Brahma Kumaris

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Om Shanti Bawan, the main hall at the Brahma Kumaris headquarters in Mt Abu

Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU), or Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya, is considered by several religious scholars and academicians to be a new religious movement (NRM).[1], [2] Founded in 1936 in Hyderabad, Sindh[3] (present day Pakistan), its adherents are commonly called BKs.[3] Religious scholar Reender Kranenborg, a research professor at the Institute for the Study of Religion, the Free University, Amsterdam writes, “The entire way of the Brahma Kumaris can be characterized as raja yoga” [4]; however he distinguishes it from the widely known raja yoga defined by Patanjali in that it is not based on the classical astanga, eight-limbed yoga.[5] BK Raj Yoga bears some similarity in aim to other yogic practices, as it can also be considered ”the ladder to spiritual liberation, a practical method of union with God.”[1]

BKWSU Philosophy

BKWSU philosophy originated from the experiences of the founder, Lekh Raj Kripilani, a devout Hindu diamond merchant who had profound religious experiences. “He felt himself to be an instrument of the Supreme Soul who had passed on the knowledge to him or had him experience it, intending that Lekh Raj pass it on to others. Or, as it was stated, he experienced the love of God who gave him the highest spiritual knowledge.” This experience was different than that with which he was acquainted from his Bhakti.”[6] Lekh Raj reportedly had such encounters for some time.

In the philosophy of the BKWSU, the body is considered to be a “garment” for the soul.[7] Souls are understood to have three components: intellect, conscious mind, and unconscious mind. The intellect receives and digests wisdom or Truth; reasons and discerns; and exhibits will and understanding. Depending on the intellect’s strength, it guides the thoughts that the conscious mind creates. The conscious mind produces thoughts and ideas; emotions, feelings and experiences and can be influenced by either the subconscious mind or by the guidance of the intellect. The unconscious mind contains impressions (sanskaras) that form personality as a consequence of action (karma).

BK ideas about God are a marked departure from Hindu concepts. God is an eternal and conscient being of light, the ‘All-Highest Soul’, ever-pure and good. Although having all knowledge and in that sense being omniscient, he is not omnipresent. Not only is God eternal—an eternal power or energy—but matter and human souls are also eternal; neither are they created by God nor do they emerge from God.

Kranenborg describes the essence of BK cosmology: “In the beginning all souls lived together, with the All-Highest Soul in a non-material world, but because of the law of karma the souls left this world for the material world and entered into human bodies. All souls play their own roles in the material world and therefore assume a body in order to give expression to their original positive qualities… When the soul enters into matter, in the world of action, the game of action and reaction between intellect, mind and subconscious mind begins…. The purpose of this life and future lives are determined by this whole process.” Rebirth is exclusively in human bodies. To be liberated from the game, the human being must learn to burn away negative karma and produce positive karma by attuning himself to the All-Highest Soul. “In other words, only through knowledge of God and the connection with God is a human being liberated.”[6]

Brahma Kumaris teachings accord with classical Hinduism with respect to four world ages: the golden age (sat yuga), the silver age (treta yuga), the copper age (dwapar yuga) and the iron age (kali yuga). Striking deviations from Hinduism are the inclusion of a fifth ‘diamond age’ or confluence age (sangam yuga) and the belief that the whole cycle lasts only 5000 years.

The BKWSU philosophy is considered millenarian, similar to a number of other faith traditions including Christian, Mormon, Rasta, Shakers, Nostradamus, et al., in that there is belief in a coming major transformation of society after which all things will be changed in a positive direction. References in BK teachings on this matter often refer to this world transformation culminating in the Hindu epic of the Mahabharata War. [8]

Raja Yoga Meditation

Raja Yoga Meditation practices are generally considered a way to the true self which is to be expressed in everyday life.[9] As in most yogic practices, moral integrity in the practitioner is also a basic pre-requisite as well as the development of the individual’s capacity for total non-violence in thought and deed.[10] Above all, raja yoga has to do with meditation. It is said that “meditation makes a person internally and personally stronger and leads others to be inspired to follow the way and to become purified as well.”[4]

Julia Howell, in her article on ASC Induction Techniques, Spiritual Experiences and Commitment to New Religious Movements, describes her experience in learning the BK meditation. She relates how in the BK meditation, attention is focused on the awareness of the self as a soul which frees the practitioner from its association with the physical body.[11] BK meditators are instructed to sit comfortably (there are no formal requirements to assume special postures or regulate breathe). The one physical operation encouraged is keeping the eyes open while resting the gaze upon an object. Attention, however, is directed away from the object and physical environment and turned inward to the inner being, the soul. Meditators are instructed not to suppress the words or thoughts that come into the head while meditating (as BKs claim it is not possible to totally eliminate thought). Instead, they are encouraged to make use of verbalized reflection to gently draw the mind away from everyday concerns. For example, the guided meditations through which newcomers are taught meditation involve taking the awareness of the “soul-conscious” self on a thought-journey through pleasant peaceful vistas until it meets and links with the Supreme Soul who is otherwise known as God.[11] It is this mental union or link between the individual soul and the Supreme Being or God that defines the experience and practice of Raj Yoga.[4] If this contact or connection exists, people will supposedly become freer and their sanskaras purified.[6]

Spiritual Lifestyle

Full-time members or dedicated practitioners of the BKWSU follow the strict lifestyle disciplines of many Indian yogic practices.[10], [9] This is not required, however, for those who are not full-time members and simply prefer to take benefit from some of the courses that the university offers.[9], [11] Even those who are dedicated to the practice vary in their adherence to these disciplines.[12] However, for those who aim to advance in any yoga practice, the following disciplines are known to strengthen the soul which enable the individual to make the union or yoga with God easier. This yoga provides the inner strength to free the mind and physical senses from the domination of external objects and influences and attain a sense of spiritual liberation.[10], [9], [4]

The primary lifestyle disciplines include:

  • Diet: Sattvic Vegetarian[10]: The BK diet in particular is lacto-vegetarian which also excludes eggs, onion and garlic.[13] Another aspect of the BK diet is similar to a number of monastic faith traditions,[14] which is that they choose to prepare their own meals and rarely eat outside.[15], [13]
  • Addiction-Free Life: Complete avoidance of alcohol, tobacco and drugs
  • Early morning meditation: Arising for a one hour 4 am meditation each day[15], [13]
  • Daily Satsung/Meditation Class: Attending daily “Murli” class[15][13]
  • Brahmacharya: Celibacy which is abstention from sexual activity in both thought and deed[15], [13], [9]
  • Dharna: This involves the aspect of living a yogic life of moral integrity and truthfulness[10], [16]
  • Seva: This is translated to service of humanity which is another common Indian practice that involves sharing and relating what is learned in yogi life in relationships and contacts whether through ways of being, acts of charity, good wishes or teaching[16], [10]

Origins

The movement was founded in 1936, in the region of Sindh which is now in the country of Pakistan, by a retired diamond merchant named Lekhraj Khubchand Kirpalani.[3] At that time, Lekhraj chose to withdraw from worldly life and devote his time to his spiritual practice as a devout Hindu.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag That experience and the many that were to follow that day were understood to be that God had descended into the body of Lekhraj to impart a “message(s) for humanity regarding the nature of the present age.”[17]

However, the experiences that Lekhraj had and continued to have were not received very well universally in those early days as there was much controversy within the Sindh community over the establishment of Om Mandali, the spiritual school that Lekhraj founded.[17] Lekhraj told the followers that Shiva had renamed Lekhraj who was now called Prajapita Brahma, the Father of Humanity.[17]

A number of cultural factors may be seen to have led to such societal reaction. The primary factor that seems instrumental to the opposition was that the spiritual study and lifestyle drew attention away from family life as chastity was a primary discipline of the practice. Another significant factor for the persecution of the proto-Brahma Kumaris was the significance placed on female religiosity which was a direct challenge to the male-led social order and particularly the role of women within the family and community at that time.[17]

The spiritual school moved from Hyderabad to Karachi (now part of Pakistan) for fourteen years which was, at that time, part of colonial India. The founding group of approximately 300 individuals lived as a self-sufficient community spending much of their time in spiritual study and meditation in an effort to attain the “true self”[4] which is akin to the previously mentioned capacity for total non-violence in thought and deed.[10]

The group moved to the present day location of Madhuban in Mt. Abu, following the partition of India in 1949.[18]

From the time of establishment, through the time of opposition, Brahma Baba encouraged women in particular to “develop their spiritual lives and take leadership roles.”[19] Though the Brahma Kumaris membership in the early years and even now is primarily composed and administered by women, in the Western environment, while they clearly do promote female leadership, they have frequently given leadership roles to men. There appears to have been much variation in gender ratios over time and space across the history of the BKs which seem to be due to the differing patterns of gender relations in the societies of the countries in which the organization operates.[20]

Versions of the organization’s history can be found on the BKWSU websites [9][10].

Controversy Surrounding the BKWSU

A number of factors can be discussed that may be considered controversial surrounding the BKWSU today. First, we may consider the initial opposition to the organization that was discussed above which is the somewhat unique aspect of this group that doesn’t limit its membership to unmarried individuals[9] yet encourages the lifestyle of many monastic traditions, namely the practice of celibacy. This is a departure from the Hindu prescription for celibacy for older men. As mentioned previously, this was a concern to many in the original community of Sindh where the Brahma Kumaris were founded in that it was disruptive to family life for those who wanted to commit fully to the practice against the wishes of their spouse.

Another aspect of controversy that John Walliss reviews in an article on the Brahma Kumaris that analyzes the development and international expansion of the University from its founding to the present time, considers the shift in orientation of the university from a situation of ‘world rejection’ to a situation of ‘world ambivalence.’[18] Walliss suggests that the so-called ‘shift’ in philosophical orientation occurred when the organization moved to Mt. Abu after the partition of India when the “original attitude of world rejection became tempered with a new spirit of liberalism.”[18] At that time, the previous emphasis on isolation began to emphasize active “‘world service’ as it came to be known.”[18]

Walliss postulates a number of reasons why this ‘shift’ may have occurred, mainly suggesting that the change in location to Mt. Abu, which was less hostile to the group and more “hospitable,”[18] allowed them to “let their defences down and begin interacting with the outside world.”[18]

Liz Hodgkinson, in her book Peace and Purity, qualifies the aspect of world service in claiming that the BKs were “never intent on converting people to their way of thinking but were anxious to share some of the wisdom gained during those years of deep contemplation and study, to enable others to live more fulfilling, purposeful, and above all, peaceful lives.”[21] This claim by Hodgkinson is evidenced in the many general but practical courses that the BKs offer the general public today such as management training, stress-reduction, spirituality in business and positive thinking.

Hodgkinson relates another criticism often leveled at the BKs is that “they have, from their earliest outreach times, targeted the famous and influential rather than the poor and needy.”[21] She continues by noting that there may have been a practical reason for this in that there came a time of very scarce financial resources in the organization. Also, most of its members had come from very wealthy families and were unaccustomed to an austere lifestyle.[22]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Kranenborg, Reender (1999) Brahma Kumaris: A New Religion?. CENSUR, Center for Studies on New Religions. Free University of Amsterdam. [1], p. 3
  2. Howell, Julia Day (1997) ASC Induction Techniques, Spiritual Experiences and Commitment to New Religious Movements. Sociology of Religion 58(2): 141-164.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Hodgkinson, Liz (2002) Peace and Purity: The Story of the Brahma Kumaris, a Spiritual Revolution. Florida: Health Communications Inc. p. 3
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Kranenborg, Reender (1999) Brahma Kumaris: A New Religion?. CENSUR, Center for Studies on New Religions. Free University of Amsterdam. [2], p.5
  5. Shaw, Elliott from [3]. Overview of World Religions, Hindu Ritual and Ascetic Sects, Yoga Schools [4]. St. Martin's College: Division of Religion and Philosophy.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Kranenborg, Reender (1999) Brahma Kumaris: A New Religion?. CENSUR, Center for Studies on New Religions. Free University of Amsterdam. [5], p. 4
  7. Shaw, Elliott, Brahma Kumaris [6]
  8. Walliss, John (1999) From World Rejection to Ambivalence: The Development of Millenarianism in the Brahma Kumaris. Journal of Contemporary Religion 14(3): 375-385
  9. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ShawElliottBK
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 Shaw, Elliott. Yoga [7]
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Howell, Julia Day (1997) p. 151
  12. Howell, Julia. (1997) p. 155-157
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Hodgkinson, Liz (2002) Peace and Purity p. 97
  14. Nasrai, Abba Yasai. Worldly Diets, Lifestyles and the Nazorean Way. Order of Nazorean Essenes. [8]
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Hodgkinson, Liz (2002) Peace and Purity p. 51
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hodgkinson, Liz (2002) Peace and Purity p. 96
  17. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Wallis1999p376
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 Walliss (1999), p. 379
  19. Howell, Julia Day (1998) Gender-Role Experimentation in New Religious Movements: Clarification of the Brahma Kumari Case. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37(3): 454
  20. Howell, Julia Day (1998) Gender-Role Experimentation in New Religious Movements: Clarification of the Brahma Kumari Case. p. 453-454
  21. 21.0 21.1 Hodgkinson, Liz (2002) Peace and Purity p. 39
  22. Hodgkinson, Liz (2002) Peace and Purity p. 40