How people recognize charisma: the case of darshan in Radhasoami and Divine Light Mission.

Sociological Analysis, 47, Page 111-124. University of Guam/1986

This paper exames the recognition of charisma as an active conscious social process involving the confirmation of belief through non cognitive methods of altering perception. In the illustrative case of Sant Mat / Radhasoami / Divine Light Mission tradition the Hindu concept and ritual of darshan is examined. Devotees use meditative means to recognize charisma in the guru considered as the formless Absolute, as himself, and as a "presence" generated within the community of followers. The aim on all three levels is ecstatic merging of a separate sense of self with the Absolute . It is conjectured that once Westerners learned this they no longer felt need of the guru. The discussion calls for further research on social components of mystical practices.

In Weber's formulations, charisma clearly appears in the eyes of the beholders: charisma is . . . a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. (1922:241). (Italics mine)

It is recognition on the part of those subject to authority which is decisive for the validity of charisma (1964:359 Italics mine)

Most subsequent interpretations of charisma have agreed, from Shils' classic statement that, "Charisma, then, is the quality which is imputed to persons, actions, roles institutions, symbols and material objects because of their presumed connection with 'ultimate,' 'fundamental,' 'vital,' order-determining powers' (Shils, 1968:386, Italics mine), to very recent discussions (Camic, 1980; Swatos, 1981; Miyahara, 1983).

Explanations of charismatic recognition have focused largely on conditions, either within society or within the psyche, under which it is most likely to appear. Historical explanations argue that charisma and its recognition arise during periods of rapid social change and disruption (Barnes, 1978; Burridge, 1969, Jones and Anservitz, 1975). (1) Deprivation explanations consider charismatic recognition as arising in response to extraordinary needs: for meaning (Glock, 1976); for material necessities, dependency and ego-strength (Camic, 1980; Emerson, l962; Hine, 1974), for community (Zablocki, 1980; Richardson et al, 1978). Manipulationist explanations show leaders accumulating skills and gimmicks to attract charismatic recognition or modifying organizational structures to keep it (Johnson, 1979). (2)

People appear passive in these approaches: desperate times, desperate needs, and desperate characters compel them to impute charisma. (3) Once enchanted they remain so indefinitely, against their better will or reason. They display few conscious efforts to choose, redirect, intensify, or diminish their fascinations.

The deterministic stance of such approaches resembles that of Lofland and Stark's (1965) six-step conversion process model which Lofland (1977) in retrospect critiqued as embodying " . . . a thoroughly 'passive' conception of humans as a 'neutral' medium through which social forces operate, as Blumer (1969) has so often put it." Lofland adds that one ought to "turn the process on its head and to scrutinize how people go about converting themselves. Assume, that is, that the person is active rather than merely passive " ( l 977:8 1 7)

The deterministic model of charismatic recognition has another drawback. In distorting our understanding of religious motivation and participation by depicting people as more acted upon than acting, it avoids careful analysis of the inner workings of charisma. As Matza puts it, "Positivism, blessed with the virtues and prestige of science, has little concern for the essence of phenomenon it wishes to study." (l964:5)

Analysis of how charisma works and how people go about recognizing it can take place on several levels. First, a cultural analysis can trace general cultural themes which delineate ways of learning and teaching charismatic recognition. (4) In some cultures, the propensity to seek contact with transcendent powers and to impute charisma . . . can be so prized that individuals are encouraged to allow it to come forward in their sensitivity. A culture can foster the discernment of charismatic signs and properties by focusing attention, providing canons of interpretation, and recommending the appreciation of the possession of these signs and properties" (Shils, l968:386).

Second, interactionist analysis of particular movements can show prospective lenders and followers both participating in the creation of a charismatic relationship (Wallis, 1982; Downton, 1973; Bainbridge and Stark, 1979). The demands and hopes of those who see specialness in their leader spur him or her to further claims and demonstrations of powers; these help followers renew and deepen their original recognition. People, whether or not they are fully conscious of so doing, thus help to create the objects of their devotion.

This study analyses a third, phenomenological level by focusing closely on the techniques people deliberately cultivate in learning to recognize charisma. It follows Shils in suggesting that the propensity both to generate and to impute charisma to others can be "deliberately cultivated by isolation from the routine environment, by instruction and self-discipline" (1968:386). Much of the language of Shils' discussion implies active, conscious efforts to generate and recognize charisma: "They seek to break the structures of routine actions and to replace them with structures of inspired actions . . . " (1968:387). Definite methods, then, are involved, (5) and for definite reasons.

Charismatic recognition involves the integration of both cognitive and non-cognitive methods. "Belief" is the articulation of religious tenets and metaphysical possibilities. According to Weber, "The power of charisma rests upon the belief in revelation and heroes, upon the conviction that certain manifestations . . . are important and valuable . .." (1922:1116). Belief in another's charisma may emerge from unconscious processes such as projection (Camic, 1980), and/or from intense group pressures. One may also actively induce belief through the practice of non-cognitive disciplines like meditation, prayer, visualization, chanting, and trance induction which intend to alter perception of self and leader until the leader's divine specialness comes into view. Belief then helps interpret the unusual perception and refine attempts to alter it further.

This alternation of belief and techniques of altered perception does not end with conversion to a religion, but endures as a process of continual reconversion. (6) Doubts must be rebuffed; leaders or circumstances may impose tests of devotion which require recognition of whole new levels of specialness or divinity. (7) These new levels may require more subtle and difficult meditative efforts, and major changes in belief may result. A devotee's impression of the charismatic leader, then, changes continually, and ought not to be depicted as a static conception. (8)

This analysis examines the case of Divine Light Mission, (9) a 1970's New Religious Movement whose leader and doctrine came from India. It will trace, in both India and the West, the intertwining of belief and meditative discipline which helped followers generate and sustain over time, in his presence and in his absence, a perception of their spiritual leader as divine.

Indian Roots of Divine Light Mission

The gurus of Divine Light Mission (DLM) traced their spiritual lineage from Sant Mat and Radhasoami traditions. Sant Mat arose in North India from the inspiration of Kabir ( 1440-1518), Guru Nanak, the first Sikh leader and other bhakti poets, who stressed devotion to the Absolute through mystic means and sought to transcend Hindu-Moslem differences and caste distinctions. Various loosely associated Sant Mat lineages have persisted until the present (Lane, 1981).

By the late nineteenth century, Sant Mat had spawned the Radhasoomi movement, splinters of which proliferated rapidly throughout North India and spread eventually abroad, into what Juergensmeyer (1978) has called a "trans-national movement." This movement succeeded in the West first because, like Sant Mat, it eschewed caste distinctions, animal sacrifice, extreme asceticism, and other Hindu practices repugnant to Westerners. Second, Radhasoami catered to Western seekers in India, used English in its publications, and adopted Western principles of science, organization, and progress (Juergensmeyer, 1978:191). And third, despite these changes Radhasoami retained the sort of mystical practices for which Westerners were hungering. By 1970 one Radhasoami branch alone had established 120 centers in 40 countries; U.S. offshoots soon included such popular groups as Eckankar and Ruhani Satsang, as well as DLM (Juergensmeyer, 1978:190,193; Mangalwadi, 1977: l91ff).

DLM was founded in India by Shri Hans Ji Maharaj who, despite the usual successional disputes, assumed leadership of his particular Radhasomi lineage upon his guru's death and became Satguru ("true guru") (Mangalwadi, 1977: 192). His son, known variously as "Sant Ji," "Balyogeshwar" ("born lord of the yogis") and "Guru Maharaj Ji," came to Europe and the United States at the age of thirteen. Guru Maharaj Ji's arrival coincided with the crest of the New Religious Movements wave of enthusiasm; followers appeared quickly and soon formed a network of centers in the United States and Europe (Downton, 1979; Pilarzyk, 1978; Price, 1979)


Charisma in Sant Mat / Radhasoami / DLM tradition can best be understood in terms of darshan for which, according to Bharati, "absolutely no parallel" can be found "in any religious act in the West . . . " (1970:161, cited in Eck, 1981:5). Darshan means "sight" - of the deity or the guru who embodies him/her, usually for the purpose of imbibing his/her divine powers or grace (Babb, 1981; Eck:1981). It implies sight on a rich multiplicity of symbolic and spiritual levels which demonstrate a complex mix of doctrinal and mythic, perceptual and visionary, interactional and experiential dimensions in the relationship between a charismatic spiritual leader and his or her followers.

Darshan is intimately related to what Lane describes as "three cardinal precepts" of Sant Mat tradition:

1 ) Satguru, both as the Absolute Lord (nirguna) and the living human master (saguna):

2) Shabd (sound or melody), which encompasses both that which is spoken or written and inner or spiritual sound which is beyond expression, the primal current of the Supreme Lord; and

3) Satsang, the congregation of earnest devotees of the truth (l981:12).

Satguru is the one who is seen in darshan; shabd provides the spiritual method for perceiving darshan; and in satsang devotees exchange "darshan stories." (10) With minor modifications these ideas have also guided Radhasoami and DLM.

Theologically, Satguru exemplifies the Hindu concept of the Absolute as both with and without form. As living human master Satguru does not merely represent the Absolute Lord, but Satguru is that Lord's form, or embodiment, or incarnation: (11) simultaneously, even as he sits before the devotees in the form of a living master, Satguru is also "non-dual, un-namable, and formless" (Lane, 1981:12). To Kabir, this Lord's "form is love" and "all light'' [Tagore, 1977:1 13,75). Radhasoami means "Absolute Lord," whose form " . . . is without limits and beyond description. To what could I compare it? It is beyond all measure." (Singh, 1976:2:35-6, cited in Babb, 1981:390). Guru Maharaj Ji sometimes described this "Lord" or "God" as impersonal energy, at other times as the creator.

Devotees do not distinguish conceptually between formless and human manifestations of Satguru, for the goal is to perceive darshan of both at once. One must learn to see the formless Satguru via the master's physical form just as - in a favorite example used by Guru Maharaj Ji - Krishna on the battlefield suddenly revealed to his disciple Arjuna.

His transcendent, divine Form, speaking from innumerable mouths, seeing with myriad eyes, of many marvellous aspects . . ., annointed with perfumes of heavenly fragrance, full of revelations, resplendent, boundless, of ubiquitous regard (Prabhavanda and Isherwood, 1951:92).:E

Thus, the devotee can "now see his guru as he truly is; that is, as the Supreme Being." (Babb, 1981:390).

The quest for darshan can begin with either of two methods. If one starts by seeking darshan of the formless Satguru, one meditates, while darshan of the human Satguru involves a ritual encounter.

Darshan of the Absolute

To devotees, darshan of the Absolute Lord brings salvation; for Kabir, " . . . he who has seen that radiance of love, he is saved" (Tagore, 1977:57). "He who has seen Him and touched Him, he is freed from all fear and trouble" (1977:113). And so Kabir longed endlessly to see this Absolute Lord: "I have no taste for food, I have no sleep; my heart is ever restless within doors and without . . . Kabir is restless: he is dying for sight of Him" ( 1977: 82-3). This vision is not easily attained; the human Satguru must teach it. Eck has written in her study of darshan that in Hinduism, "God is eminently visible, although human beings have not always had the refinement of sight to see" (1981:78). It is Satguru as living master who teaches Sant mat / Radhasoami / DLM devotees this "refinement of sight." In Radhasoami tradition, "salvation cannot be attained without contact with a sant satguru. The complete centrality of the guru is probably the single most important point of Radhasoami doctrine." The Satguru's ultimate power lies in his ability to teach "an esoteric form of spiritual exercise known as surat-shabd-yoga, which was given to humanity by the Supreme Being, which incarnated himself in human form in order to impart it" (Babb, 1981:388). Devotees use shabd, the practice of inner sound, in their spiritual journey. This journey begins, however, with their human master's darshan, visualized within:

(The devotee) first takes his "seat" at the tisra til ("third eye"); there he has darshan of his guru. He sees a flame and hears the sound of a conch and bell. His spirit is caught by the current of shabd, and in the company of his guru he is pulled upward . . . . . . the universe, and especially the guru, come to be "seen" in a new and spiritually significant way. The devotee begins by seeing the familiar form of the guru, . . . At the end of the journey he has the darshan of Radhasoami himself, the object of his pilgrimage ....This is the fulfilling darshan, and the devotee has now cone to the end of his journey (Babb, 1981: 389-390).

As spiritual descendent of the Radhasoami tradition, Guru Maharaj Ji taught very similar ideas and practices to his Western followers. He was Satguru, or "Perfect Master;" (12) only his power could initiate one into Knowledge, which alone among spiritual methods could reveal God. He identified the internal objects of meditation "revealed at the Knowledge initiation - divine light, music, nectar, and Word or Holy Name" (Downton, 1 979:146-8) - with Kabir's ecstatic descriptions of "millions of suns and moons and stars" (Tagore, 1977:138), "Unstruck Music," "the ocean of sweetness" (1977:62), the "Primal Word`' (1977:136). Though both music and Word resembled the Sant Mat / Radhasoami shabd, he emphasized the breath-associated Word, which he sometimes called Shabd Brahma, as "an unspeakable vibration that's keeping us alive" (Downton, 1979:147-8). (13)

Meditating on Knowledge two or more hours a day - and a few frequently meditated all night - allowed those of Guru Maharaj Ji's followers who could achieve the necessary intense concentration indeed to have these experiences, often dramatically: the Word was like a "wave" or an "atom bomb," the nectar like "electricity," the divine light blinding, sometimes even with open eyes (DuPertuis, 1983:87). Sharing of meditation experiences was encouraged, and others stood by quick to interpret them as manifestations of Knowledge. (14) Over time those who experienced little in meditation drifted away, along with those who doubted (Downton, 1979:147). (15) For those who remained, their beliefs were continually reconfirmed not only by their own and others' meditation experience, but also by visions of Guru Maharaj Ji which often accompanied meditation, darshan dreams of the guru, and prayers to him "answered" both in meditation and through events of daily life.

Increasingly referred to in spatial terms - "that place," "Guru Maharaj Ji's world," even "the valley of astonishment" (DuPertuis, 1983:84) - reminiscent of the "abode of Radhasoami," meditational experience was more and more closely associated with Guru Maharj Ji's presence, or darshan. But meditational darshan of the Guru as the Absolute did not always mean "sight" in the usual sense of a perception trichotomized as the seer, the act of seeing, and the seen. Dwelling in "Guru Maharaj Ji's world" transcended the separation implied by "sight." For the person who went to "Guru Maharaj Ji's world" was not the ordinary self but an essence of attention purified of extraneous thought, trained with long practice, capable of intensive concentration, feeling so different from ordinary preoccupied consciousness that to followers it was not self, or "ego," at all, but "truth," or "reality," or "Guru Maharaj Ji within." (16) And that essence did not perceive as the "ego" perceives: that essence became one with divine light, or music, or the Word. In DLM argot one "merged:" (17)

All of a sudden you just merge with everything that is and you realize that you're just a part of it, and that there is that power, that energy that sustains the entire universe and it sustains yourself and it sustains me and in the experience of that, in the power of it, in the beauty of it it's just a very uplifting very enlightening a very freeing experience and a humbling experience because it's so vast, it's so overpowering, yet it just feels so beautiful because you're merging, you're completely connected to the entire creation and in that realization you experience freedom, you experience joy, you experience the infinite (DuPertuis, 1983:888).

Thus, darshan in its fullest, ultimate sense occurred when Satguru who dwelt within became conscious of Satguru as Absolute, and self vanished. This became the aim of the ritual of darshan as well.

Darshan of the Living Master

When one eighteenth-century Sant Mat Satguru tramped with muddy feet over gold-embroidered silk garments laid out to dry, his devotees, "lost in love and devotion of their Master, did not mind at all, in fact, they were delighted." They told I him, "Nothing has been spoiled. Rather you have blessed us with your darshan" (Lane, 1981 :21). Similarly, quests for Guru Maharaj Ji's physical darshan required tremendous sacrifices by his followers, which dominated their social and economic lives. Except for a select few personal attendants, most devotees were offered darshan only at "festivals," held during the 1970's several times a year in Europe, the U.S., and South America. As "festivals" were frequently announced at short notice - sometimes within just a few days - and could involve thousands of miles of travel four, five, even up to ten times a year, many devotees found themselves unable to hold regular, full-time jobs. Those who were not already marginal to the society (see Downton, 1979, on their social origins) quickly became so. They also sacrificed community and leisure activities to the all-consuming necessity of earning enough money to travel to " festivals. " Among Radhasoami devotees recently researched by Babb, "When one sees a true guru one feels a surge of spiritual emotion inside. Thus, when a guru passes by, his followers gaze at him in hopes of provoking inner experiences. When Maharaj Charan Singh (Satguru of the Beas subsect) visits Delhi, thousands of devotees obtain his darshan by filing by his seat in ten continuously moving lines" (Babb,1981:388). Films of DLM darshan lines for Guru Maharaj Ji or his father made in India during the 1960's show a crowd of devotees pushing and shoving, ducking down to touch thc holy feet as best they can. Western devotees reorganized the ritual by lining up the devotees beforehand, seating Guru Maharaj Ji higher up so his feet, now at chest level, would be quicker to kiss. They even experimented: once they had two lines, one passing by each foot; and once they set Guru Maharaj Ji ,and j his throne on a jeep which drove slowly by two miles of lined-up devotees. They finally settled on a long, cloth-draped blue tunnel through which devotees could file silently, leaving the world's mentality, stepping into the divine route to their guru's presence.

The moment of entering the darshan tunnel was rehearsed in many meditations, when thoughts had to be stilled and "ego" abandoned in order to enter "Guru Maharaj Ji's world." Now, on the verge of encountering the center of their spiritual and mundane efforts, every devotee concentrated almost as if death were at hand and prayed intensely, fearing "to be before Maharaj Ji . . . and not to feel it, not to brush that curtain aside and enter his kingdom . . . To be in his presence, and still feel a separation . . . That is almost too much to bear" (Divine Times [DT]: 11/77:8). Darshan loomed not just as a reunion with the cosmic lover, but almost as a spiritual test, of which one's power of spiritual seeing was only the first step.

Dressed in their best, barefoot in a gesture of humble surrender and bearing gifts to suggest the offering of self, each person struggled to attain a meditative stillness within - "Just a few minutes more, Lord. Let me really get into Holy Name" (DT, 8/ 75 :5) - and struggled to silence nervous mutterings of anticipation. Waiting when the line stopped moving, devotees would close their eyes; some already deeply meditative were "prodded to move ahead because we forgot where we were, floating somewhere, floating . . . " (DT, 9/78:5-6).

To those who had entered a meditative mode of perception even before they reached him, the guru appeared superhuman and seemed to shine:

He looked enormous. I thought he was the largest person I have ever seen. I have a dim memory of trying to walk and figure out how he could be so big at the same time. I couldn't do that either. I floated (DT, 3/79:20)

There was Maharaj Ji, radiating so much that you felt you almost needed sunglasses to look at him (DT, 11/77:8)!

In him they perceived wondrous qualities and powers: "There was just wisdom oozing out of every pore in his body . . . There was a confidence, a power, an energy, that really touched me, that commanded and demanded my respect" (DuPertuis, 1983:214). They were overwhelmed by love: . . . he was just so glorious. He was so beautiful. He was just so powerful; broad shoulders and his black, shiny hair was just blowing in the wind and - OH! He was incredible! . . . beyond anything. But so beautiful (DT, 4/78:35).

Those who had entered very deep meditation already began to glimpse the Satguru as formless Absolute, particularly as light:

In the span of a few seconds of our being near Him, I'd see Him as infinite light and infinite vibration and the next minute he'd be my best friend (DuPertuis, l983:218).

I started hallucinating, everything started moving. I felt like I was on a psychedelic, . . . and then the whole stage just became white light - I just couldn't see anything. I was completely disoriented, but I just felt so much love that it's almost too intense, and I just couldn't take it . . . The whole stage was melting, and I couldn't even see Guru Maharaj Ji (DuPertuis 1983:221).

Having seen the guru the next test arose, for now the devotee could be seen by him. Guru Maharaj Ji was said to know each devotee intimately, to have described to one overwhelmed woman the outfits she had worn through the last several darshan lines, when she had thought he didn't know her name (DuPertuis, 1983:218).

Now the moment of communication was at hand, when the guru simultaneously appeared as cosmic force and responsive human, as "at once lion and friend and brother and teacher and dove and eagle and savior and ocean and sky and breath and mirror and gentle lover and ruthless truth unmasking my every weakness" (DT, 11/ 77:8). Approaching near, the encounter would begin in a language of silent glances. Devotees felt that the guru's eyes challenged, taught, purified, that before his gaze no lie, no impurity, no hesitation could be hidden. Yet he was never said to judge; he was a "perfect mirror" reflecting back one's own state. "He doesn't care about those aspects but it's the pure section in us that He is paying attention to" (DuPertuis, 1983:218). Each devotee longed for his direct glance, or even a smile, the reward of perfect unselfconsciousness:

And if I go through the Darshan line just loving, and not looking that desperately for Maharaj Ji to look at me, that's when Maharaj Ji can really look at me, can really smile at me, because where my Master is, I am not, and where I am, my Master is not (DuPertuis, 1983:2 17).

The highest hope was to lose oneself in his gaze:

When you look into his eyes, it's like looking down a long long corridor. Time and distance disappear (DuPertuis, 1983:218). He looks with a look that is no look. I cannot explain it. It has no recognizable attribute. It is blank, a sky with no clouds, no definition, no shape, no duration. I cannot tell when it starts and cannot tell when it stops. If infinity had an eye maybe that would explain it (DT, 8/78:5).

The ultimate test of darshan, however, was surrender of self, when the devotee was "wafted into that eternal millisecond at his feet, touching him now" (DT 9/78:56), kissing his feet. When one offered oneself fully these feet could purify: according to the Indian devotional "Arati" hymn they sang twice daily, "Nectar from Satguru's feet / Is so holy and it cleans us of our sins" (DuPertuis, 1983:215). Indeed, devotees frequently reported feeling something like an electric current upon touching the feet, or a psychedelic "rush," or an overwhelming flood of love. Beyond even purification, the guru's feet offered the final possibility of liberation. (18) For there one could "merge" at last: one of the Arati hymn's final lines pleads, "Please let me come home / Find my rest at your Feet" (DuPertuis, 1983:216). And afterward, ecstatic peace: "Lifted along. Floating away, away but not really away, just flouting. Silently. Only Breath inside of us, exploding silently, eternally" (DT, 9/78:5-6).

A "Darshan recovery area" awaited those who fainted. It was staffed with nurses and doctors who would watch them, perhaps for hours, until normal wakefulness would return. From them one would later hear of worlds of swirling light, or a bodiless, perfect realm.

Darshan of the living master thus emerged in the context of darshan of the Absolute. Meditation on the Absolute taught the devotee a way of seeing which, when applied in the darshan' ritual, led from the perception of Satguru as separate physical entity to a sense of internal union with him so strong that the distinction between the physical form and the formless Absolute disappeared: the devotee no longer cared and indeed sometimes did not even know whether or not he had left the master's physical presence.

Darshan Via the Community of Devotees

If properly perceived physically, darshan could act as a bridge to deepen experiences of the Absolute. If not, a devotee's life could be thrown into confusion. Much depended on a fulfilling experience which, while considered a gift of "Guru Maharaj Ji's grace" (Foss and Larkin, 1978), also clearly depended on the "grace of one's own efforts" at practicing stillness of mind, concentration, "surrender" of the sense of self-separateness, and meditative perception of other people and mundane objects. Yet such practice was extremely difficult; DLM life was fast-paced and chaotic (Collier, 1978). And even when one attained ecstacy in darshan, anguish arose when the awareness faded and "ego" reemerged realizing the guru was far away.

The miserable longing DLM devotees would feel for Guru Maharaj Ji's "presence" - both physical and meditative - can hardly be overstated. When individual meditative efforts wavered, their one recourse lay in learning to generate Satguru's darshan with one another gathered in satsang, the charismatic community of devotees.

Through satsang, devotees tried to recreate the idealized interaction which tool: place between devotee and Satguru in darshan. Formal satsang gatherings recalled the times when Guru Maharaj Ji actually spoke to the crowd at "festivals." Speakers would take turns testimonializing, trying to let Satguru speak "through" them: "Every time I have this opportunity to share satsang, I really never plan anything. . . Before I give satsang, inside I just say 'Guru Mahara; Ji it's all Yours' " (Humdinger, 9/77). To do this they simply tried to meditate:

The key to the clear and effective presentation of satsang is the peaceful centering within meditation, and being without perception. The key is to trust the reality of the communion of the Knowledge which lies within the spontaneous and ever-creative expression of the WORD (Crozier, 1974).

Listeners, meanwhile, concentrated intently on the speaker's eyes, trying to "feel" that point through which Satguru was speaking, until his "energy," sometimes visible to open eyes as divine light, began to engulf them: . . . (The devotee) was startled to see `light' emanating from the young woman who was delivering Satsang. He described the light as surrounding her like a glowing golden halo which gradually extended to fill the room and finally seemed to enter his body, giving him a frank sense of "uniting with the Divine presence." Time seemed to "stand still" during this episode (Buckley and Galanter, 1979:283). (19)

Satsang in informal dyads recreated that moment in darshan when guru and devotee gazed into one another's eyes. Gazing at each other, devotees would talk about the guru and meditative experience in hushed tones and monitor each others' attention to increase concentration until they began to sense the guru's "presence". This took precedence over practical matters in their routine daily interactions so that hours might go by waiting for the "vibe" to be "right" before making a decision or taking action (DuPertuis, 1983: ch.8). As vehicles of darshan mundane interactions were thus sacralized; followers imputed charisma to the mere fact of their being together, and practiced the same sort of conscious, meditative methods used in darshan to make it perceptible.


The three aspects of darshan discussed - of Satguru as Absolute, as living master, and within the community of devotees - suggest the imputation of charisma on three interrelated levels. The master in person emerged both theologically and experientially as neither the sole focus nor the unique generator of charisma. Rather he represented a conceptual link which defined and integrated a diffuse set of experiences. Continued adherence to this religion depended on acceptance of this linkage of experiences as well as continued meditational efforts to achieve them.

In Western cultural settings, the meditational and ecstatic experiences which Guru Maharaj Ji introduced were novel to many new adherents (Buckley and Galanter, 1978), who had to create a new vocabulary - drawn from Sanskrit, psychedelic culture, and "psychobabble" - even to discuss them. (20) As contemporary theology failed to offer an interpretation of these experiences, Guru Maharaj Ji's claims for their uniqueness and ultimacy faced little competition at first. But rival gurus soon appeared, and when the surrounding society, nurtured on traditional psychology's negative views of religious ecstacy and sociology's distrust of authoritarianism, became critical, DLM withdrew into introversionism. Several years of practice and much satsang among followers strengthened their competence in meditation and confidence in its results, leading for many to increasingly confirming darshan experiences and deeper belief in Guru Maharaj Ji as Satguru. But at the same time, this increased competence led many others, who tired of the restrictions and eccentricities of DLM life, to discover that they had learned to "experience God'' on their own and had little further need of Guru Maharaj Ji as spiritual interpreter or guide. They thus drifted away not in disillusionment but in fulfillment. (21) The very effort involved in learning to recognize charisma, then, often led to a diminishing interest in doing so.

The assertion made here, that the imputation of charisma is an active, conscious, changing process which at least in religious settings involves non-cognitive modes of perception, could be tested easily by careful observation, intensive interviewing and perusal of movements' publications. But students of New Religious Movements have shown little interest in the phenomenology of specific spiritual or mystical experiences. Those who refrain from reducing them away altogether usually gloss them over with vague references to "classic" (usually Christian) analyses of mysticism, falsely assuming a trans-historical and trans-cultural uniformity and monotony. Transpersonal psychologists, who attempt such phenomenology, miss social components by restricting the unit of analysis to individual minds. Thus a valuable chance to observe at first hand the social dimensions of New Religious Movement spiritual practices is being lost. Preston's ( 1981, 1982) exceptional analysis of the part learning to meditate plays in conversion to Zen provides an example of what could be done. And Strauss (1981) suggests a framework for organizing future research of this kind.


1. Arguments against the social disruption theory arise from definitional dilemnas: "routine'' (Weber, 1922, 1964) or ''attenuated and dispersed'' (Shils, 1968, 1965) charisma is recognized during periods of stability as well as disruption.

2. Sometimes organizational modification follows societal labeling und becomes secondary deviation. Extreme manipulationist viewpoints argue for a "brainwashing" model of charismatic recognition (Conway und Siegelman, 1978; Beckford, 1983).

3. Charismatic Ieaders are portrayed sometimes as passive and determined, sometimes as acting according to their own choosing; contrast Bainbridge and Stark`s (1979) "psychopathology" and "entrepreneur" models of charismatic Ieadership.

4. Cultures can value the recognition of charisma either where charisma serves magical ends or where it is segregated from the larger sociely in institutions like monasteries.

5. Although Weber suggests that "Charisam can only be 'awakened' and 'tested'; it cannot be 'learned' or 'taught' " (1922:249), he nevertheless refers his reeder to a chapter on "the charismatic type of education'' ( 1922:249) which, unfortunately, he never wrote. In other words Weber recognized the use of specific methods for use in the cultivation of charismatic recognition. When prophets establish charismatic authority, over and against established authority, "It is the duty of those subject to charismatic authority to recognize its genuineness and to act accordingly". (l922:242) This duty of recognition carries sanctions (1922:244), and may be inspired by means of training and discipline (1922:1149).

6. For analyses of conversion as a process, see Lofland and Stark, (1965) and Preston (1981 and 1982).

7. Robbins, et al. (1978) delineation of two-level charismatic movements suggests that recognition is only a beginning, which can and should be deepened for the sake of more profound spiritual experience or salvation.

8. This conception of religious beliefs and practices as parts of a process affecting and affected by social events frees it from the exclusively individual focus traditionally used by phenomenology and transpersonal psychology. Even subtle meditative practices may be taught and coached. And even if the struggle to master disciplines and overcome doubts takes place individually, teaching, encouragement, and rituals of recognition and commitment are social processes. Further, as analyses of charismatic communities suggest, special communion of followers with one another may be a discipline designed to enhance recognition of the leader's charisma (Weber, 1922; Zablocki. 1980; Kanter, 1972).

9. The group no longer officially uses this name nor all the practices and Sanskrit names used here: thus I have presented it in the past tense. This research is based on seven years' observation and participation between 1972 and 1979; it provided the basis for my doctoral dissertation.

10. See section below on "Darshan via the Community of Devotees."

11. Various branches of Radhasoami have argued about the incarnationalism of Satguru (Lane, 1981). Guru Maharaj Ji has accepted it and identifies with Krishna and other incarnations of Vishnu.

12. Guru Maharaj Ji modified Radhasoami theology by identifying himself with great masters of all religions. Thus not only did he hint that he had been Krishna and Ram and Buddha, but among others, Christ and Mohammed as well. (In this he followed a common neo-Hindu practice of trying to universalize Hindu theology). He did not object when his followers persisted further by identifying him with all these saviors as they had been predicted to return: Kalki the tenth incarnation of Vishnu; Jesus Christ's second coming; the Buddha Matreiya; and the tenth Imam of Shiite Islam.

13. He found parallels in scriptures of other religions: most notably, he claimed his Word was the same as "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). The DLM had started this practice, however, before Guru Maharaj Ji went to the West.

14. Other traditions interpret such experiences differently. Buddhism, for example, instructs practitioners to ignore them.

15. Some interpreted divine light as a meaningless physiological reaction (Cohen, 1975:64), drug flashbacks, or even an insidious Satanic presence (Boa, 1978:194).

16. See Downton (1979:155-6) for other interpretations and implications of this identity change.

17. This is consistent with the Hindu notion that liberation occurs when one realizes the identity of the divine spark within (Atman) with the all-pervasive Absolute (Brahman).

18. In one devotee's eyes, "His feet are just above it all. If we cling to those lotus feet then we, too, are able to just be out of the heaviness of this world . . . It's beyond any experience that the world has to offer" (DT, 11/77:31).

19. This episode actually occurred to a devotee before he received Knowledge and learned to meditate. Nevertheless, it is typical of devotee's experiences both before and after initiation.

20. For DLM followers in India, surrounded by Hindu culture and well aw;are of Sant Mat / Radhasoami practices in particular, this was almost certainly not the case. Further research is needed to deterrmine how the impact of learning meditative and mystical practices differs between cultures knowledgeable about and/or receptive to them, and cultures which are not.

21. This may help to explain why DLM communities disintegrated in the early 198O`s, and why its occasional festivals, if still well attended, became considerably more subdued.

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