The Future of Radhasoami and Shabd Yoga Groups

in North America

As we have seen, Radhasoami has gone through several stages in its history. It started in relative obscurity in Agra, India in the mid-nineteenth century with a very small constituency. Radhasoami's progress in India and abroad, however, has been remarkable: from just a couple hundred followers in the 1860s to several thousands in the late 1890s to one hundred thousand in the 1930s to over two million in the 1990s. This exponential growth is clearly visible when observing gurus like Rajinder Singh, who has already initiated in six years more disciples than his father, Darshan Singh, did in fifteen years and what his grandfather, Kirpal Singh, accomplished in twenty-five years. Gurinder Singh's following has also significantly grown, with close to one hundred thousand disciples initiated each year and still more seekers waiting in line.

Certainly, not all religions witness such rapid growth as Radhasoami has. How it emerged as a transnational religion with such success is due to several major factors. Prominent among them are: an early splintering of the movement which spread its teachings far and wide (as far north as the Punjab shortly after the founder's death), a proliferation of new publications (most of which were in Hindi and English) which allowed the teachings to be readily available to a larger audience, and the implementation of an initiation procedure known as "initiation by proxy" which made entry into the group very accessible. To understand the progress of Radhasoami in North America other factors, some political, must be considered, like the revocation of the immigration laws which allowed for Indian initiates and gurus to come to America, and, of course, the advancement of technology which made communication with and travel to America easier.

While Radhasoami started in North America in the 1910s with only a handful of disciples, today in the 1990s there are over fifty thousand initiates. Add to these increasing numbers the popularity of Americanized versions of shabd yoga through the aegis of Eckankar, M.S.I.A., Thind's Sikh Study Group, The Divine Science of Light and Sound, The Sonic Spectrum, MasterPath, Ching Hai's movement, and a host of other emerging groups and it is easy to see that Radhasoami related ideas are blanketing the American religious scene. Overall, Radhasoami's greatest impact on the American spiritual marketplace has been in contributing to this plethora of new religious movements. When these groups are taken into consideration, like Eckankar and M.S.I.A., the numbers swell into the low one hundred thousands--a truly remarkable number when one stops to reflect that there were literally no American followers of Radhasoami before 1911. In many ways, Radhasoami's history illustrates the evolution of religion--how religions may start as a single, small seed but grow and multiply into numerous significant organisms, which, in turn, may themselves serve as catalysts for more offshoots.

As for the future of Radhasoami in North America, I would argue that it looks exceptionally bright for a number of reasons. First of all, the most popular Radhasoami group in the world, the satsang at Beas, has bought property in the United States for the first time. The plan is to build a large meeting hall so that the present master, Gurinder Singh, can visit North Carolina (and eventually other centers on the East and West coasts) on a regular basis. Gurinder Singh's last trip in 1994 saw more than four thousand people attend one of his satsangs in Palm Springs, California. Given those numbers as a base, it is only a matter of time when the Beas guru will be attracting over ten thousand people to his talks, a number which would have surely shocked Beas satsangis back in the 1940s. Perhaps other Indian Radhasoami gurus will follow Gurinder Singh's example and buy property in North America, which may result in more visits by gurus and hence more exposure of Radhasoami to Americans. It also may give Radhasoami more of a permanent position on American soil.

Secondly, going into the twenty-first century the one technology that has the most potential to gather in new seekers to Radhasoami and its affiliates is the Internet. The Internet allows for marketing and advertising for little or no money. What this does in effect is allow small organizations to have access to thousands, if not millions, of potential clientele. Already, as we have mentioned, Sri Michael Turner, a Tucson guru with barely ten disciples, has accessed the Internet and has posted his ideas on Alt.religion.eckankar, Alt.meditation, and his own newly formed newsgroup, Alt.meditation.shabda. Just by being on the Net Turner has emerged as a significant voice in alternative religion. The Net will also allow other fledgling gurus to advertise their ministries. Although it is not possible to make any exact predictions about who will be the winners in this new medium, one thing seems certain: the proliferation of shabd yoga gurus which started in Agra, India, back in 1878, will most likely explode in the twenty-first century.

Moreover, Radhasoami may witness further growth if gurus spread their doctrines to audiences which have not yet been exposed to Radhasoami teachings--in other words, if they are able to tap into a new market. Ching Hai serves as an example here. By bringing Radhasoami to a Vietnamese audience (both within North America and abroad) she has accessed a previously unchartered market. Ching Hai's success is obvious: her membership numbers are now close to one hundred thousand and her Los Angeles satsangs attract thousands. Following this argument, if Radhasoami eventually spreads to areas like Mexico and Russia which have had very little exposure to it in the past we should expect Radhasoami numbers to increase even more.

On the same front, since homosexuality is considered morally unacceptable according to Radhasoami doctrine, Radhasoami is closed off to a significant potential audience. In addition, prohibitions against alcohol or any form of drugs, premarital sex, or meat eating may turn many Americans away from Radhasoami. If in the future, however, Radhasoami lessens its stringent moral standards (which includes accepting homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle), it will certainly appeal to a much greater number of Americans. However, if Radhasoami branches like Beas and Ruhani Satsang maintain their conservative position, other shabd yoga groups, such as Eckankar and M.S.I.A., which do not have strict ethical guidelines, may see an increase in their memberships since they will attract those who cannot or choose not to follow Radhasoami's prerequisites. Already people like Gary Olsen and Jerry Mulvin have taken advantage of this by stressing that their followers get to retain their personal freedom while engaged on the spiritual path. Yet, since Olsen, Mulvin and others not directly connected with Radhasoami charge money for their services, they may have limits to their audiences, especially if the seeker can get the teachings for free somewhere else.

While it is difficult to make foolproof predictions concerning the future of Radhasoami, there are a few probable outcomes. To begin with, it would appear that three types of shabd yoga gurus will emerge: 1) those who are traditional and related to a longstanding lineage and who will buttress their claims by being conservative and orthodox in relation to Radhasoami's moral code and ideology. Gurinder Singh of Beas and Teja Singh of Firozpur are two examples of this first type; 2) those who strip Radhasoami and shabd yoga of its cultural moorings and who present a streamlined, modern path intertwined with any number of fashionable religious trends which may have caught the eye of the buying public (one only has to think of Leary and LSD of the sixties, Carlos Castanenda and Shamanism of the seventies, Shirley MacLaine and Channeling of the eighties, and U.F.O.'s and Near-Death Experiences of the nineties to see how trends change). John-Roger Hinkins of M.S.I.A. is a prime example of this type; and 3) those who intertwine tradition with more modern, Americanized approaches and thus try to bridge Indian terminology with Western science or mysticism. Paul Twitchell, Gary Olsen, Michael Turner, and Jerry Mulvin are good examples of this last type. To be sure this three-fold typology cannot cover all shabd yoga gurus of the future (one only has to think of Ching Hai and Thakar Singh and the previous typology breaks down), but it does lay out some major pathways that will surely be followed in the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, in all three categories I suspect that many more virtual gurus like Turner will appear--ones who instead of denying their past associations (as Twitchell has done) openly reveal their genealogical connections with Radhasoami. In many ways, Turner represents a new breed of gurus who have the advantage of learning to avoid all of the obvious mistakes their predecessors made, such as appropriating another guru's writings and inventing a group's history, both of which can be easily revealed. By virtual gurus acknowledging Radhasoami as their inspiration, Radhasoami may become a much more well known tradition among religious seekers in America.

And, lastly, it may also be the case that Radhasoami will undergo a dramatic downsizing. Since Beas has become so large, it is nearly impossible for Gurinder Singh (and other gurus who boast vast followings) to have any personal contact with his disciples on a daily basis. There has already been a reaction of sorts to Beas' large sangat; disciples are wary of joining a guru group in which one never gets to meet or to talk to the guru. Thus smaller groups, like Ajaib Singh's in Rajasthan or Jerry Mulvin's in Scottsdale, will most likely fill a need for those spiritual seekers who want more intimacy and more personal contact with their chosen leader. Of course, when these same groups begin to get an influx of seekers, new gurus with smaller numbers will step in and fill the void. This has continually happened in Radhasoami's history and I suspect that it will be even greater in the next century.

Overall, the future of Radhasoami related movements in North America looks promising. My hunch is that instead of talking about tens of shabd yoga gurus, we will be talking about hundreds, if not thousands, each of which are, more or less, selling the same package (with pertinent differences, of course). This raises the issue of competition in Radhasoami and shabd yoga groups as the market becomes flooded with new competitors. In places like North America where the economy is ideally determined by free market choices, the religious field seems to be following suit. With so much head to head competition (which the Net will certainly guarantee), the outcome should be quite interesting. Who will be the winners in this market is still a matter of speculation, but one thing seems certain: each guru's success will depend upon his/her ability to adapt the teachings to its new found environment.