Marc Galanter
Peter Buckley
Albert Einstein College of Medicine

William James (1929:247) quoted a convert as follows:

Realization of conversion was very vivid, like a ton's weight being lifted from my heart; a strange light which seemed to light up the whole room (for it was dark); a conscious supreme bliss which caused me to repeat "Glory to God" for a long time.

Can the lifting of "a ton's weight" change the psychiatric status of a convert, and if so, are such changes more than transient? What role can "strange lights," the meditative or transcendent experiences, play in this process? A recent growth in evangelical sects has highlighted the value of examining these issues. This is particularly important, since little systematic, quantitative research has been conducted to study the integration between religious experience and psychopathology.

This study was undertaken because of anecdotal reports rewarding one particular evangelical religious sect, the Divine Light Mission. It appeared that for certain members initiation yielded significant psychological benefits as well as relief from alcohol and drug abuse. The study was intended to examine whether this impression could be validated, and in that way improvement might be correlated with particular aspects of membership.


The Divine Light Mission (DLM) had its origin in the United States in 1971, when its spiritual leader, a 13 year-old Indian, Guru Maharaj Ji, visited this country, after which chapters soon developed in a number of American cities. Initiation into the movement occurs when agreement is reached with one of the apostolic figures of the Mission that the potential member is ready to receive Knowledge.


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After the spiritual ceremony the initiate, designated a premie, may live in a religious residence called an Ashram in which celibacy, vegetarianism, and full obedience to the DLM are practiced. Other premies live in communal residence with less stringent regulations.

Premies are expected to fulfill the tenets of the DLM which include service and meditation. Service refers to all activities dedicated to the DLM, ranging from the formal religious tasks to a variety of good deeds, benefiting either premies or nonpremies. Meditation generally consists of a period of up to 1 hour in both the morning and evening, during which the meditator sits in a lotus position with eyes closed, and experiences various spiritual and sensate aspects of the Knowledge. Meditation is also observed by experiencing the holy "Word" throughout the day by rooting one's consciousness in that experience, no matter what activity the person is engaged in.


An arrangement was made the the DLM national organization to conduct a survey on a sample of members attending a DLM national festival and four premies with counseling experience were trained to assist in administering research questionnaires. A random sample of 119 premies was selected among those members registering at different points during the festival. While supervised in small groups, they filled out the research instrument, a 170 item multiple choice questionnaire which was coded for data processing. Items were presented so as to minimize the potential influence of respondent bias. In addition to demographic characteristics questionnaire items fell into the following categories:

Group functions

A number of items on work patterns, residence, and meditation practice were used to clarify the relationship of the premie to the larger group. Other items designed to tap interpersonal affiliativeness were based on a related study by one of the authors (Galanter, 1978; Galanter, Stillman and Wyatt, 1974). Responses on a five-point scale ("not at all" to "very much") were elicited for a series of cue sentences, related to feelings of social affiliativeness, such as, "I like being part of their activities." The cue sentences were applied to each of three stimulus groups "the 10 or so premies whom you see the most," "the 10 or so nonpremies whom you see the most," and "all premies the world over."

196 Brainwashing/DePrograming Controversy

Psychiatric symptoms

Respondents perception of the presence and intensity of specific symptoms was ascertained by ratings on the five-point scale for the following series of statements, each followed here by its corresponding symptom:

(a) I felt nervous and tense (anxiety).
(b) I felt depressed and glum (depression).
(c) I had thoughts of ending my life (suicidal ideation).
(d) I had the feeling that I was being watched or talked about by others (referential thinking).
(e) I was unclear about how to lead my life (anomie).
(f) I got into trouble with my job, at school, or with the law (behavioral problems).
(g) I heard voices that other people did not hear (hearing voices).
(h) Emotional problems interfere with my adjustment in life (general emotional mal- adaptation).

Ratings of intensity were given for each symptom during each of the four following 2-month periods:

(a) when the symptom was most intense at any time prior to introduction to the DLM;
(b) immediately before exposure to the DLM;
(c) immediately after initiation (i.e., after receiving Knowledge); and
(d) in the last 2 months.

Data were analyzed by computing the incidence in the respondent sample of each symptom during each of the four periods. The statistical significance of differences between the four periods was ascertained by the Cochran Q-test. A change score for each symptom for each of the members was then computed for the difference between symptom ratings from right before exposure to right after initiation. These scores were entered into a stepwise multiple regression analysis as dependent variables, in order to ascertain significant predictors of symptom change. Questionnaire items relating to DLM activities were entered as predictors.

Drug use

Frequency of use for the following categories of drugs was evaluated for the four 2-month periods listed above: marijuana, alcohol, hallucinogens, stimulants, depressants, and heroin. Frequency of use was rated on a five-point scale for the particular 2-month period and data were analyzed by the techniques described above.


Meditation practices were also examined, and respondents were asked to rate the occurrence and intensity of specific transcendent experiences they felt during meditation,

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chosen on the basis of reports in previous pilot interviews.


Characteristics of the members

Premies were typically unmarried (82%) and white (97%) and primarily in their 20s (73%). They had received Knowledge about 2 years before. Their social class was reflected in the fact that the large majority had attended college (76%), as had one or both of their parents (71%). There was a high incidence before joining of both seeking professional help for psychiatric disturbance (38%), and of hospitalization for emotional problems (9%). In addition, one in four (27%) had been arrested at some time.

The amount of drug use prior to joining was considerable. Nine-tenths had smoked marijuana (92%) at some time; two-thirds had used hallucinogens (68%) and 14 percent heroin. With the exception of alcohol, the use level for all drugs was two to four times that reported by a representative national sample of college students for that same period. The same number had used alcohol in each of the two groups (80%) (National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1973).

Group functions

By the measurements made, there was a strong sense of cohesiveness and communal sharing. Respondents generally lived with their compatriots, 20 percent in Ashrams and another 50 percent with other premies in nonritual residences, and the spouses of all married and common law respondents were also premies. Most respondents, however, were involved in some activities outside the movement at least half-time; half (51%) in work, and another fifth (21%) at school.

Feelings of affiliativeness and trust were felt very strongly toward the "10 or so premies" each respondent saw the most. For example, the large majority of respondents (88%) felt that they enjoyed being part of activities with this group "a lot." Only a few (10%) felt that these premies were at all suspicious of them. Attitudes were very similar toward "all premies the world over" (81% and 16%, respectively). Significant differences did exist between attitudes toward the two premie groups and a third group, the "10 or so nonpremies" whom respondents saw most. For example, only 21 percent liked "a lot" being part of the nonpremies' activities (Q=64.3, df=3,p >.001); and the ma-

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jority felt that this group was suspicious of them (66%,Q= 151.6, df=3,p >.001).

Decline in perceived psychiatric symptoms and drug use

Table 1 illustrates the decline in the reported incidence of moderate and severe symptoms, and moderate to heavy drug use. Compared to the periods before joining, these were reported by significantly less respondents right after joining and at the time of the survey. For example, there was a two-thirds decline after initiation in the number who felt that emotional problems affected their adjustment to life a lot, followed by a similar decline to the time of the study. The only symptom which did not decline in incidence was hearing voices, which was stable over the four time periods. The regular use of both social intoxicants and acknowledged drugs of abuse declined considerably after joining.

Predictors of symptom decline

By means of a multiple regression analysis, questionnaire items related to the following variables were tested as predictors of decline for the psychiatric symptoms and for alcohol and marijuana use: group cohesiveness, group activities (residence in an Ashram, job in DLM), and meditation (time frequency and transcendental experiences). The multiple correlation coefficients for criterion symptoms were all highly significant (df=117,p > .001), for example, .58 for decline in depression, and .38 for decline in marijuana use.

The multiple correlation coefficient for decrease in the sum of scores for all psychiatric symptoms was .69 (p > .001). That is to say, the group-related predictors tested here accounted for 48 percent of the variance in the decline of the total score on psychiatric symptoms. Predictor variables which contributed significantly to the variance of the total symptom score were: the degree to which the respondent was made happy by all premies; cared for the 10 premies he saw most often; felt better than ever before at some time while meditating; meditated during daily activities; and lived in an Ashram.

Meditation experiences

Almost all respondents (97%) set aside a specific time to meditate more than once a week, and 80 percent meditated at least twice a day. In addition, virtually all (99%) indicated that they meditated during daily activities at least



Moderate to severe psychological symptoms:    
2 months
to DLM

2 Months
2 Months    
2 Months      
Suicidal ideation
Referential thinking
Behavioral problems
Heard voices
General emotional maladaptation
Moderate/heavy drug use:

a Answer choices and scale scores.
For psychological symptoms: 1 = not at all; 2 = a little bit; 3 = moderately; 4 = a lot; 3 = very much.
For drug use: 1 = none; 2 = one to three times; 3 = about once than once on most days, or twice a week; 4 = about once a day; 5 = more
b Not significant
* p > .001, Cochran Q-test

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some of the time, and over half (54%) did it "usually" or "always." In the regression analyses the time spent in both modes of meditation were found to be significant predictors for decline among both psychiatric symptoms and drug use items.

Having transcendental experiences during meditation was also a predictor of symptom relief. Those experiences are listed below. Following each one, in parentheses, is the answer representing the highest score of four possible choices, followed by the percentage of respondents who reported experiencing this choice:

(a) I saw something special that no one else could see (clearly, with my eyes, 30%).
(b) I had a special and unfamiliar feeling in my body (… very intense, 49%).
(c) Time passed faster or slower than usual in a very special way (…very intense, 34%).
(d) I felt myself to be different from my usual self in a very special way (…very intense, 56%).
(e) I saw a special new meaning in my life (…very intense, 61%).
(f) I felt better than ever before in a very special way (…very intense, 66%).
(g) I had strong sexual feelings without physical sexual contact (…clearly more intense than orgasm, 14%).


Psychiatric interviews were conducted with premies reported to have psychiatric and drug abuse problems. The following vignettes illustrate certain aspects of the relationship between these problems and membership in the movement.

A 28 year-old single chemist lived in an Ashram and worked full time as a technician. During childhood and adolescence in a Protestant family, he had minimal religious interest. Throughout that period, he had relatively few friends and limited dating, but attained good grades at school. Four years prior to interview he began smoking marijuana with some acquaintances and soon began daily smoking while alone at home and while at work. He also began regularly using psychotomimetics. His goal was to "expand his awareness of himself," he reported. He became progressively more isolated and moved alone to a house in the country. Over the ensuing year he became interested in the occult and at times felt that his "soul was moving out of him." He recalled seeing an illuminated orb land in the woods in front of his house on one occasion and assumed it was a flying saucer. He continued to work, but realized that his behavior with co-workers was often strange. Although in retrospect he could provide no specific basis for his fears, he became convinced at times that he was being set up for arrest on

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marijuana charges. In time, he began to fear that he was going out of his mind. Around this time, he met a premie who introduced him to the DLM. After 2 months of daily attendance at services he received Knowledge and moved into an Ashram shortly thereafter. The period was characterized by a marked decline in anxiety and in feelings of alienation; he began to feel more safe. In the 2 years since that time, he made some friends in the Ashram, but not close ones. He has been a principal in developing an active part time prison counseling program in collaboration with a local addiction treatment program. Other premies confirmed that he was respected and liked by his peers.

For certain disturbed persons, psychiatric symptoms apparently served as a basis for the leap of faith. These persons appeared to be in need of some restitutive experience at a time of severe anxiety and disorganization or of major situational stress. In this respect, the pressure of the symptoms may have strengthened both faith in the religious creed and affiliative feelings for the group. As in this case, the conversion sometimes appeared to serve as the alternative to decompensation. The practice of service, such as the prison counseling work here, appeared useful in sustaining the restitutive process.

An 18 year-old high school senior who lived with her Catholic family came for counseling to the medical unit at the DLM festival. She was distressed over being unable to meditate, and felt obliged to undertake a great deal of service to make up for this. When approached by a premie counselor, she immediately burst into tears, exclaiming her misery and feelings of helplessness and guilt. The counselor was an empathic college teacher with no formal mental health training. She reviewed at some length the particulars of the "patient's" difficulty with meditation, in a compassionate manner. She then gave the patient examples of how such problems are overcome in time with fuller devotion to the Guru, and reassured her that it was not necessary to perform an undue amount of service. By now the girl was visibly reassured and composed. One of the authors was granted permission to speak with her at this point. On interview she gave a history of having a brief sexual affair with an older married man. When he terminated the relationship 2 months before, she became acutely depressed and was unable to attend to school work. It was at this point that she began having difficulty meditating and began feeling the need for doing more service. The girl had not discussed these particulars with anyone else. After a measure of clarification and reassurance regarding the nature of her conflict, she expressed relief and appreciation.

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Clear parallels exist between certain DLM religious approaches and traditional psychotherapy. Both techniques provide patients with assistance in dispelling distress by offering them in a supportive manner a series of assumptions about their distress which are compatible with their underlying attitudes (Frank, 1963). It appeared in this case that both a response based on DLM dogma and one based on psychodynamic psychology were comprehensible and palliative. Many of the exchanges at the medical unit which seemed related to religious practice appeared to have a clear-cut therapeutic effect. In fact, at times premies spoke of their reactions to Satsang too as if they were responding to a large group therapeutic experience.


In planning the systematic psychiatric study of religious movement it soon became clear why recent serious work in this area has typically employed the same methodology used by James (1929) 75 years ago in The Varieties of Religious Experience: citation of case histories and personal observations. Unlike general psychiatric patients who may be observed as an adjunct to treatment, religious sects are generally reluctant to bare themselves to outside scrutiny. In addition, most phenomena of interest in the religious experience are highly subjective and poorly suited to experimental validation.

Since retrospective reporting on symptoms was subject to distortion, questionnaire items were worded so as to minimize respondent bias. Cue questions for psychological symptoms were worded so as to be both comprehensible to the respondent and to represent psychological phenomena regularly dealt with by the mental health profession, and transcendent meditation experiences were probed on the basis of descriptions previously given by a sample of premies. Nevertheless, the changes reported here were subject to exaggeration based on subjects' unconsciously mediated need to justify their own decision to join the group.

It was, however, quite striking when respondents indicated such a widespread decline

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in symptoms of psychological distress, a decline which persisted from the time of conversion, an average of 21 months before, This was corroborated by numerous interviews; one striking example has been cited. Such relief has been reported anecdotally among a selected sample of converts in relation to more general attitudes (Wilson, 1972). The diversity of specific psychological symptoms alleviated here is notable. A decline was reported in symptoms affected by behavioral norms, such as drug taking and job trouble; it was also found in subjectively experienced symptoms, such as anxiety, not readily regulated. The one exception to this, the incidence of hearing voices, may reflect less susceptibility to psychosocial influence for this symptom associated with psychosis.

With what other aspects of membership are these effects correlated? Clinical observations had suggested the importance of commitment to the group and participation in meditation. This was borne out by regression analysis, which allowed for statistical testing of the correlation between these two variables. In the regression equation, items relating to interpersonal cohesiveness were high ranking predictors for decline in psychological symptoms. This no doubt reflected the central role of a shared world view among members of the subculture. Frank (1963) dealt with this in relation to the symptom relief of both religious and psychotherapeutic origin, and it has been described in relation to faith-healing practices such as those of Protestant fundamentalists (Pattison, Labins and Doerr, 1973) and Puerto Rican spiritualists (Ruiz and Langrod, 1976).

With regard to shared group functions, a similarity might be noted to the ongoing relationship of participants in "growth centers" (e.g., centers employing Gestalt techniques) to the overall self-actualization movement. Lieberman and Gardner (1976) found this relationship to be an open-ended one, directed at goals similar to those of traditional Psychotherapy. Nonetheless, this subculture was found to operate without formal promise of treatment. It serves as another example of a movement whose announced agenda may not reflect its therapeutic effects. Maslow (1964) indeed, has drawn the thesis of a wedding of psychology and religion around phenomena such as transcendental peak experiences.

For the generation of youths studied here, the group subculture has been seen to produce patterns of drug use. For example, Kandel (1973) demonstrated that the adolescent peer group predominated over all other variables as the apparent determinant of a student's marijuana use. We found here that the youth subculture, properly reconstructed, could reverse this pattern of use by its potent social forces. This finding itself raises a number of questions for future investigation: Can the constellation of antecedent stresses or psychological traits which predispose individuals, like those studied here, to a conversion experience be ascertained? Who is likely to drop out from such a sect early, and what are the psychological consequences of dropping out? With regard to the underpinnings of the intensive group experience, one of us has written a sociologi-

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cal hypothesis for the utility of such group behaviors (Galanter, 1978).

A second group of predictors of symptom decline in the regression equation related to meditation. Quantitative studies on the clinical effects of meditation have until now been restricted to transcendental meditation. Clinical findings have been reported with regard to general psychiatric symptoms (Glueck and Stroebel, 1975), and for diminution in alcohol (Shafi, Lavely and Jaffee, 1974) and marijuana use (Shafi, Lavely and Jaffee, 1975). The DLM uses a meditation based on intensive imagery as well as a modified form practiced during daily activities. In these respects it differs from transcendental meditation, in which a primary goal is to set the mind free of thoughts or images for a defined period of time. Apparently, both approaches can be beneficial.

The intensity of the transcendental experiences reported during meditation is striking, and each of these experiences served as a predictor for decline of one or more of the symptoms. Effects of such experiences on general psychiatric status (Deutsch, 1975; Shimano and Douglas, 1975) and suicidal intent (Horton, 1973) have been reported, and the relationship between their clinical and neurophysiological manifestations has been discussed (Gelhorn and Kiley, 1972).

The future of religious feeling and transcendental experience in relation to clinical psychiatry cannot be lightly predicted. Interestingly, patients' religiosity has been found to be significantly correlated with success in outpatient psychotherapy (Shapiro et al., 1976). In addition, a recent increase in religious interest in the young has promoted discussion of issues raised for the clinician by youthful patients who have undergone conversion (Levin and Zegans, 1974; Nicholi, 1974). Further investigation into such common phenomena may yield useful insights for more effective psychosocial treatments for mental illness.


*Originally published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 166 (October 1978):685-691.