HOLY BUT RICH
Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File); Jun 26, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881 - 1986) pg. B1
HOLY BUT RICH Indian Gurus Forsake the Simple Life
When the gurus of ancient India made pilgrimages of more than 1,000 miles to the country's holy cities, they trudged every mile on foot, living off the meager offerings of villagers along the way.
Today, when guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh goes 100 yards to meet disciples at his retreat here, he is transported in a chauffeur-driven yellow Mercedes-Benz.
Rajneesh, who is looked upon as God by his growing flock of followers, reflects the changing role and fortunes of India's modern gurus. No longer are they simple holy men, preaching the Hindu scriptures to all who stop and listen. Today's popular gurus offer their followers a sophisticated mixture of traditional Hindu spiritualism spiced with Freudian psychology and magic tricks.
The opulent, sometimes flamboyant life styles of these modern gurus runs contrary to Indian tradition but their Western followers see no conflict. "The Indian mind has a hard time adjusting to the idea of a rich guru," Shreepad Wagh, editor of Poona's English-language newspaper, said. "Wealth and guru are contradictions. You (in the West) are used to it because of the way the Pope lives." The Western following has helped break down this traditional image and generate a substantial Indian following for the gurus, mainly among the well-to-do.
"Indians look at Westerners coming in and figure the guru must have some special wisdom or they wouldn't come all this way," said Khushwant Singh, a New Delhi-based expert on gurus who once lectured on comparative religion at Princeton. "So they join in too."
Still, it is the less radical of the new gurus who appeal most to Indian tastes. The Indians' favorite is a charismatic, 52-year-old south Indian named Sathya Sai Baba, whose message of peace, truth and love, mixed with displays of what he calls divine magic, draws tens of thousands to his carefully stage-managed public appearances.
"He's the closest living thing we have to Oral Roberts," a Westernized Indian said.
A New Delhi-based journalist places gurus in three categories: "There are those who draw mainly Westerners, those who draw rich Indians and the traditional sadhu (someone who has undergone religious training and penance) who works among the poor."
The new guru has a definite elitist quality,
"Religion is a luxury of the rich," Rajneesh has said. "To a poor man you give bread."
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Gurus of India Holy, but No Longer Poor
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The wealth of the disciples more often than not flows into the movements - creating efficient, well-heeled corporate images and styles uncharacteristic of India.
"Money is only important if you don't have it, a senior administrator of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation movement said recently in reply to a question on the group's financial state. "Money isn't a problem for us. If you have a good product, people will buy it."
Since the Beatles first put him and the idea of Indian gurus on the international map a decade and a half ago, the Maharishi has outgrown his original ashram (retreat) at Rishikesh along the remote upper Ganges and now operates from a sprawling complex in the Swiss Alps under the title "World Government of the Age of Enlightenment." "Communications were poor at Rishikesh," said Mahendra Shah, who coordinates the Transcendental Meditation movement in India with international headquarters in a rambling house in suburban New Delhi. "We do a lot of our work on international conference calls now."
Another guru with a large Western following, Swami Muktananda Paramahansa (known as Muktananda) left India recently on a two-year world tour to promote his teachings. Until his departure, his comfortable ashram at Ganespuri, 100 miles north of Bombay, was often filled with large numbers of Americans and West Europeans. "It was like little Scarsdale up there," an American who visited the ashram said. "He'll draw them in by the planeload for long or short doses of mysticism. and then load them back on the plane for home again."
Now, however, the mountain has gone to Mohammed and the ashram has been all but mothballed until the guru returns.
While there is little doubt that India's new gurus have control over considerable wealth, it is impossible to determine how much, the gurus and their disciples are reluctant to discuss financing. "About all you can say is that these movements are growing and that, as they grow, they bring in more money," an observer said.
Sometimes the gurus' affluence gets them into legal trouble. When the teen-age guru Maharaj Ji returned to India a few years ago, Customs officials seized more than $27,000 worth of goods from him and his followers.
The government recently announced plans to investigate the finances of the Rajneesh ashram, which runs one of India's most sophisticated book-publishing operations. Guruism reemerged as a religious force in India, after centuries of decline, only with the end of prolonged foreign
About all followers have in common is the need to fill a spiritual void.
rule and the death of religious leaders such as Mohandas K. Gandhi - who did not believe in guru worship.
"They emerged as part of the postindependence upsurge of Hindu awareness," Singh, the guru expert, said.
The trickle of disillusioned Christian and Jewish disciples who came from the West in the 1950s and early 1960s, and became a flood when the Beatles embraced the maharishi, has since tapered to a steady, sustained flow.
"Gurus are no longer a new phenomenon in the West, so the curiosity-seekers who caused the initial explosion have gone," Singh said. "Now there is a steady flow of people who feel they can get something out of it."
The departure of gurus such as Mahesh Yogi and Mukananda has tended to reduce the number of new arrivals, but last year's massacre in Guyana of the followers of the Rev. Jim Jones has had virtually no impact on the movements in India.
"It was a clan of lunatics," Rajneesh said. "They were simply awaiting any excuse to die."
Still, Western diplomats who visited a number of retreats to check on conditions in the aftermath of Jonestown are uneasy about the hold that some gurus have over their followers. "I don't think we have any Jim Jones here, but if one of these guys suddenly turned sour, his followers would do just about anything he asked," a diplomat said. Most problems so far have involved individuals rather than groups. The U.S. consulate in Bombay reported two suicides and a nervous breakdown among Rajneesh followers last year. Four American Hare Krishna disciples in Bombay have been charged with murder in connection with an incident at the group's temple there.
There is no general profile of people who come from the West to follow Indian gurus. The majority are West German, British and American, although an increasing number are now coming from Italy.
The one thing they seem to have in common is a need for something to fill a spiritual void. Most say they had experimented with a number of alternatives - including Western religions, encounter groups and drugs - before coming to India. Most of them say they are now content and satisfied.
A former Montreal advertising executive, Jack Allanbach, 40, who now runs a press staff of 25 at the Rajneesh ashram under the name Swami Krishna Prem, put it this way:
"I sat in my office one day and suddenly realized the best I could hope for out of life was fatter clients with more money. I signed away my partnership and just left." The ideas of modern gurus are often as radical a departure from traditional Hindu theology as the gurus themselves are from the old holy man image.
Mahesh Yogi's claim that Transcendental Meditation produces in a few months what it took his own teacher years to achieve has been scorned as "instant yoga" by more conventional Hindus.
But by far the most controversial teachings are those of Rajneesh. His mixture of Eastern spiritualism with Western materialism - which advocates full emotional expression, including unnhibited sex - has outraged the highly puritanical mainstream of Indian society.
The radical nature of his teachings appeals almost exclusively to Westerners. Local citizens complain bitterly about his disciples' public displays of affection.
"To kiss and hug in public is just not right," Apsi Gowadia, a salesman living in Poona, said.
But if Rajneesh's philosophy turns off local Indians, it is turning on Western professionals. His unusual methods of group encounter, meditation and therapy are drawing an increasing number of Western psychotherapists interested in observing his methods.
Middle-class Indians, however, prefer the magic of Sai Baba, who claims to be an incarnation greater than Hindu gods and - after gathering a Western following - the new Jesus Christ. He produces scented ash from his fingers and goes into a trance to conjure up religious symbols. His followers list a long series of miracles they say he has performed. He has millions of Indian disciples, including leading industrialists, members of Parliament and senior government and military leaders.
Further growth for Sai Baba and India's other leading gurus will not be so easy as in the past. "There are lots of them around now, so the competition is keen," Singh said. "I think the guru popularity has reached a plateau."