Street Life magazine
Perfect Master and unholy squabbles
The Guru comes of age
By Mick Brown
(Street Life was a short lived magazine from Great Britain)
ON DECEMBER 10, 1975 Balyogeshwar Param Hans Satgurudev Shri Sant Ji Maharaj, the Guru Maharaj Ji, Satguru, Perfect Master, Dispeller of Darkness, came of age. Followers of the Guru throughout India, America, and Europe celebrated in the customary manner - with a party. The Guru himself celebrated by appointing a new board of trustees to the English branch of his Divine Light Mission, thereby foiling attempts by his mother and elder brother, Shri Bal Bhagwan Ji, to gain control of the Mission and its resources in this country.
The appointment signalled the climax of a long and acrimonious row within the Guru's family which had seen mother and brother publicly denouncing Maharaj Ji, dragging the matter through the Indian courts and finally proclaiming Bhwagwan Ji Perfect Master. The unholy squabble proved that all is not sweetness and light even in the holiest of families, and marked a watershed in the activities of the young Guru and his organisation. One might almost say a coming of age …
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GURU MAHARAJ Ji made his first public appearance in England in 1971 at the Glastonbury Festival - a final spasm in the death-throes of what was the love and - peace movement. Glastonbury is a place of legends, Arthurian, Christian, and mystical, and the Guru's appearance was imbued with appropriate cosmic significance. It was said that the position of the planets on an alignment with Glastonbury at the time of the Festival would herald the dawn of a new, Golden Age and the coming of a Great Man. Two rainbows appearing in the sky would signal his arrival.
The thirteen-year-old Guru Maharaj Ji astonished festival organisers and the assembled multitudes by turning up unannounced in a White Rolls Royce, taking over the stage, and delivering an impromptu five-minute satsang (literally, 'truth talk') before the power on the microphone was cut. The next day, so the legend has it, two rainbows appeared in a clear blue sky.
The Guru's appearance may not have heralded a Golden Age for mankind, but it certainly heralded a Golden Age for his own organisation. The Mission had then been in existence in this country for only two years, with humble beginnings in a basement in West Kensington, but by 1973 - two years after Glastonbury - it had grown to the point where a rally, 'Guru Puja '73', held in July of that year, warranted the hiring of Alexandra Palace for three days to accommodate some 40,000 participants.
The Guru's arrival in the West had been timely. By 1971 the euphoric optimism of the hallucinogenic dream of the 1960's had begun to evaporate into a collective sense of confusion and disappointment, and for many people the realisation was dawning chat neither drug-orientated hedonism nor radical politics contained the solution to their personal problems. Guru Maharaj Ji provided a panacea - what he called 'the Knowledge', a process of meditation whereby the Self throws off the shackles of the mind and realises its true God-nature. The Guru himself was said to be a God-realised Soul, an incarnation of perfection, as had been Buddha, Christ, and Krishna before him. Some devotees claimed he was God. In America the whole thing was denounced as a CIA plot.
By the time of 'Guru Puja '73' comprised various business ventures. There was a sales division, Divine Sales, manufacturing everything from clothes to cosmetics; a film-production company, Shri Hans Productions; a publishing outlet, Shri Hans Publications; and a service and security arm, the World Peace Corps, Divine headquarters were established in a converted cinema in South London, called the Palace of Peace, the interior decorated in Hindu chic, thronged with devotees (called 'premies') wearing Guru Maharaj Ji badges and uniformly beatific smiles.
Nourished by donations and the unpaid labours of devotees, the Mission marched on under a banner of rabid evangelism. Maharaj Ji, it was said, promised world peace in our time, or, alternately, an apocalypse from which only those who had received the Knowledge would be saved. Mao and Nixon, it was said, would soon be standing in line. The nations media, apparently missing the true gist of the movement, wondered loudly about the young Guru's predilection for expensive cars and electronic toys. Like most people, they weren't taking the Golden Age very seriously …
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PICTURES OF Maharaj Ji at the time of 'Guru Puja '73' show a chubby, smooth-faced Indian boy dressed in well-cut Nehru garb, sometimes garlanded with flowers, often seated on a dais. His expression is of benign and implacable calm. Pictures of the Maharaj Ji today show a slightly slimmed-down Guru, moustache and longish hair, wearing a business-suit and tie, a digital-watch on his wrist, seated behind a large desk. His expression is still benign, but it appears somehow more serious, almost troubled: Well it might.
For the last three years have not been altogether happy ones for the Guru. Indeed, to all outward appearances the Divine Light Mission seems to have been in a state of decline since its zenith in July, 1973. In England the organisation has been in a state of steady contraction with the various businesses folding up one by one.
In May of 1975 an Aberdeen court convicted a premie of taking as his lover a 14-year-old girl, who was also a follower. The Mission wrote to the girl's father pointing out that they could not be held responsible for the sexual behaviour of followers who were not living in ashrams (houses owned by the Mission and dedicated to the Guru), but a subsequent warning by the Chief Constable of Aberdeen against 'mystical religious cults' and an odious 'Sex Orgy Cult' smear campaign by the Scottish press did nothing to enhance the image of beneficence and purity the Mission have always been anxious to promote.
A further scandal proved even more damaging, when it was revealed at an inquest that a girl who plunged to her death from the top of a block of flats in Manchester had been a follower of the Guru and had worked for a short time in the Mission's London offices. It emerged that the girl had a history of psychiatric disorder, but her parents claimed that the Guru's teachings had further confused her mind. The Mission disclaim responsibility for her suicide, arguing that she had been persuaded to leave the ashram where she was living by an ex-boyfriend (not a follower) two weeks before her death. But the Mission's director at the time, Nicholas Seymour-Jones, was obliged to resign for not obtaining proper representation for the organisation at the inquest.
Both incidents turned the ridicule with which the Mission had been commonly viewed into distrust and suspicion, but of far greater significance to the Mission itself was the row in the Holy Family. The root of the family squabble lay in a fundamental difference of opinion over the direction the Mission should take after 1973. Up until then the Mission's hierarchical structure had been steeped in the Hindu tradition from which the Guru had sprung, with Maharaj Ji himself as spiritual figurehead, but the actual wheels of the organisation being turned by his mother and elder brother. With the Guru basing himself more and more in the west -apparently acquiring a taste for Western life, surrounding himself with Western advisers and beginning to exert more personal control over the Mission's direction - a rift began to appear.
Things came to a head in May 1974 when Maharaj Ji surprised his family by marrying a 24-year-old American premie, a former TWA air-hostess. Up until the marriage their relationship had been kept secret, with the Guru's future wife following him at a discreet distance during a North American tour, checking into different hotels, and Maharaj Ji sneaking off after delivering satsangs for clandestine rendezvous. "It was a real secret romance trip," says one of the Guru's followers. "All the premies thought it was beautiful." The rest of the Holy Family, however, were less than blissed out, and the row bubbled into the open with accusations that the Guru was being manipulated and corrupted by his American advisors and leading a 'playboy' life.
In early 1975, immediately prior to a scheduled tour of India, the Guru was finally denounced by his family and his brother pronounced Perfect Master instead - a volte face which threw the Mission into some confusion. In May 1975 the matter was dragged into the Indian courts where the Guru's title to the leadership and property of the Divine Light Mission was upheld. A subsequent attempt by Bal Bhwagwan Ji to assume
control of the Mission in this country was thwarted by the Guru coming of age and appointing new trustees from amongst his own supporters. The Holy Family are now running their own breakaway movement back in India, with legal wrangles still continuing over the rights to Divine Light Mission property.
In England, the role which the family initially played in the Mission, and indeed the very existence of the family themselves, has been almost forgotten. In a satsang at the Bloomsbury Centre in September 1975 - the first time Maharaj Ji had appeared personally in this country since the split - he hinted darkly at English premies being misguided by false agya (instructions given by the Guru or members of the Holy Family), but made no specific reference to the family or the dispute. And the waters now seem to have flown sufficiently far under the bridge for one Mission worker to dismiss the row as 'racism' on the family's part. "They had no objections to the Guru marrying, hut they did object to him marrying an American girl. It really stems from the belief that white people are inferior to the great Aryan race . . ."
With the organisation now firmly under the Guru's control a new strategy is beginning to take shape, with the Mission consciously playing down the strong Eastern connotations the movement has always had, and adopting what one premie describes as 'a soft vibe', more palatable to the sensibilities of the Western unconverted. With the new approach has come an almost total severance from the umbilical cord which traditionally connected the Guru's movement to Hindu convention, and a concurrent shift in philosophical emphasis. In keeping with Maharaj Ji's own sartorial preference premies no longer wear the dhotis and saris which abounded in the early days of the Mission. Much of the ritualistic trappings of the actual meditation incense, shrines, the white sheets premies would shroud themselves in while meditating - have been dispensed with.
And a month or so ago Maharaj Ji himself issued a directive to followers announcing that Mahatmas - devotees empowered by the Guru to reveal Knowledge to initiates, would henceforth be known as lnitiators, and would not be treated with the extraordinary reverence normally accorded them but regarded simply as premies who, because of the temperament, understanding, and experience, are able to reveal Knowledge. Covering their chairs with white cloth and garlanding them with flowers - the customary ritual for Mahatmas - is out, a further step to change what Maharaj Ji described as the Mission's 'mystical and trippy' image. Many of the lndian Mahatmas had already left the mission, some at the time of the family split, piqued and confused by what they regard as the Guru's disdain for tradition. Their places have been taken by the first Western, mostly American, Initiators.
With the discarding of much of the Hindu ritual has come a subtle change in the Guru's philosophical teachings. The traditional ideal of an ascetic life - an ideal much cherished in the early days of the Mission - has been softened somewhat. Premies who choose to live in ashrams still live by a strict code, rising at 6 each morning for devotional songs and group meditation and observing the three main vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, but other premies can eat, wear and do what they like without necessarily feeling their actions are compromising their faith.
"We were very much into detachment from the world in a physical sense before," says one premie, "don't go to the cinema, don't do this or that because it's unspiritual. But Guru Maharaj Ji has said do what the hell you want but meditate with it so you're not attached to it, cultivate an internal detachment to things and that way nothing can worry you. But it's a false concept that by detaching yourself from physical things you'll get any holier; if you've still got the desire in your heart for something you'll just frustrate yourself and drive yourself crazy."
The hard-edged evangelism of the Mission's early days has also softened in the light of the 'policy' changes. Devotees no longer talk about the whole world taking Knowledge before the end of next week. "We still hope it will assert itself over the planet," says one premie, "but we're now thinking in terms of the 1980's, 1990's - a gradual progression rather than a big bang. The emphasis now isn't so much on getting out in the streets and turning the world on; it's really more to do with self-realisation and action, establishing strong premie communities and doing Service - welfare and social work, visiting hospitals, taking out orphans, and so on."
The contraction of the Mission's business interests in this country was another planned step in the Guru's reshaping of the movement, explains Glen Whitaker, a director of the Mission's umbrella organisation, the Divine United Organisation. "He instructed us to wind up the businesses, saying we're an organisation teaching meditation, not a business organisation. The argument had always been that we needed financial support to spread the Knowledge, and that having our own business operations was one way of doing this, but Guru Maharaj Ji said no; he wanted the Mission to grow as the premies wanted it to grow. Whatever they contribute we'll use; if they don't contribute, it doesn't grow."
With the businesses now completely wound up, the mission relies entirely on voluntary contributions from followers for its survival, and to keep the Guru in the style to which he has become accustomed. There is an 'Active Membership Programme' whereby premies pledge 10 per cent of their annual income to the Mission. The programme numbers some 1,500 subscribers and accounted for 31 per cent of the Mission's income in the last half of 1974 (34 per cent from premies living in ashrama, who donate all their earnings to the organisation). As a result of A.M.P., says Whitaker, the Mission is now "finding its own level."
"We're not in this for the money. If there was only 100 coming in from A.M.P. and we just had a staff of three in a one-room office that would be okay.'
In fact, the level the Mission has found for itself is somewhat higher than that. Divine headquarters are currently located in and above a converted shop in South London, and staffed by 40 full-time workers. A discreet sign on the shop-window announces 'Divine United Organisation', but makes no mention of the Guru. The inside is similarly low-key and businesslike, with none of the exotic trappings which adorned the Palace of Peace.
The organisation is shortly moving premises, to three floors of a new office-block in Banbury. D.U.O.'s activities are structured in a similarly businesslike manner, broken down into, four categories - Programme Development, Legal and Financial Control, Maintenance, and Communications with an adopted jargon which matches the Guru's own liking for American slang (he refers to his $400,000 Malibu estate as a 'truck-stop'); ashram secretaries have become 'Community Directors'; non-ashram communities are called 'D.L.C.s' (Diving Light Centres) while individual premies scattered around the country are 'I. C. s' - Information Contacts. And new initiates now take a carefully structured 8-week 'Knowledge Course', rather than picking up Knowledge at random whenever a Mahatma happened to be passing through.
The Mission's new image begs comparison with that of Maharishi Mahesh's Transcendental Meditation organisation, which has quietly dropped all allusions to T.M.'s Hindu origins, and now promotes it as scientifically-proven aid to a more healthy life, good for businessmen, army generals and hippies (if any are still interested) alike. Indeed, the Mission are now advocating the Knowledge as a secular experience, 'which Christians, atheists and businessmen can enjoy'. Glen Whitaker agrees that 'the spiritual overtones' of Maharaj Ji's teachings are being gradually phased out, "but the Knowledge is still unique and there will always be the vital difference that Guru Maharaj Ji himself is essential, the foundation or the whole thing; not just a teacher of meditation but a God-realised Soul on a higher plane that the rest of us."
THE GURU'S 6,000 or so followers in this country seem to have taken the period of turbulence through which the Mission has passed, and the ensuing change in its direction comfortably in their collective stride. Whitaker admits there was some confusion among premies over the row in the Holy Family, and not everybody has welcomed the rampant Westernisation of the Mission. Premies in Norwich, for example, who obviously have more of a taste for Hindu ritual, are reputedly unhappy about the Guru's directive on Mahatmas.
But most followers seem indifferent to the family altercations (one girl premie claimed to know nothing whatsoever about it) and happy about the Mission's new direction. Indeed, premies I spoke to looked back on the early days of fevered evangelism, misguided business ventures and the sort of slavish adulation of Maharaj Ji which led one non-believing cynic to describe him as 'the Brahmin Donny Osmond' with some misgiving almost embarrassment - and see the more moderate, low-key approach of the Mission as a more effective way of spreading the Knowledge, and of being recognised as 'ordinary' people, rather than 'a bunch of freaks'.
Guru Maharaj Ji's next appearance in this country, at a festival in Leicester in June, provides a further illustration of the Mission's new approach. Rather than free attendance - the normal rule for such events - premies are being asked to fork out £25 for a business-convention style weekend. "We're staying in hotels this time," explains Glen Whitaker. "We've finished with the days of camping out or crashing on pavements."
He laughs ! "You could say we're respectable now …"