Guru Maharaj Ji - mystic and business mogul
That was the only name I ever knew him by.
… A sausage shaped kid imported from India - 16 now, 14 when I first heard about him - who popped up in the news from time to time.
Like when he was accused of smuggling $46,000 worth of jewelry and foreign cash into New - Delhi [formal charges were never filed by Indian authorities]., Like When he came down with an ulcer. And like when, recently he married his secretary, a former United Air Lines stewardess, in a Christian church.
I thought the whole thing was funny, and the operation he calls his Divine Light Mission. A passing fad. Something that would come and go like … a tent revival.
THEN I WENT TO Denver last month.
There, walking into the national headquarters of Divine Light Mission is more like walking into the offices of a huge corporation. The only hint that the seven-story building is anything more than a business establishment are
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Maharaj Ji junior God and a business millionaire
myriad pictures of the chubby GuruMaharaj Ji … on desks, on walls, even in the women's rest rooms.
The furnishings are ultra modern; the staff, scrubbed and manicured, in suits and ties and pantsuits or long tailored skirts. There is a computer which - among other chores - keeps tabs on the guru's followers, and a Telex that links the mission's 280 regional offices thruout the United States.
It is, I found, no small operation:
- One that takes in and spends an estimated $3 million a year.
- One that spares no expense in staging its frequent extravaganzas - $1 million for the widely publicized Millennium in Houston; $180,000 for a smaller gathering in Amerst, Mass.
- One that is trying to come up with $40 to $50 million to build its version of Shangri-La just north of San Antonio, Texas, a community for 5,000 people to be called the City of Love and Light.
- One that owns at least 56 cars and trucks, plus another $80,000 worth of Maseratis and Rolls Royces reserved solely for the guru and his family.
I came away no longer sure the guru's operation is a passing fad. The devotion of his followers - an estimated 50,000 in the U. S. - and the commitment of his leaders, who talk about the City of Love and Light becoming "the entire world one day" and of the guru "taking over," make one take a second look.
IS THE GURU a savior, a Christ reincarnated as his followers claim? Or is he just an expert fund raiser, or even a dictator whose followers follow, without question?
Since Guru Maharaj Ji set foot in this country - three years ago at Los Angeles International Airport - Divine Light Mission has grown not unlike crabgrass, from a handful of U. S. followers to an estimated eight million thruout the world, with headquarters in at least 40 American cities and 36 countries.
Just a year ago, the Denver community consisted of three ashrams [houses where followers live monastic lives] crammed with 70 to 90 devotees, national headquarters, and a computer keyboard. Today, that city alone contains the seven-story office building [on which the mission pays $7,000 monthly rental], 16 ashrams [which rent for about $400 each],. another 16 houses [rent unknown] where followers lead a somewhat less rigid lifestyle, and a growing number of ventures: a food co-op, an auto mechanics garage, a print shop, a used furnitureand-clothing store, a school, a health clinic, a lapel button shop and a home refurbishing service,
THE OFFICE BUILDING houses 200 unsalaried employes and, among other things, the computer [which rents for about $42,000 a year], a photo department which prints and sells pictures of the guru and his family, and offices for the mission's two publications: And It Is Divine, a slick monthly magazine and Divine Times, a bi-weekly news tabloid.
The building also serves as central headquarters for:
- Shri Hans Food Services [named for the guru's late father], which coordinates many co-ops thruout the country and gives technical and legal advice to followers who operate 22 farms and a variety of food-oriented businesses, like bakeries and restaurants.
- Shri Hans Humanitarian Services, which operates health clinics in Denver and Washington, D. C., and has fledging ones in five other major cities.
- Divine Sales, which operates 20 second-hand stores, most of which are being phased out for other ventures.
- Performers of the Living Arts, the entertainment arm of the mission which includes 31 bands, the Divine Light Dance Ensemble [headquartered in Philadelphia], Soul Rush Theater Co. [a professional acting company in Boston], and a variety of novelty acts ranging from acrobats to mimes to people who play the spoons. The mission has also produced several movies and longplaying records.
IT HAS REPORTEDLY tried to buy a small college in Arizona and is comtemplating building a large glass dome in New York to be used for "satsang," discourses given by the guru's followers about him, his love and knowledge.
Getting a comprehensive financial picture of the mission's operations - what it takes in, what it spends, what it has - is virtually impossible. The mission is chartered by Colorado as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
Mission officials are noncommittal. They say the mission spends most of what it takes in and that funds come from its business ventures, salaries turned over to it by followers with outside jobs and, occasionally, donations from parents.
"WE DON'T REALLY know where we stand," said assistant Finance director Mark Lawson, a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
He explains that the mission is in the process of computerizing its financial information and adds: "We can pretty much count on $250,000 a month gross. Net … that's difficult to determine."
A national financial firm last fall set the mission's net worth at $369,216 and its total assets at $885,027. It listed mortgages totaling more than $100,000 on houses used by the guru in Denver and Pacific Palisades, Cal., and another for $29,545 on 60 acres of land in Rhode Island.
Tomorrow: It's expensive keeping a guru in the style to which he's become accustomed.