Author: David Christopher Lane Publisher: MSAC Philosophy Group Publication date: 1992
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PREFACE Sociological Conversion
For anthropologists and sociologists the fear of intensive participant-observation is that one will "go native" and forget all one learned about science and rationality in graduate school. It is not an unfounded fear of course, but one which can easily be checked by explicitly referencing one's sources and one's methodological biases. As for myself, I think I have gone native in the opposite direction. Since I have already been closely tied with Sant mat and Radhasoami from my mid-teens, the radical conversion happened in my late twenties when I saw the powerful utility of sociology in the field of religion and knowledge. Instead of allowing spiritual ideas, doctrines, and practices to float freely in space--mental or astral--without any geographical, economical, or political moorings, sociology attempts to ground (not necessarily dispute) such ideology in its more materialist context--that of social interaction. It is from this materialist basis that one begins to have a better understanding of how and why certain ideas arise when and where they do.
For nearly ten years I worked mostly in the field of history and phenomenology when studying religion. However, after taking courses with Professors Mark Juergensmeyer, Bennett Berger, Bennetta Jules-Rosette and Joseph Gusfield, I quickly learned how theology cannot be separated from its infusing social environment. Thus by the age of twenty-nine I had plunged headlong into sociology of knowledge and religion; I won't go so far as to say it was a religious conversion (I didn't see Talcott Parsons at the end of a lighted tunnel), but intellectually I was a changed man. No longer could I view religion in a vacuum--spiritual or otherwise. When I applied my newfound vision to guru politics the results were startling. Complex debates over obscure (and to me, trivial) theological doctrines turned out to be on closer inspection symptomatic of deeper underlying societal tensions. When I looked at theology in a related, not disconnected, way with socio-economic forces, I saw that family squabbles, administrative in-fighting, and power plays over property rights and control often reflected themselves in theological garb.
When I looked at arcane philosophical disputes divorced from their nurturing materialist context, I often ended up confused over the real issues at hand. However, when I looked at those same disputes in their natural environment (who is talking to whom where and when), I discovered the missing link. I discovered context . Now this does not mean that all of theology or all of guru succession politics is merely a reflection of lesser or baser social factors (as Marx would argue), but only that spiritual ideas and the day to day world of human interaction are interelated and mutually reflect that very interdependence.
So I have gone native. I have immersed myself in the baptismal waters and been converted to a new world view--that of sociology. I fear that those I will offend the most will be my fellow satsangi brothers and sisters. They may feel I have collapsed the spiritual hierarchy in favor of a more mundane and profane perspective. But, interestingly, I think religion and its followers are better served by academic scrutiny than they suspect. For one, sociology does not deflate truth--as if truth were something so fragile it had to be protected lest any foreign intruder break whatever continuity it had--but rather uncovers the circumstances governing its peculiar manifestations from place to place. Truth, as such, is not the issue here; rather, the human process of defining truth, approaching truth, explaining truth is the central focus, particularly as it relates to the transmission of spiritual authority from one leader to another.
I am particularly interested in how would-be guru candidates legitimize their roles to their respective constituencies. That my study may uncover motivations or impulses which are not entirely spiritual or benevolent should not by extension imply that I think (along with Marx) that all of religion is merely an opiate or a drug to blind one from life's "real" truths. Rather, I am interested in seeing what social forces are at work in shaping gaddi nasheen rhetoric. For instance, why does one guru invoke a written will as testimony to his genuineness, whereas another guru--coming from the same lineage--denies its efficacy? Why does one guru emphasize inner experience as the chief criterion, and another does not? What social factors--geographical, economical, or political--are shaping the way gurus and their followers talk?
Satsangis may be offended because sociology does not refer to transcendental realities as informing or shaping this world. Rather sociology (and Marx's influence has been permanently engraved here) looks to human interaction as the formative basis behind such human productions as knowledge, religion, and culture. As Bennett Berger points out, though, this general tendency of sociology does not mean that transcendental realms are denied, but only that they cannot be talked about in any coherent manner without first referencing their materialist context. In writing a biography of a famous person, for instance, it is normal to mention the biographee's parents and their formative influence, even though the parents may have been of humble origins and did not reach the heights of their progeny. Likewise, just because sociology grounds theology with its less ethereal roots--roots which, like the proverbial lotus flower, arise within the mud--does not mean that spiritual ideas and the like are less admirable or even less true or real. Sociology only shows those processes which are empirically verifiable to those who do not have access to transpersonal realms of consciousness. That sociology focuses on this materialist realm versus the purely ideational realm is not its weakness, as some religionists would have us assume. On the contrary, sociology derives its greatest strength when it accurately pinpoints the materialist underpinnings behind ideology. Just as physics made its greatest headway by abandoning reasoning by authority and moving to reasoning by experimentation and falsification, sociology provides its greatest contributions to religion by unmasking those materialist forces (like family, like economics, like geography, like language) which have shaped the particular religion's theology, etc.
So what we have here in this book is a sociological study of guru succession and the politics surrounding how certain candidates become accepted or rejected by the surviving community. I am particularly interested in how gurus legitimize themselves to their constituencies. This process of legitimation, almost invariably, takes on a certain hue and shape immediately after the death of a master. Thus, the heart of my study is the volatile period immediately after the death of a Radhasoami guru. To accurately gauge the social influences involved in gaddi nasheen rhetoric, I have taken a decidely historical approach in this study. I have done this for a variety of reasons, but most importantly because the issues involved are by their very nature historical and must be seen as such. To use sociology ad hoc without any clearly defined understanding of the historical parameters under which one is working is not only naive but wholly misleading. Sociology without history is inaccurate, just as history without sociology is blind. No doubt, I may have concentrated a bit too much on history for some sociological tastes, but I think it is necessary, especially when no comprehensive history of Radhasoami has been satisfactorily done--Agam Prasad Mathur's and S.D. Maheshwari's books not withstanding.
I have focused this study primarily on the succession episodes in the Beas and Ruhani Satsang lineages. Although I concentrate on the succession disputes revolving around the founder of Radhasoami, Shiv Dayal Singh, I am mostly interested in understanding how the Beas line developed its method of gaddi nasheen transmission, and how, in turn, such a modus operandi affected other guru claimants who have branched off from Sawan Singh and Kirpal Singh.
Personal Biases, Metaphysical Pathos, and Critical Reading
It should be understood right from the outset that although I have tried to be as objective as possible in my analysis, I am coming from a particular background, which may or may not flavor the context of my study. Let me be as up front as possible about certain biographical details which may be viewed as potentially biasing my angle. First, I was brought up in a fairly conservative Roman Catholic household, attending religious schools for some twelve years. I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, and, since my father was a successful attorney, lived a comfortable middle class existence. Socially speaking, my life was conventional and mainstream. I say this precisely because I felt conventional and mainstream and did not bear within me the social stigma of someone brought up in a marginal, or even near marginal, existence. This is not to say, though, that I had a trouble-free childhood (my father, for instance, was a severe alcoholic until I was thirteen years old), but only to point out that my social circumstances were, relatively speaking, privileged.
Second and more importantly, however, I became interested in Sant mat and Radhasoami for personal reasons when I was seventeen years old. After five years of study and research, I was initiated by the late Maharaj Charan Singh in November of 1978. Needless to say, such a deep interest in a foreign religious tradition, which, unlike Catholicism, is anything but mainstream, contrasted drastically with my "normal" upbringing. That I turned vegetarian the year before and that I read books on India and spiritual subjects since I was eleven naturally caused some alarm among my parents, teachers, and friend.* That my one-pointed obsession with philosophy and the like was not a passing fancy I don't think they could have known then. Perhaps their chief consolation in my religious delvings was that I was not taking drugs of any kind.
Thus I am a product of two mitigating cultural forces: one native, traditional and conventionally acceptable; the other alien, radical and conventionally suspect. These two forces intertwine at times, clash at others, and most often live distinct lives. Yet, I strongly sense that they have influenced to some measure how I view religion. For instance, the most popular religion in the world, if we exclude general agnosticism as an organized religious response, is Roman Catholicism; the most popular neo-Sant movement is the Radhasoami Satsang at Beas. I am a member of both. If we just look at Radhasoami as a micro world of its own--and sometimes satsangis can live as if it is, especially in the Punjab--then being a member of the Beas branch could well be regarded as "conventional" and "normal." To be sure, a Radhasoami member in America stands out, if not to the general public at least to his given peer group, but that distinction only holds water in comparison to the Judeo-Christian world. In Radhasoami's two million plus world, a Beas satsangi is part of the group, part of the community--and, as such, is accorded all the rights and freedoms given to members. And "normalcy" may well be one of the greatest privileges of all.
So I suspect that one of the biases running through this study is my particularly "mainstream," "status quo," background, even in the rarified world of Radhasoami. Or, to put it a bit more precisely, even if the term is misleading, I have the background of "orthodoxy." And I am sure that initiates of other Radhasoami branches, particularly those affiliated with Kirpal Singh (which view Beas after Sawan Singh's death as institutionalized), will approach my work with skepticism. For instance, followers of Kirpal Singh, Darshan Singh, Ajaib Singh, Thakar Singh, etc., may wonder whether or not I have slanted the history informing this study to substantiate the claims of the Beas successors over and against those from the Delhi contingency. Moreover, they may question my claim to impartiality when, in fact, I have an allegiance--at least in spiritual terms--with the late Maharaj Charan Singh. And, finally, the other Radhasoami branches, particularly Soami Bagh, may feel that I am not orthodox enough, that I am a foreigner whose association with the early tradition is nominal, and whose theological views may be far too liberal to do justice to the "religion" of Radhasoami.
All of these suspicions and doubts, I would argue, are good and healthy. Too often readers do not critically read what is written, especially in matters pertaining to religion or philosophy. Additionally, authors of scholarly monographs and the like are reticent about revealing their own motivations in fear that their "message" with be diluted or tainted, or, worst of all, seen as containing a "personal" slant. To buttress this point even further--and I feel it is a key point in qualitative sociological studies--let me cite an example of where an academic author has withheld from his/her readers vital information which would expose (rightly or wrongly) a potential bias. In 1973, Agam Prasad Mathur published his groundbreaking history of Radhasoami (Delhi: Vikas Publishing House), without once mentioning that he was himself a bona fide guru in the Peepal Mandi branch with a following of several thousand satsangis. His book is perhaps the most cited recent history of the movement, and yet very few readers would suspect that he was an interested observer. So interested (read: partial) that the very structure of his book implies that Peepal Mandi is one of the three largest Radhasoami branches, which it is clearly not. Furthermore, even though Mathur includes a listing of the gurus at Peepal Mandi, he fails to mention the present gaddi nasheen--namely himself. Why? So that he could "pose" as an objective historian, void of any of personal involvement or prejudice.**
Mathur's lack of admission presents several problems, not the least of which is the withholding of vital historical information, helpful to sociologists and historians alike. It is as if scholarship is a kind of intellectual game of deception, where one's "I" voice hides behind third person prose, edited footnotes, and detached sentence syntax in order to convince his or her readers that what they are reading is not the product of a human being with a vital organ known as a heart, but a scientific robot devoid of feeling, emotion, or personal insight. I realize that this "pose" has much to do with social science's immaturity and aborted attempts to mimic the "real" sciences, like physics and chemistry. But such a charade, especially when the focus of sociology is human grouping and interaction, seems shortsighted and counterproductive.***
Suspicions or doubts aside, however, the key thing in assessing the merits or demerits of any written work--sociological or otherwise--is to determine whether the findings are applicable outside of their flavored purview. Essentially any researcher, with an affiliation or without one, should--given enough study and time--be able to correlate or replicate what has been delineated. If not, then he/she can point out the defects. The whole notion of referees in academia is to have a community of like-minded (but critically acute) experts "test" the worthwhileness of one's observations. In this way, even though one may start with certain biases or prejudices, the generalizable information gets ferreted out from the idiosyncratic data.****
1. Thus in this way--and perhaps only in this way--did I get an inkling of what it must be like to be "marginalized" within a social context. I can't say that I was ostracized in any overt way, but in little ways, some subtle, some not, I was noticed as "different." The different label for a teenager can be a godsend and a curse at the same time. The blessing lies in the distinction, being able to somehow be different in a way that you feel proud, not ashamed, of; the curse lies in those social situations where you wish you could blend in with the crowd. I particularly remember my senior prom at North Hollywood High School, where I was perhaps the only strict vegetarian among the hundreds attending. My girlfriend at the time was not a vegetarian and only had at best a begrudging tolerance of my peculiar lifestyle. Hence when the meal came, it was very difficult for me not to look "weird." It was a carnivore's delight, but a vegetarian's nightmare. There was not one thing I could eat without breaking my non-animal vow. The main course was roast beef, the salad had eggs on it, and God and the chef only knows what the dessert contained. We were seated at a circular table and here I was looking at a meal that I couldn't fake eating (unlike at my mother's house, where I could always hide the meat under or in something). This incident may seem trivial--and in retrospect it is--but at the time I felt terribly embarrassed. So, like any quick minded, face saving teenager, I think I said something about being on a diet. Of course, that excuse didn't fly and I had to confess to being a vegetarian. I nibbled at the bread sticks and I think there were a few derisive comments about rabbit's food, etc. What this incident, and others like it, showed me was the two-pronged nature of distinctiveness. Today, of course, I am happy to say that in the 1990's it is much easier to be a vegetarian and not stand out like a refried hippie.
2. I remember discussing Mathur's book with Professor Juergensmeyer back in the Winter of 1978 and at that time he felt that Mathur was connected to Dayal Bagh. When I pointed out that Mathur was Rai Salig Ram's great grandson and a guru in his own right, Juergensmeyer immediately noticed how the work was slanted. However, I feel Mathur would have done Radhasoami scholarship a favor by explicitly informing his readers of his allegiance, if not for purely methodological reasons then for historical since his own ministry should be duly noted and explained.
3. Another incident of hidden variables comes from Daniel Gold's book, The Lord as Guru , published by Oxford University Press in 1987. Gold, who is presently a Professor of Religious Studies at Cornell University, is a long-time initiate of the late Radhasoami guru, K.S. Mansingh. Yet, despite the fact that Gold talks at length about gurus and their functions within the Sant and Radhasoami tradition, he fails to elaborate on his own "personal" relationship with one of them, even though he mentions him in passing in his acknowledgements. The question is not why or who cares, but rather why not? What is it about the social sciences which prompts scholars to want to hide their personal motivations, when it was precisely those same motivations which prompted the study in the first place? No doubt those motivations may not bias the study, but they do help readers analyze the material more carefully and critically. And, if an introduction or a preface can alert a reader to be more aware (instead of being falsely led into a stupor of third person objective bliss) instead of less, then by all means I feel it is the writer's obligation to do so. If sociologists mean business and really believe that human interaction shapes the way we think, why should sociologists themselves be exempt from scrutinizing their own existential predispositions?
4. To overcome some of the preliminary errors that usually occur in studies of this nature, I have sent drafts of this work at various stages to interested satsangis from other Radhasoami branches to help me in locating slanted or misleading information. In this way, I have been able to catch a number of mistakes even before they reach the final draft. Undoubtedly, I have not caught all of them and I am sure I will not fully please my satsangi critics. However, I have made a substantial effort to identify any possible biases and remedy them prior to publication. I am particularly thankful to Neil Tessler, Russell Perkins (both initiates of the late Kirpal Singh) and Brian Walsh (initiate of the late Darshan Singh) for reviewing sections of this work for possible slants and misinformation. Although my angle may not be in agreement with theirs, they have provided me with considerable feedback.
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