HARDWAR, India - The hottest star on the international guru circuit these dlays is 15-year-old Maharaj Ji, a chubby cherub who transmits something his transported devotees call perfect knowledge.
The young yogi's Divine Light Mission, which has its headquarters in this North India town hard by the Ganges River, boasts 3 million Indian followers and about 100,000 abroad, 50,000 of them in the United States.
Maharaj Ji's devotees are called "premies," which means loved ones.
An estimated 10,000 premies, including about 3,500 young American and other foreign followers, greeted Maharaj Ji at the airport in New Delhi when he returned from New York early in November. The foreign disciples paid $430 each for round-trip tickets that brought them to India on 10 chartered p l a n e s, including eight jumbo jets.
In New Delhi they celebrated a three-day festival honoring Maharaj Ji's late guru father, founder of the mission, then folded their tents and rolled their sleeping bags and came to Hardwar, where they get up each day at 4 a.m., for two hours of meditation before breakfast, one of their two meatless meals of the day,
The premies hail Maharaj Ji, who celebrates his 15th birthday today, as the perfect master and lord of the universe. Some of the younger followers claim he has gotten them off drug trips. All say he has changed their lives, irrevocably.
Maharaj Ji took over at the age of 8 as "perfect master" when his father died. He said a voice came to him saying: "You are he. You are to continue."
Didn't Want To
Maharaj Ji said he did not want to become the head guru and would have preferred to be "a mischievous little boy." But he could not deny his duty and at his father's funeral he told the mourners to stop weeping.
"The perfect master never dies," he told the flock. "Maharaj Ji is here, amongst you."
That apparently was good enough for his followers, including his mother, now called "the holy mother," and his three older brothers, all of whom worship him by kissing his "lotus feet."
The mission went international two years ago with a parade through New Delhi with Maharaj Ji riding a golden chariot trailed by camels, elephants and premies.
The next year he ventured to the United States, where he picked up followers and learned to like American ice cream and horror movies. He also picked up an American accent and such phrases as "freaked out." which he uses when talking of these troubled times, and "really fantastic," which is how he describes his "ultimate world."
Teen-agers in the United States ("premie-teenies") flocked around him, vowing to forsake drugs, tobacco, alcohol and casual sex.
When Maharaj Ji stepped off a jumbo jet in New Delhi before his cheering premies, he looked for all the world a kid with the world in a jug and the stopper in his hand. But there was trouble on the horizon.
A few hours later customs officials leaked the still unproved allegation that he had attempted to bring into the country almost $80,000 in undeclared American currency, precious stones and watches.
The premies said he was being falsely persecuted, just as Jesus Christ had been. They said the alleged contraband was part of the assets of the mission's divine bank and was being kept in safekeeping
Customs officials, presumably are still meditating over the case.
The holy mother is bitter.
"My son is cursing me for having persuaded him to come to India to attend the Hans Jayanti (Maharaj Ji's late father) festival," she told a newsman here.
She charged that customs officials had humiliated Maharaj Ji and his entourage and that the Indian press had given his visit the worst possible coverage.
The holy mother said Indians did not appreciate what Maharaj Ji has done for the country.
"Isn't it a matter of pride for India that Englishmen who ruled over this country for two centuries now bow their heads in reverence before the young guru, Maharaj Ji?" she asked.
The fact is that some Indian leaders - religious and lay - consider Maharaj Ji a fraud and his mission a gigantic ripoff. A group of religious and political leaders met in New Delhi to demand that the boy guru be examined by a panel of doctors to determine his true age, which they claimed is at least 22.
The 2,500 foreign premies camped out here at the mission's City of Love pay no attention to the criticism of Maharaj Ji.
Judy Maurer; 23, of San Jose, Calif., said the three weeks she had spent here were "totally blissful." Others questioned said the same in equally ecstatic terms.
The Maharaj Ji had been little seen for a while and the explanation was he had been ill.
"He's having trouble with his liver," said Dr. Edward Hanzelik, of Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the camp physicians and a premie himself.
The man in charge at the camp in the absence of Maharaj Ji was guru Dayalanand, one of the 2,000 or so "mahatmas" said to also have the power to transmit perfect knowledge.
"The lives of the young foreigners here are pure and holy," the guru said, sitting cross-legged on a small, hard bed. "Class, color, nationality and language are not important in this movement." Most of the premies were busy at jobs they had been assigned through the camp's divine employment agency. Some were cooking and serving food. Others were washing clothes or folding leaflets.
One of these young people, Gary Stiles, 20, of Hanover, N.H., credited Maharaj Ji with pulling him away from drugs.
"I was just hitchhiking around searching for something," said the onetime farm boy. "I was doing a lot of dope. In New York Maharaj Ji looked through me and sort of taught me how to shine from within."
Some of the premies acknowledged that their adoption of Maharaj Ji's religion had caused them problems at home.
"My parents are very freaked out about this," said pretty Dora Carl, 21, of Jackson, Miss. But, she said, "I think they will change when they find I that I have found peace in my life." .
The premies readily accept what Arthur Brigham, 22, Maharaj Ji's public relations man from Denver, Colo., calls "spiritual discipline." The men and boys wear their hair short. The women and girls shun miniskirts, hot pants and makeup.
"We feel that it is important to stay within the social structure," said Brigham, an 'intense young man who lives in a mission ashram (temple) in Denver and drives a taxi part-time to help support the ashram.
Brigham said he may soon be working for a weekly English-language newspaper Maharaj Ji plans to start publishing in the near future.
Asked if he would be editor, Brigham said, "what job I have is not important. I'll be doing whatever guru Maharaj Ji wants me to do."