- Be Scofield is a prominent cult reporter and author of Hunting Lucifer: One Reporter's Search for Cults and Demons.
- There is a suggested $10 donation to read this series.
Olivia Arias met her soon-to-be husband, George Harrison of the Beatles when she worked as a secretary for A&M Records in the early 1970s. After numerous marketing phone calls with Harrison, he took a liking to her and assigned her to work solely on his new subsidiary record label Dark Horse.
Arias and Harrison bonded over an interest in Eastern spirituality. Harrison had traveled to India on several occasions and been inspired by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ravi Shankar, and the Hare Krishnas. Arias was a follower of Prem Rawat also known as Maharaj-ji, a child guru called "Lord of the Universe" who took America by storm. Many considered him and his Divine Light Mission a cult.
In the 1970s there were three rock bands that consisted solely of Maharaj-ji disciples: Jiva, Blue Aquarius and One Foundation. Olivia Arias was close friends with the Jiva band members and got their first record, By His Grace, to Harrison. Perhaps he didn't pick up on the cult-like devotion to Maharaj-ji, or it didn't bother him. "Understand the Lord is on the planet," their lyrics say. "You need the perfect one to open up the gates you can see in."
Harrison soon saw Jiva live at the Topanga Corral in Malibu, a venue where musicians like Linda Ronstadt and Canned Heat honed their skills. It’s also where Charles Manson’s short-lived band Milky Way did their one and only performance. It's said that Jim Morrison named his song "Roadhouse Blues" after the corral.
"Our music was really a joyous celebration of the universe and our place in it and George just fell in love with the band," Jiva singer Michael Lanning said.
Harrison signed Jiva to his Dark Horse label and published their first commercial album in 1975.
"George was deeply involved in not only signing us but the making of our record as well,” said Lanning. “He served as executive producer and was there quite a lot of the recording time. He even helped in the demo sessions, picking out what tunes would be on the record and even playing piano on one of the demo tracks."
Harrison hired Gary Wright, singer of the hit song Dream Weaver to play keyboards on the album. He hired Minnie Riperton, creator of the #1 hit song "Lovin' You," and legendary producer Stewart Levine to produce Jiva's album.
Wright had been given a copy of Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi by Harrison and became involved with the Self-Realization fellowship. The song title Dream Weaver came from Yogananda's poem "God! God! God!" which referenced "the idea of the mind weaving dreams." Wright named his album "The Light of Smiles" after Yogananda's poem of the same name. Wright even gave a songwriting credit to Yogananda for his song I am the Sky.
Harrison had first been given copies of Autobiography of a Yogi and Raja Yoga by Vivekananda by Ravi Shankar in 1966 while studying sitar with him in India. “I kept stacks of it around the house, and I gave it out constantly to people,” Harrison said. “When people need reproving, I say ‘read this,’ because it cuts to the heart of every religion.” He said Yogananda had been the “greatest influence” on him.
Wright's song "Who Am I" on The Light of Smiles album depicted his spiritual search. "Who am I? Where am I? Where am I coming from? How far will I go?" he sings. "Many lives passing by. All of them, once were mine. I can tell there's strings like Heaven. I'm the same. I'm headed out. Searching for identity. Who am I? I don't know. I don't know, no."
As a result of the commercial nature of their album, Jiva did a 36-city tour with Fleetwood Mac in 1975. Jiva manager Jack Reed said they got a “fantastic audience response,” suggesting they could have been far more successful. Reed and the band alleged Dark Horse didn't promote their artists properly, saying the label wasn't run professionally. "We couldn't find our records in the stores," Lanning said.
A&M Records later sued Harrison for $10 million dollars for not fulfilling his solo four-album contract which led to a highly publicized split. Jiva got lost in the shuffle and left Dark Horse in 1976. They released two more albums in the coming years, both of which were explicitly filled with devotion to their guru.
Before Jiva's album was released, Lanning said that all songs on the Dark Horse record were going to be dedicated to their guru. "They're all to Guru Maharaj Ji, but we haven't mentioned Maharaj Ji's name," he said. "That's a no-no. Of course, a song like "Something's Going On Inside LA" naturally talks about Knowledge...Our first album will only have one ballad, a song that Guru Maharaj Ji likes a lot, called 'Love Is A Treasure.' He asked us to do it for one of his home movies."
The album did reference a few of the cult's five commandments. The second commandment is, "Constantly meditate and remember Holy Name." Their lyrics say, “You might think me absent-minded, If your Name I sometimes forget." The third commandment is "Leave no room for doubt in your mind," and their lyrics say, "When it's late and I'm all alone, And the doubt and worries start."
Grammy award-winning singer Michael Bolton and his wife became followers of Maharaj-ji in the 1970s after taking a course at the New Haven ashram. "The Knowledge was the greatest awakening for me," he wrote in his memoir The Soul of it All. "The Indian teenager led me out of the darkness and into the light, and a much healthier and saner lifestyle." Bolton even sang for his fellow Maharaj-ji disciples at the New Haven ashram.
"Knowledge" is the term Maharaj-ji used for his 4-part meditation technique. For many years members had to recite vows before receiving the Knowledge, some of which were in 8-hour-long sessions. They taught that a "mystical grace would empower the meditation techniques if the persons involved were sincere." The vows were:
Oh my Guru Maharaj Ji, I dedicate myself to your lotus feet. I am weak and ignorant and am filled with the impurities of this world.
Oh Guru Maharaj Ji, please take my mind and purge me of the impurities I possess. Reveal to me the knowledge of all knowledge.
Strengthen me, uplift me and reveal the kingdom of heaven within inside of me.
Bring me from hate to love, from darkness to light, death to immortality.
I will OBEY you implicitly and will never reveal this knowledge to anyone for any reason.
I will keep in contact with you through my DEVOTIONAL LOVE, satsang, meditation and service.
Thank you my LORD for everything.
Maharaj-ji came to the U.S. at the age of 13 in 1971, touring the country and speaking to crowds of many thousands. He first assumed the role of guru at age eight after his guru father died and he was appointed successor. Maharaj-ji was called "Balyogeshwar," meaning "born saint." Wild tales of his birth spread around. "At his birth, the sky lit up in brilliant colors and a sweet music could be heard all around." At 16 he married a 24-year-old female disciple.
Maharaj-ji would be criticized for his excessive drinking and opulent lifestyle, in addition to the cult atmosphere he created. He was accused of diverting donations for his personal use. His 18-car garage was filled with sports cars, Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, and Mercedes Benz limousines. Maharaj-ji still owns the Malibu mansion which has a large swimming pool and tennis court. He now owns several multi-million dollar homes around the world and a private jet.
Notorious cult expert Ted Patrick successfully deprogrammed several followers of Divine Light Mission. "This cult, headed by a fat little playboy calling himself Guru Maharaj Ji, depends on a form of mind control achieved through the practice of meditation," Patrick wrote in his book Let Our Children Go. "Naturally the cult is a big business. I dealt with people who had given everything they owned to the Guru. Donations of fifty thousand dollars were not uncommon. One woman I was deprogramming had signed over an inheritance of half a million dollars to the cult."
Patrick got sued however by follower Richard Cooper after he kidnapped and held him captive for 19 days. The man's mother paid Patrick $6,000 after she learned her son had drank water that Maharaj-ji’s feet had been washed in. Cooper escaped by jumping out of a third-story window which left him with a fractured hip.
MAHARAJ-JI'S FIRST RUN-IN WITH rock music history was when he appeared at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971. It featured David Bowie, Traffic, Hawkwind, Melanie, and others. The gathering was known as a "cosmic festival" scheduled on the summer solstice and featured an iconic pyramid stage. Organizer Andrew Kerr's festival was dubbed an "amalgam of modern pop culture and ancient magic." In his book Prem Rawat and Counterculture: Glastonbury and New Spiritualities, author Ron Geaves argues that the convergence of Maharaj-ji and Glastonbury was a "key event in understanding the jigsaw that came to be known as ‘New Age’ spirituality."
Many of the attendees believed it was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who would be appearing, however. With his poor English and confused identity, the crowd quickly booed Maharaj-ji off stage.
In 1973 Maharaj-ji rented out the Houston Astrodome for a three-day gathering dubbed the Millenium '73 festival. It featured rock and big bands, religious music, satsang, and speeches. As many as 35,000 people were estimated to have attended. Soul singer Eric Murphy performed at the event under an agreement with Stax Records to record his performance. Followers predicted massive global transformation as a result of the festival. Rolling Stone Magazine was not impressed, however, and titled their review, "The Little Guru Without a Prayer."
The Millenium '73 festival was turned into an award-winning documentary called "Lord of the Universe." One of the people profiled in the documentary is Rennie Davis, famed anti-war protestor of the Chicago Seven. He was a Maharaj-ji disciple and spokesman for the group. "What a thing it is to stand here and say that the Lord is on the planet and he's a l6-year-old kid," Davis said. "He's in a human body and he's about to usher in the greatest change in the history of human civilization." Abbie Hoffman is shown criticizing him in the film for his zealous beliefs. "I would cross the planet on my hands and knees to touch his toe," said Davis.
For Davis and other disciples, worshipping their guru's feet was commonplace; either kissing them during darshan or praying to photos of them in their homes. They believed drinking the water his feet had been washed in brought miraculous power. Photos show followers throwing themselves at his feet, bowing, and lying in the prone position before him.
Maharaj-ji's followers, known as "premies," could be fanatical. In August 1973 they brutally attacked anarchist journalist Pat Halley with a hammer, fracturing his skull, leaving him for dead. A few days prior, Halley smashed a menthol-laced pie in the face of Maharaj-ji, calling him a fraud. "The two men drove a car with license plates registered to the Divine Light Mission," reported the Detroit Free Press.
Ted Patrick deprogrammed a premie and asked her, "What if the guru asked you to kill yourself, would you do it?" She said to him, "I hope I'd be devoted enough to do it." Another woman Patrick worked with said, "They got me to believe that Guru Maharaj Ji was the lord. I would have killed for him.”
ONE OF THE GROUPS THAT performed at the Millenium '73 festival was called Blue Aquarius. Bee Gee drummer Geoff Bridgford was a disciple of Maharaj-ji and left the group in 1972, and gave up fame, to join the cult band. He had spent three years with the Bee Gees, receiving two Gold records for the group’s million plus selling albums. He played drums on the hit "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" among others.
Blue Aquarius was a 50-piece band with horns, an orchestra, and a big band sound. The group consisted of all Maharaj-ji disciples, including Kevin Dempsey who played for Alice Coltrane and Percy Sledge. In the "Lord of the Universe" documentary thousands of Maharaj-ji disciples can be seen lined up and kissing his feet as Blue Aquarius' song "Rock Me Maharaj-ji" plays.
Bridgford wrote several songs for the Blue Aquarius album including "At the Feet of the Master" and "God is Love." The album was published by Stax Records and recorded in the Rolling Stones Mobile owned by the Stones. It was the first-ever mobile professional recording studio.
A writer for the London Observer described Blue Aquarius as, "good … excellent … gospel, soul, blues, rock, jazz … You can hear James Brown, Ray Charles, Elvis, Isaac Hayes, the Platters, Satchmo, Pink Floyd, and the Eurovision song contest right in there … polished solos stream fluently forth..."
In the late '70s Bridgford became a central member of yet a third band dedicated to Maharaj-ji known as One Foundation. They continued to spread their guru’s teachings using music to inspire worship and devotion around the world.
-> READ PART 2: HARE KRISHNA!
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