Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1974

"Teen guru--God to some, a 'bunch of bunk' to others"The Guru Maharaj at the Amphitheater - Tribune Photo

The Divine Light Mission, headed by Guru Maharaj Ji, has grown from a handful of believers of the guru's divinity into a national movement with 8 million followers - 50,000 of them in the United States-and assets of untold millions. This is the last of two articles about the organization.

By Patsy Sims
Knight Newspapers

Eight million followers think he's God,

A lot more people - not the least of whom are his native Indians - are equally convinced he's not.

They suggest, instead, that he's a mere mortal getting rich off his unquestioning devotees, that he's an over-weight kid who's been groomed to become "God" much like Prince Charles has been groomed to be king.

"It is," Princeton University student Rathin Datta says flatly of the guru and his Divine Light Mission, "all a bunch of bunk."

AND KASTURI Rangan, correspondent for the New York Times in New Delhi, insists: "Indians know him only because of United States publicity."

Both Datta, who was several grades ahead of the guru at St. Joseph's Academy at Dehra Dun, and research done by Rangan, make Maharaj Ji at least three or four years older than the 16 he claims to be. Guru Maharaj Ji Ji's followers see him as a Christ reincarnated, a Perfect Master who imparts a knowledge that completely transforms their lives

BUT INFORMATION turned up by Rangan portrays him more as the product of a family of religious opportunists who have tutored him in what to say as carefully as they've managed his financial affairs. Acquaintances in Hardwar, his birthplace, attribute his success to both good advertising and good fortune.

A young American is said to have come to India in search of spiritual knowledge and was unable to find a guru to teach him in English until he discovered Maharaj Ji. Impressed, the American raised over $100,000 to bring the youthful guru to the U. S.

Hence, Maharaj Ji's arrival in Los Angeles three Julys ago and the beginning of a religious empire that now takes in and spends an estimated $3 million a year.

THE SAME SOURCES describe him as a precocious child who began reciting sermons when he was 2 ½ years old and, at 6, in English.

According to the sources, his father was one of the hundreds of self-styled gurus in the Himalayan foothills who started Divine Light Mission in competition with an already existing Divine Life Mission, headed by another popular guru.

When the father died. Maharaj Ji quit school and took over as his successor. He was schooled in Hindu scriptures, such as Gita, by his three older brothers, and his mother looked after the money.

YET YOU WONDER, especially when you take a closer look and find:

  • A movement whose leader lives luxuriously with three houses at least one of them with a swimming pool, $40,000 worth of Maseratis and Rolls-Royces, and two Cessnas, while his followers turn over to him their salaries and their possessions in return for a place to sleep [usually on a thin rubber pad or a sleeping bag], $1-a-day in vegetables, and whatever clothes the mission decides they need.
  • A movement that, after taking those salaries, sometimes forces the same followers to seek extra jobs or to turn to parents for, additional money to pay for services at clinics and schools set up with their incomes.
  • A movement which has at times encouraged its followers to try to talk parents into signing over inheritances sometimes amounting to millions of dollars.
  • A movement which allows one of its mahatmas 'comparable to one of Christ's apostles' to continue his duties even after Divine Light Mission admitted it was he who last summer threw a pie at the guru.
  • A movement which last fall had a reported net worth of $369,216 and total assets of $885,027 and yet left more than $150,000 in unpaid bills in Houston after its $1 million extravaganza, the "Millennium," at the Astrodome.
  • A movement that openly talks about eventually "taking over" and is currently trying to come up with $40 to $50 million to build its own city in Texas, with the possibility of other such cities in the future.

According to a Denver newspaper, the mission, accorded church status by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, also pays no tax on income from its many, profit-earning ventures [including a slick monthly magazine, food co-ops, and second hand stores].

WITH ONE exception, the mission's far-flung use of its tax-exempt status has not been challenged. That exception is a current investigation by the Colorado Sales Tax Division into the tax free shopping sprees by the guru and his followers.

The likelihood of any serious repercussions, however, seem doubtful. One attorney interviewed by the Denver paper said the guru's personal use of several fancy automobiles and the tax exempt purchase of luxury items violated "standards of reasonableness."

But three government lawyers - all involved in tax enforcement - said the mission is so wrapped in constitutional protections, it would he extremely difficult to attack.

IN HOUSTON, Arthur Lord, Houston bureau chief for the National Broadcasting Corp.. said that the mission left about $150,000 in unpaid bills after last November's Millenium. Some of the businesses have received all or partial payment, but at least 25 have received no money at all.

Cliff Bowden insists he and fellow followers bestow the expensive cars, houses, and boats on their leader "because we JUST love him so much."

Besides, Bowden says "to me Guru Maharaj Ji is not living a luxurious life."

Luxurious or not, even a disenchanted follower agreed the riches are not contrary to what a "spiritual" leader should be.

"It would," the former premie shrugged, "be equally silly for a guy who's trying to be God to ride around on a camel or in a Volkswagen."