8C The Charleston Gazette Friday, November 26, 1976
Followers Fewer, Church Retrenching for Maharaj Ji
by David Espo
DENVER (AP) - His organization claimed 6 million followers when Guru Maharaj Ji was 15. Devotees clambered over one another to prostrate themselves at his feet as he dispensed what they called The Knowledge.
That was four years ago, and times have changed.
The faithful now number 1.2 million, according to a spokesman for his Divine Light Mission.
Donations have fallen off and the church is retrenching. Its printing business is gone and some of the 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 teenager's following.
SOME OF THE MORE extravagant claims about the guru's divinity also have been dropped. Once, Maharaj Ji was known as "Lord of the Universe" and "Perfect Master" to his devotees. Now, Joe Anctil, the 43-year-old spokesman for the guru, describes him as "the point of inspiration for all of us."
The Indian guru, who fought a family battle to retain his church, did away with foot-kissing and prostration, Eastern customs "that didn't go over very well in the West,” Anctil said.
The guru still preaches meditation, selfless serving and sharing, but his recruiters have toned down their style.
For the first lime 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 aggressivelv 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." said Robert Mishler, president of the mission's American division.
Large numbers of followers no longer 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 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 5,000 regular donors remain. The declining income forced a decision to change operations.
In September, Divine Times, a mission publication, said: "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 (follower) support that actually exists for it."
Spokesmen for the mission say some of the excesses of the past were forced on the guru.
"When Maharaj Ji came to the United States, he was surrounded by his family who were encouraging ritual and who completely misunderstood what he was trying to do." one Divine Light Mission administrator said.
"There was a whole philosophy that if you go to the guru you have to give him everything. But the people who were saying that had nothing to give," Anctil said. "That was never so."
HOWEVER THEY EXPLAIN his appeal and however they spread his message, there is little question that the premies adore their leader.
Pictures of the guru's round face hang from every wall of the three-floor international headquarters office in Denver and sit on virtually every desk. Photographs of the guru speaking, pictures of the guru sitting quietly with his family. There are photographs of the guru, whose 19th birthday is Dec. 10, walking in thoughtful solitude through falling snow.
A picture of the guru talking on the telephone hangs behind the headquarters switchboard.
The guru 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.
The color magazine published for the premies is entitled, "And It is Divine." while the newspaper is published under the banner, "Divine Times."
The brochure published for the public is more subdued.
"His tireless efforts to help others realize their human potential have placed him in a much-loved and respected position among those he has inspired." the brochure says.
Anctil said: "He describes himself as someone who has realized his experience and who can show it to others. He promises no one anything."