This deeply researched and sympathetically written book is the ninth in a series called Understanding Faith, published by Dunedin Academic Press, of Edinburgh and London, UK. The author, Frank Whaling, emeritus professor of the study of religion at the University of Edinburgh, is also the overall series editor. The other titles cover the Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, Chinese Religions, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. The series is described as "intended as first readers for students of comparative religion and as basic source books of essential information about the major world faiths in the 21st century".
The book starts by describing the social and other circumstances that contributed to women becoming leaders within the movement started by Dada Lekhraj in north-western India in the mid-1930s. It outlines how the call to a spiritual life arose, the body of knowledge that gradually emerged, and why opposition became so intense as almost to amount to persecution. A section on celibacy even-handedly explains both the thinking behind this recommended practice, and the viewpoint of those angered by it, who fought to have the fledgling community banned.
The book goes on to describe how an initial isolation slowly receded, and how feminine leadership qualities contributed to exceptionally effective administration as numbers grew. It highlights the importance of service abroad in bringing contact with other religious traditions and systems of thought, noting the effectiveness of the "Janki-Jayanti" and "Mohini-Gayatri" partnerships (a reference to founding sisters based in the UK and USA) in extending help to people in need across the world. Contacts with global figures, publication of books, and establishment of retreat centres all furthered a process of growing involvement in wider society, including interfaith matters.
The author pays tribute to "the extraordinary evolution" of vision in Dadi Janki, now the overall head, "from the enclosed situation in Hyderabad to the blossoming possibilities in London - not only for spiritual growth but also for wider community expansion alongside". There is also reference to "the increasing rapprochement between the Hindu community and the Brahma Kumaris, where relations are now much more friendly both in India and abroad." The BKs' ability to adapt to changing world situations is contrasted with the “fundamentalism” of some of their critics.
One chapter describes how the BKs fulfil, in their singular way, a model applicable to religious traditions, beginning with transcendence and a key medium (Dada Lekhraj, who later took the name Brahma Baba) through which transcendence is made available to the world. The model then has eight inter-related features: religious community; ritual; ethics; social and political involvement in wider society; concepts; aesthetics; spirituality; and scriptures and sacred texts. Frank Whaling writes:
Even though things have changed...joining the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University still connotes sacrifice. It means a lifelong spiritual commitment. It embraces self-sacrifice in regard to monetary and other perks of life in the world. It denotes an ongoing concern for others. Surrendered souls are surrendered for life.
Because the eight elements in the model are intertwined, a dilemma with one of them may have repercussions with one or two of the others. Thus, although many more people are joining the movement, some are also leaving. For those who remain in the Brahma Kumaris, the basic quality of their faith is strong, and their numbers continue to grow in spite of the strict standards required.
The book includes careful descriptions of BK life, and of the concepts, ethics and values that underpin it, illustrated with quotations from the teachings. It concludes with a sympathetic description of the paradox, as Frank Whaling sees it, of a growing, life-affirming social involvement, and the understanding that our old world must eventually fall away as spiritual renewal ushers in a new beginning. He writes:
As numbers grow in India and the rest of the world, how will this affect development of the university?
Its steady advance across the world has been helpful to Indians and non-Indians alike, in that it has opened up different insights for each other. It has also strengthened the sense of being part of a family of sisters and brothers with a worldwide presence. Now there is the spectacle of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University becoming increasingly involved in altruistic activity on behalf of a world that was deemed to be beyond redemption. The spirituality that began in an isolated community of 400 people living a secluded life in Karachi has come to encompass the welfare of the world, a world whose end is supposedly nigh. We are in the realm of paradox. It is a paradox that is real but will doubtless find resolution in the thinking of the Brahma Kumaris.
Understanding the Brahma Kumaris is a welcome addition to literature about the BKs. It provides a concise, fair-minded, warm-hearted and balanced description of the movement’s origins, aims, and contribution to our struggling world. As well as serving the academic community it will be a valuable resource for BKs, both to read themselves and to pass on to interested friends and relatives.
"Neville Hodgkinson is an author and journalist based in Oxford, UK."