Prem Rawat then still known as Guru Maharaj Ji did get a mention in the 1983 Harper's magazine article about retro 70's gurus but it was a short and slighting one rehashing the important details of his life and career: Inheriting divinity from his daddy, being hit with a pie-in-the-face, renting the Houston Astrodome, marrying a much older woman, being stripped of his Perfect Masterhood by his mummy and … well that's it I guess.
Harpers magazine: November 1983
Who's Who in Gurus
AMONG THE BOOKS that lit up our third-eye point in the Seventies was Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Written in yogically overgrammaticized English, it included all sorts of casual references to Christianity. On top of that, it was a terrific read, spectacularly anecdotal. It felt right. Thomas Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, traced his journey from hip Columbia student, throbbing with the strange animal travesty of jazz, to Trappist monk, no longer seeking to live for his own gratification but sacrificing his pleasures and comforts for the love of God. There were more KAM Gibran quotes in Seventies weddings than peanuts in a Snickers bar. We learned all about the risks and riches of raising your kundalini from the books of Gopi Krishna, particularly The Awakening of Kundalini. And enough of us were still reading Zen and Buddhism from 1956 on to keep D. T. Suzuki on the New Age best-seller list. The Urantia Book wasn't well known but its presence was felt. It was supposed to have been discovered in a locker of a Chicago bus terminal. It was also supposed to have been recited by some guy in his sleep—serving as a conduit for the omniscient Orvonton Corps of Truth Revealers —and transcribed by some other guy in a trance. But never mind the rumors. The Urantia Book is astonishing. Over 2,000 pages of This-Is-It-No-Matter-What-Anyone-Has-Ever-Said prose, it explains the structure of the universe and points out where every religion has gone askew. Only the serious Seventies seeker messed with The Urantia Book. However, if you wanted merely to dip your toe in and test the water, there was always Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Intense fellow, that Hesse, but no Avatar of the Age. On the other hand, Meher Baba was the A of the A, according to his official biographies. Meher Baba, who wrote several books on Sufism, took a vow of silence in 1925. He promised he'd eventually speak again, and say the One Word that would spiritualize the world. But he dropped the body in January 1969 without uttering a sound.
HARPER'S/ NOVEMBER 1983
AND THEN there was: "I'm the water boy on the team … a Western, Jewish boy from Boston who has studied Hinduism." Don't let that Harvard-bred diffidence fool you. Baba Ram Das may not have had centuries of Hindu rhythms running through his veins, but he did as well as any angst-itching son of the founder of Brandeis University could do. First he altered his blood chemistry to one part plasma, three parts LSD (along with fellow experimenter and good buddy Tim Leary), then he trekked off to India, then he wrote The Book. Be Here Now, written in Ram Das's hippy clipped prose, tells of his conversion from psych prof to acid head to disciple of Neemkaroli Baba, "a universal consciousness embodied in an old man." By the mid-Seventies Be Here Now was everywhere. And the sight of its bright blue cover became a sign of assurance that you were among the ever widening circle of New Age initiates. Now, at fifty-two, Ram Das has shaved his beard and gone back to being Richard Alpert. Still, he legitimized much of Eastern thought for those who had to have it bear Western education's stamp of approval. And who knows, without Be Here Now there might never have been a Seventies.
If you wanted enigmatic, the man to go to was Don Juan Matus. Even after those books (The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality, Tales of Power, etc.; a new one seemed to come out every other week), it's still difficult to get a sure fix on Don Juan, mostly because his teachings are filtered through the inexorably literal Carlos Castaneda.
Castaneda was a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA when he started his first four-year apprenticeship with the sorcerer. The first Don Juan book was published in 1968. The editors at the Univ. of Cal. Press thought it was science fiction. Castaneda thought it was a scientific study. It's neither, but it is entertaining. Don Juan comes off as a Borscht Belt brujo, reeling off occultish one-liners like a Yaqui Henny Youngman. Everyone had a favorite Don Juan line. Mine: "You must attempt to pierce the woman with your shotgun."
But despite Castaneda, Don Juan is fascinating. He's a widowed Yaqui sorcerer living in the Central Mexican desert, where sorcery is taken seriously. His only son was killed in a rockslide. His only grandson, Lucio, is an egocentric flake. (With rare understatement, Don Juan says Lucio will never become "a man of knowledge.") And rarest of rare, Don Juan is a kind, affable man who appears to have gone through psychedelics and come out with a resolute, albeit sometimes macabre, understanding of what they are all about. When Don Juan spoke of tripping he made it sound essential, as though if you weren't doing mushrooms you were missing the whole cosmic show. Soon tens of thousands of people were popping peyote buttons, vomiting violently, and heading off on that Journey to Ixtlan. Many of them are still out there.
AND SINCE we're in the general vicinity, let us not forget the shuck-and-jivers, the hucksters, the clowns who gave consciousness a bad name. There was Guru Maharaj Ji, the pudgy Perfect Master of the Divine Light Mission. He was the one who, when still knee-high to a gopi, inherited control from his father of a respected religious institution in India and proclaimed himself an avatar; who at thirteen blew over to America to spread the light and who by the time he was fifteen had accumulated enough followers to rent out the Houston Astrodome for a three-day festival. Guru Maharaj Ji could transmit Knowledge through his touch. But more importantly, he knew how to work the media. You'd think that getting hit in the face with a shaving-cream pie during a Detroit airport news conference with the whole world watching would cause a drop in your guru stock. But not Guru Maharaj Ji. He handled himself with aplomb, grinning at the cameras, showing everyone that even a God-incarnate can take a joke. Everyone was getting a kick out of this Pie - in - the - Face - of - God business, especially the pie thrower, Pat Halley. Then one night two Divine Light devotees came to Halley's apartment and beat his skull in with a bludgeon. The police did nothing, but suddenly the whole world soured on Guru Maharaj Ji. Even his own mother turned against him, though not so much for the violence as for his marriage to his twenty-four-year-old secretary, Marilyn Lois Johnson. Mama Maharaj Ji took the guru to court to transfer control of the Divine Light Mission to her younger son. By May 1975, after a lengthy lawsuit, Guru Maharaj Ji was left with an enormous compound in Denver, land holdings across America, and a fleet of Mercedes—but not Perfect Mastership.
L. Ron Hubbard, who always looked to me like Mayor Daley, got his slice of the Primrose Pie too. In 1950, after fifteen years of writing second-rate stories for Astounding Science Fiction, Hubbard made "a discovery comparable to the discovery of fire and superior to the inventions of the wheel and the arch"—Dianetics. The victory of the analytical mind over the reactive mind, Dianetics begat Scientology, a billion-dollar business. Thousands began taking E-meter tests, measuring "engrams" from their earlier incarnations. Engrams dissolve; they could free themselves from their bodies and return to the god-state, or become "clear." Scientologists called this "becoming an Operating Thetan, 0.T." Hmmm.
Transparent or not, it was snapped up by millions of people. In 1978, Hubbard, sixty-seven, went off to Greece to bask in retirement aboard his yacht fleet, Sea Org. L. Ron Jr., a former Scientology strongarm who is now making money badmouthing the church, claims his father is dead and decomposing at the bottom of the Mediterranean. The church says that's nonsense. Hubbard is still running things, says the church. But L. Ron Jr. is sure otherwise, and he wants a bite before the church eats away all that Hubbard left behind.
It's a short step from Hubbard to Werner Erhard. At twenty-four, Erhard abandoned his wife and four children in Philadelphia and hid so well they couldn't track him down for years. By then he'd changed his name from John Paul Rosenberg and moved to St. Louis, where he was selling used cars. He settled out of court with the old lady and took off to Spokane, where he sold encyclopedias door-to-door for the Grolier Society. He was so good they made him manager. He was so good a manager Parents magazine stole him away and made him vice president in charge of advertising. Next came national sales director for the Christian Unity Church. Then he struck out on his own.
In 1971 Erhard combined his Scientology training with the methods of hypnotism he got from the Christian Unity Church (Mind Dynamics), and formed est.
Oh, boy, another series of cheap shots about bursting bladders? No, no, it's all right. We're all feeling good here. I can say right up front that est worked. Something was happening in those "psychic workshops," and whatever it was it sure made people feel better about themselves. It also made them obnoxious, but such is the price of "transforming one's experience of experiencing." The est training program remains today the most slickly packaged psychic cure-all of our time. Does it work?