He was the original guru pop star. Made famous by the Beatles in the 1960s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the godfather of the Transcendental Meditation movement, known as TM. He inspired such acolytes as author Deepak Chopra and filmmaker David Lynch, and remained TM's figurehead until his death in 2008 at the age of 94. The Maharishi was once dubbed "the giggling guru." But now it appears he may have been giggling all the way to the bank. David Wants to Fly, a new documentary shown last week at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, offers compelling evidence that the Maharishi's empire of enlightenment is more devoted to shaking down its followers and amassing wealth than transcending the material world.
The "David" of David Wants to Fly refers to the film's director, a cheeky 32-year-old German named David Sieveking, and to the dubious feat of "yogic flying" or levitation. It could also refer to David Lynch, who has emerged as TM's most prominent spokesman and is the prime target of Sieveking's obsessive investigation. Sieveking embarked on his documentary as an avid Lynch fan dying to meet the genius behind Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. But by the time he'd completed his film, five years later, it had turned into an exposé. Sieveking told Maclean's that Lynch threatened to sue him and tried to block the film's Berlin premiere. No wonder. It depicts TM as a secretive hierarchy with overtones of Scientology, and portrays Lynch as its Tom Cruise.
Sieveking, who makes himself a character in the documentary-a neurotic man on a mission-is like a cross between a young Werner Herzog and a skinny Michael Moore. He first travels to America to interview Lynch as a star-struck fan, then becomes an eager student of TM. As his odyssey takes him from Manhattan to the headwaters of the Ganges, he never loses faith in the power of meditation, but he becomes deeply skeptical about TM's well-heeled leadership.
He learns that its "rajas" pay $1 million for their exalted rank. At a groundbreaking ceremony for a TM university in Switzerland, we see Lynch introduce Raja Emanuel, TM's "King of Germany," who wears a gold crown and offers a provocative pledge: "I'm a good German who wants to make Germany invincible." Jeers erupt from the crowd and a voice yells, "That's what Adolf Hitler wanted!" Emanuel replies: "Unfortunately, he couldn't do it. He didn't have the right technique." Trying to quell the catcalls, Lynch leaps to the raja's defence, and hails him as "a great human being."
Sieveking interviews several TM defectors, including Colorado publisher Earl Kaplan, who donated over US$150 million toward the construction of a vast meditation centre in India, where 24-7 shifts of 10,000 yogic flyers would create world peace. Visiting the project site, Sieveking finds an abandoned, half-built ghost town. And he shows footage of "yogic flying," which looks more like cross-legged yogic hopping. We also meet the Maharishi's former personal assistant, who says, "He'd use people and discard them when they ran out of money." And although the guru preached celibacy, the ex-aide says one of his jobs was to bring women to the Maharishi's room for sex. Another ex-disciple, Judith Bourque, reminisces about her torrid love affair with the Maharishi, which ended when he found another young woman.
Rumours of the guru's sybaritic lifestyle have been rampant ever since the Beatles heard that he had hit on Mia Farrow in the late '60s. His behaviour provoked John Lennon to write a derisive song called Maharishi, which George Harrison persuaded him to retitle Sexy Sadie ("What have you done? You made a fool of everyone"). The film shows Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr rallying to support TM at Lynch's star-studded 2009 TM benefit. "John Lennon," says Sieveking, "would be rolling in his grave."
As for the analogy between TM and Scientology, the director acknowledges certain parallels, but considers TM less rigid-"you can't be a moderate Scientologist." Sieveking says he became paranoid after the German raja threatened to destroy his film career. Yet Lynch "is still a guru for me as a filmmaker," he maintains, just not as a spiritual figure. "I wanted to be his friend. It's tough for me, because now he sees me as an enemy." But Sieveking may have found a new guru. Apparently Michael Moore, that documentary raja, is anxious to see his film.