The Guru Business
BOMBAY. The Delhi headquarters of the Divine Light Mission is like a fortress: an 8-foot-high wall with an iron-grilled gate encloses a courtyard and a complex of buildings consisting of offices, reception rooms, kitchen, refectory, dormitories, a temple and the residential Suite of Balyogeshwar, the Child God.
"God is great but greater is Guru because He reveals God" runs the legend on the poster adorning the gatekeeper's shack. I enter my name, address, profession and purpose in the visitors' book. The gatekeeper asks me to wait and takes the book indoors for scrutiny.
A stocky man with a shawl wrapped about his shoulders emerges and introduces himself as the personal private secretary of Shri Guru Maharaj Ji, the title by which devotees refer to Balyogeshwar. He leads me through an office where three American girls in white saris sit on the floor hammering away on their typewriters. The reception room is furnished with sofas and chairs. An armchair with multicolored cushions is set apart from the others. There is a projector on one side; a portable screen facing it on the other. In a niche above the sofa on which I am told to sit are two large pictures of Balyogeshwar. One bears the message, "Maharaj Ji, Light of Lights" the other asks: "Do you know the aim of life?”
Balyogeshwar's Divine Light Mission is only one of the innumerable religious organizations that proliferate in the country. There are many other self-styled bhagwans (gods), swamis (lords), rishis (sages), maharishis (great sages), acharyas (teachers) and sants (saints) and gurus who have larger followings. It is not possible to make an estimate of the number of their followers because wildly exaggerated claims are made by each holy man. But it can be assumed that most religious Hindus and Sikhs (together making 85 per cent of the population of India) and some Moslems, Christians and Parsis as well, pay homage to one live saint or the other whom they regard as God incarnate.
Balyogeshwar's private secretary goes out and comes back. He tells me that Shri Guru Maharaj Ji is busy. There has been a spot of trouble with Customs. On the guru's return from a world tour last November, accompanied by 400 foreign devotees, U.S. currency and goods with a total value of $27,000 were seized from the entourage.
Tea and cookies are served. I ask the private secretary how he came to join the mission and what it has meant to him.
"I belonged to a family of Brahmin priests attached to the Court of Maharajahs of Kashmir. Although I was brought up in a religious atmosphere, I did not find any satisfaction in temple ritual and chanting mantras (sacred words endowed with magical properties). I was looking for a guru who could give me real knowledge. Someone gave me the address of an ashram (hermitage) in Hardwar. Although I was only 16 when I arrived there, I knew I had found the one I had been seeking. This was our present Maharaj Ji's father. I attached myself to his lotus feat and served him to the day he left his body on July 19, 1966. Now I serve the new Guru Maharaj Ji. I have dedicated my life to the mission."
At 32, Sampurnanand holds the senior Position in the hierarchy of the Divine Light Mission. Apart from being personal secretary to Balyogeshwar, he is a mahatma (great soul) In his own right. Though celibacy is not compulsory, Mahatma Sampurnanand and almost 1,000 others who have likewise dedicated their lives to the spread of Divine Light keep themselves free of family entanglements.
"What is your estimate of the following of your mission?" I ask.
"In the world? About four million spread over 63 countries. It is catching on like wildfire."
"And so it should," remarks another, taking up the thread. "I have been with the holy family since I was this much," he says, lowering the palm of his hand to knee level. "I was at Prem Nagar (Town of Love) ashram in Hardwar when our Guru Maharaj Ji was born on Dec. 10, 1957. I remember his father saying, “This child will be the world's greatest saint. There has never been one so great as he; there never will be.” This is Bihari Singh, who has been chauffeur in the family. It is hard to tell his age as his hair and mustache are dyed jet black and his eyes sparkle with enthusiasm.
More people slip in and sit quietly on the floor. Among them are some white foreigners. Before I can talk to them, all eyes turn expectantly toward the door. Two men hold the curtains on either side. Balyogeshwar makes his entrance.
The name given to him at birth was Pratap Singh Rawat. When he succeeded his father as head of the Divine Light Mission, he came to be known both as Balyogeshwar (Child God) and Shri Guru Maharaj Ji. He is a little over 15. He is the youngest of a family of five, consisting of three brothers and a married sister. His late father, generally regarded as the founder of the mission, is alluded to by his full title: Yogiraj (King of Yogis) Param Sant (First and Supreme Saint) Satgurudev (True Worshipful Teacher) Shri Hansji Maharaj. Balyogeshwar's mother is addressed as Shri Mataji (Revered Holy Mother). She is a buxom, good-looking woman with chocolate-brown complexion and high cheekbones. She blushes as easily as she smiles. Her row of sparkling teeth are outdone in their luster only by the diamonds in her nose and ears. Balyogeshwar resembles his mother. He has the same dark brown, smooth, mahogany skin, with slanting eyes and a tendency to fatness. He looks a brown cherub. His hair is well oiled. He wears a black waistcoat over a starched white shirt, white pajamas and ankle-high Western boots. As he enters, the devotees go down on their knees and press their foreheads on the floor. He takes the cushioned armchair.
He looks uncomfortable, fidgets and eyes me with suspicion. He has had his fill of journalists questioning him about his brush with Customs.
"I came for your darshan (the blessing which flows from the sight of a saintly person), " I say in Hindi. "I read in American and English papers that your tour was a great success."
He smiles. His narrow eyes close when he does so.
"Will you be going abroad again?"
The smile freezes; the look of suspicion comes back. I realize I have committed a faux pas: the police have impounded his passport. I quickly make amends. "I believe your English disciples gave you a Rolls-Royce."
He smiles again. I cash in on the changed mood. "I've read a lot about your holiness, but I haven't discovered why your father chose you instead of your elder brothers to be his successor."
"I can tell you that," he replies, leaning back in his armchair. "I was only 8 when the late Maharaj Ji left his body. I was at school in Dehra Dun. The chauffeur came to fetch me. I went home. Everyone was weeping. I was just sitting there, not weeping. Something began to happen to me. I began to feel that I am not this body; that I could not move these lips." He points to his lips. “I always thought that the soul would leave by the mouth, but my mouth was shut. Still, I felt I was leaving my body and my soul was everywhere going out. And this voice came to me saying: 'You are he, you are the one to continue.'" He pauses and looks around to see what impact his words have made on his audience. They are listening with rapt attention. Some have shut their eyes as if meditating. Somebody pushes a tape recorder nearer his feet. He continues. "I puzzled over this voice. Thirteen days later, when I was going to immerse my father's ashes in the Ganges, the voice came again: 'You are he. You are the one to go and give this to the world.' I didn't want to be Satguru. I would have been satisfied to be a mischievous little boy. But the late Maharaj Ji had left a letter in which he sent his love to his oldest three sons and obeisances to his youngest. So they crowned me with the crown of Rama and Krishna and put the saffron mark of succession on my forehead."
A few days later Balyogeshar spoke at a condolence meeting. He said, "Dear children of God, why are you weeping? The Perfect Master never dies. Maharaj Ji is here among you now. Recognize him, obey him, and worship him."
It is obvious he has made this speech many times. His words are well chosen. His Hindi is impeccable. His manner of delivery and the gestures he makes are those of an accomplished orator. He pauses to heighten expectation before he delivers the punch line. He tells me how on Nov. 8, 1970, before a million devotees gathered in Delhi, he announced his plan to take the message to foreign lands and thus "explode the Peace Bomb."
Though his eyes are focused on me, he is addressing everyone in the room, and perhaps an unseen multitude beyond.
"Why do people come to you? What do they get from you?" I ask him.
"Why do people come to me?" he asks, repeating my question. "They come to me because they are unhappy, restless. They want peace. What do they get from me? They get this knowledge that I have."
"Knowledge? What knowledge? Do you give them the guru mantra [the sacred formula whispered by a guru in the ear of the disciple on initiation]?"
"I give them the maha [great] mantra," he says emphatically. "I tell them of the true aim of human life. It is not to eat, drink and be merry; it is realization, the true realization of God."
"Surely it is for everyone to make his own equation with himself and with God. Why must a person have a guru?"
"Why must a Person have a guru? Because without a guru no one can achieve salvation." Seeing I am a Sikh, he quotes the Sikh scriptures to me: "Were a hundred moons to rise and a thousand suns as well, without the guru the world would still be in utter darkness." He likes to illustrate his points with parables. He breaks into English: "Divine knowledge is like money in a bank, it is my money. I have the checkbook. But only after I write on that check and sign it can you draw the money. See?" His English is not very good. He speaks it with an American accent.
"One of your posters says Guru is greater than God. This would be considered blasphemous by Jews, Christians, Moslems and many others."
"The guru is the only one who can open the third eye through which a person can see divine light. The guru is the only one who can give the word. It is the same word which the Bible speaks of: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Having said that, he quickly corrects himself, "I am not God; I am only His servant.”
THE dialogue becomes a little confused. At one time he says the preacher is more important than the Bible - apparently equating the preacher with the guru; then retracts the statement and says that the function of the guru is exactly what the word means. It is composed of two syllables: gu meaning dark and ru meaning light - therefore, one who dispels darkness and gives light.
"The world is turning against God," I tell him. "In Russia and other Communist countries, they have abolished religion."
"The world is not so much turning against God as toward materialism," he corrects me. "One may deny God, but no one can abolish Him. It is like refusing to see that a man has two legs, a goat has four. Really, these materialistic things can give us very little satisfaction. Suppose I want to sit on a chair and I am not getting a chair. I am frustrated. As soon as I get a chair, I will feel some satisfaction of mind. But then I will need a table, then a pad over it, then pen and ink, then my name on that pad, and so on goes the extension of the mind."
"I am an agnostic," I interrupt him. "I don't believe or disbelieve in God. I simply say, 'I don't know'. What is more, I don't think whether there is or there is not a God is very important in human affairs. There are many people like me."
"Are you not seeking for something?" he asks.
"Then why are you here?" he asks, pointing his finger at me.
"Because I am curious."
"Curious? Curiosity is a vacuum. You have a vacuum in your mind and want to fill it. That's why you have come to see me." He snaps his thumb and finger triumphantly.
"No! Curiosity is my profession. I am a journalist. I have come to see you to find out what you have to say and what your followers get out of you."
An uneasy silence pervades the zoom. One of the foreigners breaks in. "I, too, was an agnostic once. But I knew I was missing something. Then I came to the Guru Maharaj Ji and he gave me this knowledge."
"What knowledge?" I ask the young man.
Bob Misheler is a thin, pale, flaxen-haired, gray-eyed youth who was teaching yoga in Denver. He tells me of his disappointment with the Protestant faith and how agnosticism had left a void in his heart. It was only when he met Guru Maharaj Ji and was given knowledge that he found a sense of fulfillment.
I don't understand what the word knowledge means to these people. I turn to another young man. He is Gary Girard from Los Angeles. He was Jewish "My search brought me to India," he says. "I became a sadhu and walked barefoot on dusty roads along the Ganges from one place of pilgrimage to another. I did not find what I was looking for. Then I met Guru Maharaj Ji. He gave me this knowledge."
The knowledge continues to elude me. So does the quest. I thank Balyogeshwar for sparing an hour for me. He stands up. His devotees make obeisance. He smiles, nods a farewell and walks out.
The Divine Light Mission has been attracting attention from the press since Balyogeshwar started going abroad two years ago. Since his embroilment with the Indian Customs, he has been exposed to a lot of adverse publicity. Demands have been made in the Indian Parliament that he be arrested. So far, his admirers (who include many members of Parliament) have been able to protect him. But he may have to pay a heavy fine.
Though there is nothing new in the teachings of Balyogeshwar or any other of the god-men, they have received a lot of coverage in the Indian press because of what has appeared about them in the European and the American papers. Recognition abroad helps recognition at home. "Going to Phoren" (Foreign) has become a part of the Indians' one-upmanship; god-men are no exception. And foreign devotees have become an important Status symbol. They are paraded before the Indians as proof positive that at long last the materialistic West is turning to spiritual India for guidance.
The techniques recommended by Balyogeshwar and other god-men are the same as preached by gurus over the centuries. First comes the initiation. Once the neophyte is considered fit to be enrolled, Balyogeshwar gives him the diksha (spiritual gift) of a sacred mantra whispered in the ear. This may be just one word, like the name of one of the gods, Rama or Krishna, or a verse---"Repeat the name of Shiva and your difficulties will be resolved." This is the guru mantra, the secret bond between guru and disciple which must never be divulged. The devotee must thereafter meditate in absolute silence and still his wavering mind by repeating the guru mantra to himself. He should focus his inner vision on a spot between the eyes above the nose and regulate his breathing. The practice is designed to open the mystic third eye through which divine light comes flooding in. It can be a long process. But some gurus like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (onetime guru of the Beatles) claim to have evolved a mode of instant meditation. The Mahesh Yogi's technique is discounted by most practitioners of the art.
Most gurus (not Balyogeshwar) recommend practices in which the disciple can drop his or her inhibitions and let himself go. Although drugs and drink are forbidden, chanting, singing and dancing that produce a sense of euphoria leading to a trance are approved. At some of these seances, disciples discard their clothing, shriek, leap about wildly and pass out.
When he feels his end is near, a guru nominates a successor. In Indian religious terminology this is "as one lamp lights another." The man chosen is usually the closest disciple. But when money or property (ashrams, temples, land and houses) are involved, it is not unusual for the father to name his son (as in the case of Shri Guru Maharaj Ji) or relative and thus keep the guruship and the property in the family. Disputes about succession result in schisms and often come up before courts of law.
MOST successful gurus maintain large establishments with boarding and lodging facilities for hundreds-in some places, thousands-of visitors. In Northern India many have their headquarters somewhere along the holy Ganges and other residences in the cities. Thus Balyogeshwar has his Prem Nagar ashram at Hardwar where the river enters the plains, another at Delhi and smaller centers scattered over the country and abroad. The Delhi ashram can accommodate more than 100 men and women; its kitchen can on special occasions feed up to 50,000 visitors a day. The lavish use of marble, wall-to-wall carpets, chandeliers and modern furnishings are clear evidence of affluence. Balyogeshwar lives well. Some other gurus live even better. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who claims a following of 100,000 disciples) travels by helicopter; Shri Satya Sai Baba has a cavalcade of cars following him wherever he goes. I asked Balyogeshwar's secretary where the money came from. "Mostly in offerings from Indian devotees," he maintains. Some god-men have acquired wealthy Patrons. Swami Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness counts India's richest Lady, Sumati Morarji, head of the country's largest shipping firm, among his patrons. In Satya Sai Baba's clientele are many industrialists. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had the Beatles, Mia Farrow and many others; unlike other god-men he charges $30 for initiation. Balyogeshwar also bas a considerable foreign following mainly in the United States. A dollar goes a long way in India.
Tradition requires that a devotee give body (tan), mind (man) and worldly wealth (dhan) to his guru. Indians give more generously of the first two; foreigners contribute a lion's share of the third. A good example is the Gurudev (guru god) Muktananda's ashram at Ganeshpuri.
Ganeshpuri is only 50 miles from Bombay but a thousand miles from the city's noise and stench. It lies in a broad valley ringed by forested hills. The 30 acre ashram has a large marble temple. A solid silver railing demarcates the altar, which has a black marble statue of Swami Nityananda, founder of the order. A massive silver chest, one side made of glass, is crammed with currency. Pilgrims come from Bombay and Ahmedabad by the busload, do obeisance to the statue, thrust coins and notes in the box and sing hymns. (the rest of the article is about Muktananda's western devotees)
Copyright The New York Times
Originally published April 8, 1973