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Home arrow New Age Cults and Isms arrow A Former Member of Eckankar Revisits Eck

A Former Member of Eckankar Revisits Eck

Article Index
A Former Member of Eckankar Revisits Eck
Cult-Buster David Lane
John-Roger Hinkins
Il Fornaio
Darwin Gross


"We use more discriminating intelligence when we buy a used car than when we buy a religion," says philosophy professor and cult-buster David Christopher Lane. "Buying a used car you at least look underneath the hood, hit the tires, maybe take it to a mechanic to check it out. But in buying a religion you're supposed to wear these narrow blinders, so that if anybody disagrees you can block it out. It's basically, check your brains at the door when you join a religion."

For the past twenty years, Lane's books and articles exposing the plagiarisms, lies, inconsistencies and scandals of a number of new religious movements have raised a fury among true believers. Members of various cults have made death threats, written him letters with skeletons on them, broken into his apartment, threatened lawsuits, and generally harassed him. Lane's no longer an easy man to find. He lives in the San Diego area, but the location is a closely guarded secret. He has no phone. "I actually kept my phone for years," explains Lane, "until … one night when you're asleep and you've got to get up at four in the morning and go to school, you get a phone call saying, 'We're going to fucking kill you.' You know what I mean? It gets tiresome."

When I fly down from San Francisco in mid-December to interview Lane my interest goes beyond mere journalistic curiosity. For ten years I was a member of Eckankar, one of the groups Lane has written most extensively about. His critique was instrumental in my dropping out of Eckankar in the early '80s. This man literally changed my life. I anticipate our talk with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Apparently Lane has equally conflicted feelings about me. Initially he refuses to come to the Hillcrest home where I'm staying, preferring to meet in a nearby restaurant. Since I don't want to play the awkward game of trying to figure out who one another are in public, I haggle. "I'm worried about getting lost," he says, exasperated. "But it's just a few blocks off University." Finally, he agrees to come to the house, but I'm dubious as to whether he will really appear. With only a post office box and an answering service to connect me to him, Lane seems as slippery as Houdini. With the blink of an eye he could vanish from my life forever.

Lane does arrive, at one o'clock Thursday afternoon, on time to the minute. I open the door to a boyish thirty-eight-year-old with a full head of healthy brown hair. He's told me he surfs, and in his knee-length khaki shorts, plum-colored T-shirt and sandals, he looks like a surfer. His clothes seem to be tossed onto his rather stocky body. He extends his hand and smiles broadly. "Hi, I'm Dave." Sizing up his clean, homogenized attractiveness, I think, "Tuck in his shirt and he could be on one of those infomercials, beside a pool selling motivational tapes-how to lose weight, gain friends, make it rich in real estate with no money down."

We spend roughly nine hours, spread over two days, hanging out together. Lane is a real charmer, and I am easily charmed, so we get along famously. Besides religion, our conversation ranges from Joan Crawford to Pulp Fiction to vegetarianism to his love of teaching to his family, Catholic school, surfing, surfing movies (Lane loves Gidget, hates Big Wednesday), and our first sexual experiences. His occurred in a tree house when he was fifteen. We joke about calling this article "Out of the Tree House and into the Dog House."

Sitting at a table outside Monsoon at Village Hillcrest, surrounded by potted plants and curving walls of mango orange, gold, deep purple, and rusty red, Lane sips a Coke and tells me the history of his involvement with alternative religious movements. At seventeen Lane, who was raised Catholic in the San Fernando Valley, became interested in Radhasoami, a branch of surat shabd yoga founded in India in the nineteenth century. In 1978, after five years of study, he was initiated into Radhasoami in India by the late Maharaj Charan Singh.

In 1977, noting the similarities between Radhasoami and Eckankar, a religious movement founded in San Diego in 1965 by the late Paul Twitchell, Lane wrote a term paper comparing the two for an undergraduate religious studies class at California State University, Northridge. In the course of his research Lane discovered that Twitchell "plagiarized whole chapters from Radhasoami texts, lied about biographical details, and commenced vast cover-ups concerning the true origin of Eckankar's doctrines."

Lane leans across the cafe table, excitedly tapping his straw. "I found all this fun interesting stuff. I talked to Twitchell's first wife. Nobody knew he'd been married before. I was excited, twenty years old, in the moment of discovering something new. I had huge phone bills because I had called this professor or this person. So I sent my term paper to Eckankar, and then they turned around two months later and said they were going to sue me if I published it. So, I'm not scared of attorneys. My family is full of attorneys. Naturally the threat made me want to do more research. If they're going to sue you about a 120-page term paper when you're twenty years old, you know something's up."

The following year he wrote a second paper, The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar. "I was obsessed," Lane admits. "I was on the Holy Grail of research." Through a process that Lane himself does not completely understand, this manuscript was photocopied and circulated around the country. As the great Houdini wrote, "The yellow thread of exposure seems to be inextricably woven into all fabrics whose strength is secrecy." Houdini, like Lane, was a man whose obsessions drove him to expose religious frauds. James Peebles, an Eckist and fellow classmate of Lane's also wrote a paper on Eckankar. The two students shared notes. "Peebles," says Lane, "got so disgruntled when he realized there was some kind of fraud being perpetuated in Eckankar, that he wrote Eckankar himself about these findings." Peebles returned to his Baptist roots and sent his paper to Professor Ed Gruss of the Los Angeles Baptist College. Claiming to be a member of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, an anti-cult group in Berkeley, an Eckankar representative asked Gruss for a copy of Peebles' report, which claimed that Eckankar was skirting tax laws and that the current Eck Master, Darwin Gross, had fathered an illegitimate child. Lane shrugs his shoulders, "Whether it was right or wrong, who knows." Eckankar then threatened Gruss with a two-and-a-half million dollar lawsuit for "publishing" Peebles' paper, for photocopying one copy of it.

In the meantime, Lane graduated from Northridge, visited India, and enrolled at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where in 1979 he met Brian Walsh. "He wanted to make my research more available. So he puts up a thousand bucks and out comes this funky xeroxed self-published book with a weird cover." Within three weeks of its publication, The Making of a Spiritual Movement sold out. Around the same time, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project published their own journal, Eckankar, a Hard Look at a New Religion, based largely on Lane's manuscript, which they distributed to nearly every Eck center in the world. Disillusioned Eckists left the movement in droves.

Eckankar set up a meeting with Lane at their international headquarters in Menlo Park. "Were you nervous?" I ask. "No, I was excited that somebody would pay attention to my research," Lane exclaims. "I think they expected somebody who was more academic-looking. This was '79, fifteen years ago. I looked like a little kid. I'm a surfer, so I had this surfer hair and a turtleneck. They were dressed up in suits. They had this little tape recorder, and I was impressed-I thought it was very professional. And they looked at me like, 'What's this geek doing?' We sat down and they were really uptight because they knew the impact of my research. So, I said, 'You guys can get out of this simply: just explain that Twitchell plagiarized. And just explain that Twitchell covered up his life.' The upshot of it was, they didn't do anything."

Lane tried in vain to place his controversial book with a major publisher. "I got a number of bites, but they got worried because Eckankar's so happy to sue people." In 1983 Lane and Brian Walsh issued a glossier version of The Making of a Spiritual Movement through their own Del Mar Press. Eckankar threatened a lawsuit for the inappropriate use of their trademark symbol on book's cover. Due to the popularity of the Ghostbusters logo, Lane and Walsh had put a no smoking sign over Eckankar's logo, which is EK formed into a circle. Del Mar Press agreed to change the cover on future editions. The Making of a Spiritual Movement, which is not advertised or available in bookstores, has sold over 10,000 copies.

Finally, 1992, Garland, a publisher of hardback reference books, accepted Lane's manuscript for their library series. Eckankar got wind of an early advertisement for the book before it came out and "legally harassed" Garland for several months. Even though the book was already typeset, Garland decided to withdraw it. Lane's green eyes turn serious. "Be very careful with Eckankar. When they find out you're talking to me, I guarantee that their lawyers will write the Reader. I'm sure of it." He taps his finger on the table. "Actually, Eckankar is the one who has kept me going because they keep threatening me every time I try to come out with something. They sent letters about me claiming I was the negative force, that I was predicted from the beginning of mankind."

In Twitchell's book The Far Country, alone, Lane found over 400 plagiarized paragraphs. "The more research you do the more you realize that Twitchell was an incredible plagiarizer." He smiles to himself as if he were having a beatific vision of Paul Twitchell hunched over some Radhasoami text, scribbling away. "In order to find out the full extent of Twitchell's plagiarism, you'd have to go through all the books that he read in his lifetime. I don't mean just an idea or a thought, I'm talking about the reproduction of grammatical mistakes, semicolon misuse. I'm talking about the very form of that truth being copied. Not the truth itself. I don't know what that is."

So who was this mysterious Paul Twitchell? Twitchell claimed to have been born on a boat on the Mississippi, a few minutes after a great earthquake shook the mid-South and formed a lake in its wake. Twitchell told his second wife, Gail, that he was born in the early twenties, but in one of his books he places the date of his birth as, fantastically, in the early nineteenth century. Lane's research indicates, however, that Twitchell was born between 1908 and 1912, on dry land in Paducah, Kentucky. During the '30s and 40's Twitchell was a prolific writer. He's listed in Ripley's Believe it or Not as having sold an article every day. The Courier-Journal Magazine, to which he was a regular contributor, reported that he sold 1,800 stories and articles in three years. In 1942, after a stint in the Navy, Twitchell moved to New York, where he continued his journalism career, attended many churches, and read extensively on spiritual subjects. A job as a correspondent for Our Navy took him to Washington, D.C. in 1945. There he and his first wife, Camille, joined the Self-Revelation Church of Absolute Monism, a system of yoga founded by Swami Premananda. In 1950, the Twitchells moved to the church compounds, but five years later Twitchell was asked to leave the Church for "personal misconduct." That same year he and his wife separated. Their divorce was finalized in 1960.

After leaving the Self-Revelation Church, Twitchell dove into the Radhasoami movement. Radhasoami is a yogic teaching which, according to Lane, "is designed to enable the soul or consciousness to ascend beyond the physical body to higher spiritual regions by means of an internal sound or life current." Central to the teachings of Radhasoami, continues Lane, "is the necessity of a living human master competent in initiating disciples into the practice and technique of listening to the inner sound, contemplating the inner light, and leaving the human body at will." The Indian guru, Kirpal Singh, figures prominently in Twitchell's early writing. Eight years later he broke with Kirpal Singh and thereafter denied any involvement with him. In the late fifties Twitchell also became a staff member of L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology, another association that would later be denied.

Twitchell married his second wife, Gail Atkinson, in San Francisco in 1964. Shortly afterwards, a 500-year-old Tibetan monk, Rebazar Tarzs, appeared to Twitchell and instructed him to move to San Diego. Twitchell was living in Point Loma in 1965 when he started teaching workshops and selling booklets on how to leave your body. On October 22, Twitchell claimed to receive "The Rod of Power" from Rebazar Tarzs, becoming the 971st Living Eck Master. Eckankar, the Ancient Science of Soul Travel was officially founded. "For a year and a half or two years," says Lane, "it was a shoestring operation. He was advertising in Fate magazine, Orion magazine, Cosmic Star." In one article Lane shows me, Twitchell is reported to have piercing blue eyes, to sleep only four hours a night, to read 5,000 words a minute, to eat little, and to have "the ability to be in all places at the same time." Eckankar took off like wildfire, growing from three students to thousands in less than three years. Today it is perhaps the most successful religious movement to come out of the '60s, claiming a worldwide membership in the tens of thousands.

The teachings of Eckankar are presented to the public through books, free brochures, advertised meetings and lectures, and, of course, word of mouth. According to one brochure, which invites me to "experience the miracle of spiritual growth" and to "climb the stairway to spiritual freedom," Eckankar membership is renewable on a yearly basis. Members receive a monthly "discourse," which they have the option of studying alone or in classes. The suggested annual membership donation for individuals is $120, a bargain in the miracles and freedom market. A representative at the Eckankar international office assured me that no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Eckankar, which is now called the "Religion of Light and Sound," teaches that each individual is Soul inhabiting a human body. Soul, being a spark of God, is on a journey to find its way home to God, or the Sugmad. Eckankar is the most direct path to becoming a "co-worker with the Sugmad." Initiations link Soul to the Eck (holy spirit), which can be seen as light and heard as sound. Followers of Eckankar believe that beyond the physical world there are many other realms existing at higher vibratory rates. Through daily spiritual exercises one can shift one's awareness from the physical world and soul travel to these higher planes. In order to burn off all their karma in this lifetime and to be released from the cycle of death and reincarnation, Eckists practice detachment from the vagaries of life. This is not seen as coldness or indifference, but as a precursor to unconditional love. The Living Eck Master acts as the organizational head and as a guide to the aspirant's spiritual journey. The inner form of the Living Eck Master, known as the Mahanta, works with students in the "dreamstate" and during their spiritual exercises. The Living Eck Master descends from an unbroken line of Vairagi Masters. Any of these 900+ masters may appear to spiritual seekers on the inner planes-or in the physical world, often in disguise. The beggar you meet on the street may really be an Eck Master. At one Eckankar seminar in Florida, a panhandler was stationed outside the hotel where the seminar was held. Eckists left and right were smiling at the guy, stopping for long chats, and tossing money into his cup. The perplexed beggar was in hog heaven. And who knows? He may have been Rebazar Tarzs.

In writing the above paragraph I consulted Eckankar materials, but I didn't need to. After giving lectures and teaching Eckankar classes for ten years, I already knew it all. As I sit at my computer, I play Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin. In Eckankar there is a technique called the Golden-tongued Wisdom, in which you find spiritual guidance through an overheard conversation, a voice on the radio, or the lyrics of a popular song. A line will leap out and inspire you. "I'm a fool to want you," quivers Billie through my stereo speakers. Was I a fool to want Eckankar? I don't think so. In the early seventies when I joined Eckankar I was dysfunctionally shy, a borderline agoraphobic, afraid to talk to salesladies in department stores. Besides my straight A's, I had nothing to give me a sense of self worth. In Eckankar, since everyone is Soul, everyone is worthy. As Eckankar filled my life, I felt like I was entering Shangri-La: a new glistening world of love, of possibility opened before me. I gave up drugs, and my grades went down. While a few people I met were off the wall, Eckists in general make wonderful friends, kind, caring, non-judgmental. Operating, as I do now, in a professional arts world where people want a resumé before deciding whether or not to talk to you, I miss the support of the Eckankar community. And the sex-though Eckankar in no way encourages sexual contact among its members-with that degree of trust and the sense of two souls meeting, the sex was great. I was twenty-one. My only regrets were that I sold all my rock albums to pay for my membership.

Lane's research on Eckankar is meticulously documented. The Making of a Spiritual Movement is, in fact, so well documented that at at times it reads like a 200-page footnote. It lacks the wit, passion, and narrative drive of his other books, Exposing Cults and The Radhasoami Tradition. In The Making of a Spiritual Movement, like his counterpart Houdini, Lane seems shackled. Two figures emerge from the stilted style of The Making of a Spiritual Movement: the protean Paul Twitchell and his young, vivacious wife, Gail, who, after Twitchell's death, married his successor, Darwin Gross, in a Dynasty-like power play that troubled and thrilled the faithful. Lane attributes the initial success of Eckankar to Gail's organizational abilities. He takes a sip of his Coke and explains, "She's very clean and clear about her business acumen. Everybody I've ever talked to who knows Gail says she's a very sharp person. And Twitchell was also very sharp, but maybe not sharp business-wise. He never had much money. Combine these two forces, the creativity of Paul Twitchell with the organizational skills of Gail …" Lane opens his hands in a gesture indicating anything could happen. "I don't think Twitchell imagined that Eckankar would blossom the way it did. It went through the roof a lot quicker than he expected. It's the reason, I believe, that he plagiarized so blatantly."

"Because he had to get a lot done?"

"You got it. The way to get more income is to have new material. Imagine it-you've got a lot of new clientele out there ready to buy your stuff. To come up with original material takes time, and time is money. Dr. Bluth, Twitchell's personal doctor and vice president of Eckankar at the time, has confirmed that he gave Twitchell books from the Radhasoami library. So, Twitchell starts to plagiarize extensively from these books in order to get new material to get new money.

"More and more money comes in. His earlier writings didn't really talk about Rebazar Tarzs." The 500-year-old bearded Tibetan monk, Rebazar Tarzs, wears a maroon robe, carries in his powerful right hand a huge walking staff, and speaks with a musical voice. He's a character who has seized the imaginations of Eckists as completely as Ahab or Falstaff has seized ours. "Instead, Twitchell wrote about Kirpal Singh and Swami Premananda. Now what do you do when your group is charging money and does not follow any of the restrictions of this Indian group it evolved out of, one whose teachings are free? So I came upon this idea called genealogical dissociation. Simply put, Twitchell cut his connection with Radhasoami for good marketing reasons. He had to make it seem like it's his own creation, because if he linked the two he'd lose his potential clientele."

It was in order to hide these past connections, Lane believes, that Twitchell created the unbroken line of Vairagi Eck Masters, dating back some six million years to Gakko, who emigrated from the planet Venus. "Understandably he changed the names of his sources, because he didn't want people to know about his past. Remember, he'd been kicked out of Swami Premananda's church in 1955. His previous associations were tainted. He accelerated his cover up to the point that it became a mythology in which Twitchell couldn't remember all the names. On tape Twitchell is asked about Rebazar Tarzs. In what century was he born? He totally doesn't know, he doesn't know what the guy's talking about. 'Oh … oh! Rebazar Tarzs, yeah, that Rebazar Tarzs.' Understand, he's got names coming out of the woodwork."

"So who do you think Rebazar Tarzs really is?"

"Probably a composite cover name for three people: Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, which was started 500 years ago; Sawan Singh, who was Kirpal Singh's guru; and Swami Premananda. Whereas Sudar Singh [another memorable character in Twitchell's cosmology] is a straight cover for Kirpal Singh." In The Making of Spiritual Movement, Lane quotes numerous passages from Twitchell's magazine articles written in the sixties, in which Twitchell cites Swami Premananda, Kirpal Singh, Meher Baba, Guru Nanak, Kabir, and even Jesus. Lane then quotes these same passages as they were later reproduced, usually word for word, in Eckankar books, with the names changed to the Eck Masters Sudar Singh, Fubbi Quantz, Rebazar Tarzs, Lai Tsi, and Gopal Das.

Lane and his friends playfully call one another by the names of Eck Masters. Lane places his hand to his face like a phone receiver, "Hi Fubbi, this is Gakko." I choke down the last gulp of my Green Garden vegetable cocktail and ask, "Where do you think Twitchell got these names?"

"He got them from his Indian books on Radhasoami, or Julian Johnson's The Path of the Masters, or from With a Great Master in India. He came up with the name Sudar Singh, from the name Sudarshan Singh-he just cut off the 'shan' part of it and put 'Sudar.' Usually he mixes Indian names with Chinese names that he read about in some popular Tibetan or Taoist book, and he'll conflate the two. An example is Jagat Ho. Now, 'Jagat' is actually the first name of a Radhasoami guru named Jagat Singh. Then he took the 'Ho', and he put the two words together. He does that all the time."

"So who is Jagat Ho?"

"He's one of the 970 Eck Masters who runs one of the Golden Temples near El Cajon." Lane laughs heartily at his joke. "Once when I was driving down to Baja on one of my frequent surf trips," he continues, "I noticed to my amazement a highway sign that said, 'Rebasar.' I don't know exactly what it means-'no passing,' or something like that. I said to myself, I bet this is where Twitchell got the name Rebazar Tarzs! Remember when Twitchell founded Eckankar in 1965 he was living in San Diego at Point Loma. I would not put it past Twitchell to have simply coined the name from one of his trips to Baja."

For tax purposes Twitchell moved Eckankar to Las Vegas, but he maintained residence in San Diego for the rest of his life. When he died in 1971 he was living in Del Mar. Lane asks me if I want to see Twitchell's Del Mar home. "Sure!" But when we go to the Hillcrest Village parking garage to retrieve Lane's car he can't find it. As we aimlessly wander back and forth between the second and third levels of the garage, I smile at my surfer companion's inability to negotiate this concrete urban maze. Clearly he is more comfortable with the fluid topography of waves, of meditation, of philosophical inquiry. Finally, as a last resort, Lane suggests we exit the parking garage and then walk down the ramp where we drove in. Lane imagines himself driving, "Let me see … I turned left here, now right, then I drove straight for a bit." Using this gyroscopic homing pigeon technique, he leads me straight to his little white Nissan.

Once we get to Del Mar, Lane pulls to the side of the road and examines a copy of Twitchell's death certificate to get the exact address. "Here it is, Pine Avenue, right next to where I was living when I doing my books in the '80s. If I had a really good arm I could have thrown a baseball up the hill, without gravity, and maybe hit his house."

"Did you know this before you moved there?"

"No, I had no idea."

How Oedipal! We drive over and park a few blocks from the beach in front of a posh two-story wooden house with a cobblestone drive, surrounded by Torrey pines. Lane leans down to better peer through his window. "I don't remember it looking this way," he says pensively. "I don't remember it being this nice. I don't remember that second story. It's a bitchin' house." Since we can't think of anything else to say about the house, I ask Lane to tell me about Twitchell's mysterious death. Many Eckists regard this death with the same mixture of awe and curiosity with which we regard the death of JFK. I figure Lane knows plenty about this. But Lane refuses to reveal details, and for this article will only repeat the facts as listed on the death certificate: Twitchell died of a heart attack around one o'clock in the morning on September 17, 1971, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The story he tells me off the record, however, is filled with enough ardor and drama to qualify as an alternate ending to Citizen Kane.

"But, Dave," I whine, "why won't you talk about it on tape?"

"Because I have a certain kind of respect for him, a kind of sweet affection. There's certain things I left out of the book, and one of them is the night Twitchell died. There's lots of stuff I know about Eckankar, lots of stuff that is real juicy and real scandalous, but I wanted to limit my book to some major salient features about plagiarism and cover-up. What I found was so obvious that anybody could have discovered it. It wasn't just David Lane's personal opinion. I have nice feelings towards Eckankar. I don't have a real axe to grind except for being hassled legally for the last decade."