Pandits treated as employees, some have issues with pay

‘We get less money than we need’

The Gazette, Iowa/March 16, 2014

By Erin Jordan

Fairfield -- A compound of religious men near Fairfield is similar to a military base with men living in barracks, eating in a mess hall and playing sports when they aren’t working.

But instead of waging war in a foreign land, these pandits, pronounced “pundits,” are paid to meditate for peace.

The Transcendental Meditation (TM) community of Fairfield, home to the Maharishi University of Management (MUM), started bringing pandits from India to southeast Iowa in 2007 to reach a meditation quota the group believes will generate maximum peace and cohesion in the United States.

“If we were able to garner enough people from within our own group, we wouldn’t need this program,” said Bill Goldstein, general counsel for MUM and for the Global Country for World Peace, which runs the pandit program.

The program, which has waned from about 1,000 men to just over 300, is facing tough questions after more than 60 pandits mobbed the Jefferson County Sheriff and his truck Tuesday morning.

Sheriff Greggory Morton wasn’t hurt, but the men threw rocks at him, broke his truck window and tried to rock the vehicle with Morton inside.

Program administrators said the outburst was sparked by their attempts to remove a popular pandit leader for undisclosed disciplinary reasons.

Fairfield residents, faculty and students are wondering why these peaceful men turned to violence.

“For the pandits, what means exist for them to express their satisfaction outside of direct administration?” Cullen Thomas, an MUM film and writing teacher, asked at a meeting Thursday.

The pandits, brought to the United States on religious visas, may speak with local administrators, including Goldstein and John Revolinski, who also is a Fairfield City Council member. They also can get in touch with leaders of the Maharishi Ved Vigyan Vishwa Vidyapeetham, an Indian not-for-profit that trains pandits from an early age.

There are some complaints in the ranks, mostly about money.

Each pandit is paid a $200 monthly stipend, with $150 going directly to the pandit’s family in India. Living expenses are covered and pandits can earn bonuses for longevity or good behavior, Goldstein said.

Donations pay for the program.

Although pandits know the deal when they sign a two- or three-year contract, the pay hasn’t kept up with inflation in India, Revolinski said.

“The only slight problem is with money,” said one pandit who approached a KCRG-TV9 reporter last week. “We get less money than we need, and they take more work from us.”

The man, whose Hindi was translated by a Gazette reporter, said some pandits were frustrated Vidya Shankar Mishra was removed from the program Tuesday without an explanation. Mishra since has been returned to the program while administrators review what led to the riot.

But the pandit who spoke with KCRG-TV9 Tuesday said he didn’t want to speak poorly about the program.

“We have come here for peace. We want to spread peace throughout the country. We don’t want anyone to feel pain,” he said.

Program administrators say they are trying to increase pandit stipends.

David George, a MUM student who attended the Thursday meeting, asked Goldstein and Revolinski why the pandits aren’t allowed out in the community.

“The feeling a lot of student have is it’s like a prison, an internment camp, a concentration camp,” George said. “Explain a little bit more about why they have this limited freedom.”

When the program was started, TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi suggested the pandits be kept isolated from MUM students and other community members, Revolinski said.

“His advice was, ‘Don’t westernize them, don’t distract them,’” he said. A 10-foot chain link fence surrounding the facility is intended to protect the men from the outside world, leaders said.

The 80-acre compound has buildings for meditation, a mess hall, recreation center and row after row of manufactured housing. Administrators have attempted to recreate some aspects of India, including a griddle for chapati, a tortilla-like flatbread and a cricket pitch for nice weather.

“They should feel like they are in the ashrams in India,” Revolinski said.

Pandits are discouraged from leaving the compound. Administrators mention only one field trip, a visit to the Mississippi River.

Neighbors have spotted pandits wandering country roads and some men have approached cars or houses trying to communicate or hitch a ride. Pandits also beg Revolinski to let them visit the nearby university, Revolinski said.

“Would many of them like to go to Walmart more?” he asked. The answer is yes, but program administrators want to “preserve that integrity of their collective consciousness. Suddenly they would be Americanized and not want to be a pandit anymore.”

TM supporters believe they need the square root of 1 percent of the population, or about 2,000 people, to meditate together to achieve a large ripple effect of peace across the country, Goldstein said. Pandits meditate and recite Sanskrit sounds for several hours a day, adding to the meditation quota.

Greg Titus, a part-time MUM teacher, compared the pandit program to the U.S. Army, where people sign on for a designated tour of duty. “It’s a volunteer program for these pundits, just like the Army.”

Thomas, the film and writing teacher, said his main concern is that the American leaders of the program are honest with the pandits and the Fairfield community. “The main reason we responded with grave concern, is the lack of transparency of who’s in charge of it.”

KCRG-TV9 reporter Mark Carlson and Gazette reporter Kiran Sood contributed to this story.

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