Monday, November 23, 2009

Let's Rewrite a New York Times Headline: Introduction to the Global Plan for Vedic Theocracy

Today I thought I'd juxtapose two items that recently came to my attention; two items that serve to illustrate the great gulf that can sometimes open up between the undeserved, glowing, fawning, uncritical (add more adjectives here) representation of Transcendental Meditation and the organization that sells it in the press, and the ongoing reality of what that organization is actually in the business of teaching, and what its goals are.

First, there's the horribly mistitled New York Times article that showed up on the Times' website this past Friday. In a skeptical world, with editors and reporters who actually worked to dig up the facts and put the claims made for such products into context, there would be something more in this article than a regurgitation of the same old things we've seen in TM movement press releases for the past few decades, and quotes from both TM salesmen and specially selected consumers of their product.

The title, "Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?" is one of those leading questions that snake-oil salesmen love, since they can then respond with the answer they've already prepared. In fact, that's the strategy of the TM sales pitch for decades, as founding TM salesman Maharishi Mahesh Yogi once stated during a TM teacher training course: "Every question is a perfect opportunity for the answer we have already prepared." The New York Times has set the stage, creating a vacuum into which the following stage-managed presentation perfectly fits. A better title might have been, "Vedic theocrats claim introductory technique of their faith curbs heart attacks." It would have from the beginning clarified who's making the claim, and the nature of the organization that's making the claim. Unfortunately my expectations of New York Times reporters aren't likely to be fulfilled in my lifetime; this is a sad benchmark of how poor the reporting is in one of the nation's leading newspapers today.

But wait, there's more! Featured at the top of this slightly rewritten press release masquerading as a New York Times story is an account of a 70 year old woman with high blood pressure who meditates. Clearly, meditating isn't the only thing she's been doing about her high blood pressure. See, it says so right there in the article:

Could the mental relaxation have real physiological benefits? For Mrs. Banks, the study suggests, it may have. She has gotten her blood pressure under control, though she still takes medication for it...

I think the cause of her blood pressure being under control is rather obvious, and it isn't the practice of TM. But that didn't stop the TM salesmen from putting one over on this reporter, claiming that instead of the scientifically proven benefits of those nasty nasty "pills" from "allopathic" doctors (the words that some TM devotees use for scientifically-validated medications and medicine), the magic words in somebody's head were the real cause of their lowered blood pressure. The best they can come up with, as a clear statement of TM's efficacy, is "could have;" those of us familiar with the ineffectiveness of the whole "health" regimen sold by the Transcendental Meditation organization would say, "probably not." The rest is just a tornado of blowing smoke, leaving the reader with an illusion that TM is proven to be something of value when the evidence, after decades of trying, is just not there.

Mentioned nowhere in this story is a connection, obvious to knowledgeable observers, that takes the sheen off this glowing report alleging TM effectiveness: the lead researcher, and the primary person quoted in this article, works for the same organization that sells the TM program. The reader can certainly tease it out if so motivated, since the researcher, Robert Schneider, is a medical doctor who's identified as a director of a "research institute" based at Maharishi Institute of Management. But not everybody knows that "Maharishi" is the founder of the organization that sells the TM program, and that should have been made clear to readers. Also evident is another of the TM movement's habits, of giving grandiose institutional names to various elements of TM promotions and assigning "directors" to them. While its name may create the impression that the "Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention" is a large imposing white-columned building full of top-notch scientists working on the latest cutting-edge discoveries in their fields, the fact is that this "Institute" is probably just Schneider and a few associates, and the only means of "prevention" they're researching, or even the least bit interested in, are those things that are part of the faith-based, allegedly "Vedic" stable of "Maharishi" branded products and services.

Meanwhile, as the TM organization, with yet another uncritical promotional piece successfully placed with a prominent newspaper, makes another mark on its proverbial bedpost, there's the reality of what the less-obvious structure of this organization is up to. But here, the story is nowhere near as simple to tell. It's full of websites and e-mails full of language that makes the eyes of most readers glaze over; a lot of it is completely incomprehensible. Perhaps, then, a little explanation of what I think is happening here, and what the organization can be likened to, is in order, which can be summarized in a few sentences:

The Transcendental Meditation organization is a millenarian movement. That is, the main core belief of the organization centers on its particular concept of a future transformation of society and the planet.

While many people automatically assume that such movements center around Christian concepts of the "end-times" or similar ideas, movements based on other theologies, and other scriptural works, also exist. I would suggest that the underlying notion of massive social change put forward by the TM movement to various degrees in past decades finds a resonance, and a willing audience, in American culture because the idea of some future mass transformation is so common in religious culture here, and because of that, the idea is not automatically seen as strange or out-of-bounds.

The Transcendental Meditation organization is a Vedic revivalist religious movement. Similar to many other millenarian movements, it seeks to remake the world in its own image, based upon its contemporary interpretation of ancient scriptures. There is, of course, no previous thing to be "revived" since that is merely a myth of a glorious past; as with other such movements, the notion that all the movement is actually doing is putting things back to how they once were can be a motivator for some to work toward the movement's goals.

The organization works toward transforming all aspects of society so that society reflects its values, language, symbols and rituals. The TM movement thus has always had various subgroups seeking to gain entry into various fields; the "Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention" I pointed out above is one such subgroup focusing on medicine. It has, through other small front groups, focused on other areas such as law, athletics, education, psychology and neuroscience, and of course it once sought direct involvement in government through its establishment of Natural Law Parties in a number of Western countries.

Perhaps the most audacious, or ridiculous, example of how the TM movement today is clearly a millenarian Vedic revivalist movement is its proposal that all existing cities be torn down and reconstructed to its proprietary designs based upon its version of Vedic architectural standards. Yes, it's true, they want to tranform the world so much that, given the opportunity, they'd probably bulldoze your house.

The Transcendental Meditation program is the point of first contact between this millenarian religious movement and the outside world, serving to recruit individuals to perpetuate the movement. Of course, if you were to walk up to someone and invite them to join a movement based on scriptures from some other part of the world, in a dead language that is certainly not their own, and that you wanted them to help take over and reconstruct everything, there would be very few takers. Instead, Transcendental Meditation is the means by which recruits are eventually introduced to all those things, and also, how the organization attempts to gain legitimacy in the surrounding culture. It is a product with a certain amount of value and utility in Western culture - that is, if the claims made for its benefits could be shown to be based upon something a bit more substantial than "the relaxation response" and the placebo effect.

The process by which an initiate learns TM includes some references to those religious and millenarian sorts of things, but they're couched in different terms. The Vedas are mentioned in passing as some vague source of where the knowledge of meditation came from, and the tradition in which TM's founder learned about meditation. The idea of a greater movement is introduced through references to "world peace" that, according to the movement, would result if only enough people meditated. Who could be against a movement that's working toward world peace? But that's merely a vehicle to eventually introduce the more esoteric parts of the TM belief system that certainly aren't going to be mentioned to a reporter writing about the alleged personal benefits of the movement's flagship product.

Because of this clear separation between inner and outer doctrine, any one person who starts the TM program may never come face-to-face with the weirdness and religiosity of the organization's belief system. Depending on how and where any one individual is initiated, and the degree to which they become involved in any of the other programs offered - advanced lectures, residence courses, and the like - such details may simply slip by in the torrent of information included in the process of learning TM. While many who learn TM may never have any further involvement with the organization, a few people will devote a significant portion of their lives to it, and it is those people on whom the movement will rely to perpetuate itself.

The TM movement, like many other movements of its kind, has always piggybacked on other trends in popular culture to legitimize and promote itself, most famously through its association with the Beatles. Today, that piggybacking continues in other ways, as with the example above where TM is styled as some kind of "alternative" offering in the healthcare field. Other contemporary attempts by the organization include the repositioning of its university as a center for learning in the fields of sustainable living, organic agriculture, and renewable energy. Again, the clearly religious and devotional aspects that are easily findable by various means on the Internet, and have long been discussed by those previously involved, are kept in the background if they are generally visible at all.

With all of that in mind, let's take a closer look at the e-mail that John Knapp posted here earlier today. I've extracted one paragraph, and bolded and italicized some parts of it in the light of the points I've just discussed.

The spiritual counterpart for your country lies in India. Each country is connected to one of the twelve jyotir lingas in India, the seat of Shiva, the eternal silence at the basis of creation. Reviving the age-old knowledge about the spiritual connection of every country with the Jyotirlingas in India and the creation of 48 Brahmananda Saraswati Nagars is Maharishi¹s greatest gift for humanity. The following website gives you more information about Maharishi's global plan to transform every country into a Vedic country:

So there it is in their own words: "Reviving the age-old knowledge" as part of a "global plan to transform every country into a Vedic country." The TM organization is a millenarian religious cult, and that's just from taking their own words at face value. There's this whole other world in the organization that teaches TM, and it's probably not anything like most people who read one of these recent newspaper articles about TM might expect.

A young Maharishi Mahesh Yogi posing with an unidentified Shiva lingam. Photo from
Perhaps the weirdest part of this, to Western sensibilities, are the references to "jyotir lingas." I'd written last year in some detail about how the movement's fascination with such lingas was involved in a since-abandoned project to immediately build "Maharishi Towers of Invincibility" around the world, including one in the Washington DC area. Simply put, a lingam is a symbol for the worship of the Hindu deity Shiva; the Jyotir linga are 12 temples in India where Shiva is worshipped. While the TM organization attempts to ascribe a scientific motivation for these references to deities, there is no way that a lingam, and the references to the Jyotir linga, can be taken in anything other than a religious context. In recent years an image of a lingam has been broadcast between programs on the Maharishi Channel, the movement's worldwide television channel.

Taken together, these references to religious symbols and places of worship, and the announced intent of the TM organization to "transform every country into a Vedic country" clearly indicate that what is being proposed is some kind of theocracy, where every aspect of life is lived in accordance to a particular interpretation of Vedic scripture. While some may assume that the movement's previous methods of getting as many people as possible to meditate would cause some kind of spontaneous transformation of society into one conforming to Vedic standards, the means or the specifics are quite irrelevant.

What I want to know is, why is an organization that clearly and ultimately wants to bring the entire planet into compliance with its religious beliefs getting free and unquestioning promotional assistance from the New York Times and all sorts of other media outlets?

Here's what I want to see. I want to see some enterprising reporter out there go do some digging, spending a little time and energy getting fluent in the subject, and eventually writing about how all those people you thought were laid-back former hippies now want to bulldoze the planet and remake every aspect of it conform to their crazy ideas, based on scriptures and beliefs which are clearly religious in nature.

Anything would be better than yet another rehash in print of the same old claims that the movement's been trying to make stick for over three decades now.

1 comment:

Johnny Profane said...

David, I agree with you about the psychic power issue. I am no longer able to believe in the magical mystical stories that kept my world a cozy place for most of my life, whether the stories came from Christianity or Hinduism. Still I, like others here, have had experiences not easily explained away and if they are “explained away” am I not just trying to create another kind of cozy place? When one certainty replaces another aren't we just fooling ourselves in a slightly different way? The most honest thing I can say at the moment is,”I don't know.” I was raised as a good Christian boy. I became a good TMer, with all faith transferred from one to the other. I left that place more than 20 years ago. Now I find myself unable to just put on another suit of clothes and become a good “rational thinker”. Where I am now, I look at the natural world and see quite a beautiful manifestation of something well beyond my understanding. I don't know enough to say there is no God and there are no psychic powers, etc. But I refuse to be led and dominated by the ideas of others, such as Maharishi, who know no more than I do but claim otherwise. Don't know if I have explained myself well or not. Thank you.

Charlie Hopkins

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