Alone and in pairs, the young crowd began drifting into a small meeting room at a Malibu beach club until more than 100 sat silently listening to a woman praise Guru Maharaj Ji.
"I don't know what Maharaj Ji is doing to me," she murmured with a faint smile, "but it's incredible."
Many in the audience, sitting crosslegged on the floor or in folding chairs, nodded agreement. They had come to the regular Divine Light Mission meeting in Malibu to hear such "satsand," or praise of the guru, and they listened intently.
Before them on a raised platform sat an empty armchair illuminated by spotlights and flanked by a vase of fresh flowers. Behind the chair hung a photograph of the boyish, chubby-faced Maharaj Ji.
The woman at the microphone urged the group to maintain a strong devotion to Maharaj Ji and to "never look back, never look to the side, don't falter, just trust him."
At 32, she explained, she was getting braces put on her teeth but was unconcerned because the guru wished it.
"This isn't my body," she continued. "This isn't my flesh. If Maharaj Ji wants to take care of my body that's fine. The most important thing is to obey the Perfect Master."
At the end of narrow, winding Trancas Canyon Road in Malibu stands a palatial, walled estate with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains still blackened by the October brushfire.
Isolated on a hilltop almost a half-mile from its nearest neighbor, the compound includes two seperate two-story structures, a large swimming pool and patio and broad driveway often crowded with cars and trucks.
In 1974, the Divine Light Mission purchased the four-acre $500,000 Anacapa View estate as the residence for its youthful leader, Guru Maharaj Ji, his wife and their two small children.
At the estate the guru settled into tranquility and relative obscurity after a flamboyant religious campaign through the United States in the early '70s.
Maharaj Ji had arrived in 1972 from India as a 14-year-old leader of a religious sect and teacher of meditation that revealed an undefined "knowledge." Faithful stressed that the guru offered no teachings or philosophy, he just imparted peace and love through "the knowledge."
Shortly after his arrival, however, the road turned rocky. Critics slammed the boy's preaching as vague and unspecific and attacked his expensive tastes that included a Mercedes-Benz, a Lotus sports car and several motorcycles for his personal use. The Divine Light Mission, incorporated as a nonprofit, tax-exempt church in Colorado, became a multimillion-dollar operation.
In 1973, the mission sponsored a festival in Houston that was designed to attract 100,000 faithful and signal 1,000 years of peace. Only 20.000 people showed up and the group felt it was being portrayed poorly by the media.
A year later, Maharaj Ji married Marolyn Johnson, an airline stewardess who at 24 was eight years older than her husband, and they moved to the Malibu estate from a Pacific Palisades home.
In India, Maharaj Ji's mother accused him of being a playboy. As matriarch of the family mission, she replaced him as leader with his older brother. The brothers ended up in court wrestling for control but eventually settled the matter out of court. Maharaj Ji still travels the world as head of Divine Light Mission.
In Malibu, however, a community accustomed to minding its own business and hosting celebrities seeking seclusion, the guru was accepted with casual interest in his entourage, luxury cars and private helicopter.
The guru became a U.S. citizen and the mission turned a low profile. By its own estimates, membership has shrunk from 6 million worldwide and 50,000 nationwide in 1975 to 1.2 million worldwide and 10,000 nationwide today.
Then came Jonestown in November, 1978. The Rev. Jim Jones, leader of Peoples Temple, led 910 followers in a suicide pact at their Guyana jungle settlement.
In Malibu, suddenly many residents looked closer at the young people in the community who wore the small medallions bearing the picture of Guru Maharaj Ji.
In the aftershocks of the tragedy, the former president and former vice president of the Divine Light Mission in the United States gave an interview to United Press International in Denver, where the group maintains a national headquarters.
In the UPI story the pair compared Jones and Maharaj Ji, claiming the guru had a fascination with building a city populated by followers, maintaining an armed security force and exhibited sometimes bizarre private behavior.
(In 1974, Robert Mishler, 34, the group's former president, filed incorporation papers with the Colorado secretary of state's office to form the City of Love and Light Unlimited, Inc.
(The group would "engage in the construction, operation and administration of a divine city of love" based on the Maharaj Ji's teachings, according to documents.
(Mishler said an attempt to construct such a community near San Antonio, Tex., in 1975 fizzled and the trade name was withdrawn in 1976.)
"Guyana was too much for me," said Mishler, who had remained silent since leaving the mission in 1977.
Mishler said he left the group because "there was no way of accomplishing the ideals expounded by the mission." In additicm, he said more and more church money began to go for personal uses and he was concerned that the Divine Light Mission was becoming a "tax evasion for the guru."
Mishler, the man who organized the group in the United States, urged parents to get their children out of the mission.
The comments proved too much for many Malibu residents. Attitudes toward the group locally became clouded with suspicion.
"People are scared of Jonestown," a long time resident said. "They realize religious fanatics are time bombs. It shows what devotion to a person can do."
Another Malibu resident, disturbed by "this Guyana thing" and like others asking anonymity, said she was "frightened by the great number" of Divine Light Mission followers in Malibu.
Officials of the mission have been reluctant to talk to outsiders, especially the press. The guru quit giving interviews completely several years ago.
"We've tried that and it just doesn't work," said Joe Anctil, the group's official spokesman, during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
Anctil, who lives in Denver, said the guru was "very sad" about Guyana but did not discuss the tragedy.
"He doesn't get into those things," Anctil said. "He is not a leader. If he is, he is a spiritual inspiration. It is an individual experience. No one gets up and says, 'You've got to say this or you've got to say that.' No one really cares.
"He doesn't direct them. He doesn't lead them."
If Maharaj Ji doesn't direct or lead the so-called devotees, they flock to him. Malibu has become a magnet for followers seeking to be near the guru.
Anctil placed the number of followers in Malibu at 40. Their activities are supervised from a suite of offices in Point Dume Plaza under the mission's business arm, the Divine United Organization.
Others familiar with the group estimate around 200 live in communal groups in leased houses around Malibu. One observer said the local mission has a list of 600 members living between the Ventura County line and Santa Monica and, at times, as many as 50 followers have lived at the main residence atop Trancas Canyon.
Followers are highly transient, coming to Malibu and staying for as long as they can by working at odd jobs such as carpentry, house-cleaning or in the Rainbow Grocery Store in Malibu, owned by a mission member.
The transient life-style has created problems for some local merchants.
"I've seen people living out of dumpsters and shoplifting at local markets just so they can stay out here and be near him," one store employe said.
Some are like 21-year-old Nancy who said she received "the knowledge" at 15 in her native Chile. She moved to Malibu from Chile in February and is living with other mission members and cleaning houses for money.
But most are like Andy, white, middle-class and burned-out from earlier experiments with the counterculture.
Andy, 32, said he left Boston University five months ago to be near Maharaj Ji. He is doing temporary office work and living with a friend in Venice.
"I still feel so fortunate to be out here in satsang," Andy said after a Malibu meeting. "To think he could pop in at anytime."
Andy said he experimented with transcendental meditation and drugs before joining the Divine Light Mission five years ago when the guru taught him how "to experience this life inside me."
Except for food, rent and other necessities, Andy said he gives his earnings to the guru as an offering. Although he praises Maharaj Ji as the "most loving, compassionate and understanding" person he has known, Andy admits he has never met the guru. He has been to the Anacapa View residence, he adds.
It is the guru's posh life-style, symbolized by the estate and the personal helicopter that flies in and out, that has stirred resentment among Malibu residents.
"I'm not afraid at this stage," a neighbor said, "but I am irritated. I see him coming down the hill in his Mercedes while these kids live on next to nothing."
Anctil reacted with surprise when told the comment.
"That's funny," he replied. "They (Malibu residents) sure treat us nice."
At times, residents say they are still amused by the guru and his followers. Several residents described the birthday party his followers gave when Maharaj Ji turned 21 in November. For a half-hour, they said, airplanes criss-crossed the sky over the residence writing "We love you, Maharaji Ji."
If the estate and life-style has caused resentment, the group's secretive nature and followers' reverence for Maharaj Ji have sparked concern.
"They've been programmed," one resident said when talking about her fear of the group.
"It freaks them out because they think he is God," said one observer close to the group. "If God ordered something it can't be wrong."
There is constant foot and vehicular traffic to and from the Anacapa View compound but only a few members are allowed inside according to several followers.
"As a group it is very difficult to know them," said Hal Lyons, president of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce. "They don't have marches and they don't come down in force. They do like their privacy."
Local Divine Light Mission officials turned down a reporter's request for an interview, a request to interview Maharaji Ji and tour the estate also was declined.
Mishler, the organization's former president, said tight security surrounding the house is part of "elaborate precautions" Maharaj Ji has taken to hide his private life from his followers.
The primary precaution is maintaining an armed security force, Mishler said during a telephone interview from Denver.
Mishler said at the time he was with the group two years ago, the organization had about 10 members "trained in weapons and armed with rifles and handguns" who traveled with Maharaj Ji and were at the Malibu estate.
"The main purpose of the security force is to protect him from anyone and to control members (during the guru's personal appearances)," Mishler said.
Anctil said he had no knowledge of any weapons owned by the group, but did say the group was vigilant about the guru's safety.
The Denver police department confirmed a statement by Mishler, however, that Steven Braband had been issued a concealed weapons permit there in 1975 as Divine Light Mission security chief.
Capt. Gary Osborn of the Malibu sheriff's station said mission members assured him they had no weapons at the estate when they moved there in 1974.
When he was president, Mishler filed incorporation papers with the Colorado secretary of state's office to form the Divine Security Agency, Inc. Incorporation papers indicate the agency is still operating and provides "security and personal assistance to all members of the Holy Family."
Mishler said Maharaj Ji's ban on alcohol and marijuana for his followers was ignored at the estate.
He said the guru regularly humiliated followers.
"He would have followers strip in front of others," Mishler said.
He said Maharaj Ji once poured a can of oil over a devotee working on his car and "did it jokingly as if it was great fun."
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