Indian Background Index



Price, Maeve (1979): The Divine Light Mission as a social organization. (1)
Sociological Review, 27, Page 279-296

The aim of this paper is to analyze the religious group known as The Divine Light Mission from the point of view of its organizational structure. It is apparent that organizational studies of religious groups require some justification, since fashion dictates that the focus of concern today is on 'religiosity' or the privatized beliefs of individuals (2) Nevertheless, as Bittner has suggested, whatever the followers of a 'radical' religious group happen to believe, because their beliefs contradict the everyday, commonsense view of the world, some form of organization is required to maintain both the purity of those beliefs and the integrity of the movement. (3) In the case of the Divine Light Mission (DLM) the beliefs and practices of the followers and the sect's goals of transmitting a millenarian message and winning recruits are sufficient cause for at least a rudimentary organization.

It is proposed that without organization DLM remains an amorphous constituent of the 'cultic milieu'. (4) Whereas with organization it is moving towards the status of a sect. Given the problematic status of the concepts 'cult, and 'sect' it is necessary to select a working definition for the purpose of this discussion. The term 'sect' is employed, following Roy Wallis's example to refer to a religious collectivity whose central characteristic is 'epistemological authoritarianism' rather than an 'epistemological individualism' which characterizes a 'cult' . (5) Without doubt the beliefs of members of DLM (known as premies) derive from the dictates of their leader, indeed the knowledge they possess is his knowledge, though many adherents hold a more idiosyncratic position, accepting only parts of the belief system and choosing the degree to which they conform to accepted practice. This strain towards 'epistemological individualism' may be one of the reasons why DLM has not achieved full sect status. However, whilst there are cultic tendencies in DLM, further useful implications follow Wallis's distinction, all of which tend to strengthen the sect's ability to cope with survival problems: the vague boundaries of the cult are clarified by an absolute distinction between those who belong and those who do not; there is a finite membership; and, moreover, far from the belief system suffering from vagueness of definition, 'sects lay claim to possess unique and privileged access to the truth or salvation'. (6) It is because DLM conforms to the definition outlined above that DLM is regarded as a religious sect.

The kind of organization, however, which emerges will depend on a number of constraints which limit the scope of a leader's prescriptions. It is the thesis of this paper that the Divine Light Mission as a social organization is a product of a number of analytically distinct sets of forces which impinge on any 'ideal' structure which the leader might devise. It cannot be stated, as Wallis claimed of the Children of God, that 'the development of the movement as a social structure has been altogether defined and directed by the leader's specification. . .' (7) Judging from what the leader of DLM has declared to his followers it is clear that he would like the mission to function without any formal organisation at all. (8) At the same time, in order to spread his message and retain and expand his following he has had to accept the necessity of organization. Nevertheless it does not follow that the leader has either a clear definition of the type of organization he desires or that he possesses the requisite skills to achieve his goals. In particular, the leader has to take into account the social characteristics of his following who will also have attitudes concerning the existence of end form of organization. Nevertheless it does not follow that the leader has determine events and is frequently having to respond to situations which he could not have deliberately planned. This is particularly the case where the mission's financial problems are concerned. Other social forces, too, restrict the freedom of the leader to manipulate the movement as he might wish.

It is thus suggested that the following constraints have, in combination, determined the kind of organizational structure which DLM possesses and its success as a 'radical' religious movement:

1 The beliefs and practices of the devotees;

2 The social composition and attitudes of the following;

3 The leader's degree of competence;

4 The wider cultural context within which the mission functions.

Before commencing a detailed discussion of the above factors, a brief account of the mission's history will be presented as it is a factor which is inextricably linked with the four constraints set out above. The focus will be on Britain, although the mission has a worldwide following, with its headquarters, since 1971, in the United States.

History of the Mission

DLM was founded in India in the 1930s by the father of the present leader, who became the Satguru, or Perfect Master, at the age of eight, 1966 when his father died. At this time the Indian DLM claimed a following of millions and was one of many minor Hindu sects. In 1969 the new leader, Guru Maharaj Ji, sent one of his mahatmas, or a 'realised soul', to Britain as a missionary to win converts for his master. By the time Maharaj Ji, then thirteen years old, arrived in England with his mother, Mara Ji, and his three brothers, collectively known as the Holy Family, some two hundred young hippies had taken 'knowledge' and become devotees of Guru Maharaj Ji. The year was 1971. The so-called counter-culture was falling apart and thousands of young people having experienced hallucinogenic drugs were now turning to eastern mysticism and occultism for answers to man's existential questions and for stability in their lives. It was an opportune moment for DLM to appear on the scene and, by the summer of 1973, the mission claimed to have a following of 8,ooo devotees, or premies, in Britain.

From the small beginning of one mahatma in London and a handful of premies, the mission grew, with up to half a dozen mahatmas at any one time giving knowledge, the establishment of Divine Information Centres in most major towns and cities and the setting up of about forty ashrams (designated premie households) throughout Britain by the end of 1973. (9) Ashrams played an important part in the mission's structure. Here premies had chosen to live in small communal households, under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In practice they were under the direct supervision of head office and acted as cadres for the whole movement.

The actual formal organization of DLM was set up in Britain in 1971 and it was registered as a charity with Mata Ji acting as regent for her son, Maharaj Ji, who was still a minor, and with half English and half Indian premies on the board of directors. In the early days Mata Ji was unquestionably the power behind the throne. She was supported by her three other sons, who were all senior to Maharaj Ji, and by a number of Indian mahatmas who helped to organize the mission in the West. Among these was Ashokanand who was the main organizing force in Britain. It was he, together with self-selected leading British premies, nearly all with University backgrounds, (10) who tried to get the mission firmly established, organize the ashrams as examples of spiritual living for all premies and seekers and set about the task of proselytizing the vast numbers of potential recruits.

The mission bought its own printing press and produced its own newspaper, pamphlets and leaflets. Meetings were put on in public halls all over the country in addition to the larger events, the festivals, where Maharaj Ji and members of the Holy Family gave holy discourse (satsang). A special branch of the mission, known as the World Peace Corps (WPC) was established, initially to provide protection for Maharaj Ji. However it soon became the main agent for organizing meetings or 'programmes' and securing financial support and it ventured into all kinds of supposedly money-making enterprises such as transport, building and the distribution of vegetarian food and certain Indian products such as incense. Many believed the mission could become self-supporting with these businesses but they were run by untrained though enthusiastic voluntary labour and soon accumulated enormous debts. Many of these debts are still being paid off. Nineteen seventy-three was the peak year for the mission's activities both in Britain and the United States, when two major festivals were organised to rally the faithful and bring in new recruits. In Britain there was the Festival of Love at Alexandra Palace which drew thousands of premies and seekers, and where the unpredictable behaviour of Maharaj Ji antagonized the British press who had waited for hours for his scheduled appearance. In the United States, a festival to announce the start of the Millennium was held in the Houston Astrodome, Texas, and from the financial point of view it was a disaster for which the American mission is still paying. (11) In Britain, Alexandra Palace marked the turning point of the mission's fortunes. As one leading and deeply involved premie expressed it,

'For over two and a half years until they had the Alexandra Palace programme it was a very strong movement. In that time I imagine 5,000 to have joined and there must have been nearly a thousand full-time workers for the mission. It was completely incredible; it had a staff of a medium to large size company and was doing amazing things. Everyone was completely inexperienced and then after that [Alexandra Palace] there was nothing to do. Everyone was saying: well, what are we doing? Why are we here? We've got all this set up; we could build a bridge across the Thames; we could do anything - I mean there was just nothing to do. It was just literally - there were all these people with nothing to do, all set up, all geared up to, you know, spread the knowledge, to build this, to build that, but there was nothing to do. It has grown too quickly and the expansion didn't really have a foundation." (12)

A large membership had grown up very rapidly but the organizers had no clear idea where to lead the following, nor did they have the financial resources to maintain so many full-time workers. (13) The ashrams which should have provided a sound financial basis for the mission's operations were not even self-financing and had to be supported from funds.

The mission moved into a recessionary phase which lasted until the Autumn of 1975. It gradually contracted its public activities, shed its unprofitable and burdensome possessions and even disbanded the ashrams, the last of which closed down in September 1976.

During the next two-year phase of recession a number of events occurred which contributed to the weakening of the mission in terms of loss of members and decline in recruitment. (14) The most significant of these events were the marriage of Guru Maharaj Ji, in May 1974, and the subsequent 'Holy Family Row' when a struggle for control took place between Mata Ji, supported by her eldest son, and Guru Maharaj Ji, supported by his Western devotees as well as by a strong following in India. Details of this struggle are discussed below to illustrate the degree of competence Maharaj Ji displayed as a leader. At this point it is sufficient to state that Maharaj Ji emerged as the acknowledged leader and satguru with, ostensibly, complete control over the mission in Britain and elsewhere outside India.

After September 1975, when Maharaj Ji spoke to a gathering of British premies in the Bloomsbury Hotel, London, leading premies claim that the mission began to revive and certainly there was a marked increase in morale amongst premies.

The mission's history can be seen as passing through three phases: the first, one of rapid expansion when the mission was deliberately seeking recruits, a conversionist phase; the second, a phase of conflict and recession; and the third, or current phase, when the mission has turned away from the world and is concentrating on the morale of its members and their salvation. This can be regarded as the introversionist phase. (15) The mission no longer makes any attempt to publicize its activities or to mount recruitment campaigns. Though newcomers are welcomed the stress is on the practices involved with being a premie and on achieving personal salvation within the community of other premies rather than on any campaign to convert the rest of the world. This reversal in orientation from conversionist to introversionist has many consequences for the organizational structure of the movement as well as for the possibility of expansion. In particular, a far simpler structure is required and the rate of recruitment is likely to be very slow.

Beliefs and Practices

Essentially, premies believe that the key to understanding themselves, the gateway to happiness, love and that peace of mind 'which surpasseth understanding' lies in meditating on the knowledge of Guru Maharaj Ji, and that, this knowledge is there inside each human being. Only Maharaj Ji has the key to it and only his appointed mahatmas or initiators may give Maharaj Ji's knowledge. This crucial fact that knowledge may only be revealed by Maharaj Ji, legitimates the leader's supremacy to the believers and ensures that seekers achieve these benefits from a single source. This immediately creates a bond between tbose who have knowledge and sets them apart from those without. This membership bond is an essential precondition for organization. Two other requisites cement the collectivity of premies into a social organization. Not only are all premies enjoined to practise meditation on the knowledge, they are also required to do service and attend satsang. Service is concerned with any kind of endeavour which promotes the work of Maharaj Ji and his mission. All officials and volunteers at functions are doing service; any premie who earns money to donate to the mission or to Maharaj Ji is doing service; even work done with a loving and giving heart is so regarded. Satsang literally means 'holy discourse' or 'the company of truth'. Satsang takes place whenever a premie speaks to someone else 'from within his heart' about the experience of knowledge, the love of Guru Maharaj Ji or the necessity of meditation. In practice, premies tend to meditate according to private schedules, to do service when called upon by those who do the organizing (a service too) and to hold Satsang together regularly, several times a week. This is what is expected of them by Maharaj Ji and the mission functions partly to bring premies together for Satsang as often as possible. Premies believe they have the answer to their own private problems, anxieties and fears and to those of the world. Meditation on knowledge brings peace of mind to each individual who receives knowledge and this is ultimately the way to achieve world peace. If all people, particularly statesmen and politicians, had knowledge, wars could no longer be fought. The emphasis on world peace in the mission's propaganda was prominent in the early conversionist days and DLM appeared to be another millennial sect, predicting that a thousand years of peace would be ushered in by Guru Maharaj Ji. This emphasis has almost disappeared today, premies being far more interested in their own state of peace than in that of the world. The change probably reflects both the signal failure to convert the world's millions and the general counter-cultural shift from a concern to change the world towards exploration of the self. It is also in accord with the current introversionist phase dictated by the leader. Another change in emphasis has been from extolling the virtues of knowledge in satsang, to extolling the virtues of Guru Maharaj Ji himself, not merely as the one who has revealed this knowledge, but as the source of life, the guiding force in people's lives, the creator and Lord of the Universe. This shift has been paralleled by important changes in organizational structure and policy which have resulted in a de-democratization of the movement towards an overt autocracy, or even theocracy, in line with the third phase of the mission's history. This development will be discussed further in the section on the leader. Direct physical contact with his devotees is arranged by Maharaj Ji through the organization of festivals several times a year where premies see their Perfect Master, hear his message and actually stand in his presence for darshan, when they pass before him and receive a sense of his personal and awe-inspiring love. (16) These festivals, some of which a large proportion of the most active premies manage to attend, are extremely important for binding the movement together, keeping central control in the hands of Maharaj Ji and reinforcing the faith and devotion of premies. They also require planning, deployment of labour, communication lines between international headquarters, national headquarters, the premie communities and the individual premies, and a very considerable financial outlay. Two other important gatherings are national and community programmes and conferences. Programmes, like festivals, serve to bring premies together and strengthen the message. (17) Usually without the presence of Maharaj Ji, they are occasions when premies hear satsang from leading members, officials and from Maharaj Ji's own mahatmas, now called initiators, the majority of whom are now Westerners. Recently programmes have been held in four centres in Britain at which Raja Ji has been the principal attraction, as Maharaj Ji's brother and personal ambassador. Conferences often follow a festival and it is here that Maharaj Ji dictates policy to national representatives. Though policy is imposed from above, in practice the instructions are sufficiently vague and flexible to allow for wide interpretation and for many redefinitions and even volte-faces on the part of Maharaj Ji as the consequences of his instructions are revealed to him.

The Following

The initial support for the mission came from the ranks of the hippie generation of the late sixties and early seventies, and at least half of the active premies even today received knowledge between 1970 and 1973. (18) From the mission's records and my own research it is clear that the vast majority of recruits were in their early twenties. They had participated in the various phases of the evolution of the counter-culture. They were 'into drugs', 'into rock' and 'into' self-realization and exploration. They thought of themselves as hippies and as drop-outs from main-stream society, who rejected the achievement ethic and the work ethic. While a substantial proportion was highly educated, with a degree or at least several 'A' levels, almost half came from manual worker families. (19) They were hostile to authority, to organization, to bureaucracy. They believed in 'doing your own thing', in freedom from constraints and in the supremacy of the self. At the same time they were seeking something to believe in, some commitment to a cause, peace of mind, lasting happiness and above all, love. According to the mission's claims and press reports DLM attracted such people in large numbers. It could offer instant salvation through the knowledge of Guru Maharaj Ji; it could harness the frustrated talents and energies of hundreds into the cause of the mission's evangelical goals and through meditation on knowledge, peace of mind could be achieved and the transcendental experienced. For this generation of 'seekers' the mission provided a refuge and a way of life.

When it is claimed that the social composition and attitudes of the membership act as a constraint on the kind of organization which develops, one has in mind particularly the 'hippie life-style' to which most devotees are still attracted, which eschews formality, orthodox timekeeping and rules imposed from above. (20)

Though enthusiastic individuals can always be found to run a communication system, keep records, produce a newspaper, organize meetings and collect money, these organizers have to work with a membership that is basically hostile to formal organization and is unwilling to accept the authority of anyone other than that of Guru Maharaj Ji. This characteristic of the membership, its strain towards the individualism of the 'counter-culture', has always acted as a curb on the development of a complex bureaucratic organizational structure. Many lower participants either ignore or show amusement at the pretensions of officialdom. (21) In consequence most officials are very anxious to impress on the membership that they are only 'doing service' for Maharaj Ji and are really just ordinary premies.

But it would be misleading to suggest that most premies prefer the passive, introversionist phase the mission is now going through. Of the hundreds who participated in the frenetic activities of the first phase there are those who regret its passing and would like to work in a more active, proselytizing movement. (22) What premies are against is not organization as such, but formal, bureaucratic organization. When Maharaj Ji announced that he was dissolving the formal side of the organization, as he did at Frankfurt in 1976 (23) this could be interpreted as a response to premies' resistance to bureaucratic structures. However, a consequence of having only a skeletal formal organizational structure is that recruitment suffers and the active, evangelical energies of the movement are frustrated. Another interpretation is put upon Maharaj Ji's action in the next section of this paper.

The Leader

Given the fact that Guru Maharaj Ji was only thirteen years old when DLM was established in the West, it is likely that he had little control over the course of events and that Mata Ji in fact was the organizing force. (24) However, during the first two and a half years after the mission had been established, Guru Maharaj Ji's habit of arriving late, or not at all, for public programmes in Britain was doubtless a factor in his receiving an increasingly hostile press coverage which, in turn, may have contributed to the decline in recruitment which took place after the Alexandra Palace festival.

When Maharaj Ji began to assert his independence from his mother, both as an individual and as a leader, the mission entered a period of crises, internal conflict and consequent recession. (25) In May 1974, Maharaj Ji married an American girl, Marolyn Johnson (now called Durga Ji), in direct defiance of his mother's wishes and the event shook the mission to its foundations. This marriage brought about an exodus from the ashrams, the stable core of the mission which had been a vital means of social control, as premies flocked to get married and began to produce their own children, within customary marriage structures. It was an important turning point for the mission. The followers seemed to grow up overnight into adults with normal family responsibilities and ties. The base of support inevitably shifted from the ashrams to the wider premie community. This meant that central control was very much weakened and that the ordinary, non-ashram premie began to play a more important role in determining the mission's fortunes. At the same time, many premies were shaken by the marriage and felt almost betrayed by their leader. It is apparent that the marriage was responsible for a loss of morale and therefore of support for the mission by many premies. (26)

Immediately following Maharaj Ji's marriage a struggle for power took place within the Holy Family itself. Maharaj Ji was now sixteen years old. He had the knowledge that his personal following in the West was well established. It is likely that he felt the time had come to take the reins of power from his mother, who still dominated the mission and had a strong hold over most of the mahatmas, all of whom were born and brought up in India. Another factor may well have been the financial independence of Maharaj Ji, which he enjoys through the generosity of his devotees. (27)

Whatever the decisive factors in the struggle for power, it is apparent that the break came soon after Maharaj Ji's marriage and though Mata Ji attempted to appoint the eldest brother, Bhagwan Ji, as the new Perfect Master, or Satguru, the western premies never withdrew their loyalty from Maharaj Ji. In Britain a long wrangle ensued over the legal control of DLM as Maharaj Ji was not yet of age, but Mata Ji was out-manoevred by Maharaj Ji's supporters who by-passed the officially registered Divine Light Mission and used Divine United Organization (DUO) (which had already been established in 1973 to co-ordinate the mission's activities) and this became the mission's operational headquarters. The most important outcome of the 'Holy Family Row' was the establishment of Guru Maharaj Ji as the sole head of DLM, as an international religious organization, with its headquarters remaining in the United States. Once Maharaj Ji became the de facto head of the mission, various factors, which must include his own inexperience and lack of long-term policy and his anxiety not to become a puppet of his officials, led to a gradual slowing down of recruitment, a falling away of active support and an almost complete cessation of organized proselytizing activities.

A turning point in the history of the British mission occurred on a surprise visit Maharaj Ji made to England, when he spoke to several thousand premies at the Bloomsbury meeting. The message appeared to be, 'get yourselves together and organize premie communities, as the organizational base of the movement'. The term 'premie communities' refers to aggregates of premies who live in the same town or district and give satsang in one another's homes. The reaction to Maharaj Ji's message apparently went beyond what had originally been intended, as the communities organized 'workshops' when the conduct and content of satsang, and even the practice of meditation, were analysed and (constructively) criticized. Premies began to feel so confident there was talk of electing officers and even community initiators; democracy had certainly got out of hand. Paralleling the emphasis on the ordinary premie communities, Maharaj Ji let it be known that the link with Indian culture might be an impediment to the movement's growth. It is very likely that he was so advised by his western officials and a number of Indian prayers and chants were dropped from public rituals and even the term mahatma was replaced by a western term, 'initiator', or one who initiates into knowledge. This move also removed some of the mystique from the mahatmas and after Maharaj Ji had appointed several Westerners the practice of having mahatmas on the stage at the feet of Maharaj Ji, while he delivered satsang, was discontinued, as was also the custom of having loyal members of the Holy Family surrounding him at such times. Thus on the one hand the movement was being democratized in terms of a more or less equal 'mass' and on the other hand the individual supremacy of Maharaj Ji, separated from the mass, was emphasized.

At the conference in Frankfurt in November I976, Maharaj Ji had announced that the International Headquarters were dissolved and that henceforth he would guide the mission, with his brother, Raja Ii, as his ambassador. In fact what had occurred was the removal from power of his closest adviser, who had been the International President since the headquarters were set up in the United States. It is apparent that Maharaj Ji resented the advice given to him by his chief subordinate and dismissed him when a clash of wills occurred. (28) The dismantling of the International Headquarters did not in fact take place, although staff numbers were greatly reduced, at the national level as well, and officials are very cautious now, afraid to take initiative while they try to guess what it is their Guru really intends.

A further example of erratic policy changes is Maharaj Ji's attitude towards the ashrams. In 1976, Maharaj Ji suggested that ashrams were retreats, or hothouses for premies who could not cope with the rigours of living in the everyday world. It was time, he said, for asharam premies to face the world and live as ordinary premies in the community. The direction was part of a policy which had been slowly developing for a long time, of weakening the powers of the National Office and the privileges of ashram premies (who received free passage and entrance to festivals) and putting more, albeit diffuse, power into the local premie communities.

The leader now appears to be changing his mind. In Britain, plans are being made to open a few ashrams for premies who wish to live a devotional life and it is intended that an initiator will reside in each ashram and look after the spiritual welfare of the local community. It would seem in fact that the ashrams acted as a pivot for the mission's stability and this is now being appreciated. At the same time the stress on the community premie, which had led to what was now viewed as excessive democratization, which was strongly repudiated by Maharaj Ji at Frankfurt, has now been controlled by the simple device of blocking public communication channels upwards to the head office. For more than twelve months now, the national publication which carried letters from premies, often extremely critical of other premies and the head office, (but never of Maharaj Ji), has not been printed. Instead premies receive an exclusive diet of full transcripts of Maharaj Ji's satsang at various festivals across the world. Maharaj Ji made it known that he disliked his satsang to be edited and only extracts of it published. At present then, premies have neither a public platform for discussing the mission's policies nor a vehicle for receiving an interpreted policy via the mission's officials. Such a situation, though increasing Maharaj Ji's control over the movement, does so at the cost of expansion and middle-management confidence. It is not likely to succeed as a long-term policy As Beckford has suggested, in order to prosper voluntary organizations must secure a continuous supply of human and material resources through their members' voluntary endeavours, their financial contributions and their readiness to obey organizational rules. This means that not only must leaders adapt their strategies to the requirements of the members but also that organizational objectives 'can only be achieved … if objectives can be explicitly defined and unambiguously operationalized'. (29) In the case of DLM, confusion over organizational goals and lack of firm leadership control at the intermediate and grass root levels, combined with a following who are being pulled in one direction after another without structural channels of two-way communication, all lead to confusion and lack of desire to recruit new members. What is surprising is not that the mission is no longer expanding significantly, but that it manages to survive at all. This answer to the second issue must lie in the mission's continued ability to satisfy fundamental psychological and social needs of its adherents.

The Cultural Context

The effect of the cultural environment within which the mission functions has been implicit in the above discussion. The basic problem arises through attempting to establish a 'radical' meditation sect, with loosely formulated objectives and unspecific demands upon the following, 'within the world'. Evidence from other newly established religious sects suggest that very strict control over members, through explicit roles, is essential for organizational strength. Wallis has shown how the Scientologists carefully control the behaviour of their adherents both through a highly complex hierarchical bureaucratic structure and through its systems of rules to cover almost all contingencies. (30) In the case of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, control over members is exercised through a thorough-going process of resocialization within the temple, which effectively insulates the devotees from outside, societal pressures. (31) On the other hand, different strategies have been employed by the Children of God which have varied from cutting the following off from contact with society in rural colonies, to the more recent emphasis on the 'cash nexus' whereby the members are encouraged by actual cash incentives to sell the group's literature to the public. According to Wallis, at the time of his study, it was going through a phase of 'colportage and routine proselytization'. (32) From the point of view of this thesis, however, the organization still had clear cut goals with strict control over the membership and its contact with the wider society. Another example is that of the United Family, which retains its organizational strength through a thorough induction and training into Family life and careful regulation of the members' contact with the outside world. (33) In all the above cases, the goals are explicit and members' relations with the wider public are constrained by explicit rules of conduct which are legitimated through established authority structures.

In the case of the DLM, there are no regulations governing behavior towards the public at large, nor are there explicit proselytizing procedures. Nor are premies protected from wider cultural influences through any form of insulation from the world. In the early days, the life of an ashram premie, apart from time spent in employment, revolved round the ashram. There were very few books, no television and no visits to the cinema or recreational centres. The ashram premie's life was strictly controlled. Following the closure of the ashrams, premies have a choice of how often, or even whether or not, to attend satsang, to meditate and to do service. Wider influences constantly impinge on the premies' devotional life and there are still no clear guidelines for regulating behaviour in relation to the world. It must also be stated however that the ashrams, situated as they usually were in terraced houses in urban areas with premies expected to earn their living in the secular world, were not ideally placed as the devotional centres of an introversionist sect. (34)


It will be apparent from the foregoing that DLM is still very much an evolving social phenomenon whose structural characteristics have changed several times in response to a number of crucial events such as Maharaj Ji's marriage and the 'Holy Family row'. The social characteristics of the adherents in interaction with the leadership have also set limitations on the movement's development and policy orientations. The mission's following is predominantly composed of more or less reformed hippies, most of whom still have a strong attachment to the 'counter-culture' and who are not amenable to formal rules and regulations and organizational discipline. Their attachment to the mission relies on a more spiritual commitment. Even their leader, Maharaj Ji himself, rarely issues orders, preferring to suggest, for example, that premies would have more success in realizing knowledge if they did not pollute their bodies with drugs, rather than forbidding premies to take drugs. It was only the ashram premies who were prepared to take orders from the mission and they were a small minority of all premies, who in any case could always leave the ashram if the life proved too arduous.

At the time of writing, the whole organization has been reduced to a very simple framework, consistent with the limited goals of keeping premies actively participating in satsang, service and meditation and gathering together to reinforce their commitment at larger programmes and festivals from time to time. In Britain, there are about half a dozen full-time workers at Head Office, four regional co-ordinators and community representatives in most large towns. Contact with outsiders through work, friendship ties, and the 'drug-scene' still ensures a small but regular supply of new recruits which may replace those who lapse from the movement. But the movement cannot expand or hope to bring peace to the world on this basis. Even with a very much reduced full-time national staff, the mission is still moving from one financial crisis to the next and has not solved the problem of financial stability. (35) It appears to be unlikely that the present lack of emphasis upon recruitment will continue indefinitely. The seizure of power by Maharaj Ji left the mission without clear direction. Charisma is not enough for an organization to prosper. The leader must also learn how to manipulate the movement to achieve the ends he manifestly seeks, otherwise a hiatus in activity results. A new policy with the organizational structure to implement it has not yet been worked out.


This paper has attempted to show that the Divine Light Mission as a social organization is a product of various constraints which stem from the degree of competence of the leader, the social composition of the followers, the beliefs and practices of the devotees and the cultural context within which the mission functions.

It would seem that if the mission is to solve its problems, which can be expressed in terms of recruitment levels, membership commitment and financial stability, fundamental organization changes will have to take place. As Beckford has shown, religious movements may employ widely divergent strategies for solving these basic problems. (36) It would seem, however, in the case of DLM that, unless solutions are found, long-term decline is inevitable. This study of DLM as a social organization adds additional weight to the 'intriguing possibility that the cultural appropriateness of a religious movement may have as much to do with its form of organization as with its set of teachings'. (37)

Preston Polytechnic.
First received 16th May, 1978
Finally accepted 23rd August, 1978

NOTES (all of them are part of the original document)

I should like to express my thanks to the SSRC for helping in financing my research into the Divine Light Mission in Britain.

I also gratefully acknowledge the helpful advice I received on the first draft of this paper from Eileen Barker at the London School of Economics, John Hughes at Lancaster University and Professor Roy Wallis at Queen's University, Belfast, though this final version is of course entirely my own responsibility.

1/ An earlier draft of this paper was presented to a Sociology of Religion seminar at the London School of Economics.

2/ See James A. Beckford: 'Two Contrasting Types of Sectarian Organization' in Roy Wallis (ed.): Sectarianism: Analysis of Religious and Non-Religious Sects, Peter Owen, London, I975a, pp. 70-85.

This essay has been heavily influenced by Beckford's work on the organizational aspects of The Watchtower Society, particularly: J. A. Beckford: 'Organization, Ideology and Recruitment: The Structure of the Watch Tower Movement', Sociological Review, Vol. 23, No. 4, Nov. 1975sa, pp. 893-908 and James A. Beckford: The Trumpet of Prophecy: A Sociological Study of Jehovah's Witnesses, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1975b.

3/ See Egan Bittner: 'Radicalism and the Organization', American Sociological Review, Vol. 28, No. 6, 1963.

4/ The notion of the 'cultic milieu' is drawn from Colin Campbell: 'The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization' in Michael Hill, (ed.): A Sociological Year Book of Religion, S.C.M Press, London, 1972.

5/ Roy Wallis: 'Scientology: Therapeutic Cult to Religious Sect', Sociology, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1975b.

6/ ibid., p. 93.

7/ Roy Wallis: 'Observations on the Children of God', Sociological Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1976a.

8/ See the report of an International Conference of the mission held in Frankfurt in November 1976, entitled 'The Frankfurt Conference'. It was issued by the British mission. No publication date supplied.

9/ Factual data have been obtained either from the mission's records or have been supplied verbally by mission officials.

10/ Certainly the 'front' men of the organization, the national director, the editor of their newspaper Divine Times, the man in charge of publicity and several regional directors had university backgrounds and in addition there were many graduates working full-time or part-time for the mission.

11/ This statement is based on a verbal communication from a British official.

12/ This view is representative of several official comments made to me about that period of expansion and consequent decline.

13/ It is impossible to be certain of the size of the membership during 1973. Most mission officials speak of 8,ooo to 1o,ooo. This figure had come down to around 6,ooo 'who are fairly active, by February 1978.

14/ Mission records confirm that numbers receiving knowledge dropped drastically after 1974.

15/ The terms 'conversionist' "and 'introversionist' are employed, following Wilson's usage in Bryan Wilson: Religious Sects, World University Library, London, 1970.

16/ See Maeve Price: 'Divine Light in a Festive Mood', New Society, June 9th 1977, pp. 500-501, for a fuller account of a recent festival in Britain.

17/ Festivals often reach a peak of mindless fervour some might associate with a Nazi rally. At the festival held in Wembley in 1977 a 'seeker' drawn towards the idea of receiving 'knowledge' told me she was completely put off by the way in which Maharaj Ji could manipulate his audience. She saw him to be as dangerous as a Hitler with the potential of leading his followers to violence and acts of destruction.

18/ Data on membership have been obtained from the total sample of active premies on the mission's records which were compiled in the years 1975 and 1976. Out of the 2,050 who declared that they were prepared to donate 10% of their incomes to the mission, 642 filled the mission's questionnaire on education, occupational skills, age, year of receiving knowledge and other items. My own questionnaire, put out to premies at a London programme in January 1978 elicited 177 replies from the 500 forms issued, but the results tally very well with the mission's data and the information from each source corroborates the other. In addition personal observation and over thirty tape recorded interviews over the past three years have provided further evidence for the statements which are made.

19/ The background of premies appears to be simillar to that of the members of the Unified Family according to Beckford in Wallis: op. cit., 1975a, where 'an underlying bi-polarity between middle class students or educational dropouts and unskilled youths is definitely visible' (p. 83.) In DLM males also outnumber females, particularly in leadership roles.

20/ The literature on hippies and the counter-culture is now quite extensive. Peter L. Berger, Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner's The Homeless Mind, Penguin, 1974, provides a lively description of the attitudes towards 'mainstream' society held by the hippie generation.

21/ At a festival held in Leicester in 1976 many openly smoked cigarettes and cannabis, drank alcohol and wore 'conventional' hippie clothing, the men complete with beards and beads. Official mission policy is oppose d to all these practices.

22/ This statement is based on comments made to me by premies who had played an active part in the earlier conversionist phase.

23/ See 8 above.

24/ This is the view of active members close to the centre at the time. Mata Ji was assisted by an Indian mahatma, Ashokanand, in Britain who virtually organized the British mission.

25/ A major conflict arose over the rôle of the World Peace Corps which was seen as a threat to the official mission's status. The conflict involved leading premies and its resolution, wherby WPC was dissolved, meant that the most enterprising section of the mission no longer functioned. It was Maharaj Ji's support for the official mission's position which was responsible for the dissolution of WPC.

26/ In the words of an ex-ashram premie who wrote to me: 'Guru Maharaj Ji's marriage turned me upside down'. He left the mission and did not participate again until August 1977.

27/ Contributions from premies throughout the world allow Maharaj Ji to follow the life style of an American millionaire. He has a house (in his wife's name), an Aston Martin, a boat, a helicopter, the use of fine houses (divine residences) in most European countries as well as South America Australia and New Zealand, and an income which allows him to run a household and support his wife and children, his brother, Raja Ji, and his wife, Claudia. In addition his entourage of family, close officials and mahatmas are all financed on their frequent trips around the globe to attend the mission's festivals.

28/ Maharaj Ji's version of this event is recorded in a British publication Six Lane Frreway printed around March 1977 which deals with a conference held in Atlantic City in December 1976. Maharaj Ji denied that he had sacked his international director but claimed he had changed his 'service' (p. 34). In fact the said official has dropped out of the mission altogether.

29/ Beckford in Wallis: op. cit., 1975a, p 74

30/ Roy Wallis: The Road to Total Freedom, A Sociological Analysis of Scientology, Heineman Educational Books, London, I976b.

31/ Francine J. Daner: 'Conversion to Krishna Consciousness: The Transformation from Hippie to religious Ascetic' in Wallis: op. cit., 1975a, pp. 53-69.

32 / Wallis: op. cit., 1976a.

33/ See Beckford in Wallis: op. cit., 1975a and the work of Eileen Barker in an unpublished paper presented to the Sociology of Religion Study Group of the B.S.A., September 1977.

34/ Again, some premies have pointed out the absurdity of the location of ashrams and some have questioned the cultural appropriateness of attempting to set up celibate households containing both sexes in modern Britain.

35/ My most recent query in February 1978, concerning the financial health of the mission, elicited the response from an official that the mission had still not cleared all the debts incurred in its expansionist phase.

36/ Beckford in Wallis: op. cit., 1975a.

37/ ibid., p. 83.

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