NEW YORK (AP) _ The founder of a spiritual movement that has reached nearly 100,000 villages in India with the message that God is greater than class or religious divisions won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion today.

Pandurang Shastri Athavale, 76, was honored for his leadership of a self-knowledge movement based on the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism's holiest texts. The basic message of swadhyaya _ a Sanskrit word meaning self-study _ is that God is present in all people.

Started in 1954 with 20 persons, there are now some 200,000 swadhyayees _ as followers are called _ traveling throughout India openly mixing with people of all classes, encouraging both personal piety and social programs to build housing and feed the poor.

Athavale said the money from the Templeton award will be put back into the work of the movement, which has reached an estimated 20 million people without a single paid staff worker.

``This award is to advance the human spirit's quest for love and understanding of God,'' Athavale said today. ``I see it as a tribute to the conviction that existence of God is central to life and true religion is the guiding principle of life.''

The Templeton Prize was established in 1972 by investment manager John M. Templeton to recognize people who advance the world's understanding of religion. The award of 750,000 British pounds, valued at around $1.21 million, is the largest monetary prize for achievement in any field. It will be awarded at a ceremony at Westminster Abbey on May 6.

Born to Brahman parents in 1920 in a village near Bombay, Athavale became a respected teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. In 1954, trying to apply principles of his faith to practice, he and 19 others began visiting villages around Bombay urging people to recognize the presence of God within themselves and their neighbors.

The movement's philosophy is once you get people believing that all persons are divine brothers and sisters in the family of God, not only are class and religious conflicts defused but villagers will start to work together to build affordable housing and feed the poor. It supports agricultural and housing projects throughout the country.

``Without religion, you can't change the person,'' Athavale said in an interview. ``Religion is a powerful organization to change the world.''

Previous winners of the Templeton Prize include Billy Graham, Mother Teresa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Last year's winner was Bill Bright, an American evangelical who founded the Campus Crusade for Christ.