The Battle for Realism: Schisms in the Early Meditation Movement

by Tor Hersoug

During Acem’s first 5-6 years, the organisation cooperated with Mahesh Yogi – also known as the Maharishi – and what would later be known as the TM movement. Deep-seated differences led to a final break in 1972. This article will start by outlining some of the values that we think were at the root of the conflict. Next follows an outline of Mahesh Yogi’s background and the development of the TM movement, both before and after the break with Acem. Much of this material has hitherto been largely unknown, but illustrates important differences in approaches to meditation and personal development. Our aim in describing these divergences is to shine a new light on Acem’s history and present position.

1968 – Marx, Mao, Maharishi…

The 1968 generation travelled in two directions – one political, the other more spiritual, relating to lifestyle and meditation. Both were anti-establishment, and both focused on consciousness-raising, new ways of living and new social forms. Both had strong leaders and clear ideological answers. Over time, however, both movements underwent modification. The development of Acem illustrates this process. At an early stage, Acem began re-evaluating its goals and direction, and the conflict with Mahesh Yogi was the first clear expression of this.

The rupture was not superficial. Like many conflicts within the 1968 generation, it was connected to larger philosophical and psychological issues. The rift brought to light Acem’s basic goals, values and critiques of the times, some of which were quite controversial. Even people who had little interest in defending Mahesh Yogi supported attitudes and ideas that belong to more or less the same platform.

In Acem’s view, every adult bears an existential responsibility for his or her personal development and contribution to the world. From this perspective, we are all unfinished entities with a duty to improve ourselves, our attitudes and our actions. Through meditation and reflective interaction, we can develop and contribute more to our social environment – as supporting players, but also as counter-balances to the conventional and established.

To all practitioners, and particularly the young, Acem emphasises the importance of completing one’s studies and living up to one’s commitments to family, work and career. Meditation is not to be used as a flight away from reality, but as a tool to become more reality oriented. Some of Acem’s early opponents objected to what they deemed a “bourgeois” and “goody-goody” approach.

The effect of meditation is determined by what the meditator actually does and has nothing to do with a guru’s or deity’s “grace”. It is important to meditate in a way that opens the mind to unfinished psychological material. Both inner and outer action are necessary to create something new. Acem believes that the value of meditation lies in what the technique helps the meditator to realise in his or her life, and not in specific experiences during meditation. Why, then, meditate at all? Is it not more important to be involved in political or humanitarian action? With regard to some goals, this is undoubtedly true. But if the goal is increased insight and better personal relations, meditation and reflection are important. When Acem distanced itself from utopian theories and aspects of New Age, alternative treatments and “spiritual” groups, some people were indignant or disappointed. Acem does not believe in gurus or subscribe to magical-mythological thinking. Guru orientation quickly develops into personality cult, subservience, belief in magic and a shift towards passive, unproductive attitudes to life. No human being is perfect, and this is also true of gurus – whether in spiritual movements, politics, arts or science. Of course, in meditation as in all things, differing degrees of understanding and insight make some people more worth listening to, not subserviently but through exploratory dialogue. On the path to understanding, we are all responsible for our decisions, but we are not experts, even concerning ourselves. We may easily make a wrong choice and defend it as though it were right. The fellowship and insights of others can assist us towards self-knowledge. Existential growth requires the ability to share, discuss and reflect.

A meeting of East and West

Towards the end of the 1950s, a man who was then called Bala Brahmachari Mahesh decided to travel the world and teach people to meditate. After travelling in Asia, he went to the US in 1959, in his early 40s, and to Norway and other countries a year later. “Brahmachari” is a title for novices within Indian orders of monks.

Brahmachari Mahesh taught a version of a traditional Indian meditation technique called jaap, but without the use of a rosary. This technique yielded relaxation and energy and reduced stress-related problems. Mahesh arrived in the West at the right historical moment, when interest in Eastern philosophy was growing rapidly, and cultural friction was erupting as traditional Western attitudes and lifestyles came under attack. He was in a more favourable position than other Eastern gurus who arrived later, and was received with open arms.

Mahesh’s appearance and comportment were Indian. He called the goal of meditation cosmic consciousness, which was widely interpreted as expressing an Indian perception of reality. His message about the importance of developing human consciousness was well received in the West, because it fit with the contemporary rebellion against conventions and materialism. His thoughts also harmonised with the prevailing utopianism which characterised both Marx-inspired materialist politics and, somewhat later, aspects of the “spiritual” New Age movement. He started a movement called SRM (Spiritual Regeneration Movement), and later formed numerous organisations with different names. For many years, the Norwegian branch was called MIKI Norge (Maharishi Institute for Creative Intelligence in Norway). It is now called MGANL (Maharishi’s Global Administration through the Laws of Nature), and remained under Mahesh’s leadership until his death in February 2008.

Quite early he stopped calling himself Bala Brahmachari Mahesh, and opted for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maharishi (Big Seer/Wise Man) is a very rare title in India, traditionally reserved for the most important spiritual personalities, so his use of it for himself reflects the level of his ambition. The meditation technique he taught was originally known as Deep Meditation, gradually switching to Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the late 1960s. The change of name distanced the method from common Indian tradition and identified it as Mahesh Yogi’s personal product, particularly as he registered TM as his trademark.

In 1967-68, pop idols including the Beatles and the Beach Boys learned to meditate, greatly enhancing TM’s attraction. By the end of the 1960s, people were attending Mahesh Yogi’s courses in droves. Many became enthusiastic and energetic members of the movement, and profits soared.

The students who formed Acem in 1966 had also learned to meditate in Mahesh Yogi’s movement. They realised that his method was effective, and at the outset it seemed natural to collaborate with his movement. However, these ties would only last for 5-6 years.

Who was Mahesh?

Mahesh Prasad Varma grew up in Jabalbur in Central India, the third of four siblings. His family belonged to the kshatria or protector caste, the second highest of the four main castes. This caste originally comprised warriors, land-owners, and those employed in administration and government. For instance, some members of Mahesh’s family were involved in the production of cannon carriages.

When Mahesh grew up, a marriage was arranged in accordance with tradition, despite strenuous objections on his part. In despair, shortly before the wedding he went to see the father of the bride, arguing that the proposed marriage would only make both the daughter and himself unhappy. Eventually, the father relented and the marriage was cancelled – highly unusual in India at the time.

As a student, Mahesh is supposed to have read science at the university of Allahabad under the name of Mahesh Chandra Shrivastava. A student going by this name was registered there, but some have doubted that it was Mahesh. During the period in question, Mahesh met Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, and this meeting had a powerful impact on him. Soon after, Brahmananda Saraswati was pronounced shankaracharya (spiritual leader within Hinduism) in Northern India, based in Jyotir Math in the Himalayas.

After their first meeting, Mahesh exerted himself in the service of Brahmananda Saraswati and was eventually accepted as his disciple and secretary, managing trips, receptions, announcements and the flow of information. Most of the year, the shankaracharya travelled around in Northern India. In accordance with tradition, he never stayed long in one place.

Mahesh formed strong ties with him and was gradually also accepted as a novice taking the name Bala Brahmachari Mahesh and dressing in white. If he had finally been accepted as a monk (sanyasi), the dress code would have changed to saffron yellow, but he never achieved this. He acted as a secretary in a practical capacity until Brahmananda Saraswati’s death 13 years later, in 1953.
After Brahmananda Saraswati’s death, Mahesh apparently went through a lengthy period of dejection, reportedly remaining almost entirely in his room for 2-3 years before resuming normal social contacts. According to tradition, the successor automatically becomes the guru for all the previous shankaracharya’s disciples. However, the new shankaracharya was less interested than his predecessor in Mahesh, who requested permission to travel, initially in Southern India and Kashmir, eventually branching out to other parts of Asia. An itinerant existence is common for those who have left society in pursuit of a spiritual life.

Breaking with tradition

After some time, Mahesh wanted to move to the West and teach meditation there. According to him, he was granted nine years in which to travel, on the understanding that afterwards he would return to India to live in seclusion. However, an anonymous existence in India held less appeal once Mahesh had attracted an international following. He broke his promise to the new shankaracharya, and the relationship between them was troubled for as long as the shankaracharya was still alive.

To the outside world, Mahesh kept up appearances of adhering to his original tradition. Indirectly, through lifestyle, dress and other symbols, he gave the impression of being Brahmananda Saraswati’s loyal disciple and rightful successor. This invested him with authority, since he could claim to be speaking on behalf of a millennia-old tradition. However, his words and actions differed substantially. The shankaracharya tradition, which emphasises right lifestyle and seeks insight through meditation and philosophy, rejects magic (siddhi), materialism and a strong focus on the individual.

At the death of the new shankaracharya, conflicts erupted between three individuals claiming to be his rightful successor, and the leadership of Jyotir Math remains weak to this day. In this divided atmosphere it was not difficult for Mahesh to attain a degree of reconciliation with the shankaracharya institution, to which he is said to have donated a large sum of money. However, he never won approval for taking the title of Maharishi. In Jyotir Math there is a photograph of him with the name Mahesh Yogi. If anybody refers to him as Maharishi, people shake their heads and correct this to Mahesh Yogi.

Disengagement from reality

Unhindered by ties to his strict monastic order and its ideals, Mahesh Yogi’s behaviour underwent a change. His teaching was no longer primarily presented as a form of Indian wisdom, but rather as his own vision. He called it the SCI, the Science of Creative Intelligence. Over time, the purported effects of his techniques were greatly exaggerated, and he claimed scientific confirmation far beyond what was proven. He demanded absolute obedience to his tenets and expected to be regarded as infallible by his leaders and adherents.

Acem members were quick to react against the first developments in this direction, long before they became more obvious. Acem did not want to promulgate the TM movement’s most extreme claims, and refused to support everything that Mahesh Yogi said and did. In Acem, there was a desire to understand meditation’s potential and limitations, as well as the mechanisms involved and the effect of the framework within which meditation is taught. Courses were designed to increase participants’ benefits from meditation, and Mahesh Yogi’s instructions (which, incidentally, changed several times) were not necessarily followed in every detail.

The break – 1972

After a long period of friction, collaboration between the TM movement and Acem ended in July 1972. Acem continued on its own course, working out a psychology of meditation that sought to reflect the actual experience of meditators. The goal was to bring about a type of meditative practice that stimulated human growth.

During the 1970s, further developments within the TM movement caused it to diverge even further from Acem. Three examples illustrate this: the World Plan, the World Government, and the TM-Sidhi programme.

The World Plan – early 1970s

Early in 1972, Mahesh Yogi presented his “World Plan”, according to which all the people on Earth were to learn TM within a period of 3-4 years. By June 15 the same year, 350 SCI centres were supposed to be established around the world. Six months later, the number should be 3500 centres, including 700 in China. Mahesh appealed to all the world’s governments to help make this dream come true.

The World Plan entailed seven specific goals (cf. http://www.alltm.org/Maharishi/Maharishi_year2.html):

  1. To develop the full potential of the individual
  2. To improve governmental achievements
  3. To realize the highest ideals of education
  4. To solve the problems of crime, drug-abuse and all behavior that brings unhappiness to the family of man
  5. To maximize the intelligent use of the whole environment
  6. To bring fulfillment to the economic aspirations of society, and the individual
  7. To achieve the spiritual goals of all mankind in this generation

By June 15 there was little evidence of the 350 SCI centres. Nothing had come of the innumerable fascinating SCI exhibitions that were intended to be staged all over the world. Hardly any of the publications about the World Plan that were supposed to be distributed to influential people and government bodies everywhere saw the light of day. Those that did appear were shortlived, for instance the journal Worldplan Weekly, the first and last issue of which appeared in February 1972.

Before the break, the TM movement had criticised Acem leaders for saying that the World Plan was unrealistic, but after 1972, the World Plan was mentioned less and less often in the TM movement. This was predicted in a letter to the editor in Dyade, a magazine published by people close to Acem, as early as June 1972 (no. 4 1972):

What will Maharishi do when it becomes obvious that the world plan is a failure? Probably, he will come up with something new in an attempt to divert us and make us forget. And many will surely be keen to assist him in forgetting…

The writer of this letter could not have foreseen how true his prophecy would prove to be.

The World Government – the mid 1970s

On January 12 1975, Mahesh Yogi declared that the Age of Enlightenment had begun, because his movement had taught so many people to practise TM. The idea was that the mind power of the meditators would affect man’s collective consciousness and create more harmony. The world would be more peaceful, and everything would develop in a positive direction, both in society and for the individual.

Although it was never made explicit, January 12 was tacitly understood as Mahesh Yogi’s date of birth. In fact, however, it was not his real birthdate. According to sources in India, he was born in the autumn. A highly respected Indian astrologist once worked out his horoscope based on his original birthdate, concluding that Mahesh Yogi had only reached the half-way stage in his spiritual development. This unwelcome pronouncement seems to have been the trigger for Mahesh Yogi’s claim that he was born on January 12, according to Indian tradition the date that inaugurates a new era.

On January 12 1976, Mahesh Yogi unilaterally appointed “the World Government”. Having authority over no national territory, and naturally not being taken seriously by any official state governments, the so-called World Government was said to preside over a realm of consciousness.

World Government News, published by the TM movement under the name of “World Government of the Age of Enlightenment”, was first issued in February 1978. It was printed on high-gloss paper and with so much gold print that the residue stuck to one’s fingers. Each issue carried photographs of all members of the government, along with their names, titles, ministries and brief details of their responsibilities. Every ministry had a Chief Minister, titled The Right Honourable. To judge by their family names, two of these were probably close relatives of Mahesh Yogi.

The government consisted of 10 ministries: Ministry for the Development of Consciousness; Ministry of Natural Law and Order; Ministry of Cultural Integrity, Invincibility and World Harmony; Ministry of Education and Enlightenment; Ministry of Celebration and Fulfilment; Ministry of Prosperity and Progress; Ministry of Information and Inspiration; Ministry of All Possibilities: Research and Development; Ministry for the Capitals of the Age of Enlightenment; and Ministry of Health and Immortality.
The constitution of the World Government was described as follows:

The Constitution of the World Government embraces the constitutions of all governments, the scriptures of all religions, the textbooks of all sciences and arts, the inspiring and uplifting literature of every country, and above all the Science of Creative Intelligence – that beautiful, practical knowledge which enlivens the full potential of the evolutionary nature of life in the individual and in society, and brings fulfilment to the noble aspirations of all constitutions, all religions, all sciences, all arts, all literature.

This all-embracing, cosmic constitution … has the ability to create an ideal society in every part of the world and thereby perpetuate the Age of Enlightenment.

Having come to light with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, this constitution establishes the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment with sovereignty in the domain of consciousness and a parental role in the family of nations.

The main theme in number 1 of World Government News was invincibility: “Invincibility to all nations – Maharshi’s unconditional gift to man”. We quote:

His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who has single-handedly turned the trend of time from chaos and problems towards wisdom and fulfilment, made an unprecedented offer of Invincibility to Every Nation during global celebrations at the International Capital of the Age of Enlightenment, Seelisberg, Switzerland, 12 January 1978.

Seelisberg is a small town in Switzerland. Mahesh Yogi had his main base there for some years, in a hotel purchased by the movement.

The TM-Sidhi programme, 1977 onwards: magic and mind power

Mahesh Yogi’s adherents were impressed by and enthusiastic about the World Government, but outside the movement it received limited attention and success. Apparently he soon came to feel a need to devise a new focus of interest and a new source of publicity and funding.

His solution was to launch the TM-Sidhi programme in spring 1977. Siddhi is a Sanskrit word for (extraordinary or magic) abilities and is always written with two “d”s in Indian contexts. Mahesh Yogi chose to spell it with one “d” in order to make the TM-Sidhi programme a registered trademark of the TM movement.
The programme consisted of a series of courses in new and purportedly extra powerful meditation techniques. People were to master supernatural skills such as flying by their own power, making themselves invisible, moving through walls and achieving perfect health. The actual techniques built on repeating in one’s thoughts various verses from old Indian texts (Yoga Sutras). Different sutras are associated with different abilities. Frequently, the wording is open to multiple interpretations.

Flying involved three stages: first jumping, secondly floating, and thirdly flying around freely, “just like Peter Pan”, as one adherent told an American newspaper. Aspiring flyers sat on innersprung mattresses with legs crossed, jumping up and down in this position. This feat requires suppleness and flexibility, but with a certain amount of training many can accomplish it without the aid of meditation. The movement published pictures of people sitting with crossed legs a little above the ground as “proof” that they could fly. Stories proliferated about trick photography, and many of those who had taken such courses later described them as a sham.

At the Sixth World Congress of Psychiatry in Hawaii in 1977, the TM movement distributed a thick brochure entitled Enlightenment in World Psychiatry, which set out the Sidhi programme. It was claimed that some devotees had already achieved extremely sharp hearing, early stages of invisibility and levitation, and the ability to see the body’s inner organs as well as hidden objects with closed eyes.

In Norway, the consumers’ ombudsman objected to the TM movement’s advertising and asked them to substantiate their claims about supernatural abilities. Since they could not do this, the ombudsman demanded that in all future internal and external publicity they abstain from stating that TM-Sidhi courses could teach flying or levitation. From time to time, the movement chose to contravene this directive. Even today, its official Norwegian web site talks about “… the TM-Sidhi programme (Yogic Flying), which is a further development of TM”. With regard to other supernatural powers, the movement’s lawyer wrote in a letter to the consumers’ ombudsman on June 19 1979 (ref. 239.79):

I can inform you that my client will not in the future claim that the TM-SIDHI programme develops perfect health, can [help to] achieve omniscience or make one invisible… I further confirm that one will not in the marketing of the TM-SIDHI programme use claims that this programme will enable people to walk through walls, see all inner organs and illnesses in the body and materialise all wishes.

The 1980s and later

We have glimpsed some of Mahesh Yogi’s activities in the 1970s. What happened subsequently? Gradually, interest in the TM movement’s meditation courses waned. Probably in order to maintain income, prices rose considerably, and learning to meditate became extremely expensive. The recent cost of a TM movement beginner’s course was 14,500 kroner in Norway, 2,500 dollars in the US. The same price applied to advanced techniques, such as a changed mantra, which can be obtained every six months, according to the Norwegian web site. Fees for the Sidhi courses were even higher, and the cost of becoming a meditation teacher escalated.

The goals of the World Plan were not reached. Nations never became “invincible”, but Mahesh Yogi continued to feel that he could save the world. In his efforts to sell himself to governments, over the years he placed numerous large advertisements in major journals and newspapers. One of these appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet on October 7 1983:

GOVERNMENTS ARE INVITED TO SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS
The World Government of the Age of Enlightenment hereby announces that it is prepared to solve any government’s problems, regardless of the kind or size of the problem – political, economic, social or religious; and independently of the nation’s regime – capitalism, communism, socialism, democracy or dictatorship. Governments are invited to sign a contract with the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment in order to solve their problems. The contract will be based on each government refunding the expenses of the World Government when the agreed goal has been reached. 1983 may become the year of fulfilment for every government.

The text further declares that “the contract is to be drawn up by an international law firm in collaboration with an international bank that is acceptable to both parties”. And, finally: “… life on earth now stands on the threshold of lasting sunshine in the Age of Enlightenment”.

The official English-language web site currently reproduces a similar advertisement which was posted in the International Herald Tribune in 2005.

Flying yogis cure all

Only a few years after their launch in 1977, the external advertisements for the Sidhi courses were toned down. It is unwise to make startling claims about learning to fly by the power of the mind or becoming invisible without substantiating evidence, and even some thirty years on the movement is unable to produce such evidence. The courses still run, but with a new emphasis on creating peace and the invincibility of nations. This allows Sidhi participants – still known as Yogic flyers – and others in the movement to see themselves as part of a grand, life-saving scheme.

At the outset, the intention behind the World Plan was to teach TM to the entire global population within a short time. Later Mahesh Yogi said that one per cent of the population would suffice to influence the collective consciousness of humankind, enabling a positive phase shift in society. With the introduction of the Sidhi programme he further lowered his goals, claiming that the techniques were so much stronger that no more than the square root of one per cent of the population needed to practise them for world peace and invincibility to be attained. Thus, for a large nation with 100 million inhabitants, 1000 persons practising the Sidhi techniques would suffice. And with 7000 people, the effects would be global and would change the world.
Mahesh Yogi sent out teams of people who had followed the Sidhi courses to meditate in the vicinity of trouble spots around the world. According to the movement’s own reports, things immediately became more peaceful when these people started their meditation. When they left, unrest flared up again.

The TM movement’s current web site includes a page on “Maharishi’s Initiatives for World Peace” which includes the following list:

1974: The “one-percent effect” or Maharishi Effect, predicted by Maharishi in 1957, is verified by significant crime reductions in cities where one percent of the population has learned the Transcendental Meditation technique.

1978: Maharishi’s World Peace Project sends 1400 Yogic Flyers to the five most troubled areas of the world to calm the violence through their group practice of the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi programs.

1983: During a two-month period, 2000 Yogic Flyers gather in the Middle East, reducing war intensity and fatalities in the region.

1988: 7000 students from the Vedic families of India are assembled at Maharishi Nagar near New Delhi to practice Yogic Flying and perform Vedic Yagyas for peace. During this time, the Berlin Wall falls and the Cold War ends. But when the group cannot be maintained financially, new tensions arise in the world.

1999: Maharishi Universities of World Peace are founded for every time zone to maintain a wave of coherence circling the globe.

2001: Maharishi warns the U.S. government against taking the “path of failure” by responding to terrorism with violence, and offers permanent world peace to every nation through 40,000 Yogic Flying Vedic Pandits in India.

The exaggerated nature of these assertions is clear. As to the item dated 2001, this too is misleading. The 40,000 pandits were not ready and waiting to go. What Mahesh Yogi actually had in mind was for the world’s governments to donate huge sums of money to the TM movement in order to train 40,000 people in yogic flying and pay for them to gather in India and meditate.

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