Premies Versus Sannyasins
It is argued that Divine Light Mission and Rajneeshism are excellent examples of early and late post-movement groups (Foss & Larkin, 1978). Rajneeshism’s stance towards the dominant culture is much more radical. It’s ideology not only implies a resection of the socially accepted means to find »truth,« it also disclaims the final product of those means, that is, the content of socially accepted truth. Divine Light Mission’s ideology mainly deals with the means employed to come to»knowledge.« Consequently, it is hypothesized that both movements will recruit their members from different populations. Although an inspection of personal characteristics in terms of age, education, religious background, and time of seekership shows no difference, it is found that premies pre-conversion seeking proceeded mostly along paths of individual experiences, while sannyasins had been seeking more along interpersonal paths. Additional differences concern the evaluation of pre-adolescent family life, especially personal religious experiences during childhood.
In spite of the enormous scientific output concerning new religious movements, only few comparative studies exist (that is, studies in which similarities and differences between members of various groups are analyzed). Pilarzyk (1978) compared members of Divine Light Mission (DLM) and Hare Krishna with respect to their conversion processes; Judah (1977) made a comparison between Hare Krishna and Unification Church members; and Gordon (1978) studied members of two different Jesus Movement groups. Further exploits along these lines are lacking. Yet, such comparisons are relevant because of their theoretical implications. While most typologies of new religious movements are based on ideological and/or structural characteristics only, their validity could be enhanced by studies demonstrating that different types of movements indeed attract different kinds of persons.
Also, the rise of new religious movements is generally assumed to be related to the countercultural youth movement of the ‘60s. It is generally theorized (for example, Foss & Larkin, 1978 and 1979) that drug consumption and/or political activism generated psychological and physical tensions that became predisposing factors in the conversion to new religious movements. The youth culture of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, however, seems to be rather different from that of the early and late ‘60s. The socio-economic crisis of the ‘70s characterized by its large-scale unemployment and economic, as well as ecological, problems has caused a drastic change in the worldview of parts of the younger generation. The majority nowadays probably adopt to the new situation by simply accepting a conservative lifestyle dominated by a more or less new interpretation of capitalism’s Protestant work ethic. Others (a small, albeit significant minority) still revolt, and their revolt is much more radical. Their aim is no
longer to improve the world by changing its social structures, as it was in the ‘60s. Their aim is much more either the total destruction of existing social structures (replacing them by some, mostly rather vague, idea of a new order) or a total, nihilistic withdrawal from society. In this sense, the youth culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s is much more radically oppositional than the hippiedom of the ‘60s.
In view of this change in the youth culture, the background characteristics of more recent members of new religious movements (and members of movements of a more recent origin) may be assumed to differ from those of the ones who became a member in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The two Eastern guru movements to be compared in this paper (DLM and Rajneeshism) seem to be excellent examples of these successive phases of the youth culture.
Movement Characteristics: Similarities and Differences
DLM and Rajneeshism are comparable in that in both, the Indian guru is the central object of devotion. While in the Christian tradition the spiritual master is only an intermediate between the individual and God, standing outside their personal relation, in both these new religious movements the devotee’s relation with the guru is considered identical to his relation with God. The guru is accepted as the manifestation and personification of God. His request for total surrender and complete trust is grounded in his claim of ultimate authority derived from his godliness.
A difference between the two movements, however, is that in DLM such surrender is a necessary condition for initiation. In Rajneeshism, initiation without immediate total surrender is possible. Surrender is viewed as a manifestation of the maturational process which takes place during membership instead of before initiation.
A second similarity is that in both movements, participation involves rejection of previous habits and lifestyle. According to Maharaj Ji, all evil should be attributed to the mind, while for Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the ego is the responsible agent. Apparently, these merely represent linguistic variants to indicate the same obstacle of freeing oneself from former bonds, but in essence they refer to different realities. DLM’s concept of mind refers primarily to a state of consciousness characterized by everything but passive, nonrational confidence and trust. The ego, on the other hand (in Bhagwan’s terminology), is the symbolization of all the ideas, norms, and values which one has interiorized in the course of socialization. In other words, it represents the influence that the surrounding society has had on the subject.
So, although both movements preach a similar doctrine (getting free from evil by eliminating the binding forces from one’s life), the fact that these binding forces are conceptualized differently makes Rajneeshism more radical in it’s rejection of the dominant worldview. Consequently, it is much more oppositional than DLM. It’s ideology not only implies a rejection of the means employed by society to influence the subject, it also implies the results of this influence.
Because of this more radical stance against the establishment--especially the scientific and psychiatric establishment--it may be assumed that becoming a sannyasin involves a more radical transformation of social identity than initiation as a premie. This is not to say that Rajneeshism is more sectarian than DLM, although it must be admitted that a clear sectarianization process (Wallis, 1977) can be observed within the movement since its move to the United States in 1981. Nevertheless, even today initiation as a sannyasin does not involve social insulation. There is no obligation to sever affective bonds with the outside world (although marriage or friendship relations are often negatively influenced when one of the partners becomes a sannyasin). The same is true for professional careers: there is no obligation to discontinue them, but very often the satisfaction one gets from professional activities diminishes in such a way that leaving one’s job eventually becomes the ultimate remedy.
A third difference between the movements is that in Rajneeshism a greater variety of meditation techniques is practiced, including dynamic ones derived from Tantrism and Sufism. Consequently, spiritual involvement in this movement is more multi-dimensional and (because of this possibility of choice) probably more appealing than in DLM for some.
A final difference, also related to the Tantric influences on Rajneeshism, is that in that movement much attention is paid to sexuality, bodily experiences, and social interaction as elements of the mystic path. In DLM, sexuality is taboo, the body is devalued, and interpersonal relations are superficial. The core difference is that premies are not in search of an interpersonal experience; instead, they are aiming at an individual experience. Fellow premies are not regarded as friends, but as people to have satsang from or give satsang to. Relationships between premies are functional and utilitarian.
In view of these striking differences between the two movements with regard to their date of origin, their ritual practices, their value systems, and the degree of required identity transformation, the hypothesis seems justified that they have recruited their adherents from different populations. Yet, in view of the fact that the members of both movements have joined an Oriental movement and have surrendered themselves to an Indian guru, some similarities between them may also be expected.
Similarities and Differences at the Individual Level
DLM data were gathered in the late ‘70s by means of in-depth interviews of 19 Dutch premies. The sample of 18 Dutch Bhagwan sannyasins were interviewed in the early ‘80s.* Both samples are fairly similar with respect to the distribution of sexes and the respondents’ age at the moment of affiliation. The DLM sample consisted of seven females and 12 males; the sannyasin sample of seven females and 11 males. Although the average age of the sannyasins at the moment of affiliation is somewhat higher than in the premie sample (32 years versus 27 years), this difference is caused mainly by the fact that one sannyasin (a former Roman Catholic nun) joined the movement at the age of 70. Only two premies and four sannyasins joined their movement at the age of 30 or older.
Length of Membership
A clear difference between the samples appeared when they were compared with respect to the length of the period of membership. The majority of the premies (79 percent) joined DLM more than a year before the interview, with a maximum of seven years. In contrast, only nine sannyasins (50 percent) had been a member for more than a year, with a maximum of three years. Obviously, these differences must be related to the fact that Rajneeshism was introduced in the Western world much later than was DLM.
TABLE 1: EDUCATIONAL LEVEL
high school finished without degree
high school degree
4 (21 %)
5 (28 %)
intermediate vocational education
4 (21 %)
5 (28 %)
higher vocational education
academic study without degree
11 (56 %)
8 (44 %)
8 (42 %)
6 (33 %)
As shown in Table 1, the educational level of the premie sample was slightly higher than that of the sannyasin sample. Eleven premies (58 percent) were engaged in, or had finished, a higher vocational or academic education as compared to only eight sannyasins (44 percent). Four premies (21 percent) and five sannyasins (28 percent) were engaged in a study at the level of intermediate vocational education, while another four premies and five sannyasins had stopped their education at the high school level. These data clearly demonstrate that, compared to the educational level of the general Dutch population, in both movements high academic levels are overrepresented. A striking phenomenon is the high proportion in both samples of persons who have dropped out of school: eight premies (42 percent) and six sannyasins (33 percent). Most of them had quit school after joining their movement. Even though in both movements there is no official obligation to break off educational or professional careers, this frequently seems to be a natural result of affiliation. A related finding is the high proportion (eight persons in each movement, or 42 and 44 percent respectively) of unemployed adherents and of persons holding only temporary jobs far below their level of competence (see Table 2).
TABLE 2: JOB SITUATION
1 (5 %)
1 (6 %)
primary school teacher
3 (16 %)
social welfare / psycho-therapist
4 (21 %)
2 (11 %)
2 (11 %)
1 (5 %)
2 (11 %)
1 (6 %)
unemployed / irregular jobs
8 (42 %)
8 (44 %)
2 (11 %)
2 (11 %)
With respect to religious background, the two samples are fairly similar. In both, the majority came from Roman Catholic families (15 premies, or 79 percent; 12 sannyasins, or 67 percent). Only two premies (10 percent) and four sannyasins (22 percent) were from Protestant families, while in both movements two adherents had no religious background at all.
As the proportion of Roman Catholics is only about 40 percent of the Dutch population, they are clearly overrepresented in both movements. This predominance of former Roman Catholics in the new religions seems to be a general rule. In The Netherlands, Van der Lans & Dahlmans (1982) found that 64 percent of their Unification Church sample were from Roman Catholic background, and Van der Lans (1981) reports a similar percentage for his Ananda Marga sample. In England, Barker (1981) found 21 percent in her Unification Church sample, as compared to only 12 percent in the general United Kingdom population. In the United States, Shupe & Bromley (1979) found that 55 percent of their Unification Church sample were from Roman Catholic background. In Australia, Ross (1983) found that 38 percent of the inhabitants of the Melbourne Hare Krishna temple were former Roman Catholics.
TABLE 3: RELIGIOUS OACKGROUND
Dutch Reformed Churches
15 (79 %)
1 (5 %)
1 (5 %)
2 (11 %)
12 (67 %)
4 (22 %)
As indicated earlier, we expect that the two movements recruit their members from different populations. As we have seen, this assumption is not supported by the data concerning age, level of education, job level, and religious background. Differences between the samples surface, however, when we turn to pre-conversion experiences. One of the most important concerns the period of primary socialization. The majority of the DLM respondents qualified the atmosphere in their family home during childhood as positive, while almost half of the sannyasin sample had negative memories of that period. Furthermore, the premies unanimously (including those with no church background) stated that in their family life, religion used to be highly valued. Among the sannyasins the same held true for only five persons (28 percent), whereas 13 (72 percent) said that in their parental home, religion had been of no or minor significance. With respect to the person’s own religiosity during childhood, the same difference was found. While the premies almost unanimously had very warm, concrete memories of religious experiences during childhood, this was true for only four (22 percent) sannyasins. The others had negative memories of their childhood religion, or they had no memories at all.
In addition to these differences with respect to the period of primary socialization, remarkable differences between the samples were found with regard to conversion careers (Richardson, et. al., 1979). By tracing the subject’s interaction with reference groups before and during adolescence (the period in which the majority joined their religious movement), we can reconstruct »the sequential trying out of new beliefs and identities in an effort to resolve felt difficulties« (Richardson, 1980, p. 49). Both the premies and sannyasins appear to have been seekers for quite a long period. Some of them had become seekers because of deprivating experiences, others because of a felt meaninglessness of life, and still others because they had learned through friends about alternative ideologies and new ways of experience. But those who had ended up as premies seem to have sought along other lines and appear to have undergone other influences than those who became a sannyasin, one difference being that their conversion careers were shorter in terms of number of beliefs and ideologies tried out (but not necessarily in terms of number of years of seekership). This finding is congruent with Pilarzyk’s (1978) observation of a relatively low incidence of such shopping around in the ideological marketplace among members of DLM.
A further difference between the samples is that for many premies, drug-induced experiences seem to have been generic in their seekership. Through drugs they came to discover new »provinces of meaning« (Schutz, 1962) that seemed to be more real than the everyday world. Once having experienced it, they looked for methods other than drugs to keep them in this state of consciousness. They tried yoga or some kind of meditation but soon experienced these methods as too difficult. This finding is in line with an observation made by Downton (1979). Elsewhere (Derks & Van der Lans, 1984), however, we have criticized Downton for treating his DLM sample as a homogeneous group in this respect.
Our theorizing concerning the differences between DLM and Rajneeshism as representing early and late stages of the youth culture is based, in part, on the observation that our DLM sample should be divided into two subgroups: those who joined before 1975 (the moment when the movement split into an Eastern and a Western branch) and those who joined later. The post-1975 joiners strikingly resemble our sannyasin sample in that only a few of them had had any pre-conversion drug experiences (in our sannyasin sample only four persons) or had ever practiced yoga and/or meditation. This contrasts with their almost unanimous pre-conversion involvement with occult ideologies and techniques and with ideas derived from human potential movements and humanistic psychology.
Generally, one might say that for premies--especially those who joined in the early ‘70s--pre-conversion seeking mostly proceeded along paths of individual experiences. Sannyasins, on the other hand, had been seeking more along interpersonal paths. Apparently, the meaning and value systems with which they had been in contact before joining must have influenced their choice for either movement, as is revealed by the striking parallels between movement characteristics and individual characteristics.
*Nineteen premies equals about 15 percent of the Dutch DLM membership (± 125 persons) at that time. The exact number of Dutch sannyasins at that time is unknown, but is estimated at about 1,000.
Jan M. van der Lans is associate professor of psychology of culture and religion at Catholic University, Nijmegen. He has published several books and articles on new religious movements. Frans Derks is a research assistant with the Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Pure Research (Z.W.O.). lie is currently working at the department of psychology of culture and religion at Catholic University. Nijmegen to investigate the relationship between religious attitudes and cognitive psychology.
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