ECKANKAR was founded by Paul Twitchell (1909–1971) in California in the mid-1960s. Although the Hindi/Punjabi term Ek Onkar (literally "One God/Power") was most likely derived from Guru Nānak's Japjī (the first set of hymns in the Sikh holy book, Gurū Granth Sāhib ), Twitchell altered its original phonetic spelling and definition, claiming that "Eckankar" was a Tibetan-Pali word meaning "co-worker with God." According to Twitchell, Eckankar was an ancient spiritual path with a lineage of 970 "Eck" Masters who trace back to Gakko, who brought the true teachings of soul travel from the city of Retz on the planet Venus. Twitchell alleged that through this bilocation philosophy a neophtye can leave his or her body via an inner light and sound and soul-travel to higher regions of consciousness, which lead ultimately to the supreme lord, Sugmad.
The Living Eck Master (occasionally retaining the more exalted title of Mahanta, "the highest state of God consciousness on earth") is central to Eckankar theology because it is through his guidance that the student (known as a chela) receives various levels of initiation, usually involving instructions into new sacred tones and other higher-level practices of contemplation. In an early article entitled "The Cliff Hanger" published in Psychic Observer in 1964, Twitchell explained the basis behind his new group:
Eckankar, which I formed out of my own experience, is the terms used for the philosophy I have developed for the Cliff Hanger. It is based on Shabd-Yoga, a way out form of yoga. The word is the Hindu locution for the cosmic sound current which is known in our vernacular as the cosmic river of God.
Twitchell attributed the evolution of his personal philosophy into a public spiritual path to his second wife, Gail Atkinson (whom he married in 1964 when he was fifty-four years old and she was twenty-one), saying, "The switchover from the Cliff Hanger to Eck began taking place after I met my present wife, Gail. She insisted that I do something with my knowledge and abilities" (quoted in Brad Steiger, In My Soul I Am Free [San Diego, 1974], p. 64).
Eckankar's organization and teachings have evolved since Twitchell died of heart disease on September 17, 1971, in Cincinnati, Ohio, shortly after giving a talk. Twitchell's widow, Gail Atkinson (his first wife, Camille Ballowe, whom he married in 1942, divorced him on the legal grounds of desertion in 1960), claimed to have had a dream in which her husband appointed Darwin Gross to be his spiritual successor and the leader of Eckankar. Gross, who eventually married and then divorced Atkinson, served as the Living Eck Master for ten years until 1981, when he appointed Harold Klemp to succeed him as the spiritual leader of the organization. Two years later, in 1983, there was an acrimonous split between Klemp and Gross, which resulted in the latter being excommunciated from Eckankar. A lawsuit was filed by the Eckankar organization against Gross for allegedly misappropriating funds and for trademark and copyright infringement. Gross subsequently cut off any formal ties with Eckankar and started his own group called ATOM (The Ancient Teachings of the Masters). Eckankar has more or less erased Gross's tenure (and books) from their official histories. After selling the copyrights of Twitchell's books to Eckankar, Gail Atkinson ended her association with Eckankar.
Under the present leadership of Klemp, Eckankar has expanded its core audience worldwide and has an estimated paid membership of anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 members yearly (Eckankar does not provide exact numbers). Klemp has also produced a wide-ranging series of books and discourses and has moved Eckankar's former center of operations from Menlo Park, California, to Chanhassen, Minnesota, where he established the temple of Eck. According to its own accounting, Eckankar has members from over one hundred countries around the world.
During Klemp's tenure, Eckankar has also systematized its teaching and made it more accessible to the general reading public by lessening its emphasis on Twitchell's extensive use of Indian-influenced terminology (particularly Hindi/Punjabi). Eckankar's official website (http://www.eckan-kar.org) presents a codified version of its belief system:
Soul is eternal and is the individual's true identity. Soul exists because God loves it. Soul is on a journey to Self- and God-Realization. Spiritual unfoldment can be accelerated through conscious contact with the ECK, Divine Spirit. This contact can be made via the Spiritual Exercises of ECK and the guidance of the Living ECK Master. The Mahanta, the Living ECK Master is the spiritual leader of Eckankar. Spiritual experience and liberation in this lifetime are available to all. You can actively explore the spiritual worlds through Soul Travel, dreams, and other spiritual techniques.
Eckankar has weathered a fair storm of controversy since its inception, primarily because of questions concerning Twitchell's alleged plagiarism, biographical redactions, and purported historical antecedents. First, Twitchell claimed that while traveling in Europe and India he was taught Eckankar by the two former Masters who preceded him, Sudar Singh of Allahabad and Rebazar Tarzs, a supposed five-hundred-year-old Tibetan monk. However, there is no documented evidence proving that Twitchell had visited these countries when he claimed he did or that either Sudar Singh or Rebazar Tarzs are genuine historical figures. Rather, there is ample evidence (even from Twitchell's own pen) that he was associated with Swami Premananda of the Self-Revelation Church of Absolute Monism in Washington, D.C., from 1950 to 1955, when he was asked to leave the church compounds for personal misconduct. Additionally, Twitchell received initiation into Shabd Yoga in 1955 from Kirpal Singh, the founder of Ruhani Satsang in Delhi, India, while the guru was on his first tour of the United States. He kept in close contact with Kirpal Singh via correspondence for at least a decade and took his wife Gail to see the Indian guru and have her receive initiation from him in San Francisco in 1963. Twitchell also joined L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology in the 1950s and eventually served for a short time as his press agent and wrote a number of articles for the group.
With the founding of Eckankar, however, Twitchell altered his biography and redacted references to his former teachers and replaced them with a hierarchy of Eck Masters. He even changed his birth date, claiming on his second marriage certificate that he was born in 1922, subtracting some thirteen years off his age. He also eventually denied his initiation under Kirpal Singh and threatened to sue his former gurū over what he considered defamatory claims concerning his discipleship.
A number of Twitchell's books on Eckankar contain large chunks of material appropriated from sources he failed to reference. Twitchell seemed particularly fond of plagiarizing whole passages from Radhasoami Satsang Beas author Julian Johnson, whose two books, With a Great Master in India (1934) and The Path of the Masters (1939), contributed to much of Eckankar's specialized terminology that draws extensively from the Sant Mat tradition of North India, an eclectic spiritual movement that includes such poet-saints as Kabīr, Dādū, and Tulsi Sahib. While Gross denied such appropriations for over a decade, the current Eck leader, Harold Klemp, has acknowledged some of Twitchell's plagiarism by calling him a "master compiler." Regardless of these continuing controversies, Eckankar has become an exceptionally successful religion with centers spanning the globe. Interestingly, Eckankar has a strong presence in Africa (particularly Nigeria) and in Europe, and it continues to draw thousands to its yearly conferences.
While Eckankar has been directly influenced by the Self-Realization Fellowship, Theosophy, Scientology, and particularly Sant Mat (via its specialized version of sound-current yoga), it has, in turn, influenced a number of new religious offshoots, including the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), founded by John-Roger Hinkins; MasterPath, founded by Gary Olsen; The Ancient Teachings of the Masters (ATOM), founded by Darwin Gross; the Divine Science of Light and Sound, founded by Jerry Mulvin; the Sonic Spectrum, founded by Michael Turner; and the Higher Consciousness Society, founded by Ford Johnson. Each of the founders of these groups was at one time a member of Eckankar, and they have all incorporated many Eck terms and ideas into their respective organizations. Eckankar's future looks bright as it enters its fifth decade of existence.
Johnson, Ford. Confessions of a God Seeker: A Journey to Higher Consciousness. Silver Spring, Md., 2003.
Klemp, Harold. Autobiography of a Modern Prophet. Minneapolis, 2000.
Lane, David Christopher. The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar. Del Mar, Calif., 1983.
Marman, Doug. Dialogue in the Age of Criticism. E-book available from http://www.littleknownpubs.com/DialogIntro.htm.
Twitchell, Paul. Eckankar: The Key to Secret Worlds. San Diego, 1969.
David Christopher Lane (2005)
Also known as "The Ancient Science of Soul Travel" and "The Religion of the Light and Sound of God," the religion known officially as Eckankar was founded in 1965 by Paul Twitchell (d. 1971). Twitchell was a religious seeker and dabbler in various new religious movements, including Scientology and The Self-Revelation Church of Absolute Monism. He seems to have been influenced significantly by the Sikh-related philosophy and spirituality of the Radhasoami tradition of India. Students and critics of Twitchell's movement have pointed out striking parallels between its cosmology and that of Kirpal Singh, who brought the Radhasoami to America via a movement known as the Ruhani Satsang.
Twitchell first established Eckankar—a word seemingly derived from a Punjabi term for God—in San Diego, California. Soon after that he moved its headquarters to Las Vegas, Nevada. The members were primarily people who had attended Twitchell's lectures or read his spiritual autobiography The Tiger's Fang. Twitchell was also made famous by Brad Steiger's biography In My Soul I Am Free. Twitchell claimed to be the "971st Living Eck Master"—the most recent in an unbroken succession of oracles of God sent to Earth by the "Vairagi Masters," who oversee the spiritual unfoldment of the planet. In 1969 Twitchell's publishing house Illuminated Way Press published what has become Eckankar's standard introductory volume, Eckankar: The Key to Secret Worlds. Twitchell instructed his followers, known as "chelas" and "Eckists," in spiritual exercises such as "soul travel" (also known as "bilocation") and hearing the "light and sound of God" in meditation. He also taught Eckists to chant the mantra "Hu," which he declared an especially holy word for God. Chanting Hu is believed to burn off karmic debt and bring Eckists into higher consciousness and union with Sugmad—another term for the God of Eckankar.
Twitchell died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1971. His successor as the Living Eck Master and spiritual leader of Eckankar was Darwin Gross, who moved the headquarters of the religion to Menlo Park, California. Gross's tenure as the 972nd Living Eck Master ended in 1983, when he was ousted by the board of Eckankar and replaced by his own appointed successor and "co-Mahanta" Harold Klemp (b. 1942). Guided by a "spiritual vision," Klemp and his lieutenant and president of Eckankar Peter Skelskey moved the headquarters of Eckankar from California to Chanhassen, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the mid-1980s. In spite of opposition from many citizens of Chanhassen, Eckankar built there an $8.5 million international worship center known as The Temple of Eck. The temple, with its golden step-pyramid "dome," rises conspicuously out of the surrounding prairie and suburban housing tracts.
Under Klemp, who is also known as the 973rd Living Eck Master, "the Dream Master," and "Wah Z" (his spiritual name on the "inner plane"), Eckankar has flourished and become a permanent part of the new religious landscape of North America and the world. Eckankar groups exist in many countries, and Eckankar is especially strong in Nigeria. Membership statistics are not published or revealed, but Eckankar president Skelskey claims that the religion has "tens of thousands" of followers worldwide.
Eckankar's appeal is primarily to religious seekers on the fringes of the amorphous New Age movement. The religion offers a spiritual home and community as well as structure to believers in reincarnation, paranormal experiences, and Eastern religious concepts who do not want to leave normal life to join a commune or obvious "cult." The religion claims to unlock the mystery and meaning of the "dream state," and that is another attraction for many Eckists.
Klemp, Harold. The Secret Teachings. 1989.
Lane, David Christopher. The Making of a SpiritualMovement. 1993.
Olson, Roger E. "Eckankar: From Ancient Science of Soul Travel to New Age Religion." In America's Alternative Religions, edited by Timothy Miller. 1995.
Twitchell, Paul. Eckankar: The Key to Secret Worlds. 1969; reprint, 1987.
Roger E. Olson
ECKANKAR, "the religion of light and sound of God," is a variation of the Radha Soami Sant Mat (tradition of the masters), a major religious tradition in the Punjab area of northern India. It was founded in 1965 by Paul Twitchell, a former student of Sant Mat Master Kirpal Singh. In 1964 Twitchell moved to San Francisco, California, and began to teach what he considered an advanced form of surat shabd yoga, the Sant Mat system of spiritual disciplines, which allows the student to hear the divine sounds and see the divine light and prepares the student's soul to travel on what are considered the inner planes of reality.
Twitchell claimed that he had come into contact with the Vairagi order of mahabtas (masters) and especially with their representatives Sudar Singh of India and ECK Master Rebazar Tarzs in the Himalayas. In 1965 Twitchell was named the 971st Living ECK Master, the lineage of the order dating back to pre-history. As the ECK master, he wrote a number of books and brought to publication two volumes of the Shariyat-Ki-Sugmad, the scripture of ECKANKAR. After his death in 1971 he was succeeded by Darwin Gross and then by the current ECK master, Harold Klemp.
ECKANKAR offers a picture of the inner worlds divided into an order of ascending levels through which the student may travel to the realm of God's presence. The student, or chela, is aided in this process by the work of the ECK master, who is believed to be able to meet and assist the student as he or she traverses the planes, especially in the nighttime while sleeping. The many ECK exercises (more than a hundred different techniques are now taught to students at different levels) assist students in their awareness of the planes, and the literature explains what they will encounter at the different levels of the inner reality. To travel the planes it is necessary to be able to see and hear the "divine light and sound."
Devotees of ECKANKAR consider it a living, growing religion headed by a master who continues to bring forth new teachings. Under Harold Klemp, the present ECK master, the organization moved into a new headquarters complex and temple in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota. The religion is now international in scope, and in 1991 more than ten thousand attended an ECK seminar in Africa.
In the 1980s substantive charges were leveled that Twitchell had fabricated his spiritual career, had plagiarized some of his books from the writings of Julian Johnson, a prominent Sant Mat writer, and had attempted to cover up his early associations with Kirpal Singh and other spiritual teachers. Harold Klemp has largely acknowledged Twitchell's borrowing from Johnson and ECKANKAR's place in the Sant Mat tradition. Several ECKANKAR students have also left to found rival organizations, including Ancient Teachings of the Masters (Darwin Gross), The Divine Science of Light and Sound (Jerry Mulvin), and, most prominently, the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (John-Roger Hinkins). ECKANKAR address: Box 27300, Minneapolis, MN 55427.
Klemp, Harold. Soul Travelers of the Far Country. Minneapolis, Minn.: ECKANKAR, 1987.
Lane, David Christopher. The Making of a Spiritual Movement. Del Mar, Calif.: Del Mar Press, 1983.
Twitchell, Paul. All about ECK. Las Vegas, Nev.: Illuminated Way Press, 1969.
——. ECKANKAR, the Key to Secret Worlds. New York: Lancer Books, 1969.