by Marjoe Gortner
When OUI asked me to cover the Peace Millennium at the Houston Astrodome, I had mixed emotions. I knew people would think I had come to expose -- to point an accusing finger. But the truth is that I set out with an open mind. Maybe there was something to this Maharaj Ji. Maybe he did have a way of bringing peace to those who wanted it. "Blissing out" was not my trip, but that didn't make it wrong for the kids. During the first day at the Astrodome, the crowd mostly milled around, checking out the Divine Sales booths where you could buy buttons, T-shirts, pamphlets, records, posters, incense-all the spiritual accouterments. People kept asking me, "Have you received knowledge? Have you seen the light?" When I said, "Yes," they oohed and aahed and said, "Far out, man. When did you get it?" And I said, "I was born with it." They paled a little and said, "Oh, you didn't get it through guru Maharaj Ji?" I said, "No. You don't have to receive it through him." "But guru Maharaj Ji says . . . ." They're such complete little zealots! Then there were the Biblical Scriptures being flashed on the Astro scoreboard all day long:
LORD IS MY SHEPHERD, I SHALL NOT WANT . . . YEA
were using Scriptures because faith in the guru purportedly
encompasses all religions: the universal all in one. They
even had him sitting on a throne under what oddly resembled
the white-flame-and-blue-dot Natural Gas emblem. The whole
contraption was built on a platform that extended toward
heaven, some 50 feet up in the air, very un-Eastern, very
theatrical. Before the guru spoke, there was always a
performance by the Blue Aquarius, an 80-piece band conducted
by his brother Shri Bhole Ji, who was decked out in a
blue-sequined Western suit a la Nudie's Rodeo Tailors.
Aquarius played every kind of music imaginable--from
country-and-western to Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze. On
the first day, Eric Mercury was supposed to sing.
Apparently, Eric's recording company, Stax Records, had been
promised a great spot for him, a hype space to launch his
career. As it turned out, though, he came onstage at about
four in the afternoon, and there couldn't have been more
than 4000 or 5000 people in the whole stadium, most of them
blissing on the guru. And Stax had gone to great expense for
Mercury's launch, too! Just about this time, a voice came up
behind me saying, "You're not who I think you are, are you?"
Well, with a line like that, I was a little scared to turn
around. Anyway, I turned around and was face to face with
the preacher who goes around making his money by attributing
the moral deterioration of young people to rock-and-roll
music. Devil's music! He started out by saying, "Now, I know
you don't like me, Marjoe." I agreed. "However, don't you
think this is the sign of the Antichrist?" "I don't know," I
said. He seemed relieved at that and sat down with me.
Nikons dangled from his neck, and while he talked he
snapped, obviously getting lots of pictures of babies and
bedraggled mothers to use as ammo for the next months of
sermons. I was feeling a little negative, too: a guru as
God, Divine Sales, push, push. So even though this preacher
and I were bitter enemies philosophically, we shared a
common bond the upshot of which was that we had dinner
together that evening. We exchanged pleasantries until the
After he finished, I said, "Now I want to ask you something, friend. You work for Christ. You consider yourself a called messenger, a witness."
He said, "Yes, of course."
I went on, "Well, now, if Christ were here on earth and He were taking me to dinner-me, a heathen who has backslid and turned my back on God---I don't think He'd feel He had to make me uptight by praying in front of me. I think He would want to communicate with me and make me feel comfortable and relaxed so that He could reach me. I know your whole approach. I know what you want to do. But you don't have to do that with me. I don't think Christ would have done that."
He admitted, "You know, you're right."
"And another thing," I went on. "Eric Mercury sings a lot of gospel songs. One song he did this afternoon I have heard in churches ever since I was a kid. Now, if Eric Mercury were in a church or at a Billy Graham meeting, singing the same song with the same backup singers and the same accompaniment he had here- if everything were the same except that he were not at the guru's Millennium at the Astrodome you would lean over to me and say, `Isn't it wonderful how many young people can be saved or illu-mined through this ministry of music?' Right? But because it was sung here, you want to believe it was inciting the kids to sexual activities the devil's workshop and all that."
Again, he agreed. I began to think he was one of those unfortunates who, through preaching this anti-rock-and-roll stuff so much, has gotten himself up against a wall where he can't defend himself. His own preaching gets him caught at every turn, but he can't say he was wrong-even if he feels it--because he has built himself an empire out of it.
At the end of the meal, preacher picked up the check---except for the wine. He said he couldn't pay for my wine. And I said, "Of course, friend."
I got back just in time for the first address by the guru himself. His first words -- preceded by the followers' unison chant, "Bolie Shri Sat Guru Dev Maharaj Ki Jai"--squeaked out in a small, high voice: "It's so simple. I have the answer. What can I tell you? I have peace for the world. I am the perfect Master. It is like a four-wheeled car . . . ." Maharaj Ji speaks in parables. No direct answers. They have trained him--or he has learned--to give you a roundabout answer, never direct. When asked if he is the Christ, the Messiah, his answer goes, "What can I tell you? It is not for me to say. However, I will say, when the sun rises in the East and you look at it, you do not have to ask if this is the sun. The sun does not have to say, `I am the sun.' Everyone knows it is the sun."
And cars. . . . He talks about cars quite a lot in his parables. Probably because he loves them and has so many: Rolls-Royces and Mercedes, motorcycles, and that sort of thing-all gifts. "In America, all cars have four wheels. Now in England, some cars only have three wheels. But in America here, all cars have four wheels. And in the trunk you have a spare wheel in case one of your wheels goes flat. It's so simple. Just think of me as your spare wheel when you go flat." Everyone goes crazy at that. Revelation time!
Just before I fell asleep that night I thought of how the guru's speeches lacked real philosophy or seriousness. What he did have to say was all true enough. But it didn't go very deep. If I were searching for a way, a path to spiritual enlightenment, I would want to hear a revelation--something new--something I didn't already know.
The second day I made a quick round of the Divine Sales booths again and found one really unusual spiritual aid. It was a set of corks you stick in your ears to help you meditate and receive light. The corks block out sound, and someone presses on your closed eyeballs and asks you if you have seen or received light. Well, if someone is pressing hard enough, of course you're going to see light. Naturally, this whole light thing is done only after you have decided you want to become a follower of the guru. And it reminded me of my experience as a preacher of the people who wanted to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The guru's people do the same thing the Pentecostal Church does. They say you can believe in guru Maharaj Ji and that's fantastic and good, but if you receive light and get it all within, if you become a real devotee-that is the ultimate. In the Pentecostal Church you can be saved from your sins and have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, but the ultimate is the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This is where you get four or five people around and they begin to talk and more or less chant in tongues until sooner or later the person wanting the baptismal experience so much-well, it's like joining a country club: once you're in, you'll be like everyone - else in the club.
The people who've been chanting say, "Speak it out, speak it out," and everything becomes so frenzied that the baptismalee will finally speak a few words in tongues himself, and the people around him say, "Oh, you've got it." And the joy that comes over everybody's faces! It's incredible. It's beautiful. They feel they have got the Holy Spirit like all their friends, and once they've got it, it's forever. It's quite an experience.
So essentially they're the same thing pressing on your eyes while your ears are corked, and standing around the altar speaking in tongues. They're both illuminating experiences. The guru's path is interesting, though. Once you've seen the light and decided you want to join his movement, you give over everything you have--all material possessions. Sometimes you even give your job. Now, depending on what your job is, you may be told to leave it or to stay. If you stay, generally you turn your pay checks over to the Divine Light Mission, and they see that you are housed and clothed and fed. They have their U. S. headquarters in Denver. You don't have to worry about anything. That's their hook. They take care of it all. They have houses all over the country for which they supposedly paid cash on the line. First class. Some of them are quite plush. At least Maharaj Ji's quarters are. Some of the followers live in those houses, too, but in the dormitory-type atmosphere with straw mats for beds. It's a large operation. It seems to be a lot like the organization Father Divine had back in the Thirties. He did it with the black people at the Peace Mission in Philadelphia. He took care of his people-mostly domestics and other low-wage earners--and put them up in his own hotel with three meals a day.
The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks--stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it's free labor for the corporation.
lot of the followers are young mothers, essentially
holdovers from the acid-culture days--girls who were very
much into free love and having babies, changing old men, and
like that. But they are perfectly well accepted by the
guru's movement, even though the entire feel of the group is
asexual. Out of a good 15,000 people at the Dome, there was
Rennie Davis, the guru's most famous convert, was for the most part blissed out for the entire three days of the Millennium. It was strange to see this man who had previously led some of the most dramatic and violent campus riots in history, this militant, this onetime member of the Chicago Seven, down on all fours, presenting Maharaj Ji with a gold-plated crown of Krishna and a stone plaque-and then kissing the guru's toe. Well, that's Amazing Grace! And he's been a convert for only a year or so. You could see the complete submission of this man to the guru. Davis acted as ambassador and spokesman for the guru and held most of the press conferences. The guru was never seen or spoken to except when he was on the gas throne and at a single press conference on the second day. I think part of the reason for this was the Detroit pie-in-the-face incident. The promoters were a little afraid of violence. They even had five or six guys watching the entire event from the light booths. But nothing bad happened.
The second afternoon the guru's mother spoke. She kept repeating herself. Her son was born to bring light to the earth, she said. Her son was giving us the "chance of service, which was rare on this earth"--service, of course, being total, complete submission.
By this time, I was again growing bored of all the drifters and hangers-on, the ones who will always be led if only there is someone around to lead them. I got the impression they were just so many leftovers: from the Jesus movement, the hippie movements, the heavy drug and Kool-Aid acid movement. The guru has them completely now. But it's hard to tell how long they will stay with him and continue to support the baby-faced Omnipotent, whose age actually is something of a problem. Exactly how old he is no one quite knows. His organization claims he is only 16. But he apparently had an automobile accident in Denver, Colorado, not too long ago, and the doctors who saw him said he had the body of a decrepit middle-aged executive.
I went outside, where the peace perfume didn't reach. The Hare Krishnas, the Children of God, the Jesus Freaks, and the Jews for Jesus---each in a separate clique-were protesting madly that the guru's followers were being bilked. The guru was the Antichrist, the Devil. No one would be saved. Everyone would be damned.
The protestors leaped and lunged at me and tried to convert me to one of their groups. This only stirred me up to check out the press booth and see if there was anyone to communicate with other than hysterical, blissful zealots.
As I stepped inside the booth, wham! A banner, handmade by a couple of humorous members of the press and underground radio d.j.s, was flashed at me like a golden trumpet: FUCK A PREMIE. It sure did lighten things up a bit. But before I could even consider that loving beatitude, another voice came behind me: "Marjoe, good to see you." This one I shall fondly refer to as the "researcher for devilment" from the Billy Graham United Bible Societies. I thought, oh boy, second day-second whammy. He, like all the other fervent believers striving to save my lost soul, wasted no time. "Now, I know you don't believe in God or accept the Bible as the literal, unadulterated Word of truth of the Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. However, I know you are an authority on the Bible."
Up to this point, he had been engaged in a debate with one of the heads of publicity for the guru, trying to convince him that the guru was the Antichrist predicted in the Bible, his evidence being that the guru was using the Bible as a reference point, just as the Bible promised he would.
"Now, Marjoe, I know you don't believe, but if you did believe, would not the guru be the Antichrist? I just want to collaborate with an authority."
I waited a moment. Then I said, "Not necessarily." His face fell, and his expression said, "Well, I knew I couldn't expect anything from you."
Since making my film, I have stayed away from this sort of religious debate, face to face or oncamera. Because my feeling is that religion is based on faith --belief-and when someone believes the Bible is the literal truth and the Word of God and I meanwhile accept it only as a spiritual reference book of one of several great masters, why, there's no basis for a debate. And when it's all finished, somebody says "he won" or "she won," and it's really just been a matter of exploitation. To me it's a complete waste of time.
And despite all this, here I was right in the middle of it again. And at the same time there was the guru perched on his "flaming chair," saying isn't it wonderful how with so many people gathered together they can debate with one another and look for the real truth. Isn't it wonderful how hungry people are for enlightenment? That was his hype. Religion and religious debate all over the place. I was really feeling low and just wanted to walk away. But instead I turned to the researcher and asked, "Why is it Dr. Graham never mentions war or poverty or racism? Why is it you never hear anything in his sermons about registering to vote? Everything is always `someday, someday.' It's always a guilt trip. Fire and brimstone. Why does your organization always have to lay the guilt trip on people?"
"Marjoe, Marjoe, we don't preach guilt. We preach love. It's love that we preach. But, Marjoe, you're going to have a love that's going to haunt you for the rest of your life. And that love is going to chase you and you'll never escape that love."
I said, "Wait a minute. I don't run from love. I love love. How is love going to haunt me?"
"It's a different love." Then, quite reverently: "A love that you'll never escape, never be able to run from. It's love of God. Dr. Graham doesn't preach about fear and guilt. It's love he preaches about, love."
I just said, "Oh," and walked away. It was all very sad.
I went back to my hotel room, drank some wine, and felt a little better. My carnal man was feeling a bit unspiritual, and the banner up in the press booth kept flashing in my mind, and I thought, "Far out. That's what I ought to do." So I set out to look for a premie.
I am down on the floor of the Dome, prowling around, looking
for a good-looking one, which is not so easy. There were
just not any good-looking premies to be found: they were a
most unattractive bunch of people. Pimply faces, clean but
unkempt-all rather bland and uninteresting. Finally I
spotted one. She was a rather new premie who seemed pleasant
enough, and she sat with me for the evening's address and
commented that she found the guru somewhat boring. From what
she said, I gather he
The second evening's address was a little more hard-sell than the first. The first night the guru had said, "If you want to be a Catholic, fine. I have something more to say." Tonight he still said you could be of another faith, but now he said that the other faith wouldn't work: "You cannot serve two masters. I am the one with the answers." Funny how last night it was OK to keep what you had and just get a little extra from him.
The crowd had picked up by tonight, too. It jumped from about 10,000 to 15,000. The guru finished off with a few more parables about cars: he was the filter for the gas line to keep your system clean, etc. And then he left. Again tonight, like last night, people sort of looked at each other questioningly, shrugged their shoulders, and dispersed raggedly into the night, where the warring factions were still hammering out their protests. I left with my little premie to take in some local color and some good country-and-western music. A bellman bask at the hotel hustled up some directions, and we were off.
Inside, the place was packed. Red lights, two dollars' admission through a turnstile, barn wood, and mounted bullhorns. I thought maybe I could bias out here myself. Wrong! The tequila sunrises were three parts grenadine, one part heaven-knows-what. The country-and-western band wasn't. They were a low-order country band hacking out old B2-atl:!s tunes badly. And the people here were more depressing than the premies. They were all drunken rednecks and they were falling over each other. It was miserable except for one young dude in a white Western hat with a ten-inch brim who was out front and dapper with the ladies. He went from one table to another trying to find a lady who would like to spend the evening with him. I admired his frankness. He didn't go home alone that night, either. But for the most part these cowboys were Missed out themselves, in a grotesque, zombiesque fashion. These were the usual Friday night, cash your pay check, smack your old lady, and go to the bar and get sloshed types. There were no black people in the bar: these racists were content to remain in a state of unconsciousness---a vacuum. I flashed that at least the kids at the Astrodome were striving to get beyond this, and they did-with no stimulants of any kind. They seemed quite beautiful as I thought about them at that moment.
morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and
refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru's plans for
the Divine City, which was soon going to
It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of "modular units adaptable to any desired shape." The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening. But the grand slam was just about to come.
The third night, before the guru was to give his last words of wisdom to the waiting premies and converts, the Dome took on an atmosphere that would blow my mind and stay with me for a long time. By the evening, the premies were restless from waiting for their guru. They began to chant in unison, and repetitively. This night they weren't blissed out; they were making a long chain and marching to the Blue Aquarius's When the Saints Go Marching In. The chanting got louder and louder and the premies moved faster and faster. And the scoreboard was flashing Scriptures faster and faster, and right at the top of the board a mammoth profile of the guru heralded his entrance in lights. I was transfixed. The chant sounded exactly like Sieg Heil! and the crowd was all ready to be fed by its leader. At the very height of this chilling display, the scoreboard flashed, You WILL SIT IN YOUR ASSIGNED PLACES, PLEASE. And immediately the crowd sat down again, the Blue Aquarius rifled off into Black Magic Woman, and Maharaj Ji appeared.
This was to be the big sell the big conversion to the Divine Light Mission. It smacked of the days when I was preaching, and I remembered how I used to say to my crowds, "How many of you will put up your hands and tonight say, `I am going to accept Christ.' Put up your hands tonight because there is only a heartbeat between you and death. There's only a movement between you and the judgment bar of God. You might go out on the road tonight and have a car accident and be dead and never have the chance to meet your Master again." I would lay this whole fear trip on them: "You better repent tonight."
The guru's barker put it this way: "You have a choice here tonight with guru Maharaj Ji-death without him." Heavy. He let it fall.
I ran to the press booth where I knew there was a handy exit from this "peace haven," and then I was jumping into a car with some other exhausted and frustrated people. They were New Yorkers in educational television, and all we could say to each other was, "Let's go get stoned." But not SO yards from the Astrodome, the Jesus people began pounding on the windows of the car. "Repent," they said. "In there was the Antichrist. If you don't, you will burn in hell tonight." And blah, blah, blah.
Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I was ready to explode. All these religions fighting. I could see a time when we would have religious wars. These people were all at each other's throats. All their energies were being dissipated in battles between sects. A waste. I rolled down the window of the car and barraged the Jesus people. "You're right. I am washed in the blood of Christ. And you're right the Antichrist is inside. You preach the Gospel, and you're right."
A Jesus freak, face beaming, hollered back, "You're right on, brother. Do you really believe that? And you don't really believe what that guru said in there?"
I said, "No, sir. He's a liar. He's a charlatan and a fake." And I jumped out of the car. "We must tell these people. You must start to preach."
They were ecstatic. Then all of a sudden one of the other freaks yelled to the one addressing me, "Hey, don't you know who he is? That's Marjoe." Their faces dropped.
got back in the car and, driving off, left them with, "Hey,
why don't you guys get it together with the Krishna people
over there and the Children of God over here and all of you
band together to make one grand attack against the enemy in
there? After all, you remember what Solomon in all his glory
said to the people: `United we stand, divided we fall.' And
no chain is stronger than its weakest