Bennington's Divine Light Mission: Don't judge the book by the cover
By DOUG MAGEE
From the outside the whole thing seems to be ridiculous. A donut maker at Dunkin' Donuts and a manager at Mammoth Mart plus a handful of other people rising at 5 a.m. to sing the praises of a 14-year old Guru from India whose first commandement is "Don't put off until tommorrow what you can do today."
But the Divine Light Mission, a houseful of people who are just beginning to set up shop at 219 Bradford St. in Bennington, is not concerned with external appearances as much as they are with the internal and the spiritual. It all takes a bit of explaining.
Divine Light Mission is the organization, worldwide, that worships Guru Maharaj ji, a "Perfect Master" who, they feel, has come to bring them "from the darkness to the light." It is not a religion and it does not seek lo become one. Rather Divine light is described as a way to knowledge and realization of God.
The various installations of Divine Light are called ashrams, of which the house in Bennington is one. Strictly speaking, though, the Bennington house is not an ashram. A married couple and their son now reside there, a forbidden practice in an ashram.
When he was 8 ½ years old Guru Maharaj ji's father died and passed on to him the perfection he had attained when he lived and taught as the perfect enlightened soul of the time. Since then Guru Maharaj ji has attempted to spread his message and name throughout the world never fearing heavy media coverage. In fact it is though the media that he plans to spread the word of his spiritual awakening.
But the crux of the whole movement is what Divine Light calls "satsang," an Indian word that literally means "in the company of truth" and generally refers to the talk among the members of the enlightenment that can be attained through worship of Guru Maharaj ji.
Once a person has received satsang and wishes to receive knowledge, he goes to a mahatma, a close disciple of Guru Maharaj ji, and if sufficiently prepared can receive knowledge in 8 to 12 hours. All that is asked of the person in return is to dedicate him - or herself to service to humanity.
It is to this kind of service that Divine Light Mission are dedicated. They have opened their nightly satsang sessions to anyone and have begun satsang at the Bennington Free Library every Tuesday from 7:30 on, beginning tonight.
The image one would get when thinking about a group of grown people worshipping a 14-year old is not entirely borne out by the reality of the local Divine Light. The house and its inhabitants are a well-scrubbed and attractive group. The males have short hair and cleanshaven faces. There is no smoking (of any kind) drinking or eating of meat, eggs or fish. And shoes are left on the porch and not worn in the house.
Though the people in the house refer to themselves as devotees and have just returned from a festival in Colorado in which Guru Mharaj ji appeared in person, they are not overly serious about their mission and seem to have a sense of humor about wnat they are doing. In talking about their recent trip west they tell some delightful stories Of the 14-year-old Indian leader talking to them and guiding them one minute and the next speeding around in an auto, or pushing one of his mahatmas into a swimming pool or gorging himself on one of his delights, Baskin and Bobbins ice cream.
It all sounds a bit far out but for the devotees now in Bennington it is definitely a reality about which they are very willing to be open and candid. The six people now living in the house are fanatics to a degree but could never be labelled wild-eyed. Theirs is a calm manner and their method of proselytizing, if that is the word, is to relate the high of their knowledge to the person receiving satsang.
Divine Light Mission is different from Christianity and intends to remain so. But there is no attempt by the members of the mission to discount the Bible or the contents of the Christian message. The difference between the two is that the people of the Divine Light feel that only a living "Perfect Master" can bring light to the darkness and that Christ did so for his own age. They now believe that Guru Maharaj ji can be such an enabler for the people of this time. In their satsang they draw heavily on the New Testament as well as scriptures from other religions.
Divine Light Mission, though based on an inward experience of God, is in no way a totally ascetic or mystical experince. The members acknowledge that they live in the world and that the world itself has something to offer them. They feel, though, that the spiritual side of life has been neglected and that it is this part of living that Maharaj ji can aid people with. One said that Maharaj Ji was the zipper that zipped together the spiritual and material words.
In speaking with the people of Divine Light in Bennington you sometimes get the impression that the whole thing is a put-on and that they realize that.
They tell of a grace-of-breath ceremony where the Maharaj ji quickly blows on the worshipper and then waves him or her aside with the holy words "okay, okay." But in the next moment one of the members tells of his experience with the grace-of-breath ceremony and the ecstatic feelings it caused him to have.
A newspaper account can not, of course, do justice to the Divine Light Mission. It must be experienced personally and judged on that basis. What must be noted though in the case of these people making a start in Bennington is that they are substantial evidence for the truth of the tired adage "you can't judge a book by its cover."