Derks, Frans, and Jan M. van der Lans. 1983. Subgroups in Divine Light Mission Membership: A Comment on Downton
in the book Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West. Macon edited by Eileen Barker,
GA: Mercer University Press, (1984), ISBN 0-86554-095-0 pages 303-308
copyright © 1983 Mercer University Press

by Frans Derks and Jan M. van der Lans

IN AN ARTICLE in the 1980 winter issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Downton presents an "evolutionary theory of spiritual conversion and commitment." He differentiates twenty seven steps in the conversion process and in the growth of commitment to Divine Light Mission ideology. In this article we do not criticize Downton's theory, although we think it problematic to identify as many stages as he did. We only want to point out that Downton's group of respondents differs in at least one important way from Divine Light Mission members we have interviewed, and that this difference has some important theoretical implications.

Although Downton does not give exact information on his data, we may infer some characteristics of his respondents from his theoretical model and from data in Sacred Journeys (Downton, 1979). They may be typified as young people­mean age 23, range 19 to 29 years (Downton, 1979: 229) who were disillusioned with conventional values and religion as a result of participation in the counterculture. The use of psychedelic drugs gave them some hints of a spiritual reality that attracted them. Slowly they came to identify themselves in spiritual terms. "An image of themselves as 'spiritual seekers' became the outward feature of a new ego ideal" (Downton, 1980: 385 386). They created a spiritual ego ideal and self image. However, because of their unrealistically high spiritual ideals, they became doubtful about their capacity to realize this spiritual self without the help of a teacher or guru.

Through contacts with Divine Light Mission members, they heard about the movement. They were struck by the differences between their own unsuccessful attempts to live the spiritual life and the sense of joy, peace, and commitment in the behavior of members. This behavior made them open to accept the movement's problem solving perspective and influenced them to join the movement. They did so, and at that moment their locus of identity shifted from their ego to their spiritual self. Because Divine Light Mission equates the spiritual self with God and with Guru Maharaj Ji, this shift implied surrender to the guru. They became "devotees" and increased their investments in, and sacrifices for, the movement. Their final sacrifice is "mortification of the ego," because it implies a total modification of identity. It is the final stage of surrender that results in total adherence to the movement.

Although we agree with Downton's conception of conversion as a gradual process requiring a continous intensification of commitment, we think that he is not correct in treating his respondents as one uniform group.

From Downton's line of thinking we infer that his respondents experienced a growing disillusion with conventional values and religion through participation in the counterculture and through the use of psychedelic drugs. This seems to hold for all his respondents at least, he does not state the contrary. In contrast, we were able to distinguish two subgroups within our group of Divine Light Mission respondents: those who joined before 1975 (n=10) and those who joined after that date (n=9). The former fit very well with Downton's description of the former drug consuming participant in the counterculture. The latter do not; they were in no way dropouts from society. On the contrary: their educational and job ­careers were quite normal. Hardly any of them ever used drugs, and most of them did not feel alienated from society. Their reasons for joining, and in fact their whole life histories and the way in which they became affiliated, differed considerably from those who joined earlier. Many pre 1975 converts gave as a reason for joining that they could not imagine themselves becoming what they called "responsible members of society." Many post 1975 converts mentioned personal problems (for instance, loneliness), or the impossibility of expressing their religious feelings through participation in the existing, traditional, religious institutions.

These changes in membership characteristics coincided with organizational and ideological changes within the movement (which are extensively described in Downton, 1979: 185 - 210). After 1975 the movement appealed to a different kind of person, because it came to emphasize other elements in its ideology. The pre 1975 members had joined the movement because they had been attracted by Divine Light Mission's Hinduistic ideology that offered them an opportunity to legitimate their already existing rejection of the Western utilitarian world view. However, in 1975 there was a schism within the movement. Guru Maharaj Ji's mother did not approve of his marriage to his American secretary and dismissed him as the movement's leader. The American and European adherents did not accept his dismissal and remained faithful to him. The movement split up into an Eastern and Western branch. The Western branch tried to smother its Hinduistic background and started to emphasize Guru Maharaj Ji as a personification of ideology. This change in ideology may be illustrated by the fact that since then, Guru Maharaj Ji's father, Shri Hans, the movement's founder, became less important and was much less referred to in the movement's journal. It may further be illustrated by the differences in initiation policy before and after 1975. Before 1975 it was sufficient to have a desperate longing for "Knowledge" (in the sense Divine Light Mission uses this term); after 1975 one had to accept Guru Maharaj Ji as a personal saviour in order to become a member.

Many pre 1975 members had problems in adapting themselves to this new line of thinking, and some of them left the movement. But many new members were attracted. One of the characteristics of these new members is that they had been very religious in their preadolescent years. In those years their religiosity had been characterized by the experiential dimension; they had felt a warm personal relation with Jesus. But this religiosity had disappeared, partially because they had been taught by their religion teachers at secondary school to think in a rational way about religious matters. They lost their capacity for religious experiences, and as a result, the Christian religion lost its plausibility for them. In Divine Light Mission they recognized, during "Satsang,”the religious experiences they had had during their childhood. They came to see Guru Maharaj Ji and their relationship with him as a source of continuous religious experience. This made Guru Maharaj Ji much more important for them than he had been for the pre 1975 members.

The research findings on which we based the present comment are supported by observations made by other researchers, to which Downton surprisingly does not refer. This is the more surprising since Downton himself, on the concluding pages of the final chapter of his book, states as his expectation for the future that Divine Light Mission will no longer recruit from the counterculture but from (1) the group of youth who are disillusioned with conventional religion, (2) college students who are traditionally more willing to explore the esoteric and the novel, and (3) those who are disenchanted with other Eastern movements.

In a reply to Nelson's comment on his paper in the Review of Religious Research, Tom Pilarzyk states (1979: 110):

one indication of DLM's slow but increasing differentiation from its youth culture origins is the present shift in its recruitment and membership patterns. Stoner and Parke (1977) also noted this shift in type of religious seekers that have more recently become members, partly due to the movement's new image promoted by its leaders. Present members do remain part of a larger metaphysical cultic milieu but are less likely to be countercultural types.

The passage in Stoner and Parke (1977) to which Pilarzyk refers, reads as follows:

Once Divine Light proselytized among druggies and dropouts promising a constant high without drugs, much as the Krishnas did. But a contemporary premie recruit is more likely to be a student, musician, artist, lawyer, or teacher - a well-educated man or woman who is, or is destined to become, a solid member of the community (page 34; quoted from the 1979 Penguin Books pocket edition).

Finally, Foss and Larkin in their chapter in Harry M. Johnson's Religious Change and Continuity (1979) say that from about 1973, Divine Light Mission and similar groups began to attract persons who had not participated in the counterculture. Although we do not agree with their opinion that these later converts are characterized by their awareness of having a "low exchange value in the sexual marketplace," we think that the fact that Foss and Larkin also differentiate two subgroups in Divine Light Mission membership supports our conclusion that we should not treat Divine Light Mission members as one uniform group as Downton did.

The findings reported in this comment have some important theoretical implications. First of all, they remind us of the limits of research results in this field. Because these movements are "living" religions, they adapt themselves to societal changes. We should not conclude too soon that by now we know why people join Divine Light Mission or similar movements. We may indeed know why and how people joined in the early seventies, but recruitment and membership patterns may change over time. Obviously explanations that try to relate the growth of these movements to countercultural phenomena (for example, Bellah, 1976; or Anthony and Robbins, 1974) have become less relevant to the contemporary situation. Moreover, these results make us more sensitive to the risks of undue generalizations: there are large inter  and intra group differences. Second, when movements change their organizational or ideological characteristics or their recruitment tactics, we should incorporate this in our evaluation. The Children of God are mainly being blamed for their use of "flirty fishing" as a deceptive proselytization method although they already existed many years before they "invented" it (and after the fact constructed a theological legitimation). John Lofland's epilogue section to his revised edition of Doomsday Cult (1977) is another good example. It may well be that "destructive cults" evolve into highly respected churches, or that "marginal" movements become "integrative" (or vice versa). Third, we formulated that the changes in membership pattern coincided with organizational and ideological changes within Divine Light Mission. It is very difficult to find out in which way these changes are related. However it might be very worthwhile to look at other movements and see if similar phenomena happened in them. This will not only be relevant for our understanding of these movements, but also for our theorizing on the dynamics of religious systems in general.


Anthony D., and Th. Robbins
1974 "The Meher Baba movement: its effect on Postadolescent Social Alienation." In I. Zaretsky, and M. Leone, Religious movements in contemporary America ca. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 479 511.

Bellah, R.
1976 "New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis in Modernity." In Glock, and R. Bellah, The New Religious Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California Press. 333 53.

Downton, James V. Jr.
1979 Sacred Journeys: The Conversion of Young Americans to Divine Light Mission. New York: Columbia University Press.

1980 "An Evolutionary Theory of Spiritual Conversion and Commitment: The case of Divine Light Mission." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19:4:381 96.

Foss, Daniel A., and Ralph W. Larkin
1979 "The Roar of the Lemming: Youth, Post movement Groups, and the Life Construction Crisis." In Harry M. Johnson, Religious Change and Continuity. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Lofland, John
1977 Doomsday Cult. New York: Irvington.

Pilarzyk, Thomas
1979 "The Cultic Resilience of the Divine Light Mission: A Reply to Nelson." Review of Religious Research 21:1:109 12.

Stoner, Carroll, and Jo Anne Park
1977 All God's Children. Radnor PA: Chilton Book Co.