Yoga in Britain
Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis
Suzanne Newcombe
© 2019

Other highly visible guru figures in Britain included the young boy, Prem Pal Singh Rawat (b.1957), who was introduced to Britain at age of thirteen at the Glastonbury Free Festival in June 1971. By the summer of 1973, the movement around Rawat, known as the Divine Light Mission, claimed to have 8,000 devotees (called 'premies') and about 40 designated premie households in Britain.71 The group was always much more successful in the United States, and in 1973 the group claimed global membership figures as high as 50,000 with branches in Australasia, Canada, South American and Japan as well as through many countries in Europe.72

Prem Rawat’s father Shri Hans Maharaj Ji (1900-1966) had established a large following in north India, teaching what he called ‘the Knowledge of the Divine Light and Holy Name’ and formally establishing the Divine Light Mission in 1960; the leadership of the organisation passed to his young son after his death in 1966. The tradition combines Sant Mat with Advaita Vedanta non-dualist soteriology which emphasised divinity without attributes and focuses on promoting transformative experiential understandings through meditative techniques. During the 1970s, a series of internal problems and negative publicity led to Prem Rawat closing all his ashrams in 1982 and reforming his global followers under the name of Elan Vital (1984-2010). By the late 1980s, the movement (then known as Elan Vital) claimed 1,420 committed supporters, who pledged £5 a month to the Prem Rawat (then known as Maharaji), with 5,000 on their mailing list and 7,000 individuals practicing his techniques called ‘the Knowledge’.73 Since 2010, Prem Rawat has been teaching ‘The Knowledge’


under his own name and audiences of 2-3,000 thousands on visits to Britain, now largely drawn from the diasporic north Indian population.

When considering the influence of 'gurus' in 1960s and 1970s Britain, it is worth remembering that many within the 1970s ‘counter-culture’ were vehemently anti-guru. Scepticism for authority figures included those offering exotic knowledge from abroad. The wife of the leading advocate of ‘beat culture’ in 1960s Britain, Sue Miles, later explained that:

There were all these Indian travelling salesmen, all these gurus who packed up their suitcases and rushed over to England. The first Hare Krishnas were sent to Miles and me … put them in touch with a load of Pakistanis in Ealing, quite


sensibly. People who knew how to eat cauliflower cheese with their fingers or chopsticks – 'cos we didn’t and we didn’t want to learn.75

Geraldine Beskin of The Atlantis Bookstore also recalled a generally negative attitude towards those who attached themselves strongly to a single group or leader. In reference to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, she commented that some ‘used to call him Guru Bagwash because everyone was in orange and things’ and she had a feeling that those who joined were ‘often just escaping things.’ Beskin, like many of her generation would not accept any person or organisation with an attitude of ‘only because you say so it must be true.’76 The combination of scepticism and credulity caused the majority to investigate a number guru figures before settling on one, or none.

However, the presence of Indian spiritual teachers also encouraged many to find their own guru. This process did not necessarily involve rejecting all other spiritual teachers or staying with a single teacher for a long period of time.