Teenage Guru Having Tough Days

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 realty 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."

Spokesmen for the mission explain changes in style and ritual in other ways, including the claim that 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.

Reminder or him inside the three-floor international headquarters office in Denver is constant.

Pictures of the guru's round face hang from every wall, 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.