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These traits of charismatic groups are often best illustrated by the way they bring about changes in the thinking and behaviors of individual members in single episodes. One example comes from my own research experience with the Divine Light Mission, a Hindu-oriented new religious movement. Janice, an eighteen-year-old American-born high-school senior, had described her problems to a counselor from this group at one of the group's religious festivals. I was studying the group while visiting the festival site, and was able to interview members at the counseling center.
The atmosphere at the center was highly cohesive; strong feelings of camaraderie and a sense of shared belief were evident as members arrived to discuss a variety of psychological problems. Janice came to the unit looking quite distressed. The counselor she encountered was not a health professional, but was contributing her time for Service, as religiously motivated good deeds were called. She allowed me to sit in as she spoke to the girl.
As the counselor approached her, Janice immediately burst into tears, explaining her misery and feelings of helplessness. She concentrated on her difficulty in meditating properly, saying of their Guru, "Maharaj Ji has given me Knowledge but I cannot see his light." This was very important to her, she said, because she could not be a premie, or a member of the sect, without this transcendental experience, achieved through proper meditation. She was further troubled because she felt obliged to do more Service for the Guru to compensate for her inability to meditate properly. This was best done by engaging new converts, but, she reported tearfully, she was too frightened to approach potential members.
The counselor listened to these expressions of distress, implicitly conveying support by her presence and demeanor. Her actions were in keeping with the atmosphere of the counseling center; she was empathetic, even affectionate, and alluded to similar problems with meditation other members might experience from time to time. She expressed her perspective from the vantagepoint of the group's transcendent beliefs, and did not minimize the need for proper meditation or Service. She did, however, give Janice some examples of how problems like hers may be overcome in time with full devotion to the Guru, and reassured her that it was not necessary to perform an undue amount of service at present. She said the resolution of this distress might come through a ritual called darshan, meeting with the Guru in person, where such difficulties are often remitted. The following exchange ensued.
Counselor: Now tell me how you feel toward the premies you meditate with.
Janice: Of course, I am very close to them. They mean so much to me, like brothers and sisters.
Counselor: So you know now that when you are with them you confirm Maharaj Ji's Knowledge. You attend satsang(religious sermons) with them, and you will be going to darshan, too. You know that Maharaj Ji will see that you are faithful, and this will soon lead to your relief.
Janice: Yes I do, you are right.
By now the girl, like many others healed by faith, was composed and reassured, even serene. I asked her counselor how she understood the girl's distress. She tried to explain, searching for a simple response, as a professional would speak to a layperson. "She has somehow lost the Knowledge. This happens often. She did not know how to rejoin Maharaj Ji's path." This was stated more as literal fact than as metaphor, an expression of the charismatic role of their leader.
I was then able to speak with Janice. She had been having an affair with an older married man at the time she had become affiliated with the group. When he ended their relationship two months before her arrival for counseling, she became acutely depressed, withdrew from social relations, and was unable to concentrate on her schoolwork. At this point she also began having difficulties meditating, clearly due to the anxiety associated with her depressed state. This only compounded her sense of guilt and probably prolonged the depressive reaction that might otherwise have abated. She began to feel the need to do more Service for the group, in part to atone for her sexual liaison and also because she saw herself as an inadequate sect member. She had not discussed these matters with anyone. She felt her conduct had run contrary to the group's principles and she was ashamed.
The genesis of Janice's difficulties in meditating seemed fairly simple to me, but she had not really put the pieces together herself. Significantly this issue of her disrupted affair did not have to be broached with her Divine Light counselor because the cohesiveness of the group and the explanatory nature of it's dogma ( Maharaj Ji's Knowledge) were implicitly available without fuller exploration. These group forces were mobilized to relieve her feelings of guilt.
I spoke with Janice the next day after a protracted KNOWLEDGE session, a religious experience conducted for a large group of members by a principle of the Guru, and asked her how she was feeling. She said that the counselor was right to say that Maharaj ji could offer me other ways to serve him. I could tell that when I was with all the premies today, Maharaj Ji's wisdom was touching me and that what I was doing was right…. It's clear that everything will work out; I have the Knowledge in me again.
This young woman had been wrenched from anguish compounded by her feelings of distance from the group, and apparently relieved and then healed through a renewed closeness. The norms for behavior set by the group were used to construct her "treatment," and the resolution of her problem was sealed by her commitment to the group's charismatic goal of "Knowledge" or divine enlightenment.
A friendship led to my first encounter with contemporary Religious sects or new religious Movements ad served to highlight the influential role of group cohesiveness in shaping the behavior of charismatic groups. I had known Beth for 10 years, and we had kept in touch while living in different cities. Her personal life had been disrupted by a divorce and a move to a new university teaching job. Soon after she gave up a promising academic career to devote herself to the philosophy of a teenage guru who had arrived in the United States the year before; eventually the moved into a commune of the guru's followers. How could she have adopted such a deviant lifestyle after spending her adult years at liberal universities?
The group she joined, the Divine Light Mission, was introduced to the United States in 1971 by a thirteen-year-old boy from India, scion of a family of Hindu holy men; members believed in the lad's messianic role. Divine Light was not unlike a number of Eastern-oriented sects that emerged in the West around this time. Along with others having a neo-Christian orientation, these groups consisted of the bulk of the emerging cult phenomenon, or, depending on one's view, new religious movements. The introduction Beth gave me to the Divine Light Mission led to a series of studies of these movements.
A History of the Sect
Like many groups of Hindu orientation, the Divine Light Mission originated as a religious practice in India. It was founded in 1960 by Sri Hans Ji Maharaj, father of Guru Maharaj Ji and a former member of the Radhasoami Satsang Beas, one of several Sikh religious movements in Northern India. Each of those movements operated independently and was headed by a leader regarded by his members as a satguru, or perfect master, whose task was to lead his followers along a path to God.
Maharaj Ji was the youngest of four sons of Sri Hans Ji, and even as a young child participated with his family in their public religious programs. Given this status, he was accorded a great deal of attention from his father's devotees and lived in luxury. When his father died, eight-year-old Maharaj Ji was selected to lead the sect instead of his older brothers because of his unusual talent at delivering religious homilies.
Within a few years, the sect began to send mahatmas, or apostles, overseas to preach the young guru's inspired mission, and by the time he was eleven, Maharaj Ji himself had traveled to London. Two years later he came to the United States at the invitation of several American premies (followers) who had received Knowledge (enlightenment) in India. The young guru visited several cities and was accorded a favorable reception by many young people who were experiencing the uprooting of the late counterculture era with its rebellions against established authority. As he traveled, he began to attract a following.
Maharaj Ji returned to India to tend to the members of the Mission there, but came back to the United States a year later and established a national headquarters in Denver. Within months, hundreds of American youths accepted the guru's invitation to receive Knowledge and flew with him to India in several chartered jumbo jets for a festival called Hans Jayanti. On their arrival, his followers were taken to the family's ashram, or religious commune, for several weeks.
By this time, about a thousand members had moved into a dozen Divine Light communes in Denver, and soon there were several thousand members nationwide. Commune residents devoted their full time to the group, and took an active role in developing a national organization for the guru. The study I carried out then provided a profile of sect members, revealing that they were typically single (82%) whites (97%) in their twenties (73%). The distribution of Catholics (32%) and Protestants (44%) was not very different than the general population (38% and 57% respectively), but there was a greater proportion of Jews (21% vs. 2%). The members' middle class background was reflected by the large majority that had attended college (76%), as had one or both parents (71%). Typical group members were middle class young adults, many of whom had interrupted higher education to join the sect.
What were some of the trapping of religious practice in this emerging movement? Potential initiates were usually introduced to the Divine Light Mission at a session of religious discourse called a satsang, where experienced members presented the philosophy of the sect to the assembled group. The satsang could be delivered to active members or to those with only a casual interest. It was something of a polemic interspersed with parables, and because members were bright and sophisticated, these discourses tended to be engaging, making use of both Hindu mythology and Western philosophy.
After a period of acquaintance with the group, a potential member might approach a mahatma from the sect. These were long time Indian devotees designated by the guru to initiate new members. Although their pronouncements were often obscure, they lent an aura of transcendence to the initiation. In the initiation ceremony the mahatma rubbed the eyes of the newly initiated members, producing a series of flashes that were perceived as divine light. Initiates were thereafter-called premies, or follower of the guru.
The premies undertook four types of meditative experience during daily periods of silent repose, spent with eyes closed. In the first meditation technique they visualized a light, described as real and intense. In the second they heard music, and this too was reported to be not metaphoric but rather an essential sound of the universe. In the third meditation technique they tasted "nectar" supposedly a purifying fluid flowing from the brain to the throat, and finally they spoke the "word" said to be a primordial vibration that underlies all existence. These meditations were recounted with great zeal.
Performing Service, or good works, for the sect was a requirement, and giving Satsang was one type of Service, as it led others to hear that the knowledge was available. Other Service included helping with arrangement of speaking tours for the mahatmas and drawing new converts into the group. Premies could live in ashrams to devote themselves more full to Service. Premies often worked part or full time outside the ashram and gave a sizable portion-sometimes all-of their income to the movement. They also practiced celibacy, vegetarianism, and frequent meditation. The focus of this ascetic existence was their religious mission rather than personal pleasure or gain.
In 1973, the sect rented the Houston Astrodome for a celebration of world peace and religious rejuvenation, "Millenium '73", billed as" the most significant event in human history." Devotees were flown from overseas, and the event was promoted with considerable advance publicity and a good deal of media coverage. A highlight of the event was the participation of Rennie Davis, one of the Chicago seven anti Vietnam War protestors who had recently become a premie. The event, however, fell far short of expectations. The stadium was only partially filled; a variety of millennial expectations, such as the arrival of world peace, failed to materialize, and the whole undertaking left members of the group disillusioned and in debt.
The guru himself however, was increasingly taken with the enticements of American society. He was after all, still a teenager, not above spraying his coterie with shaving cream for fun. Such pranks led them to speak of his "heavenly playfulness." He began dressing in western clothes and adopted a luxurious lifestyle that included setting up residence in a mansion and being ferried about in a limousine.
Soon he married his secretary, an attractive American woman several years older. This he did against his mother's wishes and the event precipitated a schism in the family, ultimately leading to the estrangement of the American branch of the religious sect from its main body in India, where his mother and brothers remained. His mother revoked his title as satguru, an action he refused to accept. Maharaj Ji now began to preach against the betrayal he felt he experienced at the hands of his family, couching his arguments in parables drawn from Hindu mythology. In America too, the marriage caused dismay, particularly among the premies in the ashrams who had followed the strict path of celibacy dictated by the guru himself. Perhaps half these members left the sect over this issue.
"The study was held on the outskirts of Orlando Florida, at a national festival held by the Divine Light Mission, one of the conclaves regularly organized to allow members of the group the opportunity for personal contact, or darshan, with the guru. A field had been rented for the weeklong event. Events there showed how the group's cohesiveness could be mobilized as a potent social force and how non-members could be excluded.
The atmosphere of belonging was pervasive, as some 5,000 young adult gathered to make preparations. They interacted in a congenial and open manner, even when they had struck up acquaintance only moments before. To say the least, this was not an impersonal work site. It represented a network of people who hastened to assist each other and sought ways to further their common cause of making the festival a shared experience, something valuable to all.
As a group, the members looked as if they had been drawn from the graduate campus of a large university- bright, not too carefully groomed, casually dressed. They were lively, good- tempered, and committed to their mutual effort. Some set up tents; others sold religious tracts and pins with pictures of the guru, his American wife, and their baby. Some handled food; others moved about with an air of eager expectancy. There was no idleness, brashness, marijuana, loud music, of flirtation- all hallmarks of a more typical assembly of people in their twenties.
The administrative structure for the event appeared informal, but no sense of disorganization pervaded. The speakers addressed the group from a large floating stage on a lake. The program moved along smoothly from one event to the next, whether singing for the guru ("He's Got the Whole World in His Hands") or listening to various leaders delivering satsang.
The group's congeniality apparently extended to anyone designated as acceptable, as long as the proper signal was made. Thus, because Beth, who held a position of respect within the group, had labeled my colleague and me as "okay," we were acceptable. After being introduced to the appropriate parties, we were greeted warmly and made to feel a part of the group. Help was offered as I began to query various organizers on strategy. Was it possible to pick out people at random from the registration lines to administer the questionnaire? There surely was a way, once I deliberated with them the options available. Was space necessary for subjects to sit quietly and fill out research forms? Something would be worked out for every need. Soon we were all sitting around and talking about experiences of mutual interest, even a few remote common acquaintances.
We also saw the other side of the coin - how the group defined and protected its boundary between members and the outside world. The demarcation could be drawn tightly, much as a droplet of quicksilver coalesces and separates from its surroundings, or as family members draw together and limit access of outsiders to their personal affairs. Our own status suddenly changed from inside to outside when a more suspicious member of the administrative group asked me if the project had been "approved" by senior figures from the Mission. In the absence of a definitive response, our legitimacy was now open to question. Although it was not entirely clear what this approval entailed, a request was quickly relayed to the upper reaches of the Divine Light hierarchy and was then-to my surprise and dismay- peremptorily turned down.
The members I had met quickly withdrew their offers of friendship, providing an object lesson on exclusion from a cohesive group. I soon felt myself to be a non-person, treated civilly but coolly, having become an outsider as rapidly as I has been made an insider. The very people who had hovered around us to help with our plans now found making conversation uncomfortable. People seemed to be looking through my colleague and me rather than at us.
Toward the end of the day approval come as suddenly as it had been withdrawn, with the information that a decision had been made at the "highest" level, presumably in consultation with the guru himself. Acceptance and offers of help came with rekindled warmth. As if automatically triggered, a renewed air of intimacy suffused our exchanges.
The experience illustrates the considerable mobilization of support that such a cohesive group can generate, informally or with formal sanction, as well as the strength of its controls over actions. The sects ideology lends the control structure a legitimacy that penetrates the layers of the individual members' own decision making, eliciting group-sanctioned behavior. At no point in the Orlando sequence was there any significant diversity in attitudes expressed towards us. Each group member adhered to the consensus and thereby assured unanimity. As in Ann's family, this intense mutuality the need both for security in the face of an outside world that is perceived as threatening and to prevent internal conflict. Agreement in attitude and views serves to protect the integrity of the group as a social system.