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Eckankar: A Classic Study of a NRM - Mark Albrecht

In 1964 another new religion made its appearance on our troubled planet. It was called Eckankar, The Ancient Science of Soul Travel. The story of Eckankar is really the story of Paul Twitchell, an American journalist and eccentric occult dabbler who concocted the philosophy by blending together a variety of Eastern-occult teachings and techniques, which he vigorously promoted via the Ancient Science of Capitalism.

Eckankar is largely derived from Radha Soami’s modified Hinduism, a technique taught and practiced originally in Northern India. It is popularly known as shabda yoga, the yoga of the Audible and Visible Cosmic Current. According to this teaching, the chela (learner) attains an altered state of consciousness which enables the initiate to travel into the spirit realms, guided by the guru and/or various other spirit guides. Gnostic wisdom is thereby attained, leading to enlightenment and perfection, either in this life or successive reincarnations.

Twitchell was initiated by the “living master” Kirpal Singh into Radha Soami in 1955. Shortly thereafter, (1958) he was also involved with Scientology, and his later writings show the influences of Sufism and Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophy as well.

In 1963, Twitchell had a falling out with his master, Kirpal Singh. Some years earlier, Twitchell had combined his journalistic flair with his esoteric experiences on the “inner planes” and wrote a book about his heavenly travels called The Tiger’s Fang. He submitted the manuscript to Singh for approval, but his master replied sternly that the manuscript was “incomplete and inaccurate”.

This blow to Twitchell’s pride was the turning point in his spiritual odyssey - he gradually withdrew from Kirpal Singh’s influence and began to strike out on his own, writing many articles for spiritual and psychic magazines, gradually establishing himself as an occult spiritual authority. By late 1964, he had begun to systemize his philosophy and came up with the name Eckankar (or “Eck” as he often called it) which he defined as “The Ancient Science of Soul Travel”. In fact, the name, like most of his teachings, came from the Shabda Yoga tradition, where the term is spelled Ekonkar and means “the one supreme all-inclusive God”. The well-known Sikh Dharma Brotherhood, known also as 3H0, headed by Yogi Bhajan, also uses this word as their primary mantra. They spell it Ek-Ong-Kar — “Creator and creation are one”. The Sant Mat and Radha Soami traditions and other similar groups which employ tantric yoga and the “Sikh-Hinduism” of North India have been very influential in spawning new religious movements in the West.

As it turns out, Paul Twitchell was in the right place at the right time — California in the mid-1960’s. Culture and society were in turmoil as never before, and Twitchells zippy lectures and mail-order courses on out-of-the-body travels, Himalayan gurus and easy answers to life’s hard problems netted him many thousands of followers (and dollars) by 1970. As the money began to flow in and the number of gullible disciples grew, Mr. Twichell jacked up the prices for his “esoteric” discourses and gave himself star billing. He claimed that Eckankar was the oldest and truest religion, the fountainhead of all other faiths, and had simply been “revived” to public status due to the crises of the times. Furthermore, he asserted that he was the only true God-man alive, having received apostolic succession from a fictitious Tibetan lama named Rabazar Tarzs, who passed the “Rod of Power” to him in a cosmic ceremony on the Astral Plane in 1965. Unfortunately, it was all too much for him in the end; Twitchell died of a massive heart attack at the age of 59 in a hotel room in Cincinatti, Ohio in 1971. His successor, “Sri” Darwin Gross was apparently picked out by Paul’s widow, Gail Twitchell, after a short power struggle among the leadership. Sri Gross, who had a vocational background as a trumpet player, millworker and electronic technician, had only been in Eckankar for two years, but soon solidified his position by marrying Mrs. Twitchell. They were divorced in 1977, but Gross still retains ultimate power and authority as the “Vi-Guru” or Mahanta of the Eck movement.

Eckankar’s Teachings.

Eckankar teachings are very convoluted and self-contradicting, so a brief summary of their “belief and practice” will have to suffice. The basic scenario is taken from the eastern traditions, and Radha Soami in particular: The soul enters the world as a lower form of life, transmigrates up through the animal world and finally become human, spending many lifetimes and reincarnations before achiving enlightenment and saving liberation (through Eckankar, of course.) The final spiritual refinement is attained through initiation into Eckankar, whereupon the “Living Eck Master” (presently Darwin Gross) guides the chela through the pitfalls of the psychic and spiritual worlds, teaching secret occult wisdom and allegedly burning away much Karma. There are also interesting parallels with ancient Gnosticism. The initiates (they call themselves “Eckists”) must work their way up a cosmic ladder consisting of eleven levels or planes. An initiation is required for advancement to each level.

The theological grid which underlies Eck doctrine is a variation on Hindu monism; the godhead is called the Sugmad and each person and creature is a part of this semi-personal cosmos. One major difference in Eckankar doctrine as opposed to standard monism is that the liberated soul supposedly does not merge with the Absolute, but rather retains some vestige of personality.

The Significance of Eckankar as a New Religious Movement.

While it has not yet achieved the public notoriety of such groups as Scientology, the Unification Church, or TM, Eckankar is one of the largest international new religious movements, with an estimated membership of 50,000. A multimillion dollar corporation with satsangs (teaching centres) on all continents, its headquarters are in Menlo Park, California.

Apart from its large size and spreading sphere of influence, Eckankar provides us with one of the most interesting case histories of the evolution of a spiritual movement. It embodies almost all of the characteristics of a “made in America” religion — a recent vintage eclectic movement, combining occult philosophy and mystical experience, big money, misrepresentation of origins, rampant spiritism, manifestations of psychic phenomena, virtual veneration of the leader as God, syncretism, indoctrination, and a form of attempted mind control — not to mention the standard “esoteric gap”, that is, the difference between the image the group projects to the public and the inner truths revealed initiates. In fifteen short years, Eckankar has gone from (literally) nothing to a highly systemized belief system with a large corporate bureaucracy and an in-residence “God man” as its leader. In almost every respect, it is a perfect example of the phenomenon of spiritual mania which has so characterized the last two decades.

The Spiritual Counterfeits Project first began to research this group in 1976, and we were greatly aided by the acquisition of many of their esoteric texts. This information, along with interviews of former top Eckists and other investigative research, was combined with a superb paper on Eckankar written by a Berkerley graduate student in Theology, David Lane. The end product was a manuscript which was eventually published as a 53-paged Journal by the SCP.

When the first draft of the Journal was completed in June, 1978, we wrote a letter to Mr. Gross indicating that we were about to print a rather unflattering report on him and his organization. We asked for an interview and were assured by his secretary that he would reply, but we heard nothing from him until he arrived unannounced at our door eight months later with two corporate aides. Despite Mr. Gross’ alleged omniscience (Eckankar claims that his characteristics “include the Trinity” and that he is also omnipotent and omnipresent, as well as being Allah, Krishna, Buddha and Zeus) he failed to perceive that we were having a staff meeting at the time. The encounter that took place in the next half hour was a true classic in ecumenical dialogue. He and his aides insisted on having a copy of our manuscript. We declined and many fervent accusations were exchanged. The Mahanta and his associates left empty-handed, although the debate over our manuscript continued to rage on for several months with their law firm and other corporate representatives.

One particular sore spot for the Eckists was our documentation of Paul Twitchell’s many plagiarisms from the works of Radha Soami apologist Julian Johnson, who wrote the classic books With a Great Master in India (1933) and The Path of the Masters (1939). In the meantime, Eckankar brought (and dropped) a number of lawsuits against various authors and publishers who had written about the movement. Yet, when our Journal finally came out in September, 1979, Eckankar kept silent. Several months later we sent copies of the Journal to most Eckankar centres in the United Stated, which caused somewhat of a spiritual earthquake in the movement. The head office sent out letters to all initiates world-wide, directing all Eckists to destroy the Journals, cursing us with bad Karma and admitting to a large number of defections. Our office received hundreds of requests from Eckists for additional copies of the Journal.

A Theological Critique

Finally, Eckankar has far-reaching theological significance, not because their world view presents any real challenge to the historic biblical Christian Faith, but because it is a very good example of the type of metaphysical bedrock that is common to the vast majority of NRM5.

Eckankar, as we have noted, is only a slight revision of eastern monism or patheism. As such, the “God” of Eckankar (or of Hinduism or Buddhism, for the matter) is totally synonymous with creation. In any such closed system, the flaws, imperfections and evil inherent in the system is also of one essence with the sy­stem. Hence the God of the eastern mystics and occultists is irretrievably flawed. One can’t trust this God to deliver, for his/its foundation is cracked by the first wave of karma (negative action), which had to have arisen within the “godhead” itself. At best, such a deity is whimsical and capricious; at worst, which is far more likely the case, it is inherently and incurably malignant.

By contrast, the Biblical revelation asserts that “the mystery of iniquity” arose in God’s creatures through the abuse of free will. Consequently, evil does not emanate from God, as there is no imperfection in him. As part of divine plan he has allowed evil to “run its course”, although only for a season. Furthermore, God has taken full responsibility for the demise of his creation, even to the extreme act of love when he gave of himself in Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for sin — “once for all” as The Book of Hebrews states. Thus, the God of the Bible can be trusted to keep his promises and put away wickedness forever, as he is perfect and his perfection never changes or wavers.

“Every beneficent gift and every perfect present is from above; it descents from the Father of lights, with whom no variation occurs nor shadow cast by turning.”

— James 1:17

Copies of the SCP Journal on Eckankar can be acquired by writing to: SCP, Box 4306, Berkely, CA 94704