There was an utter media frenzy over The Beatles’ journey to the Indian Himalayas in February 1968 to meet with their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Several months prior, he had given each of them a mantra and taught them his technique known as Transcendental Meditation (TM).
As the world’s biggest band went through a spiritual journey, the public watched every move, and for millions of Americans and Europeans, this was the first time they heard words like “karma,” “guru,” or “yoga,” and the first time they saw Eastern meditation.
One of the people watching The Beatles was Ray Dalio, who would go on to found the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. Dalio, who was in college at the time, decided to try the technique in 1969. Because he had found its effects to be profoundly positive, he explained in Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s 2011 book on TM, “Transcendence,” he has meditated daily without fail. He would also go on to become the biggest proponent of TM on Wall Street, where it has taken off in the past few years.
The practice of TM is quite simple. It has entered a new wave of mainstream popularity, where doctors are prescribing it to their patients to lower blood pressure and stress levels – as approved by the American Heart Association – and investors are recommending it to each other to gain an edge.
It’s due to a variety of factors: the scientific validation of TM, the mainstreaming of meditation in general, and the networking effect spreading across influential people. But, as Philip Goldberg argues in his 2012 book “American Veda,” all of this dates back to The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After their ’68 meeting, he writes, “Our understanding and practice of spirituality would never be the same.”
TM can seem mysterious, and even cult-like to casual observers. To get a better idea of what it actually entails, I spent the past two months digging into its history and its ancient roots. I learned the practice in September at the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit cofounded by the film director in 2005 that teaches the technique for free to disadvantaged middle school and high school students, veterans with PTSD, and victims of domestic abuse. For the rest of us, instruction costs $960, but the foundation was willing to waive the fee. I have continued to practice it daily.
The Maharishi’s mission
In my four days of introductory TM training, I watched a couple videos of Maharishi – a title meaning “great seer” often used for shorthand when referring to him- and learned that he based his technique on ancient Vedic knowledge.
Born in India as Mahesh Prasad Varma in 1918, he renounced his name and familial ties in typical Hindu monk fashion after graduating from Allahabad University in 1942 with a physics degree and traveling to Jyothir Math in the Indian Himalayas to study under and serve Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, the man he reverentially called Guru Dev.
Saraswati was the exalted leader of the city’s monastery. When Maharishi spread TM, he made it clear that although he and his guru were Hindu monks, his practice was not tied to the Hindu faith.
I discussed this dynamic with Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.
She pointed out that Hinduism is a word for a very broad set of beliefs with many different schools, and that it is not a dogmatic or proselytizing religion. And while she and her organization would prefer for millions of non-Hindu Americans to better acknowledge and appreciate the Hindu roots of many of their meditation and yoga practices, she clarified that when the Maharishi set out to spread a secularized version of something he learned as a Hindu, he wasn’t necessarily compromising its effectiveness or being disingenuous about his motives.
Under Guru Dev, the Maharishi studied the Upanishads, the segments of the four ancient Sanskrit books of scripture known as the Vedas that focus on the self and its relationship to God. In Vedic traditions generally collected under the umbrella of Hinduism, there is one God; the many deities you may be familiar with, like Krishna, are, to put it simply, different manifestations of this one God.
In “The Bhagavad Gita,” the ancient book that the Maharishi also studied, Krishna, representing the Supreme Being, says of meditation, “Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self. Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind. Freeing themselves from the taint of self-will, with their consciousness unified, they become one with Brahman [God].”
This idea of looking into one’s self to achieve peace and connect with the unity of existence is still present in TM, albeit in scientific terms.
Guru Dev and Maharishi developed a close bond, but Guru Dev could not name Maharishi as his successor before he died because Maharishi was not born into the brahmin caste. He did, however, entrust Maharishi with the mission of spreading the practice of meditation. He was not to spread anything religious, but to create a more peaceful world. This came at a time in the 20th century when Indians were starting to gradually migrate west in greater numbers, and several gurus – including one of Steve Jobs’ favorite spiritual writers, Paramhansa Yogananda – decided to share Indian philosophical traditions with a wider audience.
Maharishi took the meditation practice he learned from his teacher, called it Transcendental Deep Meditation (later shortened), and went on a tour that started in India in 1955 and went international in 1958.
He immediately began connecting with academics to study the potential health benefits of TM. Over the course of the past 50 years, there has been a wealth of peer-reviewed studies, many funded by the National Institutes of Health, that determine TM allows its practitioner to enter a state of “restful alertness” that lowers stress-inducing hormones, which in turn lowers blood pressure and decreases the propensity for anxiety.
The push to the mainstream
David Lynch Foundation director Bob Roth knew the Maharishi, who died in 2008, for many years and said that he was a man well-versed in both science and other global religions. It gave him the ability to naturally, and genuinely, adapt his message about the benefits of TM to whomever he was speaking to, whether they were Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist. And while Maharishi writes, as he does in his book “Science of Being and Art of Living” for example, using the spiritual vocabulary he was familiar with (with concepts like karma and “God consciousness”), he insisted on keeping TM non-denominational, with no requirement beyond learning the technique.
- Ermindo Armino/AP
Roth was adamant about this point, to avoid having TM misconstrued as a religion in disguise. He noted as examples that he is Jewish, that my teacher Mario Orsatti is Catholic, and that the head of the TM organization – which is different from the DLF and which I’ll get to in a moment – Tony Nader, is a Lebanese Christian.
That’s not to say, however, that TM has always been accepted and understood. For example, a New Jersey state judge in 1979 ruled that it could not be taught in public schools because it was a religion, citing the puja ritual in the introductory lesson and its founding on ancient spirituality as proof.
The puja, which every TM teacher performs before that student’s first lesson, is a tradition Hindus perform to show respect to their guru. In TM’s case, the puja is performed to Guru Dev, an act that the Maharishi did not consider to be compromising to his practice’s secularity, and an act of acknowledgement to his teacher that he believed essential to passing on his technique.
When Maharishi was entering the last stage of his life, he decided to consolidate his TM organization so that it could continue to spread meditation around the world without him. Founded in 2000, he named it the Global Country of World Peace – this is the organization Tony Nader oversees – and appointed “rajas” to oversee the spread of TM in different parts of the world.
Along with this title, derived from India’s political rather than spiritual history, he also decided they would be dressed in symbolic white robes and golden crowns for ceremonial gatherings. If you look at any of the TM conspiracy websites out there, you’ll always find these pictures. At one point in 2007, this costume choice led to a disastrous, publicized speech where Germany’s raja was viciously booed offstage after repeatedly proclaiming that Germany would be “invincible” (a term Maharishi used in a spiritual sense to refer to a collective state of enlightenment) but that, in his poor presentation, made it sound like he was calling for the revival of the Third Reich.
“American Veda” author Philip Goldberg was a TM teacher from 1970-1977, and he said that even though he learned of Maharishi’s decision to go with the costume choice many years after he stopped teaching TM, he was “shocked,” and knew many fellow TM practitioners who agreed.
I brought this concern to Roth, telling him outright that it did indeed look cult-like. He said he fully understands that position, but he wanted to clarify that the costumes are used on rare occasions, and are not religious. He compared it to the use of strange-looking robes in graduation ceremonies.
- Sarah Jacobs
Over these past two months, I’ve spent several hours talking candidly about TM and its history with Roth and Orsatti.
Roth told me that he’s seen all of the negative as well as positive coverage of TM over the years, and he thinks that with everything out there, people can see past attacks and take the actual technique of TM for what it is: a simple and effective form of stress relief.
As Orsatti told me: If practitioners want to implement meditation the same way the Maharishi did, into their spiritual lives, they can; if they do not believe in God or want to keep meditation separate from their spiritual beliefs, that works too. If they want to actively participate in the David Lynch Foundation’s philanthropy or the TM organizations mission of spreading the practice to those who’d like to learn it, the option is open to them; if they want to learn the technique to add a productivity tool to their arsenal, that’s great.
Despite all of his secondary ventures, including his university and his network of “rajas,” the Maharishi’s primary goal was to spread a technique that Indians had used for millennia as a way to be more at peace with the world, stripped of any baggage that came with it.
“I think where we are today is where Maharishi always wanted it to be – which is science-based, and evidence-based, and fits in with medicine and mainstream wellness programs,” Roth said.