Sunday, December 16, 2018

Dead Men Can't Complain About What's Done in Their Name

One of the questions I often ask, when looking over the present landscape of everything left behind in the wake of Maharishi’s arrival in the West, is: how did he successfully convince so many people - including me, at one point, many years ago - that what he was selling was worth paying real money for, spending time doing, endorsing, in some cases, throwing both rationality and one’s own life completely overboard to help spread all over the planet?

Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Brahmananda Saraswati aka Guru Dev,
and Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
It’s a reverse engineering sort of task, and as time goes on, and more and more celebrities (Tom Hanks, now? Really?) sign on with their slobbering endorsements of TM, hitching their reputations to Mahesh’s legacy - both the public and not-so-obvious parts of it - I think it gets to be a more vital question.

We’ve already seen plenty of people once trained as scientists, who have since uncritically adopted the religious fundamentalism of Vedic absolutism and who then tried in varying degrees to wrap that in scientific-sounding language, even getting their missives published here and there. Their participation enabled their “movement” to maintain the momentum of what are completely speculative, if not specious, claims of scientific legitimacy or validation.  Meanwhile, a few of the most high-profile, wealthy women in media here in the US have also contributed their own endorsements, what would have cost millions of dollars were it in the form of purchased advertising. One of them even appears front and center on the tm.org website at this very moment.

There’s a claim that appears right in the middle of the Transcendental Meditation introductory lecture - that somehow, this method of meditation that every TM teacher insists is somehow unique and special, is the product of some ancient oral tradition. But is that actually true? There is much to suggest that much of what’s offered in the instruction process of TM, if not a large portion of the movement’s offerings, are actually a relatively recent invention, which incorporate bits and pieces of the spiritual traditions of India.

That invention, I think, was carefully constructed and honed, over time, to provide an introductory path for potential meditators that would eventually select for and produce some number of people who would be committed, unquestioning, lifelong devotees. It straddled the line between being attractively novel, and being unattractively unfamiliar or too exotic. And one of the ways in which this was done, was to mimic the monotheistic culture of the West in the performance of the ‘puja,’ the ritual that every TM teacher must perform, and every prospective meditator must witness and to some degree participate in, through the provision of certain items used in the ritual, before instructing an individual in the practice of the TM technique.

What does a prospective meditator see, when entering the room for private instruction in TM? On a table will be something of an altar, with a candle and burning incense, and a colored photograph of Brahmananda Saraswati, the “Guru Dev” of TM culture, the guru whom Maharishi once served. While the traditions of India on which everything about TM centers - Vedic, or perhaps Hindu, spirituality, it’s your choice of specific labels - are polytheistic, in which almost anything can be a focus of worship, all of that is discarded for this ritual, over which the image of a dead guy is the primary focus. One particular individual is demonstrated as the focus of adoration and devotion, as one of the very first things that happens to a meditator, moments before they first start practicing the TM technique. All the polytheistic concepts, if mentioned, will be introduced to the meditator, at some much later point; all of this progressive revelation, to people who are unlikely to have any familiarity with these traditions, is of recent design.

Which brings me to the question: why perform this ‘puja’ ritual at all, before meditation instruction? One possible reason is that the coupling of mantra meditation with a personal belief system, for some people increases the perceived effectiveness of meditation. This relationship has been described by Herbert Benson, who was at one time a collaborator on scientific studies of TM, with Robert Keith Wallace, a meditator and devotee of Maharishi who later became the founding president of the movement’s university, MIU, now MUM. He parted ways with Wallace when they disagreed over the uniqueness of TM, Benson taking the view that “the key physical changes could be elicited regardless of any particular meditation technique.” Benson coined the term “relaxation response” and holds that it can be triggered by various methods, with meditation being just one of them.

Benson later wrote about what he called the “Faith Factor,” his observation that “a person’s religious convictions or life philosophy enhanced the average effects of the Relaxation Response.” Which, I think, is a “factor” that very obviously exists in the course of the TM instruction process - though it’s masked if not outright denied, when TM teachers insist that there is no philosophy, belief system or religion involved in the practice of TM.

Regardless of what TM teachers are trained to say, there is some belief inherent to the process, as there is when anyone buys a product that they think will help them somehow. When a TM teacher says that what they’re offering is the product of an “oral tradition” from “ancient meditation texts” that goes back “thousands of years,” it follows that anyone who accepts those claims as legitimate believes that they’re coming in contact with something that’s much bigger than themselves, not some trivial thing invented recently by an opportunistic businessman. All of those somewhat inflated, self-aggrandizing characterizations, in and of themselves, lie in the realm of philosophy and belief, of a “worldview” in which a particular method of meditation is a precious and unique facet of “ancient” “tradition,” with all the weight those words convey. Once the words “world peace” are associated with TM, as they are in the name of David Lynch’s organization, it’s clear it’s not just a worldview, but it can be an all-encompassing, global cause, a “World Plan,” as it was once called, to bring about transformative change to the rest of the planet, by way of an “effortless” mental technique. The barrier to entry to join this cause is quite low, all one needs to do is pay a fee and go through the process, what used to be called an “initiation,” to learn the technique.

Sitting in the middle of this initiation ritual is the presence of a dead man as the focus of something in the realm of deference and devotion if not outright worship. On that point Transcendental Meditation exhibits a weird similarity to other patriarchal religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity, likely familiar to the initiate. It also reflects the common cultural aspiration that some individual hero figure will arrive and, with the wave of his hand, correct all the world’s problems and set everything right for everyone.

While the ‘puja’ ritual is conducted in the Sanskrit language that the prospective meditator is very unlikely to understand, it’s the motions, the body language, the deference modeled in the ritual that count for everything. It’s a devotional ritual, where everything the meditator is about to experience, or benefit from, is personified by an individual who allegedly revived the esoteric wisdom of the technique they’re about to practice.

Never mind, of course, that if that dead man were alive today, he might object to what his onetime ashram secretary has gone on to do. Devotion to Brahmananda Saraswati, who they call “Guru Dev,” is expressed all throughout the TM subculture with the phrase, “Jai Guru Dev.” While that phrase can be translated as “Hail Great Teacher,” it’s generally understood to refer to that particular individual.

While longtime meditators express devotion to Maharishi, the focus on “Guru Dev” as an almost mythical, distant figure draws attention away from someone who, at the time, was a living individual; “Guru Dev” becomes a personification of the effort to transform the planet through the application of everything Maharishi devised and promulgated long after Saraswati’s death. This is now exemplified by the fact that the global nonprofit that is the umbrella for the “TM movement,” that was once called by the impersonal name “World Plan Executive Council,” is now the “Brahmananda Saraswati Foundation.”

Thus it all comes full circle. To create devotees to a worldwide organization, an expression of devotion to, if not worship of, a dead man, who becomes the personification of that organization, is demonstrated every time an individual is instructed in the practice of Transcendental Meditation. The fact that this devotional ritual exists, much less its actual content, is never disclosed with any detail to prospective meditators before instruction; it’s held as a mystery and sprung on people in private, when they’re less willing to back out, after they’ve already brought fruit, flowers, handkerchief and a substantial sum of money. All of this is held forth as some kind of “scientifically validated” system, but there is nothing that can be “scientifically validated” about a devotional ritual that serves to perpetuate yet another patriarchal, dogmatic, authoritarian organization.









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