The Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (born ca. 1911) came to the West as a missionary of traditional Indian thought in popular form and founded the Transcendental Meditation Movement, which reached its height of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.
Indian sources say Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was born Mahad Prasad Varma on October 18, 1911, the son of a local income tax official in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India. His official biography says he graduated from Allahabad University in 1942 with a degree in physics. After working in a factory, he turned to an Indian guru of the Jyotir Math, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati Shankaracharya (1869-1953), whom he would call Guru Dev, "divine teacher." Brahmananda was of the Indian school of religious thought known as Advaita Vedanta, whose major exponent was the eighth century thinker Shankara. Maharishi received the Guru's training for 13 years and as a result of Brahmananda's encouragement dedicated his life to spreading his master's teachings.
After what is officially called a period of meditation in the Himalayas, he decided to develop a popular form of traditional Advaita Vedanta and yogic practices. His first mission to Madras in southern India met with little success, so he decided to bring it to Americans, "the people who are in a habit of adopting things quickly." He arrived in the United States in 1959, after settling first in London where he founded the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, whose goal was to change the world through the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM).
At first the movement met with little success, but when the British rock group The Beatles announced in 1967 that they had spent some months at his International Academy of Meditation at Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills, a decade of growth followed. Other actors, actresses, athletes, and politicians began TM in the hope of benefiting from its claims for a life of "success without stress." The early scientific claims, later mostly discounted as based on poorly controlled experiments, were presented to high school and college students through the Students' International Meditation Society, founded in 1966, with phenomenal success.
In 1968 Maharishi announced that his ten-year period of public activity had ended, and the training of meditators was entrusted to a staff of advanced teachers. After tax problems with the Indian government the movement shifted its international headquarters from India, where it was never as popular as it was abroad. After locating in a number of countries, its international headquarters was firmly established in Seelisberg, Switzerland. In 1971 Maharishi International University opened in Los Angeles, and in 1974 it moved to the site of the former Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa.
In the mid 1970s interest among professionals replaced dwindling campus attraction. TM promised "increased creativity and flexibility, increased productivity, improved job satisfaction, improved relations with supervisors and coworkers." At the same time the movement was organized on multinational corporate lines, and Maharishi began to adopt the life of a corporate executive with conferences, foreign travel, and chauffeured limousines. The movement announced a "World Plan" to change the world through the propagation and practice of TM, and in 1975 Maharishi announced that the "Age of Science" had risen to "The Age of Enlightenment." Thus began the demonstration of the "full significance" of TM.
Though it often denied that it was yoga, "The Age of Enlightenment Course" promised that its students, through untapped abilities, could experience the "siddhis," supernormal powers traditionally identified with yogis in India. TM claimed that its meditators could have "the ability to perceive things which are beyond the reach of the senses, the development of profound intimacy and support from one's physical environment, and even such abilities as disappearing and rising up or levitating at will."
Accepting the movement's claims that TM was non-religious and beneficial for reducing crime and drug use, a number of government agencies began efforts to involve TM. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare awarded the World Plan Council of the United States a $40,000 grant. TM's theoretical foundation, called "The Science of Being" and later "The Science of Creative Intelligence" (SCI), was adopted in 1975-1976 as the basis for an elective course in five New Jersey public high schools taught by World Plan trained teachers. But in 1977 a U.S. District Court declared TM/SCI religious, and an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1978-1979 upheld that decision.
TM claimed that one does not have to understand the theories behind the practice in order to benefit from it, but as one progresses beyond the introductory level, the metaphysical basis becomes more important. Central to this theory is the traditional Advaita Vedanta (from Shankara) doctrine that the true self is the highest and ultimately the only Reality. Sometimes this Reality is called "God," though it is not a personal being but an unchanging Absolute, an impersonal state of consciousness. The meditational technique is meant to put one in touch with the essential Self, the eternal Being within, by moving one's attention away from the surface consciousness of change, suffering, and stress. One then becomes one with the Absolute Being, an experience which Maharishi calls "God-consciousness."
Introductory sessions which present the "benefits" of TM are followed for the inquirer by a mandated puja or service of offering. The student brings a small offering to a room prepared with a table with candles; dishes for water, rice, and sandalpaste; incense; and camphor. On the table is a picture of Guru Dev. The offerings are placed on the table while the student stands before it and the teacher sings a chant in Sanskrit which expresses thanks to the authorized line of teachers and to some of the gods of Hinduism. At the conclusion of the chant, the student is given a secret mantra or syllable for the mind and instructed in the technique for using it. Meditators are instructed to meditate for 20 minutes twice a day. Further education may follow and is encouraged, for changing the world requires the spiritual influence of a large number of meditators.
The Maharishi's followers established the Maharishi International University in 1974 in Fairfield, Iowa, where they mixed courses in TM and academic curriculum. The next several years resulted in difficulties for Maharishi and the TM movement. In 1986 the University was sued for $9 million by a former student, Robert Kropinski, and six other people on the grounds of "fraud, neglect, and intentionally inflicting emotional damage." Kropinski charged that although he had taken the course, none of the promised benefits had resulted, and that when he tried to discontinue the university, Maharishi had used "fear and intimidation" to prevent him from leaving. Maharishi was not a defendant because he could not be found to be served with the papers. Kropinski was eventually awarded $138,000 by a Washington D.C. jury.
In 1992 Maharishi and magician Doug Henning (a follower of TM) announced plans for establishing Maharishi Veda Land, by Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. This would have been a $1.5 billion theme park which would combine recreation with "spiritual enlightenment," including a thousand residential units in a "Heaven on Earth" housing development, a Tower of World Peace, and an International Summit Conferance Center in addition to 33 rides and attractions and an indoor water park. However, the park never materialized. In 1995 another college, the former Nathaniel Hawthorne College in Antrim, New Hampshire, was purchased by the Maharishi's followers, who said they intended to make it the eastern headquarters for the TM movement. In the 1990s the TM movement turned to politics, forming a new political party, the Natural Law Party. Sponsoring candidates in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, the party sought to combine practical politics with Transcendental Meditiation. However, they experienced little success electorally.
The TM movement has produced a large body of literature, but Maharishi's writings are found in only three books: an introductory text called Transcendental Meditation: Serenity Without Drugs (1968), which was previously published as The Science of Being and Art of Living (1963); a commentary on a popular Indian scripture, On the Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation and Commentary: Chapters 1-6 (1967); and a collection of the Meditations of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1968).
Most introductions to the TM movement are either the uncritical approach of believers or the critical and often inaccurate approaches of other religious perspectives. For a scientific perspective on these movements see David G. Bromley and Anson D. Schupe, Strange Gods (1981); on TM in particular, see William S. Bainbridge and Daniel H. Jackson, "The Rise and Decline of Transcendental Meditation" in Bryan Wilson, editor, The Social Impact of New Religious Movements (1981); an example of a highly critical look at TM is a chapter in James Randi's Flim-Flam: The Truth About Unicorns, Parapsychology and Other Delusions (New York, Lippincott & Crowell, 1980); Celebrating the Dawn-Maharishi Yogi and the TM Movement by Robert Oates Jr. (Putnam, 1976) is a sympathetic look at the Maharishi and his Activities; articles dealing with the TM movement and its activities in recent years are "University'd Degree Comes with Heavy Dose of Meditation" by Anthony DePalma, New York Times (April 26th, 1983); "Trial Under Way for Lawsuit Brought by Maharashi Follower," New York Times (December 14th, 1986); "Veda Land-Theme Park for Ontario," New York Times (March 22nd, 1992); "Antrim Resets Its Sights for Future from Prison Cells to Free Spirits," by Ralph Jimenez, Boston Globe (February 12th, 1995); "Perot's Party Is Not Alone," New York Times (June 2nd, 1996). □