DALLAS – (KRT) – Dadi Janki strains to hear the questions. But her dark eyes flash intensely as she explains the tenets of her faith.
“God says to open your eyes,” she said through a translator. “He says each and every soul knows exactly what is sin.”
Dadi Janki (“Dadi” means “elder sister” in Hindi) is no average theologian. She’s the No. 2 leader of the Brahma Kumaris, a faith with more than 700,000 adherents worldwide. She was in Dallas last month as part of an international tour.
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Brahma Kumaris (“sisters of God”) is one of more than 800 new religious movements operating in the United States. Most are New Age amalgams of many traditions. Some, like Brahma Kumaris, are obvious spinoffs from of older religions (in this case, Hinduism).
Perhaps 5 million people follow these faiths in the United States, less than 2 percent of the population. But experts say they’re more interesting and more important than their numbers suggest.
“They become important because they revivify the whole tradition,” said Gordon Melton, an authority on new religious movements. So church renewal movements like Vineyard and Calvary Chapel put a charge into Christianity, he said.
They can affect international relations. The Falun Gong, for instance, make sure their claim of persecution at the hands of the Chinese government is heard in many other nations.
And new religious movements challenge the faithful in other traditions. “They make me consider questions I never would have asked,” said the Rev. John Saliba, a Jesuit priest and professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. They’re spiritual “experiments” that can be studied to figure out how religion works. Sociologists track these movements the way genetic biologists focus on fruit flies.
And once in a while, they make the big time.
Academics say that only five religious traditions are now in at least 200 nations. Four were born in the last 175 years: Baha’i, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. (The fifth on the list is Roman Catholicism.)
BABA HAD VISIONS OF GOD
She was a young woman in what is now Pakistan when she realized she had been called to a new faith.
“When I first met Baba, I felt that all the hopes and desires of my life were fulfilled – instantly!” Dadi Janki said, snapping her fingers.
Her audience laughed with delight. About 75 strong, they filled the Dallas-area “meditation center” of the Brahma Kumaris a couple of weeks ago.
They listened to one of their faith’s most important leaders explain how she was struck by the kind of spiritual thunderbolt that hit Saul on the road to becoming Paul, or Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree as he grew into being the Buddha. That moment for Dadi Janki came in the late 1930s. “Baba” was originally a wealthy Hindu grain merchant and diamond trader named Lekh Raj. When he turned 60, visions told him that he was channeling the spirit of God, and that he’d been chosen to return truth to an ignorant world.
He adopted new names, eventually settling on Brahma Baba – “Father God.” In 1937, he formally founded the Brahma Kumaris, “sisters of God.” (Among Baba’s revelations was the notion that women deserved more control of religious institutions. So he put women in charge.)
Baba Brahma’s tale of himself as a leader chosen by God follows a pattern in many longstanding religions and in many of the hundreds of new religious movements in the world today. More than 800 of these movements have a foothold in the United States.
Most are New Age, with a vague sense of spirituality that appeals to Western seekers.
Brahma Kumaris, on the other hand, have a specific set of core beliefs similar to some
Hindu traditions. In America and elsewhere, most “students,” as they call their followers, are members of Indio-Pakistani families.
Considering that most new religions die with their founders, the Brahma Kumaris (who often refer to themselves as “BK”) count as unusually successful.
When Baba died in 1969, he had tens of thousands of followers, mostly in India. Today, the organization claims more than 700,000 students, men and women, in 90 nations. As with any religion, numbers of true adherents are hard to confirm, and not all of those who call themselves Brahma Kumaris follow all of the standards of the faith, including strict celibacy and ovo-vegetarianism.
Their 5,000 meditation centers include four in Texas. The Dallas-area center is in a house in Irving, across the street from a car wash and around the corner from an auto insurance office.
Like the most private of clubs, there’s no sign outside. Part of the inside has been converted into a peaceful, art-filled sanctuary.
That was where Dadi Janki sat one recent morning offering rambling recollections of Baba and patiently, if not always straightforwardly, responding to a reporter’s questions.
The night before, she spoke to a crowd twice as large at the downtown Dallas public library. That session consisted mostly of aphorisms:
“Even in your dreams and in your thoughts, everyone should benefit.”
“You are the child of the remover of unhappiness and the bestower of life.”
Dadi’s almost palpable aura of energy belies her age. Before arriving in Dallas, she’d been in New York. In the next few days, she’d see Mexico and California as part of a regular travel schedule that makes the younger Pope John Paul II seem like a homebody.
In the 1970s, she became coordinator for activities outside India. She’s now second in the BK hierarchy only to Dadi Prakashmani, one of the original eight Baba put in charge in 1937.
Dadi Janki had no trouble handling more than an hour of questions passed through translators.
“Baba has told us many years ago that journalists would come here and understand the material and disseminate it to the rest of the world,” she said.
Some of the material is not easy for a newcomer. Dadi and other leaders call it “subtle.” To others, “contradictory” may seem more apt.
For instance: Baba taught that humanity is stuck on an unchanging wheel of the ages. Every 5,000 years, the cycle repeats. Exactly as before. Like a movie playing over and over.
Sister Denise, Dadi Janki’s British-born translator, said we would all be in the same room 5,000 years hence. And the reporter would be wearing the same yellow tie.
On the other hand, the Brahma Kumaris talk about self-improvement. They run hospitals, feed the poor and emphasize day-to-day hospitality. And they teach that meditation allows God to burn away the bad karma that creates suffering.
But if we are unalterably fated to repeat, age after countless age, what’s the point of trying to improve?
It’s subtle, Dadi explained. A soul who is aware of his or her role in the unchanging human drama is free from sorrow.
“Once you get the point you will be very intoxicated,” she said.
And, really, is this any harder to follow than a five-point Calvinist explaining the point of evangelizing if God predestined all actions before the creation of the world? Or any pastor, rabbi or imam explaining what free will means if God already knows exactly what’s going to happen?
Every religion has aspects of faith that seem reasonable to believers and irrational to nonbelievers. Since people are more likely to find the tradition they grew up with reasonable, that limits the number willing to explore. Still, in America, between 3 million and 5 million people are counted as serious followers of new religious movements.
Drawn by the promise of self-improvement through meditation, a steady trickle of American seekers visit Sister Ranjan, the coordinator of the Irving Brahma Kumari center.
Regina Parker is a registered nurse who discovered the movement in 2001. Raised Baptist back in Virginia, she’d been seeking a more satisfying spiritual path for a while when she discovered the BK center in Austin. Since then, she’s visited the headquarters in India and has become a regular at the Irving center.
“I just know the truth as I know it,” she said. “It all makes sense.”
But not everyone who finds the path stays with it. The philosophy of rigid predestination, a steady pressure to accept more of the core teachings, and the suggestion that followers must dramatically alter their lives eventually discourage casual visitors.
Kathryn Karpf may be edging that way. She was at Dadi’s morning talk. She had been drawn to BK a few months earlier, when a fellow yoga student told her about the free meditation training.
Karpf said she’d been going through a rough patch and was up for any training that would bring her some peace of mind. She’d been raised Jewish but has had little contact with that tradition for a while, she said.
The meditation was fine. The other elements of BK teachings have become increasingly less so, she said.
“The more I listen to them I hear exclusion, that `we are the chosen ones,'” she said. “That bothers me.”
The Brahma Kumaris do teach that Baba’s followers are chosen for special roles. But Dadi Janki was careful not to publicly criticize other religions during her visit.
“I may go a lot less frequently than I have been,” Karpf said. “I don’t do well when someone tries to push me in a little box and make me do something.”