Over The Hill At 16
"Go Go, Go said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much relity."
- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
"Either Guru Maharaj Ji is for real, or he's the biggest fraud of all time."
- Rennie Davis
Walking down the plane ramp, it suddenly hits me that this is Houston, capital of 20th Century Texas, nerve center of space exploration, and home of the Astrodome. Its builders designed this Eighth Wonder of the World as a temple for football, baseball and conventions. But its true purpose, as Rennie Davis and the others in the Divine Light Mission have proclaimed, is to be the launching pad for the 16-year- old Messiah from India, Guru Maharaj Ji. For three days it will contain the first God-in-the-Flesh in 1,973 years: Millenium '73.
"Hurry up, brother, Guru Maharaj Ji's gonna be on nationwide TV at midnight," frantically motions one devotee, his eyes big as a sacred cow's. A thick semicircle gathers around the portable TV outside the Delta Airlines satellite, and as the Gillette commercial fades and the corpulent figure swathed in satin appears, the battlecry of the believers erupts. "Boliya Shri Satgurudev Maharaj Ki Jai!" pierces the airport hum, startling several middle-aged baggage-claimers and travelers.
"Guru," the terribly earnest NBC interviewer is saying, "If you don't mind me asking, do you have the same problems, the same likes and dislikes, of a typical child your age?" Guffaws around me. The God-head answers in a bland, bored monotone. "See, people of all ages are looking for perfection." Then, adds, with an imperious flick of the royal wrist, "But I have it.."
The flashing lights of incoming planes brings to mind the previous week in Chicago, where Rennie Davis and his six co-defendants from the Chicago 7 were on trial once again for their contempt citations handed down four years ago by Judge Julius Hoffman. But Rennie was painting a scenario far removed from the courtroom ennui.
"I tell you, when those flying saucers land, this whole universe is gonna stand up and take notice that the Lord has come," he had announced to his bewildered former comrades, in the high-pitched squeal that characterizes premie-talk. "There are a couple of premies [A premie is a Guru devotee; the word is taken from the Hindi for "lover."] whose souls have been taken over by the spirit of the UFOs, and we know now that they are Venutians. Through them we have learned that the UFOs consider Guru Maharaj Ji to be master of not just the human race, but literally of the whole universe. The Venutians say they are finally going to land and openly identify themselves, now that people are receiving Guru Maharaj Ji's Knowledge. And, he confides, "One woman in Houston is a medium for Lao Tze, through the Ouija Board, and He has told us that 144,000 people will come to Millennium, the number the Book of Revelations says will be on hand for the second coming. That might just be a conservative estimate--I think more like 200,000. Lao Tze also told us that Madame Binh will receive Knowledge along with Tran Van Duong, but that Chairman Mao will die before he has the chance."
The Bantam paperback, "Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji, just arrived, and Rennie passed it around the defense table. To his co-defendants he inscribed the flyleaf with a line borrowed, ironically, from Herman Kahn: I know I'm asking you to Think the Unthinkable." And to Tom Hayden, formerly his closest political mentor, but now the most openly hostile to his newfound calling, Rennie added a kicker: "if two years from now this whole thing turns out to be a fraud then well laugh about it and be back in each other's arms again as friends." Hayden returned the book.
[THE GURU COMES TO TOWN]
Wednesday afternoon, the day before Millennium's Astrodome opening, 3,000 premies wait eagerly in the merciless Texas sun for the Cessna Cardinal to land and deposit the Perfect Master in their midst. The Divine Light Mission press release has said that twice that number would turn out, but this misestimate is minimal given the fact that the cosmos itself seems to have sanctioned the event. The Guru's astrologers say that a grand cross in the sky formed by four planets, a rare occurrence, signifies the galactic obeisance; and the Comet Kahoutek, it is discovered, will appear for the first time in 75,000 years the day after the last Millennium event. (Bal Bhagwan Ji, the Guru's 21-year-old brother and the grey eminence behind the Divine Light Mission, has his own cosmological etymology: "K-0; Knock Out. H-0-U; Houston. T-E-K; Texas. Knock Out Houston, Texas," he told a crew of TV interviewers.)
Suddenly the plane lands, a flower-draped green Rolls Royce pulls up, and the agitated premies let loose with another divine yelp. Mata Ji, the Holy Mother, ascends the makeshift stage, her omnipresent diamond nosepin glittering in the sun, and sits in a white crushed velvet chair slightly below and to the immediate left of The Throne. Brother Bal Bhagwan Ji enters and sits in direct apposition to the right of The Throne. Then Bhole Ji, 20, who has charge of the 40-80 piece (depending on the press release) cosmic orchestra, Blue Aquarius, sits next to Bal Bhagwan Ji, followed in the divine pecking order by Raja Ji, 19, who does nothing. With the exception of Bal Bhagwan Ji, the entire Holy Family sits sweating plumply in the 95 percent humidity like the before-pictures in a Weight Watchers ad. Finally, the Kid himself emerges and waddles to his posh gold velvet Throne, waves his arms Nixon-style, and speaks for five minutes: "Well, I think this is just going to be fantastic. People are going to discover who God is, and I think it's about time people know who God is." All around premies are swooning. (Being in the presence of any member of the Holy Family is considered a holy experience called darshan. Being in the presence of the entire Holy Family is the royal flush of darshan.) Several break down in tears and utter throaty sobs in the arms of their friends.
Rennie Davis enters and sits on the floor between Guru Maharaj Ji and Bal Bhagwan Ji. Bowing and kissing the feet of any Holy Family member is called pranaming, and Rennie has it down to a fine art by now. After placing a golden-flowered lei under one of Guru Maharaj Ji's divine chins, Rennie dives to the divine toes, kisses them, and in the flick of an eye does a double-jacknife over to Bal Bhagwan Ji, where he repeats the magic buss, "Boy was I blissed out," he tells me as we ride back to the Astrodome together, and he describes the experience of sitting between the Holy Siblings.
By the next day it's obvious that this Godathon will disappoint those who had been predicting for the last few months that it would wash over America's youth and fill their cosmic hunger for belief. At the noontime opening ceremonies, fewer than 7,000 followers have swarmed onto the Astroturf; the stands are virtually empty. Rennie has predicted that Walter Cronkite would cover this millennial event live over CBS; but instead there is a cynical Paul Krassner and the equally iconoclastic staff of the local Pacific radio station, KPFT. A dozen jumbo jets were supposed to transport 10,000 of the faithful from India; fewer than 100 managed to straggle in. A religious exposition delineating all the world's major religions was to have been shown in the adjoining Astrohall; but ecumenism is represented only by contingents of Hare Krishnas and Jesus Freaks trying to outdo each other in the vehemence of their anti-Guru arguments.
"Why are you so opposed to Guru Maharaj Ji?" one young premie woman innocently inquires of a Krishna at the gate. "Since when does the Supreme Lord recommend that you push in on your eyeballs, plug up your ears, and taste spit, all the while sitting under a blanket, as the proper way to receive Him into your hearts?" snorts the Krishna. The premie is aghast, her face ashen. Not only has he reviled her Lord, but in the process revealed the most sacred of secrets: the Knowledge Session, wherein the Guru instills his devotees with holy divine grace. (The incident makes the next day's Houston Chronicle.)
Outside the gates of the Astrodome, the Jesus Freaks are inspired with animate fury-wailing banshees sent to exorcise the Antichrist. "Go Away, go aaawwwaaayyyy, lest ye perish neath the holy fire from the hand of God!" "You're the Devil, you are damned to hell!" "Turn back. before God marks your soul for eternity!"
Up in the Astrodome press section in the third tier, the fourth estate is turning into a fifth column. The ascerbic comments from 50-odd writers from the Washington Post to the underground press is nearly as harrowing for the premies as assaults from Jesus and Krishna freaks. They are treating the event more as a divine comedy of errors than the greatest event in the history of mankind. And all the premies can do to counter this overt cynicism is to promise a better performance. "There's so much energy here - that's what counts, and wait till tonight - the stadium will be full," pleads one premie press liaison. "Yeah, full of empty seats," retorts a jaded journalist. "You really can't judge this until Guru Maharaj Ji himself appears," she persists.
After due pomp and circumstance, the Kid ascends his seven-story-high Throne (it originally was to be 15 stories), amid the tumultuous throbbing of his adoring apostles. The set is striking. The first level of the stage is reserved for the mortal wing of the program; specifically, the American DLM heavies. Next level is the Blue Aquarius platform, and atop it is the section for Mahatmas -the holy dispensers of Divine Knowledge. Crowning the entire stage is, of course, the Holy Family perch. Flanking it are two huge 20-foot- by-20-foot neon Texaco signs, aptly complementing the Guru's flame-shaped Throne. A vibrating rainbow-pattern light show is projected directly above the Throne, topped by an enormous American flag, on either side of which are the Astro scoreboards. The $75,000 tab for the three days for which the DLM rented the Astrodome includes the rights to flash its own blissed-out blandishments on the boards, ranging from quaint quatrains ("Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Sugar is Sweet …") to abstruse passages from the Old Testament. The great bulk of premies cavort on the playing field itself. The stadium's very emptiness adds to the acoustical echo effect so that when the premies shout the praises of their Master, their decibel level quadruples their numbers.
The first airport address two days earlier had prepared the uninitiate for the fact that, by conventional rhetorical standards, Guru Maharaj Ji is no spellbinder. His Hindu singsong accent and the squeaky vacillations of his pre-pubescent voice add to his distinct lack of appreciation for dramatic cadence, though he fills his talk with chummy vernacular expletives like ain't, right-on, and far-out. Yet compared to the content of his message, his delivery is hypnotic. He alternates renditions of Brothers Grimm frogs, swans and puppydog tails, and Mother Goose morality with a teenage fascination for cars, cameras, and credit cards, all intertwined in a simpleminded logic designed to prove his divinity.
Cars, particularly, dominate the divine homily-not surprising, since at last count he owns six-mostly Rolls Royces and Lincoln Continentals. In his opening remarks alone, cars appear at least eight times, in a goofy juxtaposition to the fairy tales:
"I am talking about one thing-a car has four tires, and a car runs on four tires. And I can see that car running on four tires. There are cars also run [sic] on three tires, of course-in England they do. People have come from England, they might have seen those cars-very common. But I am talkin' about a car that's right there, it's on four wheels-not five, not six. There is a fifth wheel, but the car is not running on it, it's in the trunk. So there is a basic fact that I have understood… ."
The next morning there is a hastily-called press conference the DLM hopes will bolster its image; a little darshan for the unrekindled souls of darkness. But the mood moves from bad to worse, as it becomes obvious that the room is half-filled with shills from South America who stand up and deliver five-minute questions which are then tediously translated into English: "Guru Maharaj Ji when are you going to visit Argentina where you are recognized by millions as the Lord of the Universe and whose people desperately await your coming and implore your mercy . ." As it becomes apparent what is happening, the media questions, which begin timidly enough, become jugular, with the Houston contingent in the vanguard. "Guru, when you say you are the Perfect Master, does that mean you have- a perfect body, too?" A curt and embarrassed "No" brings a sacrilegious outburst. Since he has mentioned Watergate twice in his public appearances, I ask him if Nixon should be impeached or resign. "I am not a politician; don't ask me about politics," he snaps. "Guru," the woman from a Houston radio station drawls, "if you're so concerned about the poor, why don't you sell one of your Rolls Royces and buy them some food?" He answers, "if I gave them a Rolls Royce, they'd just come back in the afternoon and ask for another one, and I don't have another one to give them." The queries are dismissed with such royal evasiveness and glib hauteur that finally the Newsweek man stands and declares that the event reminds him of an early Watergate press conference - "I expect you to announce three weeks from now that all these statements are 'inoperative.' If you're God, I'm an atheist."
On the way back to the Astrodome a premie friend sidles up to me and starts in with some satsang. (Satsang, "truth-giving" in Hindi, is the process whereby the faithful verbally reinforce and justify their commitment to The Kid among themselves, and try to explain to outsiders why they have given up mind, body and soul to a boy whose divinity seems so well-concealed.) Having traveled on the divine bandwagon for almost eight months researching a book, I have been hit with every variety of satsang. It usually begins with a detailed rundown of the abysmally miserable pre-premie life of trying to shoot up everything from airplane glue to coffee grounds in a vain attempt to discover the Meaning of Life. But just before the Last Overdose, a divine coincidence miraculously sweeps the premie into Guru's arms and Instant Bliss.
The next movement in this dramatic form is for the premie to describe the masochistic depths to which he or she would go to grovel at the toes of the Lord, the more self-humiliating the better. the Kid himself dotes on inflicting such punishment; numerous tales abound of him dragging his followers into the mud, pushing them into rivers, and nearly slaughtering them on his motorcycle. (One ecstatic woman told me of the incredible rush she felt, when, late at night before the first day of Millennium, The Kid came barreling around the corner of one of the Astrodome halls in a golf cart, nearly mowing her down, before caroming off the wall and puttering off.)
Finally, there is a little parable, strikingly oral and infantile in character, using any variety of fruit, vegetable or candy, wherein you are told, that you really can't Know what the bliss is without Experiencing it. Believers like to say that Knowledge is like a banana--you can't describe the taste of a banana, you have to eat one to know. When I ask my friend if she couldn't at least make it an apple or avocado or something-that was three bananas in a row at that point-she sighs, then her eyes light up and she exclaims, "Try it, you'll like it!"
The satsang process continues for as long as one is willing to subject oneself to what temporarily provides comic relief after a distressing event (such as a divine press conference) but which soon thereafter seems like the unfortunate gibberish of a brain-turned-jellybean. "I have to go to the bathroom," is the best way to extricate oneself from the divine drooling, though in one instance I was followed into the Astro-urinal by a cosmic zealot, until I explained to him that piss and bliss just don't mix.
[THE SECOND COMING IS A BUST]
By this time it is becoming evident that the Millennium is something of a divine bore. The premies' Passion Play is unbelievably sophomoric ("Jesus, I'm looking for you, where aaaarrree you?"). The attendance is as bare as a Hare Krishna's pate. Blue Aquarius proves it can perform everything from Mantovani to the Rolling Stones-poorly. And the World Peace Corps (divine bodyguards) encircling the stage area become avenging angels: threatening, cajoling and generally pushing everyone around. (Credit must be given, though, to The Kid's superb sense of irony-appointing only British WPCers to secure the stage, he neatly turned the tables on the White Man's Burden; this time around the Indian conscripts the Tory.) Sensing the troubles, even the flying saucers stay away, severely disappointing the flock, some of whom earnestly awaited the chance to hitch a ride on a UFO and give satsang to the Venutians.
The event has all the outward amenities of a rock festival; shirtless premie men sunbathing on the grass outside the stadium; premie panhandlers in the concourses pleading for donations to return to Los Angeles or Boston-or Marseilles; constant emphasis of peace-love-goodvibes; organic apple juice and peanut butter proliferate.
Blue Aquarius performs an original number which panders exactly to that image ("Rock Me Guru Maharaj Ji, and Roll Me Tonight"). I am even taken aback by the number of long-haired, blue-jeaned premie. Women and short-skirted bra-less premie women; true hardcore premie regimen demands the males look like insurance adjusters and the females like nuns.
The countercultural trappings are completed by the scores of gurupies -premies who flit about looking for members of the Holy Family to coo over like their rock counterparts outside Mick Jagger's hotel room, though most premies freak out when asked if they're sexually attracted to any of the sacred quartet. On Friday night a few gurupies even manage to storm the lower level of the stage before being swiftly ushered off by the WPCers-but only after they worshipfully prostrate themselves before the Perfect Master, whose apotheosis is complete: he's decked out in a huge, bejeweled gold mitre, the "Crown of Crowns for the King of Kings."
"In God We Trust, Houston or Bust" proclaim the DLM posters, and by Saturday night, "bust" was the best description of Millennium 73. "Love is Free,- Truth is Free, Admission is Free," blaze the DLM bumperstickers, but the prospect of getting a free glimpse of the Astrodome (normally it costs a dollar just for a tour) is not enough to lure in the Houstonians, whom the DLM was counting on to fill the stadium. At five o'clock a plaintive appeal comes from the microphone: "if every premie will go out into the streets of Houston and bring back five Houston residents, we'll be able to fill the Astrodome!" Even the most devoted devotees ignore the pitch.
But the beauty of divine logic is that everything is perfect. Whatever is, is right. If only 10,000 people appear in the flesh, it's because Guru Maharaj Ji wants it that way. "It's a test for the premies," says Rennie Davis, in a revision of his Chicago estimates. "Guru Maharaj Ji deliberately disappointed their preconceived notions, as he always does. "Anyway," Rennie is saying before giving his introduction to the last night's divine appearance. "It's not the numbers, it's the significance of the event-only 12 people came to the Last Supper."
(A week before Rennie had told me of another test for the premies when he admitted that Mahatma Fakiranand, one of the first Mahatmas to give Knowledge in the U.S., had been the one to nearly murder an underground reporter in Detroit last August after the reporter had thrown a pie in The Kid's face. The DLM had tried to cover up the fact by simply giving the Mahatma's Indian name and falsely claiming that he had been banished from the Divine Light Mission.)
Rennie's final task that last night harkens back to his role in the anti-war movement-the fundpitch. His taut face and furrowed brow is most unblissful as he asks all premies to drop their spare change into passing buckets. The Kid's line, after the buckets go around, is an interesting contrast: "This knowledge is free-we do not ask for your money." To which he adds a familiar note: "We all drive cars, and if you run out of fuel, that's it-you got to hang around some- where and stop and get some fuel. If a battery goes dead, that's, it. If something goes wrong with the engine, that's it. So it seems that apparently something is guiding something else, and something is guiding something else, and something is guiding something else, and then something is guiding something else. And it's just like seems [sic] to be a series of things in this world that are making one or the other thing go."
"Jesus!" says erstwhile child-evangelist Majoe Gortner, watching the whole show from the stadium floor. "The kid is so lame. If they had someone with some Charisma, someone who knew what they were doing . . ." he winks slyly "someone like me, they'd bust this place wide open." I counter, that maybe if the DLM finds out he's out of work the premies will make him an offer. "They already have- don't print that."
The Kid exits and a gravel-voiced Mahatma approaches the microphone. In an eerie, high-decibel screetch he leads the devotees in five or six final war whoops. It is then that something snaps inside me. Scenes from the Nuremburg stadium flash a frightfully exact parallel: the martial chanting, the cult of total obedience, the arms flailing about, thousands of eyes weeping in blind adulation. Blue Aquarius starts up with another song, but the notes don't register.
I run up to the press box to collect my stuff, thinking that indeed Guru Maharaj Ji has wrought a miracle: I never thought I would think kindly of Hare Krishnas or Jesus Freaks, but at this point I'm even ready to buy their goddam sticks of incense or say a Hail Mary. Linking arms with a friend we dash through the first turnstile we find and fly across the parking lot. But the gate is closed, and the cyclone fence with its barbed wire streamers stretch for a mile in either direction "Remember Stalag 17," she says, and we crawl belly-up on the concrete, squeeze under the gate and head back to the free world of Conrad Hilton.