Sep 2, 1973
By Christopher Chandler
Maharaj Ji Is a 15-year-old Indian who has proclaimed himself divine. A young writer joins the guru's Chicago followers in their lakefront "ashrams," describes their secret initiation rites, and poses the question is what we have here the salvation of the Western world — or the spiritual equivalent of the hula hoop?
When I first heard a member of the Divine Light Mission describe "the Knowledge," I was curious. It was much better than LSD, he said. It was better than sex. It was a constant state of happiness. It made you "bliss out."
He rolled his eyes back in his head and shut them with a contented smile. Apparently he was being overtaken with bliss.
Well, I've never tried LSD, herbal teas, or starvation diets. I'm not even sure that I want to be overcome with bliss all day long.
But "the Knowledge" did seem promising. It is the property of the followers of the 15-year-old Indian guru Maharaj Ji, who last month made an appearance at the Auditorium as part of his third "world peace" tour. In the most recent head count, the guru had 200 acolytes in Chicago, with their numbers rapidly growing.
The followers call themselves - premies," which means lovers, and they live and work in apartments along Chicago's lakefront called "ashrams," holy places of strict monastic discipline.
It is the most recent mystical sect to appear in the city, joining the Hare Krishna people with their robes and shaved heads, the Process people with their black capes and benign smiles, and various smaller cults from Japan, India, and Nepal.
The Divine Light Mission seems to be leading the way, however. Its fresh-faced followers struck me as very much in touch with the trends in our culture: they speak knowledgably of Einstein physics, parapsychology, Indian mysticism, and Do-in message.
Rennie Davis, anti-war activist and a defendant in the 1969 "Conspiracy Seven" trial, is the most celebrated convert. He returned to Chicago last spring to proselytize, announcing that "greatest event in the history of the planet" will take place in November at a giant rally for the guru in the Houston Astrodome.
At the People's Church in Uptown, he urged his audience to "check it out," to experience the knowledge and see for themselves that "truth is the consciousness of bliss." I couldn't figure out exactly what he meant by the "bliss of knowledge." It certainly was different from what "knowledge" usually means.
As I talked with devotees, it became apparent that "the Knowledge" consists of several meditation techniques that form the mystical center of their lives. They described seeing piercing white light, hearing divine music, drinking a sweet nectar, and feeling a holy vibration.
I decided to set out to learn those techniques. We could all use a little more bliss in our lives, after all, and if I could sit down and meditate each morning, perhaps it would help me sort out my life, which tends too need a lot of sorting out.
At the Wellington Avenue Church I talked with some devotees after the service, which they call "SatSang," or speaking from the heart. They told me it would be very simple to receive knowledge the next time a mahatma was in town. A mahatma is like a disciple of Christ, they explained. There are only three in this hemisphere, and only a mahatma could give the sacred knowledge.
Three weeks later I felt as if I had been thru some ancient Chinese water torture. In my efforts to receive "the Knowledge," I was constantly struck by the bizarre. Was all this really happening in Chicago in 1973? Could it be that the Divine Light Mission is right, that our civilization is decaying, that it is time for a new mysticism to sweep in from the East just as 2,000 years ago, Christianity overtook the Roman Empire? Devotees see themselves as being like the early Christians, about to save the Western world from itself.
The small apartments scattered along the lakefront are like the catacombs of ancient Rome. Here the devotees live, work, perform their daily meditations,. and receive the Indian mahatmas — small, mystic men who grant "the Knowledge" with heavy accents.
After attending several Sat Sang sessions, my wife and I were invited to supper at the ashram on Bissell Street, a two-story frame house in the quiet neighborhood just south of De Paul University. Pictures of the guru were pasted up in the windows, and a large pile of shoes lay by the open door.
We removed our shoes and sat down on the floor of the living room, where several smiling devotees were in conversation. A 17-year-old girl who was hoping to receive knowledge said she would sing us a song she had composed, the only song she ever sang. She took up a guitar and sang in hillbilly style a plaintive ballad about herself and her brother and their love for each other. When she finished, there was an uneasy silence. My wife and I had enjoyed it, but some of the devotees seemed embarrassed by the strange twang of her music.
When it was time to eat, we were escorted upstairs by Marc, who was in charge of dealing with people from the outside world. The devotees sat on the floor around two large tables about a foot high.
We ate a salad and then a vegetable stew prepared by a young devotee who used to work at the Bread Shop on North Halsted Street. The devotees do not eat meat, fish, or eggs, believing that they come from living things with higher forms of consciousness.
Everyone was quiet and polite as we ate, holding their bowls in their hands. There were 16 young men and five women. Most of the men were dressed in sports coats and ties and the women in ankle-length dresses, the attire approved for devotees in the outside world.
After supper we went downstairs for Sat Sang, Marc, sitting cross-legged in the lotus position before a large photograph of Guru Maharaj Ji, spoke of being a carpenter. One day the vision of one eye was blocked by the cabinet he was working on. He noticed how everything looked flat, two-dimensional. With two eyes we can see three dimensions, he said. When we learn to see thru our third eye (and he indicated the center of his forehead), with the grace of Guru Maharaj Ji, we see a fourth dimension, beyond time and space.
Marc described being with his family one day after he had received "Knowledge." He found that he had left his meditation and entered into the group consciousness where there was conflict, and he felt involved in the anger of the family argument.
Confusion means "with fusion," he said. By fusing his consciousness with others, he was creating confusion. Guru Maharaj Ji brought him back into his meditation, and everything calmed down, he said.
He described what a wonderful feeling it had been last November when he and hundreds of other devotees flew to join thousands of Indian devotees in the spiritual city built by the guru's father in Northern India.
When we left, my wife said Marc's Sat Sang was better than any sermon she had heard in the Catholic Church. And it is true that I have failed to convey the force with which he spoke and the imagery he conjured up, moving from analogy to metaphor.
I spent a lot of time with the premies, particularly with Marc and Arthur, the general secretary for the Chicago area.
Marc rose to become Arthur's chief aide during those weeks. He was put in charge of deciding who would speak at Sat Sang as well as of publicity and general administration. He is 21, intense, introspective, a carpenter who dropped out of Michigan State and was traveling around the country, very much into drugs, until he had a religious experience last fall at a Sat Sang given by a mahatma.
He loves to analyze words and play jokes on his friends. Aloneness means "all oneness," he would say, telling about the virtues of solitude. Or he would point out that Mercury was in conjunction with Mars that night, making for a wonderfully high Sat Sang. Everyone would nod his head wisely, and Marc would chuckle infectiously: He was only joking about the planets.
Arthur, the executive secretary, is 23, tall, fair, officious, a junior executive type. He is from Denver and prides himself on being one of the first American devotees of the Maharaj Ji.
He was sent to Chicago in May to straighten out the affairs of the local chapter. When the guru's mother visited Chicago last fall, she was said to have been so unhappy with the atmosphere in the Ashram that she moved across the street to the Heart of Chicago Motel. She is supposed to have said, "Chicago is a very dark place."
So Arthur arrived, purchased a large house and school in Kenwood, closed down the ashram in Madison, Wis., transferring the devotees here, rented office space on Dayton Street and an apartment in South Shore for another ashram, switched the resale shop from Lincoln Avenue to 67th Street in Woodlawn, and performed a marriage of two premies.
Arthur had gone to India as an exchange student, studying Indian culture and music and staying to become the public relations officer for the guru himself.
"The guru is like a tuning fork," he said one day while we were returning from the resale shop. "If you strike a C on the tuning fork, another C will also vibrate. It is as if the guru Maharaj Ji has perfect pitch. He vibrates. The mahatmas are tuned to the guru, and they vibrate. When we come into contact with him, we vibrate too."
This was one of his favorite images becausethe most important technique learned in "the Knowledge" session is how to see the 23 >>
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internal light. This light proves that the outer world is created by the light generated from within.
Arthur was sometimes troubled. At a special Sat Sang at Chicago Circle Campus, an Indian student complained that he could not understand his description of "knowledge." Arthur kept on using metaphors, he said. Then a second Indian tried to explain his feeling that the sanctity of the guru could not be simply transmitted by some hocus-pocus. It was the fruit of decades of introspection and contemplation, he said.
Arthur, ignored on the stage, was beside himself. He rubbed his hands together. "Brother," he shouted, trying to interrupt. "Brother." Finally he cried, "Are there any more questions?"
He was shaken by this challenge from the native Indians. He laughed nervously, spoke more swiftly, addressing himself now only to the devotees.
The guru Maharaj Ji does appear to be an incongruous object of veneration. He is a plump, 15-year-old with a slight mustache and fun-loving ways.
At a recent festival in India, the "Divine Times" relates, he doused his followers with buckets of paint from a housetop. Later, when a mahatma accidently slopped red paint on the guru himself, Maharaj Ji doused the unfortunate man again and again, finally clamping a paint bucket over his head. The newspaper reported that all the premies were exhilirated.
Maharaj Ji is the youngest in his family, with three brothers and a married sister. His father, known as Shri Hansji Maharaj, was a holy man with a considerable following. At his funeral, Maharaj Ji, then only 8, announced that he was divine. Since then his mother, Shri Mataji (which means holy mother) and his eldest brother, Shri Bal Bhagwan Ji, have played the most active roles in the mission, traveling and giving Sat Sang in his name. Shri Mataji preaches that a woman's place is in the home as mother and comforter.
When Maharaj Ji returned to India in November, after his last world peace tour, Indian customs seized $80,000 in undeclared currency and goods, causing a scandal in the Indian press. Arthur, as public relations officer, said the money was mostly just expenses for the foreign visitors that were not declared because of a mixup in overnight bags.
Marc asked me one day if I was having trouble with my mind and my ego. I replied that I could not possibly give up my whole life, leave my wife, and go to live in an ashram. He said that was, of course, not required. Then he told me a parable: "A tree grows taller in the open, by itself, than in the forest surrounded by others." I assumed that I should consider leaving my wife.
Another time, in a burst of honesty I told Marc that I was a very difficult person to try to convert. But I was assured I could receive knowledge if I were sincere. I tried to be sincere. One day I accompanied them to Rush Medical School on the West Side and pitched in to the debate with some medical students about the nature of the mind. Maybe our minds do not create the world, as Arthur was claiming, but on the other hand I could attack a student's confused description of electrical processes.
I found myself picking up premie mannerisms, particularly a wise nodding of the head at the end of sentences. Asked to give a little Sat Sang one day, I struggled thru five minutes of personal revelation: I had problems with an over-large ego, and so on.
Finally the day came when the mahatma was to give "the Knowledge." I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Now I would find out what I believed. "See first," says the guru, "then believe."
Some 90 people gathered that morning at the Church of the Three crosses on Sedgwick Street. The crowd was in high spirits. One couple had driven all the way from Syracuse, others from Oklahoma, Minneapolis, and Idaho.
We sang hymns and folk songs. Then Arthur gave a fire-and-brimstone sermon about the need to accept the guru into one's heart as the lord of the universe. He described "the Knowledge" as a 24>>
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small seed that must be nurtured.
The mahatma, a Mr. Trevinand, then spoke about the divinity of the guru. After sitting there for five hours, one felt a hypnotic quality in the speeches. Finally it came time to select the people who were to receive knowledge.
We were given "knowledge cards" to fill out. Only 30 people would receive knowledge, 15 that evening and 15 the next morning. The others would have to wait until the next mahatma came to Chicago.
The mahatma and one of the premies pored over hour while the crowd waited anxiously. Finally 30 names were read off, one by one. Some of the younger women shrieked with delight when their names were read. One jumped up and kissed the floor in front of the mahatma. I was not chosen.
I was angry. What had seemed like an enjoyable exercise was turning into a nightmare. The next day I returned to the Bissell Street ashram and asked Marc if I could receive knowledge when the next mahatma came to town. He said he thought so but that it was up to Arthur.
Arthur was eating his supper. I asked him if I could receive knowledge. The question seemed to rattle him. "Are you sincere?" he asked. I replied that I was.
"Well, the next mahatma is very strict," he said. "He requires that you have to have attended Sat Sang for at least a month before you can receive knowledge."
That puzzled me. Tho I had only been around for three weeks, I had attended more Sat Sang than all but two or three others.
Then it finally dawned on me. I was never to receive knowledge. They felt I was clearly not prepared to give my soul to the guru. I was so angry I walked away.
So how can I describe the mysteries of "the Knowledge"? Perhaps I have my own mysterious ways.
"The Knowledge" session took place in the old ashram on Seeley Avenue. The mahatma sat on a stool in the lotus position. He had changed from his white robes and turban to pink robes. His shaved head was bare.
The 15 initiates sit on the floor with two premies who assist him. The mahatma swears them to secrecy. He describes a mystical union between East and West, a union of the spiritual world of light. The world is a projection of our collective consciousnesses, he says. The initiates must listen to their souls and give themselves completely and happily to the guru, to worship at his lotus feet.
Twenty times the initiates are instructed to prostrate themselves before the large photograph of the guru. One by one they lie before the photo.
First he shows them how to see the light. He places his thumb on the closed lid of his right eye and his second finger on his left eye, and his index finger in the middle of his brow, his third eye. The initiates follow suit, and the position is maintained for some minutes. They are to concentrate on seeing the light from their third eye.
He asks one initiate what he has seen. The young man replies that it was as if the clouds were covering a brilliant sun. Many of the other initiates give the same answer, altho one says he has seen no light and another describes an intense glare.
Next they hear the music. He demonstrates by pushing his thumbs into his ears, and the initiates sit this way for more than 15 minutes.
Many of the initiates describe how they have heard a complex internal music. A few have not 26>>
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heard the music.
The mahatma then instructs them on drinking the nectar. They are to place their tongues as far back in their throats as they can. Soon most of the initiates say they can feel the nectar pouring down the back of their throats.
Finally there is the "word," the internal vibration. The mahatma demonstrates a rhythmic breathing exercise, saying what sounds like "so" as he exhales and "strom' as he inhales. Many of the initiates, sitting in the lotus position, claim to feel the internal vibration.
The premies are instructed to the guru with a gift. Two initiates have brought a bowl and a cup. The others walk into the backyard and pick flowers to lay before his picture.
Each new premie is given a picture of the guru, a subscription for the magazine, and the guru's five commandments. The first reads. "Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today." He is told to set up an altar in his home and to place flowers on the altar beneath the picture of the guru every day.
The initiates have received "the Knowledge." They have become premies. They kiss the feet of the mahatma and file out. The ceremony has lasted from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The reactions of the new premies varied a great deal. One said that he had seen a magical glow emanating from the mahatma's head thruout the ceremony. He said he had seen the light, heard beautifully harmonious music, drunk the nectar, and felt a strong vibration. He was hoping to live in the ashram.
Well, there they are — the secret initiation rites of the Divine Light Mission. I practiced them myself last night and saw a little light, heard a ringing in my ears, drank a lot of something or other, and got a little high from all the breathing of the "word."
If the guru really is the lord of the universe. I'm probably going to be in big trouble.
But let us assume for a moment that he is not, that this is simply another religious movement, like the Hare Krishna people or the Jesus freaks. All of these sects have a remarkable effect on a number of people. If you have ever been to a psychiatrist and felt your mind reeling under the impact of what he has said, you can understand the force of the guru on people who find living in America in the 1970s a difficult task.
Is the Divine Light Mission going to save the Western world? There is a lot of competition for the job. The Hare Krishna are also growing in numbers with a very similar spiritual world-view. New Eastern religions pop up on Chicago's North Side every week. Yogi S.A.A. Ramaiah, a direct disciple of the great living Tamil yoga siddha, Sathguru Kriya Babaji Nagaraj of the Himalayas, is offering meditation every Tuesday evening at 2039 N. Kenmore, second floor rear. A Japanese entry, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo of the Nichiren Schoshu of America, offers weekly sessions, also on Tuesdays, at 640 W. Surf.
No, it seems much more likely that America mav simply come to look a little more like the Far East in the coming decades: Gods, lords, sages, and saints will walk the streets.
Khushwant Singh, editor of the "Illustrated Weekly of India," says that in his country today "most religious Hindus and Sikhs (together making up 85 per cent of the Indian population) and some Muslims, Christians, and Parsis as well, pay homage to one living saint or other whom they regard as God.
The biggest problem for the )ivine Light Mission is likely to be the 15-year-old perfect master himself. What happens if he has an adolescent rebellion? What happens when he discovers women?
Worst of all, what happens if he decides he is not God? In 1908 an English intellectual, Annie Besant, declared a 13-year-old Brahmin youth named Jiddu Krishnamurti to be the living God. For 21 years he was the diety of "the Order of the Star of the East." But in 1929 the diety suddenly proclaimed that not only was he not God, but he felt religion was a cage built by mankind to imprison itself. I must be a follower of Jiddu Krishnamurti.