THE CAPITAL TIMES Madison, Wis. Friday, April 27, 1973
Nicholas Von Hoffman Nicholas Von Hoffman

What Is He - a Lord or an Incredible Fraud?

WASHINGTON - The news of Rennie Davis' conversion into a disciple of the 15year- old Indian kid, Guru Maharaj Ji, has been floating around the country for the past two or three weeks. I've known Rennie almost since his first days in SDS 10 years ago, and I was so astonished I couldn't react properly as a newspaperman should be following up the tips and checking them out.

It was one thing for Tom Hayden to marry a well-intentioned if slightly flatheaded movie star, or for Stokely to marry a folk singer, or some of the other movement heavies to turn into the psychological basket cases a number have become, but Rennie was the most stable, the calmest, the most enduring of that group of young people who set out to change America at the beginning of the 1960's. BUT FOR RENNIE, who hung in those years trying to organize the poor, who led the opposition at Chicago in 1968, who created and made May Day, for Rennie to say, and not be pulling your leg, "Here is only one sat guru, a perfect master who teaches you to be perfect, and that's Guru Maharaj Ji" - Well, it's as one of his former collaborators said, "The Revolution is over, Baby."

Saul's explanation of what happened to him on the Tarsus Road is satisfactory only to fellow believers, but the outward frame of circumstances tells you something. In Rennie's case, they suggest he was whipped, not by Nixon, but by a huge falling away of his constituency.

"In the spring of 1971, this generation believed it could overcome all," he recalls, "but then came the summer … drift and no direction and by the fall of 1971 we really did lose the generation. The activists continued but after that it wasn't the same. People went into the country, they were into drugs and into themselves."

Rennie persisted, but without a base you can't do politics. Then a couple of months ago on his way to Paris for another of his many meetings with the North Vietnamese, a friend with a rich wife gave him a free ticket to India and a recommendation to see the divine teenager.

RENNIE WENT AND it happened. He received the knowledge that one cannot transmit but only experience:

"I'm sitting on top of the story of the century, and I'm not on a flipped-out trip, but there's an avatar on this planet …

When he made his first public appearance he was 12 years old and the police in Delhi say there were over a million people there. He began by weeping for over an hour and then he said, 'Give me yonr love aid I will give you peace; surrender the reigns of your life to me, and I will give you salvation … Many times I've come, but this time I come with more power than ever before.' "

From that you might say that Rennie, having failed to prevail with merely terrestrial strength, calls down the might of heaven to avail him. Now he regards all earthly ideology as "inadequate," but says that the Divine United Organization, as the Maharaj Ji's outfit currently styles itself, "will let people realize everything they wanted to accomplish in the Movement"

RENNIE FIRST BEHELD the perfect teacher of perfection in February at an Ashram called Prem Nager, which he says means City of Love. There were about 60 Americans there, some of whom told him they'd been arrested in several of the major demonstrations he'd led, and were now verging on accepting the kid's teachings.

It's a tribute of Maharaj Ji's powers, or evidence of Rennie's exhaustion, that he could buy the Guru on first sight, considering what that first sight was. Ji turned up according to Rennie, dressed in a business suit, with cowboy boots which zipper up the front - and riding on a motorcycle.

"He drove it around in circles, tried to run people over, tied a bed to it, and dragged people in the bed around, and people were relating to him as the Lord of the Universe. Every day he played, but everything had a credible lesson. He reduced 150 adults to the level of a child. At one point I thought he wasn't God, but the King of the Yippies."

The Yippie God-King is also into expensive motor cars and electric trains. If that sounds preposterous, all religions do to non-believers. Is it any less extrinsically incredible that God plays with electric trains than that he gets crucified or is a philandering skirt-chaser like Zeus or damns mankind to toil and death because some guy ate an apple? It makes good sense if you believe, and none if you don't.

STILL, THE RECEIVED American cultural definition of God isn't as an obsolescent biker. Rennie knows that and is at pains to depict himself as the sceptical inquirer who was convinced only by the manifest truth of it all:

"I really resisted as long as I could. I freaked out when I first saw him and had as many doubts as anybody else. I wouldn't be out on this limb and hanging over this cliff if I didn't think there was something there. He's either the most incredible fraud ever run on this planet or he is god on earth."

All theistic religions say much the same. The more evangelical ones claim an invincibility and Rennie says that the Maharaj Ji is going to take America by storm this year. "It's moving with thunderous speed all over the country," he says, and maybe it is. It would not be the first time that Rennie correctly gauged the mood of the American youth populace. On top of that he says they're recruiting all kinds of talent, not just burnt-out freaks and used-up politicals, and have all kinds of projects aborning like a many pavillioned world's fair of the spirit planned for Houston, Texas.

For those who're not tempted by the onward march of a great river of converts, Rennie has another ancient message, which is get on the ark before the waters rise: "One side of the world is dying and the other side is being reborn. Time is running out now, the change is going to happen quickly. You can sit on the sidelines and you might just find yourself swept away."