Saturday, May 14, 2011

Unhooking From Maharishi's Teachings: Laurie Interviews Sudarsha about the Puja (Ceremony)

I (Laurie) left TM 30 years ago, after 10 years in the TM movement, and I have been "deprogramming" myself ever since. I now believe that everything I was taught on the TM Teacher Training Course while I was "rounding" (meditating many times a day) bypassed my critical thinking, and went straight into my belief system. Therefore, even today I am still finding unexamined beliefs inside myself that hook me into Mahesh Prasad Varma's system. (According to Wikipedia, "Mahesh Prasad Varma" may be Maharishi's given name.)

One of those beliefs was that the puja had magical powers. Mr. Varma told us that the word "puja" translates as "traditional ceremony of gratitude," but most other translators say it means "worship". On my TM Teacher Training Course in La Antilla, Spain, in 1974, Mr. Varma taught us that the puja must be performed before the person is instructed in TM. Without it, he said, TM cannot be successfully learned or practiced. He gave quasi-scientific and quasi-mystical reasons why this was so; and I was left with fear and trembling for the sacred, God-given puja.

Therefore, it was helpful to my recovery to learn that after his disillusionment with Mr. Varma's movement, Sudarsha, (one of the co-editors of TM-Free), successfully instructed many people in TM without first chanting the puja. I thought it might be helpful to other readers recovery too, to read about this, so I decided to interview Sudarsha. Here goes:

Laurie: How did you first hear of TM?

Sudarsha: I remember it like it was yesterday! It was in May of 1968. I had just finished another miserable day teaching high school English, and I decided to go for a walk rather than immediately take the bus home. I wandered into a drugstore, and there on a book rack was this childishly cuddly guy draped in white on the cover of a book. For some reason, I was fascinated and I bought it.

That night, I started to read it. He had written, "To be is to live." Those words struck me like lightening. I sat up straight and confirmed to myself, "This is it! This is what I've been searching for!" Sadly, the book didn't actually teach me anything. It just theorized and theorized. The title? "The Science of Being and Art of Living" by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I felt hooked. Now I believe that I was more hooked by to have that final secret of how to do it than anything else. I wanted to learn to do this. Cleverly, Mahesh could rope us in by coming so close to telling us the secret, but just stopping short.

A week or so later, I found and bought an LP (a vinyl record - remember those?) of Mahesh giving a talk. His voice sounded so captivating. There was an address and phone number on the record sleeve. I phoned and made an appointment to learn TM.

L: What results did you get from TM?

S: Same results as everyone else: in the beginning TM felt good. I felt a sense of relief. As I think back on it now, I realize that "relief" is quite different from the "pure consciousness" or "source of thought" that Mahesh was promising, but I mistook the relief for what he was promising. Ultimately, I think it all comes back to "me": my understanding, my misunderstanding, my expectations, my desires, my greeds. But being a schoolteacher was stressful, and I was stressed. TM was a contrast to that, so it felt good.

L: What made you decide to become an initiator?

S: TM was easy to do and it felt good. It was only many years later that I began to believe that it operated on the basis of contrast and little more. Back then, though, I thought that this was good, worthwhile, valuable, a lot more satisfying than what I was currently doing. And, into the bargain, a lot more valuable to others. So I went to Estes Park, Colorado, USA, in 1970 and took the TM Teacher Training Course.

L: What was your understanding at that time of the reason for doing the puja?

S: That's complicated. It was what we were supposed to do; it was what Mahesh taught us; it somehow empowered us to "give" the mantra - he said it allowed us to pick up the mantra at the finest level. It was special, maybe even sacred.

But when I was finally given that piece of paper with the mantras written on it, and saw that they were selected not by some deep psycho-spiritual-physiological reasoning, but just by age and gender - well! There was a conflict! Something wasn't making sense, and it was very difficult to think about that, when I really wanted to teach TM because I thought it was really a good thing.

L: From today's vantage point, what do you think the puja is really about, or what is its purpose?

S: The puja was a nice touch. I suppose it was Mahesh's way of trying to flaunt his so-called tremendous devotion to Guru Dev. We know from what Paul Mason has written on his website about Guru Dev that some pundit wrote the puja for Guru Dev, and Guru Dev didn't like it. He said to tie it to a stone and throw it into the Ganges. Which the pundit did. Mahesh said, and I don't remember where, that he dove in and rescued it.

Some of the earliest initiators to be trained in India by Mahesh learned an ending which Mahesh later changed, probably in the early 1960's. Also, when I learned the puja, in 1968, there were only three parts to it: the Sanskrit words, the English translation and the movements we made with our hands, etc.

L: By 1974, when I learned it on my TM Teacher Training Course, there was also a fourth part, called "puja feeling." Mr. Varma said all four parts were essential for the puja to "work." So this whole business of "the purity of the teaching" and "doing the puja to preserve the purity of the teaching" is suspect.

S: I think now that what the puja actually does is simply what all ceremonies do: it draws attention away from everything else. Look how the Roman Catholic Church used the Mass to manipulate people all through the Middle Ages. In teaching TM, the puja is very useful because it is so strange - at least to Westerners - at least it was strange when TM hit the West in the 1960's. People being instructed get completely disoriented. They can't figure out what is going on. This is useful, because when the teacher says a mantra and asks the person to start repeating it, the person does so in a completely non-judgmental state. I believe this is one of the reasons why the first TM experience is so spectacular. It's a real contrast to how you were feeling an hour ago when you were walking to the TM Center.

L: How many people did you initiate using the puja?

S: Something near 800.

L: What experience did those students have with TM?

S: They had the prescribed experience, much like my own initial experience: it felt good, they experienced deep rest. I wonder now if what they experienced wasn't deep rest, but a contrast from their normal way of feeling, which they mistook for "deep rest," because that's what the TM teachers told them they would experience.

L: What led you to consider teaching TM without the puja?

S: That's a really tough question, Laurie, because I don't really remember all the details. I do remember being dissatisfied with what Mahesh had done with TM: adding the Science of Creative Intelligence, Six-Month Courses, Age of Enlightenment techniques, sidhi nonsense. It was obvious to me that the steps of initiation were the only thing that was useful, to lead an individual into a very quiet state so that thinking the mantra would be easy.

After I quit teaching at the TM Center, some friends showed an interest in TM. So I said, "OK, let's just sit quietly and I'll teach you how to do it," and very off-handedly did the steps of initiation starting with the "open the eyes; close the eyes" business from the checking notes. The results were the same. People were happy with the results. Another one of Mahesh's dogmatic superstitions bit the dust.

L: How many people did you instruct without the puja?

S: Maybe 25 or 30. I don't really remember. Those were very traumatic days. I was feeling very sad that I had wasted three months learning to teach TM when anyone could learn how to teach it in a weekend. All the hubbub of rounding for three months had just been brainwashing - or whatever the correct word for that is these days.

L: Were you nervous or guilty or scared about teaching TM without the puja? I know I would have been.

S: No. I hadn't bought into the superstitions of Maheshism. If nothing else, those two years when I was on TM's international staff intimately working side by side with Mahesh demonstrated to me, beyond any doubt, that Mahesh was making it up as he went along. There was no evidence at all that he was any kind of superhuman. Granted, he was very intelligent and quick-witted, and had a remarkably retentive memory. But so do lots of "normal" human beings. What Mahesh had that other people didn't have was the aura of specialness. That is to say, our attribution of mystical specialness to him . He let us believe that he had all sorts of knowledge and "blessings" from Guru Dev. Mahesh was also extraordinarily clever, and used his cleverness to manipulate others. He had a very amoral approach to what he did: if it benefitted his agenda, it was OK.

So, since I came to the conclusion that Mahesh was very human indeed - from direct contact with him - no, I had no nervousness, guilt or fear at all about dropping the puja. And as it turned out, dropping the puja had no effect on the learning or the practice of TM.

L: How did you choose the mantra for the non-puja initiates?

S: Same as I was taught. For some reason, back then it never occurred to me to experiment with mantras. How curious, because Mahesh himself had said that "any word would do," but back then, I only knew the mantras he taught me at Estes Park. I was still unable to think outside the box in this regard.

L: What results did the non-puja students have?

S: Same as all the people I taught the "orthodox" way.

L: Did they keep up with meditating? Did you "check" their meditations?

S: They all got checked, non-puja students and puja students alike. Both groups had the same outcomes: some continued , some said they thought it was silly, some said they didn't have time, some said it quit working....

L: Did you tell them what the mantras really meant?

S: Back then I didn't know what they meant. I found that out later.

L: Thanks so much, Sudarsha, for letting me interview you.

S: It was my pleasure, sort of. This is stuff people have a right to know. Mahesh was using his cleverness, his powers of persuasion, his amoral manipulation of others, without regard to their safety, well-being, or any other aspect of their lives. He simply used people for his own ends, something which is never taught or done by legitimate teachers.

I wonder if my answers are typical. I would find it really interesting - perhaps we could do a survey - to see how many other initiators discovered that the whole puja thing was just part of the phobia-induction that Mahesh used to make our minds like his.

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