Friday, June 06, 2008

Thirty Years Later: What was all that about? (Part 11 of a series)

(To read this series from the beginning, start here.)

There was a time in the early 1980’s when the then - “World Government” sought to increase its presence in the Washington, DC area, to seek government support for the organization’s programs, and as it was alleged, to have a positive effect on the federal government through the mere presence of tiny numbers of meditating people. Groups of meditators were encouraged to relocate to the area, while the organization purchased two buildings, one an aging downtown hotel, the other the Dickson Mansion in the Carter Barron neighborhood on 14th Street, N.W. The relocated meditators moved into a number of homes within a few blocks of the mansion.

This was during the same time that I was involved in one of the local center’s small projects, spending some time with the core group of meditators. Since the “National Capital of the Age of Enlightenment” was not yet open, afternoon group practice of the so-called “Yogic Flying” program was held in one of these homes. During one of my visits, while I was meditating in an upstairs room, the group bounced on foam rubber laid out in the first-floor rooms, shaking the whole house.

Some of the relatively wealthy individuals involved with the local TM center - then in the process of being renamed “Capital of the Age of Enlightenment” - were introduced to me that afternoon. Two of those people were a man from the family who owned a real estate development firm in the Washington area, and a woman from the family who owned one of the area’s well-known auto dealerships.

Proposed "Tower of Invincibility" rendering, from
Fast-forward some twenty-five years later, and the man who's now a full partner in his family’s real estate development firm, Jeffrey Abramson, is today still involved with the TM organization in the Washington, DC area. In October 2007 he announced his plans to construct a “Grand ‘Tower of Invincibility’” in the area with a press conference hosted by longtime TM movement publicist Bob Roth. While his proposal gained some coverage in the city’s media - where a Washington Post writer, copying Abramson’s press release, called it “a 12-story monument dedicated to peace and freedom” - there really isn’t much of an explanation why Abramson believes that this building is somehow connected to either “peace” or “invincibility.”

Actually, the vagueness of the plans is in a way the most notable thing about the announcement. While clearly Abramson is talking about building a physical building, the statement he issued to the press has that ethereal quality of most of the TM organization’s rhetoric. Like a lot of that rhetoric, he briefly mentions TM, physicist and TM poster boy John Hagelin, and throws around the words “science,” “coherence” and “research,” but after that there really isn’t much of an explanation of why Abramson needs to build this tower. After all, the exhibits to be contained in the tower, and the process of initiating people into the organization’s programs, can be located in conventional buildings, and Abramson himself has already helped finance one of these for the organization in the area, in nearby Rockville, Maryland.

This vagueness is even a bit weirder when Abramson, standing at the podium during his press conference, expresses some urgency that construction on this building get started right away. “I’m in a hurry. I think it needs to be built now, we don’t want to debate it, we don’t want to wait.”

So what is this tower really about? Why the sudden urgency to build it? And why, if it’s the TM programs that supposedly bring about “world peace” and national “invincibility,” would he need a tower, too? Is there some thing special about the tower that might in itself, in the minds of the promoters, be very important, perhaps as important as TM itself?

Certainly Abramson himself, after repeatedly saying the tower was merely a “monument” to his favorite form of meditation, hinted that the tower was so important that Congress should quickly approve the use of federal land to build it. “Congress has shown that it can act quickly if it wants to,” he said, “and I think in the name of national invincibility it certainly ought to.” The peculiar way he phrased this sentence certainly implies that “national invincibility” brought about by the tower’s mere existence should be enough to prompt Congress to immediately act.

As is often the case when examining the rhetoric the TM movement has spewed in recent years, the usual notions of cause and effect are clearly not helpful in making sense of such statements. Yes, we are talking about people who think “national invincibility” is something that can be brought about by bringing together a mass of people who bounce on foam rubber for an hour or so a day. The creation of a monumental building that has a similar magical effect on the nation in their minds is apparently not that much of a stretch, since as can be seen in later movement pronouncements, this proposed tower is no ordinary monument.

A few months after Abramson’s announcement, after what little attention he gathered from it had long faded, the “Global Government of World Peace,” that is, the TM organization, announced “groundbreaking” ceremonies for 48 of these “Maharishi Towers of Invincibility” around the world. In the usual manner in which the organization announces projects that may or may not ever even be started, this doesn’t necessarily mean that construction of 48, or even one, of these towers is imminent. The January 2008 announcement of these ceremonies appeared on a new website with a number of supporting documents on it. One of these documents was a ‘backgrounder’ which included comments made by the organization’s leader about these towers. While most of those comments are self-congratulatory and shed little light on the question of the actual need for these towers, one paragraph stands out.

[Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] said that the Rajas should have the 12 Jyotir Lings in that place too where the people are practising their Yogic Flying for national Invincibility in each country. These would be the representations of the 12 Jyotir Lings in India which express the full value of Shiva, pure Cosmic intelligence, the Constitution of the Universe, the point where the Grace of Guru Dev is most lively to bless all mankind.

In another more lengthy document placed online in February, the wording describing the towers is somewhat different. Here it says that the “Towers of Invincibility” are actual representation of lingas:

Maharishi explained that the Maharishi Towers of Invincibility will be the representations of the twelve Jyotir Lingas in India, which express the full value of Shiva, pure Cosmic Intelligence, the Constitution of the Universe, the point where the Grace of Guru Dev is most lively to bless all mankind.

What, then, are the Jyotir Lingas, or alternately, Lingams? A lingam, more generally, is a symbolic representation of the Hindu god Shiva, used in worship. Physically, it’s usually a rounded stone set in a circular base. The 12 Jyotir Lingam are located throughout India, in traditional shrines of special reverence where Shiva is worshipped.

Thus the series: a linga is a symbol of Shiva, and the “Maharishi Tower of Invincibility” is a representation of a linga. It follows, of course, that these towers are somehow intended to be a symbol of the god, Shiva, and are somehow related to the practice of Shiva worship.

We might also reasonably conclude from all this that the construction of these twelve story tall lingas, presumably to aid in the worship of Shiva, are intended to bring about “national invincibility” through the creation of what can only be described as a religious shrine. But it’s historically true that all of the programs associated with this organization, as I first pointed out in part 3, have had an element of extreme decontextualization. Things that have always been clearly religious at their origin in India are stripped of original meaning and given new descriptive terminology. Shiva, formerly a deity, becomes mere “Cosmic Intelligence” or the “Unified Field” in a “theory” uniquely presented by a particular physicist involved with the organization. Bija mantras used in TM, once widely known to be associated with Shiva and other gods of the Hindu pantheon, become meaningless sounds, and meditators are told they need not concern themselves with the original meaning or context.

Historically, of course, the TM movement’s attempt to cast its programs as purely secular in nature has run aground, most spectacularly when the teaching of TM and other programs in public schools was interrupted by a federal court ruling finding that “the teaching of the SCI/TM course in New Jersey public high schools violates the establishment clause of the first amendment.”

Here the movement’s longtime habit of stripping obvious Hindu iconography and even Hindu theology of any original religious or cultural context has taken an extreme form, moving from the language of textbooks thirty years ago to the construction of multimillion-dollar buildings today. An outright appeal has been made for direct government support for construction of a building that at minimum will contain religious artifacts, and that is strongly suggested to itself be a religious artifact that will somehow, as is implied by its proponents, have influence on its surroundings. It’s as if the movement’s mere reluctance to point out the obvious religious nature of the project is expected to transform it into a completely secular monument suitable for government support.

Image of lingam on the Maharishi Channel, April, 2008
Meanwhile, on the movement’s satellite television channel, an image of a white, featureless lingam has recently regularly appeared, without explanation or even a description of what is in the image. Whatever the reason, the image is important enough to appear between other programs on the channel. Why it is there, while likely known to at least some of the organization’s devotees, is apparently not important enough for public explanation.

With the passing of the movement’s founder, it’s possible that the realization of what may have been his original inner goal - to spark a Hindu revival transported to the West, complete with ritual worship of Shiva - has become a priority. (The middle name of the founder, Mahesh, is a popular alternate name for Shiva.) But that revival, continuing the peculiar habits of the founder when he first arrived in the West, must be sheathed in his old habits of vagueness, confusion, denial and deception. It must not appear religious, by retelling the traditional religion with substitutions of language, confusing religion with science on a grand scale. It must deny its origins while its origins are obvious; unlike the 1960’s when the culture and religion of India were truly obscure to many if not most Westerners, anyone with Internet access can explore those origins in detail and draw the connections.

Perhaps all that accumulated denial explains the peculiar - some would say, pathological - culture of the TM movement today. This culture has developed to the point that a wealthy donor to the organization stands before the press of the nation’s capital and says he’s going to build a ten million dollar tower as a monument to meditation, while simultaneously, we may reasonably infer that he doesn’t dare clearly explain in public why that tower is so urgently important to him.

(Continue to Part 12)

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