NewsBank NewsLibrary

Paper: Miami Herald, The (FL)


Date: July 10, 1989

Maharaj Ji, the pudgy child guru who in the 1970s preached world peace from a Miami Beach mansion and sprayed an Orange Bowl full of followers with colored water, was back in Miami on Sunday with a very 1980s message for about 6,000 followers at the Miami Arena.

"You've got to say no to drugs, absolutely no to drugs," he said. "But to the creator you've got to say yes. Yes to what You have given me, yes to what You will give me."

In 1972, the 14-year-old leader of the Divine Light Mission wore traditional Indian garb and said he had a way to lead the world to peace. Sunday, the 32-year-old leader of the group -- now called Élan Vital -- wore a well-tailored dark suit and silk tie for the last day of the three-day Festival of Knowledge, preaching about happiness.

"Be thankful for every single moment in your life," he said. "And if you can't be thankful for every single moment, at least be happy for some of them. Something is better than nothing."

Maharaj Ji -- pronounced ma-ra-ji -- landed in the United States in 1971 to attract more than a million cultishly devoted followers, known as "premies," worldwide. At the height of his popularity, his followers reportedly pumped as much as $100,000 a month into the Divine Light Mission.

Then came reports that the teen-age guru lived lavishly at a 13-acre Malibu, Calif., mansion and enjoyed expensive toys, including motorboats, motorcycles and 15 cars. He kept the Malibu mansion in 1979 while he lived in the $8,800-a-month Anheuser-Busch Estate at 94 Palm Ave., installing the mission's headquarters across the street from Al Capone's former home.

His mother and older brother challenged him for control of the Divine Light Mission after he married his secretary, Marilyn Lois Johnson, a former flight attendant seven years his senior.

Some followers fled the flock, complaining that the guru had become too worldly.

But Maharaj Ji has put down the water cannons that he soaked his supporters with in the '70s, and stepped out of the limelight. And the Malibu-based group he leads, "the life force" as it is now known, continues to attract followers with words about simplicity and knowledge.

"I just enjoy it; it makes my life easier," said Ken Creek, 44, an operations manager at a manufacturing plant in Houston who flew to Miami just to see Maharaj Ji.

The followers no longer call themselves "premies." They keep in touch through a mailing list and avoid calling Élan Vital a religion, a cult or a philosophy.

"I think of it as an association of people with common interests," Creek said.

"You can't put a name on it. You can't say it's this, you can't say it's that. It's something that teaches you. It fills a need, or a part of you," said Cormac O'Snodaigh, 21, who put his pilgrimage in the middle of a weeklong vacation from Dublin, Ireland.

The followers said that there are few formal meetings, which is why they come from around the world -- as far away as Japan -- to hear Maharaj Ji speak. Most practice alone, with meditation.

"It's not a coping tool. It's not a stress mechanism. It's just a place where I can go and be at rest," said Beverly Salkind, 29, a developer from New York.

"It's very sweet, very gentle, no big-fireworks thing," said David Goetz, 32, a retail grocery store manager from Chicago.