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Eckankar as a New Religious Movement
Offshoots of Eckankar
Just as Eckankar’s growth and flourishing was affected by numerous spiritual, cultural, and structural factors, Eckankar itself has also influenced numerous New Religious Movement offshoots. These offshoots include: the Movement of the Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), Masterpath, The Ancient Teachings of the Masters (ATOM), The Divine Science of Light and Sound, the Sonic Spectrum, and the Higher Consciousness Society. According to scholar David Lane, “Each of the founders of these [NRM] groups was at one time a member of Eckankar, and they have incorporated many of the ECK terms into their respective organizations.”1
What do we make of Eckankar?2
Despite critiques of Eckankar from the anti-cult movement and other groups, according to journalist Maja Beckstrom, “religion scholars have called [ECK] the most successful new religion to emerge from the spiritually turbulent 1960s.” Robert Ellwood, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, originally criticized the possible longevity of a religion like ECK, “Eckankar looked sort of small and not too promising,” he said. “It was making a lot of wild claims that I wasn’t sure would hold up. But it turns out I was wrong. Although those groups are still around today, they certainly don’t have as many followers as Eckankar.” Since Eckankar was revealed to the public in 1965 by ECK Master Paul Twitchell, “it has evolved from a fringe sect that emphasized out-of-body experiences to an international religious organization that wraps itself in the trappings of mainstream faith” like a large, suburban religious complex in the style of Christian mega churches, and potlucks, discussion groups, and community gatherings as part of its religious agenda.
Religion scholars have called [ECK] the most successful new religion to emerge from the spiritually turbulent 1960s.
While ECKists claim that the religion is expanding in popularity, Eckankar, like most NRMs, has faced criticism since its appearance in the public eye over questions of its authenticity and legitimacy. David Lane, a professor of philosophy at Mount San Antonio College in California, began studying ECK in the 1970s while a student at California State University at Northridge. “Lane claims Twitchell [the ECK Master who revealed Eckankar in 1965] did not travel to India as he claimed or learn from ECK Masters in the spiritual worlds. Instead, Lane says, Twitchell created Eckankar out of a blend of Scientology, Theosophy, and the Radhasoami movement, an offshoot of Sikhism.” Lane also claims that Twitchell “plagiarized, lied, and covered up” certain facts about both himself and Eckankar in articles and books. Lane claims that his outspoken criticism of Eckankar led to an exodus from the faith in the 1970s.
You can’t only judge something by where it came from. You also have to look at where it is today. And the Eckankar people I have met strike me as very sincere and very spiritual. —Robert Ellwood, Professor of Religion at USC
Much of the fear, confusion, and critique of Eckankar as a religion and as an organization is based on public perceptions (and misperceptions) about New Religious Movements. Ellwood, the USC professor of Religion, urges us to think differently about critiques of Eckankar. He notes, “Does the fact there is some plagiarism or fabrication in the founding mean that people’s experience in Eckankar is not authentic? No, I don’t think so. There is a lot we don’t know about the historical claims of mainline established religions like Christianity and Islam. You can’t only judge something by where it came from. You also have to look at where it is today. And the Eckankar people I have met strike me as very sincere and very spiritual.” While it seems impossible to define clearly which religious or spiritual paths “count” as genuine, authentic, and legitimate religions, as citizens of a multi-faceted and religiously diverse nation and world, it is imperative that we open a dialogue regarding these questions.
We must probe the reasons for and logic behind our acceptance of certain religious traditions and our rejection of others. What are the implications of our definitions of real religion? Whom do we leave out when we discuss religion in a particular way? To what extent can or should we legitimate any religious tradition?
- David Christopher Lane, “Eckankar,” in Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America, Volume 3, ed. Eugene V. Gallagher and W. Michael Ashcraft (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006),130. ↩
All remaining quotes on this page from: Maja Beckstrom, “Tapping Into The Eck,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, November 1, 1997, 1D. ↩