To many Americans, Transcendental Meditation (TM) might seem like just another fad that came and went in the freewheeling 1960s, a passing phase for hippies and others who sought enlightenment during a period of great social change.
In fact, the movement has much longer roots. Anchored in ancient Hindu beliefs – new initiates go through a Hindu ceremony known as a puja and chant the names of Hindu gods – TM came to public attention through the efforts of an Indian devotee named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
The Maharishi journeyed to the United States in 1959. Converts were few at first, but by the late 1960s, a number of high-profile celebrities had become disciples, most famously the Beatles and the actress Mia Farrow.
TM’s American presence got a huge boost in 1974, when followers purchased the campus of a defunct Presbyterian college in Fairfield, Iowa. Now known as the Maharishi University of Management, the school purports to offer “consciousness-based” education and grants a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Many of these degrees are in traditional subjects such as business and elementary education. But degrees are also offered in “Maharishi Vedic Science.” All students are expected to practice TM by meditating for two 20-minute periods every day; other forms of meditation are not permitted.
Fairfield has become something of the American TM Mecca. The town, with a population of about 10,000, has embraced TM’s followers for the economic boost they provide. Growth continues: Just outside of town, TM devotees are erecting Maharishi Vedic City, a community based on TM principles that may eventually house thousands.
Other TM projects have been less successful. In 2001, devotees offered to pay more than $1 billion for 3,500 acres in the South American country of Suriname to create their own sovereign “Global Country of World Peace.” The president of the nation ignored the request.
TM’s efforts to get into American politics have also collapsed.
The Natural Law Party, based on TM principles and founded in 1992, fielded candidates for federal, state and local offices but saw little success. In 1992, 1996 and 2000, the party ran the same presidential candidate – Dr. John Hagelin, a physics professor at Maharishi University of Management.
The political unit failed to soar. Hagelin received 113,670 votes in 1996 but dropped to 83,714 in 2000. The national party ceased operations in April of 2004.
Hagelin has since announced a new entity called The US Peace Government (USPG). According to its Web site, the USPG will erect buildings in each state that will act as a type of shadow government that “administers the country through Natural Law, and silently prevents problems from arising.”
At the federal level, “a grand, national capital of the US Peace Government will soon be constructed on 480 acres of beautiful land in Washington Township, Smith County, Kansas – the geographical center of America.”
What will the TM unit do?
The Web site says, “The US Peace Government will actually rule the country at the fundamental level of consciousness.” Not surprisingly, this will be achieved through “daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation program and related technologies of consciousness….”
Grandiose claims such as this – as well as assertions by TM devotees that they can learn to fly, become invisible and solve just about every conceivable personal and social problem – have raised the eyebrows of skeptics.
If all of this were being done privately, few would be bothered. But TM advocates often try to ingratiate themselves into government and public institutions (such as public schools).
Sociologist Barry Markovsky says all groups try to survive and expand.
“Among the ways to expand are to sell the product to new markets,” says Markovsky, a University of South Carolina professor who has written about TM. “That could be the public schools.”
If this is indeed the goal of TM devotees – tapping into public schools – we can expect to see a lot more church-state battles challenging government support for the Maharishi’s controversial “science.”