja Festival," also held in July of that year, marked the first public meeting for the American membership. This initial stage of organizational development involved a growing definition of membership, esprit de corps, and lifestyles for ashram premies.

Early development also was marked by various organizational shifts generated by the DLM leadership which channeled movement energies into propagation activities. As evidenced in the early establishment of the movement newspaper Divine Times, the rather well-publicized Millennium festival was planned for the Astrodome in Houston as "the most significant event in the history of the planet." Propagation activities increased as greater concern was given to


the outside world's response to the movement. Propagation under management of the guru's "holy family" intensified preparation for the Millennium festival in November, 1973. The event was organized around the theme "Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?" and would launch a new campaign theme for the movement, namely "Guru Maharaj Ji is Here and Now." Premie communities grew rapidly in many American cities due to such efforts. Rapid expansion greatly affected the economic and political organizations at the local level. In addition to showing interest in proselytization and its image as a religious movement of the youth culture, the Divine Light Mission also began to concern itself with its "corporate image" as a way of attracting financial and membership support. The movement headquarters in some larger cities moved to offices in large downtown buildings. In addition, by April, 1973, the Divine United Organization (DUO) was established as the financial arm of the movement. While guru Maharaj Ji began to participate in the development of the movement's publications, most major organizational decisions were still made by the premies at the Denver headquarters in conjunction with the guru's older family members.

The distribution of power and authority in the movement in the early 1970s was officially and symbolically based upon the somewhat ambiguous charismatic appeal of guru Maharaj Ji. Many "rank and file" followers were uncertain about his position in the whole organizational scheme of the movement as well as the claim that he was the only true spiritual master. Devotion to him allegedly was based in his ability to inspire a connection between himself and the "spiritual energy" or "divine light" experienced in meditation. This connection was capable of motivating premies to exclusive obedience to the guru. Leaders within the organization more commonly gained their positions through special dedication to Maharaj Ji, the meditation or his family as well as through organizational skills and talents based upon past experience. Leadership positions within local ashrams were relatively unstructured. However, new positions were created rapidly and positions which did exist became more structured over the first two and a half years of DLM development. Ashram leaders frequently were shuffled between ashrams as increasing ties were made between DLM centers and the central organization in Denver. These original attempts at consolidating various local cults into a centralized organization were reflected in rapid, sometimes haphazard, administrative changes. As we shall see, more important shifts took place once power and authority were centralized.


Organizational Expansion and Contraction

Although Wallis fails to examine the concept of centralized cult in great detail, the DLM's experience included great concern for the institution's economic and membership stability in the face of doctrinal precariousness and leadership divisiveness. The Divine Light Mission exhibited these characteristics as an organization caught between the inclusiveness and individualism of the local cult and the exclusiveness and authoritarianism of the sect. Its attempts at moving in one direction or another were stymied by a set of complex actions and events.

The Millennium festival in the Houston Astrodome in November, 1973, marked the single most important development in the short history of the American movement. It was billed by the international DLM as the most significant event in history, which would establish a thousand years of peace on earth. As noted, full-scale propagation activities at the local and national levels preceded the event. Many rather bizarre, "cultic" predictions were made by some premies which reflected the excitement in anticipation of the event as well as authenticated its significance.

The festival had a significant impact upon both the membership and organization. Millennium gave premies the chance to have personal contact with their spiritual master and non-premies the chance to receive the mystical knowledge. More significantly, the movement incurred a large debt from the festival. This economic deficit was partially the result of poor management by the "holy family" (Guru Maharaj Ji's immediate family of mother and three older brothers who made up the symbolic-organizational hierarchy of the international DLM) and the much lower than anticipated attendance. Consequently, the festival necessitated policy shifts within the movement organization.

Immediately prior to Millennium, an expansion of facilities and an increase in membership had marked changes on various local ashram levels. For example, in Chicago, the ashram membership grew to 48, and in Milwaukee the ashram commune changed locations partially to accommodate larger facilities for future growth. In 1973 alone, the DLM had recruited 30,000 new converts (Foss and Larkin, 1975).3 Such growth brought rapid change to the economic structure of the movement. The Divine United Organization had been economically dependent upon external means of support since its inception. Donations of money and facilities had largely subsidized the movement in its earlier years in the U.S. Even later, many ashram houses were donated by premies with wealthy backgrounds (e.g., the ashram in Chicago). But once the movement incurred the Millennium festival


debt, attempts at economic specialization and self-sufficiency were made.

The movement in the spring of 1974 remained dependent upon external sources of support (e.g., an estimated two-thirds of all premies living in DLM ashrams held "straight jobs" in the wider society). But the establishment of income-generating programs (e.g., "Divine Sales" stores in various cities which sold donated repaired items) symbolized steps taken toward greater economic specialization. In addition, sales of books edited or written by premies (e.g., Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji?), the movement magazine (And It Is Divine), the newspaper (Divine Times), and such items as guru t-shirts and bumperstickers continued to generate income.

The "service-orientation" of the Divine Light Mission served to legitimate the outside economic sources for premie communities during this stage of development. For example, those who held jobs in the wider society viewed them as chances to proselytize about "the knowledge" (gained in meditation) in addition to their importance as sources of income. However, because the work itself took place outside the cult, it was less infused with spiritual significance and promoted little collective solidarity among DLM communalists. Therefore, trends toward greater economic independence would ideally promote stronger social insulation and feelings of group solidarity.

In addition to this interest in financial self-sufficiency, greater concern was shown for centralization of the organization and stability of its membership. For example, the Divine Community Project (DCP) was organized to centralize and account for ashram and premie house applications in various cities. Taped conversations with local leadership indicated that transfers of premies between ashrams were drastically reduced. According to some premies, trends in background characteristics among ashram members in early 1974 shifted away from those who had earlier viewed premie life as an alternative status system, as a crash-pad, or as a place where one could "kick the drug habit." A lengthened pre-conversion period also was planned, slowing the fluctuation in the movement's membership. Other steps toward cultic stabilization included the socialization of second-generation premies through the scheduled opening of DLM schools in 1975. Coupled with the general shift away from full-scale propagation associated with the Millennium festival and the national publicity it received, the DLM's membership apparently began to stabilize at the national level.

As the DLM's corporate president noted in the movement newspaper in the summer of 1974, "the debt (incurred by the Millennium festival) taught us a great deal about developing a stable foundation


for our communities. Today we are on the most stable financial basis we've been on at any other time." Continued cutbacks on propagation and capital spent to promote a corporate image allegedly helped to place the movement "back on its economic feet." Many of these developments were concurrent with guru Maharaj Ji's growing influence on organizational decision making.


Growing stabilization as a centralized cult was short-lived. Increased intervention by guru Maharaj Ji in the internal affairs of the American DLM led to friction, dissension, and the rapid decline of the movement. Decision-making and the establishment of movement direction were previously in the hands of the holy family and their premie administrators in Denver. By the summer of 1974, the guru began to institute important changes which support Wallis' (1974: 327) contention that the failure to cope with institutional fragility commonly results in movement decline:

Since failure to cope with this fragility tend to result in a loss of their distinctive authority, reabsorption of their doctrine into the cultic milieu, and the disappearance of their following, [cultic leaders] have little to lose and everything to gain by attempting to implement strategies of sectarianization, which their greater prestige within the movement is more like1y to render successful.

Maharaj Ji did indeed implement strategies to insure greater sectarianism. First, measures were taken to tighten restrictions of ashram life, to handle increasing membership dissension and "spiritual loafing," and to redefine the appropriate premie lifestyle. Second, the guru reiterated his importance as the only true spiritual master of the movement in the face of growing conflict with the holy family. And third, he initiated the internationalization of the movement, which demanded a broadening of its financial support base in the United States. All three measures contributed to yet another attempt to establish "a new social order." Let us examine each of these changes.

First, in the face of growing internal dissension at the grass-root and leadership levels, guru Maharaj Ji delivered a "shape up or ship out" lecture which called for DLM premies in all ashrams to either decide "for or against the mystical knowledge." He stressed that the dedicated premie must believe in the importance of the meditative experience and proselytize. The guru reminded premies of his self-importance as the only authoritative link between themselves and the spiritual knowledge. This re-emphasis upon the aims and purpose


of the premie lifestyle also led to a more careful screening of ashram membership and to the anticipation of formalized vows to differentiate between degrees of commitment to the movement. In addition, "knowledge classes" were started for novitiates at thc larger ashrams in order to accommodate the increased amount of time and preparation needed for receiving the mystical knowledge.

Second, guru Maharaj Ji's marriage in 1974 to an older American woman premie in a Western civil ceremony also held important implications for his leadership position and for grass-roots commitment to his authority. It represented an important break with Hindu tradition and caused greater dissension among the movement's leadership hierarchy, especially with members of the holy family and some traditionally-inclined mahatmas. His marriage, as well as the marriage of the American premie president of the DLM, led to the following mandate sent by Guru Maharaj Ji to all movement ashrams:

I have in the past few months experienced that a lot of premies have faced a problem of different agyas (direct commands) from different sources. This has even confused a lot of premies. I don't like this at all. I would like that all premies understand that no matter which member of the holy family gives agya, no action should be taken unless that has been confirmed with me. I hope that all premies understand this, for there is really One Source of agya, to Whom we have dedicated our lives and by Whose Grace we have been able to realize this most beautiful knowledge.

This power struggle led directly to the transfers of family members to different centers of the international organization, their subsequent denunciation of him as the spiritual head of the DLM, and a power struggle within the international movement.4 The guru's concern for centralization of his power and authority over the American movement was evident in shifts in movement activities. For example, he ordered a new approach to the magazine And It Is Divine, shifting toward a more "premie-oriented magazine." Also, specific semi-codified rules and regulations (e.g., special religious vows) were instituted early in 1974 for the regulation of local ashram-living. Similarly, daily schedules became increasingly standardized on a 24-hour basis.

Intensive interviews indicated that with the establishment of more formal standards for "candidates" receiving the meditation techniques, ashram leaders and mahatmas also became increasingly concerned over hints of certification and training requirements. Greater emphasis was placed on screening those who were eligible for such activities. In addition, the movement filed for formal status as a "church," mainly for tax exemption and group health insurance purposes. However, the belief system still remained rather syncretic, precarious, and subject to individual interpretation.5 This continued precarious-


ness and individualism suggested the continued cultic nature of the movement despite implementation of certain sectarian strategies. The policy changes within the movement, a result of the attempted arrogation of authority by the guru, were coupled with a new physical image for the spiritual master. Guru Maharaj Ji increasingly took to wearing mod clothes and hair styles and to using hip jargon usually associated with American youth culture lifestyles. This rather subtle break with his traditional Hindu image, in retrospect, was another indication of a growing estrangement between the guru and his more traditional Hindu "holy family," who with Maharaj Ji still collectively formed the DLM's international leadership hierarchy.

At the local ashrams, dissension among premies emerged over the reported leadership conflicts, the guru's physical image and his increasingly materialistic lifestyle. His marriage also held important implications for membership disintegration. For example, reactions to their spiritual leader's marriage included the departure of an estimated 40 to 80 percent of ashram premies nationwide as members redefined their own lives regarding celibacy and marriage. Stories of spontaneously-planned marriages between some ashram premies circulated between local centers. At one commune, the ashram membership dwindled to 9. A New York ashram also was reduced drastically in size from 48 to 28 full-time members. Therefore, the marriage of the movement's symbolic leader led tot a critical re-examination of premie life and to a subsequent mass exodus of ashram premies across the country. This decline in ashram residency had profound effects on the whole movement. Foss and Larkin (1975) note that conversions declined in 1974 to less than 6,000 nationwide.

A third strategy which failed to move the DLM toward greater sectarianization after his marriage, leadership conflict, and the massive membership exodus was the guru's attempt in late 1974 to internationalize the movement. Internationalization was predicated upon the DLM's ability to establish a stable American financial base to support other propagation projects worldwide. Therefore, an attempt was made to broaden financial support in the U.S. through the formation and coordination of Divine Information Centers (DIC) and the institution of a movement-wide plea to all members for donations. The donational "decree" subsequently became reinterpreted by the hierarchy as a "regular contribution" from all premies on a weekly or monthly basis. These new sources of financial support were expected to guarantee an increased effectiveness of planning for the organization, including a trend toward computerized finances. However, such measures were never seriously considered since organizational stability now was considered precarious by many Denver premies in the face of leadership and grass-roots dissension. By


1976, the movement was a fraction of its pre-1974 size, as indicated by a drastic reduction in mass media publicity, members, number of ashrams, and financial capital.


A number of conclusions can be drawn from the historical development of the Divine Light Mission as a youth culture religion in America. First, Wallis is essentially correct in assuming that the stage of centralized cult js necessary for understanding the development of some movements emerging in cultic form. This stage consisted for the DLM in greater membership and economic stability which are characteristic of some Eastern religious sects in America (e.g., the Hare Krsna sect) as well as continued doctrinal precariousness and the competing claims to authority which characterize some esoteric cults. Additional historical case studies are necessary before it can be suggested that such characteristics are common to the American experience as a whole or are universalistic in nature. The concept of centralized cult, then, implies tenuous institutionalization. The DLM was able to negotiate such a process in developing from a series of small local cults to the centralized cult, concurrent with its spiritual leader's increasing activities as institutional head. Second, the Divine Light Mission was constrained in its attempts at viable institutionalization in the direction of sectarianism by those developmental factors outlined in Wallis' theory. Doctrinal precariousness negated any sustained commitment to stable sets of concrete beliefs and practices. However, the movement did not suffer from a lack of differentiation from its youth culture environment as Wallis has suggested is true of other cults' belief systems. This is evident in the heated attacks upon the few concrete beliefs of the movement by other youth culture religions. Centralized authority, although divisive, permitted clearer differentiation of the cult from a cultic milieu of diverse esoteric systems of beliefs and practices. Even with the employment of specific sectarianizing strategies, the precariousness of the movement's beliefs continued to allow its followers the freedom to select beliefs which expressed their own interests and to show individualized loyalties to different members of the movement's leadership hierarchy. In addition, the DLM's ideal of spiritual well-being required little rationale for sustained practice and devotion. All of these issues, linked to the precariousness of DLM beliefs, helped to insure the failure of the guru's sectarianizing strategies. Third, Maharaj Ji's increasingly assertive actions as institutional leader and the impending dissension and conflict also support Wallis'


sectarianization theory. He has contended that the leaders of centralized cults are highly motivated to preserve their spiritual authority based upon original (though precarious) doctrinal syntheses and have a personal commitment to maintain their movement in the face of institutional fragility. The guru's arrogation of decision-making power and authority did symbolize a move toward greater sectarianism as Wallis has found. However, it did not change the DLM's original "pluralistically-legitimate" stance as a cult. The movement continued to assess its position in America as one among many roads to spiritual well-being.

In summary, the development of the DLM in America has largely substantiated Wallis' contention that cults are inherently fragile social institutions which are constrained from effective institutionalization by internal factors. Developing within a pluralist social environment, the Divine Light Mission has been constrained by continued doctrinal precariousness, the unique locus of its leadership authority, and continued problems of generating and sustaining consistent commitment among its membership. These characteristics are identical to those which reportedly have constrained Spiritualism, Dianetics, New Thought, and other religious movements. And like those movements, the Divine Light Mission presently remains caught in the tenuous position between cultism and sectarianism in its development and decline as a youth culture religion.


1. In contrast, Wallis is specifically interested in the cross-cultural relationship between cultural-ideological and social structural aspects of religious movements. Robertson strongly rejects a universal association between types of ideology (e.g., mysticism) and forms of organization (e.g., the cult). See Robertson (1970: 130; 1975: 241-266).

2. For example, one can compare reports by establishment mass media with youth movement sources. For the former, see Newsweek (August 2, 1971), Pfarrer (1973), Morean (1973), de Plessix Gray (1973) and Baxter (1974). For the latter, see Jacobi' (1972), Reed (1973), Kelley (1974), Davis (1974) and Levine (1974).

3. Only a small fraction of the overall DLM membership has lived in organized ashrams during its short history. Others who were affiliated with the movement lived in "premie houses." These were cultic establishments organized by premies who wished to live a semi-religious life but independent of the jurisdiction of the larger DLM organization. Members in these living arrangements made their own rules and regulations rather than accepting dictates from the Divine United Organization. For example, many premie houses across the country in 1975 did not adhere to the celibate life, one of the requirements of ashram life. While premie houses were especially popular in Colorado, California, and New York, the vast majority of the 40,000 - 50,000 premies lived neither in ashrams nor in premie houses at the movement's zenith in 1973. Many lived independent of the movement within its youth culture milieu.

4. This internal friction within the DLM authority hierarchy was evident in a written denouncement of the guru as the "perfect master" by Shri Mataji, the movement's "holy mother." His mother claimed that Maharaj Ji, "under the instigation of certain bad elements in the United States Divine Light Mission, has continuously disrespected my will by adopting a despicable, nonspiritual way of life." Some of the guru's Indian relatives, including an older brother, also publicly challenged his leadership within the movement.

5. The continued precariousness of the DLM's cultic belief system was reflected in a 1975 statement by the guru's press secretary. He noted that Maharaj Ji "is not following any traditions or Indian concepts as such. Maharaj Ji has no teachings and no philosophies" (Milwaukee Journal, 1975a: 22).

6. The impact of such dissension on the DLM membership is exhibited by one premie who noted, "He [Maharaj Ji] has always preached and recommended his devotees to live a life of vegetarianism, celibacy and abstaining from alcohol and all excessive forms of materialism. Now he himself is indulging and encouraging his devotees to eat meat, to get married and have sexual relations and to drink. He's not living a spiritual life. He's being a playboy" Milwaukee Journal, 1975a:22). An Indian official of the Divine Light Mission retorted by accusing the American CIA of leading the guru away from "his spiritual path" (Milwaukee Journal, 1975b: 3 ).


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