Johnny Young looked nervous as the Guru Maharaj Ji walked into the hotel room flanked by two male devotees and extended his arm for what turned out to be a very limp handshake.
A short, overweight man with a round face and a pencil-thin moustache, Maharaj Ji, as he is known to his followers, looked a lot like the statues of Buddha they used to sell in the asian handicrafts shops around Melbourne in the early seventies.
His blue business suit seemed slightly incongruous garb for a guru though this was no doubt simply prejudice. There is no earthly reason why a messenger of the Almighty ought to be dressed in a loincloth. [ed -- thank God for that!]
Mr Young, a former pop star and the host of the long running television programme "Young Talent Time", has been a devotee of Maharaj Ji for almost five years now. What this means is that Mr. Young has received the "knowledge" and has experienced the divine light, which the guru insists lies dormant in all human beings.
"It has changed my life," he said as we waited for Maharaj Ji to arrive. "He taught me to look within myself for the source of everything, including love. I had searched for meaning in the outside world when, all the time, all the answers were inside me."
"He is very special to me because he is my teacher. I love him, not because he is a god or anything like that, but because of what he has given me the opportunity to experience. Ask him what questions you like but treat him with respect."
Maharaj Ji sat down after the handshake and waited for the questions. No doubt he expected to be asked about his financial position, about the allegations of brainwashing, about the structure of his organization, the Divine Light Mission.
But there seemed little point in asking those questions. If Maharaj Ji was an authentic prohpet or perfect master who could be included in the same league as Buddha, Krishna, Moses and several others, did it really matter that his followers booked him into the Hilton Hotel for his stay in Melbourne? Did it matter that he lived with his American wife and two children in a nice house in Florida?
So the job ahead was really to establish whether Maharaj Ji was a messenger of the Almighty or not. This seemed like an awesome task, an impossible task in fact, given that he had only about an hour before his next interview. The best [?] could do was to allow him to state his case and this he did pretty [?????ly].
I have no doctrine to preach," he said, revealing the broad American accent he had acquired by living in the United States for the past decade. "I am a guide, a teacher, who can show people how to look inside themselves for the source of all things.
"The source of this divine light as we call it, is inside everyone and has been spoken about by all the great prophets throughout history. I am the messenger in this age chosen to spread the knowledge. There can be only one messenger at any particular time, though there have been many before me.
"The people who accepted my role as guide and teacher are not fools who have been brainwashed. They are intelligent human beings who live normal lives, have families, work at their jobs, but who have experienced something that has changed their lives."
Like most prophets, false and otherwise, Maharaj Ji tends to talk in parables. Asked why some people are open to inner experience while others tend to think it is mumbo jumbo, he said that if a man is thirsty there is no point in offering him a plate of spaghetti and if he is hungry, there is no point in giving him a glass of water.
"I'm not seeking recruits," he said. "I am here for people who have searched everywhere, for answers, for the truth, and have been unsatisfied. If they want to come to me, I am here to help them."
Maharaj Ji received the "knowledge" from his father in India when he was six years old. His father had been a guru preaching the divine light message to "millions of people" and had designated Maharaj Ji as his successor as perfect master before he died.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time when thousands of young, essentially middle-class people from America, Western Europe and Australia flocked to India in search of meaning, truth and cheap marijuana. Some of them found the boy guru and were impressed: they went back home to spread his message and naturally asked him to visit them.
"I left India when I was 14 because some of the people I had met asked me to come to London," Maharaj Ji said. "I stayed in London for a while and then went to America. I am now an American citizen though I spend most of the year travelling around the world visiting my followers."
At 16, he married his 24-year-old American secretary, Marolyn Johnston, a [????] which upset his mother who was still living in India.
She denounced Maharaj Ji as a playboy and suggested that his older brother was, in fact, the person who had been chosen by his father to succeed him as perfect master. Several attempts at a reconciliation were made -- his mother even visited him in Florida -- but they came to nothing.
"I have no contact with my mother or brother," he said. "They live in India and I think she was upset that I married a foreigner. She thought I had married out of my caste or something like that."
At 24, Maharaji claims to have something like a million followers in India, South America, the United States and Australia. He admits that many of them almost worship him. He does not ask them to do this.
"I do not ask people to put me on a pedestal," he said. "But I am their teacher and guide and they love me. I love them too. Did Jesus ask to be put on a pedestal? Of course not. His people were so grateful and loved him so much that they wanted to do anything for him. Of course I am not saying that I am Jesus."
The trouble with this is that it's all words. Can Maharaj Ji prove that he is what he says he is? Obviously, he cannot. He can point to his followers and say they are the proof. But then so can countless other [gurus?]. This man has charisma and presence. He knows all about alienation and a world gone mad. Don't we all?
Guru Maharaj Ji may well be a messenger of the Almighty but his claim seems far from proven.