Saints, Teachers, and Seekers in the Indian Tradition
Founder of Eckankar: The Ancient Science of Soul Travel
Paul Twitchell was an American journalist and novelist who explored a variety of religious traditions during the nineteen-forties and fifties. He was interested in Scientology, Yogananda's Self Realization Fellowship, Theosophy, the New Thought movement, and the Radha Soamis (a group that most closely resembles the mainstream Sikh tradition of Northwestern India).
In the biography "In My Soul I Am Free" written by Brad Steiger, Steiger details Paul's early life in the small Kentucky town of China Point (a name Paul used as a cover-name for Paducah, Kentucky). Paul had been adopted by his father under mysterious circumstances. His stepmother clearly resented having to raise him.
Paul's father traveled often, and had met an Indian holy man while visiting Europe. This teacher taught him how to leave the physical body during meditation. Paul reported that his father and this teacher corresponded often. The teacher would also leave his body to visit Paul's father to give him spiritual instruction.
Paul's father then taught his older sister Kay-Dee this out-of-body technique.
When Paul was five years old, he became very sick with pleurisy, and was near death. His sister arrived on the scene, and practiced this out-of-body technique to give Paul a spiritual healing. How this out-of-body technique became a means of healing is unspecified. She pulled Paul out of his body and then proceeded with the healing. She was successful in healing him, and at getting Paul to return to his body afterwards when he was reluctant to do so. This was Paul's first experience of "bilocation" as he called it.
Afterwards, Kay-Dee taught Paul how to leave his physical body at will. Paul claims that he and his sister would play games while in the out-of-body state, sailing around the yard, and scaring the barnyard animals.
When Paul was sixteen he, accompanied by his sister, traveled to Paris where she would attend art school. They then both went on to India to spend time in the ashram of their father's guru in Allahabad. Steiger reports that Paul's day-to-day activities at the ashram were "too esoteric for the general reader". He does not give much detail about Paul's experience during that year of his life. He does say that much of the information presented in his later teachings derives from that ashram experience.
Paul says of his teacher during his year's study:
He would come to each of us while we were asleep and take us out in our Atma Sarup to some far corner of the inner planes where he would give us instruction in Eckankar, the Ancient Science of Soul Travel. (In My Soul I Am Free by Brad Steiger, The Illuminated Way Press)To translate the term Atma Sarup, Atma means soul or spiritual essence. Sarup appears to be a form of the Sanskrit word "svarupa" which means "true form" which is sometimes translated as "body". Thus the two taken together are translated as "soul body".
Later in the biography, Paul talks about his career as a writer in general terms, and his growing dissatisfaction with the superficial culture of America in the 1950's. He envisioned himself as a cliff-hanger. This term apparently denotes an adventurer whose interests are unusual and who is not satisfied living a conventional life.
The things that brought him to turn the spiritual discipline he calls "soul travel" into a religious system were firstly the shock he experienced at the death of his sister, and secondly his new wife Gail's recommendation that he "do something" with all that he had learned.
The biography says almost nothing about Paul's involvement in other groups, and his educational background beyond high school. He appears to have been well read based on an extensive bibliography of both Eastern and Western sources he provided for his wife Gail in order to expose her to spiritual literature. However, it is difficult to trace directly the historical and intellectual influences on him, and the religion he promoted.
Eckankar resembles most closely the Radha Soami tradition espoused by Kirpal Singh, the late leader of the Ruhani Satsang, an organization headquartered in Old Delhi, India. This tradition is sometimes called "neo-Sikhism" partly because it rejects the declaration by Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, who proclaimed that he was the last Sikh guru. Muslim rulers of the period had imprisoned and killed some of the pervious Sikh gurus. Partly for this reason, Gobind Singh decided that Sikhs should look upon their holy book as their "guru" after his death rather than following a human teacher as they had in the past. The Radha Soamis, however, have rejected this approach and continue to have a lineage of living gurus.
The name Eckankar is probably an anglicized version of the first three syllables of the Sikh holy book - the Adi Granth Sahib.
Separating out the syllables of Eckankar, "Ek" or "Eck" means the number one and "Om-Kar" means to make (or chant) the sound of OM, the pranava or Hindu mantra that represents the sound of the creation of the universe. In some interpretations, Omkar is considered to be the deity Brahm, the ruler of a higher plane of being.
The Sanskrit letter OM is nasalized because it contains a chandra-bindu or "moondrop" over it which sometimes leads it to be phonetically rendered as "ong" or "ang". Thus, if the "M" sound in OM is muted by emphasizing the nasalized "O" sound, the Omkar turns into Angkar or Ongkar, and Ek Omkar becomes Ek Ongkar or Ek Angkar, and finally Eckankar. Other popular English spellings of Ek Omkar are "Ik Omkar","Ik Ong Kar", "Ik Oankar", and "Ikonkar" or "Ik Onkar". All represent the mulamantra or root mantra of Guru Nanak, one of the holiest mantras for devout Sikhs, and a faith statement about the oneness of God.
The name Eckankar can be translated in a straight forward manner as "The sound of OM is Truth or oneness". It can also be translated more poetically as "One universal creator God". To show this phrase in context, the English translation from the Gurmukhi language of the entire first stanza of the Adi Granth Sahib reads:
One Universal Creator God. The Name Is Truth. Creative Being Personified. No Fear. No Hatred. Image Of The Undying, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent. By [the] Guru's Grace.
The late Radha Soami guru Kirpal Singh wrote in his book Nam Or Word that the term Ek Ankar was one of the names of God, and that the English translation of this term was "the one life breath".
Paul uses similar terminology when he writes:
We never "become one with God" as the metaphysicians or religionists claim. What actually happens is that we become one with Spirit, the essence of God. This is what is so often poetically named the Breath of God.The path of Eckankar was begun in 1965 while Paul was teaching courses on bilocation (later called Soul Travel).
People began asking for written material on his methods of meditation, and he responded by writing a group of discourses or small pamphlets. He then sent them to those who requested more information. The institutional tradition known as Eckankar grew out of these expanded series of discourses along with several other books written by Paul.
Eckankar as of the late 1980's had grown into a international movement with tens of thousands of members in the United States, Europe and Africa.
One thing that makes Paul Twitchell and other Eckankar writers interesting is their insistence on the importance of direct religious experience, and their willingness to record in great detail their own spiritual experiences in print.
Another unusual quality is that the experiences described usually occur with the aid of an inner spiritual guide which means that the experience is usually perceived as a shared phenomenon.
The Eckankar organization was also interesting because of its emphasis on aesthetics. Paul believed that the spiritual and the beautiful were closely connected writing that the three basic principles of spirituality were "Truth, Nobility, and Aesthetics". He therefore asked his followers to develop their skills in the fine and performing arts as a means of expressing spirituality in the world. Eckankar seminars thus became performing arts festivals, and always included displays of painting and sculpture by Eckankar members.
The concept of nobility was important to Paul since he believed Eckankar to be a form of Gnosticism. In this system, individuals seek to become aware of their origins in the spiritual realms, and seek to return to them as their true home. For Gnostics, living in the physical world is a form of exile and human beings can never find long-term comfort and happiness there since it is not where they belong.
Paul uses the image of the forgetful prince to describe most people because they believe they are beggars when they are actually spiritual royalty. In Gnosticism, the prince thinks he is a beggar because he has been blinded by the material world and forgotten that his home is in the spiritual worlds and that his (or her) father is the king. Paul wrote that the person who remembers his spiritual origins has nobility, and is aware that someday he will return to his true home, inherit his father's kingdom, and become the king himself. The king is the symbolic image of a realized soul who has left the material world and its limitations behind and gained spiritual freedom.
To return to the spiritual worlds, Paul emphasizes spiritual travel (or soul travel) which is the ability to close off the physical senses and enter completely into an inner world. These inner worlds contain vast landscapes, records of the previous existences, and a broad range of spiritual states which are somewhat unique when compared to the kinds of cosmologies found in other mystical traditions. In some ways, Eckankar more resembles shamanism than a mystical religious tradition because it goes into detail describing the structure of so-called intermediary or psychic worlds.
Eckankar's English names for the various planes of existence (Physical, Astral, Causal, etc.) borrow heavily from a similar cosmology described in the Theosophical tradition. However, the corresponding Sanskrit-Hindi names for these worlds are very close or identical to the names used in the Radha Soami writings. For instance, Sach Khand is the fifth plane of being and Sahasra Dal Kanwal is the first spiritual region (astral world) in both the Eckankar and the Radha Soami cosmology.
As with the Sikh and Radha Soami traditions, Paul attempted to make Eckankar more universal by showing that its cosmology spanned different religious traditions. Paul would give the Sanskrit name of some element of the tradition such as the sound current or a particular plane of being, and then give the Sufi equivalent name from the Urdu or Arabic language. The effort implied that Eckankar as a kind of proto-religion from which some or all other religions were derived. Those who were suspicious of following a traditional religion could thus claim that they were involved in religious system that was primary or essential while other religions were actually secondary or derivative. Paul also claimed in his writings that Eckankar was the source of other religions.
In the late fifties, Paul Twitchell wrote a book titled The Tiger's Fang in which he described a long and detailed soul travel experience which occurred while his body was lying on a bed in Srinigar, India. Paul writes that he lay down to rest, and as soon as he closed his eyes, the visionary experience he described in the book began.
The following "Tiger's Fang" excerpt describes the culmination of a series experiences detailed in the previous one hundred pages where Paul has been shown a series of worlds or planes leading up to his current state of light devoid of matter or form:
"Then I saw it. You might say it was a mirage, a hallucination, a trick of this world. But then I did see it. The light of God! It was standing above all in the center of the world; the light was fuzzy, shiny and bright, not too bright, just enough. It hung in the center of the landscape within the empty space of this world, a great mass of light, so immense that I cannot describe it, gleaming in the gulf of space. While watching it I began to pray, not in words but in impressions. The scene passed and I felt myself moving gradually, a motion of going into something, a flowing like water. That is the closest description I can give. In a sense I was the same fluid as an atom of spirit. Yet it was motionless with an impression of watching, feeling the flow and the deep motion in every fiber of myself. The impulse went through me that the journey had ended. This was living in God. The music was keened, high and thin, as if coming from within myself. There was no seeing, no hearing, no feeling, just the knowledge that I was part of the absolute - just the intelligence that has power and freedom. Freedom! Yes, this was it. I never had this before. This was wonderful; the freedom to move as desired anywhere at any time. Then I knew that it wasn't the music that was heard but a suspension above me like an almost palpable thing; it faded, spiraled upward and became a part of the sound. Again it was there. It was the softest sound of breathing. I waited. "Who is there?" I sent out the vibratory command. The wave hung in the ether. it moved out and came back like a bolt from space but I shook it off and waited. The light became very strong around me and I knew I was standing in the center of it, suspended in space, an atom within the light atoms; there was no distinguishing them. Nothing! That is all I can say! Nothing! I was part of that cloud of light, a flaming robe around me in the center of this blinding light. Something entered into my heart, and there was flaming bliss, a glorious light that was the devotion, the adoration, aspiration, reverence, the glory of God, and the divine grace which all writers speak about when becoming one with God. I stood in the center of a mighty, gigantic light, with the current throbbing and pulsing through me. (The Tiger's Fang by Paul Twitchell, The Illuminated Way Press, pp. 109-110)
Note the multiple references to light and sound in the above description. Eckankar is based on the concept of Shabda, a Sanskrit term translated variously as "unstruck sound", "audible life stream", or "sound current". This is a sound that can be heard by the trained practitioner in meditation who can use it as a kind of homing device and surrender to it following it into mystical states of awareness. The sound is usually an instrumental sound such as flutes or violins, or a sound of nature such as the sound of thunder or rushing water.
The following excerpt is a reference to the sound current when it takes the form of a flute:
My sense of the divine brings with it a strange sound of music with its glories, a marvelous melody sounding like a multitude of flutes. I have called it the FLUTE OF GOD! ( The Flute of God by Paul Twitchell, The Illuminated Way Press, p. 11)
Paul explains the importance of the sacred current of sound as follows:
"We can say that the Flute of God is actually that great sound current which soul rides upon in its journey to its true home". ( The Flute of God by Paul Twitchell, The Illuminated Way Press, p. 13)
To further illustrate this encounter with sacred sound, in the following passage, Paul describes the desired effects of performing one of the Eckankar spiritual exercises that involves the use of mantra:
A second example of Paul's experience with his teacher is chosen from the book Dialogues with the Master. In this example, Paul Twitchell is visited inwardly by his teacher Rebazar Tarzs who induces the following spiritual experience in his student.
Rebazar Tarzs took my hand and gradually lifted me. Then within the brief pause of the moment he bade me to look around.In the same book, Paul describes a meditation in which he was able to contact his inner guru, Rebazar Tarz which illustrates the kind of inner connection a disciple can develop with his guru:
This was an evening of experimenting as to what the Tibetan would respond to. I tried several ways of extending my thought power, making a stream into the ether to draw him, but nothing came out of this. Then I thought of the idea of making a rocking motion of my vibrations outward like a mental curve progressing, a sort of imaginary lightwave like what you might imagine would be the vibrations of a ringing bell - such as the vibrations moving to and fro, until they swing far out into the universe. These were streams of Light filled with a gigantic expression of joy and good will towards Rebazar Tarz.
Rebazar Tarz was described as a Tibetan master in Paul's books probably to take advantage of the mysterious qualities associated with Tibetan teachers that derive from divergent sources such as the novel Lost Horizon, H. P. Blavatsky 's Master Morya, and Alice Bailey's Master Dhjwal Kuhl (both Tibetan). However, Rebazar's teachings have virtually no connection with Tibetan Buddhism and very clear similarities to the Sant Mat tradition. The name Rebazar appears to be derived from the Hindu name Raja Bazaari (or Rai Bazaar) which means king of the marketplace implying that his ancestors were of the vaisha or merchant caste.
Paul Twitchell was perhaps the most successful American teacher of an Indian-based spiritually in America. He initiated hundreds himself, and his students initiated tens of thousands more. Eckankar continued to grow throughout the 1980's and early 1990's but with the rise of the Internet, its detractors and critics have become a formidable force. It remains to be seen whether the organization will be able to fend off all the criticism in order to continue such growth.
Paul Twitchell's Eckankar has changed in various ways since his death. For instance, in the last decade it has taken on more of a Christian orientation and used modern marketing methods to spread its message. While Paul emphasized the importance of volunteering, Eckankar has become more of a tradition of specialists with a semi-professional orchestra and choir doing much of the performing that used to be done by volunteers developing new artistic skills. The first change comes partly as a result of the apparent lack of familiarity of the present Eckankar leadership with Indian cultural and religious traditions, and their failure in large part to recognize and affirm the Indian roots of Eckankar. Without the Indian grounding, the tradition gradually evolves in the direction of what the leaders know best which is the Christian tradition.
This is the downside of the perennialist approach to religion where Truth can be found in every culture and religion but is ultimately not tied to any one culture or religion. This approach, which was accepted by Paul and popularized by writers such as Aldous Huxley and Ninian Smart, set the stage for a tradition which could borrow from any religion but claimed independence from all religions. Since Eckankar was not rooted in any particular religion, it could drift in any direction on the sea of culture. Without any counterforce such as a leader with a commitment to continuity or fidelity to the original tradition defined by Paul, it was only a matter of time before Eckankar drifted away from Hinduism and towards Christianity.
It also seems to be the case that newer religions are less hierarchical having enthusiasts and volunteers who do the work to organize religious meetings and activities. Older traditions tend to have paid professionals who become more active as the members become more passive. As many young members join a new religion such as Eckankar in their teens and twenties, they have time to devote to it. However, as their responsibilities to home and family increase with age, they are likely to become less involved, and the professionals take on more responsibilities.
Paul has been criticized for his plagiarism. He copied sections of text almost verbatim from such popular spiritual authors as Julian P. Johnson, H. P. Blavatsky, Inayat Khan, Lama Govinda, Walter Russell, and Shiv Dayal Singh (Soami Ji Maharaj) without citing them. This intellectual property problem may explain why some of Paul's earlier books are no longer in print. However, despite these problems, the essential creativity of Paul's writings in the way he weaves together his own ideas with ideas from different sources is much in evidence.
For a time following the founding of Eckankar, Paul was successful in hiding his connection to the Radha Soamis in order to dissociate himself from the authority structure of that tradition. However, historians of religion have made a strong case that Eckankar was in fact based on this preexisting Indian tradition, which was combined with a variety of adaptations that Paul thought suited Western religious seekers. Sant Mat had some early western followers such as Dr. Julian P. Johnson who in the late 1930's were very effective in adapting Indian ideas from Sant Mat (or the "Path of the Masters" as he called it) to the West. Kirpal Singh also traveled widely, lectured in English, and wrote extensively in an effort to build a bridge between the Sant Mat philosophy and Western religious ideas. Paul was able to build on both Johnson's and Singh's writings.
It is an interesting coincidence that one year before Paul formally began Eckankar (1964), the first English translation of Sar Bachan was published in Beas, India with translation help from Dr. Julian Johnson. This work, which describes itself as an abstract of the teachings of Soami Ji Maharaj, the founder of the Radha Soami system of Surat Shabda Yoga, contained the outlines of the tradition which Paul used to create Eckankar. Paul would have depended on such English sources because it was apparent that he did not speak or read Hindi.
This bridge building between East and West at times took on confusing elements when comparisons were made between Eckankar and Christianity. Paul introduced Eckankar to Westerners by repeating Kirpal Singh's claim that Shabda (or Eck) was the same as the Christian Holy Spirit. According to both of them, Shabda was also the same as the Word of God in the Bible. The Holy Spirit was merged with the concepts of Shabda, Sound Current, or Eck on one hand and the Voice of God or Biblical Word (from John 1:1) on the other. The fact that both the Word (God's voice) and Shabda were auditory seemed to make for a natural connection. The descent of the Holy Spirit in the Bible came with the "sound of a rushing wind" which meant it also had auditory elements.
However, this conflating of terms is the result of confusing two of the persons of the Christian Trinity. It indicates that Paul either had little training in Christian theology, or chose to ignore some important distinctions in Christianity. The Word in Christianity is actually the logos which is Christ in his role as eternal wisdom. The logos or Christ is not the same as the Holy Spirit. The Word (or second person of the Trinity) was made flesh temporarily in the person of Christ but the Holy Spirit (or third person of the Trinity) was left in the world by Christ to inspire the Church after Christ's death and resurrection.
The Eck or spirit in Eckankar is identified as both the Holy Spirit and the logos (or Christ in his discarnate form). Such confusion seems to have been accepted and not questioned by Eckankar followers over the years. Eckankar theology is sometimes made more Christian when the Eck Master is identified as the "Word made flesh". He thus implicitly takes on the savior role of Christ which creates an Eckankar trinity which is parallel to the Christian Trinity. Yet another trinity proposed in the Sharyiat-Ki-SUGMAD (book two) is the Eck Master, the Shabda, and the Satsang or the company of followers of Eckankar. The group is substituted for God the Father in this instance as Eckankar takes on a more Buddhist caste where the Sangha (community of followers) becomes a central element in the tradition.
The many elements and adaptations added by Paul did make Eckankar a new and unique combination of Eastern and Western thought which explained its appeal to Western religious seekers who had an interest in Eastern yogic and mystical traditions. They also resulted in a kind of patchwork quilt of ideas collected from widely divergent sources which were loosely organized and put together in a writing style that could almost be described as stream-of-consciousness. In summary, we could say that Paul was a creative and eclectic thinker but certainly not a systematic one.
One aspect of Paul Twitchell's Eckankar that appealed to Western disciples was the promise that if a disciple followed the path of Eckankar during life, he or she would never need to reincarnate in a physical body again. This same promise is given to Western disciples in some of the Radha Soami traditions, and even to those who are members of the "Movement For Spiritual Inner Awareness" (MSIA), a tradition which appears to be a very close copy of Eckankar.
There were also areas of conflict between Eckankar and Sant Mat. One conflict between the Sant Mat (or Radha Soami) tradition and Eckankar was in the area of money. Indian gurus can become corrupt and lazy when their disciples support them. Begging is another form of dependence that has its drawbacks for the religious seeker. Therefore, the founder of Sant Mat, Soami Ji Maharaj, gave his successor Sawan Singh the following advice:
If you lead the life of a recluse, you will depend on others for your sustenance, and that will [negatively] affect your Bhajan (spiritual practice), better earn your livelihood yourself. (Sar Bachan: The Yoga of the Sound Current by Soami Ji Maharaj, Radha Soami Satang, Beas, Punjab, pp. VIII-IX)
The Radha Soamis therefore made a rule that their gurus must be self-supporting (have a job) to avoid these problems. However, Paul was a novelist and reporter. When Eckankar was created as a business in 1965, he proceeded to live off the royalties of the Eckankar books that he wrote and published instead of keeping a separate job to support himself. He combined his professional life with his new role of lecturer, writer, and evangelizer of his new tradition which apparently left him with little time to work a normal job. Both the subsequent Eck Masters have continued to be employed by the Eckankar organization which gets its funding from dues paid by its members and royalties from publications. This full-time professional guru role violates the rule set forth by the earlier Sant Mat tradition where the gurus were supposed to be part-time (prior to retirement) and unpaid.
In the broadest terms, one of the most unique aspects of Paul's Eckankar was its insistence on abstracting the concept of Soul Travel out from the vast range of religious phenomena, and making such transcendent experience the primary goal for the members of Eckankar.
Many traditions have saints, prophets, and saviors who visit heaven, hell, and supernatural worlds, and are highly respected or revered by their religious communities for having such experience. Christ, after his crucifixion, visited hell before returning to his disciples in a glorified body only to ascend into heaven shortly thereafter. Mohammed was taken to heaven and shown the celestial landscape by Allah in his Miraj. The Buddha visited the six worlds of rebirth during his night of liberation prior to his enlightenment. The prophets, shamans, and saints who visit heaven such as John of Patmos and Elijah are part of every religious tradition and are too numerous to mention.
In introducing the goal of soul travel, Paul was striving to democratize such experience making it accessible to the average seeker. To the extent that such experience is spiritually transformative as it had been for many religious leaders in the past, he was trying to create a religion of seekers and saints who could have such transcendent experience for themselves. In this way, Eckankar stood out as a tradition that relied less on external authority and more on personal religious experience. In the political environment of the Viet Nam war where authority had become highly suspect, such an approach had great appeal and this may have been responsible in part for the rapid growth of the tradition.
Finally, one of the central Eastern elements in Eckankar was the concept of the guru or Eck Master who was both an inner guru who could guide the disciple through psychic difficulties into mystical states of awareness, and an outer guru who could give external teachings in preparation for this inner journey. Paul was fond of repeating a phrase about the importance of the guru. He said "spirituality is not taught but caught". One of Paul's earlier teachers finished this somewhat cryptic phrase. Kirpal Singh wrote: "Spirituality is not taught but caught; you catch it like a disease from the guru". Initiation of a disciple by a living master is of great importance in both Eckankar and Sant Mat so that the initiate can catch spirituality from the guru.
Paul Twitchell spent the last six years of his life continuously writing and speaking to build the Eckankar organization. He died of a heart attack at an Eckankar conference in 1971.
Books by and about Paul Twitchell:
Eckankar, The Key to the Secret Worlds by Paul Twitchell
The Tiger's Fang by Paul Twitchell
The Flute of God by Paul Twitchell
Dialogs With the Master by Paul Twitchell
In My Soul I Am Free by Brad Steiger
Eckankar, The Key to the Secret Worlds by Paul Twitchell
The Tiger's Fang by Paul Twitchell
The Flute of God by Paul Twitchell
Dialogs With the Master by Paul Twitchell
In My Soul I Am Free by Brad Steiger
Official Eckankar site
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