Juggling Images Under Increasing Scrutiny
Prem Rawat's career has been marked by an overwhelming need to distance himself from criticism. In his "child god" incarnation this was easily achieved but has been far more problematic for him in adulthood. The contradictions in his transformation from 'guru' to "inspirational speaker" are obvious to impartial observers, yet many of his followers seem oblivious to the inconsistencies of Rawat's message. The response of Rawat to what is in effect a replay of the conflicts that plagued him and his mission in the 1970s, has been to pursue elaborate revisionism and to avoid even the most benign public interrogation.
For 25 years Elan Vital - the name under which the western Divine Light Missions largely operated after 1985 - has adopted a 'corporate' presentation, making increasingly strenuous attempts to downplay or dismiss the movement's religious origins. In this evolving process, the public message has become increasingly secular, one where Rawat describes himself publicly as "an ordinary person", or simply a "teacher".
Prem Rawat was known in India in the 1960s as Balyogeshwar Param Hans Shri Sant Ji Maharaj which means Born Lord of Yogis, the Supreme Soul, True Dispeller of Darkness, Revealer of Light and Ultimate Ruler or variants of this title were used or simply Balyogeshwar meaning "Child God" and worldwide as Guru Maharaj Ji until the early 1980s. There was no no false modesty in the Rawat family. Coincident with the image changes of the early 1980s Rawat dropped the Guru title and sought his promotion under the more modest name 'Maharaji' (meaning "Ultimate Ruler") and since 1999 he has increasingly been referred to as Prem Rawat, the first and last elements of his full legal name which is Prem Pal Singh Rawat.
The current role of Prem Rawat in his promotional organisations is ambiguous; prior to the financial reforms instituted by Michael Dettmers in 1975/6 Prem Rawat was registered as 'Chief Minister' of the Divine Light Mission 'church'. Prem Rawat undoubtedly exercises immense influence on how the organisations are run and the level of material support that he receives from them is considerable. Although the various promotional websites have prominently stated that Prem Rawat receives no payment from the organisations, no reference is made to the levels of 'personal expense' support that the promotional organisations give to Rawat to facilitate his travels in the most expensive possible private executive jet and attendance at events staying in the most luxurious accomodations nor the direct donations that are made to him by devout followers who believe he should live in the luxury he deserves.
The structures of the various promotional organisations are predicated on the existence of closed trusteeships and management boards comprised of individuals who are fanatically loyal to Prem Rawat. There are no systems of supporter representation, of membership empowerment, or of independent or expert representation at any level of management. The overall effect is to create a pyramidic structure in which Prem Rawat is both the fount of organisational wisdom and the object of ultimate investment.
Many of the national Elan Vital organisations have closed in the late 1990s and internationally the public presentation of Prem Rawat was increasingly undertaken by 'The Prem Rawat Foundation', a nonprofit body incorporated in the US. In 2008 the phrase 'words of peace' which had for some years been an informal marketing tag for Rawat's cable TV broadcasts was given corporate substance through the creation of Words Of Peace Global which was incorporated in the Netherlands, but which operates out of offices in Barcelona. A US entity named Words Of Peace International was set to replace the US Elan Vital Inc and did so in 2010.
Prem Rawat has placed increasing emphasis on what is referred to as 'the major donors' program. The MDP features regular gatherings of Rawat's wealthier followers, who are granted exceptional personal access to Prem Rawat. Conference style presentations are followed by social activities and entertainment with attendees paying up to $US 5000 each. Roger Koch has written about his status change after he made a $5.5 million dollar donation to Prem Rawat and entered the ranks of the major donors.
Prem Rawat 'propagated' his message via satellite and cable TV, public events, paid 'advertorials' in business magazines and glossy 'in house' magazines and videos but since 2010 outreach has increasingly shifted to the internet and to secondary programs such as the Peace Education Program and various external peace events.
Prem Rawat's primary promotional activity is speaking at conferences in the Americas, Europe and Australia, at venues where attendance ranged from 1,000 to 5,000 in the late 1990s but which now (2005) rarely exceeds 2,000. In addition Rawat speaks at large open air events in India where attendances of hundreds of thousands have been claimed although numbers are dependant upon location and whether the date coincides with a major Indian religious festival. The attendees of the indoor conferences are mainly 60ish (2010) long time followers and their 'invited' guests. The nature of adherence to Prem Rawat in India is more difficult to assess, while he has a degree of popularity, his Indian followers do not exercise the exclusivity of commitment typical of Rawat's non Indian followers and his eldest brother, Satpal Maharaj, has far more adherents. Rawat is not a major player in the Indian Godman market.
Prem Rawat instructed in 2001 that, senior followers should set up 'Knowledge Introduction Steering Committees', which were to be charged with the design of 'Knowledge Introduction Plans'. These 'KI Plans' were to be the basis for 'Knowledge Introduction Trainings' where Rawat's followers were to practice face to face sales techniques in advance of telling their friends and work colleagues about the experience of 'Knowledge'.
Some of Prem Rawat's remaining followers have become increasingly concerned about the www.ex-premie.org website and the Prem Rawat Talk Forum, which since 1997 have provided critical insight into the Rawat phenomenon and provided information that has allowed many long time devotees to be "enlightened". In 2000, former child victims of the paedophile Mahatma Jagdeo, began posting on the website.
No public acknowledgment of a duty of care has ever been made by either Prem Rawat or Elan Vital in respect of the abuse allegations. In the UK where a complaint of Child Sexual abuse was reported to the police, Elan Vital claimed that it had no legal relationship with Divine Light Mission, a claim that was patently absurd. An out of court settlement was eventually made between parties representing Elan Vital and one of Jagdeo's victims. The reputed role of Rawat follower and psychologist Valerio Pascotto in the negotiations over the settlement has been viewed by some observers as evidence of the manipulative intent of Elan Vital to close down the damaging association with accusations of paedophilia at all costs.
In 2000, Prem Rawat's former personal assistant and closest and longest serving advisor, Michael Dettmers, began to share his recollections on an ex-premie Internet forum. Dettmers' revelations confirmed earlier reports of drug-taking, sexual exploitation and manslaughter by Rawat. A series of assaults on the ex-premie website followed including cyber attacks which paralyzed its host server, and legal proceedings by Elan Vital over copyright. In 2001 defamatory websites appeared, labelling prominent ex-premies as mentally unstable and as criminals. This identification of ex-premies as being psychologically disturbed has subsequently been prominently published on Elan Vital websites.
Rawat no longer reveals the 'Knowledge' personally, but instead a systematic course of DVDs featuring Rawat is distributed by the promotional organisations. Completion of viewing of the series entitles the aspirant to seek attendance of a vetted screening of a DVD in which Prem Rawat is shown revealing the techniques of meditation. Aspirants are not asked to buy the DVDs however other material produced by Elan Vital and connected businesses is marketed to aspirants along with those initiated into the 'Knowledge'.
Some devotees continue to believe that Prem Rawat is God in human form, others believe him to be 'special' in various ways, whilst others believe him to be an ordinary person with a valuable gift to impart. Prem Rawat has never addressed the question of whether the 'Knowledge' meditation is anything more than a physical, brain-based experience, though the implication of his continuing 'mastership' is that what he teaches does have a 'spiritual' dimension.