Maharaji and Elan Vital, the 80's Image Makeover
The many contradictions of the western Divine Light Mission inevitably led to conflict not only for the organisation, but for its adolescent 'leader'. As Prem Rawat grew to adulthood he looked to fashion an image for himself and the Mission that was more to his liking. The religious aspects of the early days became an encumbrance for Rawat and he sought the creation of an organisation that could deliver him as the 'branded' product. Spiritual teacher Guru Maharaj Ji became Maharaji 'humanitarian giver of a practical way to peace', this image served Rawat from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s when the 'inspirational speaker' label was subtly introduced.
Although it exists to this day in India as part of the Raj Vidya Kender organisation, at Maharaji's (Prem Rawat's) instruction the Divine Light Mission ashram structure in western countries was dissolved during 1982 and 1983. According to former DLM administrators, Maharaji was becoming concerned about the financial liabilities that loomed as ashram residents aged, became unemployed, and required increasing medical and dental care.
The closures caused considerable dislocation to many ashram premies, who had abandoned university, employment training and families to serve Prem Rawat. In one address, Maharaji complained angrily of learning that a US ashram had handed each of its former residents US$ 100, with which to start new lives. A few ashram residents got subsistence wage jobs as Rawat's personal servants - valets, cleaners, gardeners and the like. A few others were kept on as administrators, or as instructors (formerly ' initiators'). But most began new lives in 'the world' - something which few were psychologically or practically prepared.
During the 1980s, Maharaji effected other transitions. The term mahatma had already been largely replaced with the term 'initiator' - referring to the task of 'initiating' new followers into the meditational practice that Maharaji calls 'Knowledge'. Almost all the 'mahatmas' had been Indian nationals but as these either left Rawat or returned to the more familiar environment of the Indian ashrams, Rawat appointed increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans as initiators. The title 'initiator' was then dropped in favour of 'instructor'.
In a further change Maharaji downgraded and then effectively did away with the Instructor role and the teaching of the meditation techniques was a task accorded to Rawat alone, he was also the only person allowed to speak about the Knowledge.
Although the name continued to be attached to a United Kingdom based charity until 1995, from the early 1980s onwards the various nationally based Divine Light Missions were progressively renamed as Elan Vital. Prem Rawat said the name Elan Vital had been given to him by his father, in a dream. In addition to changing the name of the organisation Prem Rawat ceased to use the name 'Guru Maharaj Ji' and instead had himself styled 'Maharaji'.
Maharaji also instigated changes both to the presentation of his message and to his relationship to his followers. Whilst implying, that devotion was the path to a joyful, fulfilled life, he now denied that he personally was divine, blaming the Mahatmas for introducing this 'misunderstanding' in the 1970s. Around the world, the nightly gatherings, called satsang, at which premies described their experiences and sang devotional songs were abolished, thereafter premies only gathered at events attended by Rawat or to watch Videos of Prem Rawat speaking. Premies were instructed to hand in their 'devotional' magazines, books and tapes, which were then destroyed.
Maharaji's views about premies' lifestyles remained unchanged despite the abolition of the ashrams, in an interview, Rawat's personal assistant, Michael Dettmers, said:
Dettmers: 'Even as late as '85 he was still very strict about being vegetarian and abstaining from sex. He was very strict about that and absolutely believed in it.'
Interviewer: 'But didn't follow any of that himself?'
Dettmers: 'Oh no, of course not.'
Michael Dettmers, had become Maharaji's personal assistant in 1975 and then effectively replaced the departed Bob Mishler in early 1977 as Rawat's voice to the wider Divine Light Mission/Elan Vital. Dettmers managed Rawat's assets, personal affairs and 'presentation to the world' from 1975 till 1987. Dettmers has perhaps provided more than anyone else detailed testimony of what Prem Rawat is really like.
Although unknown to all but a select few 'inner circle' followers, by 1985 Prem Rawat was privately experimenting with drugs and 'open marriage'. In a 2001 interview, Michael Dettmers said:
"He told me that there was a particular premie woman he had in mind, and he asked me to arrange that they meet, which I did. Soon, thereafter, he asked me to arrange a meeting with another woman. In the meantime, the first person was left high and dry wondering what was going on. He cut off communication with her, and her only recourse was to contact me...
After three such incidents, I told him that his reckless behaviour was backfiring, and that I did not have the time to take care of the negative consequences it produced. He responded by agreeing that I had more important things to handle for him than procuring women, and that he would now take care of that task himself - meaning that he simply delegated the task to someone who was more amenable to it. He continued to have numerous affairs of which I am aware."
Until their closure the Divine Light Mission ashrams had served as local centres for promoting Prem Rawat there appears to have been no planned replacement for this promotion function and on an ad hoc basis promotion devolved to small national offices of Elan Vital. Until Prem Rawat claimed the role exclusively for himself. Instructors, (many of whom were themselves only part-time) revealed the four meditation techniques (the 'Knowledge') to small numbers of 'aspirants'.
Instructors were also now the only people authorised to speak publicly about Maharaji and his teachings. This ruling was soon applied even to private conversations: Rawat instructed that premies should not tell new people about him or the 'Knowledge' - but instead "take them to a video event". These 'video events', held in small local halls - which began in the mid-1980s - are still the staple for 'coming together' and 'propagation' today.
One of Maharaji's senior instructors in this period was Jagdeo, one of the original Mahatmas from India, who conducted special 'children's satsangs' throughout the West. Several premie children of this era (now grown) attest that Jagdeo raped or otherwise sexually abused them. Their parents have stated that they sent word to Rawat of the abuse, and were ignored. Jagdeo's misdeeds against children were fairly well-known within senior Elan Vital circles at the time. Prem Rawat's critics believe it is difficult to credit his claim that he knew nothing of them.
It is important to emphasise that there is no evidence of wide spread systemic child abuse in Prem Rawat's supporting organisations. Indeed Jagdeo is the only 'senior' offender who has come to light. But because the paedophilia reports were apparently ignored by Rawat or at least those who advised Rawat, when the reports did surface in 2000, they caused enormous damage to Prem Rawat's standing among premies.
While the abuse of children appears thankfully to have been rare within the Rawat organisations, there have been many reports of abusive behaviours by Mahatmas, Initiators and administrators against adult devotees. In the 1970s and 1980s, was clearly inadequate protection of vulnerable people within Divine Light Mission/Elan Vital and associated organisations.
In 1985 the US Elan Vital Inc., then still registered as a church, filed initial papers to become a Private Trust without religious character, and in the following year the organisation was party to a project to raise US$4million to purchase a Lear 55 jet for Prem Rawat's personal use. The jet was acquired (not by Elan Vital) in 1987.
Acquisition of the Lear 55 was coincident with Maharaji embarking on an increased number of international speaking tours and he began to personally oversee initiations into the 'Knowledge'. Whether the new plane was of particular significance is a moot point but other factors must also have played a role - not least the facility provided by the Elan Vital Foundation based in Switzerland to collect the funds amounting to over $1 million US per annum necessary to meet the cost of maintaining the aircraft and of meeting Maharaji's hotel bills.
The intention to change the status of the US Elan Vital Inc. was never pursued and the application fell in 1989 due to inaction by Elan Vital - it has remained registered as a church and as having religious purpose until early 2010 when the US Elan Vital Inc. website commenced carrying a notice announcing that the organisation would cease to operate .
By the end of the 1980s the number of programs (subsequently termed 'events') at which Rawat spoke world-wide was increasing. He took to reciting self-composed poetry (which even the majority of premies regarded as being of poor quality). On a few occasions in Australia, US, India and other places he staged Holi - a traditional Indian festival in which he sprayed his ecstatic premies with coloured water.
Also in the late 1980s, in a development which sought to monetise rather than merely promote Rawat's image, the Malibu based Visions International, a for profit subsidiary of Elan Vital Inc., began making and distributing Rawat-oriented videos, audio tapes, souvenirs and publications for premie consumption world wide.
A private business called Aspirare also began marketing Maharaji related souvenirs in 2002, the company was eventually merged into the Dunrite Group which provided event organisation and other services for Visions International.print