Payoff is limited as sect issues notes

Boston Globe/May 5, 2002
By David Pitt

Vedic City, Iowa -- If Walt Disney World can make Disney Dollars and Club Med can print its own currency, then this Iowa town founded by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation figured it, too, could make its own money.

The Raam Mudra, as the colorful notes are called, began circulating last month in this city incorporated last year by 125 followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles' guru and founder of the the meditation movement.

The currency has achieved a little consciousness-raising about Vedic City. But it has not created the wider monetary harmony some had hoped for.

The idea in creating the money was to promote the city - a collection of onion-dome buildings set amid farmland about 100 miles from Des Moines - and its plans for a theme park devoted to world peace and the magic tricks of the late Doug Henning, an illusionist and Transcendental Meditation practitioner.

The currency originally was intended to be used only in Vedic City, but thousands of meditators live in Fairfield, a town of 8,700 people two miles away, and began to circulate the Raam. Bob Wynne, Vedic City's mayor, asked businesses throughout Jefferson County to consider using the new money.

But only Maharishi University of Management, which operates in Fairfield with more than 700 students, and a few businesses run by meditators accept the bills.

County supervisors passed a resolution requiring homeowners to pay their property taxes in dollars, just in case anyone got the idea of using Raam.

''We decided that we're not a bank - that the function of exchanging money should be at a bank,'' said county Supervisor Steve Burgmeier.

The First National Bank in Fairfield initially agreed to exchange Raam for dollars but pulled out after a few weeks. Steve Cracker, the bank's president, said the First National did not want to get stuck holding worthless Raam.

Vedic City can legally make its own money, as long as it does not replicate US currency, and people are free to use it. But Secret Service agent Chuck Hull warned: ''Anybody that uses it, does it at their own risk.''

The Raam Mudra is named for the ancient Indian prince whose image appears on the notes. The bills also feature Sanskrit messages of peace and prosperity, a cow and a wish-fulfilling tree.

One Raam is worth $10. The one-Raam note is green, the five-Raam note blue and the 10-Raam bill, worth $100, orange-yellow. The notes are printed in the Netherlands by the company that makes the euro.

Mark Welch, who runs the Radio Shack in Fairfield, accepts Raam. So does meditator Mel Sauerbeck, owner of a Fairfield photo studio. Stores connected to the meditation movement exchange the bills among themselves in the course of business.

The Vedic City Hall serves as an exchange service for those who want to change dollars to Raam.

Rogers Badgett, Vedic City mayor pro tem, said the bills could prove to be collector's items.

''We're excited about the excitement it's creating,'' he said. ''We've had calls from all across the country from people who want to buy it or see it.''

The Maharishi first brought his followers to Iowa in 1974 and caused a stir among the farmers and business owners. The meditators bought the trim red brick campus of bankrupt Parsons College in Fairfield. Within months, hundreds of people were assembling on campus for twice-daily meditation sessions.

Last year, university officials began tearing down original campus buildings - some on the National Register of Historic Places - to make room for new buildings facing east, to improve health and mental well-being.

But the neighbors and the meditators have learned to coexist.

''There are some things we agree to disagree on,'' Burgmeier said.

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