It's not really unusual for individuals to declare themselves to be God. The mental hospitals are filled with such cases, along with assorted Joan of Arcs, Napoleons and Jesuses. What is unusual is for them to have six million followers.
I first heard of the 15-year-old guru when he was 13. A friend of mine was on his way to Washington Square Park to punch the kid in the nose, but it rained and nobody showed up. It was the first time I'd ever heard of God getting rained out, but I didn't worry about it.
A year after that the guru was 14. The increasingly ubiquitous posters of his fat, smiling face repulsed me at first, but gradually they began to fascinate me. The posters seemed to radiate peace and love. Peace and love? Later there were newspaper stories, something about his arrest for diamond smuggling at some airport in India. The charge was quickly dropped and it was hotly denied by the guru's followers, but his detractors were gleeful.
Then, about last February, an utterly fantastic rumor started to spread like wildfire-that Rennie Davis, the clean-cut, 4-H Club radical of the Chicago Seven, had just been converted. Less than three months later Rennie was on a nationwide speaking tour for the guru, a 20-city tour which opened with flying tomatoes in Berkeley and closed with rotten eggs in Florida. The kid seemed to upset a lot of people.
I caught Rennie's act at the Anderson Theater, a sleazy auditorium on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "All I'm asking you to do is to check it out," he said, so I decided to follow his suggestion. I started by going to the Electric Circus, an infinitely sleazier rock hall, to hear satsang (a Hindu term for "communication of truth"). I'd been told that the Divine Light Mission was simply a group of people in tune with the energy of the universe who had realized Guru Maharaj Ji as the human manifestation of that energy. !t seemed vaguely appealing. Why not?
The sidewalk in front of the Electric Circus was cluttered with premies (another Hindu term, for "lover"-of the Perfect Master, of course), easily identifiable by the large, shiny disks on their lapels bearing miniature portraits of the guru. The hall was empty except for a small dais at one end. On the dais was a carved throne which supported a vastly enlarged, elaborately framed snapshot of Maharaj Ji, decorated with rhinestones (I hoped) and swatches of velvet. Two other snapshots, one of the guru's brother and one of his mother, graced smaller thrones in front of the large one. Rows of vases stuffed with daffodils radiated outward from the thrones.
I found myself staring at the guru's portrait. I was no longer able to dismiss his absurd face with a laugh. Instead I recognized a blissful, exuberant energy radiating from a face which seemed to form an exact circle-the perfect shape. I forced myself to look away.
In a back room I discovered a young man covering the walls with white paint. He looked up and smiled with the wispy, alluring, inviting smile common to followers of the guru. I asked him why he was painting the room. "I don't know," he said. "Only Guru Maharaj Ji knows that. We're here to serve Guru Maharaj Ji. We don't ask why he wants us to do something. We're just happy to be able to serve him. "
"Oh," I said.
The hall was beginning to fill when I returned. I noticed a stack of shoes in the corner and wished no one would notice when I crossed the room to take mine off. All the people were young; most looked clean and healthy, a few came with the dirty jeans, matted hair and vacant faces more typical of the Lower East Side. I hoped I wouldn't have to sit cross-legged the entire time.
Presently, a young man crawled before the throne, prostrated himself and turned to face the gathering.
"I want to tell you about the perfect love I've learned from Guru Maharaj Ji," he said. A smile coated his face. "Ever since I've received knowledge I've felt nothing but love and peace. Thanks to the Grace of Guru Maharaj Ji, this feeling of peace has pervaded my entire being. It's-it's just overwhelming, I don't know how to explain it. All my life it's like I've been lost, but now I'm, I'm here, thanks to the Grace of Guru Maharaj Ji. It's sort of like a woman, a woman with a splinter in her finger. For years and years she suffers from the splinter and nothing can relieve her agony. She cries out in the night and still the splinter torments her. The years go by and she can find no way to remove the splinter. She is distraught and unhappy and she cries a lot. But then a man passes by and he notices the woman lying in the gutter, moaning and gnashing her teeth. 'What is wrong, beautiful lady?' he asks. 'Why, it's this splinter,' she replies, holding out her hand. All her fingers are long and beautiful except for one, which has an ugly red bump on the tip. The man kneels down and removes an instrument from his robes. Gently he removes the splinter. The woman looks up with joy in her face. 'The splinter!' she says. 'You've removed it!' 'Yes, I have,' says the man. 'Thank you,' she says. 'Now this finger will no longer hurt me and I can be happy.' And that's just the way I felt after Guru Maharaj Ji...."
My attention wandered. Bob, his name was, went through several more parables. I started to count the acanthus leaves in the Corinthian capitals of the columns which supported the ceiling. Eventually Bob bowed low again and crawled back into the group. A young womannamed Sherri started to speak. ". . . Guru Maharaj Ji's love is infinite. I mean it's like really infinite. And when you're tuned into his energy you become infinite too. Your energy knows no bounds. Like I could go on talking for hours.... "
She didn't, really. She was eventually replaced by Charles Cameron, an assistant editor of And It Is Divine, the Divine Light Mission magazine. Cameron is an articulate and intelligent person, educated at Oxford, a student of Eastern philosophy. I'd spent the afternoon with him a couple of days before, talking about the guru and Cameron's experiences with him. I had come away reasonably impressed.
Cameron began to talk about problems of communication, gently chiding the other premies for using language which was unintelligible to outsiders. He was a good speaker, and before long almost everyone in the room was listening with rapt attention. I got interested when I caught the phrase "this isn't meant for members of the press." It was followed closely by ". . . in November, when the earthquake destroys New York . . ."
I looked around the room. All I could see was clean faces, blissful smiles, meaningful eyes. The eyes seemed to get deeper and deeper, the smiles wider and wider, the faces brighter and brighter. I sunk back against a column, then got to my feet, retrieved my shoes and tried to leave the hall inconspicuously. Sneaking out the door, I decided to get drunk that night, really drunk....
Shri Guru Maharaj Ji, Lord of the Universe, is hot stuff these days. He claims six million followers, all members of the Divine Light Mission, with hundreds of ashrams in almost every country in the world. He is president of Divine United Organization Inc., a diversified corporation with fingers in such pies as magazine publishing, film production and junk stores. He has his choice of four Divine Residences-in Los Angeles, Long Island, London and the foothills of the Himalayas. But most significant, he claims the secret of Divine Knowledge.
This Knowledge is described as "the realization of fundamental reality." AII Knowledge is divided into four parts: Light, which brings instant peace of mind; Music; Nectar, and the Holy Word, an intense vibration. It is a state of mind generally attained by advanced yoga students and people who have taken too much LSD.
Devotees of Guru Maharaj Ji explain the process in scientific terms. According to them, everything in the universe is reducible to pure and infinite energy. Science has been unable to determine the core of this energy field, but the human body can. And does, by the Grace of Guru Maharaj Ji. And when that happens, all questions about the 15-year-old Perfect Master disappear. The subject then understands "the most important thing on the planet: that Guru Maharaj Ji is for real."
There are corollary theories as well. One concerns the pineal gland, a small pea in the brain which has no observable function. Devotees claim that in lower animals this gland regulates the body in accordance with the rhythms of nature. When a human receives Knowledge- when he tunes into the energy of the universe-the pineal gland is activated and begins to regulate other glands controlling the emotions. The result is bliss.
The guru's followers are quick to point out that this account defies all current scientific theories. This is stated proudly, with an air of discovery. At the same time, the followers-or their spokesmen, at any rate-argue thattheir movement is not a religion because it is based on personal experience rather than faith. As Rennie said: "It's not religion-no one's talking about religion. Who can relate to religion?"
Although the experience of Knowledge is the basis of the guru's standing with his followers, several doctrines of various sorts also play their part. One is the idea of a perfect master-one who teaches perfectness, much as a physics teacher teaches physics. Past perfect masters are said to include Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Moses and (maybe) Socrates, among others. Jesus was the son of God, just like the Bible said. But Guru Maharaj Ji is God.
He ought to be. Listen to this passage from And It Is Divine number five, in which Guru Maharaj Ji answers questions in Delhi in December, 1973: "See, God has three properties, Generator, Operator and Destroyer. G is for Generator, O is for Operator, and D is for Destroyer. He has generated us, and that part is finished because we are already born. He will destroy us and that will also happen, it will be a sudden death. But there's one point, He is operating us, and that is the biggest point. That is the biggest 'O.' To some people it's just a zero and nothing more...."
Being God and all, Guru Maharaj Ji naturally inspires uncommon devotion among his premies. Rennie shocked audiences when he said, "I would crawl across the globe on my hands and knees to put my head at his feet " but other devotees simply smiled in agreement.
There is also a heavy touch of millenialism, based on the belief, as Rennie put it, that "this is the time of greatest darkness on the planet." Another devotee told me that Guru Maharaj Ji "has come at this time to save the world." He went on to explain: "This planet has been allowed to get into such confusion, men have been allowed to run their lives in a selfish manner until the selfishness has grown so great that if God didn't step in now, the planet would be doomed." (Devotees are always talking about "the planet," which I suppose indicates progressive thinking in a McLuhanesque sense.) Rennie fulfilled the implications of this when he predicted "purification by sacred fire"-the fire in the atom. He added that Guru Maharaj Ji says only those with Knowledge will pass through this fire (certainly making Knowledge a desirable commodity). Then the guru will establish the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
Sound familiar? It's the same belief that led thousands of people in a presumably less sophisticated age to sell all their earthly possessions and climb a mountaintop to await the end of the world. In fact, just a couple of years ago I remember a group of people in Arizona doing the same thing. Anyway, the guru's followers aren't selling their possessions, they're giving them to the Divine Light Mission-at least the most devoted ones are. And until the world does end, the devotees are committed to doing their best to spread truth, consciousness and bliss.
To accomplish this admittedly ambitious task, the guru has two organizations-DLM and DUO. DLM is a spiritual network of ashrams, centers and premie houses; DUO is a corporate conglomerate engaged in a wide range of activities. There are DUO offices in almost every major city in the United States and plans to expand to Europe. DUO is headquartered in Denver (as is DLM), and all offices are connected by Telex teleprinter.
Under DUO is Shri Hans Productions, named after Maharaj Ji's father, a big-deal guru himself until he died about six years ago. The Denver office publishes And It Is Divine, prints books (the first, Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji ?, is reportedly being considered for redistribution by several major publishing houses) and produces tapes for radio broadcast. A second office in Los Angeles produces films such as the one shown on Rennie's tour on the life and teachings of Guru Maharaj Ji. Another subsidiary is Divine Sales, a chain of second-hand stores in about 30 U.S. cities. Then there's Performers of the Living Arts, which is developing a ballet troupe, a symphony orchestra and an opera company. The members are doing all this in their spare time.
Several "service" organizations also fall under the dominion of DUO. Shri Hans Humanitarian Services operates a health center in New York specializing in preventive medicine; they hope to augment that with a fleet of mobile health clinics to serve ghettos and premie communities. Shri Hans Educational in Denver plans to open a tuition-free boarding school for grades 1-12 in September, open to anyone on a first-come basis and possibly offering scholarships to poor students from other areas. The Divine Organization of Women has been set up to give satsang to other women's organizations. Various other groups are in the formative stages; food coops to serve premie houses and ashrams, a drug rehabilitation program which currently consists of giving satsang to addicts in Brooklyn rehab centers (a guru maintenance program?) but which may soon open rehab centers of its own.
The 50,000 premies in the United States have a choice of lifestyles, depending on the depth of their devotion to the guru. Some live monastic lives in the ashrams (50 or so in the U.S.), where they eat vegetables, walk around barefoot and meditate a lot. They work only for DUO, DLM or one of its special projects. They receive no money for their work, but all their physical needs are provided for. Others live in centers or in the even less strict premie houses; many of these people also go to school or work at outside jobs (in which case their pay usually goes to the mission) and some are married. It's a secure life; they never seem to worry about the money to pay the rent. Most devotees do not smoke pot, or anything else for that matter, and most of them don't indulge in sex either. "We're so high on Guru Maharaj Ji," says Rennie, "that sex just brings us down."
Divine Light ashrams are already acquiring a reputation for their prosperous appearance. The ashram in Miami is an elaborate mansion on the shore of Biscayne Bay. In New York there are two main ashrams, one in a hotel just off -Central Park and another, a plain but spacious loft, near New York University. (The DUO office, which also counts, is a fashionable brownstone just off Park Avenue.) The devotees themselves are notable for their conservative clothes; most of them look like bank tellers did five years ago. In spite of appearances, however, they live anything but middle-class lives.
They are quick to tell you that their only purpose is to serve Guru Maharaj Ji, who himself is by all accounts an irreverent, playful little twerp who loves to play chicken on his farm tractor with his Holy Men and befuddle the rest of his followers with off-the-wall remarks and unpredictable actions. Once he even walked into an ashram with his shoes on. The followers always take their shoes off first and are a blissful and obedient lot. They smile all the time without even making it look forced, and they'll go off into interminable satsang at the drop of an eyelash. Sometimes they go to extreme lengths to avoid direct answers to questions; I once asked one of them an innocent question about the guru, only to discover 15 seconds later than I was listening to a story about a unicorn.
They exude good vibes; I'm sure they must get angry sometimes, but I was never able to discover when. I never saw them indulge in the muttered curses of the Krishna people or the group-directed hatred of the Jesus freaks. They are peaceful, even passive, smiling and radiant. "Blissed out" is the common term. Guru Maharaj Ji is teaching them perfectness, and they appear to be learning it well.
In view of that, it's not surprising to learn that they plan to take over the world, starting with the United States in 1973. Then it's on to Russia in '74 and China in '75. The timetable is somewhat flexible, I suppose, but Operation USA is already well under way. It began last year with the establishment of DUO and And It Is Divine and moved into high gear with Rennie's nationwide tour in May. Then there's the anticipated tour by the guru in late summer or fall (nobody seems to know for sure), climaxed by a colossal festival at the Astrodome in November and the establishment of Divine City, Cal.
Rennie's tour was spectacular; I don't know if DLM considers it a success or not, but it did get a lot of people thinking about the guru and that seems to be the basic criterion. "Rennie Unites Left-Against Him" screamed the Berkeley Barb after his initial appearance, and that seemed to sum up the situation totally. "Kiss my lotus ass, motherfucker!" a heckler shouted. "The Maharaj Ji eats scab lettuce!" (Boston). "Simon Legree was a perfect master!" (New York). Paul Krassner accused Rennie of being a CIA agent (he's serious). Former Yippie Stew Albert wrote an open letter headlined "I Never Worshipped My Dealer." Another long-time movement associate of Rennie stated flatly that the whole thing was '`politically incorrect."
And that's about the heaviest criticism you can get in those circles short of being called a bourgeois revisionist dog, or something like that. The movement, which seems to have been getting more than it can handle these days, views the guru as a pernicious device to lure discouraged souls from its ranks. One wonders who will succumb next-John Sinclair? Bobby Seale? Robin Morgan? The frenzy which accompanied Rennie's speeches carried an air of religious persecution which was inspiring to watch. Both sides seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.
For their part, Rennie and his associates seemed pleased to meet outrage with babble. "We are in the movement," one of them stated when Rennie hit New York. "We are in the movement, man, but there's one movement and the movement isn't out there, knocking the buildings down, the movement is inside, knocking down the walls inside. And when we knock down the walls inside of us, brothers and sisters, we get high!" Rennie suggested that "the Vietnamese people will be overjoyed to hear this news that Guru Maharaj Ji, the Perfect Master, is on the planet-and so will China and so will the working people of the world." That means it's okay in movement lingo.
Rennie's conversion has been better received in other camps. Barbara Walters interviewed him on the Today show in hushed tones, and secretaries at DUO are wont to pull out copies of innumerable letters from state legislatures (like Wisconsin, the Cheese State) congratulating DLM on its good work. But Rennie is fond of saying that his angriest hecklers turn out to be his most devoted followers, and it's probably true, given the law of hysterical personalities.
Regardless of what we think now, the nation will get an idea of what the kid is about when the Astrodome extravaganza opens Nov. 8. It's going to be called "Soul Rush '73," and Rennie, who's organizing it, promises something on the scale of a World's Fair. A DUO spokesman modestly described it as "a practical example on a small scale of how Guru Maharaj Ji is going to feed, clothe and shelter the whole world." It will be highlighted by a stupendous "March For Peace" from New York and San Francisco to Houston. There seven pavilions in the Astrodome will deal with topics like the supernatural, mythology, religion and parapsychology. The symphony orchestra, ballet troupe and opera company are already in Houston tuning up. And the Perfect Master himself promises to make an appearance.
Divine City, Cal. is something else. What's planned is an "organic, modular community," a city of light built of translucent material which will glow in the dark. Not just a plastic Jesus, folks, a whole city! A huge tract north of Santa Barbara has been donated, and unless the guru changes his mind the city should be built there within a year. It is being heralded as a dramatic vision of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
Dramatic, indeed. The scene that greeted Rennie in the Anderson Theater was dramatic, an army of blissful faces, a children's crusade led by a teenage pope, smiling laughing faces supposedly out to fight "poverty, war, racism, capitalism, imperialism, sexism and hunger" and banish them from the planet forever. And howling at the smiling faces were the angered ones of those who tried the same thing in a different way, come now to taunt these people for their innocence and jeer at them for not having the correct line. When the heckling got too raucous for anything else to be heard, the devotees broke into a raga-gospel chant, an endlessly repeating song which went like this:
Open up your heart to the Universal Love,
Maybe so. But last week I heard about another guru in Japan who has 21 million followers and he's leading them up the side of Mt. Fuji sometime next year because the mountain's going to erupt and cover the Earth with purple dye but if you jump in first....