What makes a well brought up boy from Beverly Hills kiss the feet of stranger in the room above a wholefood restaurant on Sunset Blvd. and announce that henceforth he should be known as Magus Aquarian?
Or to put it another way, just how powerful was the experience of meditation with the white-robed members of the Source Family? Under their charismatic leader Father Yod, the Source Family was one of the largest Utopian cults in LA during the 1960s. Numbering, at it height, 140 people plus children, they lived in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, previously known as the Chandler home after the magnate who built it.
There are a lot of 'previously knowns' in Source Family history. Father Yod himself was previously known as Jim Baker, an ex-marine, jujitsu black belt and convicted murderer, who fetched up in LA post WWII ready for rebirth and re-invention. His study under Yogi Bhajan provided the motivation for change and his hugely successful restaurants provided the means. But that alone does not explain the phenomenon. Family members recall a sense of being blessed, of "coming home".
Although Family members had no personal property, they wanted for nothing. They ate the freshest organically grown foods, their robes custom-designed from the finest fabrics. They lived in beautiful surroundings filled with antique rugs, musical instruments and artworks. And they worked; from sunrise, when the family greeted the day with a toke and a prayer, through shifts at the restaurant, meditation, yoga, physical work, study, ritual and rite. Hippies they may have been, but tripping drop-outs they were not. With a philosophy based on a blend of Eastern and Western religious ideologies and practices, their vision was to build Paradise on earth. To this end they worked, taught and, under the guidance of Zod, tried to perfect themselves, to achieve divine revelation, to become Gods.
The word most usually used to describe the Family was beautiful and the photos bear this out. In part it may be due to the family's use of advertising for new members that targeted young women. Father Yod himself took thirteen wives - something many of us would take issue with today. I asked Magus Aquarian about the selection process for family members - alternative societies very often attract the unstable, the vulnerable and the abused, none of which seems to be apparent in the Source Family documentation. He suggested that the family fulfilled something for him that had been missing in his life, but insisted that not everyone invited to join the Family was physically beautiful. suggesting that members became beautiful through the lifestyle at the Mother House.
By all standards, in an America dominated by Coca cola, TV dinners and Twinkies, the Family was unusually fit. The combination of diet, exercise, plentiful sex and emotional support left Family members free to focus on their creativity. Worries about job security, taxes, health coverage and the myriad other cares afflicting their peers were lifted from them by Father Yod. In their place came love and beauty. Sound appealing yet?
Maybe it could only happen in California, the state founded on second chances. LA's well-documented love of story certainly played into it, who better to show the way from dark into light, than a figure who turned from bare-handed murderer to deity?
California was always fertile ground for new churches, the most well-known being Aimee Temple McPherson's Foursquare Church (1927) and the Church of Scientology (1954) both of which survived the demise of their founders.
During the sixties, intentional communities were also forming in, or re-locating to, CA. Most notably, and unfortunately, Jim Jones' People Temple in 1965 and the Manson Family in 1967. The Source Family followed the pattern of many of these groups, centered on a charismatic male leader surrounded by young women followers; the giving of all material wealth to the community; and the untethering of followers from previous identities, as represented by their given names. The American anti-war movement, widespread experimentation in consciousness-expanding drugs and the heady optimism of youth, all contributed to the rise of the counter-culture and new experiments in living.
It has been suggested by Jodi Wille, director of a forthcoming documentary on the Source Family, that California's counter-culture contributed to the paths taken by among others Steve Jobs, whose embrace of Buddhism, fruitarian diet, and imaginative sense of possibility, bears all the hallmarks of West Coast alternative culture.
Magus Aquarian also brushed with Silicon Valley after leaving the family, founding a software company which he sold to considerable profit in 2000. Lively at 73, and now a clinical psychologist, he looks back with fondness at his youthful self. Whatever his reasons for leaving, his time with the Source Family remains in his memory an idyll of love and community in the California sunshine.
The documentary on the Source Family is set for distribution in April.