Today's Paper

Campus Speaker Criticized by Ex-Devotees

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2003

A controversial religious leader will speak at Zellerbach Hall tonight, despite objections from former followers who claim he leads a cult.

Former members allege Prem Rawat, head of Élan Vital, Inc., hides a checkered past and is using the event to recruit new members.

"He's coming to Berkeley doing an introductory program, which means he's trying to recruit more people," said former follower Joe Whalen, who lives in San Francisco.

Rawat devotees asked people to ignore any allegations and listen to Rawat with an open mind.

"We all got a past, man. Maybe we didn't do some of the things he did, but he was able to do those things because he is the 'Perfect Master,'" said devotee Jai Satchianand. "And he loves me and would never lie to me."

Although university staff agree that Rawat's event brings controversy to the campus, they do not believe the event poses a real problem.

"If people don't know much about it, I would encourage them to do some research on their own," said Student Affairs Advisor Hal Reynolds.

Rawat–formerly known as Guru Maharaj Ji, "Lord of the Universe" and "Perfect Master"–began Divine Light Mission in the 1970s when he was 13 years old.

Rawat drew thousands of devotees in Europe, the Americas and Australia, many from universities in the West. During that time Rawat came to speak at UC Berkeley.

Members of the religious group lived together in secluded religious communities, former members said.

Since 1990, Rawat has reworked his image. Divine Light Mission has been replaced by the charitable organization Élan Vital, which professes to spread peace and knowledge.

Many of Rawat's followers left after he changed his message to "just teach people how to find contentment," former members said.

Former devotees said Rawat fails to inform people introduced to his ideas about this history.

"What they are not telling the public is that he used to claim he was the living incarnation of God," Whalen said. "He became fabulously wealthy off the backs of his followers."

Rawat's former followers allege he abused his power as a leader to devotees and their children.

Rawat is scheduled to speak at several public programs throughout the United States and Europe in the upcoming months.

Élan Vital denied past devotees tickets to tonight's lecture, former members said.

Whalen, who requested a ticket to tonight's event, received an e-mail from the organization barring him from attending.

Whalen's behavior "presents a legitimate threat to our right to hold an orderly and peaceful gathering," the e-mail said.

"As it's true in cults, if you ever criticize the leader you are banned from the event," Whalen said.

Élan Vital could not be reached for comment.

(c) 2002
Berkeley, California