Maharishi sees Peace Palaces; others see pipe dreams

Past failures raise questions about local development plans

Cleveland Plain Dealer/January 7, 2007
By Amanda Garrett

When the Maharishi bought a fading Avon Lake resort in 1993, his people promised not only to revive the former hot spot but also to reduce area crime by meditating.

Two months later, when Maharishi bought a shuttered Holiday Inn in the shadow of Thistledown race track, his people said they wanted to reopen the 10-story tower as a class hotel catering to nonsmoking, non drinking vegetarians. Neither plan ever materialized.

The Maharishi's company let both properties languish for years, racking up building code violations and back taxes. At the Avon Lake site, not only didn't the tenants prevent crimes, they often committed them. Ultimately, the properties were sold, but only after frustrated officials threatened to take both sites via eminent domain.

Now Maharishi - undaunted by his past failures, both to his own enterprise and to the community - is again asking Greater Clevelanders to have faith.

Maharishi wants to open 3,000 so-called Peace Palaces around the world, including three in our area. His organization already has paid millions for property in Mayfield Heights and Parma and is firming up deals on parcels in Strongsville and Brecksville.

What's the giggling guru up to?

Maharishi has shrewdly shaped and reshaped his message since the Beatles embraced him as their spiritual leader four decades ago.

Among other things, he opened an accredited university in Iowa, promised tantalizing superhuman powers, vowed to bring world peace and launched a political party, which in 2004 endorsed Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich's bid for the presidency. He also amassed a fortune estimated between $5 billion and $9 billion with his web of businesses and charities.

His latest strategy is to do for yogic flying what Starbucks has done for a cup of coffee. His chain of Peace Palaces will sell $2,500 classes to study Maharishi's trademarked Transcendental Meditation, a myriad of his health remedies, and Maharishi-driven architectural consultation aimed at lassoing all of Earth's powers.

Two local palaces -- in Mayfield Heights and Parma -- also include plans for private high schools, each teaching 160 teens everything from algebra to inner consciousness.

And in Brecksville, where the group is negotiating to buy a 48-acre parcel across from the VA hospital, Maharishi hopes to teach medical doctors ancient forms of alternative health care because he believes modern medicine has failed.

So is Maharishi selling religion? A cult? A pile of rubbish?

People have been trying to figure that out for a long time.

The 1960s: Beatles' spiritual guide

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was born in central India some time between 1911 and 1918. The precise date -- as with so many parts of Maharishi's life -- has never been clear. He graduated with a physics degree from an Indian university and then moved into the Himalayas where he studied with a guru.

What happened next is murky, but Maharishi emerged in the West during the late 1950s and later found rock-star fame in the mid-1960s as the spiritual guide of the Beatles.

The Fab Four later renounced Maharishi as a fraud, but it didn't matter. The surging counterculture had already embraced Maharishi and an earlier appearance on "The Tonight Show" had cemented his place in pop culture.

Maharishi's message was inspirational:

"Life is bliss."

"Man is born to enjoy."

"Within everyone is an unlimited reservoir of energy, intelligence, and happiness."

Transcendental Meditation -- or TM -- was the key, Maharishi said.

The TM technique was so simple anyone could do it, Maharishi said. But to learn, you had to take classes from a certified TM teacher. In the late 1960s, an introductory course cost less than $100. Thousands signed up.

And Maharishi's spiritual and financial empire was born.

The '70s and '80s: Is TM a religion?

TM was so popular, even parts of the U.S. government bought in, said the Rev. J. Gordon Melton, who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion in California.

During TM's peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Maharishi was awash in government grants to teach TM in the Army and many schools, Melton said.

Then someone asked the inevitable: Is TM a religion?

A U.S. federal court said it was in a tax case ruling. U.S. government funding suddenly dried up. "It was a major blow to TM," Melton said.

Maharishi knew he needed something else to make TM work in the United States. In the early 1980s, he tweaked his message.

The guru re-introduced TM as a hybrid cross between spirituality and science -- some would say pseudo-science. And for the first time, Maharishi promised TM could not only bring peace, but also unleash super powers.

Human brain-wave physiology was the computer hardware of the cosmic computer, he said. If programmed correctly -- through the advance study of TM -- humans could fly like birds, become invisible and harness the strength of elephants.

Skeptics clamored.

But John Hagelin -- a respected physicist who earned his doctorate at Harvard -- wasn't among them. Hagelin signed on to chair the physics program at a university Maharishi had established in a tiny Iowa farm town.

"Really significant shifts in paradigm, such as those associated with . . . this more universal view of consciousness, have often required a new generation of scientists," Hagelin told the Chicago Tribune in 1985.

Hoping to prove TM worked, Maharishi believers took a very public stance -- and chance. Legions of TM experts -- called yogic fliers -- moved to the nation's capital, claiming their twice-daily meditation would lower the city's soaring crime rate.

It obviously didn't work.

About the same time, a few disappointed TM students sued and won after studying yogic flying but never taking flight.

"It wasn't substantial money," religious scholar Melton said, "but all of the sudden, TM's credibility in the U.S. was called into account."

The 1990s: Foray into politics

TM next emerged in the United States in the early 1990s with a new strategy -- politics.

Maharishi's followers formed the Natural Law Party and 800 delegates held their first convention in April 1992 in Washington, D.C., selecting Hagelin, the Harvard-trained physicist, as the party's presidential candidate.

Hagelin was pummeled, but the Natural Law Party grew, running hundreds of candidates across the nation, including 53 in Ohio in 1996 alone.

Maharishi made new financial moves, too. In the early 1990s, he began buying up hotels and resorts across the United States, from Denver to Hartford, Conn.

Locally, he bought the Aqua Marine Resort -- a once-swanky hotel, restaurant and 18-hole golf course in Avon Lake -- for $1.5 million in August 1993. Two months later, he picked up the former Holiday Inn in North Randall for $1.4 million.

Both properties had seen better days. But Maharishi's representatives said they planned renovations at both sites. They envisioned first-class hotels that would cater to TM students.

Officials in Avon Lake and North Randall soon realized that was unlikely to happen.

Aqua Marine lost its liquor license and couldn't keep up with building code violations.

In North Randall, the story was much the same. No one even mowed the grass, recalled Chuck Horvath, the city's building commissioner. The city considered citing the Maharishi people with fire code violations, Horvath said, but the owners were scattered in eight different countries beyond legal reach.

In 1996, North Randall launched an effort to seize the hotel by eminent domain. Before the case reached court, the village settled with Maharishi's people, buying the building. The village hoped to tear it down and build a new village hall on the site. A downturn in the economy delayed those plans. The vacant hotel still sits, boarded up.

Officials in Avon Lake also considered seizing the Aqua Marine, but a developer ultimately moved in, bought the resort and razed it. Luxury condos are now rising in its place, Mayor Robert Berner said last month.

If a Maharishi-connected business wanted to do business in Avon Lake again, Berner said he would be leery. "They basically didn't do anything they said they were going to do," Berner said.

The 21st century: An emerging religion

In recent years, Maharishi -- now in his late 80s or early 90s -- has continued to remake his movement. In 2002, he launched the Global Country of World Peace, a borderless, imaginary land he said was designed for peace-loving people everywhere.

Two years later, the Natural Law Party closed its U.S. headquarters and Hagelin opened a branch of Maharishi's mythical country called the U.S. Peace Government.

Hagelin based the capital on 480 acres in Kansas near the geographic center of the United States -- a location selected according to Maharishi teachings to maximize effectiveness.

According to the group's Web site -- -- the TM group doesn't compete with the existing U.S. government. Instead, it works as a complement, promoting peace and TM philosophies nationwide.

Part of that promotion is launching Peace Palaces -- 2,400 in the United States. So far, at least four have opened: In Fairfield, Iowa; Lexington, Ky.; Bethesda, Md.; and Houston. And Maharishi has bought dozens of building sites.

But his harshest critics doubt many of the palaces will be built.

Rick Ross, who describes himself as a cult researcher, said that once the aging guru's name is seared into the minds of a whole new generation and he has brought in lots of money -- Maharishi is in the midst of a $1 billion fund drive to build the Peace Palaces -- Maharishi will likely change course.

"My guess is in Cleveland . . . maybe you'll see one out of the three Peace Palaces," said Ross, who believes this is just a money-making scheme.

Thomas Murach, longtime director of the Maharishi Enlightenment Center in Rocky River, insists Ross and other skeptics are mistaken.

"Maharishi always has a huge plan that's nearly incomprehensible," Murach said. When the Maharishi bought the old Holiday Inn and Aqua Marine Resort he was merely investing, said Murach, who managed the local sites.

Now Maharishi is using the money he made from the sale of those properties and many others to bankroll his new $10 trillion project, Murach said.

In addition to building Peace Palaces, Murach said Maharishi has leased "hundreds of millions of acres" of land in Brazil and plans to hire poor people to grow food there using his farming techniques.

All of this -- the Brazil plantings, the Peace Palaces -- are a culmination of everything Maharishi has worked for, said religious scholar Melton.

"Maharishi wants to establish TM as dominant cultural force around the world," Melton said, comparing it to what Evangelical Christians have done in the United States.

Evangelicals run bookstores that sell everything from jewelry to CDs; they have psychologists operating on a Christian platform; creationists serve on school boards; and the religious right emerged as a powerful lobbying force in Washington, D.C.

Maharishi wants to do the same thing with TM, Melton said. But about 80 percent of Americans are Christians. And there are 1,000 religious groups fighting for the remaining 20 percent, Melton said.

Maharishi believes TM will win them over. Melton and others doubt it.

Most people who study TM end up abandoning it. Some followers believe they learned something. And others, like the Beatles, leave disillusioned.

As John Lennon wrote after changing the name of a song he originally called "Maharishi":

Sexy Sadie what have you done/You made a fool of everyone.

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