Prem Rawat was one of a number of Indian 'gurus' who during the 1960s and early 1970s extend their activities to Europe, the Americas and Australasia What set Prem Rawat apart from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sai Baba and Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh (Osho) is that Rawat was just a child when he inherited a ready made religious vehicle - the Divine Light Mission and was anointed its Satguru.
Prem Rawat was born near Haridwar in northern India in 1957, the youngest of four brothers. His father, Hans Ram Singh Rawat, was a well-known guru who taught a system of four meditation techniques which he called 'the Knowledge'. These four techniques were claimed to reveal 'divine light', 'divine music', 'the primordial vibration' and 'divine nectar', and were taught in a secret initiation.)
On his father's death in 1966, and following a dispute amongst the Rawat family and Rawat's senior followers (mahatmas), the eight-year-old Prem was given his father's honorific title of Guru Maharaj Ji. Prem Rawat then pronounced himself "Lord of the Universe".
Prem Rawat inherited a following from his father of reputedly one million devotees, who were known as premies, a term meaning 'giver of love' in Hindi. The majority of Rawat's current devotees live in India but even there the numbers are far less than they once were. Prem Rawat is still known as Guru Maharaj Ji in India where he continues to promote himself in distinctly religious terms.
At the age of 12 in 1970, Prem Rawat addressed one of the largest rallies ever held anywhere in the world, with contemporary sources claiming that over one million people attended the gathering in Delhi. In front of this vast crowd Rawat proclaimed his personal divinity, and stated that he had come to deliver India from its materialism, the speech becoming known as Rawat's 'Peace Bomb'.
In mid 1971, Prem Rawat then aged only 13 travelled to London , where he was accommodated by several English followers who had been taught the Knowledge techniques of meditation in India. While Rawat was in the UK, funds were raised to enable Rawat to fly to the US, which he eventually did before returning home to India. In the Autumn of 1971 American initiates registered an organisation called Divine Light Mission Incorporated (DLM Inc.) as a non profit Church, listing Guru Maharaj Ji as its chief minister. A separate Divine Light Mission was created in the UK in 1972 and subsequently other Divine Light Missions were created in Australia, South Africa and Canada as well as in several European and South American countries. Rawat's senior disciples, saffron robed 'mahatmas', were sent to support the fledgling missions and a system of ashrams, houses where Rawat's devotees observed a monastic rule, was instigated.
At age 14, against his mother's wishes Prem Rawat left school and in 1972 once again travelled westward where he attracted huge numbers of aspiring followers. At a single event in Montrose, Colorado, 2000 people were initiated into the 'Knowledge' and in total in the years 1971 to 1974, between 50,000 and 60,000 people underwent the Knowledge initiation in the US.
In mid 1973, Prem Rawat stated that his coming November gathering at the Houston Astrodome - Millennium 73 - would be "the most holy and significant event in human history". In the end, Millennium attracted only 15,000 of the planned 144,000 attendees. Despite the abysmal failure of Millennium 73, Rawat continued to attract new followers thanks to energetic propagation by his already committed devotees. There was considerable media interest in the 'teenage guru' though much of it drew sceptical attention to the luxury that was being demanded by the young Rawat.
By 1974, Prem Rawat was living in a hill top property at Malibu Beach, California, this mansion was in the ownership of DLM Inc. although following the financial restructuring of 1975/6 it came to be owned by SEVA Corporation of America. In the same year, at the age of 16, Rawat married an airline stewardess from San Diego named Marolyn Johnson. As a result this marriage there was a second family schism and Prem Rawat was denounced by his mother and two older brothers. The eldest brother, Bal Bhagwan Ji, now (Satpal Maharaj), after being ceremonially crowned by his mother, was recognised by the majority of Indian premies as the 'true' Guru Maharaji and rightful inheritor of the mantle of the Rawat brothers' late father, Hans Rawat.
In 1975/6 the relationship between Prem Rawat and the US DLM Inc. was radically altered with consequences for the Divine Light Mission movement world wide. In response to an impending IRS audit of DLM Inc., considerable assets held by the DLM church were transferred to Rawat's personal possession. Rawat ceased to be named as having any personal interest in the US Divine Light Mission and was no longer listed as its Chief Minister.
Although no published figures exist, at some point in the mid 1970s the number of new followers ceased to grow and the numbers leaving the movement increased. The source of this disaffection is not well established however a progressive disenchantment with both Prem Rawat and the Divine Light Mission organisation seems to have played a role.
In 1977 Prem Rawat reasserted his role as Guru and energetically restated the importance of devotion to him personally as the prime prerequisite for achieving spiritual progress. As part of this restatement of devotion, the ashram system was reinvigorated after period of decline in 1975 and 1976. A more restrictive set of rules was imposed and all of Rawat followers were subject to stronger encouragement to enter the ashram system.
The DECA project, begun in 1979 was set up to provide Prem Rawat with a customized Boeing 707 for his personal use. As an adjunct to the ashram system, DECA was reliant on unpaid labour and donated funds; the business model that developed within DECA served as the basis for subsequent projects designed to provide personal benefit to Prem Rawat.
In 1982 without prior warning, Prem Rawat announced that the Divine Light Mission ashrams would close, the abruptness of the announcement was matched by the rapidity of the closure programme which was complete by the end of 1983. This period was marked by a sense of crisis in the wider movement, a reflection of the ongoing difficulties Rawat was experiencing in his personal life. The DUO ashrams in India were treated separately and remain to this day as largely monastic in character under the name Raj Vidya Kender.
With the Divine Light Mission ashrams closed there were various attempts to recast the Rawat movement as non religious and through the 1980s and 1990s the name Elan Vital progressively replaced that of Divine Light Mission as the title of the various national organisations, with the movement as a whole taking on a corporate veneer. The presentation of Rawat's 'message was revised dramatically, becoming almost entirely secular and Rawat began restricting his claims of personal divinity to his appearances in India and to closed meetings for devotees only, outside of India. Following this image change Maharaji, the name under which Rawat was by then being promoted, commenced an annual cycle of world tours visiting major cities to speak at evens attended by devotees and newly interested people. A series of ever more expensive jets were purchased for Rawat's sole use, the costs justified on the grounds that the planes were essential to support Rawat's international mission.
New initiations into the 'Knowledge' continued through the 1980s and 1990s, although the number of new recruits failed to replace the tens of thousands of followers who abandoned Prem Rawat from 1975 onwards. Following the failure of the Millennium 73 festival Prem Rawat had a very low public profile and it was not until the arrival of websites created by critical followers that the names Guru Maharaj Ji and Divine Light Mission once again attracted media attention. Subsequently Rawat's remaining supporters have provided him with an uncritical presence on the Internet and the corporate presentation of Rawat includes a number of websites offering DVDs and printed materials.
In the late 1990s, annual gatherings in Long Beach, California, attracted up to eight thousand followers from around the world, more recent events in Florida and California have been attended by less than 2,500. Since 1996 claims of sexual abuse and financial malfeasance have caused a steady stream of followers to part company with Rawat, such that by 2010, outside of India he retains only a few thousand followers.
Prem Rawat still lives at Malibu Beach. Assets worth over US$80 million, including a US$60 million GulfStream jet, are available for Prem Rawat's personal use, these are held via a number of administrative companies, including the SEVA Corporation of America. Prem Rawat continues to announce that he can relieve people of their suffering by teaching them four meditation techniques. The name Elan Vital as the marque for organisations which support Prem Rawat is being replaced by names employing the corporate term Words Of Peace.
Prem Rawat's speeches are recorded on DVDs, and shown around the world at small public venues as well as being made available to individuals, while increasing use is being made of satellite and cable television programming to give Rawat a larger audience.