Mahesh Yogi, Maharishi

Mahesh Yogi, Maharishi
?-Feb. 5, 2008
Indian yogi

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Among the messengers of Krishna "sent" to guide mankind through a climactic, decadent age, His Holiness the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has, according to a reporter for Newsweek (May 15, 1972), "the fastest growing cult in the West." Since 1959 the controversial Maharishi has been traveling the world, fostering peace through transcendental meditation, also known simply as TM, a deep-concentration technique that purports to be a simple, spontaneous shortcut to samadhi, or blissful oneness with the infinite in the still depths of the self, where one taps energies for more creative thinking and action on the turbulent surface of life. Some devotees of more severe Hindu disciplines may look upon Mahesh as a "rascalguru," a too-permissive "commercializer" of mantras, but only an uninformed critic would dismiss his message as fraudulent. His followers attest that TM gives a "groovier high" than drugs, without their legal and physiological side effects. The growth of the Maharishi's Spiritual Regeneration Movement (SRM) was slow, however, until 1967, when the conversion of the Beatles (who later defected) instigated an influx of celebrities including members of two other famous rock 'n' roll groups, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, the popular recording artist Donovan, actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., actresses Mia Farrow and Shirley MacLaine, and Major General Franklin M. Davis, head of the United States Army's War College. SRM claims a worldwide membership of 300,000, and, according to Time (October 23, 1972), 250,000 people in the United States alone practise transcendental meditation.

The Maharishi (a Sanskrit title meaning "great sage") does not use a first name; Mahesh is his family name and Yogi, rooted in the Sanskrit word for effort, means teacher. Information about his origin and early life is scant and hazy. "Monks are not expected to speak about themselves; the message is important, not the person," he has explained, and, regarding his age, he told Terence Shea of the National Observer (January 15, 1968): "Some things should be left to guessing." A majority of journalists have guessed that he was born about 1911, but the relatively youthful face behind all that graying hair suggests a later date, and some reporters have speculated that the date was closer to, or even beyond, 1915. Most sources agree that his father was a government revenue inspector.

After studying physics at Allahabad University and working in a factory, Mahesh went off to Uttar Kashi in the Himalayan Mountains for spiritual apprenticeship to Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Badri-ka. Guru Dev, as Shankaracharya is more commonly known, devoted his life to keeping the tradition of transcendental meditation alive in Hinduism, and when he died, in 1952, he passed that mission on to Mahesh. Following prolonged preparation in solitude, the Maharishi carried Guru Dev's message throughout India until 1958, when, as he has recounted, he "conceived the idea of the regeneration of the whole world through meditation."

His idea was, and is, that wars and other social and political conflicts have their ultimate source not in the decisions of secular rulers, despotic or otherwise, but in the collective confusion that arises from the accumulation of individual tensions. Transcendental meditation, he says, is a way of "freeing the nervous system of tensions and bringing bliss consciousness." If even one percent of the world's population practised it, according to the Maharishi, the resulting outward flow of good vibrations would inundate communities and nations, stifling the cadence of violence.

Embarking on his international mission for peace in 1959, the Maharishi spent five months in Los Angeles, California, a locale known for its hospitality to mind-expansion methods and movements. There he founded his Spiritual Regeneration Movement, with an initial membership of twenty-five devotees, including Charles Lutes, a San Fernando Valley salesman of concrete and steel who is still an international governor of SRM. "He needed nothing," Lutes, referring to Mahesh, told Lewis H. Lapham in an interview for a two-part article published in the Saturday Evening Post (May 4 and 18, 1968). "His coming to us must be considered an act of self-sacrifice."

The Los Angeles group proceeded to finance a world tour by Mahesh annually during the Indian monsoon season, beginning in 1960. During his first visit to Europe the holy man met one of his earliest British disciples, J. M. Cohen, who eight years later answered two common criticisms of his master, in a letter to the London Observer (March 1, 1968): "The state of meditation is not hypnoid' and…the Maharishi…is far from overlooking the plight of the Indian peasant. He asks Indians to abandon their recluse attitudes and deal with their urgent problems. Meditation is for only two half-hour periods a day; the rest of our time is for thought and action." (The Maharishi's concise admonition for the time of action between periods of meditation, by the way, is "Take it easy.")

In 1963 Allied Publishers issued the Maharishi's first book, The Science of Being and Art of Living. There Mahesh wrote: "Those whose…vision concentrates on the gross see only the surface value of life…ripples and waves of the vast ocean of eternal Being. All the forms and phenomena and ever-changing states of life in the world have their basis in that eternal life of the omnipresent Being…. Because of Its abstract nature, the study of the Being has until recently been considered to be mystical in nature, and such a tendency is responsible for depriving the common man for hundreds of generations past of the great advantages of experiencing the Being. Now, with the availability of a systematic way to experience directly the transcendent ultimate Being, the Being not only steps from the mystical field into the daylight of modern science but It also provides a [means of] rescue…[from] the fear of annihilation that is promoted by man's increasing knowledge in the various sciences."

The Maharishi stresses that he teaches a technique and not a religion partly because he understands the rationalistic Western mind and partly because the name religion has been polluted by those who have used it "to control…many an innocent soul" by presenting God as either "something to fear" or "a fanciful…refuge." But, as the Maharishi pointed out in a discussion with the Abbot of Downside over BBC radio in 1964, his concept of God as the impersonal "omnipresent essence of life" is tantamount to the Christian teaching that "the kingdom of heaven is within you."

At the University of California in 1965 Jerry Jarvis founded the youth branch of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, the Student International Meditation Society (SIMS), which now numbers some 10,000 members in the United States, with the strongest concentrations, outside of California and New York, at Yale and Harvard universities. Jarvis, who abandoned his career as a landscape architect in the late 1960's to devote all of his time to SIMS, is probably the most effective spokesman of the Maharishi in the United States.

The suicide in 1966 of the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, had a traumatic effect on the four young members of the celebrated British rock combo, especially George Harrison, who had already come to realize that no degree of material luxury can remove what he has called "the hang-up of death." When the Maharishi lectured in London in the summer of 1967, Harrison went to hear him, taking along Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and all three were received in audience by His Holiness after the lecture. The next day, accompanied by Ringo Starr, the fourth member of the group, they followed the Maharishi to Bangor, Wales, where he was to conduct an annual seminar for British members of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement.

During the seminar, all four Beatles were formally initiated into the movement. In an initiation (for which the fee is $35 and up, in accordance with one's income) the master, after appraising the personality of the neophyte, gives him a secret mantra, a word whose vibrations harmonize with those of the person himself or herself. Saying the word silently during meditations twice daily, concentrating on it, the initiate is able to let "gross" surface thought drift while consciousness descends to the depths where it is in tune with the infinite. The mantra is usually in Sanskrit, but George Harrison has stated that his is an English word included in the lyrics of the Beatles' song "I Am the Walrus."

Mantra is a Sanskrit word meaning, generally, a ritualistic incantation and, specifically, the hymns and prayers of the Vedas, the most ancient sacred writings of Hinduism. In his book Meditations of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Bantam, 1968), the Maharishi explains: "Physics tells us that…all…is just cycles of energy, waves of energy. One individual is nothing but a bundle of…energy waves…. These waves of energy…all originate from that one eternal hum [the "Om" incantation], and that hum in its exact status is the origin of the Vedas. Through Vedic hymns, it is possible for those expert in chanting those hymns to produce certain effects…[through] communication with the higher beings in different strata of creation…. That direct contact is just like the wireless contact in space…. Rishis (sages) are the seers of the mantras and maharishis are those who apply the knowledge for the good of the world."

Mahesh's translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was published by the SRM Press in 1968. According to the sacred Hindu scripture, we of the universe are now hurtling out of control, ever further from our moral and intellectual center, through Kali, the final, twilight stage (yuga) in one cycle, or "day," in the life of the creator god, Brahma. In this dissolute age, this Kali-yuga, the preserver god Vishnu's avatar Krishna has been sending messengers throughout the world, and among the messengers none have made greater impact, than two strikingly contrasting gurujis: Swami Prabhupada, the venerable, austere founder of the street-proselytizing Krishna Consciousness Society, who teaches joy through monastic asceticism and communal chanting and dancing; and the flamboyant, giggling Maharishi, whose Spiritual Regeneration Movement had by late 1967 become a pop phenomenon. Mahesh himself, pictured riding in a limousine, was among the items in Gillo Dorfles' book Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste.

In December 1967 the Beach Boys met the Maharishi in Paris, and Mike Love, that rock group's stage leader, followed the holy man to the foothills of the Himalayas two months later to take the three-month leadership training course (fee, $600) for those wishing to become teachers of TM. Later, in an article in Senior Scholastic (September 25, 1972), Love recalled: "Mia Farrow had already gone with the Maharishi to his ashram…. I remember very clearly seeing the Beatles ride up in a caravan of taxis from New Delhi…. Many songs on Donovan's and the Liverpool lads' albums over the past couple of years got their starts there in the foothills of the Himalayas that spring."

Love went on: "Maharishi…would speak to us on many subjects—the nature of creativity, the nature of the mind, and how to live life to the fullest. Meditation, he told us, was at the core of all of these things. In simple terms, it's something like an archer holding a bow and arrow. If he pulls back on the bow only a little way, the arrow will…fall far short of its maximum possible range…. Transcendental meditation allows a person to begin to use more of his mind, like the archer who draws back farther on his bow, so that both the arrow and the mind cover more distance…. For years, meditators have been aware of such results as increased energy, better performance in jobs and schoolwork, and profound relaxation…. Meditators also claim that they are less tense, less full of unfocused anxiety."

After novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s wife and daughter were converted to TM, and after Vonnegut himself met the Maharishi at the movement's Cambridge, Massachusetts center, a Unitarian minister asked Vonnegut, "Is he a fake?" Vonnegut recounted his reply in an article in Esquire, June 1968: "No. It made me happy just to see him. His vibrations are lovely and profound. He teaches that man was not born to suffer and will not suffer if he practises Transcendental Meditation, which is easy as pie…. My wife and daughter…meditate several times a day. Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside."

Because of trouble with the Indian government's income tax office, the Maharishi temporarily moved his headquarters to the italian resort town of Fiuggi Fonte in 1970. Meanwhile the defection of the BeatlesGeorge Harrison turned to the Krishna Consciousness Societyhad precipitated a downward trend in the Maharishi's fortunes, and after an ill-attended world tour in 1971 he announced sadly that he felt that he had "failed" in his mission. But the trend reversed itself, and by May 1972 the writer of a newsweek article on SRM could report; "The maharishi, in short, has come back, almost like Lazarus, from the spiritual dustbin of contemporary history. According to one of his top aides, the Students International Meditation Society…has 100,000 members. There are dozens of SIMS offices in the United States alone, and membership in Germany is reportedly doubling every two months. Currently, SIMS is busily acquiring building sites for…a global network of 350 teaching-training centers that theoretically will evolve into full-fledged universities of meditation. These centers, the guru promises, 'will bring to everyone everywhere the means of realizing his full potential.'" Later in 1972 the Maharishi moved his world headquarters to Austria. The exact site has not yet been made public.

The Newsweek correspondent described the Maharishi during a public appearance in Fiuggi Fonte: "In his rubber-thonged sandals, the white-robed Maharishi stood barely five feet tall. A resplendent beard cascaded from his chin and his dark eyes flashed hypnotically at the circle of young admirers, but the fast-moving prophet did not tarry…. Slipping into his chauffeured Mercedes limousine, he drove off to a waiting helicopter to inspect potential building sites for one of his many projects." Mahesh owns - or at least did when he lived in India - a twin-engine Beechcraft airplane, a gift from his followers. He himself never handles money, and his living quarters, while comfortable, are modest. He is a professed life-long celibate and a vegetarian whose breakfasts consist of honey and distilled water. But he does not force his regimen on his followers, outside of common meals. They are allowed, for example, to drink and smoke. The only prohibitions are against drugs and psychoanalysis. Both must be renounced before initiation.

In an article in the New York Times Magazine (December 17, 1967) Bernard Lefferts volunteered his impression of the holy man: "Laughing, babbling, laughing. Total friendliness." Other observers have described the diminutive, delicate Maharishi's face as "apple-cheeked" and "nut brown," his features as "youthful," his smile as "beatific," "coquettish," and "charmingly evasive," his high-pitched giggle as having "a quality of maniacal innocence," and his gait as "mincing." When he speaks quietly his voice is said to have a "soft resonance," but it can become "tinny" when raised. He speaks English in a precise manner, with a slight British accent and a rising inflection. "When he spoke to us," Lewis H. Lapham reported in the second of his Saturday Evening Post articles, "his voice remained gentle and soothing, as if he were speaking from someplace far away, where everything, somehow, was much simpler."

In his public appearances the yogi sits cross-egged on an antelope skin (to protect him from bad vibrations), fondling a flower or a bouquet. His talks are filled with brilliant metaphors and he is good at repartee in question periods. A tape recorder preserves every word he utters. "His message is, 'Enjoy what you are,'" Paul Horn, the jazz flutist, wrote of Mahesh in Look (February 6, 1968) after a pilgrimage to Rishakesh. "And he himself enjoys life and radiates so much joy and warmth and wisdom that it's contagious."

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