Worshipping the Absurd
'The Negation of Social Causality among the Followers of Guru Maharaj Ji.'
Article by Daniel Foss and Larkin in Sociological Analysis, 1978.
'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.'
'...as the [1960s youth] movement waned in the early 1970s, the 'freak' or movement interpretation of reality which they 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.'/.../ 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 Millenium '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'. 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 terrorist activities. 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.'
'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.'
'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.'
'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.'
'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. /.../'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.'
'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...'
'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./.../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/.../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.)'
'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'...'
'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...'
'For instance, Guru Maharaj Ji's enjoyment of a lavish material luxury (when celibacy and poverty were enjoined upon ashram residents) has from time to time bean taken for an enormous lila. It is not that the premies find anything the least strange in his collection of cars, planes, Divine Residences, tape machines, and other baubles.'
(Excerpts from D. A. Foss, & R. W. Larkin (1978). Worshiping the absurd: the negation of social causality among the followers of Guru Maharaj Ji. Sociological Analysis, 39 (2), 157-164.)