Prem Pal Singh Rawat (born December 10 1957 in Haridwar, India), also known as Balyogeshwar, Guru Maharaj Ji, and Maharaji, became a guru in India at the age of eight, and gained international prominence at 13 when he first began to spread his message in the West. Rawat's teachings include four meditation techniques he calls "Knowledge". Over the years, several organizations have assisted in spreading his message, including the Divine Light Mission, Elan Vital (1983), and The Prem Rawat Foundation (2001).
Rawat's father and guru was Shri Hans Ji Maharaj. When he died in 1966, Rawat was proclaimed "satguru" or "Perfect Master", and succeeded his father as the spiritual leader of three million followers in India. Granted emancipated minor status at age 16, Rawat married in 1974, which resulted in conflicts within his family and the splitting of the movement. Prem Rawat retained control outside of India and took a more active role in guiding the movement in the West. He became a United States citizen in 1977. He later dropped the title "Guru" and claims of divinity, and abandoned the Indian aspects of his teachings associated with the early movement.
The focus of Rawat's teachings is on stillness, peace and contentment within the individual. Rawat's supporters and independent studies have credited him with helping people experience inner peace.
Rawat has been criticized for a lack of intellectual content in his public discourses and for his opulent lifestyle.
Prem Rawat was born in Haridwar, northern India, on December 10, 1957. He had a wealthy, high caste father and was born into luxury. The fourth and youngest son of guru Shri Hans Ji Maharaj and his second wife, Jagat Janani Mata Shri Rajeshwari Devi, Rawat attended St. Joseph's Academy elementary school in his hometown of Dehra Dun. At the age of three he began speaking at his father's meetings, and when he was six his father taught him the "techniques of Knowledge." During the 1960s, Americans in India searching for spiritual guidance met members of his father's Divine Light Mission (founded in 1960) and a few became initiates or premies (from the Hindi prem, which literally means "love".) Rawat's father died in 1966, and during the customary 13 days of mourning, his mother and senior officials of the organization discussed the succession. Both his mother (Mata Ji) and eldest brother Satpal Rawat were suggested as potential successor, but before Satpal could be nominated, Prem addressed the crowd and was accepted by them as their teacher and "Perfect Master". On July 31 after an improvised ceremony, Mata Ji and his elder brothers touched Rawat's feet as a sign of respect. Because of his youth, effective control of the DLM was shared by the whole family. From that time on, Rawat spent his weekends and school holidays travelling as his father had, addressing audiences on the subject of Knowledge and inner peace.
In the late 1960s, British followers in India invited him to visit the West. In 1969 he sent one of his closest Indian students (known as Mahatmas) to London to teach Knowledge on his behalf. In 1970, many of his new Western followers flew to India to see him and were present at India Gate, Delhi, when – still only twelve years old – he delivered an address known as "The Peace Bomb," which marked the start of his international work.
Prem Rawat first travelled to the West in 1971. His first western address was given at a pop music festival in Glastonbury. In September 1971 the U.S. Divine Light Mission (DLM) was established in Denver, Colorado and the same year Rawat spoke to a large U.S. gathering. By the end of 1973, DLM was operating in North and South America, Europe and Australia. Tens of thousands of people had been initiated, and several hundred centers and dozens of ashrams formed.
The 1972 Hans Jayanti, a festival celebrating Rawat's father's birthday, was attended by over 500,000 people. Rawat, then aged 14, arrived back in India on 7 November, together with 2,500 followers from the U.S in seven chartered Jumbo jets. A suitcase containing cash, jewelry and wristwatches worth an estimated total of US$27,000 to $80,000 was not properly declared, and was impounded by customs. A DLM spokesman said that the money did not belong to Rawat, but had been deposited by 3,000 followers to pay for expenses, and that the other valuables were gifts. One secretary accepted responsibility for the valuables and another for failing to declare them. The finances of Rawat and the DLM at home and abroad were investigated by the Indian government, and Indira Gandhi took a personal interest in the case which was discussed in parliament. Rawat had to post a $13,300 bond in order to leave the country in June of 1973. Mata Ji said that customs officials had humiliated her son, that the Indian press had given his visit the worst possible coverage, and that her son was angry with her for convincing him to attend. Charges were never filed, and the Indian government later issued an apology.
On August 7, 1973 Rawat went to the Detroit city hall to receive a testimonial resolution praising his work, but was pied by a reporter from the anti-establishment Detroit periodical Fifth Estate. A tour of U.S. cities was cut short in early September 1973, when Rawat was hospitalized with what his doctor called an "intestinal ulcer". The doctor said that Rawat's body showed the stresses of a middle-aged executive weakened by the pace of continual travel.
The Hans Jayanti of 1973, called "Millennium '73", was held in the Houston Astrodome. It was promoted as "the most significant event in human history". Organizers, including Rawat's eldest brother Satpal Rawat (then known as Bal Bhagwan Ji) and activist Rennie Davis, had publicly predicted attendance of 100,000 or more, but the event only attracted an estimated 20,000. Though it was not covered by the national television news, it did get extensive coverage in the print media and was depicted in the award-winning U.S. documentary "Lord of the Universe". The premies were reported to be "cheerful, friendly and unruffled, and seemed nourished by their faith". To the 400 premie parents who attended, Rawat "was a rehabilitator of prodigal sons and daughters". Other reporters found a "confused jumble of inarticulately expressed ideas. The event was called the "youth culture event of the year". The failure of the event to meet expectations generated negative publicity and left the Divine Light Mission heavily in debt, forcing changes in the movement. According to Thomas Pilarzyk, the Millennium economic deficit was partially the result of poor management by the "holy family", Rawat's mother and three older brothers, as well as the much lower than anticipated attendance.
Because of Prem Rawat's youth, Mata Ji, his mother, had managed the affairs of the worldwide DLM, with the help of her eldest son, Satpal Rawat. As Prem Rawat approached sixteen years of age, he wanted to take a more active part in deciding and managing the direction of the movement. According to Downton, "this meant he had to encroach on his mother's territory and, given the fact that she was accustomed to having control, a fight was inevitable".
In May 1974 Rawat received permission from a judge to get married. His marriage to Marolyn Johnson, a 24-year old follower and secretary of his from San Diego, California, was officiated at a non-denominational church in Golden, Colorado. Rawat's mother, Mata Ji, had not been invited. As a result of his marriage he became an emancipated minor.
Rawat's marriage to a non-Indian finally severed Rawat's relationship with his mother. She gained legal control of the Indian DLM and appointed the eldest brother, Satpal, as its leader, while Rawat maintained the support of the Western disciples. Most of the mahatmas either returned to India or were dismissed. Rawat had by then become financially independent as a result of contributions from his Western devotees, which made it possible for him to follow the lifestyle of an American millionaire.
In November 1974, seeking more privacy for himself, his wife and his entourage following security concerns, Rawat moved to a four-acre property in Malibu, California. Purchased by the DLM for $400,000, the property also served as the DLM's West Coast headquarters. Described in the press as a "lavish hilltop estate", it was damaged in a 1978 brush fire. Controversy around a helipad on the property was resolved by installing emergency water storage for use by the Los Angeles County Fire Department in emergencies and by limiting the number of permitted flights. After scaling down the DLM's activities in the early 1980s, Rawat created the North American Sponsorship Program to help pay for the property, which by 1998 was valued at $15 million.
Although there were still residues of belief in his divinity, by 1976 the vast majority of students viewed Rawat primarily as their spiritual teacher, guide and inspiration. In January 1976 Rawat encouraged students to leave the ashrams and to discard Indian customs and terminology. In the same year, staff at the Denver headquarters were reduced from 250 to 80.
His appearance at an event on 20 December 1976 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, wearing a traditional Krishna costume for the first time since 1975, signaled a resurgence of Indian influence and devotion. His followers elevated Rawat to a higher level in the conveyance of "Knowledge". During 1977, many returned to ashram life, and there was a shift back from secular tendencies towards ritual and messianic beliefs. In 1977 Rawat became a US citizen.
In the mid-1970s several ex-members became vocal critics. James Lewis wrote that they attacked the movement with charges of brainwashing and mind control. In January 1979 the Los Angeles Times reported that Rawat maintained his Malibu following despite a rising mistrust of cults. Bob Mishler, co-founder of DLM in the United States and former president of the business side of the mission, and Robert Hand, a former vice president of the movement, voiced their criticism in a press conference, warning that a situation like the recent Jonestown incident could occur with the followers of Rawat. Mishler complained that the ideals of the group had become impossible to fulfill, but his charges found little support and did not affect the progress of the Mission.
A source of controversy in the 1970s was Rawat's affluent lifestyle, which continued during the DLM's financial difficulties. Press reports listed expensive automobiles such as Rolls Royces, Mercedes Benz limousines and sports cars, some of them gifts. Several of the vehicles were reportedly bought tax-free due to the DLM's status as a church. The DLM was investigated for possible abuse of its status but was not charged.
Rawat took flying lessons beginning when he was 13, and began training in a jet by age 15. In 1972 two Cessna airplanes were obtained for his use. Travelling almost constantly, he was reported to have residences in London, New York, Colorado, California, India, and Australia.
On several occasions, reporters enquired of Rawat why he did not give his Rolls Royce away, in order to alleviate hunger or poverty. In response, Rawat explained that he only had one; once that was given away, people would still be hungry and poor, and he wouldn't have another one to give them. In addition, he stated that he gave something that was more valuable than money. His followers saw no conflict between his worldly and spiritual riches either: "Maharaj Ji's luxuries are gifts from a Western culture whose fruits are watches and Cadillacs," a spokesman explained. "He isn't saying, abandon the material world. He's saying it is our attachment to it that is wrong. In their view, the messiah had come as a king this time, rather than as a beggar. Other premies asserted that he did not want the gifts, but that people simply gave them out of their love for him. They saw Rawat's lifestyle as an example of a lila, or divine play, which held a mirror to the "money-crazed and contraption-collecting society" of the West.
Sources close to his mother said that his materialistic lifestyle was one of the reasons she disowned him. Former officials of the DLM in the 1970s, including the founding president, the vice president, and a financial analyst, later complained that money was increasingly diverted to Rawat's personal use, and that the movement appeared to them to exist only to support Rawat's "opulent existence". Critics have complained that his lifestyle was supported by the donations of followers.
Following the fire damage to his Malibu home, Rawat moved to Miami Beach, Florida with his wife and three children for several years, and DLM headquarters relocated there. Prem Rawat visited India again in October 1980 after an absence of five years, and spoke to over 38,000 people in Delhi. He also toured South America and Europe that year.
In the early 1980s, the Hindu traditions and religious parables that had been prominent in Prem Rawat's teachings were abandoned as obstacles to a wider western acceptance of his message and gave way to an exclusive focus on "Knowledge" – the meditation techniques. Formerly considered the "Perfect Master", Prem Rawat abandoned his "almost divine status as guru". Spiritual growth was no longer attained by the grace of the guru, but from the teachings and their benefit to individuals.
In 1983 the downsized Divine Light Mission changed its name to Elan Vital, and Rawat closed the last western ashrams, marking the end of his use of Indian methods for international objectives.
Rawat continued to teach the techniques of Knowledge and affirmed his own status as a master rather than a divine leader. The original religious movement was essentially defunct. Scholars such as Kranenborg and Chryssides describe the departure from divine connotations, and the new emphasis that the Knowledge is universal, rather than Indian. Sociologist Hunt claims that Rawat "left his more ascetic life behind and does not personally eschew material possessions. Over time, critics have focused on what appears to be his opulent lifestyle and argue that it is supported largely by the donations of his followers. His tens of thousands of followers in the West see themselves as adherents to a system of teachings that extol the goal of enjoying life to the full."
He toured extensively throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and spoke publicly in over 40 countries, in places as culturally diverse as Japan, Taiwan, the Ivory Coast, Slovenia and Venezuela. 1999 saw the commencement of regular satellite broadcasts to North America and other countries.
Between January 2004 and June 2005, Rawat delivered 117 addresses in Asia, Europe, and North America focusing on a universal message of peace and self-fulfillment. His message is currently distributed in eighty-eight countries in print and on video, and his program "Words of Peace" is broadcast on TV channels such as Canal Infinito in South America, Channel 31 in Australia, and Dish Network in the U.S.A.
In 2001, Rawat founded the The Prem Rawat Foundation (TPRF), a Public Charitable Organization for the production and distribution of materials promoting his message, and for funding worldwide humanitarian efforts. TPRF has provided food, water and medical help to war-torn and impoverished areas.
In 2005, Rawat introduced The Keys, a set of five DVD's which prepare the student for receiving Knowledge, as well as a sixth Key which is a DVD presentation of Rawat teaching the Knowledge techniques.
Prem Rawat teaches a process of self-discovery using four meditation techniques, known collectively as "Knowledge", that offer a direct experience of transcendence. Stephen J. Hunt describes Rawat's major focus as being on stillness, peace and contentment within the individual, with 'Knowledge' encompassing the necessary techniques to acquire these qualities. Knowledge, roughly translated, means the happiness of the true self-understanding. Each individual should seek to comprehend his or her true self. In turn, this brings a sense of well-being, joy, and harmony as one comes in contact with one's "own nature."
Some scholars assert that Rawat's teachings began in the North Indian Sant Mat tradition, which dismisses ritual and claims that true religion is a matter of loving and surrendering to God who dwells in the heart. Rawat claims that practicing Knowledge will allow the practitioner to experience the divine within, which will yield self-understanding, calmness, peace and contentment.
Several scholars wrote that Rawat claimed or suggested that he was divine, in accord with the Indian Sant Mat tradition of regarding the "Perfect Master" as an embodiment of God. As a guru, he carried divine connotations for his followers, and Rawat's appeal to his followers to give up their beliefs and concepts did not prevent them from adopting a set of ideas about his divinity and the coming of a new age. Despite his denial in a July, 1972 interview of any belief that he was the Messiah, pre-existing millennial expectations were fostered partly by his mother, whose talks were full of references to her son's divine nature, and partly by Rawat himself, who generally encouraged whatever view was held by people.
Some journalists and scholars have described Rawat's teachings as lacking in intellectual content. Van der Lans and Derks wrote that according to Rawat all evil should be attributed to the mind (premies use "mind" and "ego" interchangeably), as an obstacle to freeing oneself from former bonds. Rawat makes no reference to any traditional authority, neither person nor text. In the 80s Rawat came to recognize that the Indian influences on his followers in the West were a hindrance to the wider acceptance of his teachings, and he changed the style of his message, relinquishing the Hindu traditions and beliefs and most of the original eastern religious practices.
Practitioners describe Knowledge as internal and highly individual, with no associated social structure, liturgy, ethical practices or articles of faith. Practitioners and organizations related to Prem Rawat emphasize the superiority of subjective experience over intellect.
Stephen A. Kent, in the preface of his book From Slogans to Mantras, described his disappointment at hearing what he considered to be a poorly delivered and banal message by Rawat in 1974, and was surprised that his companions spoke glowingly about the same message.
Paul Schnabel notes a steady growth of adherence in the U.S. until 1975 (numbers for 1974: 50,000 premies, of which 1,200 living in ashrams), with a steep decline afterwards. Army Pamphlet 165-13 (1978, reprinted 2001) estimated 50,000 adherents in the U.S., of which 10,000 to 12,000 were considered very active. Melton & Moore suggested a U.S. following of no more than 3,000 committed followers in 1982 out of some 50,000 who had been initiated into the Knowledge meditation. By 1993 it was no longer possible to obtain estimates from Rawat's organisations. Paul Schnabel indicated that in 1980 the number of DLM adherents in the Netherlands had fallen to 150, 15 of which were living in a community setting. In 1983 the following of Rawat in Fiji was around 1,000. For West Germany, 800 members were recorded in 1987. According to Rawat's official website, as of May 2008 and in the last eight years, 365,237 people in 67 countries have attended a Key Six session, a special session where techniques of Knowledge are taught by Rawat via a video presentation.
Melton refers to Rawat's personal charisma as one of the reasons for the rapid spread of his message among members of the 1960's counterculture. The Dutch sociologist Paul Schnabel described Rawat as a pure example of a charismatic leader. He characterized Rawat as materialistic, pampered and intellectually unremarkable compared to Osho, but no less charismatic. Schnabel remarks that although Rawat's charisma was partly routinized as it resulted from a hereditary succession, this type of routinization played a negligible role for his Western followers; there, his charisma was primarily the result of careful staging supported by a whole organization. Meredith McGuire sees formalization resulting from Rawat's desire to consolidate his power and authority over the movement in the United States. Lucy DuPertuis, a sociologist and follower who assisted James V. Downton with his book about the Divine Light Mission, described Rawat's role as a Master as emerging from three interrelated phenomena: traditional or theological definitions of Satguru, adherents' first-hand experiences of the Master, and communal accounts and discussions of the Master among devotees. Her ultimate assertion is that imputation of charisma is an active, conscious, changing process which, in this context, involves non-cognitive modes of perception. She also observed that Rawat's charisma did not prevent some devotees from discovering that they had learned the "experience of God" on their own, and to drift away, not in disillusionment but in fulfillment.
David G. Bromley describes the difficulty of a charismatic leader in proving to be above normal human failings such as not to suffer ill health or indulge in worldly pursuits. He presents Rawat's marriage as such a situation, which is then exploited by the media to discredit charismatic claimants in the eyes of the general public. Bromley describes Prem Rawat and other founders of new religions as being held in awe by their early followers, who ascribe extraordinary powers to them that set them apart from other human beings – in the words of Max Weber, a "prophet" or bearer of charisma who proclaims alternative or new revelations. Bromley asserts that recent scholarship gives emphasis to social construct aspects of charisma, rather than relying solely on individual personality. Thomas Pilarzyk, a sociologist, wrote in a 1978 paper that the distribution of power and authority in the DLM was officially based on the charismatic appeal of Maharaj Ji, which he describes as being somewhat ambiguous, and that many followers were not certain about his position in the organizational scheme of the movement, or the claim that he was the only true spiritual master.
Stephen J. Hunt observes that in Rawat's case the notion of spiritual growth is not derived — as is traditionally the case with other gurus — from his personal charisma, but from the nature of his teachings and the benefits to the individuals applying them. The aforementioned Ron Geaves, a student of Prem Rawat, states that Rawat is not a renunciate, and that he has made great efforts to assert his humanity and take apart the hagiography that has developed around him. He further writes that Rawat himself has stated that he does not consider himself to be a charismatic figure, preferring to refer to his teachings and the efficacy of the practice of the four techniques on the individual as the basis for his authority, and that Rawat could only be defined as charismatic in the sense of charisma having an antagonistic relationship with tradition.
When former officials of Rawat's organisations voiced their criticism in the aftermath of the Jonestown drama in the late 1970s they didn't limit themselves to the movement, but included its leader in their comments, which included claiming that money had been increasingly diverted to Rawat's personal use.
Former followers became known as "Ex-premies", and Elan Vital has characterised the vocal critics among them as disgruntled former employees.