MacDougall: Superstition And The PressSUPERSTITION AND THE PRESS

©1983 by Curtis D. MacDougall
First published 1980 by Fortress Press Philadelphia


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In his National Observer article (see page 431) that appeared the same day as the Chicago eulogy to Muktananda, Michael T. Malloy wrote that educated Indians consider 75 percent of the gurus to be frauds. A newsman said of the America-based teen-aged Guru Maharaj Ji: "The Americans say, 'the guru has come.' The guru says, 'The money has come.' "And God is amused.

By the time Malloy made that observation the boy evangelist had made three visits to the United States while on round-the-world peace trips. The first, in 1971, when Maharaj Ji was 13, attracted little attention. News week Feature Service did distribute an article by Peter Greenberg that appeared, among other places, in the Pittsburgh Press for Oct. 15, 1971. By quoting the answers to questions during a press conference in Hollywood's Divine Light Mission, Greenberg suggested the frustration journalists encounter when they attempt to get straightforward easy-to-understand answers to their questions. After Maharaj Ji said: "The aim and purpose of my life is to spread the true nature of the soul to humanity," he was asked, "Give me that knowledge." The guru replied, "I can't answer materialistic requests."

At that time Maharaj Ji claimed 3 million followers throughout the world, including 2,000 mahatmas in India. A mahatma is a "great soul," according to a comprehensive article, "The Guru Business," by Khushwant Singh, editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, in the New York Times Magazine for April 29,1973. The article also contained definitions of many other terms, including darshan (the blessing that flows from the sight of a saintly person); diksha (spiritual); gu (dark); ru (light); bhagwans (gods); swamis (lords); rishis (sages); maharishis (great sages); acharyas (teachers); sants (saints); mantras (sacred words endowed with magical properties); ashram (hermitage) and Gurudev (guru god). The name given the youthful guru at birth was Pratap Singh Rawat. When at the age of 8 he succeeded his father as head of the Divine Light Mission, he became known as both Balyogeshwar (child god) and Shri Guru Maharaj Ji. By the time of Singh's article the Divine Light Mission claimed 4 million followers in 63 countries. Maharaj Ji, however, was no more definite in describing his mission. He told Singh that people come to him for knowledge and "I give them the maha (great) mantra. I tell them the true aim of human life. It is not to eat, drink and be merry; it is realization, the true realization of God. I am not God, I am only his servant."

In its issue of April 23 1973 the Times devoted two full pages to letters commenting on the Singh article. "I was one who has experienced the 'knowledge' and found it to be the antithesis of what it purports to be," wrote Susan F. Lyman of Canton, N.Y. "True knowledge of God should not tell us to shave our heads or live adrift from society or even give up everything we own," wrote Thomas C. Swain of Greenlawn, N.Y. An anonymous correspondent wrote of "the evident destruction he has wrought upon our lives." Only one letter, from Dr. Edward S. Hanzelik, of the Divine Health Care Services, was sympathetic.

In an Associated Press story from New York Aug. 10, 1973, George Cornell called Divine Light Mission "an apparently snowballing movement-in assets, operations and fervent young crowds-building up around a teenage guru from India and his promise of 'the knowledge."' Cornell reported that the movement has branches in 30 American cities, a monthly magazine, And it is Divine, with 90,000 circulation, a bi-weekly newspaper, Divine Times, with 60,000 circulation, and American headquarters in Denver. The organization also had a public relations organization, a dance ensemble, a theatrical troupe, a food cooperative, a filmproduction agency, an aviation service and a wholesale firm dealing in electronics and office equipment.

Certainly such whirlwind success justified the streamer heading, "Teen guru finds fame, fortune" in the Chicago Daily News for Aug. 17, 1973. In the accompanying story Betty Flynn revealed that the movement now claimed 5 million adherents, 40,000 of them Americans who revered the boy as Divine Lord and Perfect Master. Flynn said the knowledge, achieved through meditation, faith and revelation, consists of four elements: the light, the word, the music and the nectar - "all revelations of God within one self." Two days later, in the News' Aug.19-20,1973 issue, Walter Morrison reported on the rally that 4,000 Chicagoans attended in the Auditorium theater. "For the most part," he wrote, "the audience sat in rapt attention. Some young women among the faithful had tears in their eyes. A few hecklers were in the audience and one irreverent listener let fly with eight letters of Anglo-Saxon barnyard disbelief." The guru apparently said nothing that had not been published before.

A few days later, however, Maharaj Ji made headlines not to his liking. From New Delhi Aug. 25, 1973 the Associated Press reported that before he was allowed to leave India he had to post a $13,300 bond because he was under investigation on a charge of smuggling. A year earlier, it was revealed, customs officers had seized $35,000 wor th of jewelry, watches and foreign currency he and his disciples had with them when they returned from an American trip. The movement insisted the riches were used to support 3,000 Western devotees who came to India to meditate for a month. Chicago newspapers carried the story.

Better publicity was that which originated May 20, 1974 from Denver. The Associated Press reported two days later that Maharaj Ji had married his 24-vear-old secretarv. Marrolyn Lois Johnson. a former United Airline

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stewardess, after receiving special permission from a Juvenile Court judge, necessary because of his youthful age, 16. By then the Divine Light Mission claimed 40,000 American followers and 6 million worldwide.

In the first of two articles she wrote for the Knight newspapers (which the Chicago Tribune published July 14 and 15, 1974) Patsy Sims revealed that Indian authorities never filed charges against "the sausage shaped kid" for smuggling. After a visit to the Denver headquarters of the Divine Light Mission, she no longer was sure that it was just a passing fad. She found that the operation takes in and spends about $3 million a year; spares no expense on such extravaganzas as $1 million for a Millennium in Houston; had a plan for a $50-million City of Love and Light to be built near San Antonio; at least 56 cars plus another $80,000 worth of Maseratis and Rolls Royces reserved for God Junior and his family, with headquarters in at least 40 American cities and 36 foreign countries to serve 8 million followers worldwide, 50,000 of them in the United States. In addition to operating all of the other journalistic and business enterprises cited by earlier biographers, despite this opulence Patsy Sims quoted Kasturi Rangan, correspondent for the New York Times in New Delhi, as insisting, "Indians know him only because of the United States publicity."

In the first of three articles on "The Mind Strokers," that began running in the Chicago Daily News Sept. 21-22, 1974, Kathryn Christensen said Maharaj Ji is the most famous of "the Indian gurus who've left their homeland and the Ganges river for the milk and honey of North America or Europe. Whether legitimate operations or outright frauds they usually enjoy a nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service." "Little is known about Maharaj Ji's system because he refuses to reveal his techniques. He says he has the ability to teach 'perfect knowledge' which enables his devotees to develop a 'spiritual energy' that can be seen in the form of a divine light in their bodies," Christensen wrote.

As frequently happens when one member of a family strikes it rich, parents, siblings, offspring and others become involved in squabbles about how the proceeds should be split. The Denver Post for Dec. 1,1974 carried a half-page account of the effort of Mata Ji, mother of the guru, to persuade him to return to India. A fortnight earlier it had been announced that she and another son, Bal Bhagwan, had taken over the London headquarters of the movement. Joe Anctil, the guru's press agent, about whom the Post ran a sidebar, belittled the matter, saying Mata Ji was acting as a mother would. "She feels her son is too young and she still wants some control. But the problem is not bitter or hateful." The mother also disapproved of her guru son's marriage to an American girl in a Christian ceremony.

The matter, however, wasn't so easily dismissed. From Lucknow, India April 14,1975 the Associated Press reported that the guru said he is still a "perfect master" worthy of worship. This was his answer to his mother's declaration a fortnight earlier that he led "a despicable, nonspiritual way of life in the United States." Police withdrew permission for a Divine Light Mission festival, fearing that a test of the rival strengths of mother and son would lead to rioting. Maharaj Ji said he intended to see his mother. He put his movement's strength at 500,000 in the United States and 8 million in India.

Feb. 26, 1979 Virginia Culver reported that Marahaj Ji spoke to 8,000 followers in the Denver Coliseum. There was much music and gift giving. The guru told the audience he could give all knowledge leading to "perfectness," but not unless they "open up to let in the knowledge and surrender confusion."

Another dissenter received almost a full page in Virginia Culver's article in the Denver Post for March 2, 1979. He is Ron Isaacks who said, "Instead of being the liberating experience I had joined to have, I ended up feeling quite limited, held seemingly helpless by the fear of leaving … I decided to leave the cult because I noticed dangerous similarities to the Jim Jones cult in Guyana."

March 7, 1979 Virginia Culver reported that the cult was moving its national headquarters from Denver to Miami because of the latter place's accessibility to overseas flights.

After the Peoples Temple disaster in Guyana, a former president and former vice president of the Divine Light Mission called a press conference to say that a similar catastrophe might occur as the result of the sadistic actions of Guru Maharaj Ji. Specifically they accused him of beating cult members with sticks and smearing their bodies with abrasive chemicals. They also accused Maharaj Ji of disobeying cult laws against drinking, drug smoking and eating meat. Jim Kirksey covered the story for the Denver Post of Nov. 25, 1979. The next day the same reporter quoted the two accusers as saying some devotees took pride in being abused by the guru.

Dec. 2, 1979 Maharaj Ji, who lived with his family in Malibu, Calif., was reported as intending to ignore the attacks on him. Dec. 15, 1979 in a half-page feature by Virginia Culver, the Denver Post's religion editor, the sect's public relations man, Joe Anctil, said the guru's mission was "peace and love" and he "has no intention of getting in fights with critics or wasting time in court battles with every crackpot that comes along." Anctil said the cult has 1.2 million members in 59 countries - 15,000 in the United States.

To obtain the right to have their own religious services within the Denver county jail, two members of the Divine Light Mission brought suit in U.S. District court in Denver, Brad Martisius reported for the Denver Post of Feb. 25, Settlement of the case whereby the inmates won the right was reported Sept. 3, 1981 by agreement, whereupon the two dropped their suit.