Outer Peace

New York Times Magazine/October 10, 2006
By Lily Koppel


In the 1960's, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - called the giggling guru by the press - gained a measure of celebrity for promoting his mantra-repetition technique of Transcendental Meditation around the world and for serving a brief stint as spiritual adviser to the Beatles. His message was that with the proper techniques, each individual could find peace, as one of his disciples, George Harrison, sang, "within." Today, his organization claims to hold U.S. assets of $300 million and to have taught six million adherents (training now costs $2,500) in T.M. centers around the world. It also operates a university in Fairfield, Iowa.

Maharishi, who is believed to be 89, now confines himself to two rooms in his golden-hued log house in the small Dutch village of Vlodrop. Although he has emerged only a few times in the past year - for fresh air on a chauffeured drive - he contends that his most important work lies ahead of him. His first 50 years, he says, were merely a "warm-up" for his goal of creating world peace by, among other things, rebuilding national capitals according to his harmony-producing precepts. Inner peace, it turns out, is not enough.

When I visited Vlodrop this spring, Maharishi agreed to a rare interview. I was permitted in his house but was not allowed into his upstairs quarters. His followers told me that seclusion preserves his energy and that he talks in person to only a small circle of attendants. I spoke to Maharishi by videoconference from a downstairs room where his red velvet gilded throne sat empty.

Framed in a flat-screen monitor, he appeared more than ever a mystical creature, his thin face sketched with a white beard. He was dressed in his customary white silk dhoti, a fresh necklace of yellow petals around his neck. His aim, he explained in English, is to create coherence in a world undone by our stressed brains, artificial national borders, terrorism and irrational violence. "My coherence-creating groups are going to put out all this mischief-mongership in the world," he said in a high-pitched voice, holding President Bush up as the greatest mischief-monger of all. "The world is going to come out to be a neat and clean world. All these countries will fade away."

Maharishi regards his own 65-acre enclave as the capital of a Global Country of World Peace; it even has its own currency, the raam. He lives here with 50 of his adherents - including his "minister of science and technology," John Hagelin, a Harvard-educated physicist, but sees little of the bearded Westerners who come for long meditation retreats or research projects. The compound is in a parallel universe to Vlodrop, with its 2,000 locals. One of the few who has crossed over is the town florist, who practices T.M. and each day removes all the thorns from the yogi's daily order of bushels of organic roses.

Maharishi is not content to promote peace just inside his compound. Hagelin has run for president of the United States three times, and recently, Maharishi chose 40 countries in which to support corps of "yogic fliers." The human fliers supposedly use surges of energy to physically lift themselves off the ground. Like a number of aspiring religious thinkers these days, the Maharishi and Hagelin say they believe that the physics of quantum mechanics, with its leaping particles and abundant paradoxes, can be combined with ancient traditions into a new philosophy that stresses the world-changing potential of a "transcendental consciousness." Maharishi argues, for instance, that when the square root of 1 percent of the earth's population - that is, 8,000 people - meditate all at once, the result will be the diffusion of a higher state of consciousness into the atmosphere.

Another element of his vision is to rebuild the world according to Vedic principles. He has called for the demolition of "improperly oriented" buildings, believing them to be toxic, and includes among them the United Nations and the White House. There are proposals for New York and Paris to be cleared to make way for 3,000 marble peace palaces. (His organization operates such palaces in Bethesda, Md., Lexington, Ky., Houston and Fairfield.) Maharishi is also convinced that every country's capital is wrongly located. In India and America, his organization has bought land near what it calls each country's "brahmastan" - or the geographical and energy center. The future capital of the United States would be Smith Center, Kan., population 1,931.

Despite the support of celebrities from David Lynch to Donovan, Maharishi has been disappointed in his efforts to recreate the world. Hagelin's poor showing in the 2000 presidential race did not lift his spirits. Locked in legal battles, his organization has not gained permission to raze a Franciscan monastery on its property in Vlodrop. It was also unable to establish sovereignty on 100 acres of Rota, an island in the Pacific. But even so, he has managed to transform, if not the world, then at least his gated utopia into an eerily peaceful place. At nightfall, the lawn, mowed by robots, lights up with decorative deer.

Lily Koppel is on the staff of the magazine.

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