EVENING CAPITAL Sat., Nov 27, 1976
Guru's following is falling away
DENVER (AP)--His organization claimed 6 million followers when Guru Maharaj Ji was 15. Devotees clambered over one another to prostrate themselves at and kiss his feet as be dispersed what they called The Knowledge.
That was four years ago, and times have changed.
The faithful is now numbered at 1.2 million, a figure derived from a head count commissioned by the guru himself, according to a spokesman for his Divine Light Mission.
Checks to church coffers came less frequently than before the recession of two years ago, and the church is retrenching. His printing business is gone, and some property in Denver and other American cities has been sold. The lease has been dropped on the computer that once kept track of the pudgy teen-aged father of two's following.
Gone also are some of the more extravagant claims about his divinity. Once "Lord of the Universe" and "Perfect Master" to his devotees, Maharaj Ji described now by Joe Anctil, the 43-year-old spokesman, as "the point of inspiration for all of us."
The Indian guru, who fought a family battle to retain his church, did away with the foot-kissing and prostration, Eastern customs "that didn't go over very well in the West," Anctil said.
After all, added Robert Mishler, president of the mission's American division, "We're not trying to propagate a culture."
The guru still preaches meditation, selfless serving and sharing, but his recruiters have toned dawn their style.
For the first time Americans as well as Indians are permitted to initiate members, and they and their Eastern counterparts now rely on discussion groups for recruiting grounds, instead of taking aggressively to the streets.
"We're not trying to go out and grab people because that really doesn't work. We're really just offering this," Mishler said.
No longer do great numbers of those who call the guru leader live in aesthetic church-owned buildings known as ashrams.
"As people grow and mature …, they are encouraged to leave the ashram and continue their normal lives," a Divine Light Mission newspaper proclaimed in September.
"The people in international headquarters live in apartments," said Anctil, a former television talk show host in Houston. "They can live just as cheaply in an apartment" as in an ashram.
As devotees moved out of ashrams, their weekly paychecks, previously turned over to the guru's treasury, were missed. Donations fell from more than $100,000 a month to 70 per cent of that, although Anctil said 3,000 regular donors remain. The declining income forced a decision to change operations.
In September, Divine Times, a mission publication, explained it this way to premies, or followers:
"The general consensus is that we are top heavy, overweight. The organization has become too big and too complex for the nature of the work that really, needs to be done and for the amount of premie support that actually exists for it."
The guru whose 19th Birthday is Dec. 10, lives in Denver or uses an expensive California retreat. He drives expensive cars. He is protected by a private security force, as much to keep his adoring multitudes from him as to prevent intended violence.
"Anctil said, "… he describes himself as someone who has realized his experience and who can show it to others.”