The availability of the Internet and other technologies offers new opportunities for religious groups to present themselves in both new and traditional forms. But such technology also gives rise to new challenges, especially during controversies.
One case study of how the Internet and satellite television has been instrumental in reshaping a religious organization can be seen in the controversial career of the guru Maharaji. Although many observers and scholars dismissed the movement inspired by the Eastern guru as losing energy and form by the 1980s, he has been able to reinvent himself and his group with the help of the Internet and other technology, according to the journal Nova Religio (March).
Known as the controversial boy guru in the 1970s, Maharaji founded the Divine Light Mission to perpetuate his quasi-Hindu teachings. But due to internal dissent in his family (most notably over his much publicized marriage) and instability in the organization, by the 1980s academics and the media predicted Maharaji and his message was headed for extinction.
Ron Greaves writes that Maharaji has kept his teachings alive by adopting a pragmatic and flexible approach that de-emphasized organizational structure. Divine Light Mission was abandoned and replaced by Elan Vital in the late 1980s, which removed any Indian trappings and closed down its ashrams, stressing its message of self-knowledge and individual experience for an international audience.
“Throughout the 1990s, more people were receiving the techniques of self-knowledge worldwide than in the heady days of the early 1970s,” Greaves writes. The full-time leaders were “demystified” to become instructors, and members no longer felt themselves to be part of a “sectarian movement” but rather a loosely connected group of individuals who came together on occasion to receive inspiration from Maharaji, often through the use of videos.
In 2002, Elan Vital morphed again into the Prem Rawat Foundation, and with the help of satellite and Internet technology Maharaji’ s teaching has been further individualized, focusing on the student-teacher relationship. Followers can now tune into Maharaji’s teachings (highlights from his recent tours) in their own homes, while his websites provide the “means for those who wish to communicate the message to download and create their own publicity materials.”
Considerable networking still takes place through email conferencing and local and national meetings of active volunteers. Greaves concludes that Maharaji has “chosen a route of perpetual transformation in which organizational forms are created and utilized and then destroyed…above all to keep his students focused on the core message rather than the peripheral requirements of organizational forms.”
The Web does not only offer opportunities for religious movements, new and old ones. The development of the Internet has offered unprecedented opportunities for disaffected members and other critics of religious groups. Even somebody with limited financial means is now able to launch a campaign with international impact, making it quite difficult for a controversial group to escape scrutiny, even if it changes location.
The pressure created by the Internet may also have played a role in leading Elan Vital to adopt a more open approach, since there used to be some quite active, critical websites, such as http://www.ex-premie.org (still online, but no longer updated since 2003), as well as online forums.
Another recent instance of this is described in an article by Frank Langfitt, in the Baltimore Sun (May 15). Former and current members of Greater Grace World Outreach (originally called The Bible Speaks, led by Pastor Carl H. Stevens Jr.) have been using a bulletin board to air criticism against the church, and postings come from as far as India and Argentina.
On the Factnet message board (http://www.factnet.org/discus/messages/3/3.html), Greater Grace has had the largest number of postings (except for Scientology). Dozens of messages for or against the church are posted every day. While some faithful members refuse to read the bulletin board, others do it, if only for responding to criticism, thus becoming exposed to it as well.
In a different way than Maharaji, Kemetic Orthodoxy, an Egyptian revival religion, has found its following largely through communication on the Internet while retaining a more traditional structure, according to the journal Sociology of Religion (Summer). The faith seeks to recover the religion of ancient Egypt, though ritual largely conducted through the Internet, although a center was recently opened in Chicago.
The group’s website, located at http://www.netjer.org, offers discussion, classes, counseling and biweekly worship services. What is worth noting about this small movement is that while those studying Internet religions (such as various Neopagan movements) have postulated that it is the decentralized, individualistic and experientially-oriented new religions that thrive in this medium, Kemetic Orthodox is hierarchical, centralized under one leader, and stresses tradition rather than personal experience.
(Nova Religio, University of California Press, 2000 Center St., #303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223; Sociology of Religion, 3520 Wiltshire Dr., Holiday, FL 34691-1239)
— This article was written with Jean-Francois Mayer, RW contributing editor and founder of Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)