The Encyclopedia of CULTS, SECTS And New Religions
James R. Lewis



Elan Vital grew out of Sant Mat (literally, the way of the saints), a nineteenth-century spiritual tradition which developed out of the Sikh religion in northern India. One of the goals of the movement was the instruction of the world in a type of yogic meditation technique that was said to connect the devotee to the universal primordial force through meditation on the Holy Name (Word) and on the divine light, which pervades everything.

Initiation into the yoga occurs through a process referred to (in Elan Vital) as giving Knowledge, during which an instructor, called a mahatma, introduces new members to four yogic techniques which reveal the means of experiencing the divine light, sound, word, and nectar. Once the initiates learn these techniques. they practice them every day, often under a blanket to block outside disturbances. Among the goals of the original mission were the promotion of human unity, world peace, improved education for all, and relief from the distress caused by ill health and natural calamities.

The Divine Light Mission was founded by the Hindu Shri Hans Maharaj Ji. Disciple of the guru Sarupanand Ji, Hans Maharaj Ji diffused the teachings of the Sant Mat tradition in Sind and Lahore, and in 1930 he established a mission in Delhi. Shortly after the declaration of Indian independence, he authorized the initiation and propagation activities of the first mahatmas, followers who committed their own lives to the teaching of Hans Maharaj's doctrine. Hans Maharaj founded the monthly magazine Hansadesh, and by 1960 the need to organize the numerous followers who could be found across northern India led to the founding of the Divine Light Mission.

When Hans Maharaj died (1966), he was succeeded by his youngest son, Prem Pal Singh Rawat, who was initiated at the age of six and who, two years later, was recognized as the new "Perfect Master," an embodiment of God on earth and hence an object of worship and veneration, assuming the title of Maharaj Ji. When his father died, he was commissioned as the one to take the knowledge to the world, and although he became officially the autocratic leader of the mission, his whole family shared the authority because of his young age.

In 1971, Maharaj Ji made his first visit to the West, after having been invited by some Americans who became initiates while in India to search for spiritual guidance. Against his mother's wishes he went to Colorado, where a large crowd heard his first set of discourses given in America. A considerable number of people were initiated, and the American headquarters of the Mission were established in Denver. By the end of 1973 several hundred centers and over twenty ashrams had emerged. Two periodicals, And It Is Divine and Divine Times, were also begun. However, in November 1973, the mission suffered a major reverse because of the failure of "Millennium '73," an event organized to celebrate the birthday of Maharaj Ji's father and the beginning of a thousand years of peace and prosperity. The event had been scheduled to take


place at the Houston Astrodome, and all of the movement's resources were invested in the event. When the anticipated large crowds of people failed to manifest, the movement fell into deep debt which effectively crippled it.

After the Millennium '73 fiasco, the mission gradually withdrew from the public scene. Many followers left the movement, many ashrams were discontinued, and Maharaj Ji began to replace his Indian image with a Western one by wearing business suits instead of his all-white attire. A number of ex-members became critics of the movement, attacking it with charges of brainwashing and mind control. Maharaj Ji himself was described by anticultists as immature and unfit to be a religious leader, and his teachings were condemned as lacking in substance.

The movement also suffered from internal problems within Maharaj Ji's family. Mataji, Maharaj Ji's mother, disapproved of his lifestyle and of his marriage with his secretary Marolyn Johnson, whom he declared to be the incarnation of the goddess Durga. After accusing her son of breaking his spiritual disciplines, she took control of the mission in India by replacing him with his oldest brother. In 1975, Maharaj Ji took his family to court. He received control of the movement everywhere but in India, where his brother remained the leader. By the end of the 1970s, an estimated 80 percent of the followers had left the mission. In the early 1980s, Maharaj Ji ordered all of the ashrams disbanded and declared that he was no longer to be venerated as God.

When the Divine Light Mission was disbanded, the organization Elan Vital was created in order to relate Maharaj Ji to his students on a one-to-one basis and to support his travels in thirty-four countries worldwide, where he could speak to his followers, the number of whom is very difficult to estimate. With the transformation of the Mission into Elan Vital, the emphasis making provision for the future estabishment of hospitals, maternity homes, and residences has been lost.