Author: David Christopher Lane Publisher: Garland Publication date: 1992
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THE ROOTS OF HAGIOGRAPHY
The succession history of Radhasoami has been marked at various stages by personal animosity, political in-fighting, doctrinal disputes, and contests over property rights; all of which have occurred under the rubric of "mastership transference." What becomes almost immediately evident in purviewing religious successorship is its decidely un -religious process. Satsangis, and to a lesser extent interested outsiders, tend to view the transference of mastership as a purely spiritual process, one where good will, high ethics, and the like, take precedence. Although these things are there too, a significant part of Radhasoami succession is carried out in the political arena, where the central interests hover around such non-spiritual things as: who will own the ashram, who will run the langar, who will retain the relics, and so on.
What the researcher, especially one steeped in the sociology of knowledge, brings to Radhasoami succession materials is not so much new and fresh insights, but rather an uncovering of the inner workings embedded in guru politics; something which lies buried, but not too deeply, that reveals a materialist versus idealist impulse. This is not to suggest, of course, that succession in Radhasoami is purely a political war over power and status, but only that even the highest of ideals are grounded, sometimes with clay feet, sometimes not, in the day to day world of human and social dealings. There is a nitty-gritty, if you will, about religion, particularly religions with charismatic leaders, that oftentimes gets glossed over. Indeed, sometimes it is the very nitty-grittiness of spiritual pursuits which prompts people to develop elaborate ideological glosses, if not outright cover-ups.
The reasons for ideological work, as we have seen, are manifold, but each of these reasons are related to one central point that should never be overlooked, even by those observers left skeptical, jaded, or even nihilistic about religious endeavors: the yearning for the Sacred. Satsangis on the whole are interested in something beyond this mundane day to day existence, something which gives meaning and purpose to an otherwise misery filled, and at times absurdist, drama called living. They are seeking God, in the various ways that such a nebulous term implies. And it is here, in the quest for something Good, or something Eternal, or something Meaningful, that ideological tensions are brought to the forefront. Because contrary to what the neophyte may yearn for--a guru and a path devoid of any political jockeying--he or she soon discovers that the new and enlightening world of Radhasoami, despite its elevated morality and engaging meditation techniques, has many remnants of the old world that he/she is wishing to leave behind.
The spiritual theory does not always fit with the day to day example of it. The guru may be ill, the guru may be bald, the guru may have a difficult in-law, the guru may be moody, the guru may die of cancer--and the disciple wasn't ready for any of it. Why? Because the devotee was looking to the Guru as God, not as a human being. And it is the humanness of the guru--or the practical working out of a theological principle--which betrays the godliness of the guru. There is, in sum, an ideological paradox, if not--as in the case of Thakar Singh--an outright contradiction. Here the disciple confronts again what he/she had thought was left behind: making sense out of the incongruency of the world.
What a person reads in the Radhasoami books (most of which are unabashedly romantic) about such lofty principles as the all-knowingness of the guru, the sacredness of his ashram, and the elevation of the spirit to higher transcendent realms, turns out to be on closer inspection idealizations that are only occasionally apparent. Mark Juergensmeyer in his study of Radhasoami devotes a section to the vagaries of love, pointing out the maturing process of long-time devotees:
As in a love affair that matures over time, most relationships between new devotees and their master seem to follow a familiar course. In the initial cathartic experience of overwhelming, complete surrender the devotee is surrounded by thoughts of his or her new master. After some time, perhaps a year or two, critical judgement returns and the devotee's fresh love is increasingly seasoned with doubts as to the certainty of the reality to which he or she had become so deeply and unquestioningly committed. At this stage, devotees may express anger and frustration toward the master, and construct tests for him. . . At this stage of disillusioned affection some devotees become disheartened and search for new masters. Others decry the possibility of ever finding a Lord again. Still others discover their conviction anew, sometimes in miraculous ways. . . [*NOTE: Mark Juergensmeyer, Radhasoamis , op. cit., page 90 (manuscript edition). *]
The seasoning of love, which Juergensmeyer speaks of, is intimately connected with doubt or disappointment. Love seasons in this case because the Beloved does not live up to the expectations of the lover. Yet in Radhasoami, especially among devotees in the West, those expectations were not sui generis but were generated by the guru's own literature; thus if doubt and disappointment arise its blame should be laid at the doorstep of the master, not at the disciple's. The pedestal was elevated, to be sure, but it was the guru who was doing the elevating. All of this, naturally, leads to disenchantment on some level with the rarified world of Radhasoami. Undoubtedly, not all are disappointed to the same degree (and some are never disappointed at all) but each must deal with their own doubts. Although Juergensmeyer writes about how satsangis may leave the fold, or develop tests, or find love and faith anew, he does not touch upon what may be the most common response of all among satsangis: reconciliation , that is, reconciling an archetypal, but temporary, image with its more mundane, but realistic, counter-reflection. Or, in a phrase, ideological resilience, the functional tendency and/or ability to rebound from theoretical dissonance.
Ideological resilience covers a huge spectrum of possibilities in Radhasoami, ranging from Thakar Singh devotees justifying sex and violence as part of their guru's awakening method for the 1980's and 1990's to Darshan Singh devotees legitimizing the succession of their guru and his heir by a written will. Yet in both extremes, the action remains the same: resolving a perceived discrepancy, either on the part of the guru and his sangat or in the expressed teachings and practices.
However, it must be pointed out that throughout Radhasoami history there have been moments when ideological resilience doesn't work, when a crises situation overrides the efforts of certain individuals and institutions to combat searing discrepancies. When this happens, and undoubtedly it happens during each succession episode to a lesser or greater extent, then the individual must do two things: sever his or her connection or readapt in unanticipated ways. In the latter case, we have seen the following examples in the Dayal Bagh/Soami Bagh dispute, in the Shiv Brat Lal/Faqir Chand revelation, and in the Thakar Singh expose'. What each of these represent, of course, is a fundamentally new adaptation to ideological dissonance. How else can we explain a contentious law battle that runs for over fifty years? Or a radical introduction of mystical agnosticism? Or the acceptance and legitimation of sexual deviance? All of these, though markedly different in their original intents and outcomes, reflect ideological resilience. And, interestingly enough, each of these groups still liked to be regarded as Radhasoami or Sant mat related movements.
What we have in Radhasoami succession, therefore, is a political contest with a spiritual guise. This is not to merely reduce Radhasoami's spiritual aims to mere political rhetoric, but to point out that theology does not exist in a vacuum. It is a very real response both to this world and the next. But, lest we go too far, it is precisely this world that concerns the politics of guru successorship. And it is right here, in the meeting of divine with the profane, that we can see which forces--geographic, economic, or cultural-- help transform both the context and content of gaddi nasheen rhetoric.
What I have discovered after fifteen years of research in this area is the remarkable humanness of it all. Despite all the claims to the contrary--upper region attainment, transcendental all knowingness, God intended meaning--the common denominator in guru politics is the human factor. What causes disputes is really not all that complex: property rights, social status, power plays, financial considerations, doctrinal disagreements. None of which are unique to spiritual movements; indeed, each of the preceding occur in government or business transitions. The unique character of guru succession lies in its continual reference to spiritual realities or theological truths in order to justify or legitimize a particular leader or avenue of thought. We have seen this especially in the succession contest which arose immediately after Kirpal Singh's death in 1974.
Yet even when there is reference to higher planes of awareness or truth, it is primarily to shape this micro-world's reality. From an outsider's viewpoint the spirituality of Radhasoami seems to be buried or forgotten when the question of property rights, or relic possession, or ashram control arises after the death of a revered leader. When one learns of Shiv Dayal Singh's brother, Seth Partap Singh, hitting people with a stick for going to Rai Salig Ram's satsang, or of Dayal Bagh's and Soami Bagh's bitter law battle over worship rights, or of the physical violence at Sawan Ashram in late 1974, or of the Tarn Taran property battle, what comes to mind is not transcendental guidance from the upper regions but petty human interactions. It is this decidely non-spiritual character, replete with spiritual justifications, which illustrates the peculiar nature of guru politics, and also reveals, by each succession episode, why gaddi nasheen rhetoric covers a wide spectrum of ideological possibilities. It is for this reason that Radhasoami can house under its roof the disparate likes of a Thakar Singh and a Faqir Chand, each of which represent completely opposite doctrinal positions. Thakar Singh claims he can miraculously transform his disciples by sexual and violent interplays and that he is a conscious instrument of God's work. Whereas Faqir Chand claims that he knows absolutely nothing about the divine miracles attributed to him and that he is helpless to change the lot of any particular individual.
Ideological work goes on continuously in government and business, but the difference here in comparison with religion is that in the former the general population is relatively aware of the dark side of the political arena, whereas in religious succession the public is generally unaware of the infighting that occurs. [*NOTE: To give a popular support for this claim, all one needs to do is gauge the public's opinion of politicians in general and of lawyers in particular. The number of jokes circulated about them, especially focusing on their dubious motivations, is tremendous. No doubt, religious leaders also receive their brunt of insults, but rarely does one hear dispersions about spiritual succession, especially of esteemed figures. *]
Look to the founders of the great religions and you will find very little, if any, information about possible succession disputes. This is not because it has not occurred, but that such information is almost invariably transfigured--sometimes quickly, sometimes in stages--from its controversial nature into a potent story buttressing the ministry of the founder in question. The ministry of Jesus Christ is a classic case in point. We know that from the Gospel accounts he takes up his mission after receiving baptism from John the Baptist, and that he somehow linked (information on the connection is scanty at best) with the radical preacher in the desert. What we don't learn--at least from the officially sanctioned texts approved by the orthodoxy--is that a number of disciples of John the Baptist believed that Jesus was not the rightful heir of their master. In sum, a straightforward succession dispute. But how many Christians today have ever even thought of the Baptist/Christ connection as a succession episode? Or as a succession dispute?
In Radhasoami, as we have noted, the same thing occurs with Shiv Dayal Singh. One hundred plus years after his departure, very little is mentioned about how he started his sangat. Did he become a guru overnight? Was he a rightful heir to Tulsi Sahib of Hathras? Key questions, to be be sure, but no clear historical answers. The problem here, of course, is that devoted followers do not, as a rule, want to critically analyze the origins of their particular movements; they especially don't want to analyze it in the unmasking ways demanded by the sociology of knowledge. Why? Because, unlike governments and businesses, religion has by tendency been relegated to the transmundane and thus immune to earthy critical inspection. Karl Marx realized this, and so have independent thinkers from Socrates to Luther to Wilber. Yet to determine the social roots of a religion does not necessarily invalidate its truth claim. Or, more precisely related to our thesis, to acknowledge the socio- political factors underlying a Radhasoami guru's ministry does not by extension cancel out the genuineness of his/her enterprise. Rather, it allows us to understand more fully the context out of which such leaders are operating and why they legitimize themselves and their constituencies in such and such ways. Unmasking in and of itself cannot completely reduce religion and its truths to mere economical or geographical epiphenomena, unless those truths when fully revealed are nothing more than political legitimations. In other words, sociology does not deflate truth; it only deflates the rhetoric surrounding truth.
Specifically, what we have discovered in Radhasoami succession are the following features: 1) Majority gurus, those who gather the bulk of the preceding master's following, tend to legitimize their claims by external evidence, whereas minority gurus, those who, for whatever reasons, attract a smaller portion of the existing sangat, tend to legitimize their ministries by internal criteria, while also criticizing the conventions by which a more popular rival successor assumed his position. This dichotomy was most pronounced in the succession of Sawan Singh, where Jagat Singh (and later Charan Singh) assumed the majority position, emphasizing the succession by outward evidences, such as a registered will, and where Kirpal Singh, representing the minority position, argued for his legitimacy by such internal criteria as "transference by the eyes" and the meditation experiences of his disciples. 2) Ideological work is more apparent in historical episodes where there has been a succession crisis. This was apparent in the death of Rai Salig Ram, where no one in Agra was duly appointed during the guru's lifetime, thus leading to the theological principle of interregnum. It was also evident in the death of Kirpal Singh, where Darshan Singh contradicted his own father's testimony regarding wills and family connections, thus establishing the way for a vanshavali lineage. 3) Previous succession history plays an instrumental part in shaping--either pro or con--the rhetorical strategies employed by would-be successors. We have seen this particularly in the ideological work of Ajaib Singh, and most recently with the smoothness of Rajinder Singh's assumption of the mastership in mid-1989. 4) Economic factors, though downplayed by the groups themselves, do play a significant part in succession disputes. This is perhaps most visible in the long-standing fight between Dayal Bagh and Soami Bagh. It is also evident in Ajaib Singh's disavowal of his Beas initiation. In both cases, there were questions about property and who had the legal rights to retain the land in question. The Tarn Taran satsang, in particular, suffered a harsh succession dispute after the death of its second leader, Deva Singh, over the issue of property control. Eventually Sadhu Singh, the first acknowledged successor of Deva Singh, had to leave Tarn Tarn because of in-fighting by committee members over his appointment, clearing the way for Partap Singh (and later his son) to take control of the Radha Swami Association ashram. And 5) Blood lineages are more common than one might originally suspect in Radhasoami. In almost every satsang there has been at least one successor who had a family tie with the previous guru. It happened with Shiv Dayal Singh's successors (his wife and his younger brother served as gurus); Rai Salig Ram's successors (his son Ajudhia Prasad succeeded him at Peepal Mandi); Sawan Singh's successors (his grandson Charan Singh eventually succeeded him, and later his great grandson, Gurinder Singh); and Kirpal Singh's successors (whose son and grandson continued his ministry in Delhi). That these individuals were chosen because of their family relations, and not necessarily their spiritual competency, seems obvious to outsiders; yet, even those within the membership fold have periodically had suspicions about the nepotism in several Radhasoami cliques.
All five of these factors indicate, of course, that guru succession in Radhasoami is not independent of socio-political forces--forces which have more to do with ordinary, day to day economics and personal power plays than with elevated, transcendental intercessions. That this is obvious to a sociologist is one thing; that this is not obvious to members within religious communities, like Radhasoami, is revelatory. Of the thousands of satsangis I have talked with over the past fifteen or so years, very few (less than ten) have been keenly aware of the politics surrounding Radhasoami succession. Although they may have heard of a dispute between would-be candidates (along the lines of a Kirpal Singh versus a Charan Singh or a Soami Bagh versus a Dayal Bagh), they usually dismiss it under the theological pretext that Kal , the Negative Force, plays havoc with true masters. Rarely does the issue of property, or money, or status, or caste, or nepotism arise as the chief force behind such disputes. This may well be that in the rarified world of mysticism, petty politics is oftentimes couched in ultimacies, where ordinary problems of right and wrong play themselves out in a cosmic arena of Sat and Kal. The true guru really doesn't care about controlling the ashram, but about protecting the purity of the path from corruption. Or, the true guru is not concerned with money, per se, but about using it correctly. Or the reason the guru took a civil lawsuit was to protect future disciples who may be led astray, not his own family interests.
A good illustration of how a succession squabble, with all the attendant in-house gossip and back stabbing, moves away from a simple political contest into a spiritual one can be seen in the classic Sant mat text, Anurag Sagar , reputedly authored by the most famous medieval Sant, Kabir. Here we find in fantastic prose and poetry the great battle between Sat Purush (True Lord) and Kal (Time) over the plight of the human soul. The book reads like a great epic about the ultimate meaning of the universe and God's purpose for human existence. However, on closer inspection, one learns that the work has a a specific historical context and a political agenda, which helps explain why it was written in the first place. In an important article, "The Radhasoami Revival of the Sant Tradition," Mark Juergensmeyer explains the political impetus behind the writing of the Anurag Sagar :
Although of uncertain origin, the Anurag sagar ("Sea of Love") purports to be principally a dialogue between Kabir and one of his best-known disciples, Dharamdas, who is said to have founded the Chhattisgarh branch of the Kabir-panth sometime in the late sixteenth century. It is doubtful that the Anurag sagar was actually written by Dharamdas or anyone of his time--the language of the text seems to suggest at best an eighteenth-century date--but the use of his name and other names associated with him would indicate that the actual writer had some association with his branch of the Kabir-panth. In fact, the discussions in the text reveal a dispute over the sixth-generation succession to the leadership of the Dharamdasi branch, and an enumeration of rival panths that venerate Kabir but which the author of the Anurag sagar regards as illicit. . . [*NOTE: Mark Juergensmeyer, "The Radhasoami Revival of the Sant Tradition," The Sants , op. cit., page 352. *]
What we have here, dressed up in transcendent spiritual terms, is a politically sensitive succession dispute. A surface reading of the book, however, doesn't reveal an in-house squabble among rival Kabir-panthis, but rather a treatise about true and false masters in general. And it is on this level that the book is usually read. But in light of the sociology of knowledge, and particularly in light of our method of unmasking, we find that the Anurag Sagar is as much a spiritual book as it is a political polemic. Indeed, it is an argument against rival successors who at the time must have had some success in swaying people away from the author's camp, or there would have been no necessity to write at length about the subject. What we have here, of course, is political inflation, that is, the elevation of a succession dispute from its earthly moorings into a theological battle over Sat and Kal, bypassing along the way the decidedly mundane origins of the problematic issue. What remains is theology without social context (although it was precisely that social context which informed such theology) and a universal spiritual message without personal references. Although the politics and the chief characters are still evident in Anurag Sagar , they remain secondary to the theme of the narrative. It is exactly this kind of juxtaposition which allows religious devotees in general, and Radhasoami satsangis in particular, to overlook the socio-political basis of their respective movements; it is also the reason that theology is seen as something distinct from social interaction.
What I have tried to illustrate in this book, however, is that succession rhetoric has its roots firmly implanted in the socio-political-geographical soil of its time. That theology often reflects, if not masks, underlying social tensions that are glossed over by references to spiritual realities. And, finally, that the politics of guru transference follows strategies of legitimation which emphasize internal or external criterion depending upon the guru's social standing.
The significance of this study, insofar that it can be applied outside of its limited framework of Radhasoami politics, is that it strongly suggests that religious succession in general may follow predicatable patterns which are governed by ascertainable social factors. Outstanding among these factors is that minority religious leaders may tend to legitimize their ministries by referring to internal criteria, whereas majority religious leaders tend to invoke external criteria. Although such an observation seems obvious and simplistic, the power or utility of this insight is that religion is oftentimes seen as somehow distinct from the social arena. This is especially true among religious devotees, who--for whatever reasons--do not analyze spiritual rhetoric in light of its socio-political context.
Also, in light of Radhasoami studies, it seems almost certain that succession disputes are much more common and elaborate in both old and new religious movements than insiders might suspect. Moreover, the closer one studies a succession crisis the more complex it gets. Instead of accepting prima facie the "official" view of succession history, provided invariably by each faction in their own favor, when one delves deeper into the subject the theological gloss recedes revealing a complex personal and social struggle for such mundane things as: property rights, bank accounts, and increased political clout.
Future research on the sociological aspects of succession, I would argue, should concentrate on the micro processes involved in how would-be successors legitimize their respective candidacies. Although I have touched upon the issue of rhetorical strategies, it would be fruitful to explore in depth how hagiography develops over very short periods of time and to see how changes in various stories are implemented and accepted. In Darshan Singh's death, for instance, we know that within days stories got circulated about Darshan Singh's apparent foreknowledge of his impending death. What was difficult to ascertain, however, was how these stories developed and changed over the span of just hours. Future research, I suggest, should focus on the micro-processes involved minute by minute, day by day, in the transformation of common language into stylized political and theological rhetoric. Then we will be able to see how sociology and theology interface.
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