The Guru Scene

Yes, they're still at it! (celebrity cult followers)

Cosmopolitan/August 1991
By Stephen Rae

LINDA EVANS'S GURU, J.Z. Knight, a petite blonde in her forties, sits surrounded by acolytes in her palatial home in Yelm, Washington, a small farming community fifty-five miles south of Seattle. Suddenly her eyes close, her body spasms, and she goes limp.

When the eyes flick open, she is Knight no more. She is Ramtha, the Enlightened One, a thirty-five-thousand-year-old warlord from Atlantis. Ramtha invented warfare after a "wondrous woman" gave him a magic sword. Eventually, he got religion, becoming one with God and part of the "unseen brotherhood" of Enlightened Beings who answer our prayers. Then he waited around for all those thousands of years before dropping in on Knight, a former cable-TV executive and horse breeder, whom he chose as his vehicle to convey the secrets of the ancients to our wisdom-starved world.

Speaking in a deep male voice and swooping up and kissing the female devotees, Knight, by all accounts, puts on a good show. She was already a hot ticket on the channeling circuit, dispensing Ramtha wisdom to hundreds who paid up to fifteen hundred dollars for a private audience (Ramtha set the price, Knight said) and churning out a cottage industry of Ramtha books, audio tapes, and videotapes, when Shirley MacLaine discovered her. After MacLaine, who wept for joy upon hearing that she had been Ramtha's brother in Atlantis, wrote about J.Z. in her 1985 book, Dancing in the Light, Knight became a New Age superstar.

That's around the time Evans found her. Ever since she was dumped, at age thirty-one, by husband John Derek for a sixteen-year-old sexpot named Bo, she'd been seeking out yoga, meditation, and mysticism to repair her shattered self-esteem. When she came across the Ramtha books and tapes, they "impressed me as profound, because they translated mental concepts into emotional realities," she has said. And she wanted to meet Knight, "because I knew what it felt like to be in the shadow of a powerful man, and J.Z. was very much in Ramtha's shadow."

The two--or is it there?--hit if off. "In the beginning, I was totally suspicious," Evans said. "I wanted proof that the channeling wasn't just trickery." Ramtha's teachings convinced her. "He holds you in the moment--holds a truth or emotion until you totally feel it and know it. I'm happier now than I have ever been because of the feeling within myself of finally knowing who I am." Evans bought a home in Washington State to be near J.Z. and ignored friends' pleas that she not publicize the friendship.

In the eighties, Knight made enough off Ramtha to last her several lifetimes. But a series of events shook her credibility. Natural disasters Ramtha prophesied--California and Florida falling into the ocean, acid rain poisoning New England's water supply--didn't happen, causing many who'd sold their homes and moved to the Pacific Northwest for safety to question Ramtha's omniscience. The state of Washington slapped an injunction on Knight, who'd been telling followers that Ramtha recommended they buy her Arabian horses, at up to $250,000 each. Knight's former advance man revealed he'd come upon Knight in a non-trance state practicing Ramtha voices. And after Ramtha began making homophobic comments ("Mother Nature" wanted to "get rid of" gays, he said), other prominent channeled spirits, such as San Francisco's Lazarus, questioned how enlightened, not to say real, he was.

Still, Evans continues to stand by her entity. "J.Z. has changed my life, and I'm proud to say that I love her. People may think I've gone off the deep end, and I respect their right to fell that way."

Three thousand miles away, in New York City, Richard Gere is excitedly addressing the press. "I've just come from His Holiness," he says. "I'm shaking from that audience." His Holiness is the Dalai Lama, the exiled God-King of Tibet, who has been the actor's spiritual teacher since 1982.

Gere is speaking at the opening ceremonies of Tibet House, an organization he co-founded in 1987, at the request of the Dalai Lama, to bring knowledge of Tibetan culture to the West. He became infatuated with Tibetan Buddhism in 1978, he says, when he visited a Tibetan refugee camp in India. "I . . . was moved by the people. They have a joyous and deep understanding of the true values of life." They have also suffered terribly under the Chinese, who overran their country in 1950, sending its leader packing and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in their effort to obliterate Tibetan culture.

At first, it seems an unlikely pairing: the bad-boy actor and the Himalayan holy man. The Dalai Lama, now fifty-six, was plucked from a remote farming village at the age of two and a half to be enshrined in Lhasa as the leader of the world's most spiritual people. But opposites attract. "It's amazing being in the presence of someone who not only wishes you the best but has no sense of his ego," Gere has said. And Gere, who was brought up a Methodist, has long been a seeker. At twenty-four, he studied Zen meditation because, he once told a reporter, he had experienced a great deal of suffering and was searching for some way to deal with it. When he met the Dalai Lama, he was home.

Gere's involvement is deep. "He spends at least three-quarters of his time, when he isn't making movies, on things having to do with Tibet," says Elsie Walker, Tibet House president.

"A human being is meant to live the same way a car is meant to stay on the road," Gere notes. "Eventually, you find your way." But he recognizes that some need help in making the journey. As part of the 1991 Year of Tibet, a series of international conferences and art exhibitions, "we will have a booth at Bloomingdale's, where we'll sell first-class tickets to nirvana."

Behind every celebrity, it seems, stands a guru. Sometimes, the guru stands under him. In 1988 and '89, Sri Chinmoy, a fifty-nine-year-old Bangladeshi spiritual teacher and physical fitness buff--whose followers have included Carlos Santana, Sheena Easton, and track star Carl Lewis--toured seventeen countries, hoisting the likes of the Prime Minister of Iceland, two San Francisco 49ers, and Eddie Murphy into the air by means of a Nautilus-like contraption. Weight lifting is "the perfect analogy to the spiritual life," explains one devotee. "As the dead weight is lifted up, so also a person's lower, unilluminated being can be lifted to a level of increased peace, light, and delight." "He's constantly inspiring me," adds music producer Narada Michael Walden, who's done albums for Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. "He reminds me of God."

Even Imelda Marcos and Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi arms dealer, have a guru--India's Shri Chandra Swamiji Maharaj. In addition to providing spiritual counsel to the fabulously wealthy and hobnobbing with Elizabeth Taylor, the guru, who's been called a "one-man jet-set-introduction service" apparently greases the wheels in weapons transactions and was implicated in the Iran-Contra arms deal. The vastly rich swami was arrested by the Indian police in 1987 on charges of currency fraud.

There is nothing new, of course, in the talented, rich, or famous looking outside Western tradition to fulfill their spiritual needs. The nineteenth-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was strongly influenced by Oriental philosophy; beats like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac popularized Zen. But it wasn't until the sixties, an era in which all things Indian were in vogue, that the guru as we know him washed up on American shores.

He arrived in the person of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the tiny, avuncular, white-bearded swami who preached salvation through transcendental meditation--repeating for twenty minutes twice a day the customized mantras he sold for seventy-five dollars each. His brand of lite Hinduism attracted the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, who flew to his Rishikesh, India, ashram in 1968, and though their stay was short-lived--they left in disgust after a few weeks, reportedly claiming that the swami propositioned women in their entourage--the publicity was such that soon half of New York City and Los Angeles could be found sitting, eyes closed, concentrating on Sanskrit syllables.

The Maharishi's success in the West opened the floodgates to a host of dhoti-clad successors. There was Guru Maharaj Ji, the pudgy thirteen-year-old Perfect Master of the Divine Light Mission, whose touch was supposed to confer Knowledge and whose mother renounced him after he married a twenty-four-year-old; the chain-smoking Swami Satchidananda, championed by artist Peter Max and Carole King; the free love-espousing Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose Antelope, Oregon, commune degenerated into a caldron of sinister intrigues and murder plots. And there was Swami Muktananda, the guru's guru, who, to many in Hollywood, was the holiest of all.

Introduced to the U.S. in 1970 by Baba Ram Das (a former Harvard psychologist and LSD proponent who wrote the sixties hippie bible, Be Here Now), Swami Muktananda claimed to be a Siddha, an enlightened yogi of a centuries old Hindu tradition. A teacher of great charisma, Muktananda drew such celebrities as Marsha Mason, John Denver, former California governor Jerry Brown, Phylicia Rashad, James Taylor, and Carly Simon into his fold. By the time he died, in 1982, at the age of seventy-five, his SYDA Foundation operated eleven stately ashrams and hundreds of meditation centers worldwide.

Soon after his death, though, scandal surfaced. Although Muktananda had claimed to be celibate, dozens of former disciples, including members of his inner circle, revealed that the guru had had sex with female devotees and was especially attracted to members of the PSAT set. At his Ganeshprui, India, ashram, "he had a secret passageway from his house to the young girls' dormitory," one reported. "Whoever he was carrying on with, he had switched to that dorm. had girls marching in and out of his bedroom all night long." Some were as young as thirteen. Even before the swami died, one veteran ashram director wrote an open letter accusing Muktananda of "molesting little girls on the pretext of checking their virginity." "You should be happy that I'm still alive and healthy and that they haven't tried to hang me," Muktananda replied.

Some south to rationalize their guru's secret sex life by saying that he was practicing tantric sex, an unorthodox but real form of yoga in which the male does not ejaculate but instead uses his semen to drive his spiritual "kundalini" from his groin chakra into his head. This didn't wash with others. "If you're going to be celibate and you're going to preach celibacy, you don't put it in halfway and then pull it out," one high-ranking former member said.

Muktananda's movement survived the bad press and other scandals over alleged beating of disciples, threats against defectors, and financial shenanigans involving Swiss bank accounts. Today, under the spiritual guidance of Muktananda's successor, a thirty-six-year-old Indian woman named Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the SYDA Foundation appears turmoil-free and celebrity-full. Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith named their daughter Dakota Mayi after her; Peggy Lipton credits her with having "helped me honor myself and strengthen my self-esteem." (According to People magazine, Lipton's obsession with Gurumayi was one of the reasons behind the breakup of her twelve-year marriage to Quincy Jones; she had issued a "join me or else" ultimatum.)

Other stalwart followers include or have include Denver, James Brolin, Patricia Neal, Marlo Thomas, Rosanna Arquette, and Isabella Rossellini. "She's an Enlightened Master," swoons a SYDA Foundation publicist. "When people come into her presence, they know. Something mystical and great happens." At a recent birthday blowout for Gurumayi in the foundation's princely South Fallsburg, New York, headquarters, she sat on a throne above two thousand devotees while Mandy Patinkin, Lulu, and Jimmy Webb serenaded her. "It was like a party for royalty or a god," one non-follower told the press. "When you go up there, it's like entering Stepford land; people drive around with Gurumayi's picture on their dashboards and honk if they love her."

It would be difficult to predict the outcome of a Tournament of Stars between the followers of Gurumayi and those of the late L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the controversial Church of Scientology. Dreamed up in the forties by Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who once mused that "if a man really wants to make a million, the best way would be to start his own religion," Scientology is regarded as the new Buddhism by its followers, a money-mad, mind-altering cult by its detractors, who include psychologists, cult-watch groups, the AMA, and journalists, lawyers, and former members who have been targets of its wrath. In his bible, Dianetics, Hubbard wrote that all inner turmoil is the result of what he called "engrams," mental aberrations resulting from past traumatic events. If these engrams could be eliminated, one could be "cleared" and hence open to spiritual growth. Scientologists strive to rid themselves of engrams with the aid of "E-meters," lie detector-like devices used in "auditing" sessions with Scientology ministers, in which the intimate details of members' lives are laid bare. Auditing is pricey: It costs from $250 to $1,000 an hour or more.

John Travolta, a church member since 1975, says it's worth it. Before Scientology, "I'd get very depressed, for no reason," he has said. "Scientology made sense to me right away, because it seemed like a means of self-help. A meter shows you when you're responding to a bad experience in your past; you find the source of pain, acknowledge it, deal with it. I get answers that way, okay?" Kirstie Alley says Scientology helped her kick her cocaine habit in 1979. It "salvaged my life and began my acting career."

Similar testimonials are offered by Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, Karen Black, Priscilla Presley, folksinger Melanie, Frank Stallone, and Nancy Cartwright--better known as the voice of Bart Simpson. Tom Cruise and Mimi Rogers are also involved, as are Sonny Bono and Anne Archer. You can read many of their Scientology "Success Stories" in Celebrity, the glossy magazine the church displays in its recruitment centers.

But Scientology's superstars don't talk much about other aspects of the church. For example, Scientology teaches that seventy-five million years ago earth was called Teegeeach and was part of a galactic confederation ruled by an evil titan named Xemu. To solve the problem of overpopulation in his empire, Xemu rounded up miscreants and imprisoned them in volcanoes on earth, which he then exploded with nuclear bombs. Their spirits, called thetans, were gathered in clusters and trapped in frozen alcohol. Xemu then "implanted" them in humans, which is the cause of all our suffering; only through Scientology auditing can our thetans be cleared. Or something like that.

But the celebrities aren't taught about Xemu: That info is part of Scientology's most esoteric teachings, accessible only to "Level 3" disciples, those in the church's inner core. (Should the unprepared so much as glimpse these sacred texts, they will catch pneumonia and die.) These are the same church leaders who, as is well documented, have terrorized church "enemies," laundered hundreds of millions of dollars through dummy corporations, and behaved in other not-recognizably-religious ways. In 1977, eleven top church leaders, including Hubbard's third wife, were sentenced to prison for infiltrating, wiretapping, and burglarizing more than one hundred government offices of the IRS, FBI, and CIA, to sabotage a Federal investigation of the church. Far from an Enlightened Master, the reclusive Hubbard, who is said to have died in 1986, was perhaps more accurately described by family members as a "paranoid schizophrenic" and "hopelessly insane."

"The celebrities are given a rosy picture of the lower level of Scientology, which is a lot of pop psychology and some beneficial things," says a former high-level church official who worked at the Los Angeles Celebrity Center, one of Scientology's plush mansions where the famous get their auditing done. "They're not isolated in RPF programs, which is basically a kind of Korean final brainwashing, they're not exposed to the alien stuff. Our mission [at the Center] was to get celebrities in and use them as bait to bring in naive adolescents and young adults. The celebrities are themselves victims of information manipulation, highly sophisticated influence techniques, and their own vulnerability."

While Hubbard--who was terrified of dust and germs and demanded that his clothes be washed thirteen times in spring water before he would wear them--was an odd bird, the strangest gurus seem to be based in New York City. Take Frederick Von Mierers, a former male model and social climber from Brooklyn who convinced scores of beautiful, young, rich New Yorkers, including top models from the Ford Model Agency, as well as Sylveseter Stallone, that he was an alien "walk-in" from the star Arcturus. Physical beauty was a prerequisite to membership in his cult, Eternal Values, which was based in an elegant Sutton Place apartment house. "I'm here to train the leaders of the New age," he told writer Marie Brenner. "Everyone I am training for leadership will have perfect features. I believe in the master race!"

One of the ways Von Mierers would save his followers from the coming Armageddon was by making them buy expensive gemstones, which he sold for many times their worth, often supplying phony appraisal certificates. Sex was also required; he coerced them into bizarre practices, like the multiracial gangbang called The Treatment. "You need to sit on a six-foot dildo in the middle of Park Avenue," he told his female disciples, who included Jackie Adams, a Ford superstar with an Elizabeth Arden contract who was desperately seeking insight into her unhappy childhood. For his own pleasure, Von Mierers kept a Polaroid collection of enormously endowed black men.

As his fame spread through New Age circles, the cheek-implanted, face-lifted Von Mierers amassed millions selling his stones and psychic "life readings," which he claimed were accounts of previous incarnations, to the likes of Stallone, New York arts patron Alice Tully, and Rae Dawn Chong. He had a New York cable-TV show and was prominently featured in the 1986 book Aliens Among Us. His philosophy was a mishmash of Eastern teachings, New Age psychobabble, and rabid anti-Semitism, but his control over his devotees was seamless. "Satanic" defectors, however, eventually including Adams, went to the police and denounced him as a fraud.

The bizarre story of Von Mierers, whose death last year from AIDS spared him a likely prison sentence, brings to mid the even weirder story of Bernadette Peters's guru. In the seventies, Oric Bovar, who was renowned in Broadway circles for his uncannily accurate astrological charts and prescribed meditations that brought inner peace to such disciples as Peters, Carol Burnett, the ever-seeking Marsha Mason, and Neil Simon, became convinced that he was Jesus Christ and claimed that he could endure a year without going to the bathroom. One follower became convinced that Bovar was indeed divine when, during their first telephone conversation, he received an electric shock. On Christmas Eve 1975, Bovar instructed his followers to look up at the sky, and they saw him create a star.

As Bovar went bonkers, some of his followers dropped off, but not Peters. In the summer of 1976, he announced that Christmas would now be celebrated on his birthday, August 29. He began arranging marriages for his devotees--"Someone would come into the room and he would say, 'This is your husband--you must marry him,'" one recalls--and spent his free time watching The Exorcist. He put his followers on strict diets and forbade them to have sex.

Bovar's greatest feat was to have been the resurrection of twenty-nine-year-old Stephanos Hatzitheodorou, a disciple who died of cancer in his New York apartment in the fall of '76. After covering the body with a shawl, Bovar and five disciples kept a vigil over the corpse, chanting, "Rise, Stephan, rise, rise, rise." It was only then that Peters, whom the New York Times called one of Bovar's most loyal devotees, jumped ship. For two months, the group changed over the body, until a woman who identified herself as Mary Magdalene called the cops. His arrest for violating the health code by keeping a decaying corpse in the apartment marked the beginning of the end for Bovar, who was now referring to himself as "my son, Oric Bovar." Hours before he was to answer his doubters, he jumped out a window, intending to appear in resurrected glory in court.

There are other celebrities, other gurus, who should be mentioned. Ted Danson, Valerie Harper, Raul Julia, and John Denver (again) are followers of Werner Erhard, whose self-improvement training of the seventies, EST, brought us the phrase "Thank you for sharing." According to published reports, the California-based Erhard is now considered godlike by the faithful ("When you listen to Werner articulate," Denver said in 1987, "you know that you're listening to a historic moment being made.") and is referred to as the Source. His own family relations aren't so good, however: He allegedly forced his wife to participate in group sex and raped one of his daughters, who refers to him as a "monster."

Patrick Duffy, Herbie Hancock, and Tina Turner are members of Nichiren Shosu Soka Gakai of America, a yuppie Buddhist chanting circle many consider a cult. Leigh Taylor Young and Sally Kirkland are ordained ministers in the "Melchizedek priesthood" of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, a West Coast New Age outfit run by John-Roger, a former English teacher who is revered by followers as the embodiment of a Christ-like power called the Mystical Traveler Consciousness and possessor of "Preceptor consciousness," a rare enlightenment that exists on this planet only once every twenty-five thousand years.

David Viscott, a popular Beverly Hills psychiatrist who hosts radio and TV call-in shows in LA, has a theory about why so many celebrities wind up with gurus or in cults. "The more insecure people are, the more fame they want," he says. "And the more fame they get, the less they're able to handle it. So you see a lot of very insecure, famous people--people who feel alone and bewildered."

The insecurity is worsened by the vicissitudes of show business. "Look at who you're talking about--Linda Evans, Richard Gere, John Travolta," says Dr. Viscott. "They've all had certain jolts in their lives. The need for stability and for a base in the face of a world that seems ever-flimsy is the force that leads such people to seek something that gives them solidarity."

And the famous, of course, are warmly embraced by the cults. Ever since the Beatles, gurus have been latching onto celebrities for the publicity they bring them. "The group gives [the stars] their celebrity status not only in terms of the world without but also in terms of the cult they've become a part of," Dr. Viscott continues. "They get the feeling that Ramtha loves them especially. It's the politics of insecurity."

The breaking news on the guru front is that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is back. Championed by magician Doug Henning, a seven-hour-a-day meditator, the swami the Beatles dubbed Sexy Sadie has announced plans for a 450-acre mystical theme park called Veda Land, scheduled to open in Orlando, Florida, in 1993. Among its attractions will be a white building that appears to levitate fifteen feet above a pond, a time tunnel from the Big Bang to Eternity's End, and a 120-passenger chariot that will travel into the DNA of a rose petal. "The idea was the Maharishi's," Henning said recently. "Maharishi looked me in the eye and said, 'All theme parks are superficial. Create one that stimulates the intellect, stirs the emotions--and enlightens people.'" Maharishi's inspiration, Henning added, was a trip to Disneyland.

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