Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Demystifying the Puja, part 1: Establishing authority and dominance over the meditator

The Transcendental Meditation instruction ritual, the puja, is much more than just some “simple thank-you ceremony.” Its most important purpose is that it provides a certain unusual experience to the new meditator, of reverence and devotion, that they will remember. It’s intended to create an expectation for, and to reinforce the supposedly life-changing benefits of, the meditation itself. It is an expression of power, legitimacy and dominance of an inherently supremacist religious tradition over the new meditator, and also serves as a reminder of that dominance and authority to the TM teacher. 

The brass tray used in the Transcendental
Meditation puja. 
Photo by the author.

puja, in my opinion, serves two purposes that are not clearly disclosed to new meditators beforehand. The first purpose, in my view, is that it’s intended to establish a certain kind of imbalanced power dynamic between the TM hierarchy and the new meditator, who I will call the “initiate” as that, and calling the instruction process “initiation,” were the historical terms used by TM teachers during the height of TM’s popularity in the 1970’s. I believe that “initiation” is actually a more accurate term for the process of TM instruction, as aspects of the closed-door, supposedly private process in which a “secret” mantra is imparted to the meditator, are analogous to the kind of induction ritual common among fraternities or secret societies.

The puja is performed after the prospective meditator arrives to be instructed in this form of meditation, but just before they are given an allegedly personally selected mantra, that’s simplistically chosen by the teacher on simple criteria of gender and age.  It’s at this point in the 6 day long TM instruction process that a subtle bait-and-switch becomes evident. TM is sold as if it were any other skill that involved an instructor: the initiate simply pays to learn something they would otherwise not know. But there are other elements inherent to TM instruction, geared toward making the “initiate” - not simply a student - into a devotee of an allegedly centuries-old “tradition” that was exemplified by a deceased, divine “Guru Dev,” whose image is a central element of the puja setting. The ritual and the rhetoric surrounding it places the initiate as something other than a customer or trainee. The initiate’s position is that of submitting to some higher authority, which is cast as being the present representative of some ancient tradition.

The puja is one expression of the deliberately ambiguous nature of the interpersonal relationship between the TM teacher and initiate. Relational models theory, which proposes four innate, culturally universal models of human relationships, provides a tool through which the TM instruction process may be viewed. The two models of interest here are dominance (formally titled “Authority ranking”)  and reciprocity (titled “Equality matching”). The entire business of TM promotion and teaching hinges on an ambiguous melding of these models. The reciprocity of a consumer relationship between the TM organization and the meditator is the public face: spend some time with us, pay our fee and learn TM much as one would learn any other skill. The expression of dominance is hinted at in some of the introductory material, but it is expressed directly and personally through the performance of what is clearly a devotional ritual, to reinforce the absolute supremacy of the organization, its teachers and the doctrine inherent to what it offers.

Since very little is revealed about the puja to the initiate beforehand, there is usually an element of surprise when the initiate enters the room and encounters the puja table, where the fruit, flowers and handkerchief that they brought with them has been placed on a brass tray, surrounded by a number of unfamiliar items, a lit candle, burning incense, and the image of Guru Dev above it all. This is by design; by one account, Maharishi himself has allegedly said, the element of surprise is important for ensuring a smooth and deep initiation experience.  This tableau, with clear religious connotations for many people, is sprung without warning on the prospective meditator, at that moment of expectation when they are about to finally learn the technique, have paid their fee and are emotionally invested in going through with it, and are least likely to decline instruction based on the unfamiliarity of, or their discomfort with, what they’re now seeing. That element of surprise, of being placed off balance, can be viewed as similar to other initiation rituals in many diverse subcultures, where the mystery of not quite knowing what comes next often creates not just anxiety, but a sense of awe, wonder and reverence.

A puja in Indian spiritual culture is commonly understood there to be a devotional ritual and in that culture’s context, there is no secrecy surrounding such things; in fact, videos can be found online in which the puja is performed in public at the TM movement’s Hindu parochial schools that are now scattered throughout India. In contrast, in the West, meditators are told to keep the details of TM initiation, and their mantra, private, and what is to occur, beyond the conveyance of a mantra, is explained beforehand in vague terms if at all. The meaning and function of the puja is very likely to be unclear to the initiate who has had no prior exposure to Indian spiritual culture, and it’s performed in a language almost certainly not understandable by the initiate. But everything else expressed in it - every precise, practiced motion of the teacher, the requirement to bring fruit, flowers and handkerchief as part of the offerings, a sung hymn of praise, the invitation to bow at the end - all wordlessly convey reverence toward some higher, perhaps divinely sanctioned, authority. It also makes clear that TM instruction is intended to represent something larger than one’s own meditation practice.  

As is more explicitly revealed after TM initiation, including in the third night’s followup session, the implied intent of TM instruction, beyond that of meditation, is to initiate devotees who will incorporate the world-transforming mission of TM into their own lives, through both meditating and contributing wealth and labor to the organization, toward the cause euphemistically referred to in the DLF’s full name: creating “world peace.” (Celebrity endorsements and recommending TM to friends and family should be considered part of that ‘labor.’)

The fact that TM initiates are likely subtly influenced by the performance of the puja, along with exposure to all of the other content of the followup sessions over the subsequent three days after initiation, is to my knowledge never controlled for in the research methods that have been used to study TM’s alleged benefits. The personal changes and even physiological changes are always attributed to the meditation practice itself, and not to everything else that is part of the initiation process and follow up, much of which clearly constitutes coaching to produce an expectation that there will be positive effects from TM practice. The simple act of joining an organization which apparently speaks from the authority of an alleged ancient tradition, and that has a global mission to change the world in supposedly positive ways, may also have, in and of itself, positive effects on many people in the same way religious conversion is felt by many to have positive effects on the individual - often self-reported claims that also may not quite hold up to serious scientific scrutiny. Even the brief experience of awe and reverence during the puja ceremony may have profound effects for some people, as has been hinted at in recent exploratory research.

Every aspect of TM initiation should be considered as having been placed there deliberately by the founder of TM, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; nothing about it should be considered irrelevant details. All aspects of it have meaning and purpose from the perspective of the organization, and for that reason TM teachers were taught in very precise ways what should be said and done throughout the entire process, from the introductory lecture through the so-called meditation “checking” routine. It is reminiscent of what may have been originally practiced in Hindu sects in India for centuries if not millennia - primarily, I think, to condition young men to lifelong, full-time commitment to a spiritual tradition, likely as resident of an ashram. Through trial and error, those “Steps to Initiation” were found to be adaptable and effective in a Western context, in which a significant number of people who were originally seeking some relief from everyday “stress” could be made to practice TM, to unquestionably accept the organization’s doctrine, and to support the organization and its goals, often for many years if not for the rest of their lives.

But the puja’s role as an initiation ritual to provide a particular experience to the new TM meditator is only half of the story. From the perspective of the organization and its founder, the puja has an essential function from the perspective of its Hindu, or more specifically, the Vaishnavite (Shiva-focused) tradition. This belief holds that offerings made by or on behalf of devotees, to supreme, divine beings of that tradition, result in benefits to that devotee. In this context, the offerings made during the puja during TM initiation are believed to result in the eventual benefits of TM practice. Without those offerings those benefits are not assured, and this belief is consistent with the organization’s insistence that TM is a uniquely effective meditation practice.  This aspect of the puja is explored in detail, in the next part of this series.

Continue to Part 2: A religious transaction with the divine

Part 3: Misleading everyone for decades about this ritual’s true nature and purpose

Return to the Introduction

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