THE GURU WHO MINDS HIS MOTHER
CHANTS fill the air like smoke, swirling around an empty, satin-covered throne. Peacock feathers shimmer in the light. High on the altar stand vases filled with flowers. Barefoot and beaming, the congregation sings a reverent prayer:
"Guru is the father of us all: the creator of love, he's the Lord of the universe, Guru is the light of us all; he will come when you call, if you open your eyes."
He is Guru Maharaj Ji, the 15-year-old from India who promises to reveal God and achieve world peace.
Playful and pontifical, the guru is a spiritual leader, a pudgy adolescent with a fondness for sweets, and a business titan whose mushrooming missionary corporation includes such diverse activities as film production, education and the Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness janitorial service.
HIS FOLLOWERS compare him with Jesus, Buddha and Krishna.
But this purported modern link to God processes his disciples through a personnel department, keeps track of them with a computer and depends upon a public relations staff to shape his image.
Titled corporate "supreme executive" and spiritual "perfect master," the boy enjoys the benefits of both, and suffers the consequences. With status go worldly stresses and worldly goods -- a middle aged executive's ulcer, three luxury cars and as many elegant homes.
His Divine Light Mission teaches an unspecified mystical truth, experienced in part through tongue contortion and eyeball pressure. Bliss is the purported result, and the guru's claimed following is legion.
Many of them had searched through the war-stirred '60s and early '70s, in hippie enclaves, mountain hermitages, in drugged delirium, in encounter groups and the antiwar movement. Predominantly white, middle-class and educated, many were part of that past. And most were uncertain about their future.
THEN CAME the guru with a promised path to inner serenity and an answer to life's great questions. To his fervid followers, he is God himself.
They bow before his photograph, hang on every word, titter expectantly outside his office door, On their business suits and ankle-length peasant dresses, these neatly groomed disciples wear his image.
Every night they attend "satsang," listening to testimonials, worshipping his name, singing his praise, reinforcing their beliefs.
Each conversation begins with a phrase that recalls his leaching. And each conversation ends with it.
"What he shows us is a tool that can transform the human race," says Rennie Davis, the 33-year-old peace activist who joined the guru's movement last February. "Every assumption in our life is directly challenged, and I think reversed."
That tool is called "knowledge," which the guru's followers say cannot be communicated in words. It is an experience, a realization of a unity with the spirit of God, they say. To receive knowledge, the guru teaches, is to reach perfection through meditation.
MODERN SOCIETY has created a condition "in which people are not very sure who they are or what they are all about," says Peter L. Berger, a sociology professor at Rutgers University and author of "The Homeless Mind."
"If we take that as given," he adds, "then we have a society in which tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, are desperately searching for identity."
When someone comes along who can at least "put up a front of assurance and out of this seeming assurance tell people who they are and what their life is all about, it's highly predictable he'll find followers." Berger says. "People are likely to believe almost anything you tell them."
He observes that those who embrace therapeutic, political action and sectarian groups - "far-out religious groups" - have a tendency to join several in a row.
These people have spawned a counterculture, and in it grew the roots of dozens of spiritual cults that have their seed in Eastern mysticism. Guru Maharaj Ji's Divine Light Mission is by far the fastest growing of these spiritual organizations.
When the guru first visited the United States two years ago, he found seven disciples. Today the mission in America counts at least 30,000, with six million worldwide.
About 3,000 of the Stateside devotees are actively involved in the mission's activities, according to Vice President Michael Donner. And some of them live in ashrams - communes For celibate living, working and discoursing about "knowledge."
None of these followers is paid, nor is he or she charged for the vegetarian meals and sleeping pallet the ashram provides.
The price is a long day's work in service of the guru, or a weekly paycheck from devotees with outside jobs.
There is no money for films or restaurants. Cigarette smoking, drugs and alcohol are out: The joy of meditation, of being one with God, is said to be enough.
A GURU since his father's death seven years ago, this. plump teen-ager strides commandingly, about the mission's headquarters in Denver, Colo. His eyes daft darkly across the heads dipping obeisance in his path. He is a lion among cubs, giving advice with apparent assurance and conceding devotion With barely a nod.
That is the spiritual leader, but one who happens to be 15 years old and a playful adolescent as well.
His followers bask in his jocularity, feeling privileged when the guru pushes a devotee into the swimming pool. Or looking for the message when he grabs a mason's trowel and tiles a follower's face.
He likes gimmicks and wears an electronic digital watch, flies an airplane and fiddles with quadraphonic stereo equipment to hear Hugo Montenegro or Ray Conniff.
Members of the public relations staff, which numbers more than 50, met recently to talk about the guru's image, concluding he was seen as a "fat 15-year-old with pie in his face … and a Rolls-Royce … who was arrested for jewel smuggling."
The allusions were to his encounter with a pie-tossing youth in Detroit and the confiscation in India last November of $35,000 in undeclared jewelry and cash, which the mission has said was forgotten by a disciple. The case has not been settled and the guru had to post $13,300 bond before leaving for his latest world tour.
Richard Profumo, 27, who went to prison as a draft resister, told his colleagues at the public relations meeting of a necessity to bring disbelievers past the point where they looked at the guru's body and age as a measure of his credibility.
"We're marketing a commodity which is visible only as a reflection," he said, referring to the knowledge and the peace it is supposed to bring.
FOR HIS PART, the guru terms himself "just an ordinary humble servant of God, preaching the gospel of peace in the world, preaching the knowledge of peace." To skeptics - including some who later became disciples - he says that a guru is one who gives true knowledge:
"Know him by his fruit … You are seeing my body, but I am not my body. What I am is something else inside me … And if you want to know what that is, then look inside yourself, and once you realize that, you can realize what is inside me. Because that is the one common factor among all of us."
His professed humility notwithstanding, Guru Maharaj Ji lives comfortably with the other members of the "Holy Family" - his three older brothers ranging up to 22 years of age and his mother, a dominant figure he willingly obeys.
He has a sprawling $80,000 split-level house in Denver, plus homes in Los Angeles and India. There are two Mercedes' Benz automobiles for use in the United States
Ex-peace activist Rennie Davis (left) and Robert Mishler work for guru at Denver mission.