March 3, 2014 | Comment

Neville Hodgkinson (Global Retreat Centre, UK)

denise_scottoWhen I first met the BKs, in 1981, I was attracted by what seemed to me to be a rare generosity of spirit. I felt this had become depleted in myself, after years of living in what I was beginning to realise had been a rather narrow, self-centred way. I loved their “giving” ways of doing things, and became a regular student because I wanted to be more like that myself. The peaceful atmosphere in the centres uplifted me and I felt great joy whenever I visited.

As I followed the recommended lifestyle, the battery of my inner being developed a positive charge, increasing my own ability to be more appreciative and accepting in my relationships in the home and at work. This reinforced my determination to continue with my practice of Raja Yoga. When someone asked me, soon after I had started, why I was a BK, I replied that it was to improve my character.

It therefore came as a surprise to me when I read in an internet posting some years later that the BKs were a “millenarian cult”. I was not even sure what millenarian meant, but it was clear from the context that the writer did not intend to be complimentary.

Wikipedia says the term comes from the Latin millenarius, “containing a thousand”, and is “the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed. Millenarianism is a concept or theme that exists in many cultures and religions.” Well, I have now faced the fact that BK teachings are definitely millenarian in character, and in this article I set out some of the reasons why I think such ways of thinking not just hold appeal to many, but have real value for humanity.

Visions of a forthcoming global transformation were a central motivation of Brahma Baba’s in taking the dramatic steps that brought the Brahma Kumaris into being. He saw “end times” of mass physical destruction, though he was clear that the human soul is eternal and never dies. Those apocalyptic scenes were followed by glimpses of a golden age of humanity – of heaven on Earth. He developed the conviction that time runs in an ever-repeating closed loop, and that these were prophetic visions of a period soon to come. He felt that the urgent call of this time was to restore the pure consciousness that would fit us for the return of paradise, and that women – God’s “Shakti Army” – would take the lead in this task.

Thus it was that he sold his prospering diamond business, gave the proceeds in trust to the founding sisters, and incurred the wrath of many in his community by advocating sexual abstinence as vital to the renewal of spirit that would bring about a renewed world.

During the first 14 years of the movement, from 1937-1950, a group of 300-400 lived in a semi-closed community in Karachi. This period spanned the violent partition of India as well as the terrible events of the 1939-45 War, and they sensed that every year could be their last.

The sisters felt that by sacrificing their material consciousness in a fire of love, they were releasing a divine power that is in us all. As this spiritual fire grew, it would be accompanied by the death of the old world, with all its sorrow and imperfections, making way for numerous generations of unbroken happiness.

The founding members tried to alert others to their beliefs. A 1943 document sent to many prominent people, including the King and Queen of England as well as Indian political and religious leaders, declared: “Practically the whole world has to face annihilation in the conflagration ignited through the power of this Divine Yagya.”

This and other detailed and elaborately worded documents of similar tone survive to this day in the British Museum and elsewhere. They probably became something of an embarrassment to the leaders of the movement as it grew in strength and respectability, and were only brought to light in recent years by BK researchers in lands outside India.

The founders were a small and embattled group, facing many obstacles. But the power of their belief motivated them to make huge efforts in detaching from their physical identity and renewing awareness of their own divinity. The resulting joy that they experienced brought about a profound desire to help others grow spiritually, and this has powered the movement in its work across the world ever since.

Nearly 80 years on, and with a few predicted dates for the final transformation having been and gone, a number of observers have expressed skepticism of the millenarian character of the movement’s origins and beliefs.

Nevertheless the idea that we are in end times remains a core understanding, shared on an almost daily basis among regular BK practitioners. It acts as a spur to spiritual effort, though individuals differ greatly in the intensity of their faith and acceptance of this aspect of the teachings.

In India, where there are now nearly one million adherents of BK understandings and practices, the huge social benefits the lifestyle brings are widely appreciated. Though relatively few in number in other lands, regular practitioners share with hundreds of thousands of others the spiritual love and wisdom they have brought into their own lives.

Why is it that the “end of the world is nigh” impulse can produce such positive, life affirming effects, yet can also lead to a bunker mentality – the “doomsday cult” – that is anything but socially constructive? The difference may lie in how the impulse is used. If it supports teachings and a lifestyle directed towards knowing the divine dimension of reality, which has love at its roots and is essentially non-violent, there can be profound benefit. If however it is used as a psychological ploy to inflate the ego, and support a sense of self divorced from spiritual growth, the consequences can be dire. I believe this can happen at both the individual and group level.

A second question that haunted me for years in my own spiritual journey concerned the factual validity of a millenarian outlook. Major faiths have long foretold the coming of a pure world. Had I embraced an understanding that despite helping me develop spiritually, was in truth a fantasy to which human beings are prone?

The fact that millenarianism has such a long history of failed prophecy could well be taken to support that view. However, the BK understanding of an eternally repeating cycle of time allows for an alternative explanation. This is that an awareness of the upheaval accompanying the transition from the old world to the new is deep within all of us. It has probably surfaced throughout history at times of crisis, even though these were not actual end times.

That leads to a third question, namely: even if there is an apocalyptic turn of events at some time in human history, what are the grounds for thinking it could be now? Here, there tends to be a divide between those who hold a spiritual outlook, and those with a materialistic world view. The former allows for the continuity of consciousness and a sense that God, or Nature, constantly brings benefit from seeming disaster. This optimism allows one to face the possibility that the massive expansion of the human population over the past 80-100 years is unsustainable; that environmental degradation, climate change, pressure on water and food supplies, huge nuclear stockpiles, and pandemic levels of sorrow and depression really do signal the approach of an era of transformation, from old to new.

To the extent that one defines reality in material terms, however, the idea of leaving this old world, even with all its imperfections, could seem intolerable. One might feel scorn or anger towards those suggesting there could be value in “letting go”, like a person suffering terminal illness but in denial about their impending departure. Such are the complexities of ideas and feelings surrounding millenarianism.

Dadi Janki, head of the Brahma Kumaris, has quite often spoken of not being “date conscious”, but of having accepted from the earliest days of the movement, in the mid-1930s, Brahma Baba’s insight that we were entering an age of transition. Towards the end of his life, he spoke quite often of this “confluence” between the old and the new worlds lasting about 100 years.

To me, looking at the current state of the world, that seems credible…but if it turns out to be yet another failed prediction, and a different solution to our problems is found, such that the intense and increasing sorrow and peacelessness already prevalent are removed by some other means, well…that will not be the end of the world!


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