Photos by Shelley Katz - Black Star
Millennium '73: The guru and disciples at 'the most holy and significant event in human history'
'You're a Perfect Master'
It almost seemed as though the rally had been cursed. The turnout was disappointingly sparse. Pickets jeered rudely outside, and loudspeaker problems turned much of the sermon into squealing electronic gibberish. Undaunted, the white-robed guru sat serenely atop a flame-shaped throne towering 50 feet above the floor of the Houston Astrodome. Flower petals were strewn at his bare feet. Blue and green spotlights revolved, and heady incense clouded the air. Spinning parables of toads and owls, the guru proclaimed a thousand years of peace for those who want it.
Millennium '73 may not actually have been, as its publicists claimed, "the most holy and significant event in human history," but it was clearly one of the more expensive. The three-day extravaganza last week cost sponsors upwards of $500,000, not counting the price of 33 chartered jets that flew the faithful in from 31 countries. The event also starred one of 1973's more improbable religious leaders. A cheerfully corpulent boy of 15, Guru Maharaj Ji is already a veteran of seven years offering mass enlightenment. In 1986, at the age of 8, he inherited the title of Satguru (Perfect Master) from his father. "Dear children of God," he reproved his father's mourners, "why are you weeping? The Perfect Master is among you. Recognize him. Obey him and adore him."
A large order, perhaps, but not an impossible one for the estimated 6 million followers who are turned on by the guru's brand of inner peace. They speak his name in the same breath with Lord Krishna, Buddha and Jesus Christ. To convert Rennie Davis, the antiwar militant of Chicago Seven fame, Maharaj Ji is "the Lord, the universe, the power of creation itself." Not everyone, of course, shares this view. A touring Indian swami charges that the lad is a "27-year-old fraud." Agehananda Bharati, the Indian-born chairman of Syracuse University's anthropology department, denounces the guru as "a typical Asian phony."
Elixir: But the spiritual fodder the guru purveys is genuine enough to his 60,000 American believers. Preaching peace and love, he exhorts devotees of his Divine Light Mission to tune in to their inner "primordial energy." "He doesn't say anything new," admits Jan Karl, a 25-year-old Michigan schoolteacher. "I'd heard it all before. But he helped me tap the basic elixir inside of me." That "elixir" becomes accessible upon receiving what Maharaj Ji disciples call "The Knowledge." In a secret rite - those who describe it to outsiders risk a degrading demotion in future incarnations - initiates learn to see a dazzling white light, hear celestial music, feel ecstatic vibrations and taste an internal nectar which, according to Davis, makes "the old joys" of alcohol, sex and drugs "seem drab." The process is called "blissing out." Practicing chastity, vegetarianism and abstinence from cigarettes, drugs and liquor, the most devout of Maharaj Ji's disciples live in 54 American ashrams, or religious communes. Where there isn't enough money for beds, they sleep on straw pallets.
Such asceticism forms a provocative contrast to the guru's own life-style. In London, Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and a $100,000 town house permanently staffed with two cooks await the Perfect Master's visit. In Denver, a chauffeured Mercedes limousine and an opulent split-level mansion stand ready, and he has two estates elsewhere in the U.S. All these trappings are said to be gifts from disciples, whose offerings include two airplanes, the Perfect Master's digital wristwatch, his quadraphonic stereo equipment and his motorcycle. Maharaj Ji has other worldly tastes - Batman comic books for one, squirt guns for another. He loves to play jokes - known as "lilas" or "God's game-playing" - on his disciples: at a recent festival in India he doused followers with red paint. (The guru and his disciples were less than amused, however, when a skeptic in Detroit smacked the Perfect Master square in the face with a shaving-cream pie.)
Despite all the fun and games, the balance sheets of Maharaj Ji's tax-exempt missionary corporation attest to a business acumen that is neither childish nor frivolous. From a plush seven-story office building in Denver, 120 unsalaried devotees coordinate a raft of U.S. enterprises, including ten Divine Sales thrift stores, a Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness janitorial service and a vegetarian restaurant in New York City. However worthy, none of these income producers appears capable of financing the $3,500 monthly headquarters rent, the $28,800 annual IBM computer-leasing fee (to keep track of converts), the upkeep of two spiritual rock bands, a movie-production company, a slick monthly magazine and the telex machines that link Divine Light, Inc., with each of its 280 U.S. regional offices.
To finance these activities, plus the work of a 50-member public-relations staff, each applicant for membership is expected to dig deep into his pocket. Fully half of a four-page personal questionnaire concentrates on the cash value
of the applicant's insurance policies, mortgages and trust funds. Inheritances are routinely signed over to Divine Light, as are paychecks from "worldly" jobs. On at least one occasion, however, Maharaj Ji found his affluence inconvenient; on a 1972 visit to India with 3,000 disciples in tow, customs authorities temporarily impounded $35,000 in undeclared jewelry and cash.
The luxuries that such lolly can supply are scarcely distasteful to the youthful religious leader or to his three elder brothers who, with their mother, compose a "holy family" that makes them the Rothschilds of the guru business. Yet followers see no conflict between the worldly and spiritual riches. "Maharaj Ji's luxuries are gifts from a Western culture whose fruits are watches and Cadillacs," explains spokesman Richard Profumo. "He isn't saying, abandon the material world. He's saying it is our attachment to it that is wrong.
Guru Maharaj Ji looks anything but detached when he gobbles double-dip Baskin-Robbins ice-cream cones or chocolate candies. And much of the guru's ritual is as syrupy as his diet. At the close of evening-prayer sessions called "satsang," Divine Lighters often sing, to the tune of "Frère Jacques":
Maharaj Ji, Maharaj Ji.
You're a Perfect Master,
You're a Perfect Master.
We love you. We love you.
Yet the movement exerts a powerful appeal, simple-minded though it may be. Through dependency on the guru for food, housing and clothing, belief is reinforced. "These young people are surrendering responsibility for their lives," warns Columbia University religion professor Frederic Underwood. And scholar Gerald Larson views the cult as even "more mindlessly naive" than groups like Hare Krishna. Nonetheless, Divine Light has turned junkies into evangelists and rock groupies into celibates by persuading them to trip with the guru. Its well-scrubbed, neatly groomed, courteous disciples offend only by their remorseless smiles, and the cities in which they dwell will soon benefit from drug clinics and health centers. At Millennium '73, Maharaj Ji announced that Divine Light will soon undertake an extensive program of social services. This is, the guru explained modestly, his plan to "save the world."
But saving the world is an exhausting job, even for a robust teen-ager, and the guru has an ulcer to prove it. As a child, he once confessed, "I didn't want to be Satguru. I would have been satisfied to be a mischievous little boy." His apostles might therefore ponder the tale of 13 year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian mystic whose followers declared him a living god" in 1908. After 21 dogged years of godhood, Jiddu got tired of holiness and quit, leaving his Star of the East religious order in an unholy mess.
Newsweek, November 19, 1973