Blissing Out in Houston
By Francine du Plessix Gray
And Joan Apter's letter to the Editor of the New York Review of Books,
and the authors' quite appropriate response to Joan.
New York Review of Books December 13, 1973.
BLISSING OUT IN HOUSTON
By Francine du Plessix Gray
'What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon,' Daisy cried, 'and the day after that, and the next thirty years?'
- F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
October 21, 1973:
Tonight I have an appointment with Rennie Davis to discuss his newborn self and the salvation of all mankind. Some months ago, Rennie shed his former political activism to receive the Divine Knowledge being offered by Guru Maharaj Ji, the fifteen-year-old Indian who claims to be an incarnation of God sent to humanity to bring us a thousand years of peace. Rennie and I walk toward a soul food restaurant not far from the New York headquarters of the Guru's organization - Divine Light Mission - on Park Avenue South. Rennie asks me what I think the Maharaj Ji is about.
I answer him compulsively and with a sense of desperation. I talk about the proliferation of diverse mysticisms in reaction to the Sixties' failures, the Orientalism that seems to be spreading in the West, our despair over the technological mess, our disillusionment with the myth of material progress, the failure of secular humanism. Rennie smiles cynically. 'I know you have all the right historical dimensions,' he says, 'but you've left out the only thing that really matters.' He stops smiling and suddenly speaks in a curt, intense voice.
The fact is, he says, that in the next few years the entire world is destined to recognize the Perfect Master Maharaj Ji. Perfect Master will trigger an awakening of our consciousness which will allow us to plug into the ground of Being - God - Divine Energy - and to realize the full potential of that energy within us. The Perfect Master's Knowledge will abolish all greed, hunger, violence, will bring a thousand years of world peace such as we have never witnessed in recorded history. The Millennium will begin on November 8, in the Houston Astrodome, where the Perfect Master will give his practical plan for world peace …
'Peace Now!' 'Out Now!' The slogans of the Sixties flash through my mind, along with a previous memory of Rennie Davis: A meeting of peace coalitions in a state of mayhem. Rennie standing in isolation from the disorder, dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, quietly bouncing a tennis ball against the wall.
I lose track of Rennie's voice for a few seconds, and I return to it to hear him saying: ' … as a matter of fact I wouldn't be surprised if a UFO landed in the Astrodome while the Perfect Master is there, all the astrological conditions point to that possibility … beings on other planets must be equally thirsty for his Knowledge.'
At the restaurant, Rennie eats his vegetarian meal with his left hand, Indian fashion, deftly cupping the food with his fingers. He tells me that he first heard of the Perfect Master from two of his devotees while flying to Paris last January to meet with Madame Binh. Shortly thereafter he left for India to stay at the Guru's ashram. He received Divine Knowledge - the Maharaj Ji's equivalent of Zen satori or Buddhist nirvana - one week after his arrival, and has been in meditation for several hours a day ever since. I express my qualms about the instantaneousness of this enlightenment. The difference between the Perfect Master's technique and others, Rennie says, is that it gives you a practical way of meditation which enables you to realize the Godhead within you very quickly, transforming your consciousness and hence your body.
For a second the old politico returns: 'It's like Hegel rather than Marx. Spirit over matter.'
'And the marvelous thing about it,' he continues, 'is that everyone has the same vision. Everyone experiences the same thing'.
Oh, after the infighting of the movement, the quibbling, the disorder, to have the unity we were talking about in the Sixties …'
I ask Rennie how the Maharaj Ji's devotees feel about sex. He tells me that the great thing about this movement is that there are no strict rules. You are not ordered to give up anything. You just lose your desire for it - be it grass, meat, or sex. There is no renunciation whatsoever of the world, as there is among the Hare Krishna or Jesus people. As for sex, it's only forbidden in the ashrams; otherwise Mata Ji, the Perfect Master's mother, says it is better to have sex just for procreation.
'Christ, Rennie,' I say, 'do you think there's any fifteen-year-old whacking off between here and Scarsdale whose mother doesn't tell him that?' I regret the words, feeling uneasy with this new Puritan, but no matter, he doesn't seem to have listened. As we walk out of the restaurant he is staring at the sky, saying, 'One of the most beautiful things about Divine Light is its cleanliness, the purity …The ashrams are always kept impeccably clean in case Maharaj Ji drops in …Wow, after the filth of the Sixties' communes, the loose living …'
There are some twenty Divine Light ashrams in New York City. This afternoon I have been asked to one to hear satsang - spiritual discourse or truth-giving, several hours of which are prerequisite to receiving Knowledge - from one of the Divine Light mahatmas. This particular ashram is in a large, prosperous apartment building on Shrink Row, at the corner of 85th Street and Central Park West. A pile of shoes lies heaped on the elevator landing. The scrubbed living room is dominated by a stuffed chair upholstered in white satin, set high on a dais like a throne, and surmounted by a photograph of the chubby, lotus-positioned Guru. In front of the throne premies - the Indian word for 'lovers' or devotees - have deposited offerings: a grapefruit, some chrysanthemums, an enormous stick of cinnamon candy. The ashram is mostly populated by gentle, serenely smiling young women in long flowing robes. Mata Ji encourages floor-length garments because they are more modest.
The mahatma giving satsang this afternoon on 85th Street is one of 2,000 mahatmas whom Perfect Master has empowered to spread his Knowledge. He is a frail, impassive former Marxist who had taught languages at a Calcutta university - or so he says.
Throughout his rambling discourse on Eterrrrnal Rrreality he keeps adjusting the new set of false teeth with which Divine Light has equipped him on the occasion of his first satsang tour of the United States. He wears a white cable-Knit sweater on top and the traditional dhoti of white muslin below. He says that he met one of the Maharaj Ji's disciples on the very same day he had planned to commit suicide in the Ganges - Divine Lighters greatly stress coincidence, which is part of divine play, or lila - and had received Knowledge shortly thereafter.
His teaching is not vastly different from that of the Vedantists I listened to when doing comparative religion at Columbia: The rational everyday mind is the obstacle, the great demon that stands in the way of Understanding; suffering is created by the duality which that mind posits; Enlightenment is the resolution of that duality and the merging into the One Consciousness. The mahatma's principal departure from rigorous Vedanta doctrine is that Maharaj Ji does not want his devotees to leave the world. Quite the contrary, we must keep our jobs and enjoy our meals, the only thing we must renounce is mind, and much of what we previously considered to be 'knowledge.' As a matter of fact, the new Divine Knowledge of Maharaj Ji will give us increased concentration and will make us better businessmen, musicians, writers. We can have our world and eat it too.
'The young, the uneducated, the nonintellectual receive Knowledge very easily because their minds contain less dualities and they are of more guileless heart. It will be very difficult for you,' he suddenly turns around, pointing at me severely. 'But if you desire it enough it is possible … remove maya, illusions, okay? Very easy.'
'Mahatma Ji,' I ask, 'what about money? What are devotees told to do about money?'
'The 'I'-ness active in you is an illusion,' he says in a clipped machine-like voice. 'Therefore after dropping the veil of maya and receiving Knowledge whatever 'I' possess is not mine anymore, everything is His. 'I' have nothing to give, since 'I' do not exist, only God gives, since only God exists.'
A premie in long, virginal blue robes comes to take the mahatma to tape a television show.
The Divine Light Mission, besides its membership of 40,000 in the United States and the eight million it claims in the world (most of them in India, where such a claim is impossible to verify), also owns a formidable lot of subsidiary concerns: Shri Hans Productions (films, records, educational programs); Divine Sales International Thrift Shops; Shri Hans Engineering and Divine Electronics, wholesale marketers of electronic equipment; Shri Hans Aviation, a Divine airline; Divine Travel Services and Divine Travel International, organized to ferry devotees to festivals and special events throughout the world; a palatial vegetarian restaurant on New York's 42nd Street; and Shri Hans Publications, which produces a weekly newspaper (Divine Times) and a full-color, glossy monthly (And It Is Divine).
To outline his 'practical plan for a thousand years of peace' - the theme of Houston's Millennium festivities - Maharaj Ji has hired the world's largest sports arena, the Astrodome, for $25,000 a day. He is staying with the Holy Family - which consists of, besides Himself, His Mother and His three older Brothers - in the Celestial Suite of the Astroworld Hotel, rentable to anyone at $2,500 a day.
Because the soul is to attain the possession of divine knowledge … the spirit must be straitened and inured to hardships, and be brought by means of this purgative contemplation into great anguish and affliction.
- St. John of the Cross
9 A.M.: Flying to Houston the day before the Millennium is to begin, I leaf through the pages of a book called Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji?, published by Bantam in an initial edition of 125,000 copies. Who is Guru Maharaj Ji? The slogan screams at me in many languages, for the plane is half filled with foreign devotees wearing enormous lapel buttons that say 'Wer Ist Maharaj Ji?' ' - 'Quien Es Maharaj Ji?' Most of them spend the three hours with their eyes closed, occasionally staring at still another lapel button that presents the Guru's chubby face reverently pinned to the seat in front of them.
I talk to a twenty-five-year-old German student whose father owns a supermarket chain. He tells me that the experience of Divine Knowledge is received in the following four ways: a brilliant light of almost blinding power perceived in the middle of the forehead, through that 'Third Eye' of ancient Indian tradition; a music of sublime beauty in one's ears; an extraordinary taste of 'nectar' in the mouth; and - the most indescribable sensation of all - a vibration sensed in the abdominal area which one can keep meditating upon twenty-four hours a day. 'I am meditating right now, as I talk to you,' he says cheerfully. 'But I cannot describe to you the Divine Knowledge any further than that if you haven't experienced it. Our Knowledge is not a religion, but an experience. Can I describe to you the taste of a mango before you have tasted it?'
He closes his eyes, and returns to his bliss. I return to the book, which is mostly a compilation of testimonies from persons who have received Knowledge, and of satsangs by the Perfect Master himself, remarkable for their slangy, machinery-obsessed metaphors: 'Special discount; Absolute discount! I am here, ready to offer you this Knowledge without taking a single pence!' 'We have to take the airplane and go up, and this ship is inside of us, it has been, built in within us, it's factory-built. It's not optional, it's standard. It just has to fueled. And what is this fuel? It is Knowledge.'
I proceed to read the numerous testimonies of premies who express their experience of Knowledge as a return to a state of prenatal, uterine bliss. 'One day as I was meditating,' the secretary to the president of a manufacturing company testifies,
I got a glimpse of what I had experienced when I was born …I remembered a bright white light in my mother's womb. There was music playing … As I started to come out of the womb that beautiful white light started to fade and become more and more distant … I knew I had found the true path that would eventually lead me back to that state beyond birth I had always been so thirsty for.
It struck me earlier that the word Divine Lighters use for their devotees, 'premie,' is nearly the same as the medical slang for a premature baby, 'preemie.' Norman O. Brown come true?
12 noon: Rennie Davis is holding a press conference in Houston's Rice Hotel. Premies mill about, the girls not so different from the movement girls of the Sixties, long-haired, wearing sandals and long skirts. The men vastly different: ultrastraight, short-haired, in business shirts. They greet each other, palms together, with the salutation 'Jai Satchitanan,' which is the ancient Sanskrit definition of the three aspects of God: Truth, Knowledge, and Bliss. Behind Rennie sit three dour mahatmas with red spots between their eyes.
'And who does the cooking in your ashrams?' a woman reporter is demanding. 'Who does your goddamn cooking?'
'En el ashram de Buenos Aires es un hombre que hace la cocina,' a premie's voice shouts.
'Many men do the cooking in ashrams,' Rennie answers gently, 'but that's so irrelevant …'
'Whadda you mean it's irrelevant?'
'After you've received Knowledge attachment to your man or woman role is transcended, we transcend our sex after Knowledge, we really do.'
Bal Bhagwan Ji, Perfect Master's oldest brother, and the Mission's mastermind, has indeed prophesied that his baby brother's enlightenment techniques will eventually create a mutation in the human species which will obliterate all sexual differences and make us totally alike. And premie doctors have testified to me that plugging into Divine Light meditation has abolished the menstruation of many women devotees. The press release on my lap says that the Guru's Millennium spectacle will be 'The most holy and significant event in human history.' I ask Rennie in what sense Maharaj Ji's arrival in Houston is more significant than the advent of Krishna, Buddha, or Christ to earth.
'Well, it will be known to more men,' he fumbles. 'I mean we're at a time of history when instead of Christ just having twelve apostles to slowly spread the good news you can spread them more quickly …'
'You mean more media?'
He puts on his mysterious smile, and takes a question from someone else.
2 PM: The Lord Incarnate is flying into Houston's Hobby Airport from the West Coast sometime this afternoon, and thousands of devotees are gathering there to greet him. I drive to Hobby with a thirty-four-year-old premie tennis pro who has been national hard court champion of the United States, and was captain of the Harvard Tennis Team in 1960. Tim Galloway is a handsome, thoughtful, gentle man with cornflower blue eyes. He immediately launches into an explanation of how Divine Knowledge has totally transformed his game of tennis. The Guru's meditation technique, he says, has given him such powers of concentration that he can receive service from the strongest opponent one foot behind the service line, with a half-volley.
'It totally reverses the Big Game,' he says modestly. 'There I am already in mid court, so I easily beat the server to net, and the next shot is a put away. The whole principle of meditation is to slow down inner time. People think too much when they play, they're always talking to themselves, the ego is telling the unconscious nervous system what to do. The point is to obliterate the difference between the teller and the doer, make the ego and the unconscious one. I've also devised an underhand serve which bounces off at almost a 90 degree angle to the flight of the ball …' Tim Galloway's book, Inner Tennis, which he wrote after receiving Knowledge, will be published by Random House this spring.
I ask Galloway how he had come to believe Maharaj Ji was God.
'When I first heard him my only approach was to say to myself, He's either the real thing or a con artist.' Well the first times I saw him he just did too bad a job as a con artist. A good con artist wouldn't wear a gold wrist watch or give such stupid answers. When I was staying with him in India I once asked him how much time I should spend on work and how much on meditation and he just said get up an hour earlier and go to bed an hour later, hardly a profound answer. I decided that if he was doing such a bad job of being a holy man he simply had to be genuine.'
'Did it ever occur to you that he might be a bad con man?'
'Then how could he have six million followers?' the tennis pro replied.
By the hangar of the Hobby airport premies weave garlands of carnations and snapdragons, and complete the festooning of the emerald-green Rolls Royce which will carry Perfect Master back to the city. Some two thousand persons have congregated on the landing strip, carrying banners from Israel, Chile, Peru, Kenya, Denmark, Argentina, and Colombia, whose devotees are particularly devotional: 'Premies de Colombia a los Piedes de Maharaj Ji.' A dais draped in purple silk is surmounted by the traditional white satin throne and garlanded with still more carnations, gladioli roses. On either side of the throne stand sumptuous gold velvet chairs for the Holy Family and enormous placards depicting lambs lying down with lions, saying 'World Family Reunion.'
An orchestra is playing a Fortyish rendition of 'When the Saints Come Marching In.' The devotees sit reverently facing the throne, their necks arching toward the sky to watch for his plane. Additional crowds come pouring in, old friends fall into each other's arms with such greetings as 'I haven't seen you since that festival in Delhi!' or 'You haven't changed a bit since that last satsang in Calcutta!' The sun shines down upon the prosperous jet-age pilgrims from a cloudless sky. It is eighty degrees. Every five minutes the premies roar out the Divine Light salute: 'Boliya Shri Satgurudev Maharaj Ki Ji!' 'All Glory to the Perfect Master,' a roared crescendo on the last syllable, both arms raised to the sky. Rennie Davis is talking again, this time like a revivalist minister, quoting scripture by the yardful. 'Jesus said we must create the kingdom of God on earth by realizing it within us first …'
The scene makes me think of the Great Awakenings, the Camp Meetings, the revivalism that has always been part of American history. Tocqueville wrote about America's 'fanatic spiritualism.' 'Strange sects endeavor there to strike out extraordinary paths of eternal happiness … religious insanity is very common in the United States.' In the 1840s the revivalist preacher Charles Grandison Finney received the Holy Spirit in his law offices and passed It on to his friends in a matter of minutes, describing it as 'unutterable gushings of the heart,' 'waves and waves of liquid love.' This American Millennium is painless, too, offering presto ecstasy unsullied by any dark night of the soul.
Here in Houston a weird encounter between the two most religious countries in the world is occurring - India and the United States - each poised at the absolute opposite ends of the religious spectrum. India's seething, unstructured spirituality, as fertile as an enormous lake of cosmic sperm, confronts the despiritualized and pragmatic American religionism that is the backbone of much of our material and political successes. Fifteen-year-old Guru Feelgood is being advised by someone who knows his way around America. He's come to make us feel not only better, but better off. Is it the pragmatism of our religion that leads to our sporadic explosions of revivalism and awakenings, millennial sects, faith healers, thundering radio ministers, Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Marjoe, and now the new Oriental instant mystics?
Marjoe is here, by the way, some-where in Houston, covering the Millennium for Oui magazine.
'The Perfect Master never comes or talks exactly as prophesied,' a fat mahatma in a gray business suit is satsanging in front of the white satin throne. 'Jesus Christ spoke in parables. Lord Krishna said, 'I am not this body, my real personality is divine light.' Who is Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ is Krishna, Krishna is Christ, and what are Krishna and Christ? They are omnipresent and perfect energy.'
A roar from the crowd for energy, arms up:
'Boliya Shri Satgurudev Maharaj Ki Ji!'
'Christ is love, Christ is knowledge. So what is Maharaj Ji giving? … He is giving you knowledge of Christ, knowledge of Buddha, knowledge of Krishna, knowledge of Mahomet. Brothers and sisters, after having received the knowledge of the real Buddha, the real Krishna, the real Christ, the real Mahomet, what is Maharaji Ji giving you? He is giving UNITY …'
Suddenly, from the back of the dais, precisely where he was not expected to come from, the kid appears. He struts up to the podium very briskly, plunks himself down on his throne. The crowd raises its arms in salute, some bend their foreheads to the ground, many weep. A thirty-year-old doctor I have just met, a research scientist at the National Institute of Health, has collapsed into a friend's arms and is sobbing like a little child: It is the first time he has seen the Maharaj Ji in the flesh.
The photographs have been deceptive. The Guru's face, so jowly and custard-bland in pictures, is shrewd, inscrutable, and powerful. The eyes are swiftly roaming and cunning, the chin formidably stubborn. Lei after lei of flowers is placed around his neck. Dressed in businessman seersucker, Rennie Davis kneels at his right, palms together, his beautiful aquiline face concentrated on the Master like those of the Magi in Memling's Adoration. At his left sits Mata Ji, swathed in sumptuous white gauze saris, an enormous diamond in her nose.
The kid says a few words, condescendingly and in a very rushed tone. He talks real American. 'The Millennium program will start tomorrow and it'll really be fantastic, it'll be incredible … and soon people will get together and finally understand God … There's so much trouble in the world, Watergate is not only in America, it exists everywhere, … ' and after two minutes he exits briskly, accompanied by roars from the crowd, to enter his flower-garlanded Rolls Royce.
'Lila, did you see that lila?' a young girl runs out of the landing strip waving her arms excitedly. 'He surprised us, he played with us by coming down on the wrong landing strip!'
Lila, Indian for divinely free play, is one of the words most often used by Divine Lighters. Lila is that state of consciousness common to all mystics in which, all contradictions of adulthood abolished, we enjoy that same state of gratuitous pleasure we experienced in earliest infancy: At play in the fields of the Lord, or the divine play of Meister Eckhart … Maharaj Ji's favorite form of lila is to throw devotees into his swimming pool. I also hear that his preferred topics of conversation are tape recorders, cars, and airplanes, that he freaks out on candy bars, takes Tums for his ulcer, and that his favorite book is Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
7 PM: I have dinner with Bob Hollowitz, the young doctor whom I saw collapsed in tears at the airport. He is a graduate of the University of Rochester Medical School, happily married, the father of a newborn son. He is short and solid, with reddish hair and mustache and a very warm, welcoming manner. Like Tim Galloway, the tennis pro, and other adult premies I talk to he feels he had everything in life for happiness and yet was still searching for 'meaning.' Hollowitz begins his meal of salad and bread by touching his first forkful to the center of his forehead - the third eye - the premies' ritual dedication of food to Maharaj Ji.
'I'm suffering from the paradox of sufficiency and suffering,' he says. 'You see, I just didn't want temporary states of happiness as I occasionally found with mescaline … throughout the Sixties all my doctor friends were experimenting with various ways of expanding consciousness. But I wanted infinite happiness. I knew there was some cosmic truth that would be totally satisfying forever. I had gotten so close to it with some of the other experiences …'
I comment that most traditional schools of meditation - be they Buddhist, Zen, or Vedantist - urge one to remain on the side of brevity, starting at a few minutes a day, gradually working up to an hour over a period of months or years. Since Bob is a neurologist, does he not see any danger in plunging overnight into two hours of blissing-out sessions? But like most other premies he is uninterested in the traditional East.
'That's where surrender comes in,' the doctor answers, his eyes gleaming with adoration. 'Our meditation is passive and effortless, we just let Maharaj Ji do it for us … you've had this Knowledge inside you right along without recognizing it, so what Maharaj Ji does is to fill in the picture with one fell swoop, one big package … At the time I received Knowledge I still couldn't accept him as God but later when I felt the lasting magnificence of that peace of meditation I accepted him … I had the most beautiful dream about him last night. We were playing together as if we were both children. He kept throwing me into a swimming pool …'
1:30 AM: I try to fall asleep in the violent Houston night. The sirens of ambulance and police cars keep screaming down the streets below my hotel room, just as they did one of the last times I was here, the night after John Kennedy's death. Upon hearing the news I had run into a Catholic church for the first time in some years and wept for four hours. The East was in mourning but in Houston that Saturday night restaurants and night-clubs were filled with people dancing. I hear that a seventeen-year-old premie traveling through Dallas's Dealey Plaza on her way to Houston yesterday said, 'Gee, some president was shot here, I don't remember his name …'
At 2 AM - so it is reported the next day - the Maharaj Ji walking all alone in the world's largest sports arena, playing with his Astrodome.
'I want to ask you something, Franny,' [Zooey] said abruptly … 'What do you think you're doing with the Jesus prayer? … You talk about piling up treasure - money, property, culture, knowledge, and so on and so on. In going ahead with
the Jesus prayer -… aren't you trying to lay up … something that's every goddamn bit as negotiable as all those other, more material things?'
- J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Dozens of Hare Krishna disciples are haranguing outside the Astrodome before the festivities begin, claiming that the Guru is a fake because he does not know Sanskrit, and because Krishna does not take any bodily form. A few yards away Jesus people hand out leaflets claiming that the Guru is Antichrist and carry pickets that say, 'What has the Guru's Religion Done for India?' Of the two, the Jesus people are the more aggressive. They are reported to have poured sugar into some of the premies' gas tanks to impair their functioning. Earlier this morning, a bad scuffle broke out between the Hare Krishna and the Jesus crowds as they were trying to monopolize the same sidewalk to protest the Guru. Brotherhood, peace, family of man.
Some of the premies - particularly the British ones that make up the bulk of the 'World' Peace Corps,' the Divine Light security outfit which is marshaling the Millennium - are no less aggressive. Dour, didactic, and cavernous-faced, they push you roughly back from many sections of the Astrodome barking, 'Premies only here, premies only, please obey …' It is through being shoved by them a few times that I receive the first hint of the movement's latent violence, the inevitable violence of any millennial sect hellbent on abstract purity and infinite happiness.
At one o'clock the Millennium begins. Rennie Davis had predicted that the Astrodome would be filled to capacity, with 100,000 people weeping to get in; that CBS and NBC would be carrying it live, with Walter Cronkite as anchorman; and that George Harrison and Bob Dylan would receive Knowledge that very weekend. Reality sucks. There are some 7,000 people on the first day, and the only TV coverage of the event is being done by some underground California outfit.
The inside of the Astrodome, however, is a very fascinating sight. Its gigantic field is dominated by a seven-level, thirty-five-foot-high stage made of translucent white plastic that glows fiercely with internal lighting. The top level is surmounted by a throne of blue plexiglass upon which the Guru sits every night to give his satsang. On subsidiary levels, enormous stuffed orange chairs serve as thrones for members of the Holy Family. As devotees start to speak, a screen made of lightbulbs alternately flashes programmed electronic images of the Guru, his mother, and his father behind the throne.
Illusions of shifting rainbows waft upon a transparent 125-foot-high gauze screen hanging from the ceiling. A gigantic American flag surmounts it all, and at the left is the football scoreboard, with the last game's teams still on it: Seminoles vs. Cougars. Two enormous Texaco billboards complete the picture. Half of the crowd sits cross-legged or lies in a trance-like state on the very floor of the Astrodome, where hundreds of sticks of incense give off a pungent bathroom odor. And in the back of the arena, furthest away from the dais, there are always people practicing numerous esoteric techniques - standing on their heads, doing yoga back bends, moving slowly in Tai Chi exercises, practicing deep breathing in shoulder stands, or swaying to whatever music punctuates the program.
Joan Apter - a prominent American premie who meditated for several months in a series of caves in India - is the opening speaker. After the customary salutation, 'We speak for a tranquility of peace,' etc., she says, 'I'd like to tell you about Maharaj Ji's father,' but she immediately drops the subject and returns to the ooze of love. To make the old man's early history public might be disastrous. For the devotees most desired by the Mission are the fat cats, and the old man was actually a revolutionary of sorts. After searching for the meaning of life for many years, being rescued from suicide by a guru and receiving Knowledge from him, Shri Hans Ji Maharaj radically challenged India's caste system. He preached to the poorest people in India, the untouchables, the outcastes, and was virulently attacked by the Brahmans for his democratic ways.
In his early years, he led a simple, unmaterialistic life; one of his favorite sayings was 'The world is for the wealthy, but God is for the poor.' Shri Hans Ji Maharaj shed his mortal coil in 1966. Shortly before his death, he decided to pass on his sainthood to the youngest of his three sons. The Millennium festival in Houston is actually one of the annual birthday celebrations for the Perfect Master's father, which up to now had been held near Hardwar, India. But this is history, and the instant mystics of the Seventies seem to detest history - particularly their own - even more than did the Sixties' new left.
Rennie Davis's voice drones on about 'the future of our golden age of peace,' reminding me of a tape recorder playing to a greenhouse. I lie on the floor of the Astrodome munching on a Millennium candy bar, one of the Mission's numerous commercial products. The Perfect Master's dais looks like an Easter Show on the Life of Krishna at Radio City Music Hall, or the Calcutta version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Here are the Seventies - a procession of revivalist, consciousness-raising, sensitivity session rock extravaganzas in divine duds. This is a peace rally in Rockette drag.
I feel sick. A pageant on Christ's life is being enacted on stage. Mary keeps screaming, 'Jesus, Jesus, where are you, we're going to Jerusalem!' 'I haven't been into acid much,' a boy lying next to me says, 'just about a hundred trips or so.' 'I'm going to check out this Knowledge,' a prepremie in a crazy cowboy outfit says, 'because it's like putting your cock into a new woman, you've got to do it before you know what it's like.'
Later that evening the kid makes his first satsang on top of his blue lucite throne. The Astrodome becomes even more eerie. Two enormous color television screens enlarge the Master's image on either side of the throne, and below that another screen presents a parade of 1960s personalities - Marilyn Monroe, Ho Chi Minh, John Kennedy, John Glenn - in obeisance to Rennie's message that this millennium is continuing the message of the Sixties. 'I haven't got an MD degree,' the kid is whining, obviously nonplused by the small turnout. 'I've got a much greater degree.' Still, thousands bowed their foreheads to the floor when he entered and lay prostrate for a few minutes, and Rennie Davis began the evening by kissing the Perfect Master's feet.
After the satsang I have dinner with the Guru's personal physician, Dr. John Horton. The doctor has an extensive theory concerning the stimulating impact of Divine Light meditation upon the pineal gland, whose increased activity will eliminate all of humanity's aggressive drives. He also explains that the Perfect Master's duodenal ulcer must be understood on three different levels: 1) the habitual physical level - constant jet lag, changes of diet, fatigue, stress; 2) the spiritual level: it is a sign of his compassion for mankind, like the stigmata on Christ's feet; 3) the cosmic level, as a revelation of universal suffering.
The diagnostician of Perfect Master's cosmic ulcer disturbs me more than any other premie I meet because he is the brightest, the most dedicated, the nicest of the lot. He is thirty, and has had a few acid trips, which he describes. I can't understand how they can have screwed up a first-rate mind to that degree. Some pathology of affluence is at work, as it is in Galloway, Hollowitz, all the other intelligent adult premies I talk to. Horton was an all-county football star as a teenager, went to college at Dartmouth and Columbia, has his medical degree from Duke University Medical School, had two years of Freudian analysis as part of his psychiatric training, and always considered he had everything in life for happiness. But he wanted more … at one point in our conversation, he says, as Hollowitz did: 'I wanted continual ecstasy!'
Man's most basic drive, Horton says, is the transcendence of his ego; the sex drive is nothing more than one form of ego transcendence; and the transcendence offered him by the Master's twenty-four-hour meditation technique is infinitely more blissful than sex.
Maharaj Ji at his first and only press conference:
'I would be very happy if the press could cooperate with me because if peace is established on earth, you will get the credit! And that would be really fantastic and far out, because this is what we really need today, peace!'
Reporter: 'What about your Rolls Royce?'
Maharaj Ji: 'If you're going to feed a child this morning he's going to be hungry again this afternoon … all a Rolls Royce is is a piece of tin. If I gave poor people my Rolls Royce they would need more tomorrow and I don't have any more Rolls Royce to give them.'
He sits a few feet from us in his white satin duds, alternately smiling, pouting, and baiting us. There is a faint mustache on his imperious, round brown face. The press has tried to check out a rumor that he's really nineteen going on twenty, and has faked his passport as a lila, to get more attention.
Reporter: 'Are you the son of God?'
Maharaj Ji: 'Everyone is the son of God.
None of you ain't the uncle or aunt of God.'
Reporter: 'Are you God?'
Maharaj Ji: 'I am a humble servant of God.'
Reporter: 'Then why do your devotees say you're God?'
Maharaj Ji: 'Why don't you ask them?'
Someone then asks about the Detroit incident, which led a reporter to be hit over the head with a blackjack by a man from the Divine Light Mission. The Maharaj Ji's aide says let's pass on to a more relevant question. Mayhem occurs, everyone at the press conference wanting to know more about the incident. (See the accompanying box.) The conference is shortly thereafter terminated. Ken Kelley, covering the events for Ramparts, reports that there's an astrological prediction that the Guru's testicles will descend tomorrow, on the third day of the Millennium.
2 PM: The best seats in the Astrodome have been reserved for the premies' parents, for Divine Light is big on family solidarity, on healing the Sixties' generation gap and getting parents and children together again. However it is very difficult to talk to parents as most of them have requested not to be disturbed or interviewed. 'Some of them are a little embarrassed,' a premie explains. In the electric blue-and gold-walled luxury loges where the parents sit, an elegant woman with a Kenneth hairdo and a Bonwit Teller raincoat is trying to communicate with her teenage son, who sits eyes closed, blissed out by one of the mahatmas' speeches. 'It's a charming show, darling, and I love their color schemes, it gives me ideas for my living room.'
3 PM: I talk to Gary Girard, who was the very first American to receive Knowledge and has been personal secretary to the Guru. He tells me that he first went to India in '68, when he was selling macramé belts on street corners and shooting dope all over Australia and the Far East. His father is a well-to-do California businessman, and Gary started the Asian dope circuit right after high school. Gary has a grandiose vision of the impact Maharaj Ji is already having on the world: 'I assure you that the President of the United States is on top of everything the Guru is doing. I'm convinced that the President of the United States just loves this because he simply can't deny the humanitarian work Maharaj Ji is doing.'
'Do you consider Nixon a humanitarian President?'
'Nixon has served the people well,' Gary answers. 'He only does what he can do. It's not his fault that he has a mind which doesn't function properly.'
'Why are there so few black premies in the United States?'
'Black people are not interested in Maharaj Ji because they're not interested enough in themselves.'
'What is your notion of equality?'
'Equality is not how much you have but same-sightedness, unity of vision, which is what we have.'
The next premie I talk to is a forty-three-year-old architect, formerly employed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who also sees Nixon as 'without fault' because 'when people are corrupt they produce a corrupt leader. It's the people's fault.' Larry Bernstein had been waiting for Maharaj Ji since 1949, when he read a prophecy by Edgar Cayce which said that in 1969 a boy born in the foothills of the Himalayas would lead the world. Larry received Knowledge because 'my destiny is to be infinite.' Larry is the designer of the Divine City which the Divine Light Mission is planning to start building next year. It will be suspended between the two cliffsides of a great canyon and will have a hall for satsang large enough to seat 144,000 people (a figure from the Book of Revelation). There will be no money or currency of any sort in the Divine City, people will take out whatever they need from the stores … and in 12,000 years, Larry says, there will only be saints on earth, everyone will possess cosmic consciousness.
6 PM: 'Sit down on the floor,' Ken Kelley says, 'and I'll show you exactly how they give you Knowledge.'
We are in a suite at the Shamrock Hilton. Kelley started writing a book on the Divine Lighters some months ago, and has succeeded in getting a few defecting premies to describe the secret sessions.
'You're taken into a very dark room, there are no more than fifteen of you. The mahatma is sitting against the middle of a wall, with a very bright light shining on him. First he satsangs you for about two hours about the retributions you're going to suffer if you ever reveal the secret of the Knowledge-giving. Fire and brimstone stuff, suffering and gnashing of teeth, eternal damnation. Then he starts giving Knowledge. First he does your eyes. He presses his knuckles very hard upon your eyeballs and keeps them there until you see the light. Then he plugs up your ears with his fingers in a certain way until you hear the music. Then he tips your head back in a certain way for the meditative position, and that nectar you taste, that's your snot. Then he tells you the secret word to meditate on, and that's kind of a breath sound that's supposed to represent the divine energy of the world, ah-ha, ah-ha.'
Ken Kelley and I go to dinner at Trader Vic's with the men from Playboy and the Detroit Free Press. As we return to the Astrodome the kid has just finished his second satsang. He is wearing sumptuous red and gold vestments and a miter-shaped 'crown of crowns' which is the ultimate Indian symbol of sainthood. Below him his brother, Bhole Ji, is leading his Blue Aquarius band, composed of premies who play for nothing and give all the proceeds of their records to Divine Light. Bhole Ji is dressed head to toe in a silver sequin suit and matching silver shoes, and bounces around the podium going 'hubba hubba hubba.' At the left, a group of sullen mahatmas in pale saffron robes have struck languorous poses. I keep wondering which of them is handiest with a blackjack.
I lie down on the floor and think back to my childhood. I used to get spaced out saying beads, following the Stations of the Cross at Lent, crawling up to the Lourdes shrine on my knees. That is precisely what religion has been methodically shedding for the past hundred years: those very techniques of altering consciousness which, in turn, satisfied the unquenchable human need to surrender to something larger than the self. Here we have the results, dear mothers and fathers seated in the luxury loges above, of secular humanism, Unitarianism, bland Reformed Judaism, the Post Conciliar Church, and our over-eroticized society …
There are no taxis at the Astrodome that night, and I hitch a ride back to my hotel with a mustached premie in his thirties who has worked for US Army Intelligence in South America. He is as lovingly secretive about the nature of this work as he is about the arcane techniques of Divine Knowledge. This dude has it twice made. That's another archetypal need we've been neglecting, another vacuum the Divine Light is filling - our bliss in participating in secret organizations and rites, be they Freemasonry, college fraternities, or initiation into the adulthood of a primitive tribe.
A naked intent I call it. The perfect novice … seeks simply nothing but God Himself.
'The Cloud of Unknowing'
- Anonymous (Fourteenth Century)
Early on the third day of the Maharaj Ji's thousand years of peace, I go to an ashram in a quiet, wooded back street of Houston where some four hundred young people have come this morning to receive Divine Knowledge. It could be any shrine, at any moment of man's history. Before a ramshackled, colonnaded white mansion the pilgrims stand in droves, waiting for their turn to enter into the presence of fifteen mahatmas officiating inside. A few are reverently prostrated on the ground, a few others advance toward the mansion on their knees. As I elbow my way to the door a man of college age jostles past me. 'Sorry,' he says, 'I figured if I'm going to receive Knowledge this morning, I'd better go to the bathroom first.'
I have come to see Charles Cameron, an Englishman who was instrumental in starting the Master's first European and American campaigns three years ago. That was when the ambitious, precocious, technology-adoring twelve-year-old Guru - frustrated by how little attention he was getting in his swami-swarming native country - decided to employ modern public relations methods to spread his message throughout the entire world. Cameron had been one of the first Westerners to help him out. He is a frail man in his thirties, an Oxford graduate in theology. We get into a car to go to the Astrodome. I ask him how long the Knowledge session will last.
'Once they're ready to receive it it goes just like that,' he says, snapping his fingers quickly four times, 'in just four seconds.' He looks at his watch. 'I figure they'll be out of there at around a quarter of three.'
Like an abortion. I ask him how he can compute the session so precisely and he suddenly turns on me quite viciously. 'Look,' he snaps, 'I am very bad at facts. If you want to stay in this car with me please let's not talk about facts, all right? I am only interested in talking about one thing in the world, and that is love, divine love.'
He leans back in the car, looking petulant.
'Until three years ago when I received Knowledge,' Cameron says in the course of his satsang on Maharaj Ji's love, 'I used to be able to discuss Gregorian chant, and John Donne, and Cocteau, and André Breton, and Plotinus, and Saint Thomas, and the difference between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism, do you understand? I was an intellectual. But once you have received Knowledge you are incapable of having a so-called intellectual discussion. You can only have a discussion about Knowledge that happens to be intellectual.'
We talked at length about that 'incidence of coincidence,' or lila, or divine play, in which premies have enormous faith. 'You can see it in Jungian terms if you wish,' he says, 'It's what he called 'synchronicity,' bumping into what you need at the moment you need it. That's lila, and it is being brought about by the common consciousness which is creating the universe.'
Charles Cameron is one of the two men whom Rennie Davis met on that plane, on his way to seeing Mme Binh, and who convinced him to fly to India to meet the Perfect Master.
3 PM: Paul Krassner of The Realist has challenged Rennie Davis to a public debate, and Davis has accepted. I take a few notes.
Resolved: That Davis has copped out to turn kids away from social responsibility to personal escape.
Davis: Ever since I've returned from India I've felt the hope, the incredible joy which I think can await us all. I have realized that the hopes of the Sixties are going to be fulfilled in the Seventies, that the Sixties' generation of peace is going to finally peak … We grew up at a time in the Sixties, with the new left, when we saw we were inspired to not start with a blueprint or philosophy or doctrine … Only a commitment to process and to learning to control the process. In the same way, Divine Light Mission is an experience that's being offered and you can't draw judgments on it until you've had the experience. The Maharaj Ji gives us an experience of the mystery of life, of the purpose of creation, of God.
Krassner: I find that the Maharaj Ji is the spiritual equivalent of Mark Spitz … I'm interested in knowing the status of Rennie's love life. I hear that it's okay for mahatmas to have sex but not for the premies.
Davis: In the ashrams we practice celibacy to suspend confusion … We see that sex is not only for pleasure but for bringing another soul into the human body so it can come to realize Knowledge.
Krassner: It's natural for the kids to turn to the Second Coming of Santa Claus …
Davis: He's no Santa Claus. He's the Lord. His trip is our trip … When I decided to receive Knowledge I felt the light technique was questionable … but then I saw this incredible light in the center of a circle in the middle of my forehead … a diamond was there spinning and spinning and getting larger and larger … and then the divine music … a heavy roar for a while then dinnnnnnnng, every fiber of my being began to vibrate … an incredible wave of bliss shot through me … then my mind began to play this incredible rock and roll, Bam boum boum boum boum.
Krassner: This is like being with CREEP … Did the Maharaj Ji give Richard Nixon a secret contribution?
Davis: Yes - he gave Richard Nixon his life.
Later that evening we hear the Perfect Master's third and last satsang. He compares our consciousness to the gas tank of a car. The car isn't running because our gasoline is clouded by all the dirt clogging up the engine, and he is the filter that will make the engine clean and give our car a perfect functioning. The Blue Aquarius band plays only briefly after the satsang. For the millennial accouterments must be quickly dismantled in order to restore the Astrodome to its original function. Reality returns: The following day at one o'clock the Cleveland Browns are scheduled to play the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.
' I had everything in life,' the beautiful English premie says to me as we sit on a plane bound for New York, chatting with Spanish and American devotees. 'Terrific grades at university, a super boyfriend, a lovely job at the macrobiotic shop. But somehow I was always trying on different egos for size. I came to Maharaj Ji by divine coincidence of course. I was in Amsterdam, and had just spent a solid night weeping, saying 'help me, help me' to the Universe. I couldn't say it to any one because I was an atheist, as my parents are. And that same morning a girl gave me the address of an ashram. I received Knowledge two days later. When I came home, my mother - she's a professor at the University of London, as is my father - kept showing me a picture of myself as a four-year-old, saying 'You've become like this again, so happy and peaceful …' You see we're all really children and we're just playing at being grown-ups.'
'Knowledge is just like a pair of roller skates,' an engineer from New York interjects crisply. 'You can use them or not use them. The main thing is that you have them.'
The British premie spins around toward the New Yorker. 'Look, do you mind going back to your seat?' she barks out sharply. 'You're disturbing our talk, you're giving out bad vibes.'
'The British premies are famous for being tough, authoritarian,' she continues as the engineer goes dejectedly to his seat. 'That's one of the reasons I left England in order to give satsang in Spain. Spanish premies are about the loveliest, so gentle. Germans either freak out or make particularly solid premies, curiously gentler than the British. Americans are so insecure, America is a bad environment for saints. For instance Americans are always asking Maharaj Ji to come to the United States to have material reassurance of their faith.'
Are all Knowledge sessions equally long? I ask. I describe the line at the ashram which I'd seen the previous morning.
'Oh, they vary a great deal,' she says. 'I know some people who got Knowledge in four minutes yesterday because they had a flight to catch.'
I ask her whether the rumor is true that the British premies who served as marshals at the Millennium were armed with guns.
'Certainly not,' she laughs, swinging her very long blond hair. 'But … what if they were … would you think it preposterous if they were armed? After all, wouldn't you arm yourself if you had the task of protecting God on earth?'
The plane is landing, she is gathering her stuff. From the seat ahead of her she carefully unpins the picture of Maharaj Ji which she has been staring at for much of the trip.
'Ah, he has such a sweet face!' she exclaims.
We exit from the plane. At the airport, she waves good-bye.
'See you in the Golden Age!' she cries.
Joan Apter's letter to the Editor of the New York Review of Books appeared in the Letters to the Editors section of the January 24, 1974 edition, as did the authors' quite appropriate response to Joan.
To the Editors:
In reference to Ms. Gray and Mr. Kelley's efforts 'Blissing Out In Houston,' [NYR December 13] I have only one comment.
Guru Maharaj Ji is the source of so much attention for one reason only. We should not forget the reason. He is revealing God to every human being who requests it. The practical Knowledge of the Self that Guru Maharaj Ji is offering makes Him of some utility to us. Without the Knowledge, there is no story.
It is very simple. If the experience. He reveals is true, we can appreciate Guru Maharaj Ji. Even further, every human being who feels sincerely interested to experience permanent peace should ask for the Knowledge. If the experience He reveals is not true, then we should not bother ourselves with Guru Maharaj Ji any more.
But we will find that truth speaks for itself, and persists, even if we wish to observe it away. Those who are experiencing are to be called wise.
Old Westbury, New York
Francine du Plessix Gray and Ken Kelley replies:
Like many other anguished persons reacting against the violence of the past decade, Ms. Apter expresses her interest in 'experiencing permanent peace.' As American writers who have spoken out numerous times in the past years for non-violence, we suggest that the most important single factor in any community's search for achieving peace is a competence for self-criticism; and that Ms. Apter's inability to censure the attempted murder of a critic by two of her colleagues specifically manifests that blind obedience and that inaptitude for self-judgment which are at the heart of history's most violent commitments.