Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (12 January 1918 – 5 February 2008) was born Mahesh Prasad Varma and obtained the honorific Maharishi (meaning “Great Seer”) and Yogi as an adult. He developed the Transcendental Meditation technique and was the leader and guru of a worldwide organization that has been characterized in multiple ways including as a new religious movement and as non-religious.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi became a disciple and assistant of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya (spiritual leader) of Jyotirmath in the Indian Himalayas. The Maharishi credits Brahmananda Saraswati with inspiring his teachings. In 1955, the Maharishi began to introduce his Transcendental Deep Meditation (later renamed Transcendental Meditation) to India and the world. His first global tour began in 1958. His devotees referred to him as His Holiness, and because he often laughed in TV interviews he was sometimes referred to as the “giggling guru”.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Maharishi achieved fame as the guru to the Beatles, The Beach Boys and other celebrities. In the late 1970s, he started the TM-Sidhi programme that claimed to offer practitioners the ability to levitate and to create world peace. The Maharishi’s Natural Law Party was founded in 1992, and ran campaigns in dozens of countries. He moved to near Vlodrop, the Netherlands, in the same year. In 2000, he created the Global Country of World Peace, a non-profit organization, and appointed its leaders. In 2008, the Maharishi announced his retirement from all administrative activities and went into silence until his death three weeks later.
The Maharishi is reported to have trained more than 40,000 TM teachers, taught the Transcendental Meditation technique to “more than five million people” and founded thousands of teaching centers and hundreds of colleges, universities and schools, while TM websites report tens of thousands learned the TM-Sidhi programme. His initiatives include schools and universities with campuses in several countries including India, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The Maharishi, his family and close associates created charitable organisations and for-profit businesses including health clinics, mail-order health supplements and organic farms. The reported value of the Maharishi’s organization has ranged from the millions to billions of U.S. dollars and in 2008, the organization placed the value of their United States assets at about $300 million.
The birth name, birth date, and caste of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi are not known with certainty, in part because of the tradition of ascetics and monks to relinquish family connections. Many accounts say he was born Mahesh Prasad Varma (Hindi: महेश प्रसाद वर्मा) into a family living in the Central Provinces of British India.A different name appears in the Allahabad University list of distinguished alumni, where he is listed as M.C. Srivastava. and an obituary says his name was “Mahesh Srivastava”.
Various accounts give the year of his birth as 1911, 1917 or 1918. Authors Paul Mason and William Jefferson say that he was born 12 January 1917 in Jabalpur, Central Provinces. The place of birth given in his passport is “Pounalulla”, India and his birth date as 12 January 1918. Mahesh’s father is identified as a local tax official in the civil service though some sources say he worked in the department of forestry, and others that he was a schoolteacher. Srivastava is the name of his nephews and cousins. Mahesh came from an upper-caste family, being a member of the Kayastha caste, a high-status caste whose traditional profession is writing.
Mahesh studied physics at Allahabad University and earned a degree in 1942. While a few sources say that he worked at Gun Carriage Factory in Jabalpur for some time, most report that in 1941, he became an administrative secretary to the Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati (also known as Guru Dev) and took a new name, Bal Brahmachari Mahesh. Coplin refers to bala brahmachari as both a title and a name, and considers that it “identified him as a fully dedicated student of spiritual knowledge and life-long celibate ascetic”. The Maharishi recalls how it took about two and a half years to attune himself to the thinking of Brahmananda Saraswati and to gain “a very genuine feeling of complete oneness”. At first Brahmachari Mahesh performed common chores but gained trust and became Guru Dev’s “personal secretary” and “favored pupil”. He was trusted to take care of the bulk of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati’s correspondence without direction, and was also sent out to give public speeches on Vedic (scriptural) themes.:22
Brahmachari Mahesh remained with Swami Brahmananda Saraswati until the latter died in 1953, when he moved to Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas. Although Brahmachari Mahesh was a close disciple, he could not be the Shankaracharya’s spiritual successor because he was not of the Brahmin caste. The Shankaracharya, at the end of his life, charged him with the responsibility of travelling and teaching meditation to the masses, while he named Swami Shantananda Saraswati as his successor.
In 1955, Brahmachari Mahesh left Uttarkashi and began publicly teaching what he stated was a traditional meditation technique learned from his master Brahmananda Saraswati, and that he called Transcendental Deep Meditation. Later the technique was renamed Transcendental Meditation. It was also then that he was first publicly known with the name “Maharishi” an honorific title meaning “great sage” after the title was given to him according to some sources from “Indian Pundits” and according to another source the honorific was given along with Yogi by followers in India. Later in the west the title was retained as a name.
He traveled around India for two years interacting with his “Hindu audiences” in an “Indian context”. At that time, he called his movement the Spiritual Development Movement, but renamed it the Spiritual Regeneration Movement in 1957, in Madras, India, on the concluding day of the Seminar of Spiritual Luminaries. According to Coplin, in his visits to southern India, the Maharishi spoke English rather than the Hindi spoken in his home area to avoid provoking resistance among those seeking linguistic self-determination, and to appeal to the “learned classes”.
According to author William Jefferson, In 1958 the Maharishi went to Madras to address a large crowd of people who had gathered to celebrate the memory of Guru Dev. It was there he spontaneously announced that he planned to spread the teaching of TM throughout the world. Hundreds of people immediately asked to learn TM. In 1959, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began his first world tour, writing: “I had one thing in mind, that I know something which is useful to every man”.
The Maharishi’s 1986 book, Thirty Years Around the World, gives a detailed account of his world tours, as do two biographies, The Story of the Maharishi, by William Jefferson, and The Maharishi by Paul Mason. The first world tour began in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) and included the countries of Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and Hawaii. He arrived in Hawaii in the spring of 1959 and the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported: “He has no money, he asks for nothing. His worldly possessions can be carried in one hand. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is on a world odyssey. He carries a message that he says will rid the world of all unhappiness and discontent.” In 1959, the Maharishi lectured and taught the Transcendental Meditation technique in Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York and London. While in Los Angeles the Maharishi stayed at the home of author Helena Olson, and during this period he developed a three-year plan to propagate Transcendental Meditation to the whole world. Though most of his audience was average middle class individuals, he also he attracted a few celebrities such as Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Nancy Cooke de Herrera and Doris Duke.
Left to right: Michael Cooper, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Al Vandenberg & Brian Jones; sitting: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 1967)
When the Maharishi came to the U.S. in 1959, his Spiritual Regeneration Movement was called Transcendental Meditation. That same year he began the International Meditation Society and other organizations to propagate his teachings establishing centres in San Francisco and London. For years the sole teacher of Transcendental Meditation in America was a San Diego woman named Beulah Smith.
In 1960, the Maharishi travelled to many cities in India, France, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Africa.
While in Manchester, England, the Maharishi gave a television interview and was featured in many English newspapers such as the Birmingham Post, the Oxford Mail and the Cambridge Daily News. This was also the year in which the Maharishi trained Henry Nyburg to be the first Transcendental Meditation teacher in Europe.
In 1961, the Maharishi visited the USA, Austria, Sweden, France, Italy, Greece, India, Kenya, England, and Canada. While in England, the Maharishi appeared on BBC television and gave a lecture to 5,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In April 1961, the Maharishi conducted his first Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training Course in Rishikesh, India with sixty participants from various countries. Teachers continued to be trained as time progressed. During the course, the Maharishi began to introduce additional knowledge regarding the development of human potential, and began writing his translation and commentary on the first six chapters of the ancient Vedic text, the Bhagavad Gita.
His 1962 world tour included visits to Europe, India, Australia and New Zealand. In Britain, he founded a branch of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement. The year concluded in California where the Maharishi began dictating his book The Science of Being and Art of Living. In Rishikesh, India, beginning on 20 April 1962, a forty-day course was held for “sadhus, sanyasis, and brahmacharis” to introduce TM to “religious preachers and spiritual masters in India”.
The Maharishi toured cities in Europe, Asia, North America and India in 1963, and also addressed ministers of the Indian Parliament. According to his memoirs, twenty-one members of parliament then issued a public statement endorsing the Maharishi’s goals and meditation technique. His Canadian tour was also well covered by the press.
The Maharishi’s fifth world tour, in 1964, consisted of visits to many cities in North America, Europe and India. During his visit to England, he appeared with the Abbot of Downside, Abbot Butler, on a BBC television show called The Viewpoint. In October of that year, in California, the Maharishi began teaching the first Advanced Technique of Transcendental Meditation to some experienced meditators. While travelling in America, the Maharishi met with Robert Maynard Hutchins, the head of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, and U Thant, the Secretary General of the United Nations. During this same year, the Maharishi finished his book The Science of Being and Art of Living, which sold more than a million copies and was published in fifteen languages.
In 1966, the Maharishi founded the Students’ International Meditation Society (“SIMS”), which The Los Angeles Times later characterised as a “phenomenal success”. In the 1970s, SIMS centers were established at “over one thousand campuses”, including Harvard University, Yale University, and UCLA.
In 1967, the Maharishi gave a lecture at Caxton Hall in London which was attended by Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife, as well as Leon MacLaren, the founder and leader of the School of Economic Science (SES). He also lectured at UCLA, Harvard, Yale and Berkley. That year, an article in Time magazine reported that the Maharishi “has been sharply criticised by other Indian sages, who complain that his programme for spiritual peace without either penance or asceticism contravenes every traditional Hindu belief”. Religion and culture scholar Sean McCloud also reported that traditional Indian sages and gurus were critical of the Maharishi, for teaching a simple technique and making it available to everyone, and for abandoning traditional concepts of suffering and concentration as paths to enlightenment.
During 1967 and 1968 the Maharishi appeared on American magazine covers such as Life, Newsweek, Time and many others. He gave lectures to capacity crowds at the Felt Forum in New York City and Harvard’s Sanders Hall. He also appeared on The Tonight Show and the Today TV shows. At the end of 1968 the Maharishi said that after ten years of teaching and world tours he would return to India.
In 1967, the Maharishi’s fame increased and his movement gained greater prominence when he became the “spiritual advisor to the Beatles”, though he was already well-known among young people in the UK and had already had numerous public appearances that brought him to the Beatles’ attention. They met in London in August 1967 and the Beatles went to study with the Maharishi in Bangor, Wales, before travelling to Rishikesh, India in February 1968 to “devote themselves fully to his instruction”. Starr and his wife Maureen left after ten days McCartney and Jane Asher left after five weeks, and Lennon and Harrison departed sixteen days later. During their stay, the Beatles heard that the Maharishi had made sexual advances towards Mia Farrow. On June 15, 1968, in London, the Beatles formally renounced their association with the Maharishi as a “public mistake”. “Sexy Sadie” is the name of a song by the Beatles, written by John Lennon in India and credited to Lennon–McCartney. Lennon originally wanted to title the song “Maharishi”, but changed the title at George Harrison’s request. Harrison commented years later, “Now, historically, there’s the story that something went on that shouldn’t have done – but nothing did.” The New York Times and The Independent reported that the influence of the Maharishi, and the journey to Rishikesh to meditate, weaned the Beatles from LSD and inspired them to write many new songs. In 2009, McCartney commented that Transcendental Meditation was a gift the Beatles had received from the Maharishi at a time when they were looking for something to stabilise them. The Beatles’ visit to the Maharishi’s ashram coincided with a thirty-participant Transcendental Meditation teacher training course that was ongoing when they arrived. Graduates of the course included Prudence Farrow and Mike Love.
In 1968, the Maharishi announced that he would stop his public activities and instead begin the training of TM teachers at his new global headquarters in Seelisberg, Switzerland. In 1969 he inaugurated a course in his Science of Creative Intelligence at Stanford University which was then offered at 25 other American universities.
In 1970, the Maharishi held a TM teacher training course at a Victorian hotel in Poland Springs, Maine with 1,200 participants. Later that year, he held a similar four-week course with 1500 participants at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California. In 1970 after having “a little trouble with Indian tax authorities” he moved his headquarters to Italy, returning to India in the late 1970s. That same year, the City of Hope Foundation in Los Angeles gave the Maharishi their “Man of Hope” award.
By 1971 the Maharishi had completed 13 world tours and visited 50 countries and held a press conference with American inventor Buckminster Fuller at his first International Symposium on SCI at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. From 1970 to 1973 about 10,000 people attend the Maharishi sponsored symposia on his modern interpretation of Vedanta philosophy called Science of Creative Intelligence. During these conferences, held at universities, the Maharishi spoke with “leading thinkers” of the day such as Hans Selye, Marshall McLuhan, and Jonas Salk.
The Maharishi announced his World Plan in 1972, the goal of which was to establish 3,600 TM centers around the world. That year, a TM training course was given by the Maharishi at Queen’s University and was attended by 1,000 young people from the USA and Canada. At the start of the course the Maharishi encouraged the attendees to improve their appearance by getting haircuts and wearing ties. He also “persuaded” the U.S. Army to “offer courses in TM to its soldiers” and made videotaped recordings of what was thought to be the West’s first comprehensive recitation of the Rig Veda.
In March 1973, the Maharishi addressed the legislature of the state of Illinois. That same year, the legislature passed a resolution in support of the use of Maharishi’s Science of Creative Intelligence in Illinois public schools. Later that year he organized a world conference of mayors in Switzerland. In that same year he also addressed 3000 educators at an American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) conference on quality of life and higher education.
In 1974 the Maharishi International University was founded. In October 1975, the Maharishi was pictured on the front cover of Time magazine. He made his last visit to the Spiritual Regeneration Movement centre in Los Angeles in 1975, according to film director David Lynch, who met him for the first time there.
In 1975, the Maharishi embarked on a five-continent trip to inaugurate what he called “the Dawn of the Age of Enlightenment”. The Maharishi said the purpose of the inaugural tour was to “go around the country and give a gentle whisper to the population”. He visited Ottawa during this tour and had a private meeting with Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, during which he spoke about the principles of TM and “the possibility of structuring an ideal society.” That same year, the Pittsburgh Press reported that “The Maharishi has been criticised by other Eastern yogis for simplifying their ancient art.” The Maharishi appeared as a guest on The Merv Griffin Show in 1975 and again in 1977 and this resulted in “tens of thousands of new practitioners” around the USA.
The Maharishi during a 1979 visit to Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa
In the mid 1970s, the Maharishi’s U.S. movement was operating 370 TM centres manned by 6,000 TM teachers.At that time, the Maharishi also began approaching the business community via an organisation called the American Foundation for SCI (AFSCI), whose objective was to eliminate stress for business professionals. His TM movement came to be increasingly structured along the lines of a multinational corporation.
The teaching of TM and the Science of Creative Intelligence in a New Jersey public school was stopped when a US court, in 1977, declared the movement to be religious, and ruled adoption of TM by public organisations in breach of the separation of church and state (First Amendment).
During the 1980s, the organisation continued to expand and his meditation technique continued to attract celebrities despite its “outlandish claims” and accusations of fraud from disaffected former disciples.The Maharishi made a number of property investments. In England, he bought the former Roathschild mansion, Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire, Roydon Hall in Maidstone, Swythamley Park in the Peak District and a Georgian rectory in Suffolk. In the United States, resorts and hotels, many in city centres, were purchased to be used as TM training centres. Doug Henning and the Maharishi planned a magical Vedic amusement park, Vedaland, and bought large tracts of land near Orlando, Florida and Niagara Falls, Ontario to host the park. The Maharishi commissioned plans from a prominent architect for the world’s tallest building, a Vedic-style pyramid to be built in São Paulo, Brazil, and to be filled with Yogic Flyers and other TM endeavours. The Maharishi founded Maharishi Ved Vigyan Vishwa Vidyapeetham, a self-described educational institution located in Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1982. The institution reports that it has trained 50,000 pundits in traditional Vedic recitation In 1983 the Maharishi invited government leaders to interact with his organization called “World Government”.
In January 1988, offices at the Maharishinagar complex in New Delhi were raided by Indian tax authorities and the Maharishi and his organisation were accused of falsifying expenses. Reports on the value of stocks, fixed-deposit notes, cash and jewels confiscated, varies from source to source The Maharishi, who was “headquartered in Switzerland” at the time, reportedly moved to the Netherlands “after the Indian government accused him of tax fraud”. Following an earthquake in Armenia, the Maharishi trained Russian TM teachers and set up a Maharishi Ayurveda training center in the Urals region. Beginning in 1989, the Maharishi’s movement began incorporating the term “Maharishi” into the names of their new and existing entities, concepts and programmes After Maharishi’s death his empire was divided up and given to family members.