Feb 14, 2008

Obituary: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru and tycoon, died on February 5th, aged 91 (probably)

The Economist
February 14, 2008

VISITORS entering the World Bank in Washington one sweaty day in 1987 might have been surprised to come upon a team of smiling young men, legs neatly folded into the lotus position, hopping like frogs. In fact, most visitors were probably not surprised at all. Like many happenings connected with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, this display of “yogic flying” had been well advertised. The only surprise was that the bank, usually cast as a bastion of hard-headed rationality, should provide such a ready audience for an event whose aim was not physical fitness but world peace.

Thirty years earlier the maharishi, who had studied maths and physics at Allahabad University, had calculated that one person practising the transcendental meditation he promoted could induce virtuous behaviour among 99 non-meditators. He had already, in 1944, helped to get 2,000 Vedic pandits, learned followers of one of the four holy books of the Hindus, to chant mantras in an effort to bring the second world war to an end. He had again assembled meditators in 1963 to solve the Cuban missile crisis. But his ambitions were bigger—world peace, no less—and by the 1980s he had come to realise that to bring harmony to a world of 5 billion people, he would need 50m meditators.
Undaunted, he did the arithmetic again, this time factoring in meditation of deep purity and concentration (including yogic flying), and happily found he needed a number no greater than the square root of 1%—a mere 7,000 or so. Accordingly, 7,000 flyers were assembled during the Taste of Utopia conference in Fairfield, Iowa, in 1984. Annoyingly, though, the “wide range of positive effects worldwide” ended with the conference. Something similar happened after 7,000 students gathered for yogic flying and Vedic chanting near Delhi in 1988. The Berlin Wall came down all right and the cold war ended, but the money needed to keep the group airborne ran out and, dammit, “new tensions” started to arise in the world.

If only the maharishi had had the necessary funds. Actually, he had. He may not have known how to make peace, but he certainly knew how to make money. After years studying under a Hindu divine in the late 1950s, he had pronounced himself a maharishi (great seer) and set up the Spiritual Regeneration Movement. This took transcendental meditation, which he had trademarked, to the world, with Hollywood one of the first stops. Disciples paid $2,500 for a five-day course, learning how to reach a “deeper level” of consciousness by inwardly repeating a mantra twice a day for 20 minutes.

Real fame came when the Beatles beat a path to his door, seeking enlightenment and spirituality through good vibrations. George Harrison had already fallen under the spell of the sitar and the maharishi's message appealed to John Lennon's angry pacifism. Before long the Fab Four were ensconced in the maharishi's ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. Their stay was only a modified success, though, with Lennon and Ringo Starr complaining about the food, and all of them, perhaps, beginning to resent their host's transcendental interest in using them for publicity, if not an outright percentage of their earnings.

No matter. Plenty of others were ready to step forward for a dose of spiritual bliss, and not all were celebrities. In America meditation was judged to be just the tonic for a variety of people ranging from underperforming executives to recidivist prisoners. An army general even joined the board of Maharishi International University, set up in Fairfield in 1974. All in all, some 5m people are said to have been taught the maharishi's techniques since 1955.
His other ventures blossomed, too. A property empire was valued at over $3 billion ten years ago. A television station offered meditation courses to subscribers in 144 countries. Companies sold unguents, books, videos and Ayurvedic treatment. His political movement, the Natural Law Party, which in the 1990s pursued the goal of world government by fighting elections in America, Britain and several other countries, was less successful, and eventually folded. This, however, did not stop the maharishi then launching the raam, a global currency intended to foster development.

Imagine (all the things he didn't do)

Crank? Crackpot? Charlatan? Maybe all three. Yet the maharishi was generally benign. He did not use his money for sinister ends. He neither drank, nor smoked, nor took drugs. Indeed, he is credited with weaning the Beatles off dope (for a while). He did not accumulate scores of Rolls-Royces, like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh; his biggest self-indulgence was a helicopter. Nor was he ever accused of molesting choirboys; his greatest sexual impropriety, it was said, was to make a pass at Mia Farrow. He giggled a lot, and plainly had no lack of self-esteem. But his egotism did not mean he was always wringing his hands at pop concerts or blethering at Davos; after the 1960s he seldom appeared in public.
Moreover, his message was entirely laudable. He did not promote a cult or even a mainstream religion preaching original sin, purgatory and the likelihood of eternal damnation. He just wanted to end poverty, teach people how to achieve personal fulfilment and help them to discover “Heaven on Earth in this generation”. And yogic flying, of course.

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition


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