Nov 15, 2014

The murky past of The Beatles Guru

Simon Edge
Sunday Express
February 7, 2008

He liked to tell people: “I am a monk, I have no pockets.” That may technically have been true – his trademark white robe never looked as if it had a hidey-hole for a wallet – but the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was not as uninterested in wealth as he claimed.

When he died this week at the approximate age of 91, the so-called “giggling guru” had plenty to laugh about in financial terms. His own spokesman admitted recently that his personal assets were worth between £300million and £600million.

The long-haired, bearded Maharishi (a Hindi word meaning “great seer”), who shot to world fame in 1967 when the Beatles went to hear him speak about the technique he called transcendental meditation, had built up a vast global corporation. Based in a former Franciscan monastery on the Dutch/German border, his business empire included the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, a bewildering variety of online “vedic” and open universities, a Maharishi Institute of Management in India, a 24-hour global satellite television channel and a network of New Age health centres and companies selling massage oils, books, CDs, courses and spiritual consultations.

He memorably added to the gaiety of politics when he set up the Natural Law Party of Great Britain. It fielded an astonishing 310 candidates at the 1992 general election, who preached the benefits of yogic flying – a technique they declined to demonstrate for voters, instead making do with a cross-legged, frog-like hopping.

The party reached its polling high when it attracted 400,000 votes across the EU in the European elections of 1999, as well as the symbolic boost of coming second to Labour, well ahead of the Conservatives, in a local council ward in Lancashire. He also set up a $1billion fund in the US which he said would enable 40,000 flying “vedic pandits” to create world peace.

The Maharishi was disheartened to discover that Americans were not very interested in his ideals. As he told the interviewer Larry King: “I lack only $1billion to make the world a better world… But I realised later that I was talking to this capitalist country. Unless they get something privately themselves, they’ll not indulge into it.”

Whether you see him as a well-meaning crackpot or a self-serving fraud, it’s hard to believe that such a figure could hold the world in thrall in the Sixties and Seventies.

After travelling on the “mystical express” with him from Paddington Station to Bangor in North Wales, the Beatles spent a month the following year at his ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. George Harrison remained an admirer and a funder, as did singer Donovan and film-maker David Lynch, relationships that he was brilliant at exploiting. In 1975, Time magazine put him on its cover, surrounded by psychedelic flowers, under the slogan: “Meditation: The Answer To All Your Problems?”

Paul Mason, author of the biography The Maharishi, says the essence of his original teaching was not so daft. “He cobbled it from traditional sources and his own inspiration and basically it worked.

“I learned the technique in 1970. People in that era were looking for expanded happiness and they were doing it with all kinds of drugs. He was saying you could get high without drugs. It was a very attractive proposition.”

But the other side of that legacy, he says, is the bizarre, quasi-religious organisation the Maharishi built up – and the way he financed it. Initially he taught his meditation technique – which involves two 20-minute sessions a day, focusing on one word or mantra – for free. But when he arrived in the US in the Sixties he started charging a fee. “He quickly changed from a wandering monk who didn’t charge anything to a salesman charging a week’s wages,” says Mason.

The steep fees were not the only complaint about the man who was born Mahesh Srivastava – although Mason says he later changed his name to Mahesh Prasad Varma, after an uncle he went to live with – around January, 1917. When the Fab Four stayed at his ashram overlooking the Ganges, they wrote songs including Revolution, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Blackbird. But they left after a row with the guru over his treatment of 19-year-old Hollywood actress Mia Farrow, who was also staying there.

She accused the Maharishi – a professed celibate – of making a pass at her and fled to America. When the Beatles heard about it they departed in solidarity; John Lennon was so disgusted he wrote Sexy Sadie, a bitter satire on the guru (although Harrison later apologised to the Maharishi).

His disciples have always dismissed the story. Two years ago New Age writer Deepak Chopra said there was an entirely different reason for the pop stars’ departure: “What isn’t generally known is that the Maharishi had got fed up with the Beatles taking drugs. They were smoking ganja and taking LSD. He hadn’t come across anything like that before.”

Farrow herself angrily hit back, telling an interviewer: “Chopra should talk about what he knows. I was there. There were no drugs at the ashram; those guys were not kicked out. Ringo left because of the flies, I left for my own reasons and the other guys left because they just got bored. George stuck it pretty close to the end, along with [my sister] Prudence.”

Whatever happened that year, Mason says the allegations of sexual misconduct have never rung true. Unlike the cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, he says the Maharishi did not seem motivated by base desires.

“People rightly or wrongly have the idea that he was a sexy old man but few if any of his close followers would concur with that. He really wasn’t a sexual guy. He wasn’t motivated by money for its own sake either.

“The great lure for him was exposure. He liked having people sitting round listening to him and saying, ‘Oh great master’. He wanted to be a messiah.”

The rot really set in, Mason says, when the guru started developing new messages. “Once you learned meditation you didn’t need the Maharishi any more, so he resorted to making people come back for new products. Yogic flying was part of that but it was also a sign of dementia. They were promising that people would fly and nobody was flying. It was a farce.”

Yesterday the website of the Maharishi Open Univ­ersity proclaimed: “Heaven is applauding and welcoming His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.” His followers on earth include graduates of his networks of universities who invoke quantum physics to justify their belief that 40,000 people can harness energy from the collective human conscience to ­levitate and thereby bring world peace.

Mason predicts that this group will fall apart sooner rather later. “His contribution was that he woke people up to the idea of finding inner happiness and strength but the price we pay for his contribution is the weird cult business enterprise he has forced upon us, which will likely last but a few years after his passing.”

Aside from that dubious legacy, the Maharishi made one final claim to fame. In a rare interview two years ago, he was asked if he regretted his involvement with a group that brought him to world prominence.

He retorted angrily: “I did not become great ­by association of the Beatles. Forget about it!”

The world famous foursome, it transpired, should be grateful to him.

“If at all, the Beatles became substantial due to my contact,” he concluded.