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Blessing the Quest for Success Seen as Boost to 2 Eastern Sects

July 19, 1986|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

The self-denying image of Eastern religions notwithstanding, two U.S. sects with spiritual roots in Asia have blessed the quest for material gain as they have improved their social acceptance in America, a recently published study says.

The practical demands for survival in the 1970s faced by the two groups--a Sikh-yogi movement based in Los Angeles and a Tibetan Buddhist organization directed from Boulder, Colo.--led their leaders to give philosophical encouragement to members to seek financial success for themselves and their religious movement, the study in the current issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion said.

However, a third group, the Divine Light Mission, whose publicity-shy Guru Maharaji lives in a hilltop Malibu mansion, deemphasized worldly success for his followers as the organization faced major cutbacks in 1973-74, the study said. The guru reportedly severed his ties with the organization within the last two years.

Sociologist's Analysis

The analysis of the three movements was made by sociologist Kirpal Singh Khalsa, who concluded that by developing a rationale for money-making, two of the groups improved their chances to build a solid financial base.

"But perhaps more importantly, it provides the otherwise deviant religious groups with a strong image of legitimacy," Khalsa wrote.

"What better way to become an accepted part of American society than by embracing some of the values that this country holds most dear: utilitarian individualism, capitalistic enterprise, and most definitely, financial success?" he asked rhetorically.

Khalsa, who earned his Ph.D. in sociology this spring at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said in an interview that he is a Caucasian who converted to the India-born Sikh movement in 1970, then known as the 3HO Foundation. Despite being an "insider" in one of the "new religious movements," as they are termed by sociologists of religion, Khalsa said his study has been well-received by peers in the field.

The founders of all three groups studied by Khalsa began attracting American students about the same time--a period generally described as one of spiritual ferment on the heels of the turbulent 1960s civil rights struggles. The spiritual masters are:

- Yogi Bhajan, the commonly used name for Harbhajan Singh of India, who established the 3HO (Healthy Happy Holy Organization) in Los Angeles in 1969. He introduced Kundalini yoga, a strenuous exercise system, to the West, but later emphasized traditional Sikh teachings. Under the organizational umbrella of Sikh Dharma, the movement has grown to more than 100 centers, or ashrams, on four continents with as many as 10,000 committed followers. Members are distinguished by their turbans, white clothes and names taken from the Punjabi language.

- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan abbot of the Kargu lineage who escaped the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 and began teaching Buddhist meditation in Boulder in 1970. Three years later he established Vajradhatu, a Tibetan Buddhist church now coordinating activities of about 30 meditation centers in North America and Europe with about 2,500 dues-paying members. Trungpa Rinpoche's influence is also spread through his books and the Naropa Institute, an accredited, college-level school in Boulder.

- Guru Maharaji (formerly spelled Maharaj Ji), a teen-ager when he came to the United States in the early 1970s from India, heralded as "the perfect master" in the Hindu tradition and emphasizing the sacred relationship between the guru and his disciples. His leading followers established Divine Light Mission centers in most major U.S. cities in the early '70s.

If anything, the Divine Light Mission started with worldly goals--from a modern headquarters building in Denver to grandiose plans to promote the guru as Lord of the Universe at a financially disastrous gathering at Houston's Astrodome in 1973--and pulled back considerably, even to the point of abandoning the movement's name.

Based on interviews with devotees of Guru Maharaji at the Denver and Boulder "resource centers," Khalsa wrote that the material world was seen by them "as a distraction to spiritual growth." Khalsa said devotees told him that one is necessarily involved in the world, but only to meet the basic requirements of life.

Wealth Not Denigrated

All three spiritual leaders have spoken strongly against Western culture's preoccupation with wealth and materialism, Khalsa said. But wealth itself is not denigrated by leaders of the two success-oriented movements. It is the attitudes that are criticized--people who are "attached to the wealth" (Yogi Bhajan) or who are "lost in the materialism" (Trungpa Rinpoche), Khalsa said.

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