The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was born Mahesh Prasad Varma on 12 January 1917 and died on 5 February 2008, aged 91 years. He brought an important meditation training system to the West from India. The system, which Maharishi named Transcendental Meditation for the West, is based on traditional Tantric mantras, sacred words.
Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, on hearing of Maharishi’s death said, “I feel so blessed I met the Maharishi. He gave me a mantra that no one can take away, and I still use it.”
George Harrison, probably the most spiritually devoted of the Beatles, practised meditation until his death in 2001. He commented, “The Maharishi was fantastic and I admire him for being able, in spite of the ridicule, to keep on going.”
You may have wondered why the Beatles’ song, “Across the Universe” refers to Guru Dev. The young Mahesh (the future Maharishi) studied Sanskrit under Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, a Hindu leader known as Guru Dev (divine teacher). Following Guru Dev’s death in 1953, Mahesh retreated into the Himalayas for meditation and reflection.
He re-emerged in 1955 and started his mission to popularise his master’s form of Advaita Vedantist meditation. He gave it the descriptive English name, Transcendental Meditation (TM), to bring it, first, to the United States, and soon afterward to Europe. His students began to call him Maharishi, which means “great soul.”
Maharishi was able to speak to the West through the common language of science. He grounded his approach in scientific terminology and commissioned research into the physiological effects of the technique early on. He had graduated in 1942 with a degree in physics from the University of Allahabad and had taught physics for some years before beginning his spiritual work.
In 1959 he founded the International Meditation Society in the United States. He established his headquarters in Switzerland and moved to Amsterdam in 1990. At its highest, the movement had over 2 million member- followers worldwide and an unknown number of practitioners who did not affiliate themselves with a particular TM center.
In the 1960s the Maharishi achieved worldwide recognition by association with the Beatles (the massively successful pop group from Liverpool). Some others who learned TM included 1950s torch singer Peggy Lee, the Moody Blues, and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. The Maharishi offered an alternative spiritual path to the restless seekers of the era.
In February 1967, George Harrison’s wife Pattie (who famously inspired both Harrison and Eric Clapton in their music making) was intrigued by a lecture on TM at the Caxton Hall in London. She told Harrison, who already felt a link to Indian culture. He had played the sitar on Rubber Soul (1965), and gone to India in September 1966 to study the sitar with its master, Ravi Shankar.
Two months after the release of Sergeant Pepper (1967) the Beatles heard the Maharishi speak at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. He told the Beatles in a private audience, “The kingdom of heaven is like electricity. You don’t see it. It is within you.” He invited the Beatles to a TM course at Bangor, which they attended. They took their studies seriously, and the following year they were invited to spend three months with the Maharishi at Rishikesh, about 150 miles from Delhi. Daily meditation helped the group. John Lennon came off drugs completely at this stage in his life.
But, one by one, the Beatles drifted back to Britain. There were tensions. However, both Harrison and Starr appeared for a concert in 1992 to support the Natural Law Party, which had been formed to promote the Maharishi’s teachings in the world of politics.
Skelmersdale, a small town in Lancashire, England, has felt the Maharishi’s influence particularly strongly. They have a golden-domed community centre for large-scale group meditations. They also have a school with 100 pupils, where the children are noticeably calmer than at a typical 21st century school in England. They have the state-required lessons but also take part in meditation sessions twice daily. They are balanced, not controlled, according to the Head.
In the USA, TM has been taught in some high schools, where the test scores of students who practice it regularly are significantly higher than those of students who do not, and discipline problems in the classrooms are much reduced. It has also been taught in prisons in California, and reduced the recidivism rate. Maharishi International University, in Fairfield, Iowa, has built a strong reputation, especially in the sciences.
In 2005, angered by the Iraq War, the Maharishi called Britain a “scorpion nation” and banned the teaching of TM in the country. The ban was lifted in August 2007, about the same time that Tony Blair left office.
In TM, the body relaxes but the heart and brain experience heightened stimulation. Clarity and creativity are enhanced. Numerous carefully trained teachers are in place to carry on the development of the practice, despite the loss of the Maharishi. Some of the original and creative thinkers he has influenced include Deepak Chopra and David Lynch.
Maharishi’s ashes were scattered on the Ganges River, 13 February 2008.