The Radhasoami religion emerged in the nineteenth century with Shiv Dayal Singh at its head (‘Soami Ji Maharaj,’ 1818-78). Its origins—and even its organization—have been surrounded by heated controversies. For some, it was a new religious current that emerged from Sikhism, and evolved until it separated completely, thereafter becoming a creative synthesis of Hinduism and Sikhism. For others, the Sikh religion and the Radhasoami religion are two independent and different versions of the Sant Mat current (‘the way of the saints’: an important movement that developed within Hinduism from the thirteenth century on), both defined more by non-Hindu influences. For others, Radhasoami is not a real religion, and the expression ‘Radhasoami religion’ is fiercely disputed by them.

During his life, Dayal Singh formed a satsang (‘teaching community’) at Agra, with a few thousand followers. He was undoubtedly a charismatic guru, although not all that different from other Sant Mat gurus, and certainly not perceived in India at the time as the founder of a new universal religion that would gain millions of followers in the next century. Singh taught a version of shabd yoga, Surat Shabd Yoga, a yoga of light and sound that teaches its initiates to achieve harmony with the luminous and sonorous current emanating from God’s creative essence, and to continuously return to this essence. In the Sant Mat tradition in general, at least one living guru is always available to those who seek him with a true heart: a guru who, by means of initiation, can put the faithful into contact with the luminous current and with the divine sound. Dayal Singh was relatively popular during his lifetime and became even more so after his death, with six different groups claiming succession. With these groups—many of which continue to this day, with varying degrees of success—the Radhasoami school of Dayal Singh began to be represented as a universal religion that expanded beyond India’s borders and even beyond the Sant Mat current.

For at least twenty years after Dayal Singh’s death, the largest groups remained in the Agra area, while the satsang organized by another of the gurus claiming his legacy— Jaimal Singh (1839-1903)—based on the banks of the Beas river in Punjab, attracted a smaller number of followers. Jaimal Singh’s group, known as Radha Soami Satsang Beas, owes its success to the problems of the rival Agra groups, which tried to unite in 1902. When the Radhasoami religion began to be known in England and the United States in the early twentieth century, it was already divided into about ten rival branches, including the Radha Soami Satsang Beas of Jaimal Singh, the Soami Bagh and Dayal Bagh groups, and other smaller groups.

Before the leader of the Beas organization, Charan Singh (1916-90), visited the United States, he had been preceded by his fiercest rival for the legacy of Sawan Singh (1858-1948), successor to Jaimal Singh: Kirpal Singh (1893-1974), founder of Ruhani Satsang, and destined to become the most popular Radhasoami guru in the West. After Kirpal Singh’s death, there were the usual splits in the Ruhani Satsang as well. As had occurred with the Radha Soami Satsang Beas group, the name of Kirpal Singh’s organization remained in its founder’s family, with Darshan Singh (1921-89) and now Kirpal Singh’s grandson, Rajinder Singh (1946-), at its head. This group is known as Sawan Kirpal Ruhani Mission, or by the Western name of Science of Spirituality. The name Ruhani Satsang has remained the legal property of a Californian organization, with headquarters in Anaheim, which now says it follows no guru and is dedicated exclusively to spreading the teachings of Kirpal Singh. Nevertheless, there are other gurus who claim Kirpal Singh’s legacy: the most important of these are Ajaib Singh (1926-97), founder of Sant Bani, Thakar Singh (1929-), founder of the Kirpal Light Mission, and Harbhajan Singh (‘Bhaji’, 1932-95), founder of Unity of Man.

There are now scores of organizations in India and in the West, therefore, that trace their family tree back to the Beas branch of the Radhasoami religion (together, of course, with others that refer to other branches). In this lineage, apart from Radha Soami Satsang Beas, we also have to include all of the many groups that claim Kirpal Singh’s legacy. There is also a third ‘family’ deriving neither from Kirpal Singh nor from his Radha Soami Satsang Beas rivals in the line of Jagat Singh (1884-1951) and Charan Singh. This family is the Hans Maharaj Ji (1900-66) family, an Indian guru who broke away in 1949 after having been linked to the Beas group. His son, Prem Pal Singh Rawat (‘Maharaj Ji’, 1957-) brought the Divine Light Mission, later called Elan Vital, to the West. For a few years, this name was also used by the—in some ways rival—organization of Bruce K.Avenell, which now uses the name The Eureka Society. This, at least, is the version of the origins of the Divine Light Mission—one of the 1970s most typical religious movements, intensely studied by sociologists—offered by various scholars and outside observers. The movement’s members claim lineage from a separate Sant Mat tradition dating back to at least the eighteenth century completely independent from the various Radhasoami groups.

Among other developments in the Radhasoami sphere, the influence of a whole series of American and European religious movements should be mentioned. Paul Twitchell (1908-71), the founder of Eckankar, was initiated by Kirpal Singh in 1955, although his movement derives its teachings from a variety of different sources and cannot be regarded exclusively as a Radhasoami group. The same is true of the various groups created after the splintering which occurred later in Eckankar’s history, such as ATOM (Ancient Teachings of the Masters) and MasterPath, as well as groups influenced by Radhasoami techniques and ideas such as MSIA (Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (Insight)) or the new Taiwanese religion of Supreme Master Ching Hai (Hue Thi Thanh, 1951-). There are those who speak of a wider, very ‘fluid’ and independent satsang movement, thereby referring to oriental or even to Western gurus active in the West who borrow freely from Radhasoami or Theosophical themes, or from elements derived from Osho Rajneesh. At any rate, the Radhasoami religion disproves the commonlyheld idea that fragmentation and division necessarily prevent the success of a spiritual path. On the contrary, the abundance of gurus seems to have guaranteed continuous growth of the Radhasoami movement as a whole.

From the statistical standpoint, there is no doubt that Radha Soami Satsang Beas has had the greatest success. Out of about 3,000,000 Radhasoami followers worldwide, almost 2,000,000 belong to the Beas group. The salient features of Radha Soami Satsang Beas are similar to those of other Radhasoami groups. These have, in common with the Sikhs—and with the entire Sant Mat or Surat Shabd Yoga tradition—a concept of God ‘without qualities’ (nirguna). Although contrary to many Sikh groups they insist particularly on the cosmic current of sound and light, with which initiates make contact by means of meditation, repetition of holy names, and their personal relationship with the living guru. Moreover, unlike the Sikhs, the followers of Radhasoami do not have a sacred book, although they do honor the writings of the living guru and his predecessors. Radhasoami demands a vegetarian diet, and—with regard to morality—emphasizes the importance of chastity, and condemns premarital sex as well as homosexuality. In Europe, the best known form of religion based on Radhasoami is Science of Spirituality (Sawan Kirpal Ruhani Mission): it has about 300,000 followers worldwide, and its main publications are translated into some fifty languages. The Kirpal Light Mission of Thakar Singh has been very successful in the West: despite opposition from the Anti-Cult Movement, the organization has grown in many countries—especially in Germany, where there are about 20,000 initiates—and now exceeds 100,000 members in the West.

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