Hinduism Brahma Kumaris
by
Tamasin Ramsay
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0191

Introduction

The Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya (Brahma Kumaris) is categorized three ways by scholars: as a millenarian New Religious Movement, as a new religion, and as a Hindu sect. By contrast, the Brahma Kumaris members (BKs) identify their community as a family (with spiritual kin), a school (for spiritual learning), and a hospital (to heal spiritual illness). They do not see themselves as belonging to a religion, but to a teaching institution (primarily in Asia and the Russian Federation) or a spiritual path (primarily in Europe, North America, and Australia) that has been established to restore human souls to their original purity, thereby restoring the world to its Golden Age origins. The community was formally established in 1936, as a trust comprising young women, but its formation can be traced back to 1932. The founder was a middle-aged successful jeweler, Lekhraj Koobchand Kripalani (b. 1884–d. 1969), residing in Hyderabad (in pre-Partition India). He was of the Bhaiband caste and a devotee of the Vallabhacharya sect. Kripalani was in his fifties when he had a series of visions and internal realizations of himself as the god Vishnu and a 5,000-year cycle of time that would change the course of his life. During that period, those in his neighborhood—primarily women and children whose husbands were on extensive travel for work—would gather together at his home in satsang. These 200–300 early devotees became known as “Om Mandli” because of their habit of chanting “om” after Lekhraj’s readings of the Bhagavad Gita. Many had visionary and transcendental experiences, and the group drew on Hindu mythology and Vedanta philosophy to make sense of their experiences. Brahmacharya (living a celibate and virtuous life in order to realize God) was the bedrock of the movement. In 1951 the small local group of kin that characterized the early gathering left Pakistan and moved to Rajasthan, India. After having been a cloistered community in the 1930s and 1940s, BKs started teaching throughout India in the 1950s, making their first international impression at the World Religious Congress in Japan in 1954. In 1971 the organization established its first overseas center in London. The early 1980s was a period of rapid expansion and legitimization: hundreds of centers were established internationally, and the Brahma Kumaris established itself as a respected nongovernmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations, a position the organization has held for thirty-five years. The Brahma Kumaris is active at the United Nations and has a number of long-term NGO representatives to the United Nations. The organization now has approximately one million adherents in around 130 countries.

General Overviews

The most popular overview, and the one used broadly by scholars and BK practitioners alike, is the highly revered book Chander 1983, written by a senior brother within the movement. The emotive and descriptive nature of this seminal text ensures its position as a key reference book, despite its factual inaccuracies. Some of the earliest fieldwork of the Brahma Kumaris was presented in Babb 1984, which classified the organization as a Hindu sect. This has since been further explored in Barz 1992, debated in Kranenborg 1999, and modified in Walliss 2007. Chowdhry 1996 offers important contextual information about Sindhi and the social forces it exerted upon Om Mandli. The social and political impact of Partition “Partition,” on the burgeoning group, shaped their conduct, practices, and outreach. Hodgkinson 2002 presents, in a sympathetic and journalistic style, the organization’s history and the heart of purity that has driven the organization to notable success in the international domain. Whaling 2012 offers a broad and sympathetic sweep of the movement based on research Whaling conducted in the 1990s, but other works are richer in their ethnographic depth. By nature of the close involvement of the authors, who are practitioner scholars from within the group, and whose works capture more of the intimate cultural and esoteric nuances of the movement, Nagel 1999 and Ramsay 2009 include deeper hermeneutical understandings of scriptural texts, and of notions of purity and the impact they have had on concepts of life, death, and disaster for BKs.

  • Babb, Lawrence A. “Indigenous Feminism in a Modern Hindu Sect.” Signs 9.3 (1984): 399–416.

    DOI: 10.1086/494068E-mail Citation »

    Babb explains how the Brahma Kumaris must be looked at through the lens of Hinduism to be properly understood. He reviews the group in cultural context, and offers compelling evidence of its position as a Hindu sect. Babb expands upon the ways in which the teachings incorporate and adapt many Hindu teachings about women and their role in the downfall of the world.

  • Barz, Richard K. “A Reinterpretation of Bhakti Theology: From the Pustimārg to the Brahma Kumaris.” In Devotional Literature in South Asia: Current Research 1985–1988. Edited by R. S. McGregor, 298–313. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Barz looks with bifocal attention at the Vallabhacharya sect and the teachings of the Brahma Kumaris, because Vallabha provided the spiritual background of Lekhraj, the organization’s founder. Barz draws parallels and distinctions between Vallabhacharya and Brahma Kumaris that serve to classify the Brahma Kumaris as a bhakti movement within the broad school of Hinduism.

  • Chander, Jagdish. Adi Dev: The First Man. 2d ed. Edited by Robert Shubow. Mount Abu, India: Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    A widely cited primary source document, Adi Dev is rich, heart-warming and descriptive. Chander embeds the spiritual understanding from the 1960s within historical events of the 1930s and 1940s, giving the impression that the knowledge was bestowed instantaneously upon the founder. Conversely, the Brahma Kumaris theology evolved over thirty years to become the relatively static body of knowledge it is today. Chander’s errors are widely perpetuated in other works.

  • Chowdhry, Prem. “Marriage, Sexuality and the Female ‘Ascetic’: Understanding a Hindu Sect.” Economic and Political Weekly 31.34 (1996): 2307–2321.

    E-mail Citation »

    Beautifully written and rigorous in its detail, Chowdhry elucidates the social, cultural, and political tensions at the time of Om Mandli’s founding. She reflects upon its remarkable success, especially given its revolutionary beginnings; Om Mandli offered a social space outside of the cultural tensions of the time, where women could exist with agency and autonomy without the restrictions of marriage, while still maintaining a sense of worth and family.

  • Hodgkinson, Liz. Peace and Purity: The Story of the Brahma Kumaris; A Spiritual Revolution. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Hodgkinson writes the revolutionary history of the Brahma Kumaris in India, and then tracks its expansion to Europe, America, and Australia, all beginning from a house in London. Hodgkinson tells her story of being married to a dedicated BK, drawing on stories of others to illustrate the incessant drive of peace and purity in the heart of BKs lives and so of the movement.

  • Kranenborg, Reender. “Brahma Kumaris: A New Religion.” Paper presented at CESNUR 99, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Turin, Italy: Center for Studies on New Religions, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This conference paper suspends the ease with which one easily classifies a spiritual community less than one hundred years of age as a New Religious Movement by looking at the factors that distinguish new religions from New Religious Movements. Kranenborg suggests that the Brahma Kumaris may indeed fit the criteria of a novel religion.

  • Nagel, Stephan. “Brahmas geheime Schöpfung: Die indische Reformbewegung der Brahma Kumaris.” DTh, diss., Philipps Univerität, Marburg (University of Marburg), 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Nagel’s work is a highly reflective and precise scholarly work with deep hermeneutical analysis of murli, the movement’s primary scripture. He explores the historic and esoteric worlds of the Brahma Kumaris, and offers a rare glimpse into that often-hidden mystical world, usually the privilege only of close members.

  • Ramsay, Tamasin. “Custodians of Purity: An Ethnography of the Brahma Kumaris.” PhD diss., Monash University, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    An anthropological ethnography, Ramsay asks how BKs make sense of disaster, given their millenarian philosophy and worldview. The outcome is a novel and extensive understanding of purity and the ways in which this notion allows BKs to reinterpret personal, “natural,” and “man-made” disaster. This thesis illustrates the ways in which purity shapes the inner musings and external outreach of members.

  • Walliss, John. The Brahma Kumaris as a “Reflexive Tradition”: Responding to Late Modernity. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Walliss articulates a core dilemma within the Brahma Kumaris that exists with New Religious Movements in general: being involved with positive social programs to improve the world, while simultaneously holding a theology that believes the world is doomed. Walliss identifies four key patterns of membership and also offers an explanation of the adjustments and modifications that members make in order to be able to successfully negotiate this core dilemma.

  • Whaling, Frank. Understanding the Brahma Kumaris. Understanding Faith Series. Edinburgh: Dunedin, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Whaling draws on research conducted in the 1990s to write this contemporary publication that offers a congenial précis of the Brahma Kumaris’s history, organization, and outreach. While it is one of the very few general books written on the Brahma Kumaris, it falls short of its potential depth in exploring this complex and multifaceted movement. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile introductory text.

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