The Young Guru Maharaj Ji goes West
In 1971, some six months before his fourteenth birthday Prem Rawat (Guru Maharaj Ji) travelled to England in the company of Mahatma Gurucharanand, ostensibly to follow up on Gurucharanand's earlier evangelism amongst Hindus in London. Supported by a few 'hippie' followers Rawat gained some exposure within disaffected youth. Buoyed by this success Rawat applied for and was granted a visa to visit the USA after much waiting round in the US Consulate by Rawat, Bihari Singh and Mike Finch who handled the bureaucratic badgering. Within months further young refugees from the dying hippie movement had been recruited and a Divine Light Mission organisation able to widely promote Rawat was in existence. What followed was three years of considerable expansion of the promotion of Prem Rawat and his western Divine Light Mission.
Prem Rawat (then known as Guru Maharaj Ji) first visited the West, to the surprise of a tiny band of Western followers, during his school holidays in June, 1971. After a month in London, he went to the US west coast.
At the end of 1971 an organisation called Divine Light Mission Incorporated was registered in the US as a non profit Church, with Guru Maharaj Ji listed as its Chief Minister. A separate Divine Light Mission was created as a Charity in the UK in 1972 and subsequently other Divine Light Missions were created in Australia, South Africa and Canada, as well as in several European and South American countries. Rawat's senior Indian disciples - saffron robed 'mahatmas' - were sent to support the fledgling organisations and a system of ashrams (houses where Rawat's devotees followed a monastic rule), was instigated.
At age 14, against his mother's wishes Guru Maharaj Ji left school and in 1972 once again travelled westward where he attracted an increasing number of followers. At a single event in Montrose Colorado, 2,000 people were initiated into the 'Knowledge', according to Divine Light Mission statements at that time. The exact number of new followers during this period is unknown although by 1975 the US DLM was claiming over 50,000 initiates.
His mother, Mata Ji, as she was known, and her three older sons known as the Holy Family duly followed Prem Rawat to the West. Within the evolving quasi hippified Hindu belief system of the western Divine Light Mission Prem Rawat's brothers were considered incarnations of the three aspects of the supreme Hindu deity, while Prem embodied the whole though this was hardly a system developed with Jesuit rigour.
Amongst some premies the eldest brother, Bal Bhagwan Ji (now known as Satpal Maharaj), was supposedly Vishnu, the 'operator' of the Universe. He was also claimed to be Jesus Christ. The second brother, Raja Ji, was supposedly Brahma, the 'creator' - as well as being the 'king of the world'. And the third, Bhole Ji, was meant to be Shiva, the 'destroyer'.
Guru Maharaj Ji himself was considered to be the Satguru or Perfect Master of the time. According to the Divine Light Mission belief system, there is always a Perfect Master who comes to Earth to reveal the "Knowledge of all knowledges". Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and Rama were all claimed to be have been Perfect Masters, as was Prem Rawat's father, Hans Rawat and his guru, Swarupanand as well.
By the end of 1972, there were 45 Divine Light Mission centres across the United States catering to a claimed 15,000 members. The national headquarters was in Denver, Colorado. Growth was very fast. Early the following year, one author noted:
"The way Maharaj Ji's converts kept multiplying was almost unbelievable. By spring of 1973, there were 480 Divine Light Centres around the world and in every continent. The US membership had now grown to 35,000.' By the end of the year, US membership had increased to 50,000. Similar patterns were observed around the West." - Those Curious New Cults in the 80s by William J. Petersen, pg. 149-150.
In 1974 Guru Maharaj Ji, then aged 16, was living in a luxury property, at Malibu Beach, California and in May 1974 he married 25 year old Marolyn Johnson, an American airline stewardess and premie after conducting an affair known only to his inner circle. His new secret lifestyle included meat-eating and drunkenness. The marriage was very much against the wishes of Prem Rawat's mother and eldest brother and his new lifestyle was unacceptable to his family and Indian DLM administrators and mahatmas who believed he had been corrupted by his inner circle of Western devotees. Professor Tandon and Mata Ji even tried "to rescue and free him" with the help of the Malibu police on the night of 23rd November 1974. Donner, Dettmers and Mishler were at the centre of deceiving the premies about Rawat's lifestyle while his mother and his deceased father's senior devotees were telling the trut as the trio acknowledged years later. The dispute culminated in Mata Ji and two of Rawat's brothers and the Indian DLM administrators and mahatmas disinheriting him and deposing him as Satguru. In India, Mata Ji crowned Bal Bhagwan Ji (Satpal Maharaj) as the new "Guru Maharaj Ji" leaving him the option of repenting and returning to the family but not as Satguru.
Virtually all of the Indian premies went with Mata Ji and Bal Bhagwan Ji (who, after a protracted court case, won control of the name and property of Divine Light Mission in India). Outside of India the split had little effect: premies wrote it off as a Prem Rawat lila - literally 'game of God', something which was beyond their mortal understanding.
Rawat renamed his wife Durga Ji, after an Indian goddess, and premies were told to call her 'Mom' and embarassingly, many did. Over the next few years, four children were born to Prem and Marolyn Rawat - two boys and two girls.
In this early to mid-1970s period, Rawat had a high public profile. There was some praise - he received the keys to several US cities though this is a meaningless honour and one such ceremony caused a lot of damaging media when an anarchist threw a shaving cream pie in Rawat's face and some high status premies then tried to beat him to death with a hammer. Rawat was invited to speak to an extreme right wing lobby group at a Bi-centenary dinner - hardly a high point on his resumé. The overwhelming number of media stories were highly critical. There were mostly sceptical articles in the press (especially the alternative press), and some well-publicised cases where premies were kidnappedy and 'deprogrammed' by distraught parents.
A sizeable minority of premies throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa and Australia moved into ashrams (group homes where a monastic rule was followed) and forswore drugs, alcohol, sex, 'idle talk or gossip', relationships and money. These rules were not always obeyed to the letter. Although many former residents today believe the ashrams deprived them of a normal youth, some others acknowledge that they did at least remove them from the era's drug culture though leaving the drug culture was a normal progression in non-DLM young people of the times. In fact, according to Rawat himself, the rules were hardly ever observed:
Because I know, quite well that ashram rules, ashram guidelines, are really not being followed - that is an understatement. People are doing whatever they want to, you know. They go out; people go out, maybe get drunk. That is the time they should be sitting down and doing meditation. They come home to the ashram, they're zonked, and then they get up in the morning and say, "Guru Maharaj Ji, I'm confused." - The Frankfurt Conference November 1976
In this period of furious activity for Prem Rawat's devotees, numerous sub-organisations came and went:
The World Peace Corps (WPC), begun in the West in 1972 and run by Rawat's brother Raja Ji, built stages for Rawat's programs, painted newly-rented ashrams and formed security teams for Rawat's protection. In London the WPC bugged what it considered rival power bases within the Divine Light Mission and even undertook marching drills, taking on a decidedly paramilitary character. The WPC eventually drifted out of existence, although its culture of self importance and propensity for intimidation was transmitted to the personal security team that became attached to Prem Rawat.
In 1973 Rawat announced the creation of Divine United Organization. This was supposedly a world-wide philanthropy project that would feed the world. Rawat's DUO Proclamation was as grandiose as his acompanying speech was confused and incoherent.
Whereas, Knowledge of the aim of human life is being revealed to all people of the world by the living Perfect Master and spiritual head of Divine Light Mission, Paramhans Satgurudev Shri Sant Ji Maharaji, thus eliminating the cause of ignorance and misery; Therefore, the people who have experienced the Knowledge of Shri Santji Maharaj, with full awareness of the difficulties of living without knowing the aim of human life, are compelled to reach out to the rest of the struggling humanity to spread the solution to strife and suffering by a commitment to work in all fields of endeavor for the elevation of humanity, manifesting an exemplary alternative to be known as the Divine United Organization or D.U.O."
Numerous small companies did adopt the DUO name although few had any legal relationship to each other. Most existed only on paper or ceased to trade within a few years. DUO was the name of Prem Rawat's Delhi base which he managed to retain control of in the feud with his brother Sat Pal. The Indian DUO has recently (2005) been renamed Raj Vidya Kender
The World Welfare Association was supposedly founded to bring practical, charitable relief to the underprivileged - though it, too, quickly overreached itself and folded.
These various projects were funded by tithing through the 'Active Membership Program' (AMP), through the collected wages of the ashram premies, and through various business ventures such as 'Divine Sales', which sold second-hand goods collected door-to-door. Special cash collections raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for gifts to Rawat, such as a new Aston Martin car in 1976, and later the first of his many jets. "Darshan lines" — a ritual where premies queued to kiss Rawat's feet and deposit a gift of cash or goods - also raised large sums.
Following the legal changes which saw Prem Rawat gain control of substantial personal wealth, in 1977 he embarked on a reassertion of his role as Guru, restating the importance of devotion to the 'Master' in the Hindu Bhakti tradition. As part of this restatement of devotion, the ashram system was reinvigorated after a period of decline; the restrictive life in an ashram was codified in the 'Ashram Manual' which required that members must 'observe a vow of poverty … personally possessing nothing'. All of Rawat's followers, even those with family commitments, were subject to stronger encouragement to enter the ashram system.
In 1979 the acquisition and customization of a Boeing 707 for Prem Rawat's exclusive use became a dominant drive within the then Divine Light Mission. A 1961 vintage aircraft was acquired for US$1 million from an American Football Team. A business operation called the DECA Project and based in Florida was set up with ashram residents drafted in to all aspects of work on the plane itself as well as project management and, most significantly - fund raising.
Like other expansive projects undertaken by Rawat's followers, DECA had no beneficial impact on the Rawat movement or its participants, however DECA did provide a model for income generation which was free of the costs and other considerations of the ashram system. Although dependant on the ashrams for its existence, DECA, or at least the funding expertise that it generated, can be seen as the development which allowed Rawat to dissolve the ashram system in 1982 and 1983, and to still maintain an income flow to his organisations.
Within the DECA facility a range of activities took place that were focussed on Prem Guru Maharaj Ji's interests - servicing of his Rolls Royces was undertaken there. The financial structure seems to have lacked commonly expected controls and there have been accusations of inadequate and illegal work practices. Work on the Boeing 707 was completed in 1980 but the plane was only briefly used by Guru Maharaj Ji before being sold to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who had it flown to Malaysia where it rapidly fell into disuse because its emissions exceeded legal limits.
The DECA business sought development as a corporate jet customization operation but proved unviable and was soon sold, being renamed Aircraft Modular Products(AMP). Some of Prem Rawat's followers gained employment with AMP but the company had no other links with Rawat or his organisations. AMP prospered and was sold for over US$ 100 million in 1998 by its then owner Roger Koch who had begun work as an unpaid premie volunteer in DECA in 1978. Roger made a $5.5 million donation to Rawat in 2008 (though he was never informed how it was spent) and this gave him Major Donor status and the chance to get to know the Rawats better. In 2011 he apostasized and wrote a highly entertaining story of his journey.
It is unclear what happened to the receipts from the sale of the Boeing 707 and the DECA business. There appears to have been a chronic incapacity within Divine Light Mission to protect either its interests as a charity or the interests of those who voluntarily assisted it. Numerous business operations started by Prem Rawat's followers seem to have become absorbed into a quasi corporate structure ostensibly to the benefit of Divine Light Mission, only to be 'demerged' to the sole benefit of subsequent owners.
Those individuals who achieved ownership of businesses started under the aegis of Divine Light Mission frequently retained close personal contact with Prem Rawat and Rawat appears to have benefited financially from those contacts.