Sun Sentinel

Looking For Mr. Perfect
November 16, 1986|By MARIA GOODAVAGE, Staff Writer

IT WAS GLITZ AT ITS GLITZIEST, AND it was 1973 glitz so that made it even more grotesque. The amorphous but appealing teenage guru, Maharaji, sat on a throne of blue Plexiglas towering 300 feet above his followers at the Houston Astrodome. A 14-foot white Plexiglas flame rose behind the "Perfect Master," and brilliant rainbows shimmered on the walls.

Maharaji's portrait, created on the flashing scoreboard lights, was the tackiest touch of all at the gala that had been billed as "the most significant event in human history."

Maharaji, only 15 years old, sat smiling peacefully as 20,000 of his worshippers (known as premies, or lovers of truth) chanted. Outside, a large parking space was set aside on the chance that alien visitors might arrive to pay homage.

Maharaji had every reason to smile. What had started out as a small tax- exempt church in Colorado only two years earlier had become a multimillion- dollar operation. Maharaji was as adored in America as he was in his native India; some six million people around the globe considered him the mouthpiece of God.

Yet, within a few short years, the charismatic, peace-promising leader of the Divine Light Mission would disappear from the curious eyes of the non- premie public, taking with him his followers, 54 ashrams and his newsworthy antics. No longer would we read accounts of Maharaji (which, translated, means "Great King") riding around in his Rolls-Royce chewing wads of bubble gum. Gone were the headlines about Maharaji hosing down an audience at the Orange Bowl with rose water.

Just like the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh a dozen years later, this guru would make an indelible mark on the American consciousness, then make a quick exit. Unlike the Bhagwan, who fled America hounded by immigration authorities and propelled by scandal, the little Maharaji silently slipped away. To where? That was the mystery.

NO ONE SEEMED to know why Maharaji had faded so quickly. And, aside from the premies, few people cared. There were plenty of gurus to go around at the time, and Maharaji's novelty had worn thin.

It was rumored in India that his mother, Mata ji, had accused him of being a playboy. At 16, he had married Marolyn Johnson, a 24-year-old airline stewardess. His mother was perturbed by his lavish taste in cars and mansions. As matriarch of the family mission, she replaced him as leader with one of his older brothers, and Maharaji took the matter to court.

Premies soon learned that their leader had been ousted, but most of them remained loyal. Their continuing financial support gave Maharaji an annual salary of almost $4 million. He maintained lavish homes in Miami and Malibu, but shunned publicity, preferring to spread his nirvana through a worldwide underground network.

Rumors (almost the only way to learn anything about this opaque period) led to an IRS investigation of Maharaji's various offshoot companies, like Divine Travel Services, Divine Electronics, Shri Hans Aviation, and Divine Sales International. But by the mid-'70s, even the rumors had stopped, and it seemed that the Great King had been consigned to the great junkheap of fad cult figures.

A DECADE PASSED, and I began to wonder whatever had happened to Maharaji. I was only a teenager when he reigned, yet I was enamored by his blissful countenance. In my research, I couldn't find any articles about him after 1976. A UCLA professor who was an expert on cults told me he thought Maharaji had died. A cult deprogrammer claimed that Maharaji was broke.

I began to feel sorry for the Perfect Master. I tried to imagine living the life of a god and then sinking into poverty and obscurity. Poor Maharaji.

But I should have known that gods do not easily waste away. One day I came across a 1985 article in the Los Angeles Times about a guru with a problem endemic to today's high-flying gurus: He wasn't able to land his helicopters at his estate as frequently as he wanted to.

This guru was fighting the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission to triple the number of helicopter landings at his Malibu mountain ridge estate to 36 a year. This guru was turned down.

This guru was Maharaji.

He was alive! Better yet, he was still prosperous.

Not long afterwards, an acquaintance told me that his girlfriend was a premie. And it turned out that he had an extra ticket to see Maharaji at an appearance in, of all places, the Miami Beach Theater of the Performing Arts. He gave the ticket to me, and also provided the phone number of Loring Baker, the man in charge of Maharaji followers in Miami. Yes, there were still premies in South Florida.

Loring Baker was quiet but friendly when I called him. He remained quiet but noticeably less friendly when I told him I was a reporter who wanted to do a story on what had become of Maharaji.

EN ROUTE TO FINDING KNOWLEDGE, I DEcided to find out more about Maharaji himself. I discovered that he had started playing leader as soon as he could talk. Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?, an authorized biography published in 1973, describes Maharaji's youthful dominance:

"Guru Maharaj Ji (note: the two-word name is his old way of spelling it) has been opening the hearts of men with his discourse since the age of 2, when he would wake up the mahatmas who lived in his father's house at four in the morning and tell them he would beat them if they did not meditate on the experience of God within."

When the guru was 6, his father, Shri Hans Ji Maharaj, the founder of the Divine Light Mission, gave him Knowledge. His father died two years later and Maharaji, the youngest of five children, became head of the mission in India.

He started traveling the world and arrived in America at the end of the protest movement of the 1960s. Shattered hopes of peace, and disillusionment with drugs and society, were causing people to look for something that gave them guidance, that made them feel in control.

What better way than to worship a boy from the Far East? Psychologists theorized that by idolizing an Oriental child, Americans were atoning for all the Vietnamese that U.S. soldiers had killed in the previous 10 years. Rennie Davis, a former anti-war activist, became the guru's top man in America.

The guru became almost as popular as platform shoes in the early '70s. The Divine Light Mission boasted more than six million followers worldwide. Premies prostrated themselves whenever he walked in a room, chanted his praise, and gave up their worldly possessions for him.

The guru became a millionaire. In 1976, Joe Anctil, the Divine Light Mission's accountant, admitted to the press that Maharaji's personal income was $3.78 million a year. He said Maharaji used 60 percent of the mission's income to support his opulent lifestyle.

THEN, ALMOST OVERNIGHT, MAHARAJI vanished. Ashrams closed. The name Divine Light Mission was dropped. The word premie went with it, though some followers still like to be called premies. The only name used by the group now is Elan Vital, and that is mostly for tax and donation purposes.

It is nearly impossible to track down the organization. Premies said that Maharaji had a difficult enough time coming down from his throne without the media and the IRS helping to drag him down. In the question-and-answer session, Maharaji briefly mentioned his plight.

"I have been placed way up there, and I'm trying to walk down," he said. He seems to be taking his time.

One premie told me Maharaji still has "gobs" of money, declaring, "What should he do, ride a donkey from here to India? He's not humble like Jesus Christ. He deserves the best and should have the best."

The guru still has a few luxurious homes scattered throughout the world. There are rumors he sold his Miami house. His home in Malibu, where he apparently spends much of his time, was worth $554,000 in 1976. According to Linda Gross, a lawyer who worked with him last year, the home is "nice, but nothing great for this part of town."

Although not a follower, Gross was smitten by Maharaji. "He had a real understanding of the human condition and a wonderful sense of humor. He was one of the funniest men I've ever met. He was wonderful with children, too." The former child-guru now has four kids of his own.

KNOWLEDGE. FOR MONTHS, I wanted to discover what this sacred thing was. I thought I had paid $40,000 to get it in college, but apparently I didn't go to the college of True Knowledge.

When Maharaji came back to Miami in July, I paid $20 to hear him speak to a capacity crowd (10,000 people) at the Miami Convention Center. It was the World Convention, and followers came from as far as Japan and South Africa. Everyone around me seemed so happy and enlightened and full of Knowledge.

All the people I asked about Knowledge told me only that it's wonderful and that I should get it from an instructor. They said to tell any more would ruin it for me.

I decided to go for it. The schedule I had popped into my pocketbook months earlier was tattered but readable. It showed that the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Hotel played host to Knowledge sessions once a week. I went to one of the hotel's small meeting rooms to receive Knowledge.

I never got it.

I learned that to expect to get Knowledge the first time around is rather like expecting to enjoy sex the first time you make love. Most of the 30 people in the room were premies, already privy to Knowledge and coming for a recharge. They smiled when I told them I had come for Knowledge. Their smiles got wider when I explained that Maharaji himself had told someone to come to one of these sessions to obtain Knowledge.

"Yes, at some point that person could probably get Knowledge. Coming to these meetings is just a start," said David, who led the session. "You should come here more often. When I feel you are ready to receive Knowledge, I'll get together with you and maybe a few other people and you will receive it."

He was nice enough. He seemed relaxed and fulfilled. But why was he happy? And why did I have to wait so long to get Knowledge?

I decided to let Knowledge go on without me. I didn't have the time or incentive to pursue it. I am content with the knowledge -- with a lower-case k -- that I have gained through living life day by day.

And I've decided to let gurus be gurus and bygones be bygones. I love a mystery but know when I'm licked.

"Only the Maharaji gets what he wants when he wants it," a premie told me.

She was right. Remember the guru's quest for more frequent helicopter landings at his Malibu mansion? Well, he just got permission to land them 36 times a year. The battle lasted six years but somehow he won in the fight. But then, Maharaji Knows.