Peace Flight '77
Eastern Religious Movement Learning Revival Techniques
MONTREAL (UPI) - The 10,000 people who filled Montreal's Forum, the Mecca of big league hockey, were not there this time for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Instead, as an Australian rock band called "One Foundation" played a footstomping song called "The Power of Love," the audience - mostly young adults - rose and began singing and cheering. Attention focused on a stage some 15 to 20 feet above the floor.
"Bholie Sri Satgurudev Maharaj Ki Jai," they chanted. This was explained as a more respectful Indian version of "hip, hip, hooray" but despite the exotic greeting, the enthusiastic crowd in the vast arena could as easily have been gathered for a Billy Graham revival as for the Peace Flight Festival '77.
A heavy set young man appeared on the stage. The audience fell quiet.
"Something is happening," said Guru Maharaj Ji. For the next 25 minutes the former boy wonder of the the Eastern religious movement in North America demonstrated that the following he attracted in the early 1970's has not vanished. Dressed in a blue suit and tie, and sitting in an armless chair and with no props but a single microphone. Maharaj Ji held his audience of disciples, or premies (prehm-ees) in complete rapture.
Although the Divine Light Mission, Maharaj Ji's organization, has shunned publicity for sometime, UPI was allowed to attend the Montreal meeting, first time a reporter has officially been allowed at onee of the group's gatherings since 1973.
The style, if not the substance, of the festival was one that would be recognized by American evangelists as diverse as Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. - inspirational singing and music, shared witnessing and the climatic address by the "revival" leader.
Even some of the substance - with appropriate changes in the language - is similar to an American revival.
Maharaj Ji, born in 1957 in Hardwar, India, schooled both in Western Christianity (at St. Joseph's Academy, Hardwar, India) and Eastern meditation, teaches a version of "the Kingdom of God is within you" that can be discovered through meditation. That realization is called "receiving knowledge."
"The one thing that brings is here all together," be said in Montreal is not a conversation, is not a lecture, is not a philosophy. There are already too many philosophies in this world, there are already too many theories in this world. "But premies, what is happening in this hall today … what we talk about is our own inner experience, generated by knowledge, not generated by philosophies, not generated by different things," he said.
"The love that we share is not materialistic love, it is not the same love that you have for your wife … We're talking about the kind of love that is for more superior, far more incredible and far more unjustifiable." It is a message as old as religion, so simple it seems naive yet so difficult to communicate in language that mystics from all traditions have finally been rendered speechless.
For Divine Light Mission followers, Maharaj Ji is the key. He is venerated as this age's "perfect master" in the way that Moses, Jesus, Buddha or Muhammed are revered by the faithful of other religions.
"There is no doctrine about how one relates to Maharaj Ji," said Diana Stone, Boston, who lives in the one of few ashrams - communal houses - still maintained by Divine Light Mission. "It is totally a personal one."
Divine Light officials estimated that less than one per cent - about 150 people- of the guru's followers now live in ashrams although they believe that number may begin to slowly grow in the future.
"The people who are here now are very solid," Miss Stone said "Everyone has grown." That perhaps is the most dramatic change since the early 1970's when young people moved from one exotic movement to another like grasshoppers.
Maharaj Ji's followers are older, with the vast majority in their late 20s or early 30's with families and as many wore suits and ties as "hippie" attire.
One of Maharaj Ji's best known converts is Rennie Davis, a highly visible and controversial leader of the antiwar movement a decade ago.
Maturity notwithstanding, there still was something of the bliss of the Woodstock generation among them as they stood patiently for up to three hours in line to register at their hotel, greeting each other with joyous embraces or meditiating, sitting cross-legged in the hotel lobby, oblivious to the chaos around them.
"Meditation is something that can happen anyplace," said Andy Harris, Detroit. "It is the natural flow to life. People think they have control over it but they really don't. There is a greater force in control and we eon relax into it."
The Divine Light Mission has taken a lower profile and worked out its internal problems - particularly the controversy surrounding Maharaj Ji's marriage to the former Marilyn Johnson in 1974, which divided his family and split the organization in India. It has trimmed its once bloated fulltime staff to "fighting size," including 25 "initiators" who train people in Maharaj Ji's method of meditiation.
Officials said that the reason for the division were cultural - Indian custom frowns on marriages to westerners - and that the marriage has had no negative impact on followers in Ube United Stales. He now has two children, a daughter Premlata, 2, and a son, Hans Paul, born last September.
Divine Light Mission claims some two million members worldwide with 50,000 initiated in the United States. Officials said, however, that the core group of active members is about 3,500.
The Mission was founded in 1961 by Maharaj Ji's father, Shri Hans Ji Maharaj Ji and was incorporated in the United States in 1971. The younger Maharaj Ji "received knowledge" when be was eight and became leader of of the group in 1966.
It considers itself a religion only for U.S. tax purposes. Its present international headquarters is in Denver, Colo., and there are some 27 communities across the country.
Officials said most of the organization's income - once estimated at between $200,000 and $300,000 a month - comes from the people who live in the monastic ashrams and practice poverty, chastity and obedience.
One of the major changes, however, has been to decentralize the organization and the Denver headquarters no longer exercises the control it once did. "It is too big to be controlled from one place," said Joe Anctil, Divine Light's spokesman.
"We have maybe 10 per cent of the money coming in here," Anctil said. "Where once it used to take 200 people to run the Denver organization, we now have about 25 people."
Most of the income goes to support the local communities - to buy houses for ashrams and other local activities. Anctil estimated that there were perhaps as many as 500 people waiting to form some kind of community.
"You make yourself available to Maharaj Ji by moving into an ashram," said Diana Stone.
Its program involves three parts - satsang (an Indian word meaning "company of truth"), service and meditation. In an ashram, disciples meditate at least an hour each morning and have satsang every evening, a sharing of the meditation experience and particularly what Maharaj Ji has meant in their lives. Ashram dwellers are vegetarians and take non drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.
Devotion to Maharaj Ji is still intense: in Montreal all of the premies wore buttons with his picture on it. But as his lifestyle has changed - away from the fascination with such gadgetry as wristwatches, sophisticated stereos and other electronic equipment that the press found so contradictory in a religious leader - so has that of his followers who now are more restrained and less emotional about their feelings.
Material objects are not denounced "I have a nice house that has been provided me. I have a very beautiful family and I have all these beautiful things," Maharaj Ji said - but materialism is.
"I can clearly see," he said, "that without knowledge, for me at least, it wouldn't be worth it. Knowledge, that makes the difference."
"So premies," Maharaj Ji tells his followers, this is the way it is: that we have it inside us and we have a way. And I'm here to help you and thats the only reason. And this is the only reason … because I love you want you to experience what I have experienced, because its beautiful."