Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental meditation was begun by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1917– 2008) in 1956. It is essentially the mantra yoga that Maharishi revived and introduced to the world. TM, as it became known, stressed natural meditation and the liberating pleasures such practices could invoke. It promised a drugless state of mind with inner peace and knowledge for its practitioners.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

The Maharishi was born Mahesh Prasad Varma. He earned a degree in physics from Allahabad University before turning to the study of meditation. Beginning in the 1940s, he spent thirteen years in silent retreat with Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, affectionately known as Guru Dev. After the latter's death in 1958, the Maharishi moved to the United Kingdom and founded the Spiritual Regeneration Movement. He taught publicly and attracted many disciples. From him, they learned the fundamentals of yoga, breathing, and mantra meditation.

Cultural Revolution

To begin TM, the Maharishi or some appointed instructor typically asked questions of the student about his health, education, marital status, feelings, and overall evaluation of his life. Each student was prescribed a private individual mantra or sound for silent repetition. The mantra is a specially empowered spoken or chanted utterance, ranging from one syllable to a long chant, as in the mantras of the Rig Veda. The student chants the mantra for twenty minutes each morning and evening. This phrase or sound allows the individual to “become” the mantra.

Etymologically, mantra comes from man(“think”) and tra(“instrument”), making a mantra literally an “instrument of thought” or, more accurately, an instrument of consciousness. The idea originally referred to Vedic hymns, from which one whispered brief texts or divine names.

The Maharishi — which means “great seer” in Sanskrit — brought TM from India to the West in 1959, and it became a distinct subculture within the 1960s youth movement. In meditation, the ideal was to clear the mind of the usual desires and ideas that burden it. Hunger, song lyrics, distracting smells, scientific formulas, sexual fantasies — all of this must fade into the background of consciousness in order for meditation to be effective.

The idea behind chanting a mantra is to provide, much in the way Catholics have learned to use the Rosary beads, a sort of controlled distraction. The hope is that a mantra — especially one that is chosen by the teacher — will alleviate the problems and stress in your life, and you will be a better person for it.

The person meditating must free himself from the tyranny of the immediate that dominates his ceaseless conscious thoughts. People spoke metaphorically of its benefits. Before TM, one eager student said, you look at the world through a very narrow lens. The longer you meditate, the wider your lens becomes.

In the Maharishi, the West got its first look at a quiet Indian holy man. In no time, this brand of meditation was everyone's path to inner peace and a higher state of consciousness. In very little time, TM attracted a long list of luminaries, including actress Mia Farrow, musician Donovan, cultural philosopher Marshall McLuhan, and the Beatles, who eventually rejected the Maharishi's teachings.

The Maharishi was the guest of honor on the Merv Griffin Show in 1975. Clint Eastwood strode onstage and walked to the couch where the Maha-rishi was sitting. He opened his suit jacket and reached in as if he were going to pull out Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum. Instead, he produced a flower and handed it to the Maharishi. TM initiations soared.

TM went global in just a matter of years. The Maharishi had to train thousands of his most devoted followers as TM initiators. Soon the Maharishi had a marketing bonanza; most good-sized American cities had a storefront TM center and a listing for “Meditation, Transcendental” in the yellow pages. People took to calling TM the McDonalds of meditation, making use of a McMantra. Standardized TM posters had little spaces in which the local teacher could write the name and time of the free public lecture.

It might not have provided all the spiritual answers that people were seeking, but it got them started. The man with the long dark hair who sat in the lotus position would become familiar to the world for his inscrutable calm and broad smile.

TM Methodology

The overall strategy of the Maharishi is revealed in his book The Science of Being and Art of Living, in which he spells out the groundwork for realizing God. When people attacked his idea, the Maharishi said, “TM is not a religion but a science.” The Maharishi didn't invent meditation, but he revolutionized it. He made it simple, practicable, and enjoyable for all; he took meditation out of the realm of religious dogma. Though the technique was inspired by Vedic practices, instructors in transcendental meditation and the Maharishi do not consider the practice to be specifically Hindu, since it does not require either belief in or devotion to a deity.

TM is supposedly grounded in the Science of Creative Intelligence (SCI); practitioners maintain that their objective is scientific, not religious. The technique is described as a simple mental exercise that initiates deep relaxation and rest. Journals such as Science, American Journal of Physiology, and Scientific American find that TM produces a state of mind known as “restful alertness.” The state is characterized by significant reductions in respiration, minute ventilation, tidal volume, and blood lactate. In addition, EEG measurements showed increased coherence and integration of brain functioning, implying that the physiology was alert rather than asleep.

In 1977, TM announced its Siddha program to help initiates achieve paranormal abilities, including levitation of the body. A former instructor of the Siddha program eventually sued, claiming that these and other manifestations of unusual phenomena could not be achieved. He won a judgment of $138,000.

A positive correlation has also been found between the TM technique and various health-related conditions, including reduction of blood pressure, younger biological age, decreased insomnia, reduction of high cholesterol, reduced illness and medical expenditure, decreased outpatient visits, decreased cigarette smoking, decreased alcohol use, and decreased anxiety.

The Maharishi University of Management in Iowa was awarded an $8 million grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1999. As recently as 2004, the NIH, an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services responsible for biomedical and health-related research, spent more than $20 million funding research on the effects of TM on heart disease, about a sixth of its budget for researching complementary and alternative medicine in general. In 2005, an NIH study published in the American Journal of Cardiology showed that transcendental meditation reduced death rates by 23 percent in a random trial in which 202 men and women with an average age of seventy-one were tracked over eighteen years. That same year, The American Journal of Hypertension published a study that found TM might be useful in the long-term treatment of hypertension among African Americans.

Popularity of the Movement

The effects of the TM movement have been far reaching, lasting more than half a century. TM was introduced to the West through two organizations, the Spiritual Regeneration Movement and the Student International Meditation Society. The Maharishi himself purchased the defunct Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, and turned it into Maharishi International University, which in 1974 was renamed the Maharishi University of Management (of the Universe).

In 1972, the Maharishi revealed a World Plan to guide the nations of the world in using the insights from the practice of TM and the Science of Cognitive Intelligence. The plan included a spectrum of activities for cultural renewal, health, freedom from war, and personal development. According to the World Plan Council, TM is not a new religious group, but some observers disagreed. Significant controversy arose as TM teachers were receiving government funds to teach TM in places such as the public schools and the armed forces. In 1978, a federal district court in Newark, New Jersey, ruled that TM was indeed a religious practice and could not receive public funds; nor could government agencies promote its teachings and practices. After this ruling, the exponential upward trajectory of growth for the movement fell dramatically, though it remains a substantial worldwide movement.

The Maharishi School of Management (of the Universe) awards bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in consciousness-based education. At present, almost 800 students are enrolled in programs structured one course at a time in small classes over a period of four weeks. Degrees are granted in science, the humanities, and Vedic science.

The New Jersey ruling that TM was a religious practice was historically based. The ruling pointed to several religious factors. One, the use of mantras makes TM a form of japa yoga. Two, TM initiations include traditional religious acts. Three, the movement was accepted in India as a form of Shaivite Hinduism.

If you compare TM to other movements, say EST or other human potential movements, you must admit the sheer numbers are impressive. Millions of people have attended TM courses; at present, there are some 7,000 authorized teachers working at 400 teaching centers. In the United States, a Vedic City is planned on the land adjacent to the Maharishi University of Management.

During the 1980s, the council introduced ayurvedic medical products and opened a center adjacent to the university to promote it. The word ayurveda means “life knowledge” and is the ancient tradition of medicine in India, said to have originated in Atharva Veda. The text Ayurveda, which is no longer extant, was said to have been written by Dhavantari, the physician of the gods. The writer and physician Deepak Chopra emerged as a leading exponent of Maharishi's Ayurvedic program, but has in recent years distanced himself from the organization.

TM has hardly been immune to attack. Its claims have been attacked by Swami Prabhupada, who began the Hare Krishna movement in America, and spiritualist Jiddu Krishnamurti. The latter has gone so far as to say that the repetition of the “Om” sound — or any other mantras for that matter — might well be replaced by the repetition of “Coca Cola” and have the same effect on the mind.

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