“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon,” Daisy cried, “and the day after that, and the next thirty years?”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
October 21, 1973:
Tonight I have an appointment with Rennie Davis to discuss his newborn self and the salvation of all mankind. Some months ago, Rennie shed his former political activism to receive the Divine Knowledge being offered by Guru Maharaj Ji, the fifteen-year-old Indian who claims to be an incarnation of God sent to humanity to bring us a thousand years of peace. Rennie and I walk toward a soul food restaurant not far from the New York headquarters of the Guru’s organization—Divine Light Mission—on Park Avenue South. Rennie asks me what I think the Maharaj Ji is about.
I answer him compulsively and with a sense of desperation. I talk about the proliferation of diverse mysticisms in reaction to the Sixties’ failures, the Orientalism that seems to be spreading in the West, our despair over the technological mess, our disillusionment with the myth of material progress, the failure of secular humanism. Rennie smiles cynically. “I know you have all the right historical dimensions,” he says, “but you’ve left out the only thing that really matters.” He stops smiling and suddenly speaks in a curt, intense voice.
The fact is, he says, that in the next few years the entire world is destined to recognize the Perfect Master Maharaj Ji. Perfect Master will trigger an awakening of our consciousness which will allow us to plug into the ground of Being—God—Divine Energy—and to realize the full potential of that energy within us. The Perfect Master’s Knowledge will abolish all greed, hunger, violence, will bring a thousand years of world peace such as we have never witnessed in recorded history. The Millennium will begin on November 8, in the Houston Astrodome, where the Perfect Master will give his practical plan for world peace….
“Peace Now!” “Out Now!” The slogans of the Sixties flash through my mind, along with a previous memory of Rennie Davis: A meeting of peace coalitions in a state of mayhem. Rennie standing in isolation from the disorder, dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, quietly bouncing a tennis ball against the wall.
I lose track of Rennie’s voice for a few seconds, and I return to it to hear him saying: “…as a matter of fact I wouldn’t be surprised if a UFO landed in the Astrodome while the Perfect Master is there, all the astrological conditions point to that possibility…beings on other planets must be equally thirsty for his Knowledge.”
At the restaurant, Rennie eats his vegetarian meal with his left hand, Indian fashion, deftly cupping the food with his fingers. He tells me that he first heard of the Perfect Master from two of his devotees while flying to Paris last January to meet with Madame Binh. Shortly thereafter he left for India to stay at the Guru’s ashram. He received Divine Knowledge—the Maharaj Ji’s equivalent of Zen satori or Buddhist nirvana—one week after his arrival, and has been in meditation for several hours a day ever since. I express my qualms about the instantaneousness of this enlightenment. The difference between the Perfect Master’s technique and others, Rennie says, is that it gives you a practical way of meditation which enables you to realize the Godhead within you very quickly, transforming your consciousness and hence your body.
For a second the old politico returns: “It’s like Hegel rather than Marx. Spirit over matter.”
“And the marvelous thing about it,” he continues, “is that everyone has the same vision. Everyone experiences the same thing. Oh, after the infighting of the movement, the quibbling, the disorder, to have the unity we were talking about in the Sixties….”
I ask Rennie how the Maharaj Ji’s devotees feel about sex. He tells me that the great thing about this movement is that there are no strict rules. You are not ordered to give up anything. You just lose your desire for it—be it grass, meat, or sex. There is no renunciation whatsoever of the world, as there is among the Hare Krishna or Jesus people. As for sex, it’s only forbidden in the ashrams; otherwise Mata Ji, the Perfect Master’s mother, says it is better to have sex just for procreation.
“Christ, Rennie,” I say, “do you think there’s any fifteen-year-old whacking off between here and Scarsdale whose mother doesn’t tell him that?” I regret the words, feeling uneasy with this new Puritan, but no matter, he doesn’t seem to have listened. As we walk out of the restaurant he is staring at the sky, saying, “One of the most beautiful things about Divine Light is its cleanliness, the purity….The ashrams are always kept impeccably clean in case Maharaj Ji drops in….Wow, after the filth of the Sixties’ communes, the loose living….”
There are some twenty Divine Light ashrams in New York City. This afternoon I have been asked to one to hear satsang—spiritual discourse or truth-giving, several hours of which are prerequisite to receiving Knowledge—from one of the Divine Light mahatmas. This particular ashram is in a large, prosperous apartment building on Shrink Row, at the corner of 85th Street and Central Park West. A pile of shoes lies heaped on the elevator landing. The scrubbed living room is dominated by a stuffed chair upholstered in white satin, set high on a dais like a throne, and surmounted by a photograph of the chubby,lotus-positioned Guru. In front of the throne premies—the Indian word for “lovers” or devotees—have deposited offerings: a grapefruit, some chrysanthemums, an enormous stick of cinnamon candy. The ashram is mostly populated by gentle, serenely smiling young women in long flowing robes. Mata Ji encourages floor-length garments because they are more modest.
The mahatma giving satsang this afternoon on 85th Street is one of 2,000 mahatmas whom Perfect Master has empowered to spread his Knowledge. He is a frail, impassive former Marxist who had taught languages at a Calcutta university—or so he says.
Throughout his rambling discourse on Eterrrrnal Rrreality he keeps adjusting the new set of false teeth with which Divine Light has equipped him on the occasion of his first satsang tour of the United States. He wears a white cable-Knit sweater on top and the traditional dhoti of white muslin below. He says that he met one of the Maharaj Ji’s disciples on the very same day he had planned to commit suicide in the Ganges—Divine Lighters greatly stress coincidence, which is part of divine play, or lila—and had received Knowledge shortly thereafter.
His teaching is not vastly different from that of the Vedantists I listened to when doing comparative religion at Columbia: The rational everyday mind is the obstacle, the great demon that stands in the way of Understanding; suffering is created by the duality which that mind posits; Enlightenment is the resolution of that duality and the merging into the One Consciousness. The mahatma’s principal departure from rigorous Vedanta doctrine is that Maharaj Ji does not want his devotees to leave the world. Quite the contrary, we must keep our jobs and enjoy our meals, the only thing we must renounce is mind, and much of what we previously considered to be “knowledge.” As a matter of fact, the new Divine Knowledge of Maharaj Ji will give us increased concentration and will make us better businessmen, musicians, writers. We can have our world and eat it too.
“The young, the uneducated, the nonintellectual receive Knowledge very easily because their minds contain less dualities and they are of more guileless heart. It will be very difficult for you,” he suddenly turns around, pointing at me severely. “But if you desire it enough it is possible…remove maya, illusions, okay? Very easy.”
“Mahatma Ji,” I ask, “what about money? What are devotees told to do about money?”
“The ‘I’-ness active in you is an illusion,” he says in a clipped machine-like voice. “Therefore after dropping the veil of maya and receiving Knowledge whatever ‘I’ possess is not mine anymore, everything is His. ‘I’ have nothing to give, since ‘I’ do not exist, only God gives, since only God exists.”
A premie in long, virginal blue robes comes to take the mahatma to tape a television show.
The Divine Light Mission, besides its membership of 40,000 in the United States and the eight million it claims in the world (most of them in India, where such a claim is impossible to verify), also owns a formidable lot of subsidiary concerns: Shri Hans Productions (films, records, educational programs); Divine Sales International Thrift Shops; Shri Hans Engineering and Divine Electronics, wholesale marketers of electronic equipment; Shri Hans Aviation, a Divine airline; Divine Travel Services and Divine Travel International, organized to ferry devotees to festivals and special events throughout the world; a palatial vegetarian restaurant on New York’s 42nd Street; and Shri Hans Publications, which produces a weekly newspaper (Divine Times) and a full-color, glossy monthly (And It Is Divine).
To outline his “practical plan for a thousand years of peace”—the theme of Houston’s Millennium festivities—Maharaj Ji has hired the world’s largest sports arena, the Astrodome, for $25,000 a day. He is staying with the Holy Family—which consists of, besides Himself, His Mother and His three older Brothers—in the Celestial Suite of the Astroworld Hotel, rentable to anyone at $2,500 a day.
Because the soul is to attain the possession of divine knowledge…the spirit must be straitened and inured to hardships, and be brought by means of this purgative contemplation into great anguish and affliction.
—St. John of the Cross
9 A.M.: Flying to Houston the day before the Millennium is to begin, I leaf through the pages of a book called Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji?, published by Bantam in an initial edition of 125,000 copies. Who is Guru Maharaj Ji? The slogan screams at me in many languages, for the plane is half filled with foreign devotees wearing enormous lapel buttons that say “Wer Ist Maharaj Ji?” “¿Quien Es Maharaj Ji?” Most of them spend the three hours with their eyes closed, occasionally staring at still another lapel button that presents the Guru’s chubby face reverently pinned to the seat in front of them.
I talk to a twenty-five-year-old German student whose father owns a supermarket chain. He tells me that the experience of Divine Knowledge is received in the following four ways: a brilliant light of almost blinding power perceived in the middle of the forehead, through that “Third Eye” of ancient Indian tradition; a music of sublime beauty in one’s ears; an extraordinary taste of “nectar” in the mouth; and—the most indescribable sensation of all—a vibration sensed in the abdominal area which one can keep meditating upon twenty-four hours a day. “I am meditating right now, as I talk to you,” he says cheerfully. “But I cannot describe to you the Divine Knowledge any further than that if you haven’t experienced it. Our Knowledge is not a religion, but an experience. Can I describe to you the taste of a mango before you have tasted it?”