Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Demystifying the Puja, part 3: Misleading everyone for decades about this ritual’s true nature and purpose

The Transcendental Meditation instruction ritual, the puja, should be viewed in the context of a half-century long attempt to deliberately mislead the public, institutional and governmental authorities, and prospective meditators about the nature and purpose of the TM program. This misrepresentation is evident in the organization’s own descriptions of the nature of the puja, and the obvious conflict between its insistence that this ritual is somehow “secular” when its function in Indian spiritual culture, which is TM’s origin, is unambiguously a religious one.
The Transcendental Meditation puja table. The
framed image is a registered trademark/service
mark held by Maharishi Foundation Liechtenstein 
in the United States. Photo by the author.

Read this series from the beginning - Introduction.


Part 1 of this series: Establishing authority and dominance over the meditator

Part 2 of this series: A religious transaction with the divine

Throughout more than 50 years of the teaching of TM in the United States, the TM organization has never provided a coherent and reasonable explanation for the presence of this ritual in each and every instance of TM instruction. The organization, and the allied David Lynch Foundation (DLF), have refused to set aside the puja when teaching TM in public schools. If the ritual were, as they claim, simply some method of honoring some past tradition, teachers could perform it at home, without the presence of the meditator they’re instructing, and without the meditator providing tangible offerings of fruit, flowers and handkerchief. But that option has never been accepted by the DLF or the organization, for reasons that have not yet been divulged.

The history of that request of an offering of those three items can be traced back to Maharishi’s arrival in the United States, in 1959. Two accounts of how initiation, as they called it then, involved those offerings exist, this from the memoir of Charlie Lutes, who along with his wife are said to be the first individuals to start the TM program in the United States.

We were told to bring an offering of fruit, flowers and a handkerchief for the ceremony of initiation. I didn’t question any of this. If that was what he wanted, it was okay with me.

We arrived at the Olson’s house, each of us carrying a great big bouquet of flowers, a basket of fruit, and a nice new Irish linen handkerchief.

The other comes from the story of Maharishi’s stay in Helena and Roland Olson’s Pasadena, California home, then titled “Hermit in the House:”


Stepping lightly were those who lined the tree-shaded walk as early as seven-thirty in the morning, the aspirants who desired initiation. Busy traffic came down the street headed for Wilshire Boulevard, but it was not noticed by the men and women who carried fragrant bouquets of freshly-picked flowers and baskets of luscious fruits. Business men with cancelled appointments, doctors, laborers risking being late to work, housewives and white-collar men and women were among those who swarmed to '433' almost as though they had been called. All were asked not to eat breakfast, to bring offerings of fruit and flowers, a white handkerchief, and a monetary gift.

  • Hermit in the House, by Helena Olson (1967) page 129

There doesn’t appear to have been any mention of an initiation ceremony in the publications of the time, nothing calling it a puja or any other name. In “Hermit” there is this description of a puja which was organized as a going-away gift for Maharishi:

"Maharishi would like a Puja."

'Puja' didn't mean anything to me and so we went to Lois. Lois knew about Pujas and took over the arrangements. We learned a Puja was a ceremony held in thanksgiving for some happy occasion. It was both a religious ceremony and a festival.

In a Puja, fruit and flowers are offered, and Holy Names of God are recited. Small candles made from sweet butter and cotton are lit by each person to symbolize his own light and each individual offers prayers.

"Meditation is silent prayer," said Maharishi. "Audible prayers are also needed. Let us have prayers in all languages."

  • Hermit in the House, by Helena Olson (1967) page 190

Hermit in the House” was later revised and reissued with a new title to avoid any association with hermits, in 1979. The revisions removed any reference to terms no longer used by the organization, most obviously the words “initiation” and “initiate,” and also deleted anything that might run counter to current doctrine, particularly references to religion. This passage was modified to mean that, in India, but presumably, not in the course of TM initiation elsewhere, a puja “is both a religious ceremony and a festival.”

In India it is both a religious ceremony and a festival. In this Puja a traditional homage is made to Guru Dev and the bestowers of pure knowledge throughout the ages. Fruit and flowers are offered, small candles made from sweet butter and cotton are lit, and each individual offers prayers to God.

  • Maharishi at 433, by Helena Olson (1979) page 161

This is consistent with the obfuscation and word-substitution that Maharishi and the TM organization have indulged in since at least the late 1960’s, in a futile effort to cast Indian traditional religious practices as somehow secular and scientific. These qualifiers on the meaning of a puja, as if such a thing could instantly gain a different, irreligious meaning once transported outside of India, run counter to the essence of those traditions, of what those practices have meant for centuries, and what they still mean for millions today.

Fort Lauderdale News, February 15, 1968
Yes, those are dollar signs for eyes. February 15, 1968.

The Baltimore Sun, May 2, 1968
The Baltimore Sun
May 2, 1968

With the growing prominence of TM in the late 1960’s, the details of the initiation ritual, and the requirement that initiates bring offerings other than money, began to show up in the newspapers. By then Helena Olson, who had hosted Maharishi in her home some years before, was one of the first TM teachers trained by Maharishi to serve in his place, to ensure that more people would be instructed than Maharishi could teach by himself.  “There’s a certain amount of ritual involved,” Olson’s assistant is quoted in a Fort Lauderdale newspaper, when informing potential meditators of the need to bring offerings.

Mike Love published a promotional column in May 1968 in connection with the Beach Boys' disastrous tour with Maharishi - which was cancelled after only three days - describing the difficulty of finding a handkerchief in Paris on a Sunday, before bringing that along with fruit and flowers to his initiation by Maharishi the previous summer.

Spiritual Counterfeits Project
pamphlet, early-mid 1970's
Full PDF

By the mid-1970’s, increasing numbers of evangelical Christians were pointing out the essential Hindu-ness of the TM puja and mantras in newspaper articles, letters to the editor, pamphlets, and a number of books from Christian publishing houses. This apparent backlash may be attributed to efforts to obtain government funding for TM programs, and to introduce TM into environments in which Constitutional protections against government entanglement with religion would apply, such as the military, public schools and prisons. These efforts were concurrent with what might be called TM’s second wave of popularity, enabled by thousands of TM teachers trained in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

It may be said that the TM organization’s response to these challenges was to double-down and retrench itself, holding tightly to the insistence that TM instruction contained no religious elements whatsoever. Brief mentions of the puja (but not with that label), the offerings, and some of the details of instruction began to be disclosed in some, but not all, of the books written or co-authored by TM teachers. These excerpts are typical of the minimal, if not misleading, disclosure of the meaning and purpose of the puja, where it’s cynically downplayed if not dismissed as some “ceremony of gratitude.” The first such example that I’ve been able to find, is in the 1975 book co-authored by TM teacher and psychiatrist Harold Bloomfield, with some relevant elements in bold:

Personal instruction takes place in private with a trained teacher. Through individual instruction, the teacher insures that the student learns the practice correctly. Each person is asked to bring some fresh flowers, fresh fruits and a new white handkerchief to this session. These are used by the teacher in a traditional ceremony which provides a preparation for teaching the technique. The ceremony is not a religious observance, but is simply a guarantee that what the student is about to learn is exactly what has been handed down from teacher to teacher for centuries. This brief ceremony also allows the teacher to express his gratitude to the tradition from which the TM program comes. The student is not asked to participate but only to witness.

  • TM: Discovering Inner Energy and Overcoming Stress, by Harold H. Bloomfield, (1975) page 54

Here’s another example, by TM teacher, and later, author of American Veda, Philip Goldberg:

What's with the fruit and flowers?

You forgot a new white handkerchief. Two or three pieces of fruit (and by “pieces” we don’t mean orange sections or apple slices), at least six freshly cut flowers (no wax flowers, please), and the handkerchief, are used in the ceremony of gratitude. In keeping with tradition we ask the student to supply some of the ingredients. You get most of it back.

  • The TM Program, the Way to Fulfilment, by Philip Goldberg (1976) page 70

Another book from around the same time says very little, save for these two sentences:

There is no mystery connected with the instruction procedure. It is perfectly straightforward and scientific.

  • TM: An Alphabetical Guide to the Transcendental Meditation Program, by Nat Goldhaber (1976), page 116

But as has long been obvious, details of the actual method and the puja ceremony are supposed to be kept private, and new meditators are still told to keep those details private. The organization seeks to preserve some element of “mystery” by not even using the word “puja” to describe, to prospective meditators, what occurs before instruction. Unless one goes looking through other sources beforehand, the description of what occurs in the initiation room is insufficient to satisfy any modern concept of informed consent.

These practices by TM teachers continue today, unchanged, even while all current TM teachers have been “recertified.” The content of TM instruction has not significantly changed. Descriptions of the puja have become longer and a bit more detailed, but the basic points not supportable by the puja’s documented meaning in India continue: that it’s only a “ceremony of gratitude,” that it’s “not religious,” that the TM prospective meditator “does not participate,” that the offerings “symbolize growth and new beginnings,” nothing more.

For an authoritative example of what is currently, official TM organization doctrine regarding the puja, I’ll quote prominent TM teacher and executive director of the David Lynch Foundation, Bob Roth. One recent description, similar to another that’s in his recent book, appears in an appendix to psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal’s 2011 book, Transcendence. It’s notable in that the word “puja” is actually used in a question ostensibly posed to Roth, but in his answer he only calls it a 'ceremony' after his acknowledgement of the question (nor does the word 'puja' appear in any of Roth’s books on TM). 

Here I’ll contrast what Roth writes with what is evident from the explanation helpfully provided by Amlan Dey and his Maharishi school in India.

[Question:} What is the “puja” that is done at the beginning of TM instruction?

[Roth:] The puja—which is done just once—is a simple, few-minute ceremony of gratitude that the Transcendental Meditation teacher performs just before beginning instruction to thank his or her own teacher and other teachers who came before. 

Portions of the puja are about gratitude to those who came before. That isn’t its only purpose or meaning, which include, supposedly, placing the teacher in a particular state of consciousness, and making specific offerings to other people or entities who are not present.

[Roth:] This ceremony is not religious. It is cultural, a traditional way that meditation teachers prepare to teach. 

This is an attempt to create an artificial distinction between “religion” and “culture.” It is all of these things: a religious ceremony from a particular cultural tradition. Its content makes it inherently religious.

[Roth:] It has a valuable function in that it reminds the teacher that the TM technique is not new or original—and therefore that he or she should not add or subtract anything, but simply transmit the original, effective teaching.

This purpose of the puja in TM doctrine, with respect to the TM teacher, is not just that of a “reminder.” It is to “tune” the teacher’s “consciousness to the Absolute Being,” that is, to God, before giving the mantra to the meditator. This is confirmation of what, some have said, TM teachers were told during their training: that the process of teaching, through performance of the puja, puts them into an altered state of consciousness. From the description given in the explanation of the ritual taught in India:

The purpose of the invocation is to tune our active mind, through the memory of the great Masters to the goal of their wisdom, the Absolute and from there pick up the mantra and gives it to the new initiate and through that lead his consciousness to the Absolute.

This means that the Initiator takes his awareness or consciousness to the Absolute Being, brings his awareness to the relative, leads the awareness of the initiate from the relative to the Absolute and trains him to incorporate more and more of the Absolute in his relative life.

[Roth:] The TM student does not participate in the ceremony; he or she only watches, and only this one time. 

The truth of this sentence would depend on a rather unorthodox, rigid interpretation of what “participate” actually means. The “student” must bring certain items that are used as offerings to some not obviously present entity in what is undeniably a religious ritual; that is, strictly speaking, by providing items used in the ceremony, some level of “participation” in the ceremony. Holding a flower when asked by the teacher? That also is a small unexpected request, in a system where small requests may advance to larger demands. Being motioned to kneel at the end of the ceremony, before receiving one’s mantra? Sounds like participation to me!

[Roth:] Furthermore, traditions of honoring are nothing new to us in the West. In graduating from medical school, each medical student recites the Hippocratic oath, acknowledging the long tradition of healing and the great healers who came before. Likewise, a martial artist bows to his opponent before the engagement begins. 

This is just distracting, misleading chaff. Last I checked, no medical school ritual involves making offerings to prominent, long-deceased medical figures of the past. Bowing to one’s opponent involves a detail not evident in the puja: the bow is directed at an individual who is actually present!

[Roth:] Once I explain this perspective to new meditators, they understand and appreciate what the ceremony signifies: that TM is authentic and that it comes in a pure form from the ancient tradition of Vedic meditation.

This sentence hints at the phenomenon I discussed in part 1: that one of the actual functions of the puja is to serve as an expression of power, legitimacy and dominance. “Authentic,” “pure” and “ancient tradition” are all adjectives that are debatable with respect to Transcendental Meditation. TM is an amalgam of bits and pieces of Indian spiritual culture. Even the puja was cobbled together from bits of common Sanskrit verse and was likely devised by Maharishi himself, since he reportedly once said a few months before he died, “I formulated the puja to Guru Dev.”

One other obvious bit of evidence, that despite claims of some ancient purity there have been changes over time, is the method of mantra selection. Commonly available lists of mantras used in TM show an evolution from two mantras to as many as fifteen, between 1961 and the mid-1970’s. The selection has always been based on age and sometimes gender; while TM promotional literature has attempted to create mystery around some possibly more complicated method of mantra selection, no such system has ever been identified, disclosed by former TM teachers, or can be derived from any known tradition in India. It, like many other aspects of TM, was likely devised by Maharishi himself, and none of it is evidence of any “ancient tradition.” 

[Roth:] Utilized in the ceremony are fresh fruit, fresh-cut flowers, and a white cloth, all of which symbolize growth and new beginnings.

The symbiology of these items is quite a bit different in the Indian explanation of them, and is very specific in associating each of them with a “silent demand” for a particular benefit of TM practice.

[Roth:] The ceremony is in Sanskrit and involves saying the names of the great meditation teachers of the past. 

It also involves a great deal more, including the recitation of names associated with Hindu or Vedic divine figures, including Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. 

[Roth:] This is the way Transcendental Meditation was taught thousands of years ago, and that it is how it has been taught to the six million people who have learned the technique during the past fifty years.

There is no specific evidence that this method of teaching and practicing meditation, in its entirety as a system or program, is anything other than a creation of the founder of Transcendental Meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It borrows many elements from Indian spiritual culture of potentially ancient origin, but this particular amalgam, its particular set of mantras and the selection of them, and even the arrangement of the verses of the puja itself are a unique creation. The TM organization may persist in creating the illusion that every aspect of what it offers is that of an “ancient tradition,” but there is no concrete evidence, from other sources outside of the organization, that that is so.

When considering the insistence by Bob Roth, and other TM teachers, that the puja is nothing more than a “ceremony of gratitude” having no connection to religion or having any other purpose, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the hothouse environment in which TM teachers are grown, how they’ve acquired what they know about TM or the culture that it came from, and how they often avoid sources of information that conflict with what they were taught; they’re conditioned to regard information from those outside sources unassociated with Maharishi to be, by definition, false, corrupted or untrustworthy.

There’s a rather revealing passage in the Malnak v. Yogi district court opinion, in which Jerry Jarvis, who was then the president of the TM organization in the United States, denied all knowledge that the puja was anything other than a “ceremony of gratitude” and denied knowing anything about the meaning of the word or what a puja might be outside of TM initiation.

Defendant Jarvis states in an affidavit that it is his personal understanding that the puja is merely a ceremony of gratitude to the tradition of past teachers and that similar ceremonies are performed in a number of secular contexts in India. While the court of course accepts these statements as accurate reflections of defendant Jarvis' personal understanding, the court also must note that defendant Jarvis made no claim of knowledge in the matter of Indian customs. ... Defendant Jarvis, when asked if he knew what the Sanskrit word "puja" meant, replied, "[n]o, I don't know what the word `puja' means except to interpret it as a ceremony of gratitude." ... Directly on the heels of this reply, defendant Jarvis was asked if he were familiar with any puja "other than the one that is performed by the teacher at the time that a mantra is assigned." … Defendant Jarvis answered: "No." ... In his affidavit, defendant Jarvis also states that he believes that only "3 or 4 ex-teachers" of the more than 7,000 TM teachers in the United States believe that the puja has religious significance. 

Keeping in mind that Jarvis was under oath for this deposition, we can take these statements in  one of two ways: that he really had no prior knowledge of Indian spiritual culture before encountering TM and hasn’t sought out any knowledge of that culture outside of the Maharishi-approved sources since, or, having been initiated as a TM teacher, his reality simply does not allow him to entertain any other sources of that kind of information. In other words, sources outside the TM organization are filtered, and information of the type that contradicts things believed to be absolutely true inside the TM organization is filtered to the point of nonexistence.

This behavior reflects what I’ve been informally told of what TM teachers experienced during the six months or more of their training, often isolated in locations foreign to them far from their homes. In those environments, they were given very few details about the puja and its significance beyond the mantra of a “ceremony of gratitude,” and certainly no information about what a puja might mean outside of the TM cultural bubble. TM teachers were given basic answers for likely questions that they might receive about the initiation process from outsiders or prospective meditators, sticking closely to the “party line:” that the ceremony was entirely secular in nature, and that no aspect of TM, anywhere, including from the organization’s perspective, constituted religious belief.

It is also apparent, as I laid out in part 2, that TM teachers were given different explanations of the meaning of the puja itself from those that are known in India, and likely, have been known among members of Maharishi’s inner circle for decades. But the average TM teacher need not know those versions that exist in TM’s homeland, and from what can be reconstructed from former teachers’ memory and what documents exist, they were deliberately not told about those more explicit meanings. It was only necessary, from Maharishi’s and the organization’s view, that they know just enough to unhesitatingly recite the Sanskrit verses and go through the motions exactly as they were instructed; they might as well be robots running through programmed words and movements. From the perspective of the underlying epistemology of Maharishi’s sect, that is sufficient, both to impart TM to individuals and to supposedly bring about global change through large numbers of individuals practicing TM. They evidently believe that effectiveness, of both the technique itself and of the method of initiation, is not dependent upon belief, but upon a practice which ultimately carries religious meaning whether any teacher or meditator believes it or not, speaking, performing or thinking each detail exactly as they were instructed.

As is apparent from these descriptions of the puja provided by Bob Roth and others, two of the points of doctrine drilled into TM teachers, and many meditators, are right there in his description and are actually reinforced in the puja: “that he or she should not add or subtract anything, but simply transmit the original,” and “that TM is authentic and that it comes in a pure form from the ancient tradition of Vedic meditation.” This is usually known by the phrase “purity of the teaching.” TM teachers, and to some degree meditators, are discouraged from practicing other techniques, and consider all other such methods inferior if not illegitimate. The overwhelming attitude, despite minimal evidence to support such claims, is that Transcendental Meditation and everything with the “Maharishi” brand are a pure and authentic form of Vedic wisdom newly discovered or cleansed by Maharishi, and that everything else from any other source must be disregarded if not completely ignored. This attitude underlies many aspects of the behavior and attitude of TM teachers and promoters, including their unwillingness to begin to understand the nature of what they teach and, among other things, its inherent religiosity.

Thus, the puja and the way it has been described by TM teachers for the past 50 years or more is another example of the degree to which the TM organization, from its founding by Maharishi through to today, is based on a series of  fundamental misrepresentations of its purpose and methods, as the New Jersey court decided. People who grossly misrepresent themselves in the course of selling their product should never be trusted, and the organization’s unwillingness to adapt, up to and including attempting to defend its obvious misrepresentations in court, should disqualify TM and the TM organization from affiliation with any legitimate institution in which informed consent is valued.

Return to the Introduction

Part 1: Establishing authority and dominance over the meditator

Part 2: A religious transaction with the divine

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