April 1, 1997
However, there was one time when I got to cover God and experienced the full rapture of tens of thousands of believers cast suddenly into his presence here on Earth. That was at a weeklong encampment at the Houston Astrodome in 1973, when God appeared as a chubby and giggly 13-year-old Indian named Guru Mahara Ji. I was following the guru because he was rapidly making celebrity converts, including Rennie Davis, then well-known as a defendant in the Chicago Seven trial.
In the interest of objective journalism, I subjected myself to the cult treatment and came close to going over. Well, maybe not that close, but the human mind is a fragile thing. It was quite an experience to be kept up night after night with one's stomach growling from macrobiotic gruel, ears ringing from a droning repetitive lecture from some spiritual yenta every time one's eyes happened to close.
For a month before the Astrodome extravaganza, I had traveled with God's group, sleeping in fleabag hotels they called ashrams, never being permitted any stimulants--alcohol, sex, television, contact with noncultists or even spicy food. As with those folks in San Diego, human contact for the disciples, who had severed their external personal and financial ties, was restricted to an androgynous collective experience that chilled the sensual as well as all other appetites.
That was for the followers, but different rules, as could be expected, applied to that self-proclaimed God who appeared in the Astrodome. He was not sensuously indifferent or the least bit androgynous in his tastes and clearly preferred women. As I recall, he soon thereafter married a quite attractive stewardess twice his height and age. This kid/God was no wizened, castrated relic leading a pathetic army of 38 lost souls. His claimed following was in the millions, worldwide, and he amassed a megafortune from his followers while making all sorts of divine predictions that never materialized, which his disciples gratefully accepted as proof of an even higher wisdom.
One day at the Astrodome revival, one of God's press agents--and he had many--came up to me and said that while they were suspicious of the rest of the media, they thought I had a pure soul. I assume that was because I hadn't yet written anything. In any case, they wanted me to have a very big news exclusive. The guy looked and talked like any other flack, and I think he had been one in real life. I thanked him for the tip and asked what I needed to do to get the story. His voice fell to that conspiratorial whisper common to all PR people and he confidentially instructed, "Just be in the northeast corner of parking lot G. The Venusians are landing. You will get the first interviews."
My career as a frontline journalist was everything to me--just like those media folks you saw camped at the house of death in Rancho Santa Fe. So I gathered my reporter's notebook, tape recorder and camera, lied to my colleagues about where I was going and raced madly to be the first to report on the Venusians. Hard to believe now, but I really was ticked off when they failed to show. The PR guy said God must have been playing one of his tricks, but not to worry; other visitors from outer space, even more important than the Venusians, would be arriving soon.
Sounds crazy, but a part of me had believed him. At that point, my mind was on autopilot and they were writing the program. But then the spell broke. Venusians? Venusians? I began muttering over and over to myself, frightened by the realization that a steady diet of soybean paste on rice cakes combined with sleep deprivation and surrounded by tens of thousands of people who truly believed this boy was God had started me down the road to a nervous breakdown. Or was it a religious experience that I should have cherished?
At least that guru didn't get anybody killed, as far as I know, and some members of the media covering him who did convert are apparently still wandering contentedly in his divine wake today.
Is there a moral to this story? Yes: If you're stupid enough to surrender your God-given independence of thought to a guru, don't pick one who is about to book passage on a dirty snowball in the sky.
Copyright © 1999 Robert Scheer