Following the Guru To the Astrodome
by William R. MacKaye
HOUSTON - Hoping that their national campaign would draw more than 200,000 devotees to see 15-yearold Indian Guru Maharaj Ji here, his followers watched in disappointment last night as 20,000 filed into Houston's Astrodome for the opening of a three-day rock-religious event called "Millennium '73.
Nevertheless, minutes later shouts of joy filled the cavernous vast spaces of the 60,000-seat dome as the guru revered by his followers as the new embodiment of God, took his seat on his high, blue throne.
From the far end of the stadium the guru, garlanded with flowers, was little more than a blur of color in the distance. But for his followers - and for many of the curious young people also attracted to the event - that blur was enough.
Stirred by the rousing raga-and-rock music of "Blue Aquarius," the band led by the guru's 20-year-old brother, Bhole Ji, they raised their arms in ecstacy. Some danced for joy around the fringes of the crowd massed on the scarlet carpet that covered what is normally the stadium's playing field.
Then the guru began his first discourse of the three day festival that his followers declare will usher in a thousand years of peace. His televised image was cast on huge screens on either side of the throne so all could see him while he spoke.
There were dissenters. One T-shirted youth, trying to find an unlocked entrance so he could leave the stadium, said angrily, "I came to check it out but this is a real bummer. No one who was really God would let himself be put up on a throne like that."
Outside earlier in the evening, shaven-headed saffron-robed followers of the Krishna Consciousness movement burst into frantic chanting, and dancing to drive away what they described as the evil atmosphere emanating from the stadium. Fundamentalist Jesus people also paraded outside the building, inveighing against the guru.
But for the most part, the followers of the 15-year-old either debated gently with their critics or left it to Astrodome security personnel to ease away the noisier of the demonstrators.
The movement's leaders seemed more concerned about protecting the faithful from discouragement over the turnout, far smaller than was predicted in advance publicity. Last night's turnout showed there was no need for the vast meeting hall they had hired for $75,000 for their first major gathering outside India.
"The significance of this event is not to be measured in the number of people who attend," declared Robert Mishler of Denver, president of the Divine Light Mission in the United States, in a talk during the evening.
During the speaking, music-making and pageantry that occupied the first six hours of the day the Guru Maharaj Ji was not to be seen.
The Millennium's extensive public relations staff was discreetly mum about the guru's whereabouts beyond saying that he was not in the divine residence that had been set up for him in a neighborhood of faded elegance several miles from the stadium.
But the rank-and-file "premies," literally "lovers of the Guru" were confident they knew. The holy family, they said, was staying in the posh penthouse of the Astroworld Hotel adjacent to the stadium, and Guru Maharaj Ji was watching the proceedings on closed-circuit television.
The penthouse, providentially named the Celestial Suite was originally designed for the personal use of Roy Hofheinz the politician and entrepreneur who was the principal promoter of the stadium when it was built several years ago. It is reached by enclosed elevator that ascends an outside wall of the hotel, and scores of premies clustered near it in hopes of catching a glimpse of their perfect master.
Religious revivals have been a part of the American tradition running back at least as far as the hell-fire preaching of Jonathan Edwards that electrified New England in the 17th century.
The line that has followed in Edwards' footsteps includes such diverse figures as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young unveiling the "restored gospel" of Mormonism to 19th-century Americans while Ellen G. White warned of Christ's imminent return and commended the seventh-day sabbath and vegetarianism.
In this century Billy Sunday and more recently Billy Graham preached repentance to eager audiences. (A revival headed by Billy Graham drew a crowd of 85,000 last year in Dallas.)
Up until a decade ago, however, the ebb and flow of American mass religious fervor was almost exclusively within a Christian context. Then, swept up on the wings of rock music and the drug culture, tens of thousands of Americans, young Americans in particular, began to explore the religious traditions of the East.
Such words as yoga, guru karma, satsang spread out from the vocabularies of a handful of religious cultists into the common linguistic currency of a generation.
The message of Guru Maharaj Ji appears to speak with particular power to the graduates of the counterculture and the under 30 generations. The preachers have made the most of this attractiveness. Sacred songs of the movement, for example, are set to rock melodies of near commercial quality, and the movement has begun heavy promotion of "Blue Aquarius."
Officials of Divine Light Mission, as the American branch of the Guru's movement is formally known, resist inquiries about their finances. Richard Profumo, the chief public relations official for "Millennium '73," said the mission had decided to make available no financial information about the festival other than the $75,000 tab on the Astrodome. But the 80,000 American followers of the Guru are supporting an elaborate and expensive organization whose centers across the nation are linked by humming Telex machines, an organization that publishes a slickly beautiful magazine, "And It Is Divine," and makes high quality promotional films through its subsidiary Shri Hans Productions.
A spokesman for Bantam Books said the paperback publisher had paid a "modest" advance in order to secure permission to publish "Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji?," a $1.50 summary of the Guru's teachings and testimony by his followers that is now on sale in Bantam's 70,000 commercial outlets.
The spokesman, Esther Margolis, said that the initial press run on the book was for 130,000 copies, what she described as an "average" first printing for a paperback and that a second printing of 25,000 is now in the works.
Some of the mission's activities, probably including the paperback, are money makers, but most of the costs appear to be supported by the sacrificial giving of the believers. Since the Millennium festival was first announced the premies have been under heavy pressure to give as generously as they could to its support.
An 18-year-old believer from Los Angeles who works as a file clerk in a bank, for example, said he and other members of the communal household in which he lives are expected to contribute 30 per cent of their earnings to the work of the mission.
For him an ex-Episcopalian, ex-devotee of other Indian spiritual ways ranging from the Self-Realization Fellowship to Ananda Marga, alumnus of Esalen Institute In Big Sur, Calif., and a reformed marijuana smoker, it is clearly worth it.
"I don't need any external stimulation because the Absolute is inside me to listen to whenever I want", he said cheerfully.
He was interviewed outside the refurbished former nursing home where several hundred of the devotees are staying in Houston during the festival
Around 1,500 are housed in a onetime Coca-Cola bottling plant in the city's grim warehouse district. Rented school buses shuffle the believers back and forth between their residences and the stadium.