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The Brahma Kumaris as a ‘Reflexive Tradition’

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The Brahma Kumaris as a ‘Reflexive Tradition’
Responding to Late Modernity
 
By Dr John Walliss, senior lecturer in the sociology of religion and Director of the Centre for Millennialism Studies (http://www.hope.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=1396), Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Liverpool Hope University
Published by Ashgate, UK (2002) and Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi (2007)

This book is a thoughtful study of the relationship in human affairs between traditional and modernising ways of approaching life.  It uses the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU) as an example of an organisation that has transformed itself over the course of the last 70 years whilst retaining aspects of its original teachings.  It claims that these developments have created an ambivalence within the movement in its attitude towards the world, so that on the one hand there is a core teaching that is “world-rejecting” and ascetic, with a set of rules favouring a reconstitution of divine qualities among a relatively few people for a forthcoming golden age; and on the other, a “world-affirming” approach that seeks to help many to live better lives in the here and now.  

Describing reflexivity as the revision of knowledge and social behaviour on the basis of new information, Walliss argues that the BKWSU demonstrates the notion of a “reflexive tradition”.  He challenges other sociologists who claim that reflexivity and tradition are mutually exclusive.  Despite, or perhaps because of the ambivalence he sees in the BKWSU, a dynamic interaction is present which involves adapting to current needs as well as continually re-creating the power of tradition.

This rather complex idea is presented with an academic detachment that can be slightly discomforting to a reader who, like me, is intimately involved in the subject of study, having been a student with the spiritual university for nearly three decades.  Walliss holds a mirror up to the Brahma Kumaris (BKs) which, despite diligent fieldwork, could not be expected to present a full picture because he is not immersed in the experience of Raja Yoga, or the BK journey.  Nevertheless, his findings helpfully illuminate aspects of a dialogue currently taking place within the spiritual university concerning its “whole systems”, and in particular its methods of responding to criticisms and complaints that can arise from the ambivalence he identifies in its two distinct orientations towards the world.

Summarising his observations with regard to the University’s teachings, Walliss says that the early outlook, stemming from the visions of the founder, was characterised by the belief that the outside world was soon to be destroyed through war and various calamities; so that it was necessary to separate from it.  The task of BKs was to undergo “death in life”, renouncing their families and lives outside the group in preparation for being deities in a post-apocalyptic kingdom.  That ethos, which Walliss calls “world-rejecting”, gave way over the years to a more liberal, “world-accommodating and even world-affirming”  approach.  “Where they had originally sought to escape the corruption and, perhaps more importantly, the persecution of the outside world, beginning in the 1950s the Brahma Kumaris began a vigorous internationalisation programme involving various forms of proselytising activity and, more recently, an active involvement with international organisations such as the United Nations and UNESCO.”  Despite this seeming interest in “the world”, however, the University’s worldview remains millenarian: based on the conviction that destruction by nuclear holocaust or environmental catastrophe is “essential, desirable, and indeed pre-determined in the nature of things”.

Similarly, whilst still speaking to some extent in such terms as “death in life”, the organisation now offers “success in life” or “empowerment in life” to outsiders through courses such as meditation, positive thinking, stress-free living and self-esteem.  Among the University’s regular students, too, there are those who, in varying degrees, are seeking a self-transcending, spiritual life; whilst others are looking to improve their lifestyle.  

To illustrate this shift, Walliss juxtaposes statements from two BK books, published contemporaneously in the mid-90s. 

In [the] future, when you see with your own eyes the great destruction which is to take place, you will automatically feel disinterest.  On [the] one hand there will be disinterest, and on the other hand you will be filled with excitement about what you are to become in the future.  You say that in one eye there is liberation, and in the other liberation in life; so also the destruction is the gate to liberation, and the establishment is the gate to liberation in life…Always remember that for the world it is the time of loss, but for us it is the time of great benefit.  The people of the world see only the destruction; but for you, together with destruction, there is also establishment.  Always keep in your heart the most elevated thoughts; that the establishment is as if almost accomplished.  (Visions of the Future, 1996)

We are at a crossroads of human civilisation.  On the one hand, things are rapidly disintegrating.  That is made bitterly apparent by wars, civil strife, riots, ethnic cleansing, and so on.  However, on the other hand, an almost invisible integration involving alternatives and possibilities is putting the pieces back together.  Bringing peace back into the social, economic, political and other fibres of society would require looking at peace from two levels: the external and the internal.  Peace education, conflict resolution, and all peace initiatives must take seriously the critical connection between individual and world peace.  Programs and projects must include an emphasis on individual peace, offering proactive and practical means to peace, beginning with the first step of knowing the inner self.  (Living Values: A Guidebook, 1995)

“Here we have, firstly, a celebration of the destruction of the world and, secondly, a suggestion for peace and conflict resolution which must ‘take seriously the critical connection between individual and world peace’,” Walliss writes.  He argues that this ambivalence should be seen more as a dynamic interplay between tradition and modernity, rather than a dualistic contradiction, or a break from one approach in favour of the other.  Withdrawal from the world is still a key orientation; but so is engagement, with the goal of “radical reconstruction based on religious principles”. 

Through its international work, and on an individual level, the University has begun the process of becoming re-embedded into the world that it originally rejected and sought to transcend, Walliss observes.  He acknowledges that “great play is made within the University of the view that it is possible to do so whilst still remaining spiritually detached from the world; being a ‘detached observer’ or a ‘carefree emperor in elevated consciousness’ as it is known.”  However, this does not avoid the fact that on the surface at least, “there is the spectacle of a University which has the word ‘spiritual’ written into its very name becoming increasingly involved in frenetic activity on behalf of the world that is deemed to be beyond redemption in its present form,” as Dr Frank Whaling, emeritus professor of religious studies at Edinburgh University, another writer on the Brahma Kumaris, has put it. 

Walliss takes as an example the University’s launch of a Million Minutes of Peace in 1986, the United Nations Year of Peace.  This campaign, in which people in 88 countries participated through prayer, meditation and positive thoughts, “would seem a worthless, and perhaps even a cynical, gesture in the face of what is held to be the inevitable and indeed desirable destruction of the world” by necessarily un-peaceful means, he remarks.  He also comments that while Western scientists were and to some extent still are referred to as the self-destructive Yadavas of Indian mythology, “the University now actively courts them on the international stage as well as offering them special courses on spiritual values.”

Walliss sees the root of this ambivalence as being the very process that brought the university onto the world stage – its internationalisation programme.  “This saw it being disembedded from its Hindu locale and re-embedded into the global sphere”, whilst in many ways retaining its attitude of millenarianism and world-rejection. 

In the early years there was a strong divide between BKs and the outside world.  Primarily, the University was based on the belief that the prevailing social order had departed from the life of the spirit and that this would be rectified by imminent and major world transformation in which only the spiritually pure (the Brahma Kumaris) would survive.  Membership involved “dying” to one’s previous life and being reborn in a new spiritual family, in which one received a new name, dressed in a similar way (a white sari), referred to each other as “brother” and “sister” and the founder and his “spiritual consort” as “father” (Baba) and “mother” (Mama) respectively.

“However, beginning in the 1950s this situation was to change.  As with the Pandavas, after 13 years the Brahma Kumaris’ exile was coming to an end.”  In 1950 the group’s move from Karachi, in what was now, after the partition of India, the Islamic state of Pakistan, to their current headquarters at Mt Abu, Rajasthan, “was associated with the beginning of a somewhat drastic change of world orientation.”  From 1952 the founder, Lekhraj, began to emphasise “world service”, as it came to be known.  “This was not in itself entirely new for the University.  Lekhraj had from the very beginning published numerous pamphlets as well as writing a huge amount of letters to important national and international figures in which he interpreted contemporary events with reference to his revealed knowledge.  Rather, this marked an intensification of the process, with seven-lesson courses in the group’s teachings being offered to outsiders.”

Following the deaths of “Mama” in 1965 and “Baba” in 1969, national and international acceptance and growth accelerated.  “In the period since Lekhraj’s death, the University has, while maintaining much of its original nature, effectively re-invented itself,” Walliss writes.  After a centre was founded in London in 1971, expansion followed throughout the UK, into mainland Europe and from there to the rest of the world.  The expansion was linked with the BKs becoming more active on the world stage generally.  Projects such as Global Co-operation for a Better World, launched from the United Nations headquarters in New York and the Houses of Parliament in London, involved thousands of people in 129 countries.  The results, in the form of essays, quotes and paintings, were synthesised into a UN Peace Messenger publication, Visions of a Better World.

The University now runs training sessions in confidence building and character development within schools, workshops in stress reduction and relaxation in hospitals, homes for the elderly, drug clinics, community centres and prisons as well as meditation and integrity discussion groups for business people.  Free four-week courses in “positive thinking” and “stress-free living” equip individuals with spiritually-based personal skills to combat stress or negative thoughts and feelings.  “Western philosophical and psychological terminology such as ‘ego’, ‘conditioning’, ‘blockages’ as well as elements of New Age thought, environmentalism and, indeed, science have been turned to the Brahma Kumaris’ end,” Walliss writes.
 
“However, having said this, the bulk of the courses and the terminology utilised therein still retains a distinctly Hindu feel, albeit tinged with western terminology.”  The University’s routines have not altered in any significant sense since Lekhraj’s death, with daily patterns of meditations, readings and spiritual classes. 

The teachings still emphasise spiritual perfection, Walliss says, and the original, world-rejecting search for “illumination”, involving detachment from the personality, renunciation, bodily discipline, and direct, inner personal experience of the divine.  But the University has also developed teachings for which he uses the term “instrumental”: through inner experience, transforming the personality so that it can better meet everyday demands.  This spiritually-based “instrumentalism” has developed out of the former asceticism, and may be seen as an introduction to the latter for those who might be put off by overt spirituality, but who are interested in ways to improve their worldly lives and increase personal empowerment.   

Thus, values that originated in the rejection of a corrupt outside world, and the preparation by the few for their lives as future deities, are now being used for “world-affirming” purposes for the many.  In addressing itself to this wider audience the University has produced a form of “BK-lite”: Raja Yoga with all the overtly world-rejecting aspects filtered out.

Since global change is the goal, BKs see the spiritual and the worldly as fundamentally inter-linked.  “However, at a deeper level there is a fundamental problem with the nature of the reform sought.  The University’s whole Weltanschauung or ‘conscience’ is based on its founder’s visions of the end of this corrupt world and the emergence of a new age totally unlike the present.  Thus, while it may act as a social conscience on one level, wanting to share its values for a better world, this ‘better world’ is in no way connected with this world, except perhaps in its nullification.  Similarly, although the University may attempt to become more worldly, there is still the emphasis within its teachings on a strong dualism between, for example, the purity of the few (who will be saved) versus the spiritually impure (who will not).”

Walliss’s analysis is generally dispassionate, and sympathetic.  Only occasionally does his account betray subjectivity – such as when he describes the founder’s visions, so fundamental to the University’s beginnings, as “fantasies”.  To a sociologist of religion, steeped, I suppose, in observing so many previously failed millenarian predictions, the possibility that these might be genuinely prophetic is not given credence.  Similarly, he looks for sociological explanations, such as a search for personal identity and purpose, to explain why individuals should become committed BKs.  Not surprisingly, the idea that they might be following a genuinely divine calling does not feature in his account. 

He sees the BKs’ practice of soul-consciousness and remembrance of God as “expressing a solidarity that distinguishes between insiders and outsiders, the ‘chosen” and the ‘forsaken’.”  In this, as well as in his use of expressions such as “those who will be saved” versus those who will not, and emphasis on a duality between the “pure” and the “impure”, his interpretation does not fit my own experience as a student with the University in the UK over the past 29 years.  On the contrary, I have observed in others, and found in myself, that the deeper the understanding and conviction in relation to one’s divine origins, the greater the sense of solidarity with and concern for the wider human family.  Perhaps this is another area in which there has been a change of emphasis since the early days, when the institution was a tiny, misunderstood, embattled group struggling to survive.

Furthermore, the shift that he notes towards “instrumentalism” is not just a response to demand for a “BK-lite” option.  It also stems from the recognition that transformation of the subtle characteristics of the soul - reconstitution of divine qualities, as Walliss puts it - takes place not only through remembrance of the divine, but also through benevolent action in the world.  Keeping the Supreme as one’s companion in action helps to deepen the new patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour.
 
What I found most useful in the book was its exploration of the way tradition and adjustment to contemporary circumstances co-exist within the Brahma Kumaris.  Like many individuals within the movement, I have felt the ambivalence this creates, even though the feeling lessens as one’s appreciation of the deeper dynamics of world renewal increases.  Walliss’s descriptive, non-judgmental analysis may be helpful to other BKs, and friends of the BKs, in coming to terms with this ambivalence, as well as providing sociologists and other interested parties with a deeper understanding of contemporary religion.

"Neville Hodgkinson is an author and journalist based in Oxford, UK."



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