The 'cult' accusation, with all its profoundly negative connotations, has been levelled against Prem Rawat and his supporting organisations ever since Divine Light Mission was set up outside of India. An accusation of course does not constitute a fact and it is important to understand why such accusations have been made, what have been their sources, what have been the motivations behind them and what is the evidence upon which they are based.
The Early Years
In the late 1960s and early 1970s a profusion of eastern styled religious organisations gained huge followings in Western Europe and the English speaking world of North America and Australasia. These organisations introduced new ideas to their predominantly young supporters and new ways of behaving - changes in morals, changes in dress, changes in diet - all of which brought a growing sense of insecurity to the families, communities and cultures from which these young people came. In particular families felt that their children were being stolen away or seduced by 'foreign' influences, - the idea of the 'mind bending' cult was readily seized upon by the popular media. Along with Transcendental Meditation and the Hare Krishna movement from India, and home grown organisations like Scientology - Divine Light Mission and its boy Guru were seen to be at the vanguard of this corruption of youth.
In this early period, the particular worries of relatives of those who 'joined' Divine Light Mission centred around five characteristics which provided a sense that their loved ones had been 'lost' to a cult.
1. The uncertainty of what lay behind the organisation and its 'secret' teaching - The 'Knowledge'.
2. The rejection by Prem Rawat's followers of previously held religious beliefs.
3. The rejection by Prem Rawat's followers of previously held ambitions for study and career.
4. The rejection by Prem Rawat's followers of close relationships.
5. The apparent loss by Prem Rawat's followers of critical faculties of judgement - living in the 'blissed out' state.
The Cult Crisis
In 1978 an event occurred which seemed to confirm all of the collective concerns about 'cults' and most significantly of all brought the destructive capabilities of 'charismatic cult leaders' to the world's attention. The event was the mass suicide of 914 followers of Jim Jones who had changed a one time evangelical Christian church, The Peoples Temple into his own adulatory machine. Jones had begun to describe himself as an incarnation of Jesus, Buddha and Krishna, his rule over his disciples was absolute and profoundly abusive.
The murderous propensity of cult leaders had been demonstrated a decade earlier by Charles Manson's manipulation of his followers, known as The Family, and their collective involvement in the killing of Sharon Tate and others. The Manson killings were generally considered an horrific aberration - although the word cult was used to describe Manson's group. Jonestown, with the death of approaching a thousand people changed Western society's view of cults forever a view that has only worsened in subsequent decades with the violent ends of the Solar temple cult and of David Koresh's followers at Waco.
Divine Light Mission and the advent of Elan Vital
Prem Rawat has not shown himself to be a Manson, a Jim Jones or David Koresh, however violent imagery - the frequent recourse to the story of Krishna, as well as, in the pre 1976 period, regular references to Nuclear war, together with an adoption of a rather paranoid security arrangement - the World Peace Corps, did set a worrying tone within Divine Light Mission throughout the 1970s. It should surprise no one that this violence did find expression in the near fatal attack on journalist Pat Halley.
With the reinvigoration of the Ashram system after 1977, something which occurred uncomfortably coincidental with the Jonestown killings, Prem Rawat's 'charismatic leadership' of his followers was re-established with a renewed focus on personal devotion to the 'master'. Prem Rawat and DLM seem to have escaped significant public censure at this time because their public profile was notable by its absence, although there are many individual reports of unhappiness within the Ashram system which have since come to light.
Whether Rawat's instruction to close the western Ashrams in 1982 was because of purely financial reasons or whether for the pragmatic purpose of changing the image of DLM away from a suggestion of 'cult' like behaviour is a moot point. It is however notable that the closure of the ashrams was coincidental with Rawat resiling from his claims of divinity - claims that were so similar to those made also by one Jim Jones.
With the name change to Elan Vital came a very strong move away from any public presentation that might suggest cult activity and in later years the model of the organisation has been predominantly a business one couched in 'educational terms'.
Prem Rawat and his supporting organisations have changed over time, and therefore addressing the 'cult' question in respect of Prem Rawat means addressing different issues within and across those changes. Many former followers of Prem Rawat are in no doubt that he is the leader of a cult and that Divine Light Mission and its successor organisations have been, and continue to this day, to comprise a cult.