The explosion of spiritual commerce was propelled by the guru culture of the 1960s and ’70s.
“It is not possible to understand the Middle East, or Watergate, or UFOs, or the super-comet in the sky, unless you understand the central event on this planet around which all other events now spin. Guru Maharaj Ji has said that life is like a chess game, and very soon now the whole world will be checkmated, and if America wants to understand what is happening, they must understand the main thing that is happening; the Lord is on the planet, he’s in a human body, and he’s about to usher in the greatest change in the history of human civilization.”
These words were spoken by peace activist Rennie Davis from the stage of the Houston Astrodome at an event that was part religious ceremony, part rock ‘n’ roll concert, called Millenium ’73. Followers were gathered there to celebrate a 16-year-old boy named Prem Rawat, at the time known as Guru Maharaj Ji—and some predicted that his spiritual power would levitate the stadium, or perhaps make it fly off into space. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.
Rawat had first traveled to the United States at age thirteen, returning home to India with 300 American followers. He had learned his trade from his father, Hans Maharaj, whose followers he had been addressing since the age of four, and whom he succeeded like a nine-year-old little prince when Hans died.
The American spiritual subculture as we know it today is built on both the blueprint and the ruins left by opportunistic ocean-crossing gurus of the ’70s and ’80s, like Prem Rawat. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Chogyam Trungpa, Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, and Sun Myung Moon — to name but a few — also presented themselves as enlightened holy men of that time, capitalizing on the starry-eyed ‘60s revolutionary counterculture’s openness to radical new ideas and rejection of conventional American mores.
It turned out, though, that in most cases these new incarnations of Jesus, Buddha, and, as Prem Rawat’s followers called him, “The Lord of the Universe” had more of an appetite for excessive wealth, authoritarian power, and a variety of abusive indulgences than a lifestyle of moral restraint and selfless service. Despite the many failings, scandals, and ruined lives left in their wake, the spiritual commerce they introduced has continued to flourish via a guru-economy populated by a profusion of holy hucksters from both the East and the West.
A gallery of holy rogues
Rajneesh was well-known for his fleet of Rolls Royces, and extravagant diamond bracelets, as well as his indulgence in nitrous oxide, valium, and sex parties — when he died in 1990 he left assets estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.
Maharishi died in 2008 and left an estate worth $300 million. He was famously, yet briefly, followed by The Beatles—with John Lennon accusing him of sexual improprieties during a controversial bust-up. The guru claimed that following his teachings would lead to paranormal abilities like levitation or “yogic flying,” and also that enough people practicing his Transcendental Meditation technique at the same time could create world peace. In his later years, the Maharishi called for the demolition of the White House so as to rebuild it in a new location and in accordance with the spiritual principles of Vedic architecture.
Sun Myung Moon announced himself as the Second Coming of Christ, and famously presided over many mass-wedding “blessing ceremonies” with as many as 28,000 couples at a time being initiated into his Unification church and out of the sinful lineage of humanity. He also described homosexuals as “dirty dung-eating dogs” who would be purged by God. Moon’s widow inherited at least $3B when he died in 2012.
The enterprises established by Rajneesh, Maharishi and Moon are still generating wealth to this day.
Though he died at 48 of alcoholism and liver cirrhosis in 1987, Chogyam Trungpa founded multiple meditation centers that were estimated in 2017 as still bringing in an average of $580K per year to the parent organization, Shambhala International.
Prem Rawat is still alive, long past his 1973 heydey in Houston. He, nonetheless, has several multi-million dollar properties around the world and still owns luxury cars, boats, helicopters, and a private jet. His entire empire was built on a set of four supposedly secret techniques referred to as “knowledge” and received only by initiates, who were encouraged to donate all of their worldly possessions to the guru.
As for the peace activist who proclaimed Rawat’s divine importance from that Houston stage, Rennie Davis became a venture capitalist who also lectured on meditation and self-awareness. He died in February 2021. But Davis wasn’t the mastermind behind Maharaj Ji. That would be his older brother Satpal Maharaj. In the documentary made about Millennium ‘73, titled Lord of The Universe, he can be seen explaining to a group of people how two UFOs came down to a monastery in Colombia and told a group of Catholic nuns that they should receive knowledge from his brother. The Mother Superior of this group, recounts Satpal, now wants the Pope to receive knowledge. In the documentary, some former devotees no longer under Rawat’s influence share what the mysterious and secret knowledge practices really were.
Selling you a new you
Clearly, this guru game is big business. But what’s the product?
Well, enlightenment, of course — a commodity as highly prized as it is impossible to define. The aspirational promise of discovering ultimate spiritual truth, a higher purpose to life, and an end to the egoic suffering caused by attachment.
But it’s not just the allure of enduring inner peace. The wellness marketplace today promises a radical re-envisioning of what it is to be human. Not only yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques, but how you eat, what you wear, how you treat or prevent illness, build your immune system, relax, heal, have sex, achieve your goals, get rich, see the world, and even conceive of reality itself—it’s all for sale, and all with the promise of impossibly hyped-up results and conspicuous-in-its-absence evidence.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop has become perhaps the flagship online lifestyle destination for the conspicuous consumption of all things pseudoscience.
While the first generation of gurus in the West linked enlightenment to joining the group, perhaps taking a new name, wearing robes or the necklace with the guru’s picture, often working for free to build an organization that would change the world, while donating their savings accounts and other assets to the organization in an initiatory display of total commitment and faith, the spiritual marketplace that was opened up for the next generation was home to a variety of models. Some still operated under gurus; whether charismatic holy men or women fronting for a well-oiled larger enterprise, or self-made secular author and motivational speaker types. Others used a more weekend workshop model that focused on a personal growth curriculum with a hierarchy of relatively dispensable teachers.
These “large group awareness trainings” like EST, The Forum, and Lifespring would follow a predictable experiential arc that utilized sleep deprivation and group psychology dynamics to create rapid intimacy and loyalty in a strictly controlled environment, then segued into emotional catharsis and psychodrama, followed by affirmative goal setting and new life-commitments, culminating in pumping participants up to right away spend twice as much as they already had to take the next level course, and to recruit as many friends and family as possible to show their commitment to total transformation.
Multi-level marketing companies utilize similar themes of personal growth, group identity, and being held accountable to deliver on their sales goals while saving the world with products they believed in. Those products? Usually, suspect supplements like Herbalife or, in the case of Young Living, completely unproven and even dangerous essential oils, both touted as holistic alternatives to pharmaceutical medicine. Despite gathering in stadiums for spectacular audio-visual shows peppered with compelling star speakers to affirm the incredible wealth opportunity their quasi-religious loyalty to the company represents, a class-action lawsuit alleges that 94% of sales affiliates earn $1 a month.
These affiliate members also have to keep buying products they usually have a hard time selling in order to maintain the membership sold in turn to them with the promise of an abundant lifestyle, afforded by a bold new career that fits their spiritual values. Then there’s also the pressure to recruit friends and family into their “downline” —because that’s really how you get rich. People at the top of these well-crafted predatory pyramid schemes are making exponentially more money than they would from just selling the actual product in retail stores. In fact, the product is almost incidental to what they are really selling: the dream of spiritually illuminated success and virtuous wealth.
Yoga and pseudoscience go mainstream
Alongside all of this sparkly commerce, more traditional-seeming spiritual forms did continue with a new generation of supposedly enlightened gurus all competing in an ever-more crowded field, as well as the first relatively small number of transnational hatha yoga teachers. At first, Westerners traveled to India to study with self-appointed ambassadors who had packaged their forms of yoga for consumption. These revered yoga gurus, most notably BKS Iyengar and Patthabi Jois, also turned out to have feet of clay. Iyengar was shown to have been cruel and physically abusive, and Jois as sexually abusive, both throughout their long careers.
From the ’90s onward, the new generation of Western teachers, in turn, offered their own high-priced yoga teacher training courses, careful to always point back at the lineage that students were conditioned to see as providing legitimacy.
As someone in the yoga industry, I have often wondered if we’ve finally hit that peak moment defined by containing more teachers than students. In light of this, the promise of yoga as a path to a meaningful new career has been replaced with the non-committal invitation to “deepen your practice” via teacher training has become the marketing norm.
But that’s not all. There are now thousands of spiritual books, audio programs, websites, podcasts, and blockbuster New Age movies like What The Bleep and The Secret that have brought in millions of dollars. Oprah Winfrey became the king and queen maker in a realm where Deepak and Gwyneth are household names of equal esteem, if differing niches, but then so is anti-vaxxer, Jenny McCarthy. This sector of the marketplace relies heavily on pseudoscience claims about quantum physics as evidence for magical thinking, or the efficacy of fad diets, cleanses, herbs and supplements, and false assertions about medical science as a villainous foil for more “holistic”-seeming, but unproven cures and life-enhancers.
Now, a network of alternative medicine practitioners, healers, trance channels, psychics, astrologers, and coaches all stand at ready to support your self-actualization into living the life of your dreams and finding your soul’s purpose—and people training others to take their place in that army of lightworkers have similarly figured out how to commodify these roles.
Is there value in any of this? Without a doubt. There’s even good science to support the benefits of meditation, yoga, and an overall healthy lifestyle and spiritual fellowship. The relational relief of meaningful one-on-one interactions in which we feel cared for and listened to is also invaluable. None of it would be appealing unless certain experiences, insights, and techniques were being shared, certain needs being met — not least of all wanting to feel a sense of purpose and belonging. Very often what is being sold is a sense of community gathered around a shared belief system that speaks to virtue, empowerment, meaning, and mission. But it’s precisely because these needs and themes are so powerfully poignant and vulnerable that they are so readily exploited.
The Conspirituality portal
The diverse spiritual commerce landscape also has one ubiquitous philosophical characteristic. In order to sell ordinary people on an ever-escalating disconnection from reality, any critical thinking that would render much of the marketplace defunct simply has to be disabled. So, baked into the eclectic belief system like butter into cupcakes is the injunction to turn off your rational mind. You must go beyond mere materialist science, dispense with any supposed ego-driven questioning, and tap into an intuitive knowing. The path is framed as one of awakening to a deeper sense of spirit-led faith in signs and synchronicities that communicate from an invisible world, reveal an ultimate truth beyond words, and light the way to a divine karmic destiny.
While this may seem harmless, and even be understood as having some value in terms of living in the moment, free from anxiety and unnecessary judgmentalism, the history of cults, gurus, and now the profusion of conspiracy theories amongst spiritual people reveals the very real dangers of a manipulative marriage between spirituality and alternative facts. Filter it all through the lens of today’s social media platforms and the even more ubiquitous profusion of talented but usually unqualified influencers reaching hundreds of thousands with direct-to-camera video content every day, and the alternate reality sales pitch becomes particularly vivid.
This article is the first in a series that looks at the roots of what my colleagues and I refer to as “Conspirituality” — the name of our podcast. It’s a phenomenon we’ve observed as veterans in the yoga and wellness space, that we noticed taking on an alarmingly virulent life of its own during the global pandemic.
From Covid-denial because you create your own reality, to rejecting quarantine, because my supplements, diet, exercise, and spiritual mindset are all the protection I need, to being anti-vaccine because all my trusted alternative doctors, healers, and guides believe it is toxic, to getting involved in QAnon-adjacent fantasies about a coming “Great Awakening” into “5th-dimensional reality,” because this Instagram channel I follow is getting downloads from the Galactic Federation, the spiritual subculture has been rife with far-out delusions, dangerous misinformation and the conspiracy theories that are often a gateway to another kind of cult—far-right politics. Think those are exaggerations? Here’s a running tally of the red-pilled spiritual influencers we’ve been researching.
How we got here, as it turns out, has as much to do with Trump, Covid, and capitalism as it does with magical thinking, spiritual bypass, and claims of messianic enlightenment.
Julian Walker grew up in South Africa and lives in Los Angeles. He is the co-host of Conspirituality Podcast. Julian co-founded the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind yoga teacher training. He writes critically about New Age spirituality, gurus, and Western yoga culture online and was published in 21st Century Yoga, an essay collection published by Kleio Books in 2012. Julian has also presented his experiential synthesis of mindfulness, movement, neuroscience, and somatic psychology techniques at the UCLA Interpersonal Neurobiology conference.
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