The Divine Light Mission was described in various and sometimes conflicting terms. It was called a new religious movement, a cult, a charismatic religious sect, an offshoot of Sant Mat, an alternative religion or spin-off from other traditional religions, a youth religion, a Radhasoami offshoot, an orthodox Sikh community, an Advait Mat related tradition, a proselytizing religion ("Guru-ism"), and a defunct religious movement. A study of terms used in U.S. newspapers and news magazines, which examined the media's failure to use the more neutral terminology favored by social scientists, found that the Divine Light Mission was referred to as a "sect" in 10.3% of articles, as a "cult" in 24.1%, and as both in 13.8%. It was referred to as a "sect" in 21.4% of headlines, with 0% for "cult".
The president and spokesman of the DLM said in 1977 that "they represent a church rather than a religion".
In some countries, the DLM faced persecution and even banning. In 1972, in Argentina, as part of a crackdown on small religious groups by the military junta, 87 members of the DLM were arrested in Mar del Plata on charges of using drugs and practising their faith. The DLM, the Hare Krisnas and the Jehovah's Witnesses were banned, reportedly at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church. The Government Junta of Chile (1973) arrested over 200 members, including 12 foreigners, in 1974. The DLM was banned by Singapore authorities in the late 1980s.
Bromley and Hammond described the Divine Light Mission as belonging in a "medium tension category", among movements that were seen by the public as peculiar rather than threatening, and to which society responded with watchfulness and ostracism. Psychiatrist Saul V. Levine wrote that the DLM, along with other groups such as the Unification Church, was widely held in low esteem – families felt their children were being financially exploited while the groups' leaders lived in "ostentation and offensive opulence."
Ron Geaves states that the Divine Light Mission "developed into a vigorous new religious movement with its own specific traits that included characteristics of a contemporary North Indian Sant panth (sectarian institution) and nirguna bhakti was combined with intense reverence for the living satguru and millennial expectations of the western counter-culture."
According to sociologist Pilarzyk the youth culture response — mainly from decidedly leftist political ideologies — was somewhat ambiguous, combining indifference with some instances of overt hostility. Pilarzyk mentioned that these criticisms usually focused on what they perceived as phoniness of the "blissed-out premies", and referring to the "hocuspocus" aspects of the meditation, and the "materialistic fixations" and physical condition of the guru. These accounts are described by Pilarzyk as being quite negative and full of distortions from the DLM's adherents point of view, which drew responses from them that varied from bewilderment and amusement to extreme defensiveness. Positive comments came from youth culture "folk heroes" as anti-war activist as Rev. Daniel Berrigan, radical lawyer William Kunstler, and singer-songwriter Cat Stevens.
Summarizing his 1985 review of studies of a number of new religious movements, such as The Jesus Movement, the Unification Church, the Children of God group in Europe and the Divine Light Mission, James T. Richardson stated that "life in the new religions is often therapeutic instead of harmful", and suggested that the young people attracted to these movements were affirming their idealism by their involvement. Richardson asserted that his review found there was little data to support the almost completely negative picture of these groups painted by a few mental health professionals and others.
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