|Prem Rawat (then age 8) in traditional mourning clothes, speaking after the death of his father in July 1966. Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.|
In the 1970s there was a young guru called The 13-Year-Old Perfect Master. He was also known, as if it were the name behind the title, as Maharaj Ji, but that too was a title. His real name is Prem Rawat. He had inherited the following of the Divine Light Mission (DLM) from his father in India when he was six years old. He proved to be quite capable of making spiritually inspiring talks, and when he was 13, he dropped out of school and announced he was taking the show to America. I visited the Denver branch of the DLM in 1977, after the Master had moved his elaborate estate to Malibu.
I don't remember what they called the big room where everybody gathered. Its walls and ceiling gave it a church-like feeling—might originally have been a church—but there were no pews, no furniture of any kind. Everyone sat on the plush wall-to-wall carpet. A big screen that rolled down from the ceiling, and there an excited collective gasp ran through the room, rather like what I hear when, during Dorothy's last minutes in Oz, the Good Witch Glenda shows up to help her with her having missed the balloon. The Master's image appeared on the screen and spoke to us. When he finished speaking, his followers, sitting cross-legged on the plush carpet, did a long deep bow. It feels good to put myself aside for a moment and yield to something else. But I never believed, as his followers did, that the Master was God on Earth, that he had been seen in two places at the same time, and that followers should give all their wealth to the Master. That's how he came to have the house with its spacious garage filled with cars in Malibu. A long-time cynic about materialism, I've long believed that acquisitiveness destroys the credibility of spiritual professions.
Richard Alpert was Professor at Harvard University, and he worked with Timothy Leary and others on research projects concerning effects of LSD. Alpert's psychedelic experiences led him into a spiritual quest that took him to India, where he met Guru Neem Karoli Baba. Alpert's experience was one of those meetings with remarkable men, and Karoli became Alpert's teacher. He called his guru Maharaj Ji, not to be confused with the 13-year-old Perfect Master. The guru gave him the name Ram Dass, was also called Maharaj Ji. There's a wonderful YouTube video of Richard Alpert's account of his meeting with Maharaj Ji, and here I have no doubt of the authenticity.
One thing that the Master's enterprise left behind in Denver was a natural grocery store long before such stores became popular. These religious organizations from India could be corrupt to the core—many of them were—but if nothing else, they taught their followers a better way to eat. The experience left me with a sense of, Ah, now I know what a cult of personality is, and I have recognized them at a glimpse ever since. I see cults around politicians like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whose business is to spin their cults into power bases. I see cults of personality around televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen. I see cults of personality around industry leaders like Steve Jobs, which Apple exploits by making all their accessories proprietary so that cultists pay two or three times as much for the equivalent part in the Android world.