Worshipping the Absurd

'The Negation of Social Causality among the Followers of Guru Maharaj Ji.'

This paper is the result of a two-and-a-half year participant-observation study in which the authors analyze the basis of Guru Maharaj Ji's appeal to ex-movement participants in the early 1970s. The youth movement of the 1960s had generated a reinterpretation of reality that called into question conventional reality. When the movement declined, the movement interpretation had no possibility for implementation. Left between a reality they rejected and one that could not be implemented, ex-movement participants experienced life as arbitrary and senseless. Guru Maharaj Ji was deified as the mirror of an incomprehensible, meaningless universe. The Divine Light Mission stripped his followers of all notions of causality while simultaneously subsuming and repudiating both conventional and movement interpretations of reality.

Introduction: The Movement and The Mission

In the wake of the 1960s youth movement, a plethora of organizations arose to serve the contradictory needs of ex-movement activists. As movement participants, they had rejected the conventional interpretation of reality that pervaded the strata of their elders and superiors. (For documentation of the conflicts between "straight" or dominant reality and the reality of youth dissidents see Foss, 1973; Roszak, 1969, 1972; Flacks, 1971; Foss and Larkin, 1976; Larkin, 1974; Hoffman, 1968, 1969; Wieder and Zimmerman, 1976.) Yet as the movement waned in the early 1970s, the "freak" or movement interpretation of reality which they had constructed in opposition to dominant society became insupportable. Many former movement participants flocked to organizations which purported to solve the problems of youth caught between lives they despised and lives they could not live. We call these organizations "post-movement groups," since they arose in response to the decline of the movement (see Foss and Larkin, 1976, 1977). These groups took several forms: Marxist sectarian "vanguard parties," religious sects of Christian and Oriental provenance, and authoritarian communes and "families." In this paper, we will explore the purpose and operation of one such group: the Divine Light Mission of the Teenage Perfect Master and Lord of the Universe, Guru Maharaj Ji. The Divine Light Mission was archetypal of the post-movement groups, since it was able to recruit from all segments of the youth culture population: political radicals, acid-head "freaks" (cultural radicals), communards, street people, rock musicians, dropouts, and "inhibited" types, who, upon flirtation with drugs or some other aspect of dissidence, recoiled in reaction.

The Divine Light Mission achieved prominence in 1973-74, receiving a substantial amount of coverage in the print and electronic media. Its festival in November 1973- called Millennium-'73-was held in the Houston Astrodome and was the youth culture event of the year. It received coverage by local, national and international press and was the subject of a documentary shown on the public television network. As it achieved notoriety, the Mission alternatively became the focus of public outrage and ridicule. It stood accused of "brainwashing" America's youth and turning them into "zombies" (Kelley, 1974a). There were several instances in which the famed "deprogrammer," Ted Patrick, attempted to kidnap devotees and "deprogram" them. The remnants of the New Left claimed that the Mission was a "proto-fascist" group with a potential for violence and terroristic activities (Kelley, 1974a). Guru Maharaj Ji's penchant for high priced consumer items, expensive cars, and self-contradictory behavior was chronicled in the "People" or "Newsmakers" sections of the newsweeklies and the New York Times. Televised network news programs often used the strange activities of the Divine Light Mission and Guru Maharaj Ji as "kickers," light stories of humorous content to end the program.

All of these characterizations have an element of truth in them. However, the essential mystery of the Mission eluded not only the observations of the media, but most of the premies as well. In an attempt to understand the fundamental reasons for the existence of the Divine Light Mission, the authors observed and participated in its activities over a period of two-and-a-half years from May 1973 to the end of 1975, meticulously documenting Mission events. In addition to attendance at weekly meetings of the New York-New Jersey area Mission, we visited their headquarters in Denver for several days, attended regional and national festivals, interviewed premies nationwide, including dignitaries and policy-makers, learned the secret meditation techniques, read all Mission magazines, newspapers, bulletins and leaflets, read popular and professional literature pertaining to the Divine Light Mission, and related groups, and studied Hindu theology.

The Divine Light Mission emerged out of the ashes of the 1960s youth movement as a highly incongruent, even self-contradictory organization. For example, the Mission propagated its secret meditation techniques (called, and referred to hereafter, as the Knowledge) as the road to ultimate liberation, yet enforced a highly authoritarian, strict regimen of life on its members. This strangeness was due to the contradictory functions of the Mission: it accommodated ex-dissidents to the reemergence of dominant institutions, while simultaneously claiming it was carrying on the revolution by alternate means. The followers of the Teenage Perfect Master, Guru Maharaj Ji, accepted again the conventional interpretation of reality in an unconventional setting while retaining elements of the youth movement reinterpretation in a fragmentary and dissociated form. They mimicked the social patterns of the wider society which they formerly rejected, while maintaining a posture of non-conflictual estrangement toward the larger society. For example, a former president of the Mission, who was a member of a Midwest terrorist organization in the late 196Os, and who had adopted the image and behavior of responsible corporate executives in the 1970s, told the authors in 1975,, "This Knowledge is the most revolutionary thing I know." Shortly thereafter, he stepped down from his DLM position, to serve a sentence at Ft. Leavenworth for his anti-war activities. There was neither protest by the Mission nor premies acting on their own,, an unthinkable occurrence five years earlier.

As they cut their hair, eschewed the hedonism of the earlier era, and conventionalized their behavior to conform to the demand of ''straight'' society, they did so in the name of Guru Maharaj Ji, who was worshiped for his seemingly nonsensical and unpredictable behavior. In order to minimize the pain (see Festiger et al., 1956, on psychic pain generated by unsupportable reality systems) generated by the conflicting interpretations of reality in ''straight" society and from the movement, the Mission systematically stripped its members of all notions of causality and offered its own view of the universe that emphasized formal structure without substantive content. However, before we discuss this phenomenon, we must outline certain aspects of the "freak" reinterpretation of reality that emerged during the late 1960s.

Reconciling the Irreconcilable: Liberation and Bureaucracy

Central to the "freak" reinterpretation of social reality during the 1960s was the characterization of all bureaucratic hierarchies as substantively irrational and eo ipso evil. ''Corporate-fascist-pig-bureaucracy'' was a staple epithet in late-1960s "Movement" rhetoric. "Movement" participants rejected the rationales put forward by bureaucratic organizations to legitimate their activities in terms of principles of overarching significance such as material prosperity, democracy, national defense, or "the quest for truth."

The end of the "movement" meant, for the erstwhile dissidents, a foreclosure of the possibilities of social transformation, i.e., an acknowledgement of the persistence of bureaucratic hierarchies for the foreseeable future. One way or another peace would have to be made on their terms. In these circumstances continued commitment by the former dissidents to the "freak" reinterpretation of social reality was rendered excruciatingly painful, and most of them accordingly abandoned it - at least to the extent that they could "function" within conventional bureaucratic organizations. They were, however, unwilling or unable to restore their lost faith in the pretentions of these organizations with respect to the overarching significance of their activities; and in fact, survey data gathered by Yankelovich (1972) and Gallup (1975, 1976) indicate that the moral authority of bureaucratic elites continued to decline during the 1970s.

Those who founded the Divine Light Mission or joined it during 1971-72 were former ''freaks.'' As "freaks" they had, during the 1960s, internalized the standard "Movement" conception of the repressive ''corporate-fascist-pig-bureaucracy." But now, as "servants" of the Teenage Perfect Master, Guru Maharaj Ji, they proceeded to build and manage an organization which became, during 1972-73, a veritable parody of that conception: The Mission enjoined upon its organizational core a strict regimentation of everyday life. It banned drugs and established an order of celibate-renunciates. It enforced hair and dress codes and fostered servility and obedience in lower-level operatives.

By 1973, the Mission had developed a centralized bureaucracy with a rampant titleism and a penchant for office forms and organizational charts. Observation of the mission led us to the conclusion that the primary function of the staff was monitoring of its own activities. In effect, therefore, the Mission represented the ultimate parody of bureaucracy in the wider society - functionally rational but substantially irrational. Failures and bungling on the part of the Mission staff were repeatedly demonstrated, yet the symbolic forms of organizational seriousness and managerial competence had a compelling emotional appeal to both the Mission staff itself and to many potential converts. [Extensive documentation of administrative ineptitude can be found in Daniel Foss and Ralph Larkin, "The Premies: A Study of the Followers of the Teenage Perfect Master, Guru Maharaj Ji" (unpublished), especially in the chapter entitled, "The Perfect Organization."]

The significance of the activities of the Mission lay in "service" to and execution of the "Divine Plan" of Guru Maharaj Ji, Perfect Master and Lord of the Universe. But Guru Maharaj Ji was himself a supremely incongruous divinity: chubby, squat, enamored of expensive cars and other gadgets, and in no way saintly in his dealings with followers.

Yet it this very implausibility which constituted a major factor in Guru Maharaj Ji's appeal to his adoring followers: having repudiated or become estranged from the conventional ("straight'') interpretation of social reality, they could not adopt the "freak" reinterpretation of social reality, as it presented a declining promise of fulfillment. Society was therefore something merely factitious, making no sense. Guru Maharaj Ji accordingly represented the ideal embodiment of the universe, since he was himself so manifestly preposterous.

Since the prospective premies came to the Mission in a state of confusion and despair, it maintained a strong emotional appeal by deifying the incomprehensibility of the material world, while at the same time providing an ideology which guaranteed that, through rigorous discipline, one would learn the ultimate meaning of life. However, in order to learn such an important (and eternal, we might add) lesson, one had to accept Guru Maharaj Ji as Lord of the Universe and learn to speak and think in satsang language (Satsang refers to the discourse given by the Holy Family and devotees. Premies informally use satsang in talking to each other. It also refers to more formalized services held by the Mission for purposes of recruitment and reaffirming the faith of the followers), which was the foundation of a non-causal belief system. In order to understand how such an act led to the suspension of causality, we must examine the persona of Guru Maharaj Ji.

Who Is Guru Maharaj Ji?

Guru Maharaj Ji is held to be the personification, embodiment, and perfect mirror of the premie's experience of the universe. The Perfect Master is ambiguous, self-contradictory, absurd, capricious, self-indulgent, and arbitrary in everything he does - at least to all outward appearances. But he is hardly expected to be plausible or even to make any sense at all. "He just is the way He is," as one premie put it. In fact , Guru Maharaj Ji has a positive obligation to avoid trimming his sails to curry favor with people who have preconceptions of the behavior of a Perfect Master. It is only being ''the way He is" that Guru Maharaj Ji performs his paramount spiritual function, that of exploding "concepts" and other preconceived notions which constitute the psychic baggage with which the individual is encumbered. Thereby one is placed in a realm where the apparent contradictions among ideas, doctrines, words, theories, and concepts simply dissolve. Premies say, "He's always blowing minds. That's the whole trip, I guess."

Troubled premies are counseled to hand over their problems to Guru Maharaj Ji and say, "Here, Lord, you take it, I can't handle this." The efficacy of this device lies, we believe, in its invitation to premies to symbolically exorcise their inner conflicts by projecting them upon an external figure, that of Guru Maharaj Ji, who personifies all contradiction, unifies all opposites, and must be in control of everything since everything is out of control. Guru Maharaj Ji exemplifies and acts out of the perceived orneriness, capriciousness, and moral obtuseness of the universe with great skill. He is the obvious and logical depository for any inner turmoil which cannot be resolved by the individual alone. Guru Maharaj Ji is aware of his preposterous image and skillfully manipulates it. To the general public it is the height of ridicule to believe that a "fat little rich kid" with a taste for a luxurious living and expensive gadgets - and who, on top of everything, married his secretary, a woman eight years older than himself - could be the Perfect Master; yet here is Guru Maharaj Ji using the very ludicrousness of that proposition to support his claim that he is, in fact, the Perfect Master:

I mean, it's like man is big surprise, you know, people talking about surprises, but I think Perfect Master is the biggest surprise. And people make a concept of a Perfect Master, he's going to be like this, no he's going to be like this, no he's going to be like this. And then he comes. He's completely different and as a matter of fact surprises the world so much, surprises everybody so much they don't think he is (from satsang concluding Guru Puja 74, Amherst, Mass.).

It is very common satsang parlance to say that "Guru Maharaj Ji is a mirror." If Guru Maharaj Ji is a mirror and simultaneously is consciously preposterous and random, then what kind of appeal does he have; what sort of collective experience - especially pre-Knowledge experience - might he be reflecting?

Social Causality and Truth Within: Grace and Lila

Premies-to-be come to the Mission already motivated to avoid formulating a comprehensive interpretation of the wider society. The Mission fortifies this inclination by offering the Truth within, the bliss that comes with practicing the meditation techniques, attending satsang, and doing service. Within the Mission there are means and devices which inhibit preoccupation with the wider society and sustain conviction that the Truth is within even for those who consistently fail to find it. Hundreds of premies echo Guru Maharaj Ji in saying that "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." Some eat the pudding and find it delicious. Others eat the pudding and taste nothing. Yet the latter continue to order more pudding. Why?

The premie-to-be brings to the Mission a weak sense of social causality based on an image of society characterized by utter senselessness. Within the Mission he is exposed to the satsang language embodying a mode of thought that accords perfectly with his denial of causality. In fact, as one learns to think in satsang, one's remaining links with chains of causality outside the realm of the Knowledge are systematically snapped. For causality one substitutes Grace and lila. Neither is "earned" or "deserved". Neither can be analyzed according to any code of morality. Yet both sanctify randomness - which the would-be premie already accepts as the ruling principle at work in society - into a cosmic attribute of divinity. Since the individual beforehand accepts senselessness as omnipresent, it does not take much of a leap to accept senselessness as Divinely ordained and either worship it with seriousness and humility or wallow in it as God sprays it all over him. (Guru Maharaj Ji is well known for his penchant for spraying his followers with paint, water, and silly foam. All such dousings are regarded by premies as important religious experiences.) Grace is Guru Maharaj Ji's Grace, but Guru Maharaj Ji does not bestow it. As a high-ranking premie said, "Grace is not something the Perfect Master gives. It is something the devotee gets."

Some instances of Grace are directly attributable to the actions of Guru Maharaj Ji, as when he Graces a premie with his Darshan [Darshan is a term referring to being in the physical presence of Guru Maharaj Ji. Though Darshan usually refers to the traditional foot-kissing ceremony, it can also designate less formal encounters.] or assigns him to a particularly blissful service. At other times Guru Maharaj Ji intimates that Grace is a miracle or supernatural reward which magnifies the anticipated consequences of virtuous behavior such as hard work or diligent organizing. After Millennium, for instance, the Mission finances were so awash in a sea of red ink that the leadership could only hope for an out-and-out miracle. DLM financial Director Rick Berman described the scene:

"Once we had a board meeting with Maharaj Ji and we had all these reports from him. Michael (Bergman), who was treasurer at the time, said to Maharaj Ji, "I remember just before Millennium you told me that if I had only told you about the money shortage you would have given me grace to get the money together. I'd like to of officially ask for grace now because we really need it!" Maharaj Ji laughed and said, "Don't ask for grace officially because if you do I'll give you what I have in my pocket - two cents. Work hard and grace will come."

In the above anecdote Guru Maharaj Ji not only employs the notion of Grace in the old sense that runs, "God helps those who help themselves"; but it is also indicated that he uses it subtly to needle a bureaucrat who has withheld disagreeable news from him.

Indeed, those instances in which grace is manifest to premies could not by any remote stretch of the imagination involve the conscious intervention or even awareness of Guru Maharaj Ji (in His Finite Form). One evening in April 1974 a sixteen-year-old woman said that "little droplets of Grace" were constantly raining down on her. As an example she told of looking for a present for her mother; she did not expect to purchase the desired item for under six dollars. Grace intervened when she happened by a store which had the intended gift on sale for a mere $1.98.

Guru Maharaj Ji, the Perfect Master, according to Mission theology, has come to reveal the Knowledge of meditation to suffering humanity; he was not obliged to do this, but as Perfect Master he has altruistically chosen freely to dispense his revelation and thereby shed his Grace upon all who ask for Truth with a guileless heart. The experience of bliss in practicing the meditation is a further manifestation of Grace. However, when bliss fails to manifest it is blamed on the premie, and the problem can be attributed to numerous possible causes: he is insufficiently dedicated, he is in his mind, he has not let go of his ego, he has "expectations" of "realizing the Knowledge" too quickly failing to "let go" and thereby make real progress on the spiritual path, and so forth. In short: if bliss is manifested, this is with Guru Maharaji's Grace; if it is not, this is human failure.

There is a level of Grace the effects of which lie beyond the realm of awareness accessible to unrealized beings, as evident in the statement common in satsang, "… we are experiencing that family. We are experiencing that Grace." Even if a premie cannot easily detect Grace manifesting itself in his life, it is there nonetheless. The normative dimension of positive experiences in the Mission subculture is apparent here. Whatever the premie's actual awareness of his experiences, he is encouraged to believe that Grace, all-pervasive, is operating upon him and that he must soon experience unquestionable evidence of its presence.

Belief in the workings of Grace, as we have indicated, fragments what remains of the Knowledge-susceptible individual's already minimal sense of secular causality in society and psychodynamics. While the higher aspects of Grace may be presumed to operate according to unknown cosmic principles, its perceptible manifestations are rather chancy and "expectations" of Grace-the feeling that one is entitled to it-are expressly discouraged. Guru Maharaj Ji, the incarnation of the principle of randomness in the universe, bestows Grace as he Will; but at the same time Guru Maharaj Ji in his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence is raining down Grace in a steady stream. It is fairly usual for a devoted premie to say, "I do not deserve such Grace," even though there are really no fixed principles according to which Grace is "deserved" or not. This attitude is encouraged within the Mission subculture.

If premies are thankful for the bestowal of Grace which they do not deserve then they should, according to formal logic, complain about lila which they do not deserve either. But formal logic yields to emotional logic; reactions to lila range from a quizzical shrug of the shoulders to positive relish. Even more than Grace, lila embodies a world-view of a capricious, absurd, and random universe, at least in appearances; whatever cosmic laws may govern lila are beyond the capacity of unrealized souls to comprehend. Lila is the prerogative of a divine personage; it is in the nature of the divine personage to exercise that prerogative. Grace is a matter of imputation and interpretation: the premie must ascribe a miraculous quality to blissful experiences and instances of good fortune which an outsider might consider to be the natural consequences of psychic discipline and autosuggestion, or else as sheer coincidence or mundane events of no significance. Lila by contrast is more a matter of definition. For a premie to detect the workings of Grace he must be convinced that the miraculous is indeed in operation-even without any "external'' manifestations of it being required-while associating it with Guru Maharaj Ji. The occurrence of lila is on the other hand incontestable because something weird or unpleasant has unquestionably occurred, and it remains only to define it as the game-playing of Guru Maharaj Ji.

For instance, Guru Maharaj Ji's enjoyment of lavish material luxury (when celibacy and poverty were enjoined upon ashram residents) has from time to time been taken for an enormous lila. It is not that the premies necessarily find anything the least strange in his collection of cars, planes, Divine Residences, tape machines, and other baubles. After all, why should they begrudge him a white Mercedes if they would not have felt the same about Janis ("Lord, won'tcha buy me a Mercedes Benz") Joplin. Nevertheless, the flaunting of conspicuous wealth by religious dignitaries is alien to the religious traditions of the middle class from which most premies derive (though not to the religious traditions of the Fundamentalist lower classes, both black and white) and is the object of the contempt and derision of the media, middle-class parents, and rival sects; so the subject kept cropping up in satsang, especially with non-premies around. The premies retorted that it is all lila, a gigantic joke played upon a money-crazed and contraption-collecting society in which Guru Maharaj Ji holds up a mirror to a debased consumer culture. This is proof that he is Perfect Master of this Age.

A Mission fiasco to which Guru Maharaj Ji lent his name could be susceptible to post-facto classification as lila: after the Millennium festival, at which Mission officials predicted an attendance upwards of 100,000 plus extra-terrestrial beings, was in fact attended by a maximum of 35,000 and incurred a debt of over $ 1 million, some premies professed to believe that the prophecies had indeed been fulfilled and that l,000 years of peace had in fact been inaugurated. Others, however, contended that the festival had in fact been lila, a stupendous trick played by Guru Maharaj Ji to teach the premies to avoid having "expectations" even if they derived from Guru Maharaj Ji's own pronouncement; to eschew ''attachments" to grandiose organizational manifestations and colossal objects in the material world such as the Astrodome; and to remain exclusively centered upon the only Truth, which lies within.

Abrupt changes in the Mission policy apparently due to decisions of Guru Maharaj Ji or other members of the Holy family were also defined as lila by premies in the provinces. Following Bal Bhagwan Ji's (Guru Maharaj Ji's eldest brother) visit to Denver- in April 1973 the Mission made some public gestures towards "relevance." And It Is Divine magazine started to print articles on subjects of major concern to the broader youth population, such as the fad for Quaaludes and the feminist movement. The July issue featured a cover story on lesbian women (though it is suggested with great delicacy that the demands of the women's movement could be satisfied through celibacy and meditation). Rapprochement with feminism was sought through a Divine Organization of women which raised women's issues within National Headquarters and planned propagation activities using a feminist-tinged approach. In June Mata Ji (Maharaj Ji's mother) and Guru Maharaj Ji arrived in Denver. Guru Maharaj Ji reportedly examined the July issue of AIID (the two women on the cover whom the reader was to take to be lesbians were actually celibate ashram premies) with great disgust, saying ''This is divine?'' The cover photo of the August issue, which was to show a premie dressed up as a Palestinian guerilla, was scrapped in favor of a picture of a little girl licking an ice cream cone; the editorial content was correspondingly changed to sugar-'n'-spice pablum. The Divine Organization of Women was disbanded. Meanwhile, back in New York one day in June we were doing service at an ashram by washing the dishes and mopping the floor. We heard some premies making some remarks about lila; it seemed that they were now prohibited from using certain materials for purposes of propagation. We asked whether different members of the Holy Family represented divergent policy positions within the Mission. The housemother pointed out that members of the Holy Family could do whatever they pleased because "they're not human," and therefore speculation about their possible motives was entirely futile and presumptuous.

Thus, the notion of lila surrounds one of the central mysteries of the Mission: Guru Maharaj Ji can do anything he wants, and in so doing, behaves incomprehensibly, exemplifying a universe beyond understanding. The appeal of Guru Maharaj Ji, then, lies in his ability to reject a world that is arbitrary, non-sensical, contradictory, and ridiculous. The worship of the preposterous figure of a "fat, teenage, Indian kid" deifies nonsense. He validates prior experiences of senseless randomness and senseless order in the material world by sponsoring, through the Mission, an alternative society which reproduces and parodies at the same time as it negates through ridicule the very features of social reality which gave rise to the feelings of senselessness in the first place; and then resolves the contradiction in a mystical synthesis by offering in himself an object of worship.


Reacceptance of the conventional interpretation of social reality does not imply a return to the status quo ante. To a greater or lesser degree conventional society has ceased to "make sense" to the former dissident, even as he or she submits to the behavioral dictates of "normal life." The social-movement reinterpretation of social reality also no longer "makes sense" insofar as the material possibilities for following its behavioral dictates in collective action for social transformation no longer exist.

Living in a social world experienced as making no sense is not very pleasant, especially if the counter-sense one has recently made of it has become insupportable. The former dissident needs assurance from some quarter that the social universe is orderly and well-planned, yet understandably resonates to indications that nonsense, randomness, and absurdity reign.

For a brief period in the early 1970s, Divine Light Mission met these contradictory psychic needs of former movement participants. Its doctrines and precepts repudiated explicitly both the conventional interpretation of social reality and the social-movement reinterpretation of social reality; meanwhile the Mission bureaucracy parodied authority relations in the wider society.

The prospective convert was informed by the (apparently) businesslike operatives of the Mission that "Guru Maharaj Ji tells you the meaning and purpose of your life," that "Guru Maharaj Ji has a Divine Plan." Yet Guru Maharaj Ji was manifestly preposterous as a divinity, and prolonged contact with the Mission only served to confirm his role as the deification of the absurd. As converts dedicated their lives to the Mission and the propagation of the secret meditation techniques, they internalized the central concepts of Grace and lila, which reinforced their pre-Knowledge experiences of a world that manifestly made no sense. Thus, divested of the necessity of making sense out of the material world, they could accommodate themselves to the resurgence of dominant institutions by conforming in the name of Guru Maharaj Ji for the purposes of spreading his Knowledge of the universal Truth which could only be known through the worshiping of a God who made no sense.


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