Is Maharaji the leader of a cult? (Part 1)

Is Maharaji the leader of a cult (Part 2)

Joe Whalen answers this question, and analyses the process of becoming a member of the Maharaji cult.

Yes, Maharaji Really is the Leader of a Cult.

It’s pretty clear that people who are still devoted to Maharaji can get really upset when you say that Maharaji is leading a cult. They may even go to a lot of trouble to try to prove otherwise, as we have seen in recent months. First, Elan Vital addressed it in a big section of its website, which consists of a transparent self-serving attempt at throwing up and then destroying straw men of its own creation.

More recently, Erika Andersen and Mitch Ditkoff have written articles on this subject, and currently it’s the topic of the week on their website. In his article, Mitch continues in the same vein as Elan Vital by attempting to explain why followers of Maharaji don’t meet certain aspects of a cult "definition." [I’d like to request that if anyone can make any sense out of Mitch’s meanderings on this subject to please let me know.] Erika Andersen tries another angle. She presents a long expose about how "normal" her life is. Since neither mass marriages nor ritualistic abuse appears in her list of daily activities, Erika reassures us that she couldn’t possibly be in a cult.

Why is this such a big deal to them? Probably because cults have a pretty bad reputation in this society, what with Jonestown, the Moonies, Scientology, Heaven’s Gate, and the rest. It also looks bad for propagation purposes, and it’s embarrassing. When I was a follower of Maharaji, I would never, even for a minute, have thought I was in a cult. I would have considered it an insult if someone said I was.

Sure, I thought the Moonies were a cult, and the Hare Krishnas were a cult, but I and the other people following Maharaji, couldn’t possibly be a cult, could we? Of course not, I reasoned, because what Maharaji was offering was real, and I was just too smart ever to be in a cult. Everything I did appeared to be of my free choice, and weren’t cults so weird that it would be obvious if you were in one?

Unfortunately, no. One of the characteristics of being in a cult is that you don’t think you are because a cult is all about protecting yourself from those kind of thoughts. Many people, after they leave cults, discover that’s exactly what they were in, and they have spawned all kinds of "ex-cult" groups and websites like Ex-Premie.Org, and large organizations like CAN and AFF, whose members proclaim that they were once members of cults. [For record, both CAN and AFF have listed Elan Vital/Maharaji as a "cult."]

The simple (and obvious) reason for this division is that once you discover you are in a cult, you are probably either already out of it, or on your way out. Hence, the divide between the current and former followers of Maharaji on the "cult" issue is quite wide and there is little common ground on the subject.

I have thought a lot about groups and cults, and I’ve read and studied a lot to try to understand better how I ever became a follower of Maharaji in the first place, and why I remained one for as long as I did. The purpose of this article is to explain, based on my own research and my own experience, why I say that Maharaji is, and always has been, the leader of a cult, and to try to boil it all down to the most basic level I can. I have tried to set aside the hyperbole.

Maharaji’s Followers Are Not Brainwashed

Let’s just get this out of the way quickly. "Brainwashing" implies unwilling indoctrination of alien principles and beliefs and Manchurian Candidate images of overt control techniques. Maharaji does not brainwash people and followers of Maharaji are not brainwashed.

So, If We Weren’t Brainwashed, Why Did We Join?

Like with any other cult, people become premies/PWKS because they see something they think they want. This might be friends, community, absolutes to live by, a way to "know one’s self," a way to "experience the energy that is God," a simple formula for life, happiness, etc. When I was first introduced to Maharaji and his followers, I saw premies as a loving group of people who seemed to be happy, and I wanted to be in their "family," to share what I thought they had, and I thought I lacked. I wanted the promised experience of the peace inside of me. I wanted to be a part of bringing peace to the world, which Maharaji said he was doing.

I was told by premies and Maharaji that to get those things I wanted, the key was to "receive knowledge." So, very early on, like literally within hours of my first "satsang," I decided I wanted knowledge. At the same time, I also noticed lots of really weird, or at least illogical, stuff that seemed to go along with it, like worshipping this kid, feeling "devotion" (now "gratitude") to this strange person, pranaming, feet-kissing, and the like. This set off "red flags" in my analytical thinking, and briefly caused me to question all I was being told. So, I now had an internal dilemma. How could I deal with the major problem for me, which was that this "Maharaji" and dedication to him, came along with the premies and the "knowledge" that I wanted so badly?

Followers of Maharaji Are Not Coerced; They Are Cooperators in Their Own Programming

Many people resolve this dilemma by dropping out of the process. They split. They are part of the vast majority of people who hear about Maharaji, maybe even come to some introductory event, and never follow through. They aren’t hooked. It doesn’t take. But another way to resolve it is for the individual to follow the directives of the cult and suspend normal critical judgment in this area, in order to obtain the "carrot" representing the fulfillment desired, in this case to get "knowledge." In this way, the individual engages in cooperation with what the cult is telling them. Unfortunately for me, that’s what I did.

Cult researchers will tell you that because this process involves mutual and willing cooperation, and the individual views all decisions as their own, it is a more binding form of "mind control" than other forms, and harder to undo, because of the illusion that it was all just a personal choice. Indeed, I wanted to believe it. It fulfilled a "need," and it was "my decision." In fact, the strongest, most enduring, and most insidious, programming in the Maharaji cult goes on before the individual even receives knowledge, at this very juncture.

I can still remember the feelings and the process from my own experience. I wanted to receive knowledge. So, I did what they said I had to do; I listened to premies and Maharaji talk about it and sing songs about it. This was before video, but during the days of satsang every single night. I also watched movies about it, read articles about it, and I traveled across the country and saw Maharaji speak twice before I received knowledge. In this process "aspirants" like me, are told one has to be "ready" to receive knowledge and yet there is no test or measure of what "ready" means, just that one has to have "that understanding" to "have no more doubts," to "get rid of all pre-conceived ideas about Maharaji and knowledge," and "be open."

So, left with no clear guidelines and completely ambiguous instructions, most people are going to take this the way I did, that it means stripping away value judgments and restraining all doubts or critical analysis of anything that was happening in connection with Maharaji or knowledge. To fail to do that was to not be "open" or it was evidence that the impediments of doubt were still there, and therefore you wouldn’t get what you wanted, to receive knowledge.

So, I pushed all the sincerity buttons I had; I tried not to think critically or negatively about Maharaji. I tried to be open by not letting "my mind" criticize or analyze any of this process. What was the point, anyway? I was told that I wouldn’t really be able to judge any of it until I received knowledge and that knowledge was something that couldn’t be explained in words.

At some critical point in this period, I crossed over into the world of "cult." I did this by deciding that I wanted knowledge so much that I would ignore much of my critical/analytical faculties, and even my own "gut feelings." This was the beginning of my practicing of cult mind control which consists mainly of learning to shut down the critical part of my thinking when it came to Maharaji and knowledge. Amazingly, that process, that repressive mechanism, continued for almost 10 years thereafter, getting ever more efficient as I practiced it. So efficient in fact, that for many years I had no conscious awareness that I was even doing it.

Then began the exercises in traumatic humiliation known as "knowledge selections." Twice I sat in the "selection" process and wasn’t selected by the Instructor. I watched, increasingly heartbroken and desperate, as those who were selected seemed ecstatic and privileged. I wanted to be like them. And I wanted to be happy like the premies, who had by this time become my friends and they were rooting for me to receive knowledge. Having been rejected, I re-doubled my efforts to "be ready" and "be open." Any critical thought was immediately discarded. I even started singing the praises of Maharaji and knowledge. I had become not only "open," I had become dedicated.

Finally, after cutting my university classes, and taking a bus 350 miles, I was in yet another "selection" for knowledge. By this point my critical thinking became just irrelevant background noise. I was even "praying" to Maharaji, who was by now a kind of an imaginary friend to me, to please give me knowledge and let me be his devotee. By the time I was selected to receive knowledge, I couldn’t even imagine doubting anything about Maharaji or knowledge, or even looking at any of it objectively in any way approaching how I looked at anything else. But if you would have asked, I would have told you that all of this was happening by my free will, by my free choice.

I was so far gone that by this point I was even willing to say that I devoted my life to Maharaji (then Guru Maharaj Ji), when the Instructor asked that I do so. Amazing. Here I was, a guy at the top of my university class, a guy who was a confirmed anti-authoritarian, a semi-Marxist, a guy who had left the Catholic Church because it was too paternalistic, devoting my life to a human being, who claimed to be another Jesus Christ, somebody I had never met and knew virtually nothing about. Yes, it could even happen to me, and it did. And if it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody.

So, I received knowledge, and let’s just say that the experience did not blow my socks off. It was actually somewhat disappointing. But by that time, I no longer had much capacity to evaluate anything about Maharaji. But it felt okay because now I belonged, and the premies held a "birthday party" for us, and it was all kind of nice, and I was a new baby. Give it time, I thought. Don’t doubt, don’t judge, just be open and give it a chance, the premies told me. I wasn't even conscious of the fact that I had given that up my critical thinking. Like I said, it was almost 10 years before that changed.

Okay, so what was I now a part of? I was now part of the Maharaji cult. It is and was a cult, that fits the definition Mitch Ditkoff uses in his article:

1. A group claiming to have "the answer" as the "only way" to peace and happiness;
2. A leader to whom "excessive dedication" occurs; and
3. The use of "mind control techniques."

I’m sure even Mitch agrees that Maharaji claimed that he had the one experience of "peace and happiness" and that he was the only person on the planet offering it. I’m sure he would also agree that "excessive devotion" has been expressed to Maharaji, including just a few months ago, when his followers, once again, lined up to kiss his feet. But what about the "mind control?" How did that manifest after I received knowledge and was a full-fledged follower of Maharaji?

"Mind Control" (Better Known as: Discouragement of Doubt) in the Maharaji Cult

Although "mind control" is a heavy term, there is nothing magical or strange about how it manifests in cults. It's pretty basic stuff. But what do I really mean by it when it comes to the Maharaji cult? Well, in addition to the process I already described, the following eight examples are characteristics of the cult that caused me and others to limit our thoughts – to engage in "mind control." These are all "Mind Control Techniques" described in general terms in the literature and research on cults. They should be easily recognizable to anyone who has been a follower of Maharaji:

1. The Commandment Against Doubting.

Cults almost always forbid or discourage their members from doubting anything about the Cult, and especially the Cult Leader. Maharaji was especially explicit about this. For many years, Maharaji had a "Commandment" that his followers were supposed to follow, which was to "Never Leave Room for Doubt in Your Mind." I know he doesn’t have "commandments" anymore, but I think the principle is still there, and I read a transcript of Maharaji speaking in Argentina in which he again lambasted "doubts" as a detriment to your "experience." I know that some PWKs say that the commandment actually meant something else, but I find the explanations absurd. It says what it says. Moreover, in my experience, doubts in the Maharaji cult were always discouraged, with or without the existence of Maharaji’s "commandment."

So, after you receive knowledge, after the repression of your thoughts that it took to get to that point, Maharaji gives you a commandment that says you aren’t supposed to doubt and that doubting interferes with the "experience." Obviously, this makes it nearly impossible to look at knowledge or Maharaji objectively.

2. No Critical Question about the Leader or His Teaching is Legitimate.

One of the true tests of whether someone is in a cult is whether he or she can criticize the Cult Leader. It’s nearly impossible, indeed is impossible, to get a one of Maharaji’s followers to do it. Of course, they will say there is nothing to criticize, because cult thinking will not allow those critiques, those "doubts" to enter, and if they do, they are immediately repressed. It causes a cult member great discomfort to think of questioning or criticizing the Cult Leader and if they have such thoughts, they would NEVER say it publicly. This is because the Maharaji cult is really a personality cult, although it retains some "Eastern spiritual cult" overtones. Obviously, if you attack the "personality" what do you have left? Some PWKs can bring themselves to criticize Elan Vital, and various leaders of that and other related organizations. I did the same thing towards the end of my involvement. But mostly, I just blamed myself for even having any doubts in the first place.

Once you are out of the cult, believe me, you will have no problem criticizing Maharaji. All the critical things you have thought about him, about his "efforts" as master, or about knowledge, or about your experiences as one of his followers, all of which have been repressed, will come out like a raging river, and it feels wonderful.

3. Criticism of the Cult and Especially the Cult Leader, in any Form, is Seen as Lack of "Understanding," or "Confusion."

In my experience, if you express criticism of Maharaji, or any of his decisions, or Knowledge, or anything related, you get the cold shoulder by his followers and his organization and will be considered "confused" or not "synchronized." It’s group pressure, really. And if you do so, you can usually forget about moving up in the organization, getting close to the Lotus Feet, getting a good seat at a program, being invited to "the residence," or getting a good "participation opportunity."

If you do it too much, you might even be categorized as a "bongo." Try sitting in your next "participation meeting" and say some negative stuff about Maharaji or what he’s doing. See how open and tolerant your fellow followers are to such statements. It’s unlikely they will encourage you to air your opinions and vigorously discuss your "negative" views. [By the way, being labeled "negative" is about the worst thing that can happen to you in the Maharaji cult and this is yet another form of mind control.]

4. Threats of Dire Calamity if They Abandon Knowledge/Maharaji.

I could go into the "tons of rotten vegetables" and other things Maharaji said as threats of what would happen if people abandoned the cult, but that isn’t really necessary. Basically, this is internalized in most PWKs, such that they cannot imagine, and fear, what their lives would be like if they left Maharaji. Since Maharaji has been portrayed as being exclusive in his "perfect master" position, PWKs fear there is no place else to go. This is basically phobia indoctrination. It’s the irrational fear of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority. Basically, the PWKs (and this was also true for me), cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being a follower of Maharaji, and Maharaji reinforces this in just about everything he says.

As a premie, I described this psychological dependence on Maharaji or at least my image of Maharaji and the fear I had of rejection by him, as my "love for Maharaji," despite the fact that I never even met the guy. Obviously, this is about as far from "love" as you can get. Also, somehow, if I said I "loved" Maharaji, it gave me some comfort that it was less likely I would ever unconsciously reject him, or that he would reject me.

5. There is Never A Legitimate Reason to Leave/Shunning Those Who Leave.

It’s difficult for a follower of Maharaji to see how someone can legitimately leave "that place" and not be miserable. Ex-premies have heard it all, and I thought much the same when people left the cult when I was still a member. People who leave are labeled as "confused," "lacking the proper understanding," having gotten into the cult for "the wrong reasons," wanting a "Hindu spiritual trip," "undisciplined," "never having practiced knowledge," "negative," or seduced by money, sex, rock and roll. You name it. We have heard it all. Just check out Pia Grunbaum’s and Charles Glasser’s websites, if you want to see it in print. And as for being shunned, how many of us lost our premie "friends" when we left? Now that some of us are notorious ex-premies speaking out on the Internet, that "shunning" has evolved into open hostility. It even extends to attack websites, like those of CAC, Charles Glasser and Pia Grunbaum. "Please Consider This" is just a lot more diplomatic on that score, but is essentially and attempt at the same endeavor.

6. The Cult Leader and the Cult Make Followers Feel that Any Problems Are Their Own Fault and Never Maharaji’s.

This, in my opinion, is the essence of the Maharaji cult. The axiom is this: All that is good is due to Maharaji, or at least ultimately due to him, while all that is bad is due to the PWK, because of the PWK’s lack of understanding, always getting distracted, or "forgetting that place," his or her own confusion, etc.

If you want to see examples of this, just read the Maharaji cult websites, and see how the writers thereon engage in logical gymnastics to keep from ever blaming Maharaji for anything that ever happened, but are quite willing to place responsibility on themselves or Maharaji’s other followers.

7. Information is Not Freely Accessible/Information Varies at Different Levels/Leadership Decides Who "Needs to Know" What.

Elan Vital and Maharaji are notoriously secretive. Very little is disclosed, even to members. And of course, we all know how secretive Maharaji has been about his personal life, with people being "x-rated" in order to be around him. And even PWKs complain of the paranoid secrecy within Elan Vital and Maharaji’s organization. This kind of information control, especially when it involves information damaging to the perceptions of Maharaji and knowledge, is very important in the Maharaji cult, and always has been. This is partly why EPO is seen as such a threat, because it exposes information the cult is trying to keep secret, and information is empowering to people, and even encourages them to look critically at things they accepted as truth in the past.

8. Lots of "Loaded Language" (AKA Thought-Terminating Clichés).

These are basically terms that have normal meanings to most people, but to people in the Maharaji cult, they have loaded meanings, that evoke an instantaneous "understanding" such that no further thought about what is being said is necessary. Just to name a few: mind, heart, knowledge, breath (that’s a big one these days), that love, that peace, that experience, that gift (really lots of words with "that" in front of them to convey special meaning), understanding, thirst, negativity, doubt, participation, gratitude, and my personal favorite, "synchronization." Maharaji can use these words peppered throughout his speech and end up really saying nothing, but sounding profound, with appropriate nods from his followers.

So, by the time I walked out of the knowledge session, and became an official follower of Maharaji, I was already crippled in my ability to judge what was going on with me in relation to the cult and Maharaji. Then, Maharaji’s commandments and teachings, and the culture of the cult itself, discouraged critical analysis, and encouraged its continued repression.

After a very short time, I was on automatic. I automatically engaged in self-censorship of my thoughts, almost all the time after that. It didn’t really matter the particular rituals or living situations I encountered in the cult, the real cult was by then existing largely between my ears, reinforced by the mind control mechanisms described above, and others as well. Sure, occasionally some doubts still got through, but they were pretty easily disposed of, perhaps by some extra meditation, or perhaps by getting a "group high" from an "event."

I want to emphasize that in other areas, on subjects unrelated to Maharaji and knowledge, I remained pretty much a normal, functioning person, to the extent I could be. It wasn’t until I got out of the cult, and started to unwind that whole process, that I even realized that yes, I really was engaging in that process almost the whole time. When that happened, it was exhilarating. It was like I could finally breathe again, after I had somehow forgotten for a very long period of time.

Joe Whalen
November 2001

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