Sources of Criticism
Prem Rawat has been able to ride out media criticism of his lifestyle because the vast majority of his followers have simply not acknowledged it. Over time however a canon of more serious allegations has served to raise doubts, not only about Prem Rawat personally but also about the veracity of his teaching and the validity of the organisations that support him. The most consistent and seemingly unshakeable allegation is that Prem Rawat is a charismatic leader of a harmful cult.
Criticism of Prem Rawat has come from four broad sources:
- Family members of his devotees, who believe their loved ones have been exploited and 'brainwashed'.
- Media. Originally media criticism centred around Rawat's luxurious lifestyle and the attempted murder of an activist by a senior devotee in 1974. Since 2001, the media critique of Pre Rawat has become more comprehensive.
- Cult experts and psychologists, who claim Prem Rawat heads a personality cult.
- Former followers.
The first criticisms of Prem Rawat surfaced almost as soon as he had arrived in the West. Newspapers published stories sceptical of his claims to godhood, and pointing to his ostentatious lifestyle and rapid accumulation of assets.
The Millennium '73 event, and its ensuing debts, created media interest which even reached to national magazines such as Newsweek. Following the Millennium fiasco, a Mahatma named Fakiranand assisted by an American premie, carried out a near fatal attack on one of Rawat's media critics, a journalist named Pat Halley. ('Mahatmas' were Rawat's senior disciples, and were regarded as holy men.) The attack created ugly headlines, as did a mass murder by a premie in Tallahassee, Florida the following year. In 2002 Michael Donner, who was a senior officer of the US Divine Light Mission at the time of the Fakiranand attack, revealed that Prem Rawat, whilst ostensibly co-operating with the authorities over the Halley attack, had in fact ordered that Fakiranand should leave the US, before any charges could be brought.
During 1976, Bob Mishler, a founding member of the US Divine Light Mission, and at the time President of the US organization, attempted to persuade Prem Rawat to devote less energy to accumulating assets and to scale down the personal 'idol worship' (as he described it) that Rawat was insisting upon. Rawat refused, and in January 1977, Mishler (who had lived under the same roof as Rawat up to that point) parted company with Rawat and his organisations.
In 1979 Mishler spoke to the media. He claimed that Rawat had undergone a 'tremendous psychological deterioration' since 1971. Whilst the 'Perfect Master' had, he claimed, insisted on a renunciate lifestyle for many of his devotees, he had hidden his own growing opulence.
Mishler also drew attention to Rawat's bullying of his family and devotees, and made the first public mention of his drinking problem:
"He himself had tremendous problems of anxiety which he combated with alcohol... Unlike what he advocates, he is not capable of dealing with it by means of meditation. He ends up drinking excessively in order to cope with the stress. It was very sad to see him drinking himself into a stupor day after day.
By early afternoon on a typical day he was already drinking. And he drank heavily, not just beer or wine - he drank cognac, and he drank it to the point that he was stewed every evening. There was more than one occasion where we had to pick him up and carry him to bed after he had passed out... He used to have fainting spells sometimes, because his blood pressure would be so high - and he would just black out. Things like this to me were indicative of some deeper problems."
Mishler was also concerned about the plight of the ashram premies,
"who were living on the edge of destitution - really out of the result of policies that he [Prem Rawat] dictated. Ashram premies were becoming socially and culturally inept, and the victims of economic exploitation, just because of his gluttonous appetite.
Many people - not everyone, but many people - were becoming less capable as individuals rather than becoming more capable, as we had purported that they would be as a result of realising this Knowledge. There were people who were being essentially psychologically and economically exploited. And I would bring these things to his attention, and he wouldn't want to deal with it. He would put it off for weeks, months - sometimes just not deal with it at all - and he would go and get drunk instead, almost on a daily basis."
Mishler also revealed that Divine Light Mission's religious status (it had been classed as a religion by the US Internal Revenue Service) was used as a cover to garner personal funds and assets for Rawat:
"He has all these material belongings... He would find ways to charge off things that we'd bought - for him - to various Divine Light Mission departments so that they could be hidden within our financial status.
Consumerism is like a disease with him. He no sooner has the object of his desire, whether it's a new Maserati or Rolls Royce or whatever - Aston Martin - he's thinking about the next thing: it's got to be a helicopter, it's got to be a Grumman Gulfstream 2, it's got to be this or that."
Mishler also disclosed that Rawat was sometimes abusive to those around him, including his wife:
"He would just verbally assault her for, like, an hour - and she would be reduced to tears. And it would be terrible, because she really wasn't guilty - of anything. But he would play upon that...that kind of propensity she had to be vulnerable at that level."
The Mishler claims created a brief flurry of media interest. But Mishler died in a helicopter accident shortly afterwards, and public interest in Prem Rawat died with him. Though there was occasional criticism over the next two decades by the media, church groups and cult observing psychologists, Rawat managed to avoid prolonged scrutiny by keeping a low (indeed virtually non-existent) public profile for twenty years.
Then came the Internet.
Ex-premie.org was born in 1996, and for the first time ex-premies were able to rebuild old connections and share their experiences. Information flooded in, beginning with the Mishler media interviews, which an ex-premie patiently transcribed from old audio tapes.
Considerable interest was created in 2001, when Michael Dettmers - Bob Mishler's successor as Prem Rawat's chief assistant - answered questions on an Internet Forum - both confirming and expanding on everything Mishler had claimed. Dettmers added that the 'Perfect Master' had instructed him to procure premie women to provide him with sexual favours. Rawat had quickly abandoned the women, he said, causing "upset and confusion".
Dettmers also described the process of X-Rating: where 'inner circle' premies were introduced to Rawat's lifestyle excesses, but sworn to keep the information from the mass of premies. He also provided a description of how Rawat, whilst driving had caused the death of a cyclist in Delhi in the mid-1980s, and the subsequent arrangement that an Indian premie - a senior Mahatma's house boy - took the blame.
In 2001 Prem Rawat's claim to a spiritual 'lineage' came under scrutiny and it's authenticity was brought into doubt. Allegations of a deliberate fabrication were subsequently supported by the work of Professor David Lane, an acknowledged expert in the 'Rhadasoami Tradition' from which the Rawat father and sons have sourced elements of their respective claims to spiritual authority.
The issue raised on the ex-premie website which caused Prem Rawat the most difficulty was the emotive subject of child sexual abuse. Mahatma Jagdeo who had been one of Prem Rawat's closest advisers in the 1970s and 1980s, had it was claimed raped male and female children of premies. Some of the victims spoke out via the ex-premie web forums in 2000 and 2001.
Many of those still following Prem Rawat became deeply disillusioned when it emerged, that despite attempts by victims and their parents to alert Rawat to Jagdeo's paedophilia, Jagdeo had been left in a position of trust. Although Rawat's closest advisors and senior organisational officials were informed of Jagdeo's attacks over many years, Prem Rawat denied all knowledge of the issue prior to it being made public on the Internet. Jagdeo has never been brought to any trial and is apparently living freely in India.
Compounding this difficult phase, Prem Rawat's supporters put up websites defaming Rawat's critics, characterising them variously as, kidnappers, drug dealers and being mentally unstable, the latter being an attack returned to on various Elan Vital web sites in 2004.
In 2001 several Australian followers left Rawat, partly as a result of the 'trainings' that he had overseen at Amaroo and other places. It was reported that the trainings had been emotionally violent and manipulative, and that Rawat had 'descended into violent rages on small provocation'. One of the participants later wrote of his experience:
"I finally grasped that Maharaji thrives on the mixed message: independence/devotion, honesty/secrecy, trust yourself/trust the master. One half of the mixed message empowers and expands, the other half intimidates and reduces; one half provokes love, the other half fear; one half liberates, the other half enslaves. The mixed message thus strategically confuses."
Critics of Rawat also complain, of his 'exclusive' meditation techniques, that they are available from hundreds of other teachers, and from books. The unduly harsh treatment meted out to ashram residents when the ashrams were closed in 1982 and 1983 also comes in for criticism, chiefly from those who endured it.
Prem Rawat's personal philosophy has come in for as many attacks as his actions - most notably his belittling of human relationships. Many ex- followers believe this undermining of 'normal' relationships has been either a deliberate or perhaps unconscious ploy to bolster his apparent 'personality cult', it certainly adds credence to the views about Rawat's own dysfunctionality. Key to the development of what serves as the Rawat 'cult of personality' are the claims to divinity which Rawat expressly made in the early part of his career. Although these claims no longer form part of Rawat's public presentation, and the blame for the 'misapprehensions' about Prem Rawat's 'godhood' is placed upon Rawat's first followers, Prem Rawat has never addressed the issue directly, nor made any comment to instruct his followers that they should not regard him as divine.
The institutional burning of Divine Light Mission's magazines and promotional materials at the end in the early 1980s suggests to some sceptics that the organization is prone to 'rewriting' its past, and to secrecy. The impression of secrecy was strengthened when darshan (foot-kissing) lines were revived in the late 1990s, but with Rawat instructing that the news be kept from outsiders and media. Elan Vital meetings, workshops and written materials now emphasize the ethic of 'confidentiality', and for the most part information is now only shared among premies on a 'need to know' basis.
Many ex-premies see the sex and money scandals associated with Prem Rawat as only symptomatic of a larger problem - that of the emotional manipulation of vulnerable people. Most cult observing psychologists class Elan Vital as an 'exploitative cult', alongside Scientology and ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement).
In one of his 1979 interviews, Bob Mishler said he believed Prem Rawat employed systematic 'thought reform'. He added:
'I don't even think that he is sincerely wrong. I think that he is deliberately deceiving people.'