Sites for 'Maharishi Effect' (Welcome to Parma) Spread Across U.S.

The New York Times/February 22, 2008

Parma, Ohio - Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the "giggling guru" who founded the Transcendental Meditation movement, proclaimed throughout his 50-year career that he knew the secret to worldwide peace. And now, this Cleveland suburb is poised to play a role.

The Maharishi promised that if just 1 percent of the world practiced TM, as it is known, then "the Maharishi effect" would take over and there would be increased coherence in the collective unconsciousness, and peace would prevail.

But for decades he struggled to reach enough people, even though he lowered the necessary figure to the square root of 1 percent. So, in 2000 he created the Global Country of World Peace, a "country without borders," to build at least one so-called peace palace in or near the 3,000 largest cities in the world as places to train people in TM.

One of the palaces could be completed later this year in Parma, a town of 83,000 people, where officials were more than a little surprised when TM leaders outlined the proposal.

"The nature of it was a little unusual," said Brian Higgins, the city's director of public service. "What do you mean a 'Maharishi Peace Palace?' We're Parma, Ohio. We eat pirogis and drink draft beer. We don't get operations like this all the time."

Getting towns like Parma to welcome the palaces - $3 million to $5 million buildings with dormitories, classrooms and shops - has become even more important to the TM organization in the wake of the Maharishi's death on Feb. 5. The peace-palace project will continue, movement leaders say, despite the multimillion-dollar costs and the limited success so far.

"There will be no change," Robert Roth, a spokesman for the organization based in the Netherlands, said from Allahabad, India, where he attended a funeral for the Maharishi on Feb. 11. "It has always been a top priority of Maharishi, and all the leaders of TM recognize that."

Some critics, however, have called the palaces nothing more than a way for the Maharishi's followers to raise money to buy more land for the group's considerable coffers.

At least three palaces - in Austin, Tex.; Houston; and Lexington, Ky. - have already been built by private individuals.

At least five others have been built, or are being built, thanks to donations to various offshoots of the TM organization in Bethesda, Md., and in towns in Iowa.

Nine more are being built by Global Country itself: three in Cleveland's suburbs; two in Sullivan County, N.Y.; and one each in Charlottesville, Va.; Colorado Springs; Smith Center, Kan.; and St. Paul. Zoning and other issues have prevented the organization from building right away in at least 18 other cities where it has already bought land, organization officials said.

After originally hoping to build 2,400 palaces in the United States alone, the organization now says it hopes to build 100 to 200 here.

Though the movement is admired for its finances, many independent critics question its belief that large groups of people meditating or practicing yogic flying - where people meditate and hop while sitting cross-legged in the lotus position - can spread peace.

The organization cites studies that it says found that large groups of yogic fliers helped temporarily lower crime in Washington, D.C., end the cold war and briefly reduce hostilities in the Middle East.

"To the best of my knowledge, it has never been studied truly independently," said Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a TM practitioner himself. "It's been hypothesized for many years, but never proven."

The peace palaces are intended to be gleaming white, two-story buildings, 10,000- to 12,000-square-feet, and to replace the typical rented space where TM is now taught at more than 200 locations in the United States.

Each is designed to be large enough to have dormitories, retail space to sell TM's health products and clothing, and, most importantly, space for TM classes that currently cost $2,500. (Instruction in yogic flying costs an additional $2,000.)

They are being built to follow the Vedic architectural guidelines, which, among other requirements, mean each building faces east to greet the energizing morning sun.

The result is something like an Indian temple crossed with a Southern plantation mansion, a look the organization hopes will become a visual brand, much like the golden arches signify McDonald's the world over.

"The upside to it is in the recognition. In every town where there's a peace palace, people will realize this is what it looks like," said Richard Quinn, director of project finance for the Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation, which oversees palace development in the United States.

The nine palaces being built by Global Country are being financed by $40 million worth of tax-free bonds backed by the Colorado Health Facilities Authority - thanks to the asserted individual health benefits of TM - and secured by some of the more than $250 million in land TM owns in the United States.

Despite its spiritual leanings, and promises of peace, Global Country does not make that part of its pitch to towns when it seeks permission to build a palace, which would be tax-exempt. Instead, it focuses on the retail and health benefits it would bring.

"My feeling is they're trying to downplay" the world peace goal, said Mayor Gregory S. Costabile of Mayfield Heights, Ohio, where a palace may be built this year.

Even when towns do learn about the movement's larger aspirations, it usually comes down to whether a development fits a site and complies with zoning.

And despite their skepticism, city and town officials concede, it is hard not to want what TM offers.

"They're interested in peace and harmony and good vibes, and we're interested in that," said Robert M. Parry, director of planning for Westlake, Ohio, where a third palace is planned for the Cleveland area. "Who isn't?"

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