Thursday, November 24, 2011

Is it a religion, or a dessert topping?

One of the more stupefying features of TM is its vague claim of not being a religion: "The Transcendental Meditation technique is not a religion or philosophy." But an overview of everything connected with TM practice - the organization and the people who teach TM - suggests something completely different. Religious aspects are woven throughout this entire enterprise that claims to be "scientific" in nature. In fact, the core doctrine of the organization which teaches TM is that of a religion. This religious organization holds that Transcendental Meditation and other practices in the program have an effect on the individual and society through means that can only be described as religious. The TM organization's stated goals of global transformation have many similarities to those of other religious faiths.

The TM movement's denial of its own obvious religiosity is absurd. As my title suggests, it brings to mind this great Saturday Night Live sketch. "New Shimmer's a floor wax and a dessert topping!"

(Outside the U.S. use this link - the sketch starts at 1:30. Here's a transcript.)

"Tastes terrific... and just look at that shine!" But, as with Chevy Chase's rendition of the somewhat sleazy pitchman selling a surrealistic, self-contradictory product, something doesn't add up when it comes to the TM teacher's standard pitch concerning the relationship between TM and religious belief.

Critics over the years have pointed out that the religious nature of TM was proven by the decision in a Federal court case, Malnak v. Yogi, decades ago (1977). Yet promoters continue to insist that Transcendental Meditation is not a religious activity and may be implemented in public schools.

The following essay analyzes how the words and behaviors of the people and organizations promoting Transcendental Meditation mark it as a religious program. This is clearly demonstrated by current websites and online videos produced by the TM movement.

Illustration by Barry Geller in The TM Book, 1975

First, let's look carefully at what they claim, today, from the organization's premiere website: "The Transcendental Meditation technique is not a religion or philosophy." I've italicized those first words, because they make a distinction that the technique itself is not religious, avoiding any characterization of the rest of the program or the movement.

This is an important distinction. The claim implies that the process of closing one's eyes and doing only the meditation is not religious. This sentence avoids mention of the rest of the TM program and the organization that offers it. As the illustration to the right shows, they once claimed that the entire "TM program does NOT involve religious beliefs," and the marketing has changed over time.

The Transcendental Meditation program is a specific program only available through this specific organization. The entire multi-session process of learning Transcendental Meditation includes many minutes if not hours of instruction about teachings and beliefs which have no bearing upon the actual mechanics of meditating. Even before learning TM, this kind of information, such as the claimed intention to bring about "world peace," is presented in the introductory lectures,  as this leaked document outlines in detail. David Lynch's TM-promoting foundation likewise includes mention of bringing about "world peace" by some vague unspecified means.

This claim of irreligiousness relates to recent controversies about the teaching and practice of yoga. There's nothing inherently religious about sitting on a mat in a particular posture with a group of people for physical benefit and enjoyment. Things become interesting when other aspects come along with some simple practice; a lifestyle, an ideology, a particular set of intentions on the part of the people doing the teaching that might be woven together with that practice. At that point, advocates of the TM program propose a clear set of justifications for the practice that are both blatantly unscientific and clearly religious.

The incremental manner in which portions of the TM programs are revealed, including the use of  obscure and unusual language and terminology, complicates explanation of what's actually held to be true inside the program. These elements are revealed sequentially, such that a new TM practitioner might progressively receive revelations over time, each step depending on completion of the previous step. The first step is the process of learning Transcendental Meditation.

The TM movement never defines their often-used term, "natural law." What is "natural law?"  Google the term against, and no understandable definition exists there. The term is attributed to Maharishi, founder of the TM program, in this transcript. Phrases such as "Transcendental Consciousness is the Unified Field of Natural Law" (in the context of explaining that "Transcendental Consciousness," whatever that might be, is experienced during TM) or that in some state of enlightenment, "one is living in full accord with Natural Law" still give few hints as to what that "Natural Law" might be.

Similarly, from the same transcript, Maharishi claims, "Quantum Field Theory has established that there is one unified field at the basis of all the creativity of natural law." This kind of connection of "natural law" to quantum theory is not supported by physics, and the TM movement never clarifies why living in accord with some obscure element of quantum physics might be a good thing.

Further specific claims are made for "Natural Law" in a page titled "Alliance with Natural Law" on the website:
Scientific Research has shown that human brain physiology is capable of engaging total Natural Law in the field of thought, speech and behavior of the individual. Consciousness-Based programs educate and train the individuals to use their full brain potential, full creative intelligence, so that their thought, action and behavior spontaneously engage the evolutionary power of total Natural Law.
The claims made in this paragraph are not supported by scientific research in the usual sense. Certainly former physicist and movement spokesperson John Hagelin believes them to be true, but physicists outside the TM hierarchy do not recognize such claims. Such statements have been justifiably criticized for their vagueness, lack of clear definitions, and for the reliance on metaphors.

Also key here is the use of the phrase, "Consciousness-Based programs." "Consciousness-Based Education" is the focus and slogan of the allied David Lynch Foundation, which fundraises in support of teaching TM to school children and other potentially vulnerable populations.

In a promotional book on Transcendental Meditation written by active TM movement spokesman Bob Roth, one chapter is titled, "Life Supported by Natural Law." Roth inches closer to a concrete definition of "natural law," through an analogy to water's boiling point, or gravity. According to Roth, "natural law propels life in an evolutionary direction. It is the invincible force in nature... that continually creates, maintains, and evolves life."

It's reasonable to assume here that Roth is discussing something that's  traditionally called "God" in most cultures. "God" is generally an "invincible" being or force with power over all life,  but Roth is being coy about terminology, never quite coming out and saying so. He described "living in accord with natural law" as being beneficial, "the key to perfect health" and "the key to skill in action in life." But whatever this "spontaneous alliance with natural law" may be, Roth claims it's not a matter of intellectual understanding or intent, but the product of practicing TM. "Maharishi's Transcendental Meditation places life in the center stream of the evolutionary power of natural law."

Of course, none of this "natural law" talk is supported by any known scientific evidence, nor any scientific theory accepted outside of the TM movement. It's also doubtful that this particular series Roth presents - that a particular meditation practice, sold to people for a fee, will curry favor with God somehow, regardless of whether a TM practitioner accepts or even knows about the underlying theology - is even commonly found among Eastern religions. But, as I will show, the TM movement developed its own reinterpretation of Vedic traditional beliefs, which is still religious in nature, though unconventional.

This entire system, which is that of a Vedic religious sect, isn't explicitly revealed to newcomers who've just crossed the threshold to learn Transcendental Meditation. It's revealed over time - through residence or online courses, lectures and other parts of the program that may follow after learning TM - and course attendees are required to sign agreements in which they must keep such things confidential. This is the kind of restriction with which course attendees must agree before attending such courses:

You further agree to keep any written or other course materials that you may receive during the Course, confidential and only for your personal and private use. You agree not to copy nor reproduce in any way all or part of the Course materials, and not to allow any other person to do so or to use the Course materials. Furthermore, you agree not to publicly disclose the content of the Course, be it from the Course materials, from your own notes, or from your memory for any reason or at any occasion.

Despite the TM movement's attempts to keep the more obviously religious material under wraps through restrictions like the above, eventually bits and pieces leak out. A book that's priced at $750, "Human Physiology: Expression of Veda and the Vedic Literature," by Tony Nader - currently the "Maharaja" in charge of the TM movement - appears to be the primary published source of this sort of theological material. I say "appears" since I myself haven't sprung for a copy of this book, which is now on the used market for $385 or more, thus limiting the accessibility of this material to the general public, despite the tagline, "A textbook of life for everyone." Quotes from the crown-and-royal-robe-wearing maharaja's book sometimes appear on various websites, including that of Maharishi University of Management, Department of Maharishi Vedic Science, where these excerpts were found. Here, Nader finally provides a clear definition of what "Natural Law" is, in the context of the TM program:

Maharishi brings to light that the Vedic Devata are the various aspects of Natural Law that organize the entire universe and maintain it in perfect order. They are Laws of Nature, or collections of Laws of Nature, with specific administrative functions that provide for the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of the entire universe. They are the creative powers of cosmic dimension, permeating the whole creation. All the Devata, all the impulses of Creative Intelligence of Natural Law, are present in every point of creation.

Devata (plural of Deva) are divine beings, or deities, in the Vedic/Hindu pantheon. While there may be some controversy as to how this concept directly relates to any Western notion of "God," we are still clearly in the realm of religion. The subject of discussion is a divine being who is an object of worship in Sanatana Dharma, the "eternal religion" rooted in the Veda which forms the basis of Hinduism, and, according to the TM movement's founder, is the source of all other religions.

More from King Tony:
The Devata are integral aspects of our own human physiology. They are embodied in every human being with the same forms and functions described in the Vedic Literature. The Devata are present in the physiology of everyone, no matter what one's race, belief system, or religion, no matter which political party one associates with, or in which geographical area one is born.
Here we see the the underlying ideology of the TM movement, long manifested in the insistence that TM practice does not conflict with any religion, and does not involve belief. It appears that in this belief system, everyone is already infested with deities that they believe to be already present; they just don't know it yet. Likewise, the "eternal religion" stipulating the presence of these deities is considered by them to be the root of all religions, thus it conflicts with none of them.

It appears that this doctrine is, in fact, religious. This religion incorporates practices such as the singing of hymns in praise and worship.  Elsewhere on that same page we find the definition of exactly that kind of hymn:

Stotras are hymns of praise, describing and glorifying the Vedic Devatas, the impulses of creative intelligence responsible for administering the entire creation.

The TM movement's religious language and imagery are pervasive on the Maharishi Channel, the movement's online video service. Several times a week, the feature "Today in the Vedic Calendar" draws connections between particular days in the lunar calendar and the devata. This image and narration introduce each episode:

From one sunrise to the next is one day in the Vedic calendar, and the dawn of each new day awakens a particular law of nature which becomes more lively and accessible than usual.

In the Vedic tradition, these laws of nature are called the Vedic devata, and each expresses a different quality of nature's intelligence. Maharishi explains that the Vedic devata are the laws of nature that administer the ever-expanding universe, and maintain it in perfect order.

Again, the claim is made that these deities are directly connected with every human's physiology. Supporting scientific data is a bit thin, except for this attempt, a colorful graphic of the human brain and its resident population of devata.

Scientific research has demonstrated that the Vedic devata have a structure and function that is clearly identifiable within our own brain and whole physiology. This historic scientific discovery was made by the greatest scientist of our age, His Majesty Raja Raam, who is the first ruler of the Global Country of World Peace. His research proves scientifically the reality that our own physiology is truly an expression of cosmic intelligence.

Individual episodes of "Today in the Vedic Calendar" make other claims. Here, they specifically claim that the practice of Transcendental Meditation is a means by "which we access Ganesh's intelligence." Ganesh, of course, is one of those deities of the Vedic tradition.
... this is the gift of all of Maharishi's Vedic technologies, such as Maharishi's Transcendental Meditation, TM-Sidhi program, and Maharishi Yagya, through which we access Ganesh's intelligence, enliven it, to rise above all problems, and establish our life and the life of society in harmony with natural law.

In another episode, on the day of "Putrada Ekadashi," the association is made that through the practice of TM by schoolchildren, they likewise gain the support of Vishnu, yet another one of those deities.
When children practice Maharishi's Transcendental Meditation every day at school, they dive into the transcendental field of pure consciousness, and awaken all possibilities within the simplest form of their own awareness. Their thoughts and actions spontaneously become more and more in accord with all the laws of nature, so that they don't make mistakes, or create the ground for suffering. All action becomes completely evolutionary, doing all good to themselves and everyone around them.

Through Maharishi's Vedic education, every child can become the ruler of his universe, where the custodian of all dynamism, Vishnu, supports all thought and action in an evolutionary direction.
Each segment of "Today in the Vedic Calendar" concludes with Vedic recitation by pundits. Here, they explain why people should listen to such Vedic recitation:
Now we will listen to Vedic recitation to enliven the infinite dynamism of Vishnu that sustains the universe, that can bless every child on Earth, to enliven this quality in our consciousness, our physiology, and our environment. 

In conclusion, here are my personal observations and commentary on the available facts, based on the above disclosures.
  1. The TM movement's inner doctrine stipulates that humans, through specific procedures, may gain the support of Vedic devata (gods), which are present in the physiology of every human. Such support allegedly creates perfect health (on the individual level), invincibility (on the national level), and world peace (on the global level), among other claimed benefits.

  2. According to this doctrine, a "life supported by" Vedic devata is gained through the individual practice of the Transcendental Meditation program, and other related programs. These similar practices involve outer recitation or inner repetition of sounds of Vedic origin and significance. These sounds may be mantras (in TM itself) or Vedic scriptures. Such sounds are believed to "enliven" the qualities of the devata in one's consciousness and physiology.

  3. These religious concepts and ideas are not explicitly disclosed to the outside world, and are excluded from marketing materials for the Transcendental Meditation program. Instead, terminology substitutions are made, the most obvious one being the use of the vaguely defined, or undefined term "natural law" in place of "Vedic devata."

    One prominent example of this sort of substitution, in practice: the vague phrase frequently used in the TM movement, "alliance with natural law" actually means, "alliance with the Vedic devata." One cannot be an "ally" of an inanimate object.

    Another such substitution is the term "consciousness-based" for the introduction of practices that "enliven" the qualities of the Vedic devata into various fields of life. The David Lynch Foundation's promotion of "consciousness-based education," through the introduction of Transcendental Meditation practice into schools, is one such means by which they plan to bring TM's "enlivened" Vedic devata to the world.

    Non-disclosure of these concepts and ideas to outsiders, or to anyone for that matter, is enforced through custom and social conditioning, as well as through signed legal agreements.

  4. Leaders of the Transcendental Meditation movement have failed to integrate their goal of recruiting as many individuals as possible to this mass "alliance with the Vedic devata" for planetary transformation and "world peace," with the mandate of maintaining the façade of an irreligious, reasonable, secular and scientific institution. For decades this presented an ethical conundrum. The movement's answer has always been non-disclosure and denial.

    Prospective meditators are instructed that no belief is required for the practice of Transcendental Meditation. That may be technically true. However, the organization offering TM puts forth a doctrine in which this practice, when adopted by large numbers of people, is believed to serve a religious purpose. Individual benefit is simply a by-product of, or reward for, participation in the mass program.

    This violates any conventional Western notion of informed consent. The true purpose of an individual's participation in such a daily practice, which may contradict their own beliefs, or be dismissed as so ridiculous as to inhibit participation, must be disclosed to them in full, beforehand.

  5. The idiosyncratic doctrine of the TM movement attempts to cast each Vedic deva as some esoteric aspect of "natural law." The TM movement reframes the entire Vedic/Hindu cosmology as something scientific, or even, an expression of quantum physics. It fails in this attempt because the process of assigning personal aspects, or the personalities of deities, to aspects of nature (anthropomorphism) is a feature of many religions. Further, these deities are described as the subjects of glorification through hymns of praise. There is no scientific evidence to support this reinterpretation of Vedic cosmology.

  6. The David Lynch Foundation markets Transcendental Meditation to certain vulnerable groups, including schoolchildren and battle-scarred veterans. Like the organization that teaches TM, the Foundation presents the same vague euphemisms, language substitutions, and points of reworded, unscientific inner doctrine. David Lynch's Foundation references a mysterious mechanism "forgotten by most people," a mantra with mysterious "life-supporting effects," and a state of "pure consciousness" which creates an inner peace that "spreads naturally to the environment" by some unspecified means. All of these details are unverified by science. These teachings are inherent to TM's inner doctrine. Such doctrine attributes all such good things to an "alliance" with the Vedic devata, which are present in the human physiology independent of belief. The Vedic devata, that have power over all creation, are believed to react positively to certain sounds from the Vedic tradition:

    • "...the technique makes use of a natural mechanism within the mind and body—long forgotten by most people—to settle down and take profoundly deep rest. No amount of belief or disbelief will change that inherent ability."

    • "The mantra has no meaning but is known to produce beneficial, life-supporting effects."

    • "The experience of the most settled state of awareness, pure consciousness, through TM practice produces a profound state of inner peace in individual life. But this individual peace spreads naturally to the environment as well."

Some people who are considering taking up Transcendental Meditation might find the religious motivations of its proponents irrelevant or meaningless. But the inner doctrine believed in, propagated,  and/or demonstrated by those proponents, and the unwillingness to disclose that doctrine to the public over the course of decades, irreparably mark the TM program as something promoted by people with marginal ethics. They have been unable to ever come clean about the true nature of the program and why they participate in it, if they are even allowed to do so. While these issues may not matter to certain participants - particularly, those who are narrowly focused on the immediate benefits they've been told that they and others will receive - they may matter a great deal to others.

Transcendental meditation in public schools? The David Lynch Foundation and others are seeking access to public schools to help fulfill what's fundamentally a religious agenda, from the viewpoint of the doctrine professed by leaders of the movement they've allied their foundation with. Advocacy of a religious agenda is not permitted in public schools.

Influential people who are being recruited to help promote Transcendental Meditation should first consider that advocacy of TM will make them complicit in a system that makes a mockery of any ethical notion of informed consent, whether or not they themselves care about the religious innards of the TM program. Others will care, whether it's about the inner religious doctrine that conflicts with their own, the questionable ethics, or the lunacy of selling a grandiose, if not delusional, religious pipe dream as if it were supportable by modern science and medicine.

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