Radhasoami: a note on method

Author: David Christopher Lane
Publisher: Garland Publishers
Publication date: 1992

E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.


Specifically, this study concentrates on the socio-historical development of the Radhasoami tradition as it evolved through the gurus at Hathras, Agra, Beas, Tarn Taran, Hoshiarpur, Delhi, and elsewhere. Special attention, however, has been focused on the Sant parampara at Dera Baba Jaimal Singh and Sawan Ashram in Delhi.

Two primary methods of study have been employed: field research and historical/textual analysis. Having been to India eight times, I saw first-hand the various satsang groups and their leaders, including extensive visits at Dera Baba Jaimal Singh, Beas (1978, 1981, 1983, 1989/1990); Manavta Mandir, Hoshiarpur (1978, 1981); Soami Bagh and Peepal Mandi, Agra (1978, 1981, 1987); and Sawan Ashram and Sawan-Kirpal Ashram in Delhi (1978, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1988).

I have also met and conducted interviews, each of varying lengths, with the following Radhasoami/Sant mat leaders: the late Pratap Singh (1978); the late Baba Faqir Chand (1978, 1981); Mataji of Manavta Mandir (1978, 1981); the late Darshan Singh (Summer 1983, Winter 1983, Summer 1986, Spring 1987, Spring 1988); Ajaib Singh (1978, 1980); Thakar Singh (1977, 1978, 1979); the late Charan Singh (1978--interview conducted by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer; 1981, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1989); Pir Munga (1987); Agam Prasad Mathur (1978--interview conducted by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer; 1987); Gurinder Singh (1991); and I.C. Sharma (1991).

Interviews have also been conducted with administrators at the various satsang centers, including Dr. K.S. Narang (Beas; 1978--interview conducted by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer; 1981, 1983, 1989); Janak Raj Puri (Beas; 1978--interview conducted by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer; 1983), the late Sant Das Maheshwari (Soami Bagh; 1978--interview conducted by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer); the late Babu Ram Jadoun (Dayal Bagh; 1978--interview conducted by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer); Dr. K. L. Jaura (Manavta Mandir; 1981); Professor Bhagat Ram Kamal (Manavta Mandir; 1978, 1981); Bhagwan Gyaniji (Sawan Ashram; 1978); Pappu Bagga (Delhi; 1978).

The interviews done of followers of the respective movements are too numerous to cite; however, extensive interviewing has been done with members of each satsang both personally and through correspondence. A questionnaire was also sent out to one hundred followers of the Kirpal Singh lineage in 1989.

Historical textual analysis consists of a thorough examination of almost every Radhasoami or Sant mat book published in English. In 1987, working from an O.G.S.R. grant, I collected rare books, pamphlets, and manuscripts related to Sant mat and Radhasoami. From these many writings, I was able to chart out the written history of guru succession, as well as analyze the rhetorical uses of language in buttressing the claims of vying successors. Moreover, I have been greatly assisted in my task by setting up key contact people in each of the satsang groups which kept me up to date on the latest developments, including new publications, growth in membership, and related events.

Specific Problem

On August 24, 1974, Kirpal Singh, a renowned guru of surat shabd yoga ("union of the soul/consciousness with the sacred sound") and founder of Ruhani Satsang, died at the age of eighty. His death caused an intense succession dispute amongst his thousands of followers which has yet to be mended. Eventually a number of factions developed, each following a different successor. Although most of Kirpal Singh's followers rallied around Darshan Singh, Kirpal's son, others paid allegiance to either Thakar Singh of Delhi or Ajaib Singh of Rajasthan.

The interesting sociological question that confronts us here is how each successor to Kirpal Singh legitimized his role. That is, what type of ideological strategy did these would-be gurus develop in order to solidify their constituencies? Further, what were the social and historical factors which influenced or constrained their gaddi nasheen rhetoric?

To properly address and answer these questions necessitates a fairly comprehensive overview of the social context in which these surat shabd yoga gurus live and teach. Thus, this study begins with a historical overview of Sant mat and Radhasoami in general. And secondly, I have focused on the specific parampara (guru lineage) which preceded Kirpal Singh and his successors.

General Thesis

The central thesis of this work is that there is an observable pattern which governs the "ideological work" (i.e., rhetoric ) of guru succession in the Sant mat and Radhasoami traditions--namely, successorship claimants who lack sufficient outward confirmation to be accepted by the majority of the guru's congregation move generally toward experiential, inward, and personal forms of verification. This movement towards internal validation, moreover, brings with it an inclination to question the forms of legitimacy that brought solidarity to the majority party and its leader. Hence, minority claimants (usually those who do not retain the gaddi--seat of the guru's residence) tend, in Max Weber's terms, to criticize the routinization of charisma by "office" and argue for the superiority of "personal" attainment. The politics of guru successorship, therefore, is essentially a conflict over the nature and transference of charisma (spiritual power). Using Ken Wilber's terminology (as found in A Sociable God ) this thesis can also be phrased as: those who lack legitimacy (outward confirmation by the consensus majority) point to their authenticity (inward confirmation by individuals experientially/mystically) as the primary means for verifying their roles.

Additionally, guru succession is oftentimes a struggle over controlling theological doctrines, membership ranks, and property rights. Hence, gurus do not merely represent their own inner callings, but various material interests, ranging from the "right interpretation" of Radhasoami teachings to the governance of sadhu and household members of outlying branches to ownership rights over inherited sacred property. With such larger "worldly" issues at stake, it is little wonder that guru politics can turn into an ugly slugfest between sister-related communities. The decades long legal battle between Dayal Bagh and Soami Bagh over worship rights at Shiv Dayal Singh's samadh is perhaps the most graphic illustration of how social factors play a central part in succession contests.

Guiding Theorists

Although this study utilizes the theoretical findings of a number of prominent thinkers (from such diverse fields as critical history to phenomenology/hermeneutics), five sociologists have served as the guiding theorists: 1) Bennett Berger (especially his development of the concept of "ideological work," where tensions arise between theory and practice and how interested parties remedy or rectify such incongruencies); 2) Robin Gill (who has established sharp guidelines in applying a sociology of knowledge to the evolution of theological ideas, pointing out how ideas and social context are intertwined); 3) Max Weber (particularly his understanding of charisma and its routinization); 4) Ken Wilber (whose terminology in A Sociable God has helped clarify the hierarchical nature of religious authority); and 5) Joseph Gusfield (particularly his work on "status politics"). Of these theorists, I am most indebted to Bennett Berger, since it was his understanding of how the sociology of knowledge works in practice (as outlined in The Survival of a Counterculture ) that helped me frame my present study of guru politics.

The Issue of Mistakes

In a study such as this it is nearly impossible not to make some mistakes, especially when dealing with questionable historical data. For instance, when I was working with Professor Mark Juergensmeyer on his book, Radhasoami Reality , we inevitably found, even after three or four proofreading sessions, something that was not accurate. Indeed, even after the book was printed new information came to our attention which prompted a revision of one or two facts. Although scholars would wish that their studies were void of any errors, the truth is that almost all scholarly works contain them. Perhaps the definition of a scholar (versus a hack) centers not around the person who makes no mistakes, but rather around the one who leaves the most obvious trail in which to correct his or her blunders. To error is human, as the saying goes, but to footnote one's errors is scholarship. And it is precisely in the footnoting or the contextualizing that the critical reader can adjudicate the rightness or wrongness of the writer's interpretations. In this light, I hope the reader can see clearly enough the trails I am following so that he or she with a critically endowed sense of discrimination can verify or refute what I have argued. And if there are any mistakes or inaccuracies, I hope that the interested reader will feel most free to notify me in writing via the publisher so that future editions of the study can be corrected.

I am perhaps belaboring this point because I feel it is too often neglected in academia. Printing, by definition, is a permanent act which sets into type thoughts and ideas which may not be corrected for decades. As I point out in the introduction to this book, Radhasoami scholarship has been tainted for years by false or misleading information. With the advent of computer technology--and the ability for quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive ways of correcting printing errors--it is imperative that historical studies open themselves up for peer criticism that is immediate. In this way, students of history can be more confident in assessing scholarly monographs and the like.

E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.