I can trace my ancestry back as far as Thomas Knox, who was born in 1754. The Radhasoami line of gurus sometimes traces its lineage to Tulsi Sahib, a guru from Hathras who was born nine years after Knox, in 1763. Under British rule, Islam, the religion of the previous rulers, was put on an equal plane with Hinduism in a policy of non-interference, and there was a resur-gence of Hindu piety and practice. Tulsi’s contribution to Indian spirituality was in formalising the Sant Mat (way of the saints or gurus) tradition in north-eastern India, following on from the teachings of Kabir, Nanak and many others. Two prominent members of his flock in the early 1800s were Dilwali Singh and his wife Mahamaya. This exceptional couple had three sons, Shiv Dayãl, Rai Bindraban, and Partap Singh, each of whom was to become a guru in the Sant Mat tradition. The wives of Shiv Dayãl and Rai Bindraban became gurus as well. These three brothers were not run-of-the-mill teachers – they founded three large religious groupings, each of which have followers to this day. Shiv Dayãl Singh, known as Radhasoami Maharaj, founded the Radhasoami faith in Agra; the middle brother, Rai Bindraban, founded the Bindrabani Sect in Fyzabad; and the Dhara Sindhu Partap movement was established in honour of Seth Partap Singh, the youngest brother.
Rai Bindraban and Shiv Dayãl started their missions around 1860, shortly after the Sepoy Rebellion and the unrelated death of Lord Dalhousie. Bindraban was by far the most showy and successful of the brothers. He had disciples by the thousands, spoke English well, and gave talks wearing a black Victorian frock-coat and top hat. He had many European disciples, and it is related that in March, 1870, he arrived at the Kumbha Mela festival preceded by a dozen elephants, each bearing a gorgeous flag. He himself was seated crowned in the decorated howdah, where his attendant fanned him with a whisk. He was regarded by many as an incarnation of Jesus Christ, perhaps because of his non-Indian ways.
It was, however, Shiv Dayãl’s Radhasoami philosophy which was to have the larger impact, for while the Bindrabanis still persist in small numbers, there are now perhaps five million religious practitioners in India and elsewhere who can trace their lineage directly back to his elder brother. Though Shiv Dayãl’s ministry was more modest than Bindraban’s, it appears that the teachings that they advocated were essentially the same.
The religion that Shiv Dayãl promulgated in the 1860s was an eclectic one, reflecting the turbulent history of north-eastern India. Together with a smattering of Vedantic non-dualism, elements of Hindu and Sikh devotional religion were blended with Islamic practices and beliefs, drawing especially from the Sufi tendency within Islam, which emphasizes the mystical. Shiv Dayãl’s monotheism subsumed the Hindu gods – rather than abolishing them, the new hierarchy relegated them to a position lower than the One True God, Anami, the Nameless. There were even some elements drawn in from the fragmentation of North Indian Tantric Buddhism, such as an emphasis on Sunya, the Void. Shiv Dayãl’s new religious synthesis saw the human body as having an energetic aspect, and taught a system of controlling and ‘traversing’ this energy body by using visualization, mantra, and inner absorption in light and sound. It can thus be classified among the Tantras, a term from which some Radhasoamis might recoil because of its connotation of sensualism.
In the Radhasoami religion, the guru is regarded somewhat as Jesus is regarded in Christianity: he or she is a God-realised being, one with the highest God, but is at the same time also an ordinary human. Thus the person of the guru becomes the object of devotion, the teacher, guide, counsellor, friend, bridegroom, beloved, father God. If the guru or guruni becomes the parent, it is the Word or logos that will effect the transformation of the disciple, and, indeed, the authors of Radhasoami literature often make use of this Greek term.
When they use the word, however, they do not mean it in the sense that Plato’s Socrates uses it in the Phaedrus. Rather, they mean a spiritual sound that can, they claim, be apprehended within the mind of any human, if the correct techniques for hearing it are used. This spiritual sound is at the same time a radiance that can be seen, felt and followed through the in-ternal energy body. If the devotee merges with this logos, as the guru has done, it can be followed all the way to unity with the Nameless, and liberation can be achieved.
The newly synthesized teaching incorporated very few of the chauvinisms current in the social order – a certain sexism not surprisingly crept into the system, but markedly less than in the surrounding Indian milieu. Caste was rejected, although persons of wealth and high status usually received better treatment from gurus, a practice which persists to some degree in the various Radhasoami schools.
After Shiv Dayãl’s death in 1878, and perhaps even during his lifetime, the mission was subject to schism and fragmentation. By now there are perhaps forty or more organizations that could trace their origins back to him.
One breakaway movement was started near Amritsar, by Jaimal Singh, a soldier who might have fought on either side in the Sepoy Rebellion (which is often said to have been the direct result of Dalhousie’s harsh policies). During that conflict, he served with an unnamed regiment until it was disbanded. After 1857, he served in the Twenty-fourth Sikh Regiment until his retirement in 1889. Thereafter he withdrew to the Punjab where he founded a small ashram on the banks of the Beas River. In a tradition that places much emphasis on authentic and verifiable transmission of the role of guru from generation to generation, Jaimal had neither his guru’s will nor any other document appointing him to his position. Shiv Dayãl had appointed several others to this role before his death, some of whom were hostile to Jaimal’s mission. In spite of this hitch in the succession, the Beas ashram prospered. Under the subsequent guidance of Sawan Singh, his grandson Charan Singh and his great-grandson Gurinder Singh, the present guru at Beas, the centre has grown to the proportions of a large town, and has a following of over a million, with branches worldwide, but mostly in India. It has been numerically the most successful of the many sects that stem from Shiv Dayãl. And it was this strand that Sir Colin Garbett brought from India to South Africa, which Lesley encountered in the late 1960s, and to which she committed the remainder of her life.
The faith that Sir Colin introduced to White River was not identical to that of Shiv Dayãl, for the movement had, from early on, included occultists, freemasons, theosophists, seekers of the Wisdom of the East and others from the West with mystical inclinations, and the version of the faith that was exported, in English, had been re-interpreted, with occult and fabulous content included, such as the lost continents of Lemuria and Atlantis, and baroque versions of cosmic history, in particular The Path of the Masters by an American follower by the name of Julian P. Johnson.
But the export version of the faith did have in it the core of the teachings – the necessity for the living God-man or guru, the inner sound and light, the mantras, the technique of meditating, and the philosophy which was a reflection of North Indian religious history. It also included the Radhasoami faith’s moral and practical principles: strict vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol (and later drugs), abstinence from sex outside of marriage, honesty and compassion in all relations, and two and a half hours of meditation daily.