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Rennie Davis and the Guru: Old Radicals Never Die - They Just Get Religion
Published On 6/4/1973

IT was one of the better-dressed sets of hosts Lowell Lec had seen in a while. The ushers, each wearing a button of their mentor, were dressed in coats and ties, blouses and skirts. It might have been a gathering of young Republicans, except that the buttons bore pictures of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 15-year-old "Perfect Spiritual Master." Stage right, an empty chair covered with white satin and bed ecked with flowers stood as a constant eerie reminder of the boy-saviour.

Lowell Lec was filled to capacity. The Divine Light Mission, the organization of the followers of Maharaj Ji, generally draws pretty good crowds to "Satsangs" or Holy Discourses on the Harvard campus. But this time no more than half of the crowd were the faithful; the rest were the merely curious, drawn not by the discourse, but the discourser. For Rennie Davis, early SDS leader and member of the Chicago Seven, was now giving a May Day speech for and on his new-found religion - yeah, Rennie Davis was now one of Them.

But you can't put the star on without a warm-up, so the evening started with a little rock. Lead singer Alan Thomas travels with Davis as part of the nation-wide tour whose theme is "Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?" In a song, Thomas elaborated on the question:

What keeps the universe in motion?
Can problems be solved by devotion?
Is there truly a master plan? Can
This planet be saved by man?
Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?
Who is the lover of your soul?
That's the question you must ask;
The answer you must know.

During the singing a guy jumped up from the audience into the satin chair, and pantomimed a put-on guru: blowing kisses to the crowd, basking in their adulation. There was no doubt as to his particular answer to The Question: the Guru was a charlatan. Half of the crowd roared its approval, delighted with the sacrilege.

The other half of the audience, especially the people with the lapel buttons, didn't think it was so funny. A couple of ushers came up to the stage and talked to the guy. Hoping to escalate the confrontation, he refused to budge. The crowd salivated in anticipation, the singer forgotten.

The ushers simply sat down again. The pseudo-guru continued his gesticulations, but the crowd was bored with him and returned its attention to the music. With a sheepish gesture the blasphemer made his exit. Advantage: Guru.

The next act in the show was a dance troupe, with a polished Brechtian little mime about the dog-eat-dog world. In the background a slide projector flashed pictures of atrocities in Indochina. Again a question - What is the way out of all this? Blackout. And on stage appears Davis to give The Answer.

THE basic point of Davis's talk was that the youth movement that he had worked so hard in throughout the sixties was, quite simply, dead. And Maharaj Ji was the only way left to personal salvation and a better world. It was a message that deeply stung the radical half of the audience. Embittered by Davis's exit from activism, they shouted pointed references at him from the back of the hall - allusions to other bad receptions on the tour.

Davis may now follow the guru, but he's still a pretty good speaker. Deftly fielding the taunts, he talked to the crowd with a kind of self-deprecating humor, fully cognizant of the anomaly of a twentieth-century saviour with a Rolls-Royce, private planes and a world-wide network of devotees hooked up with each other via telex and watts lines.

"No one can appreciate more than me," he said in mild concession, "how outrageous this whole thing is. But it is happening."

Davis speaks of the setbacks of the Movement, problems of ego and bickering within it. He speaks of his initial skepticism towards the Guru, of his travels to India and introduction to the Knowledge - and his resultant bliss.

And he speaks of continuing the fight for social justice under the guidance of Maharaj Ji. Only now there'll be no more problems of ego or pettiness. "Now is is possible to connect all of us to one source," he says, "and food, shelter and peace become a practical reality."

But a good proselytizer does not confine himself to personal experiences. It must be shown how the whole of human experience points to the obviousness, to the inevitability of the supreme Godhood of Maharaj Ji.

Science, Rennie says, so long the materialistic brand of knowledge, begins to come upon evidence of other types of experiences. The pineal gland points to the mystical concepts of the third eye - looking inward, regulating the other glands … Einstein finds a single equation reducing all matter in the universe to pure simple energy - an energy infinite in extent, timeless, perfect, uniting all individuals, revealed in the Guru's brand of meditation … another essence revealed in meditation is the Divine Name, which crops up in references to the Christian logos and to the name of Krishna … another essence, a divine nectar, so fills some devotees at times, Rennie continues, that they need no other food or drink (this piece of information brings a collective snort from half the audience) … on Davis goes, weaving together bits of thoughts, myth, half-truths and whole-into a charming pattern so rational that even the cynics are impressed …

He speaks of the impressive organizational abilities the Mission manifests. This claim at least must be credited. The religion has spread rapidly, now claiming 50,000 adherents in the U.S.; and its projects, such as the flashy little magazine "And It Is Divine" seem to be thriving.

"The success depends wholly on the incidence of coincidence," Davis says - such fortune can only be construed as proof of divine grace. "This thing needs to be investigated," he adds with mock seriousness.

He speaks of the current project of the Divine Light Mission: a rally at the Astrodome next November, which he says "will reveal to the world who Maharaj Ji is, what is life and what is the purpose of life." ("How much will it cost?" demands a heckler. "It's free," Davis beams.)

Davis speaks of an accompanying "World Spiritual Exposition" revealing among other things the truth about the lost continent of Atlantis, and the secret of the Pyramids. The exposition has since been postponed; devotees say they hope to have it ready for an upcoming international exposition.

THE sect's theology is, well, eclectic. According to his followers, Maharaj Ji is the last of a line of Spiritual Masters which has seen such past greats as Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and Mohammed. He is the highest manifestation of God incarnate; yet each individual on earth has portions of Godhood within. The religion incorporates Hindu notions of reincarnation and Nirvana; its American adherents sing gospel songs with "Maharaj Ji" substituted for "Jesus." Meditation, service and satsang are primary, but the group is self-consciously life-affirming.

Initiation into meditation comes in "receiving Knowledge" from a Mahatma of the group. "You spend six to eight hours in a room with the Mahatma, where he teaches you everything you need to know for life," Theodore Chadwick '74, a member of the sect, said. "The actual receiving of Knowledge takes about a minute. Then he shows you the techniques (for meditation) and practices with you for several hours."

Given normal campus weirdness levels, for an arcane religious group the Harvard-Radcliffe Divine Light Club seems pretty straight-laced. Their hair is shorter than average, their clothes neater, and they seem more certain of their directions - all according to Maharaj Ji's prescriptions.

"This knowledge is for everyone," Chadwick said. "We don't want to alienate anyone from it by our appearance."

Externally, in fact, the Divine Light Club resembles no one so much as another better-known tightly-knit religious group: The Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship. At another level, the psychic attractions of the two groups seem to be similar. In members of both one finds a wide-eyed sense of salvation under the veneer of conformity and an eagerness to expound on the glory of it all. Like their Christian counterparts, they speak of the security that knowledge gives.

"There's no confusion now," explained Scott R. Heath '73, president of the Divine Light Club. "You don't waste energy constantly wondering, 'What am I to do next? What is the purpose of my life?' You know the purpose of life."

One possible explanation of the sect's success in the U.S. is that the Guru Maharaj Ji is indeed (gulp) God. If this is an unpalatable hypothesis, there are more mundane explanations. Perhaps the attraction is to a group with all the psychic benefits of old-time religion, but without the stigma attached to them in a liberal society.

"Since receiving knowledge," Heath said, "it's been like one continuous revelation - discovering more and more directly my own individuality while coming closer and closer to universal consciousness."

"When you tap deeply into this source," Chadwick said, "It's an overflowing of love - not an emotion, but a power deep inside each person. It doesn't discriminate between people; you have to open yourself up to feel it."

Whether the reason is in fact metaphysical or merely small-group psychological, DLC members on campus do seem to be just a little "blissed out." It was evident in the wide grins they had for each other (and most everybody else) at Davis's speech. And one couldn't help but wonder if it was this overt bliss as much as Davis's abandonment of the cause, that spurred on the angry hecklers.

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