TV: Meditating on Young Guru and His Followers

Maharaj Ji Is Focus of P.B.S. Documentary
Astrodome Gathering Yields Splendid Show

"The Lord of the Universe," an hour-long documentary shown an the Public Broadcasting Service last night; was produced by TVTV, the group that wrested some prominence from cable TV with videotape portraits of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1972. This time the phenomenon under study was Maharaj Ji, the pudgy 16 year-old Indian guru whose followers believe him to be God. After TVTV superbly dissected the guru, his "holy family" and his followers, more objective viewers might have' chosen to laugh, cry or throw up.

The focus of the essay was a three-day "Millenniun '73" gathering last November in Houston's giant Astrodome. The occasion, itself billed as "the most significant event in the history of humanity", was recorded in color. The rest--interviews, reactions, stock footage, candid camera routines---was mostly in black and white. The visual results created a devilishly appropriate Wizard-of-Oz context.

The guru, his mother and three brothers openly encourage gifts from their followers, many of whom are dropouts from the middle class and stern critics of their own parents' affluence. The guru's "divine residence" on Long Island includes a swimmlng pool and a large garage containing at least one Rolls-Royce and several Mercedes -Benzes. In return for such amenities, the guru promises bis disciples "knowledge," which is wrapped in a number of meditational techniques and revealed only to converts in a secret ceremony.

For special public events such as "Millennium'73," the guru provides his own rock n roll band, Blue Aquarius which is led by his brother and mixes Beatles-Rolling Stones music with the guru's own compositions. The music is accompanied by a light show, offering such hip insights as "Let The Sun Shine In." As a successor to pop culture of the nineteen-sixties, complete with its own highs and total commitments, the "Bliss Out" is, to say the least, extraordinary.

The TVTV documentary provided a detailed explanation of the guru's spiritual techniques. Even the secret techniques of "knowledge" were disclosed, courtesy of several blabbing initiates. But the guru himself, complete with a veneer of hipness, is surprislngly dull. What goes on around him is much more interesting, and TVTV distills some priceless examples.

Rennie Davis, a former political radical who is a convert, was seen being overwhelmed by the significance of the fact that the guru would be housed in the "master bedroom" of the Astradome. One determined believer watched the "celebration" and said, "I don't know if it's the air-conditioning, but you can really feel something." Another, arguing about her place on a line to receive "knowledge," dismissed all explanations for the delay, and, in exasperation, explained: "I don't know anything. All I know is I need knowledge."

In fact, "Millennium '73" turned out to be a bust. Contrary to the expectatlons of some communicants, the Astrodome did not take off into outer space. On a more practical level, The cost of the event was estimated at $1 million, and it attracted an audience of fewer than 20,000. All, however, was not lost. TV came away with a terrific documentary.

The technology and logistics of that achievement are worth noting. At a total and extremely low cost of $33,000, about 80 hours of video tape were recorded using one color crew with one-inch tape and five black-and-white crews with half-inch tape. Then, with the use of a "time-base error corrector" at WNET/13's television laboratory, all the material was transferred to two-inch videotape and edited on quad equipment, aliowing for a full range of techniques, such as dissolves and freeze frames, not available in half-inch editing.

In other words, videotape's advantages and portability and flexibility can now also promise thoroughly professional picture quality. The producers for TV were, in alphabetical Order, Hudson Marquez, Allen Rucker, Michael Shamberg, Tom Weinberg and Megan Williams.

Copyright The New York Times
Originally published February 25, 1974