The Hour: Serving Central Fairfield County, Tuesday 6th June 1980
7-Year Cultist Now Free of Guru Maharaj Ji
(Editor's note: This is one of a series of stories on cults, new religions and human potential groups in California.)
By TODD EASTHAM
BURLINGAME. Calif. (UPI) Zvi and Marianne Zeitlin paid S10,000 to have their son, Hillel, kidnapped. To hear Hilly Zeitlin tell it its the best investment they ever made.
At the time Hilly, 26, was a member of Guru Marharaj Ji's Divine Light Mission, which he joined when he was 19. He now directs counseling services at a center established to help people once associated with religious cults.
"I felt a sense of spiritual and human openness I hadn't felt in a long time," Zeitlin said recently of his October 1979 "deprogramming" at the hands of cult foe Ted Patrick.
"I was overwhelmed with the possibility of living my life outside the Divine Light Mission," he told UPI. "To be able to have my own friends, my own thoughts, to have myself back."
Deprogramming is a highly controversial process which uses variety of psychological techniques to sever mental and emotional bonds which tie individuals to coercive religious groups, or cults. For the Zeitlins, it was a last resort.
Hilly Zeitlin's odyssey into the world of Marharaj Ji began in April 1973 in Prescott, Ariz. He was a sophomore at Prescott College when he first received "knowledge," a meditation-engendered experience which eventually led him to renounce his traditional Jewish upbringing and devote himself body and mind to the service of an adolescent guru.
Maharaj Ji, now 22, came to the United States from India in 1971. He proclaimed himself God incarnate – "Lord of the Universe" – and quickly attracted a loyal following of mostly young, impressionable Americans. The Divine Light Mission now claims close to 10,000 members, or "premies," in this country alone. The DLM was founded in India by Ji's father, Shri Hans Ji Maharaj. "It was the family business," Zeitlin said. "The poor guy (Ji) has been raised to be God. He doesn't know anything else." Zeitlin's introduction to the group came through a girlfriend, another Prescott College student, who took him to an introductory meeting at a nearby DLM commune, or "ashram."
"My gut reaction was very mistrustful," he said, "but their approach was very clever. They played off my needs and the needs of the time – a concern for spiritual enlightenment and the need for community."
Zeitlin, whose father is a concert violinist and professor at Eastman School of Music, received a master's degree in psychiatric social work while living in a DLM center in Syracuse, N.Y.
"Your reactions begin to be reinterpreted," he said in describing his conversion. "Any doubt or questioning is seen as coming from a lower part of your consciousness – the mind.
"They begin to equate all logical processes like thinking. doubt and criticism with neurotic thought patterns," he said. "They say you have to transcend the mind and experience a higher consciousness."
Over the next 6 years, Hilly Zeitlin became more and more committed to the DLM, eventually moving into a church ashram where he lived a life of "poverty, chastity and obedience," giving the $13,700 annual income he earned working with mentally retarded adults at Hutchings Psychiatric Center to the guru.
After his initiation – a very intense, uplifting experience he now believes was induced by hypnotic suggestion he adopted a rigorous daily routine which left little time for personal interests or "idle thought."
Rising at 5:30 a.m., he and other premies engaged in a 20-minute predawn devotional song called "Arti," meditated for one to two hours, ate breakfast and then went to work. In the evenings, after a vegetarian dinner initiates met for a continual reprogramming which is called satsang," he said. "That's the only kind of communication that's really permitted socially, aside from routine daily information."
Zeitlin described satsang as a form of mass hypnosis. "Trance induction is a very easy thing," he contended, describing a carefully modulated synthesis of mellow music, soft lighting and controlled language which combine to create an environment where "cerebral (and) critical facilities are subdued."
Although Zeitlin continued his schooling and maintained intermittent contact with his parents, his relations with "outsiders," including his family, became increasingly strained during his years with the DLM.
"There was a subtle coercion … to be careful you don't get sucked into an emotional relationship with your parents because they could sway you from your devotion to Marharaj.
Zeitlin now regards Ji himself with an odd combination of contempt and pity.
He is his own worst enemy," he told UPI. "His pathological consumerism and opulent, excessive lifestyle is eventually going to come back to him.
"I think his humanness at some time has to betray him," he said of his former guru, who has roughly 30 automobiles, several airplanes and boats and at least two spacious homes at his disposal. "How long can he maintain such a huge deception? He's on a self-destruct course.
"The real casualties are people who are high up in the mission. The psychic states of (those) devotees are tragic."
Things came to a head for the Zeitlin family in September 1979 when Hilly informed his parents he had applied to become an "initiator" and would soon be leading other recruits along the path that he had taken. That, to Zvi and Marianne Zeitlin, was going too far.
They had learned about deprogramming from the Pittsburgh Association for Individual Freedom, a group composed of former cult members and their parents. After talking to one of their son's former girlfriends who had recently undergone the process, they decided to call in Ted Patrick, a one-time community relations appointee of former California Gov. Ronald Reagan known to cultists as "Black Lightning."
The Zeitlins had long since exhausted every imaginable avenue of legal, professional and religious recourse against an organisation which, they believed, had come to control their son's mind. But the First Amendment, they learned, stands squarely between adult cultists and well-intentioned parents.
Patrick, who has spent seven months in jail for his activities and is currently under indictment in three states, claims to have "freed" over 1,800 young adults from groups like the DLM. The first of these was his own son.
The Zeitlins invited Hilly to dinner at their Brighton, N.Y., home on Friday, Oct. 12. 1979. Two deprogrammers, one a recent DLM dropout, were waiting behind the cellar door. Hilly was taken to a rented home on one of New York's Finger Lakes and confronted with some tough questions. He was also given some articles on cults to read. By 1 a.m. Sunday morning, Hilly Zeitlin was free of Guru Maharaj Ji.