Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

There is much criticism of Maharishi. If we disregard the one-sided understanding of Vedanta, there are certainly also some adaptations to modern Western mentality that can certainly be questioned. His charging money for his TM-courses, his selling meditation as a mere technique, of course disqualifies him in orthodox Hindu circles. His marketing by means of mystical powers, siddhis, making possible so-called “yogic flying”, is clearly over-the-top. Many formulations in his books are too vague. It is understandable that his view of a current “age of enlightenment” is viewed as problematic, and his parallels between the Vedas and contemporary science can certainly appear to be unduly speculative. Then, as in the case of all Eastern spiritual teachers in the West, there is also criticism of his personal life.

Still, there is in fact much more to say about him.

An example of relatively serious piece of criticism of Maharishi (and also of Aurobindo and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh/Osho) can be found here. Yet this poorly written lecture is simplistic, and Coomaraswamy’s endorsement of the more superficial and strained version of the Guénonian, perennialist-traditionalist interpretations of Catholicism (and indeed Christianity in general), and his consequent, largely failed personal engagement as a Catholic, in my view in important respects disqualifies him too as a critic. He neither speaks as a strict “Hindu” traditionalist himself, nor does he address the complex issues regarding the specific difficulties of spreading anything of Vedic spirituality in the modern West, or the partial compromises and adaptations which many found to be necessary because of them. These decisive weaknesses are the same as those that, unfortunately, vitiate the otherwise in some respects important criticism of writers like Lee Penn (False Dawn: The United Religions Initiative, Globalism, and the Quest for a One-World Religion (2005)).

In reality, Maharishi’s commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita is in some respects an “original” contribution, in the sense in which originality must always be understood within a general traditional framework, i.e. in terms of original claims regarding traditional meanings lost or obscured by other commentators and interpreters. As far as I can see, it has been generally underrated as a result of the mentioned, legitimate criticisms. Indeed, the critics never seem to have studied Maharishi’s interpretation of the first six chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita closely. Not all formulations are too vague; in fact, his account of the process of meditation in all aspects is often very precise. I find that in important respects the interpretation actually marks a step forward in the gradual, new transmission of the Vedic tradition to the West which has been going on since the late 18th century. Given the particular, unavoidable difficulties of this transmission, a similar attitude should be taken to Maharishi’s work as to the whole of the so-called Neo-Vedantist current, and indeed, mutatis mutandis, to modern Western New Ageism. Discernment, not wholesale acceptance or rejection, is what is called for. The historical importance of these currents for the spread of the Vedic tradition in the West cannot be denied, even as proper attention is brought to their errors and incompleteness.

With regard to Western adaptations in his interpretations of his own tradition, it is not clear that there is more of them in Maharishi than in Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna mission, in Aurobindo, or in other, earlier transmitters of the Vedic tradition to the West. And such adaptations are indeed necessary and in many cases even desirable. Moreover, his teachings are sharply at odds with the still further developed romanticism of the hippiedom which shaped the West at the time when he spread them here – a fact that was obscured (and not only in his case but also in that of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada) by the fact that hippies, and the Beatles, were attracted by and came to be associated with him.

It also seems to be a fact that very few are in reality capable of practicing regularly his adapted form of meditation, even as they dismiss it as unduly simplified. As long as this is so, there can be no doubt that they have much to learn from him. I was initiated into Maharishi’s practice of transcendental meditation by his student, now Professor Bengt Gustavsson, at the TM centre in a beautiful building from the 1880s or 1890s in Skeppargatan in Stockholm, in 1978. I find it important that I sensed deeply the spiritual purity, peace, and power of those rooms on that occasion, and of the beautiful ceremony, with the flowers, fruit, and handkerchief I had brought, the pictures of Maharishi and Brahmananda Saraswati, the incense, etc., and the mantras Gustavsson recited. On this occasion, transcendental meditation was certainly not just a technique, although it was that too and was, above all, marketed as such; it was very definitely also a distinct initiation into Maharishi’s branch of the Vedic tradition. Moreover, there was no trace of either Indian bazaar kitsch or countercultural hippie aesthetics. Gustavsson always wore a suit and tie.

The practice immediately led to experiences described in Gustavsson’s introductory teaching and in Maharishi’s books and other literature on TM. Since then, I have also studied other branches of the Vedic tradition and practiced other forms of meditation etc., but I still find Maharishi’s transcendental meditation, understood in terms of his own scriptural commentary, to be of considerable importance. He, and Gustavsson, remain more than just vartma-pradarshaka gurus (gurus who show the path) in the sense that, to this day, Gustavsson’s initiation remains my only formal “initiation” in the Vedic tradition, although I have subsequently had much closer association with other teachers. Although I have alternated and supplemented with other techniques, in terms of initiation and practice, this is basically where I still remain. And it is where I think I ought to remain. Non-adapted forms of Vedic spirituality seem to me in many ways problematic in the West.

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