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The Secular Selling of a Religion

by George E. La More, Jr.

Dr. La More is head of the department of religion and philosophy and chairman of the division of humanities at Iowa Wesleyan College, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 10, 1975, pp. 1133-1137. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


After passing through an era dominated by rationalism, Western culture is experiencing an explosion of religious mysticism -- a manifestation of the human spiritís seeking to transcend the confines of the single-storied universe into which it has locked itself since the Enlightenment. Early seasons of mysticism are given to excesses of thrill-seeking and the occult. Satan cults, witchcraft, astrology, charismatic movements -- these are often shallow expressions of what may be nonetheless a healthy hunger in the human spirit: the hunger to outgrow the cramped quarters of a shrunken perspective.

One of the most successful responses to this spiritual hunger is Transcendental Meditation (TM). Karl Jaspers has labeled as escapism a great deal of the current interest in Oriental religion and philosophy, especially on the part of young people. The grass always looks greener in distant cultures when youth is fed up with its own. Hence Transcendental Meditation not only speaks to timely hungers but also carries an attractive forwarding address -- east of Suez. TMís chief guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, claims that the discipline of life renewal that he teaches is not really a religion at all but a psychological self-help program which pays all the dividends of religion without the embarrassing urgency and theology. In this way both religious hungers and secular biases are served.

The Guruís Avenue to a Fuller Life

The Maharishi achieved prominence in the West in 1967 when such notables as the Beatles, Mia Farrow and the Beach Boys traveled to India to "find themselves" with the help of the guru. It was not long before many of their followers became his followers. The Maharishi holds a degree in physics from the University of Allahabad, but as a young man he abandoned scientific study of the material world to begin his pilgrimage toward spiritual understanding. (This point may help to explain why he uses the word "scientific" to describe his enlightenment.) His studies with the Guru Dev were followed by a two-year period of meditation in a Himalayan cave -- standard fieldwork for guru studies -- and after that, a season of travels alone in the forests of India. In the mid-í50s the Maharishi decided to take the insights he had gained out into the world.

With elaborate claims that he and his teach or, the Guru Dev, had discovered a new avenue to a fuller life, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to America for the first time in 1959. He dictated his first book, Science of Being and the Art of Living (SBAL), on a tape recorder at Lake Arrowhead in southern California. Since that visit, more than a quarter of a million Americans have been initiated into TM; an estimated 15,000 per month are brought into the fellowship through 200 recruitment centers strategically located across the country. Set fees are charged upon entrance: $125.00 for an adult; $45.00 for a student. A nonprofit, tax-exempt institution for education with its legal charter in California, the TM organization grosses $6 million a year in income from fees alone. Add to that the sale of publications and fees for advanced studies, and the total is even more impressive.

TMís essential device is the act of meditation (in a relaxed, position, eyes closed, two 20-minute periods a day), upon a mantra -- a Sanskrit word specially chosen for the individual believer which he recites over and over. The Sanskrit mantras when translated may be as disappointing as Italian opera in translation -- words like wheel, bedpost, bridge and collar abound -- but in Sanskrit the mantra claimed by oneís trainer to have the right nuances of sound and meaning for the believer. The euphonic repetition is said to cleanse more than focus the mind, thus permitting new intelligence to arise. Once one is assigned his own special mantra, he keeps it a closely guarded secret. Such inside secrets and mysteries have long provided cohesion in Eastern spiritual communities.

The practice of Transcendental Meditation is said to lead first to "transcendental-consciousness"; this in turn opens out into "cosmic-consciousness." Ultimately -- and this is quite a bonus for a group claiming to be nonreligious -- one arrives at "God-consciousness." The final state is not fully accomplished in this lifetime: reincarnation is an integral part of the Maharishiís beliefs.

Scientific Studies of TM

The Student International Meditation Society (SIMS), active on more than 1,000 campuses, emphasizes the secular, nonreligious identity of the movement, calling it a "science" and compiling dramatic studies of improvements in metabolism, blood pressure, cerebral alpha and theta wave production under the influence of Transcendental Meditation. It is SIMS which has founded the Maharishi International University, located initially in Santa Barbara, California, and now in Fairfield, Iowa.

This image of TM as a scientific do-it-yourself substitute for religion has served it well. The Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill in 1972 encouraging the public schools of the state to avail themselves of the services of TM. Similar bills have been introduced in California. The federal government has assisted the movement through a grant of the National Institute of Health for more than $20,000, to educate public school teachers in TM. Credit courses in TM are offered in high schools and colleges across the country. The United States Army has made considerable use of TM in treating alcoholism and drug dependency.

In his effort to obtain governmental support for his total national and world mission, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has made personal appearances before legislatures in Iowa, Illinois and Michigan, calling upon them to assist him in "the alleviation of human suffering." Said one legislator in Springfield:

"He was the strangest speaker weíve had here since Spiro Agnew."

The list of benefits attributed to regular Transcendental Meditation -- 20 minutes with oneís mantra, twice a day -- is reminiscent of the labels on bottles of "snake oil" sold from medicine wagons in former days: improvements in metabolism and blood pressure, relaxation from anxiety, clearer and more creative consciousness, improved social relations. Adherents of TM claim benefits ranging from the shrinkage of ulcers to an improved sex life.

Elaborate scientific studies have measured both physiological and psychological changes in persons during the practice of TM. This large body of literature has been called into question by researchers with names as notable as those who did the original studies. Keith Wallace, appointed president of MIU in Santa Barbara, was a pioneer in such research with his doctorís thesis in the physiology of TM, published in Science in 1970. He carefully documented his finding that persons in a state of TM reduce their oxygen consumption by 20 per cent, and both their skin sensitivity and mental responsiveness increase with this metabolic slowdown. The most controversial claim is that TM causes an "increase of creative intelligence."

The Maharishi sometimes claims that the Guru Dev and he have discovered a new path to human betterment -- and at other times indicates that they have actually updated something very ancient. His emphasis seems to be on the former claim; the evidence rests with the latter. The act of meditation upon mantras is one of the oldest devices in the Vedic tradition of Hinduism. It is not altogether different from the Sufi mysticism of Islam known as Zikr, in which mantras are crucial.

Over the centuries much has been learned about such meditation. Typical human conscjousness is diffuse -- scattered over many simultaneous concerns. We seldom give our fullest attention to anything. Now, the practice of concentration on a single idea -- be it a mantra, a Hail Mary or a portion of the Lordís Prayer -- does cultivate the capacity truly to give oneís total mind to one thing at one time. And once this capacity is developed, it can be transferred to other matters. A person who develops the capacity of focused attention finds a greater sense of equilibrium and power in the management of his affairs.

Similarly, it has long been known that meditation on a single object, idea or sound not only causes other stimuli to recede to the vanishing point; after a time the focused object of meditation also seems to be called away, leaving a focused point of nothingness or pure consciousness," as it is known in such traditions as Zen Buddhism. Psychologists such as Robert Ornstein have long been fascinated by this phenomenon. It is into this emptiness of the head that pure, creative intelligence arises, according to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The Selling of TM

As unlikely as all of this speculation may sound to busy Americans, TM has been admirably packaged and commercialized with them in mind. Americans have long shown an affinity for transcendental musings in the tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, Bronson Alcott and Whitman. An earlier America thrilled to the "new wisdom of the Hindoos," especially the belief that there is in each of us a very special self that is actually continuous with God (tat tuam asi -- God is you, too). The excesses of this tradition are well known, even in its most illustrious personalities. Was it not Herman Melville who suggested that Emersonís claim to a newfound inability to perceive evil might be nothing more than failing eyesight? And the great naturalist, John Muir, after a walk through Yosemite with Mr. Emerson, had to admit that whatever Mr. Emersonís awareness of the Spirit of Nature, he wasnít too sure that the gentleman had been properly introduced to the Lady herself.

My point is that here is a kind of transcendental mysticism which, as it were, "outgrows" the world, having first faced its ambiguities and seemingly irradicable evils. Such meditation is not given to what Jonathan Edwards called "labyrinthian depths of self-deception." But there is another kind of meditation which seeks mainly to "escape" from the world, which offers quicker and easier blessings. One must consider at. length which of these traditions accounts best for what is seen in TM.

Ideally American is the idea of a single payment ($125.00/$45.00) with no regular dues ("Nobody will call"). Similarly, the "soft" conversion expected of believers hardly calls for a person to change his habits at all, but for the two painless 20-minute periods a day, out of which come new life.

Furthermore, in a season of enormous complexity, the sheer programmed simplicity of TM has its appeal. Here is a faith with the precise steps of a computer program. For instance, one rank below an "initiator" in TM is the "checker," a person who gives individual guidance to the initiate in his early meditations. To do this the checker must memorize 30 steps which every other checker the world around also uses verbatim: Step #1: "Let us close our eyes" (ten seconds). Or: Step #14: "Did you have any thoughts in your quietness?" (If Yes, go to #15. If No, go to #12).

Regardless of the simplicity of this technique (and it must be remembered that a faith for the masses has to be simple), it is fair to say that if nothing more than focused thinking and quietness arise from TM, there is still a benefit. While Leon Otis, in his report on Stanford University research into TM, warns that "up-tight" people may find that the only thing "liberated" in their meditations is their problems, Herbert Benson has suggested that deep mental relaxation may be as essential to our survival today as were quick wits and reflexes in primitive times.

A Path to God?

And yet TM is a very definite religion in a very definite disguise. Whatever the scientific benefits of TM, its religious functions become clear in the Maharishiís claim that "Transcendental Meditation is a path to God" (Meditations of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita [MMMY], p. 59). "A very good form of prayer is this meditation which leads us in the field of the Creator, to the source of Creation, to the field of God" (MMMY, p. 95). Even minus its God-talk, TM offers a total philosophy of life renewal and a plan of salvation for the world ("world plan"). Religion by any other name is still religion.

In his translation and commentary on the first six chapters of the classical book of Hinduism, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Maharishi notes that TM takes a person in whatever level of faith he finds himself, then leads him beyond that point (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita [MMYBG, pp. 317-319]). The idea here is very clear: If a person is nonreligious, then TM presents itself as being nonreligious, too, so as to meet him on his own turf; then it draws him to a "unified, monistic, cosmic God-consciousness" typical of Hinduism, never indicating in advance where he is headed.

The Maharishi and his followers claim that even at its highest theological level, TM is totally compatible with all religions, and hence is not itself a religion. It is highly questionable, however, whether the faith described in TM could ever square with the Christian vision of a personal God, or the primacy of Christ and the eternal, indissoluble worth of persons as they achieve their personhood in a single lifetime on earth. Instead, there is presented the diffuse monism of Brahma, a religion of mystical thought rather than historical encounter. And the reincarnation of persons is affirmed in the personal faith of the Maharishi to the degree that oneís current, distinctive individuality has no permanent worth. Such a faith is hardly compatible with the basic religions of the West -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

There is something very insidious about a movement that meets a person "where he is" by not announcing where it will take him. And there is something dishonest about pretending that such obvious Hindu theology is really ecumenical. In the ancient Gita, Krishna, the visiting God, says to Arjuna, the perplexed soldier, "Let not him who knows the whole disturb the ignorant who know only the part." The Maharishi comments on this -passage as follows:

The inference is that if the enlightened man wants to bless the one who is ignorant, he should meet him on the level of his ignorance and try to lift him from there. . . . He should not tell him about the level of that realized, because it would only confuse him [MMYBG, p. 224].

The deception becomes even clearer in this statement of the Maharishi, which shows his awareness that in a secular age, a religion disguised as a secular device for self-help has a better chance for governmental support.

Whenever and wherever religion dominates the mass consciousness, transcendental deep meditation should be taught in terms of religion. . . . Today, when politics is guiding the destiny of man, the teaching should be primarily based on the field of politics and secondarily on the plane of economics. . . . It seems for the present, that this transcendental deep meditation should be made available to the people through the agencies of government [SBAL, pp. 299, 300].

Being all things to all persons may have its virtues, but when carried to an extreme it becomes anything but a mind-clarifying and truth-defining effort. When I have debated with members of SIMS the question of whether TM is Hinduism or a religion at all, they have employed a most peculiar argument which they attribute to the Maharishi: since TM does not demand that one be a Hindu or even religious to take lessons, therefore TM is neither Hinduism nor is it a religion. By such logic, it would follow that a Billy Graham revival is neither Christian nor religious because anybody can get into the meeting.

Beyond this appraisal of the literature, philosophy and strategy of TM, if one looks at the overt practices of TM, its covert religious identity is clearly revealed. A Jew or a Christian who refuses to put any God before the one God of Scripture and who refuses to bow down before graven images finds it impossible to accept the initiation rite as being a totally secular celebration. The initiate is told to bring to the service a sacrifice or offering of fruit and flowers and a clean white handkerchief. Candles and incense are used. The initiate is asked to kneel before a picture of the Guru Dev while his fellows also kneel and make their offerings and sing prescribed songs (hymns) of thanksgiving honoring the many former leaders of the Hindu tradition known as the School of Shankara. Each former guru is construed in these songs as being a former embodiment of the Divine. The initiation service or puja is in Sanskrit, with translation forbidden. Small wonder, for upon translation the puja turns out to be a long prayer of praise to the many gods -- Narayana, Vashishtha, Shakti, etc. -- who are manifestations of Brahma.

Filling a Religious Vacuum

Transcendental Meditation must be credited with rightly discerning the contemporary spiritual needs of persons and responding to them. Certainly in the decade of the Ď6os when the Christian church became overly secularized in its emphasis on social action over spiritual experience and personal renewal, TM came to fill a religious vacuum. Its phenomenal growth proves that it must be doing something right. There is no doubt in my mind that TM comes as a judgment on the spiritual communities of the West that have neglected the spiritual and mystical possibilities of humanity.

One does well to respect good works wherever they arise, and TM appears to have helped persons with certain psychological disorders and addictions. TM, by its research, is learning or relearning certain principles of the human spirit which we need to know. Modern humanity has become expert in its knowledge of the scientific, exterior forces in the world -- electricity, gravity or nuclear force -- but we know little about the existential forces of the inner world -- love, hate, hope, fear, doubt and faith. TM grows increasingly wise in these matters.

It may just be that TM will call the religious communities of the West back to some of the great things in their own heritage which they have forgotten. Meditation, focused devotion, transcendental perception -- all of these have been vital in the earlier religious communities of the West, but of late the spiritual classics, the books of practical spiritual disciplines, have become the best-kept secret in the education of pastors and laypeople.

Name-dropping may not always be the most convincing argument, yet one has to show respect for any movement that can draw to itself support from such notables as Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Major General Franklin Davis, former commandant of the United States War College.

But for all its patrons and benefits, there are certain deceptions being practiced in TM which trouble me: claims to originality, claims to compatibility with all religions, claims that TM is not a religion, claims that it is best not to tell an initiate where he is being led. This last claim smacks of the dictum of Marx and Lenin that it is not necessary for the revolutionary to know what kind of society will follow the revolution.

With a mind to the good that TM has accomplished, it is perhaps best to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, in the spirit of Gamalielís advice to Saul of Tarsus:

Do not take any action against these men . . . for if this plan and work of theirs is man-made, it will disappear; but if it comes from God you cannot defeat them [Acts 5:38].

Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that TM is a religion in secular clothing, and for this reason an alarm should be sounded for the political inroads it is making in violation of the principle of separation of church and state and for its claim to the innocent that it is a technique compatible with all faiths.


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