MILLION DOLLAR RELIGION RIPOFF
BY ERNIE BAXTER
The Perfect Master may lift your spirit.
He'll certainly lift your purse.
For the unemployed Guru who finds himself a little down at the sandals and behind in the rent, Mecca is spelled A-M-E-R-I-C-A. Since the Beatles made Guru worship a national pastime in the late '60s, the U.S. has become the New World alternative to the Old World poverty-and-begging bit.
The scenario is easy to follow. A few carefully staged press conferences to announce your connection to "Him," plus the patience to squat in a hot robe for hours while hordes of adolescents and other starry-eyed creatures kiss your feet-and shazam!you're on the road to a higher tax bracket. To the people who keep an eye on these kinds of phenomena, brand-new Eastern Deities are making some very serious money now.
The leader in the field is the 16year-old, chubby faced Indian car freak known in the trade as Guru Maharaj Ji. In case that name didn't set off any heavenly bells, he is currently proprietor of "The Divine Light Mission," his father's brainstorm. The late Shri Hans Ji Maharaj, a wealthy, middle-class Indian who spent 40 years working the Guru circuit in India, "left this body" when Maharaj was eight years old. Five years later the young Guru made his public debut in India and promptly announced that he was the "Lord of the Universe." In 1971 he made his first American trip to hold a Guru Puja-or Guru worship-festival in the heady atmosphere of the Colorado mountains, adding some 2,000 American converts in the process.
All this has not landed the Guru's company in the Top 10 of Fortune Magazine's "500" yet, but what it has done is to make Maharaj Ji the hottest thing going in the Eastern religion business. At the tender age of 16, he has his very own tax-exempt foundation, incorporated in the State of Colorado, which has an annual operating budget in excess of $3 million. Coast to coast the Guru's company operates 35 full-time Ashrams (an Indian word meaning shelter) and 30 Premie (meaning "lover of God") houses that soon will be Ashrams. In addition, there are 300 more Premie houses open around the country.
Michael Bergman, who left his job as Public Information Officer for the New York City Sanitation Department to become Executive Financial Director of DLM, describes the company as "the fastest growing corporation in America." Between January and June of 1973, Bergman claims, DLM grew 800 percent. "Our business practices are sound," he says, "and our credit and collateral are sound. Dun and Bradstreet has all our financial information," Absolutely! DLM is the McDonald's of religion.
With that kind of business going for him, the Guru does very well personally. His Los Angeles home is valued at $76,000, his Denver residence at $80,000. He owns hundreds of acres of property in New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine, donated by his followers and their families. For his traveling convenience, the Guru has selected a single engined Cessna Cardinal airplane worth $30,000, and a twin-engined version of the same make that set the faithful back $190,000. He drives his own $12,000 Mercedes Benz when he's in New York, and prefers to tool around in a $26,000 emerald green Rolls Royce Silver Cloud when he's in Los Angeles. He has a $12,000 mobile home stuffed away in Montrose, California, along with thousands of dollars' worth of movie and sound equipment that the Premies schlepp whenever the Guru decides to travel.
His biggest project to date, and not yet off the ground, is "The Divine City." According to Guru Ji, it will rise up out of the brown California scrub in less than a year after construction begins. A tract of land near Santa Barbara seems to have caught the holy eye, although nothing has been approved yet. While everybody's waiting, the purchase price has climbed to a reported $11 million. Larry Berstein, a Premie and the architect on this Divine project, describes it as "… a city where anyone in need of food or clothing will get it free of charge. Token payment will be in the form of service. The whole city will be self-supporting and will feature non-polluting factories that will run on solar energy." You have to move a lot of hamburger to live like that.
However, it ain't hamburger that's for sale, exactly. Religion is the game and money and power the stakes. What the Guru sells is, simply stated, peace of mind and bright prospects for eternity. No matter what problems you have, no matter what troubles you're into, receiving his special "Knowledge" will take care of everything. Further, as the only window to eternity, Maharaj Ji offers a look into the future on this side of the grave, a selling point not lost on people who have a hard time handling the idea of their own death.
If you buy the Guru's plan, you get a choice of two different forevers. You can either opt for reincarnation as one of the "Enlightened Ones, blessed with the Knowledge of Truth." and return to impart the Knowledge to the ignorant, or you can float around the cosmos and enjoy the pleasures of eternal life as a formless spirit. Without the Knowledge, so the Premies tell you, your prospects for eternity are not good. But for them. Guru Ji simplifies everything. All you have to do is choose one from column A or one from column B.
Receiving the Knowledge is the experience that separates the mind from the soul and the Premies from everybody else. It is, as they say around the Ashrams, the perfect experience, and it can only be had after you receive perfect pre-education from a Mahatma, or "great soul."
The whole Knowledge shot lasts from five to 15 hours or more. It begins with the prospective Premies filling out Knowledge cards which demand, among other things. that they list all financial assets in detail. From there they are led into a darkened room where an altar has been set up and festooned with pictures of the Guru. The future believers arc told to prostrate themselves before the altar and to get themselves prepared for their first experience of God through the senses. The Mahatma-an Indian transplant with shaved head, dressed in long. saffron-colored robes-moves around the room showing everyone how to use the four "Divine" techniques employed to receive this experience.
The first technique is called "Divine Light." It turns out to he an old first-year medical school trick of applying pressure to the optic nerves and seeing flashes of white light. Next, the Premies are instructed on how to hear "Divine Music." again by applying pressure to the optic nerves and ears simultaneously. The Mahatmas explain that at the center of creation are sounds that support all life, and the future Premies are required to hear these sounds on cue. The third technique involves something called "Divine Nectar." According to the Guru, Nectar is a substance inside your body that can keep you going without the aid of food or water. The Mahatmas contend that it's the same stuff that kept Christ alive when he walked around the desert for 40 days. To get it, you have to learn to curl the tip of your tongue into the back of your throat so that you can catch the Nectar as it drips down from the inside of your head. I tried it. If that's what Nectar is, I've blown away tons of the stuff every time I've had a bad cold.
The last technique employs breathing exercises, together with hours of meditation on God and soul to have a "Mystical revelation of the premordial vibration that is inside everyone." You have to get yourself high to have it, and when it hits it resembles an amphetamine rush. In fact, as one Premie told me, "being, stoned-out definitely helps." When the Premies finish, they are certified as true believers and are told to empty all the money out of their pockets and put it at the foot of the altar.
If nothing else, slavery simplifies life. Just follow the leader and there won't be any hassles. That's the way it is in Premie life. All Premies have to do is follow two sets of rules to keep everyone happy. There are five written ones: "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Never delay in attending satsang (an Indian version of old-fashioned testimonial giving). Always have faith in God. Constantly meditate and remember the name. Never have any doubt in your mind." The unwritten rules and even more enlightening: "Stay away from movies and general entertainment (which includes TV, newspapers and magazines), Never swear. Surrender all worldly possessions to the Divine Light Mission. Be celibate." If it weren't for the last two, the whole thing would smell suspiciously like the Boy Scout code of ethics. But rules have a purpose, and in this case it's to cut off the new Premie from all outside inputs so that his loss of freedom won't bother him to the point of dropping out of the movement. Bullshit? Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist Magazine, thinks so. "Guru Maharaj Ji is turning young people away from their social responsibility and into personal escape," he says.
But 60,000 Americans don't agree with Krassner's scorn, and they are joined in the brotherhood by 6 million others in 37 countries who believed enough to trade in old money for new faith and have their lives and brains overhauled in the process.
The question is, how does the Guru attract all these people, and who the hell are they? Well, last November 7, Houston's Astrodome provided the setting for the latest of the Guru's recruiting trips. Advance billing called it "Millennium '73," and went on to describe the coming attraction as "The most significant event in the history of humanity." It was scheduled to go three days and would be the fulfillment of a Maharaj Ji dream which saw all the faithful gathered together under one big dome. While preparations were being made, the Guru and family lodged themselves in the Astroworld's six-bedroom Celestial Suite, with its P. T. Barnum Circus room, its Tarzan Adventure room, and its Sadie Thompson room which features real mosquito netting over the bed. The price was also celestial at $2,500 per day.
Once the $75,000 rental price had been taken care of, the Premies set about turning the Astrodome into a fit place for a visit by "The Lord of the Universe." They built an enormous white plastic stage, lit from inside, and divided it into seven levels. One level was earmarked for the Guru's 20-year-old brother, Bhole Ji, who, dressed in a silver-lame tuxedo
(turn to page 81) THE GURU'S GAME In September of 1972, I was assigned to cover Maharaj Ji's return to Mother India. The Divine Light people had rented 18 jet planes to ferry some 3,500 Premies to India to be on hand for the Guru's touch-down-a kind of modern replay of the old Ark trick. Maharaj Ji's return was to signal the beginning of a five-day celebration at the Ram Lila grounds, a dusty No-Man's Land that separates "Old" Delhi from "New" Delhi.
The flight was long and uneventful--except for one thing. DLM officers came marching down the aisles collecting all the money and valuables the Premies were carrying. Reasons were given. "It's the Perfect Master's will, man," was the one I heard most often. Nonetheless, a number of noses began sniffing the air. Their faith was getting a test from their common sense.
The Guru's faithful ran into problems as soon as the plane had landed in New Delhi. Joan Apter-a super Premie and one of the five original U.S. converts-had her suitcase opened by Customs inspectors. It contained $28,000 in cash, travelers checks and jewelry. When the officials had finished with the rest of the bags, the figure stood at $65,000. Indira Gandhi's government had a stroke. Bringing that kind of wealth into the country-undeclared-was deemed to be smuggling, and a minor international incident was under way. The Customs people confiscated everything in sight, including Maharaj Ji's passport.
Indira Gandhi flew to New Delhi to hold a special session with her ministers to decide whether or not to clap the Perfect Master in jail. The Holy Family, holding a special session of their own, decided that they had had all they wanted of New Delhi. They loaded all the faithful aboard buses and trucked them the 100 miles to Hardwar.
Final destination turned out to be a group of white-stucco buildings, ringed with barbed-wire-topped fence. It was owned by Maharaj Ji and the Holy Family. But by now the first-aid tents were jammed with people who were suffering from high fevers and a racking dysentery. Forced to eat food that was produced on land fertilized with fresh water-buffalo manure, they fell like flies in a Raid commercial. And, since they had no money to buy food, they were helpless to change their diets. A minimovement began to get some money back so that the sicker people could be moved back to New Delhi for proper medical attention (the Premie doctor's idea of treatment was to tell them they needed "More faith, brother, more faith"). It was at about that time that the DLM officers made an announcement. "According to Divine will, all money and valuables left for safe keeping with DLM personnel, will be donated to the Divine Treasury." At that point, a lot of people saw the "knowledge." To this day, the Indian government is still holding on to the suitcases, and the Guru must post a substantial bond any time he decides to leave the country. -EB
reminiscent of Liberace's costuming, spent his time trying to lead the "Blue Aquarius Band." Another level was set aside for a few of the Guru's 2,000 Mahatmas. There was a level for the Holy Family. Maharaj Ji had the top slot, of course. Three hundred feet above the artificial turf the Premies had built a blue velveteen throne that featured a Plexiglas back that would frame the Guru's head like a halo.
On opening night, Maharaj Ji and entourage came marching in, accompanied by Bhole Ji and the Blue Aquarians struggling with the DLM theme song. As the Guru made his way up to the throne, the $2 million dollar Astrodome scoreboard lit up with three rows of WHENs and an equal number of NOWs. Premies went bananas. They danced around clapping their hands and singing and bowing to the Guru until they were blue in the face. Divine Light, Incorporated President Bob Mishler bowed before the throne and presented the Guru with a Golden Swan. They went ape again. As one seasoned Guruwatcher later described it, "You couldn't help being a little 'blissed-out' yourself watching thousands of people freak out of their minds."
But in spite of all the media buildup and the intense campaign mounted by the DLM to bring people into "Soul-Rush, 1973," Houston police estimated the total three-day attendance at 10,000 per day. That's short of what attendance in the Astrodome usually is for an afternoon baseball game, and far short of what it should have been for the "Most important event in the history of mankind." As one writer was later to report in the New York Times, "Maharaj Ji had blundered in a peculiarly American way-he couldn't live up to his advertising."
0f course, not everyone was ready to buy the Guru's message. A young underground newspaper writer by the name of Pat Halley hit Maharaj Ji in the face with a shaving cream pie while the Guru was visiting Detroit to receive a humanitarian award. Halley saw his action ,as a "dramatic demonstration against mysticism." Whatever it was, it almost cost Halley his life because he forgot he was dealing with religious fanatics. One week later two men arrived in Detroit from the Boston Ashram. They conned Halley into letting them into his apartment by telling him that what he had done was "a courageous act." They said they had information that could further discredit the Guru. Halley, sensing a journalistic coup equal to the pie throwing one, jumped at the opportunity. Once inside, the Guru's goon squad used blackjacks to impart "Knowledge" to the hapless writer, and he was carted off to the hospital more dead than alive. In fact, when the police first received the call, they assigned two homicide detectives to investigate what they believed to he just another D.O.A. For Halley, it was a very long night. He had suffered massive brain damage. It required 55 stitches to close the wounds on his head, including the one made by the doctors to insert a plastic plate. The very first blow of Knowledge had turned the top of his skull into little slivers of hone.
Officially, no formal complaint was ever filed and no warrants were ever issued. But soon after the beating, Ken Kelly, writing in a national magazine, identified the assailants as two important members of the Divine Light Mission, one a Mahatma and the other thought to be the reincarnation of St. Peter. The DLM public relations office at first denied the whole thing. Then they said, "Both men arc being held in protective custody in the Chicago Ashram. We will turn them over to the police department." But in fact, one Mahatma from the Boston Ashram was suddenly transferred to Germany where he is still giving Knowledge. and St. Peter seems to have disappeared. The Detroit Police have filed the case away.
The interesting thing was that none of the Premies blinked an eye when they learned their God resorted to goons when he got upset. Typically, they would smile back with that "blissed-out" grin and say, "Man. I'd do it to you if Guru Maharaj Ji told me to."
Gurus … Premies … Ashrams … Gurubliss … it all sounds vague and most Americans view the Guru's game as something about as important to their lives as a country carnival. "Well, it really doesn't hurt anyone," they venture off-handedly.
But the Guru and his company aren't to be taken as lightly as all that. His DLM is a highly organized, multi-national syndicate that's well heeled and fanatically determined to impose its brand of living on the rest of us by any means possible. Those they can't convert-or who dare to oppose him-get a quick visit from the Gurugoons and are either intimidated or beaten. Those they do convert quickly have their brains washed and take their place in the Guru's growing army of mindless zombies. Right now, it's only a whisper across the land, but this drummer is playing a funny tune…
A meeting at India's Ram Lila grounds.
Top, right: The first of the faithful start to arrive at five in the morning.
Below, center: The Guru with his mother.
Right: Mahari Ji waits for applause and chanting to end before beginning ceremony.
Bottom: Afternoon crowd of followers stand before stage at Divine Light Mission.
Top, left: "The Lord of the Universe" watches faithful from his throne.
PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR