YUMA DAILY SUN, Yuma, Arizona Sun., June 27, 1976
Guru's Cult Changinge Style
By George W. CORNELL
AP Religion Writer
NEW YORK (AP) Representatives of the organization of teen age guru Maharaj Ji say it is changing its style to tone down the catchy Eastern ritualism that has given some followers erroneously superficial impressions.
It kept people from knowing where we're really at, says Joe Anctil, news secretary for the group, with headquarters in Denver Colo "all they'd see was the trimmings. No doubt it attracted them but it's empty."
Cutting down on the exotic embellishments, he adds, was at the behest of the young guru himself.
"He's doing away with it," Anctil says, adding that the emphasis now is being put on fostering long-term growth in meditative discipline and service.
“A lot of people are just on a trip in the beginning,' he says. "They felt they had to be hyped, and some didn't stay long enough to get beyond that. But we've changed as our understanding has changed."
The asserted change comes amid extensive criticism of various novel spiritual groups, including that of Maharaj Ji, from ex-members and parents, but Anctil says the opposition isn't what caused the reforms,
"We're maturing," he says. "It's evolution."
Anctil and an assistant, Andy Harris, said in an interview that the group, called Divine Light Mission, is modifying not only its practices but its exalted claims about the India-born guru, now 18.
Regarding previous portrayals of him as the one, perfect manifestation and channel of divinity in this age, a reflection of Hindu concepts of "avatars" of successive periods, Anctil said some still see him that way, but added:
"There's going to be less and less of that. We're throwing that out. Maharaj Ji never said 'I am the only way.' But it doesn't lessen the fact that he has inspired many of us. His direction is important. And there's no question that we love him."
In earlier phases of the group, which says it has initiated 50,000 into its ranks in this country since 1971, of whom 15,040 remain regular contributors, the guru frequently has been hailed as "Lord of the Universe."
"We don't say that anymore," Anctil said. "At one time he couldn't walk into a room without everyone hitting the floor." The prostrating gesture, called "paranaming," was questioned by the guru himself. Anctil said, adding: "A lot aren't hitting the floor anymore."
However, Maharaj Ji retains his title, "Great King," and for the time being still presides at rites for initiates in which he blows lightly in an ear of each, an affair called "darshan," a Hindu term for being in a holy presence.
"This still goes on," Anctil said. "He does anything members want. But when they line up, it takes all day and it's very impractical so it's likely on the way out."
Asked why some ex-members have been so critical, he said they apparently had inflated expectations of a "high," but "we're down here. It's a perfectly natural process. We're just people working with people."
He said some also "gave money, and now that they're not so happy, they resent it."
"Some expected to get zapped," said Harris, 23, who dropped out of the University of Arizona to work full time for the group. "When it doesn't happen, they get disappointed. And it doesn't happen. Rather than being a cosmic occurrence, it's a way of life that helps a person."
He said some of the past grandiose representations of it resulted from "the desire of people for something mystical. But it didn't make sense."
Anctil said the group simply nurtures a threefold way of living, "meditation, selfless service and sharing experiences, what you probably call witnessing." He said the aim is a "life of continual self discovery and development."
He said the group's special teachers, called mahatmas, no longer wear saffron robes and shave their heads, that about half of them now are Americans instead of Indians and their initiation sessions are simpler and shorter.
He said the group no longer takes to the streets seeking recruits, but presents its case in discussion sessions at centers across the country.
He said Maharaj Ji always wanted to simplify the program and reduse the esoteric externals but "his mother wouldn't let him." The guru and his mother, now in India, had a falling out more than a year ago when he married an assistant.
"The mother wanted to build up beliefs about him, so she would be all-powerful." Anctil said. "But experience didn't bear it out. It was only empty words. They didn't mean anything."
Also, he noted, Maharaj Ji advised: "Quiet down."