The Emergence of Radhasoami as a

Transnational Religion

When Shiv Dayal Singh, the proclaimed founder of Radhasoami, first came out publicly in 1861 with his teachings, surely no outside observer would have imagined that he would be eventually responsible for an international movement which has today garnered well over two million followers. Part of the reason why nobody would have suspected such a thing to occur was primarily because Shiv Dayal Singh did not attempt to vigorously proselytize for new recruits. Indeed, he was circumspect about gathering disciples, demanding that whoever he initiated be steadfast in following a strict vegetarian diet, maintaining a high moral life, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, and engaging in two hours plus daily of shabd yoga meditation. Naturally, such requirements precluded a massive following in the beginning of Shiv Dayal Singh's ministry, especially when he forbade systematic advertisements for his newly founded satsang in Agra.[1]

What eventually transpired in Agra, however, was nothing less than remarkable. Starting with just a handful of disciples in the mid-1850s, Shiv Dayal Singh, more popularly known as Soamiji Maharaj, began to attract hundreds of disciples both from within and outside of Agra. Before his death in 1878, Soamiji's following is estimated to have been in the low thousands (with numbers ranging from four to ten thousand initiates). There are, to be sure, several factors which allowed Soamiji's satsang to flourish. Outstanding among these were: 1) relative freedom of the British Raj to allow neo-Hindu movements to develop; 2) the popularity of alternative spiritual practices, like shabd yoga, which could be practiced by any caste member; 3) prominent disciples, like Rai Salig Ram, who interested others in their guru; and 4) Shiv Dayal Singh's perceived charisma.

Whatever combination of circumstances led to Shiv Dayal Singh's core following, it is evident that his initial constituency was solid and devoted. However, after his death since there were no clear and univocal guidelines given about his successor, several disciples emerged as would-be successors. This led to a major split in the group which has never been mended. It is also led, ironically, to the rapid development of the Radhasoami movement outside of Agra.

Shiv Dayal Singh's teachings were carried on by at least six successors: Radhaji, Soamiji's wife, who established her satsang at Panni Gali; Rai Salig Ram, who founded his satsang in Peepal Mandi; Sanmukh Das, who initiated sadhus at Soami Bagh; Gharib Das, who started his satsang in Sarai Rohilla, Delhi; Partap Singh, Soamiji's younger brother, who continued the satsang at Soami Bagh; and Jaimal Singh, who established his satsang at Beas in the Punjab.[2] It seems likely that Shiv Dayal Singh's satsang would have remained relatively unknown in India if it had not been for the proliferation of his successors after his death. What each successor did, in effect, was establish a new center by which Shiv Dayal Singh's teachings could be promulgated. This in turn guaranteed that Radhasoami teachings would reach more and more people, even if each center had a slightly nuanced interpretation of Radhasoami doctrines. At first, during the twenty or so years after Shiv Dayal Singh's death, Rai Salig Ram's satsang was the most popular, eventually eclipsing his own guru's total numbers. The other satsangs were also relatively successful, particularly Jaimal Singh's in the Punjab, but they did not rival Salig Ram's in terms of absolute numbers.

Salig Ram was instrumental in organizing Shiv Dayal Singh's teachings into a cohesive theology. He was chiefly responsible for publishing his guru's main text, Sar Bachan (both prose and poetry), and for clearly articulating Radhasoami as an incarnational religion, nay the supreme religion of all time. Although Salig Ram's theological interpretations of Radhasoami eventually led to a schism in the movement, he was nevertheless the key architect behind distinguishing Soamiji's message from other nirguna bhakti Sants. Salig Ram achieved this by emphasizing Shiv Dayal Singh's unique character, arguing in one case for instance that Soamiji had no guru and was the greatest spiritual master of all time. What this did for Salig Ram's version of Radhasoami was demarcate it as something transcending mere Santism. Radhasoami was, to be sure, entrenched with Sant doctrines--and even Sant lineage (Shiv Dayal Singh had close ties with Tulsi Sahib)--but according to Salig Ram it transcended altogether those affiliations. He argued that Soamiji was presenting a wholly new message to the world, one which did not rest upon the previous revelations of Sants like Nanak or Kabir, but was rather unique to him. Soamiji, according to Rai Salig Ram, was the first complete incarnation of the Supreme Being ever manifested on earth.[3]

Now it should be noted that not all of Shiv Dayal Singh's other disciples and other rival successors agreed with Salig Ram's theology. Jaimal Singh was particularly critical of Salig Ram and his absolutist posture toward their deceased guru. Yet, Salig Ram's theology, however disputed, was instrumental in distinguishing Shiv Dayal Singh and his emerging panth from being too closely tied with lesser organized and lesser known Sant related movements, like the Sat Namis or Tulsi Sahibis.

What Salig Ram did for Radhasoami was similar to what St. Paul did for Christianity when he attempted to distinguish it from its Jewish moorings--Salig Ram let it emerge as a distinct religious tradition, which, like Christianity, owed much to its predecessor but nevertheless evolved into an autonomous movement. Thus, the emergence of Radhasoami from a local guru sect in Agra to a growing religious movement, numbering thousands of followers, resulted partly because of its splintering into several factions right after the death of its founder, Shiv Dayal Singh. It can be argued that Radhasoami owes much of its growth to its tendency to have multiple guru successors, even when those successors vehemently disagreed with one another over issues of legitimacy and authenticity.

Clearly the most successful Radhasoami branch in the world is the Beas Satsang, with a following which surpasses all of the other satsangs combined. Jaimal Singh established his ministry in relative obscurity in the 1890s. The Beas Satsang, though, would not have even started had there been only one successor to Shiv Dayal Singh which was universally accepted in Agra. It was precisely because there was more than one successor to Shiv Dayal Singh that allowed for groups like Beas to begin in the first place. Although succession schisms can eventually wear down a religion's growth later on, it does seem to have some potential benefits at the beginning, not the least of which is competition.

Perhaps having a spiritual marketplace, where potential seekers can choose from a host of slightly different gurus, is conducive for a new religion to spread its teachings far and wide in a comparatively short period of time. Radhasoami is surely a case in point, since it has never been unified and has never shown any type of consistent harmony. Thus by the turn of the twentieth century, Radhasoami had splintered into at least six major camps, with several minority groups emerging. These included: Peepal Mandi; The Allahabad Satsang (later to be known as Soami Bagh when it moved back to Agra proper); the Beas Satsang (eventually headed by Sawan Singh); the Tarn Taran Satsang (headed by Bagga Singh); the Sarai Rohilla Satsang (headed by Gharib Das); and Shiv Brat Lal's Lahore Satsang.

Hence, within just twenty-five years from Shiv Dayal Singh's death Radhasoami gurus and their teachings had spread throughout North India, mostly as the result of an increasing factionalization within the movement. By the turn of the nineteenth century certain Radhasoami leaders in Agra wanted to curtail the increasing factionalization and its attendant in-fighting. The most prominent leader in Agra at that time was Brahm Shankar Misra, the disputed successor of Rai Salig Ram. He formed a Central Administrative Council in 1902 with the help of several prominent Agra satsangis, including Soamiji's younger brother, Partap Singh. The aim of the Council was to unify the various branch organizations under a centralized administration in Agra. The result of this endeavor, however, was disastrous. As Mark Juergensmeyer notes in his study, Radhasoami Reality:

The idea of a Council never really worked. From the outset, Jaimal Singh rejected the authority of Misra to give initiations, balked at the notion of turning over his records to the Council, and refused to be subjected to its judgments.[4]

Thus instead of the Council leading to a reunification of Radhasoami under one President and one guiding Body, it led to even more schisms, including the most acrimonious one in Radhasoami's history: the split between Kampta Prasad Sinha and Maheshwari Devi/Babu Prasad Sinha. This split later evolved into a contentious and decades long lawsuit between Dayal Bagh and Soami Bagh (the genealogical descendants of the original divorce) over worship rights at the samadh of Radhasoami's founder, Shiv Dayal Singh. What such divisions did for Radhasoami's growth is perhaps the opposite of what our common sense might at first suspect. It would seem on the surface that a group's survival, especially if it is still in its infancy, depends more or less on keeping its unity and focus. But this is not always the case, and this was certainly not the case in any stage in Radhasoami's collective history. Contrary to our common sense notions of how successful religions evolve over time, Radhasoami and groups like it grow exponentially by being periodically hammered by factionalization. In other words, the proliferation of gurus and outlying satsang groups appears to be a very viable way to spread its teachings quickly and comprehensively.

To draw a limited analogy from molecular biology, new religions can succeed if they are able to replicate themselves in many different fashions, even if those same replications break away eventually from the very nucleus from which they started. Therefore, to understand the emergence of Radhasoami as a transnational religion one must first understand that the group from its very inception was prone to produce offshoots which in turn produced further offshoots, and so on. What keeps Radhasoami so vital and so popular today, I would argue, is not its unity or its systematic doctrines but rather its inclination for diversity. That diversity is primarily in the form of new gurus, new satsangs, and new teachings. To be sure, there are certain core features which seem to be recurrent within each succeeding guru and group, but there are new and fresh nuances which allow Radhasoami to adapt to its new found environment. The following is a schematic outline of exactly how Radhasoami has flourished by its diversity and how, in turn, it developed into a transnational religion.

Geographical Displacement

The first requirement for a local guru movement to move beyond its neighborhood is such an obvious one that it seems a bit silly to even mention it: geographical displacement. That is, the guru and his/her ministry must either attract followers from outside or have their core constituency spread the teachings beyond their particular locales. In the case of Shiv Dayal Singh, both events occurred. He attracted followers from outside of Agra and also had followers spread his teachings to major cities in North India. Yet, even this is a relatively slow and cumbersome method, especially if all lines of influence must intersect with the original center in Panni Gali or Soami Bagh in Agra. But after the death of Shiv Dayal Singh in 1878, all of this was changed because there were now multiple successors, each of whom established different ministerial bases. Thus, instead of one line of intersection, there were now at least six. And after the death of these successors, there were even more offshoots, each of which in turn bred more branches. The outcome is that today it is almost impossible to accurately track down all of the Radhasoami related groups in India, much less the world. The number of Radhasoami related gurus is well over several hundred--and even that number is a conservative underestimation. For instance, in Arizona in the United States, a place thousands of miles removed from Agra, there are now at least five Americans who claim to be living gurus in the shabd yoga tradition with a genealogical/theological connection with Radhasoami. If Arizona has that many gurus, one can only guess how many the Punjab or Uttar Pradesh has.

So geographical displacement serves as a catalyst to allow new gurus to set up shop. It is as if Darwin's understanding of the origin of species also applies, although in a limited and perhaps merely metaphorical fashion, to the origin of new gurus. Space limits competition, allowing for only a limited number of winners. In our case, the access to more space (to new towns, to new cities, to new states, to new countries) allows for a lot more winners and, temporarily at least, a lot less head to head competition. This has certainly been the case for Radhasoami, where the most successful groups have been those which have conquered new territory. The Beas Satsang is now completely separated from the parent satsang at Soami Bagh, but it nevertheless boasts fifteen times more followers than its predecessor. Even a marginally connected satsang like Master Ching Hai's (she was initiated by Thakar Singh, but later denied it) has more disciples than Dayal Bagh, Soami Bagh, and Peepal Mandi combined. And she started her ministry in Taiwan! Clearly Ching Hai's success has much to do with her ability to tap into a market which has not yet been touched by other shabd yoga gurus. Indeed, the vast majority of her following have never even heard of the name Radhasoami or Sant Mat. The fact that Ching Hai's books are available in Chinese and Vietnamese has allowed her to reach a large audience that would otherwise not have access to Sant Mat related teachings.

What we have here, of course, is extensive replication, but replication aided by geographical displacement. With such an abundance of space, at least for the foreseeable future, Radhasoami related gurus have, more or less, free reign to mark out their chosen area and make some significant headway. This has happened even in places like Lagos, Nigeria, where a guru named Bambi Baaba (yes, the name is real), who was once a follower of an Indian Radhasoami guru, now commands thousands of devotees. Below is a partial listing, by geographical location, of the more visible Radhasoami related movements in the world. Keep in mind that the list represents less than ten percent of all Radhasoami groups:

Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Soami Bagh

Dayal Bagh

Peepal Mandi

Delhi, India

Kirpal Light Satsang

Sant Bani

Sawan-Kirpal Mission

Punjab, India

Radha Swami Association, Tarn Taran

Dera Baba Jaimal Singh, Beas

Radha Swami, Firozpur

Manavta Mandir, Hoshiarpur

United States

Ruhani Satsang, Inc., Anaheim, California

Sonic Spectrum, Tucson, Arizona

MasterPath, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Eckankar, Minneapolis, Minnesota

M.S.I.A. Los Angeles, California

Sant Bani Ashram, New Hampshire

The Divine Science of Light and Sound, Scottsdale, Arizona



The Gutenberg Revolution: Printed Books

The first Radhasoami book to be widely published and circulated was Shiv Dayal Singh's Sar Bachan Radhasoami Chand-Band in 1884. This book was instrumental in spreading the teachings of Radhasoami to hundreds of people throughout India. Indeed, it can be argued that the reason Shiv Dayal Singh's teachings became popular in the first place was due to Salig Ram's persistent efforts to set into type what had only been available to a close coterie of disciples via letters and word of mouth. What the Gutenberg revolution did for Christianity is well known, but what it has done for fledgling guru movements is less documented. Radhasoami's rapid spread throughout India is due in part to Salig Ram's efforts to print his guru's teachings in accessible Hindi. Even Salig Ram himself started a fortnightly journal entitled Prem Patra, which carried elements of his guru's teachings, as well as his own. What this accomplished was two-fold: first, it empowered distant satsangis who did not have access to their guru's daily satsang to share in and understand his teachings; second, it allowed outlying satsangs to be conducted by chosen representatives who could utilize the growing literature as a basis for their talks. Thus, by this very simple means, Radhasoami was able to move beyond its parochial boundaries and find an audience throughout India, and eventually throughout Europe, North America, and elsewhere.

There is still something magical about the printed word; it lends credentials and legitimacy to those who may possess neither. Perhaps the quickest way for a guru who has no clear appointed title to garner one is to write and print a book. Once a book is printed, it lends a certain aura of respectability to the guru and his/her ministry, even if that guru has absolutely no legal basis for claiming the title of Sant, or Maharaj, or Satguru. I would argue that this modus operandi for legitimacy is much more prevalent among would-be gurus in the Radhasoami tradition than most insiders would suspect. For instance, the most prolific author in Radhasoami's history was Shiv Brat Lal, who is reputed to have authored over three thousand separate articles, pamphlets, and books on Radhasoami. He was also one of the more successful gurus in the tradition from the 1920s to the late 1930s. Yet, Shiv Brat Lal admits that he met his guru, Rai Salig Ram, only three times in Agra. However, how is it that Shiv Brat Lal who (by his own admission) spent very little time with his guru became regarded as a major player in Radhasoami circles? By almost all accounts he was not appointed by his guru to act as a master, nor did he receive any of his guru's property (often a key element in solidifying the status of a would-be successor). In other words, how did Shiv Brat Lal rise to prominence? The answer appears to be his widely circulated publications. Indians read his books and authors of books carry their own unique credentials--naturally Radhasoami gurus are no different.

Shiv Brat Lal is also not an isolated example. Paul Twitchell, one-time disciple of Kirpal Singh of Ruhani Satsang (an offshoot of Radhasoami Satsang Beas), started his own religion, Eckankar, by writing about it in various psychic and spiritual magazines, such as Psychic Observer and Orion. By publishing his self-proclamations in widely read articles and books, Twitchell in a way created a form of legitimacy, a form of verifying his authenticity.

Today each Radhasoami branch boasts of their own publications and seldom do any of the branches sell the literature of other groups. Each branch from Dayal Bagh to Sawan-Kirpal Mission publishes nicely bound volumes containing the teachings of their respective gurus. The Beas satsang sells over one hundred titles in several different languages and has launched a well organized campaign to place several of their English titles in libraries around the world.

Ironically, the overwhelming majority of Radhasoami literature is in English, which is another partial explanation for why Radhasoami has so easily and quickly spread beyond its Agra origins. Not unlike international business transactions, which are usually conducted in English, a large number of Radhasoami organizations have chosen to use English as the primary medium to spread their teachings.



Initiation by Proxy

Generally when a disciple receives initiation from his/her guru it is conducted in person, one to one. However, when a guru begins to gather larger numbers, it is not uncommon to have a communal initiation ceremony where the guru personally conveys nam-daan ("giving of the name") to several neophytes at once. Furthermore, when the guru begins to attract followers from outlying districts, he/she may rely on others in the circle to convey instructions on his/her behalf. This is usually termed "initiation by proxy." It appears that Shiv Dayal Singh approved in his lifetime that certain disciples could convey initiation by exactly this method of proxy. Apparently Soamiji allowed for some new initiates to receive their instructions by means of one or more of his duly appointed representatives. Although it does not appear that Soamiji's appointed representatives were part of an organized clique, the fact remains that this one innovation--initiation by proxy--proved to be the key reason why Radhasoami emerged as a transnational religion. Whereas in former days a neophyte was required to take instructions directly and personally from the guru, Shiv Dayal Singh and his successors streamlined this process by allowing initiations to be conveyed both by mail and by appointed representatives. What this did, of course, is decentralize Radhasoami and allow for a much quicker spread of its doctrines. By the turn of the century, some twenty-two years after Shiv Dayal Singh's death, initiation by mail (where the new initiate would receive instructions about meditation through printed instructions) was commonplace.

Later, this initiation by proxy would eventually empower certain disciples in Radhasoami and elevate them to a status of honor among satsangis. This has been especially true in Radhasoami Satsang Beas related movements, where the designated representative serves more or less as mouthpiece for the guru and receives in turn much of the respect that the guru would receive if he or she were present. What may not be so readily apparent is how initiation by proxy sets into motion social hierarchy, especially in groups that on the surface disdain such bureaucratic notions. Thus even in satsangs where only the guru is believed to hold absolute and exclusive power, his/her designated appointees nevertheless receive tremendous respect and affection. This paradoxically leads to a whole series of personal and social complications, where the spiritual seeker finds himself or herself trying to jockey for some perceived status within the community, even though such ploys are looked down upon in the official literature. The late Maharaj Charan Singh of Radhasoami Satsang Beas offers us an inside view on the political intrigue that can occur when a guru movement gets large:

If I have any problem with satsangis, I think I have only this problem: Sometimes they do become jealous of each other. I have had personal experience of many such situations. For example, I remember in India, when I go to a home they all love me and I, of course, love them. I ask for a glass of water. Six or seven persons run out and bring a glass of water each. I do not know from who to take water. I know that the others will feel jealous, so I just excuse myself, saying that I think I do not need it. These are very petty things but they go a long way. I know my people. I was not conscious of these things in the beginning, but now I think I am quite trained for these things. . .[5]

Earlier in the same section, Charan Singh comments on why such jealousy occurs:

Jealousy comes when we have organizations, administration and offices like secretaries and presidents. When we start thinking about the offices, then we, sometimes become victims of all these things.[6]

What Charan Singh is reflecting upon, of course, is the downside of when a group gets large. Limited access to the guru means that those individuals who do have access (even if it just a bit more) gain social status, especially in a community where the guru is seen as God. Thus proxy initiation has allowed Radhasoami to develop communities beyond the guru's ashram, communities, that is, where disciples find social cohesion under the direction of the guru's representative. This has happened to greater or lesser degrees with almost all of the Radhasoami groups which have international centers. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this is Sant Bani Ashram in New Hampshire which was headed by Russell Perkins under direct orders of Kirpal Singh. Because Perkins was in such a powerful position (at least to satsangis in that group), he had the opportunity to influence a large number of disciples after Kirpal Singh's death to pay allegiance to Sant Ajaib Singh of Rajasthan. Without Perkins' credentials (read: social position in Ruhani Satsang), it would be difficult to understand why he was so pivotal in developing the fledgling guruship of Ajaib Singh, who was by all accounts a relatively obscure claimant to Kirpal Singh's ministry. Hence, initiation by proxy brings into being positions of power which in themselves can alter the future development of Radhasoami related doctrines. Indeed, it may well be that these very intermediate points of power lend themselves to potential guru movements which may later splinter off on their own. This has already been demonstrated in several cases, particularly Ruhani Satsang, Inc., in Anaheim, California.