Eckankar is a new religious movement based on a 19th-century Indian tradition called Sant Mat, which centers around surat shabd yoga, “yoga of the sound current.” Eckankar focuses on spritualexercises enabling practitioners to experience “the Light and Sound of God.”
Eckankar was founded in Las Vegas in 1965, when Paul Twitchell (c.1908-71), who had previously been among the first Scientology ‘clears,’ declared himself to be the 971st Eck Master.
Paul Twitchell studied under Kirpal Singh (1896–1974), one of the master teachers of Sant Mat surat shabd yoga (see below). Twitchell believed that Sound Current yoga had existed since antiquity and that his knowledge and teaching authority stemmed not from Kirpal Singh (who visited the United States in 1955 and 1964) but from an ancient lineage of ECK masters of which he was the 971st. He also claimed he was taught directly by two masters who were no longer in their bodies, Rabazar Tarzs and Sudar Singh.
Dropping the Indian cultural elements from what he had learned, Paul Twitchell founded Eckankar, which offered students a means of “soul transcendence” through techniques that placed them in contact with the Divine Light and Sound. Eckankar is different from Sant Mat in a number of ways, including an increased number of spiritualexercises and inclusion of more temporal concerns like healing, harmony, and problem solving. Twitchell also rejected the Sant Mat ideal of ultimate oneness with the Divine, suggesting that the goal of life is to become a “coworker” with God.
Paul Twitchell died in 1971 and was succeeded by Darwin Gross as leader of the movement. In 1981, Gross passed his authority to Harold Klemp, who remains the spiritual leader of Eckankar today.
In the early 1980s, religious studies scholar David Christopher Lane charged that Paul Twitchell had falsified much of his account of the origin of ECK. Klemp later acknowledged some truth in Lane’s accusations but asserted that the essential truth of ECK was unaffected. Shortly thereafter, he oversaw the movement of Eckankar from San Francisco to suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a headquarters and temple complex were constructed.
By the late 1990s there were 367 ECK centres worldwide, of which 164 were in the United States.
The Eckankar articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopedia of American Religions (both by J. Gordon Melton) estimated total membership at 50,000 in the late 1990s.