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Features & profiles

 

Blinded By the Light (Maharaji)

27 October 2002

Published in the Good Weekend (Age & Sydney Morning Herald) and West Australian


"How do you find a lion that has swallowed you?" - C.G. Jung


In 1980 it was brought to my attention that OPEC had once sparked a world oil crisis, that cricketers no longer dressed in whites, and that someone called David Bowie had been very popular.


My absence from the 1970s had much to do with a teenaged incarnation of God named Guru Maharaji, who had in 1971 decamped from northern India with his mother and three brothers - also great incarnations, though not quite as great as him - to Malibu Beach, southern California, and the West at large.


Now, 30 years on, after a long succession of sex and money scandals, most of Maharaji's premies - or devotees - have abandoned him.


But in 1972, the plump 14-year-old persuaded me that a divine experience awaited me if I received his initiation, or "Knowledge" as he called it - which was based on four secret meditation techniques.


I'd been introduced to Maharaji by old schoolfriends from Geelong Grammar in September 1972. By early October, I was travelling up the Hume Highway with a group of his premies - Hindi for "giver of love" - whom I'd met at their Carlton ashram.


My fellow travellers were impressively euphoric. One zapped me with rapidfire talk about my "third eye". This one of Maharaji's mahatmas (Indian lieutenants) would duly open, she said, assuming I was pure enough.


A shaven-headed Irishman meditated under a blanket for the entire twelve-hour trip. Across the back seat, a girl fresh from the cast of Hair had the face of a Pre-Raphaelite princess, sang like an angel, and didn't appear to have a boyfriend.


Someone gave me a Divine Times magazine, published by Maharaji's organisation, Divine Light Mission. (Everything to do with Maharaji was divine or holy. For example DLM's secondhand shops were "Divine Sales", and his family the "Holy Family".)


As we roared northward I read Maharaji's words: "If you come to me with a guileless heart you will surely receive this most ancient spiritual Knowledge, which, if practised upon, will give you perfect peace of mind."


In person, his English was far more circuitous than that, I was soon to discover - but his editors were Oxford graduates. It was an impressive claim from someone six years younger than myself. So who was Maharaji, exactly?


"Every ear should hear that the saviour of humanity has come!" he'd proclaimed. "When human beings forget the religion of humanity, the Supreme Lord incarnates... If you want to give devotion, give it to Guru."


Compared with the other possibilities on offer (devoting myself to law or accountancy, for example) it didn’t seem such a bad idea.
Premies ate no meat, and en route to Sydney we wondered how we'd find vegetarian food. In Albury, the first thing that loomed into view was a health food shop - a rarity in 1972.


"Maharaji! You are incredible!" my colleagues shouted to the thin air.


A few hours later we ran out of petrol in a deserted back street of Yass. Almost immediately, an NRMA van materialised.


"Oh, thankyou Maharaji!" my premie co-travellers chorused.


Gurus weave their spells, but devotees do a pretty good job on each other. By the time I reached Sydney, I'd been well-primed for the big night - September 6 - when the purveyor of all this magic would speak at Sydney's Lower Town Hall.


On the night, the hall overflowed, and hundreds were turned away. Maharaji strode quickly through a path of rose petals to a throne at centre-stage, and scanned the audience with what I thought to be a shifty, calculating look. (I later had it explained that he, being perfect, reflected all your defects back at you.) A throng of premies dived to the floor before him, flat on their faces.


Maharaji talked - sometimes obscurely, often repetitively, but always with transcendent self-confidence - of the divine experience which awaited me if I received his "Knowledge". Arrayed in the seats around me like seraphs, those who'd received the "Knowledge" looked like the calmest, happiest people I'd ever seen.


Maharaji offered all the totalism an adolescent could ask for. Within his racked and tortured syntaxes, I gradually discerned the message I'd been waiting to hear since the end of childhood: life was not random.


Back in Melbourne after the Divine Visit, I moved into an ashram in Carlton, renouncing sex, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and meat. I wrote to the Commonwealth Bank asking them to close my account and make over its three dollars and forty-six cents to Divine Light Mission. From now on, I disdainfully informed some startled clerk, I was storing up my treasure “where moth and rust did not corrupt”.


There was much silence about Maharaji’s ashrams and, within them, whole troubled parts of ourselves also fell silent. Ashram life afforded freedom from the need to “succeed” in society few of us could relate to. There was no peer pressure to get drunk or take drugs. The prohibition on relatioships and sex was, for the first year or two, a welcome holiday from the disasters of dating, fumbling and sexual inexperience. And suddenly, I had a new family, in fact a whole international tribe.


 


WORSHIPPING A PERSON who - to everone else - was a transparent fraud, might have something to do with Zahavi's Handicap Theory of Sexual Selection, which zoologist Richard Dawkins has cleverly applied to religious nutters: "It is as though the faithful gain prestige through managing to believe even more impossible things than their rivals succeed in believing."


It sounds far-fetched. But in 1973, the world-famous author of The Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey - today one of Maharaji's closest disciples, and a hugely successful corporate trainer - was asked why he believed Maharaji was God, as opposed to a con artist. He answered: "A good con artist wouldn't wear a gold wrist watch or give such stupid answers."


The case for Zahavi rests.


But all this is restrospective analysis. What was going on in 1972?


Well, like his rivals, Maharaji capitalised with a vengeance on Western malaise. And happily for him, he arrived at the height of an anti-rational era.


As well as the messages that rained down on us daily from tapes, magazines and mahatmas to ensure we were thoroughly conditioned - we fuelled each other’s belief. Premies brought prasad - fragments of food Maharaji had discarded, or charanamrit,  vials of water he'd bathed his feet in - home in suitcases from his international programs, like drug smugglers.


Anything he'd touched was sacred. We once raffled a set of his mother's dental X-rays.


But for all that, Maharaji's "Knowledge" did deliver. It gave me peace, euphoria, love and certainty that I hadn't even known were possible. It took away anxiety - and even loneliness, the curse of modernity. It had to be divine, eternal, all-knowing.



THROUGH THE SEVENTIES, for thousands of young Australians devotion to the "Perfect Master" became known as the "hidden treasure within".


Maharaji wasn't short on hidden treasure of his own. Wherever he went - Australia, Taiwan, Japan, Fiji - there was a "darshan line", where premies would queue to kiss his feet, and deposit gifts of cash. The latter were spirited off to Hong Kong in suitcases by premie "couriers" - sometimes $US300,000 or more at a time - and transferred to Maharaji's Swiss banks.


"There were also special fund-raisers for the extravagant birthday gifts," recalls Michael Donner, former US national director of Maharaji's Divine Light Mission. "People flying around collecting bags of cash - often over $US100,000 - for a new car or whatever. The use of the organisation to collect and solicit this money was no doubt not too legal."


Across the world, thousands gave away money, possessions, relationships, drugs and alcohol to move into his ashrams, where whole, troubled parts of themselves fell silent, as life was reduced to the spare, elemental habits of meditation, work and worship.


In 1973 Maharaji announced a program - Millennium 73 - to be held in the massive Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Still blissfully free of false modesty, he promised it would be "the most holy and significant event in human history". His lean, dapper eldest brother, Bal Bhagwan Ji, said that beings from other planets would visit to pay homage to the Satguru ("true guru").


But Millennium was a flop. Only 15,000 people turned up - not the expected 144,000 - and all were from Earth. On a throne so high it gave me a crick in the neck, Maharaji's addresses were slurred and undistinguished.


My Millennium highpoint was coming across Maharaji sitting on his golfcart at the top level of the Astrodome, at two in the morning, surrounded by a group of premies.


His designer clothing was a marked contrast to the hand-me-downs worn by those around him. But more than that, he was the only person in the group who seemed to be himself. The women encircling him had their hands clasped rapturously to their breast, as if protecting themselves from his radiance. The men stood tensely, their hands clasped tightly in front of their genitals. Everybody sported fixed grins.


Whenever Maharaji spoke, heads nodded up and down furiously. (It still happens today: ex-premies know it as "the nod".) His jokes - most of them inane - were laughed at uproariously.


At the eye of this surreal tableau, my portly, golfcart-straddling deity struck me as "unique", "divine". But for the first time premies - once my boon companions - appeared to be just "sheep". I was still only 21: it never occurred to me that I was a member of the flock.


 


THE WORLD SAW Maharaji rather differently. Press coverage was uniformly bad: Maharaji's hospitalisation with ulcers; his marriage at 16 to a shapely blonde; the cavernous unpaid debts from Millennium. Then there was the Detroit journalist who'd thrown a cream pie in Maharaji's face, and been beaten nearly to death with a crowbar, by a mahatma named Fakiranand.


Most of the era's cults thrived on perceived enemies, such as newspapers, governments, greed or sexual licence. Maharaji was an over-achiever: for him the whole of existence was the problem. In May, 1974 he said:


"In this world there is no peace, no harmony, no love. Why not? Because the whole world does not exist. Nothing exists."


This was the Hindu idea of maya - that only God is real, and the entire world an illusion.


Maharaji continued to have significant quantities of this illusion transferred to his Swiss banks. Mansions, luxury cars, and the first of many private jets, all materialised. An early Divine 707 boasted a gold toilet, says US ex-premie Cynthia Gracie, who worked to refurbish it - "though I don't know if it was solid or plated gold".


Today, those assets which Maharaji's aggrieved former devotees can trace have been conservatively valued at one hundred million dollars.


Even if we early premies had known the sheer volume of the loot, it probably wouldn’t have disillusioned us. I hadn't even noticed the rows of empty seats at Millennium, nor Maharaji's blurry, circular speech:


"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."


Years later Bob Mishler - by now an ex-premie - explained the performance. The Perfect Master, he said, had been "sloshed".



AFTER A BITTER 1974 power struggle within the "Holy Family", two of Maharaji's brothers, and his mother, had denounced him as a fraud.


As the Eighties dawned, Maharaji - sensing a growing wariness of cults - closed the ashrams, dropped the "Guru" from his name, and ceased to wear the jewelled crown of Krishna, the great boy-God of Hinduism.


Premies worldwide were instructed to hand in their tapes and magazines. The Holy Family, and Maharaji's claims to divinity, were consigned to the flames.


By the mid-Eighties Divine Light Mission had re-emerged as Elan Vital, and the "Lord of the Universe" had morphed into "someone who speaks about life", as Elan Vital rather blandly described him. The idea of his divinity, he explained, was a "misunderstanding" propagated by his mahatmas.


In 1991 his mission gained a new lease of life, when 2,000 acres were purchased outside Brisbane for international gatherings. For the first time, Australia became the centre of Maharaji's global activities.


Amaroo, as the property is known, has hosted half a dozen programs, with up to 5,000 attendees pouring in from every continent. (Another is being staged next week.) The property has tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure, including miles of fibre optic cabling and a million-dollar meeting hall. Funds for all this are raised by Elan Vital, which leases the property.


As well as giving daily addresses, Maharaji spends a lot of his time at Amaroo "resting", and partying at his luxury "campsite". He goes for the occasional walk, shoots rabbits (an official secret), and meets with his international organisers.


A highlight of Amaroo programs is the "darshan line" - the money-raising, foot-kissing ritual which he has quietly revived. These are now conducted behind metal detectors, on days when no outsiders are present, and their existence is publicly denied.


FOR ME, THE Nineties brought some "drips" - the ex-premie term for anomalies or wrongs which penetrate one's thick mental armour, enabling doubt to grow, and one's addiction to "Meaning" to loosen.


A major "drip" came in 1997, when most of Amaroo's managers complained about the autocratic style of its leadership. Maharaji sent an envoy from the US to put 40 of us through intensive self-criticism sessions, amidst confessions of unworthiness and guilt. The strangest thing was that those who tearfully - at times hysterically - confessed to the most thorough-going unworthiness had done nothing wrong. (The worst offenders, like myself, stayed dry-eyed.)


I left Amaroo and Queensland after this, somewhat troubled.


I returned for a week-long "training" session in September 1999, run by Maharaji himself. Maharaji seemed to be on a hair-trigger the entire week, and descended into violent rages on small provocation. Pointless tasks were repeated. Unwinnable team games were played. Endless messages about "independence", "respect" and "honesty" were hammered in - then undercut by demands for total obedience, by abuse, and by secret deals between the trainers and particular attendees.


I finally grasped that Maharaji  thrives on the mixed message. Independence/devotion, honesty/scheming, trust yourself/trust the master. One half of the mixed message empowers and expands, the other half intimidates and reduces; one half provokes love, the other half fear; one half liberates, the other half enslaves.


Everyone wants to feel free, but we also want to obey a legitimate authority.


Finally I was digging through the surface logic - the premise - which had been installed all those years before in my 20-year-old skull.


Today the contradiction between freedom and slavery which Maharaji embodies is blindingly clear. But for the years that it was not, it troubled me in strange, unconscious ways: the sapping of ambition, an inability to explain Maharaji to outsiders, ethical lapses I would not normally have been prey to, and clinging to "safe" channels of thought.



IN 1996, CANADIAN lawyer and ex-premie Jim Heller was cruising the early cult newsgroups on the net, looking for some mention of Maharaji. Nothing. Then, slowly, other ex-premies materialised - including one who happened to have web design skills: www.ex-premie.org was born.


As bits of information - recollections, documents, photos - trickled into the website from all over the world, an entirely new picture of the Perfect Master began to emerge. 


As Heller argues, "Without [the Net], I'd have been just another guy with some quirky past who, if I was lucky, might get a chance to hash it all out in an airport bar with some other former comrade twenty years down the line. But the Net has spurred us all on to being cold-case detectives - scrutinising our collective past with the benefit of maturity, hindsight and relief from the information-deprivation all cults seem to thrive in."


An early eye-opener was an interview with the late Bob Mishler - Divine Light Mission's President for five years, and personal secretary to Maharaji - who'd defected in 1977. Mishler's disclosures covered the waterfront:


Maharaji "drank heavily...to the point that he was stewed every evening. There was more than one occasion where we had to carry him to bed after he had passed out."


"He would find ways to charge off things that we'd bought - for him - to various Divine Light Mission departments, so that they could be hidden within our financial status... Consumerism is like a disease with him."


Mishler had one recurrent theme: "Most of the members...have only seen Maharaji under very well-staged and planned conditions."


But the scandal which came to cause Elan Vital's international PR team the most heartburn surrounds the Indian Mahatma Jagdeo, twenty years ago described by some as "Maharaji's closest mahatma".


Via the ex-premie website, two women came forward claiming that as children in the 1970s they were sexually assaulted by Jagdeo. One, Susan Haupt, says "several" other victims are unwilling to speak out publicly.


Twenty years ago and more, Haupt says, she twice sent word of Jagdeo's misdeeds to Maharaji personally.


But Jagdeo remained prominent in the organisation, and his access to children continued unabated. The organisation has dismissed the claims as “hearsay”.


Several ex-premies attest that stories of Jagdeo's paedophilia were known at senior levels in Elan Vital since 1978. I saw Jagdeo at Maharaji's Delhi ashram in 1997: Elan Vital now says he has "disappeared".


Worse was to come. The indefatigable Jim Heller tracked down Michael Dettmers, who'd managed Maharaji's assets, personal affairs and "presentation to the world" from 1975 till 1987.


The Perfect Master, Dettmers disclosed, was not just "an alcoholic", but often an abusive one.


Whilst insisting that people in ashrams abstain from drugs, alcohol and sex, Dettmers told Good Weekend, Maharaji had smoked pot "four or five nights a week" at Malibu, and had Dettmers "arrange" for premie women to provide sexual favours. Invariably, the women were quickly dropped, with "upset and confusion" resulting.


Those who spill such beans do not get off lightly. In January, cyber attacks on www.ex-premie.org were on a scale unprecedented in Latvia - where it is hosted - and twice disabled its host server, paralysing scores of businesses. Websites put up by premies last year suggested that Dettmers, Donner and 21 other prominent ex-premies were mentally ill, kidnappers or (of course) paedophiles.


Maharaji still counts among his Australian devotees psychiatrists, businessmen and journalists. Internationally, premies include astrologer Jonathan Cainer and a three-star general in the Pentagon. (George Harrison's widow, Olivia, seems to have slipped off the scene.)


Maharaji still tours the world, often several times a year, though numbers are down from 20,000 in 1979 to three or four thousand now. A 1970 Delhi program drew one million Indians: today Maharaji's crowds in Delhi range from about 60,000 to 80,000.


In India, Maharaji is still announced as a deity. In the West overt devotion is confined to the darshan lines, and the "Backstage Vestal Virgin Cult": those super-devoted premie women who shower and meditate before scrubbing clean every inch of his backstage floor.


Those close to the family say that even Maharaji's remaining loyal brother, Raja Ji, has doubts about his brother's judgement, and what it has wrought.



YOU CAN STAY in a state of denial for only so long. When I finally went to the website and read the revelations I had kept hearing about - and rebutting - for so long, my worst fears were confirmed. I dissociated myself from Maharaji, quickly and publicly.
Equally quickly, two 30-year friends launched onto the Web - one stating that I might be "on the verge of a nervous breakdown", the other that I was "schizophrenic" and "a drug addict".


Leaving was, indeed, what I imagine coming off heroin to be like: for months my nervous system laboured mightily to catch up with my intellect. It was as if I'd taken the door off a cave of bats, which were now flying, shrieking, into the daylight.
The "bats" were long-repressed feelings, and disused analytical skills - and judgements about the treachery I'd seen around Maharaji which were so secret, so inadmissable, that I'd hidden them even from myself.


But when that turbulent few months had ended, the dominant feeling was sheer relief.


When I told them the news, my non-premie friends uniformly said: "Thank God!" Masters, they already knew, were for dogs.


 


2013 postscript: Eleven years on, I still feel that relief, which has ripened into a kind of gratitude. However now that the white heat of cult exiting is gone (I don't know of anything so emotionally intense), and the hatchet has been buried between myself and Elan Vital, I feel gratitude, too, for my early years in the ashram - which protected my very immature younger self from a dangerous world. I've also regained numerous premie friends, and am reminded how agreeable most premies are.


Visitor's : Add Comment


Prue Hemming   17 January 2015

Hi John, how are you!
I found your site and read about all your adventures. Great republishing Propinquity with good reviews. As you know I have the first edition.
Blinded by the Light ...you were always ahead of your time.
Prue


endlesspeace   3 March 2015

Another deluded ex-premie. Despite all the peace and bliss you yourself admit to experiencing through maharaji's gift you spend your life trying to denounce him. You are a sad bunch.

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