Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
The guru who introduced Transcendental Meditation to the west died on 5 February aged 91. He’s remembered by the renowned spiritual writer, a close friend for more than 20 years
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with the Beatles.
Photograph: Rex Features
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi started out as one kind of cultural curiosity – a lone Hindu monk who aimed to teach meditation to the world – and ended up as a different kind of cultural curiosity: the one-time guru to the Beatles. He came remarkably close to fulfilling his original intent. Millions of westerners learned Transcendental Meditation (TM), and a new word, ‘mantra’, was added to the English language. He survived long after the departure of the Fab Four, who decamped almost as soon as they sniffed the thin air of Maharishi’s Himalayan retreat (excluding George Harrison, who turned into a genuine seeker and quiet ally).
Maharishi owed his survival to two things. He was sincerely a guru, a ‘dispeller of darkness’, who had the good of the world at heart, despite the wags who turned TM into the McDonald’s of meditation and the caricatures that morphed his white-bearded image into a pop cliché. Sincerity would have served him little if Maharishi hadn’t also been a gifted teacher of India’s ancient tradition of Vedanta. Many visitors who came to gawk went away moved by both qualities.
Beginning in the mid-Eighties, I had the opportunity to know Maharishi as a friend. Whenever my medical practice permitted, I joined his inner circle. It wasn’t necessary to be reverent in his presence. He made a point of not being seen as a religious figure but as a teacher of consciousness. Of the many memories I could offer, here is the most intense … Maharishi had fallen mysteriously and gravely ill on a visit to India in 1991. My father, a prominent cardiologist in New Delhi, ordered him to be rushed to England for emergency care. Soon, I was standing outside the London Heart Hospital, watching an ambulance navigate the snarled traffic, sirens wailing.
Just before it arrived on the hospital’s doorstep, one of the accompanying doctors ran up with the news that Maharishi had suddenly died. I rushed to the ambulance, picking up Maharishi’s body – he was frail and light by this time – and carrying him in my arms through London traffic.
I laid him on the floor inside the hospital’s doors and called for a cardio assist. Within minutes he was revived and rushed to intensive care on a respirator and fitted with a pacemaker that took over his heartbeat.
I became his primary caretaker during this crisis, tending to him personally at a private home outside London. It quickly became apparent that he was totally indifferent to his illness, and there was an astonishingly rapid recovery. The hospital expected lasting health problems, but there were apparently none. Within a few months Maharishi was back to his round-the-clock schedule – he rarely slept more than three or four hours a night. When I approached him one day to remind him to take his medications, he gave me a penetrating look. In it I read a message: ‘Do you really think I am this body?’ For me, that was a startling moment, a clue about what higher consciousness may actually be like.
As he saw himself, Maharishi knew that he had come tantalisingly close to changing the world, as close as any non-politician can who doesn’t wage war. He held that humanity could be saved from destruction only by raising collective consciousness. In that sense he was the first person to talk about tipping points and critical mass. If enough people meditated and turned into peaceful citizens of the world, Maharishi believed, walls of ignorance and hatred would fall as decisively as the Berlin Wall. This was his core teaching in the post-Beatles phase of his long career before he died peacefully in seclusion in Holland, at the age of about 91, his following much shrunken, his optimism still intact.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
First Meeting Maharishi (by Deepak Chopra)
It was in 1985, two years after a trip to Rishikesh, that I got an opportunity to meet Maharishi. When my chance came I grew unexpectedly shy. A young psychologist at Harvard, who was doing a study on the benefits of Transcendental Meditation for older people, told me about Maharishi’s visit to America for a conference after several years. Would I like to go to Washington, D. C. and be introduced? Whatever else we doctors are, we are not good followers, and I had long since decided not to have a guru. I wouldn’t have started TM if it hadn’t allowed me to meditate on my own. My friend persisted in calling me and wondered at my reluctance. After discussing the invitation with my wife, Rita and I decided that our curiosity was stronger than our timidity. We went.
It was a dim auditorium with over five hundred people and we, with great difficulty, managed to get a glimpse of Maharishi. He was on the stage, dressed in white silk and seated in the lotus position on a divan. He rarely stirred, and even from a distance, his immaculate stillness was obvious.
As he talked, he gestured with a flower in his hand. His voice was unusually varied, rising and falling, often breaking out in a laugh. He spent several hours discussing the revival of Ayurveda with various doctors and Indian pundits. It sounded interesting, but we had a plane to catch. As discreetly as we could, Rita and I walked out.
We felt something between relief and disappointment.On our way out, we stopped for a glass of water, then began to make our way through the lobby. At that moment, the doors to the hall opened and out came Maharishi. He walked fast for his height. A group of people trailed behind him, but without warning he veered away from where they were going, towards the elevator and walked right up to Rita and me. He picked out a long-stemmed red rose from the flowers he was holding and handed it to Rita, then picked another and handed it to me.
“Can you come up?” he asked us. Feeling a little dazed, I looked over at Rita. We were both thinking about our flight home half an hour later. I didn’t know what to say, and I noticed that my heart had started to pound in my chest. “We have a plane to catch, Maharishi,” I said. He laughed. “Oh, can’t you come up?” he repeated. We decided to go and upstairs we found ourselves in a conference room decorated from floor to ceiling in soft pink.
We sat on overstuffed pink chairs; Maharishi sat in the lotus position on a white divan. Rita and I had seen his picture many times, so he seemed familiar to us already. I am short next to many Americans, but he was smaller than me.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is a name that suggests a story. Maharishi is a word that combines maha or “great” and rishi or “sage.” The part of the name that we would call a given name is Mahesh. And yogi means “in union.” A man named Mahesh has attained spiritual union with the cosmos and become a great sage.
His manner was quite simple, but at the same time, as he chatted with us, I could not imagine paying attention to anyone else. At a point very early in our meeting, I noticed that my own attention, exposed to his, had become very concentrated. Without any effort, my mind had fallen silent. No thoughts moved through it, and there wasn’t the usual ricochet of stray impressions–just silence. This seemed an extraordinary pleasant state to be in, because I felt completely unself-conscious. It didn’t cross my mind that I carried the burden of my own self-consciousness until that moment. I felt no desire to look important or to impress Maharishi. I didn’t feel the need to be anything at that time. It was sufficient simply to be present.
Maharishi asked us about what we did and I said that I was a doctor and that I had practiced TM for four years. “And what is your specialty?” he asked. I told him it was endocrinology.
“That’s excellent, ” Maharishi said. “It connects everything in the body, doesn’t it? Like a net.” He made an interlocking gesture with his hands. I was impressed he knew that, but he was exactly right.
He then asked, “Do you know a lot about Ayurveda?” I shook my head. “You should learn,” he said, “because it is such a simple way of approaching medicine. Everything around us is change, but it all takes place against a background that is unchanging. Against everything in the relative world is a background of the absolute. Ayurveda says that behind mortality is the aspect of immortality. The goal of Ayurveda is to restore this multiplicity to that absolute, to unity.” Consciousness is our link back to the unchanging, he explained, because our consciousness rises from the absolute in the same way that plants, rocks, and all physical things arise. The raw material for everything in the universe is consciousness.
“Nature thinks the way we do,” I remember Maharishi saying. And that was the key. If Nature is thinking everything the same way, then physical existence is just one theme working its way through a billion variations. The secret was not to be so distracted by the variations that you missed the theme.
“You see?” Maharishi said, “Everything is orderly because everything is intelligence. Food is intelligence and the plants are intelligence. What we take in as nourishment we convert to our own intelligence. Sickness is interrupted intelligence, but we can bring it back into line. That’s all we do from our side. Nature takes care of it.”
Listening to Maharishi was a remarkable experience. He was stitching together, very simply and deftly, a new world which arose from consciousness. A creation in which everything that happens, stars, galaxies, growing grass, eating a meal–come down to an unending transformation of that one intelligence.
Around eleven our meeting came to an end. As a parting gesture he very carefully picked out two more roses. He must have scrutinized a dozen before he found the right ones. He asked us to give them to our children. We took one last glimpse of him in the pink room, and the next minute we were alone in the elevator.
As happy as Rita and I felt, our thoughts turned to the plane that had taken off two hours earlier. On an impulse, we went to the airport anyway. There were no later flights, we were told, but by chance, all the earlier flights had been delayed on the eastern corridor, and our plane was still on the ground. The ticket agent said it was one of the longest delays of the year–we were very lucky. I didn’t know at the time that this would be the beginning of many lucky coincidences surrounding my interactions with Maharishi.
As we headed home, I thought about Ayurveda and Maharishi’s desire for me to get involved in it. Now that I was away from him, my inner silence evaporated, and the buzzing of thoughts started up again. Some silence remained, but now it was spoiled by anxiety. Over and over, a thought repeated itself: “Don’t become an outsider.” I was being asked to look outside science. Perhaps Ayurveda would be the science of tomorrow, but what was it today? I thought about my standing as a doctor. Ayurveda is not licensed medicine in America. I wasn’t being asked to practice Ayurveda, but simply to look into it. A part of me said that I had a lot to lose.
Another part, the part at home in silence, didn’t have an opinion. It saw no problems at all.
I lay in bed thinking about Maharishi himself. The tradition of wisdom in India has been passed down from one person to another, from teacher to disciple. This may seem a more fragile way than written records, but in reality it has been much more durable. The teacher, or acharya, embodies the truth he talked about. If he can effectively teach it, his disciple becomes the next embodiment, and in that way, generation after generation the living links are forged. The truth may sink from public light, but somewhere it is flowing through a sage. A mind that is truly enlightened does not think of the truth, it creates it. That is why a true acharya is very rare.
I had no doubt, after practicing his meditation, that Maharishi was anything less than his name implied. He was a great sage, a knower and teacher of reality. It wasn’t necessary for me to seek him out as a guru, because, by a stroke of genius, Maharishi had compressed the spiritual teacher and placed him inside every meditator. Maharishi taught that if we want to look for the one who will enlighten us, we do not have to go beyond our own inner doorstep. What greater gift of knowledge could there be?