For most Hindus and Buddhists, unlike the younger Pliny, immortality is not a desideratum. Nirvana, taken literally, means extinction, the snuffing of a candle, and for many believers in reincarnation, howsoever they may understand it, the general idea is to escape from what is seen as an endless round of suffering, unpleasantness and disappointment, the fundamental conditions of life according to Buddhism’s first axiom. This is certainly also the case for the Radhasoami faith, whose founder opens his testament, the Sar Bachan, with the words: ‘This world is perishable and so are all worldly things. The sage is one who realises the transient nature of this world and all things pertaining to it.’ For him, the fact that existence is ‘a round of births and deaths’ filled with misery hardly needs emphasis, and he gets right to the business of escape. Military, political, medical, dental, nutritional and sanitary conditions in the India of Seth Shiv Dyal Singh must have been pretty similar to those at the time of the Buddha. As humans were all but guaranteed materially difficult and painful lives, the followers would hardly need to be reminded of the ever-present fact of suffering.
The great projects of mystical Buddhism and Hinduism share with Modernity the theme of escape from suffering, but throw the would-be escapist back on his or her own inner resources, whereas the Modern relies for the reduction of distress on machines, drugs, chemicals, weapons and all the other fruits that pour from the cornucopia of technological science. Another difference is that, by and large, the mystical project can be pursued within one’s own consciousness, whereas the palliatives offered within our society all have to be bought, as Modernity is at heart an economic affair.
The adaptation of Buddhism to the West really got under way in the 1970s, when Japanese Zen teachers and exiled Tibetan Buddhist teachers, having learned Western languages and made some acquaintance with the mysterious beliefs and practices of modern Western people, began to make an impact on Western religious life. At the same time, the hippie and counter-cultural movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s eagerly embraced all things mysterious and Oriental, including several of the many varieties of Buddhism and Hinduism. Over the next thirty or so years, this trend coincided with the worldwide consolidation of global capital, with its far-reaching systems of distribution and marketing. Towards the end of this period, the global system began to reach limits of growth. There are no more ‘uninhabited’ Lowvelds available for physical expansion, but grow we must. The result has been the expansion of commerce into regions previously outside its ambit. Culture, education, and whatever else business could appropriate have been appropriated, or soon will be. Under the current dispensation, educational institutions market packages to learner clients, people are dressed as walking advertisements, cultural activities become commercial transactions instead of the glue of families and communities, and religions must turn themselves into multi-million enterprises or go under.
Western Buddhism has adapted, particularly in the US, by retaining those values within Buddhism that are desirable to modern Westerners, and ignoring or glossing over those aspects of the system that seem incon-venient or even plain silly to them. Under this dispensation, Buddhism has largely ceased to be a monastic practice dependant on the generosity of the laity, becoming instead a system of competing, market-oriented religious businesses offering products ranging from teachings, retreats and initiations to a wide variety of objects and paraphernalia specifically manufactured for sale to Buddhists or would-be Buddhists. Whether this form is a suitable one for the Buddha-dharma remains to be seen.
One of the tenets of the Radhasoami faith since its inception is that their method of practice may not be sold, nor may their teachers charge fees for the teachings they offer or any other aspect of their activity. In spite of this stricture, none of the Radhasoami schools have been averse to accepting donations in the name of their organizations, or to using that money for relief of the suffering of others, or their own suffering, or some combination of both. Although the faith is an avowedly mystical one, it shares with modernity the notion that material good works are desirable and can be bought with money.
Several of the gurus of the forty or so organizations that trace their roots back to Shiv Dyal Singh have found ways of receiving money, or sexual favours, or whatever perks of office religious leaders, like other leaders, can manage. There is no evidence that the gurus of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas, the lineage that set up a branch in White River, ever indulged in this sort of thing.
While being regarded as a Perfect Living Master and surrounded by adoring, indeed worshipful disciples might be seen as a perk in itself, it is also a duty requiring hard work. The exercise of power may be regarded as another perk, and critics of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas have pointed out that the gaddi or mantle of the guru has remained within a single family, excepting a four-year interregnum, since 1903. This powerful family has certainly received from their followers in cash and kind, but the evidence is that, in general, they have not abused these gifts: they have used them to provide infrastructure to the organization, to provide free food and to heal the sick.
One particularly interesting feature of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas is the degree to which the organization has resisted globalization. A worldwide religious establishment with well over a million followers, they do not advertise in any medium, attend conferences, or take part in ecumenical activities. Beyond the books published by and distributed through the organization, they do not sell any goods or services to the satsangis. They do not proselytize on the streets or anywhere else. On the Internet, where there is a few vociferous voices of opposition to their activities, they do not have a website, even though there are computers at the Dera, their headquarters. They do not have a logo or other emblem. Their meetings are not advertised, for example, in Link-Up, the Cape Town publication that lists New Age, Oriental and holistic activities. It is a word-of-mouth operation.