Maharishi died in Holland on Tuesday, Feb. 5 2008. I spent ten years working with Maharishi from 1965-75 and again on and off for the following ten years. Maharishi personally changed our times, making the inner spiritual world relevant and meditation a household word.
I miss him even though I had little contact with him in the last five years. But, just knowing he was there in Holland, working 20 hours a day trying to make the world a better place was a comfort; as he used to say, “like a child who knows mother is at home.”
I am working on a novel at the moment with the provisional title of – you guessed it – Way of Being. The books main character is a 93 year old man dictating his memoirs to his daughter. The book is largely fiction, but the first 17 years of the main character’s life are autobiographical – my life.
In this remembrance from my 17th year, I talk of my first meeting with the greatest saint of the 20th century, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
From my novel, Way of Being, Chapter 1, Germination.
Early one morning, my father and I hired a taxi and set out from Delhi for Rishikesh. It should have been a 3 hour drive. But it wasn’t. India is timeless. Time has no meaning at all. We Westerners try without success to superimpose our sense of time on India, and India laughs. Oh sure it has changed with the modernization which really started at the turn of the 21st century. Middle class Indians emulate our timely western ways. But never in earnest. There, in India’s influence, temporality itself loses meaning, timelessness dominates. What that means practically is that you just can’t plan how long something is going to take. I have made that trip from Delhi to Rishikesh a dozen times and the old rule always held – it takes longer than you can possible imagine even if you know about this rule.
This time in 1965, the bridges were all out because of the monsoons, or so they said. We had to make huge detours to find functional bridges with acceptable roads. Our vehicle was an Indian build Ambassador Motor Car, which was an unmodified 1948 Morris Oxford – a typically unreliable British car. Hindustan Motors Ltd. purchased the design and built the car – with only minor improvements – for the next 65 years. It was the only car on the road at that time. It was a hot and bumpy trip but we finally arrived in Rishikesh that afternoon after 6 hours on the road to go 90 miles.
Rishikesh was in the 1960’s a small pilgrimage town spanning both sides of the Ganges River. On one side was a small community, typical of an Indian village – perhaps just a cut above economically a pure agricultural village. Rishikesh had ‘tourists’, tens of thousands of pilgrims for whom Rishikesh was the starting point as they wound their way ever higher to visit the holy shrines of the Himalayas. The village was the mercantile hub of Rishikesh. The other side of the Ganges was holy ground. There, half dozen ashrams rose with more or less prominence against the foot hills of the Himalayas and with its dense mountain jungles. Saints populated the ashram buildings and the forest caves, each saint with his own following.
I had assumed that once we got to Rishikesh, we would immediately find Maharishi and his ashram called Shakaracharya Nagar. When we did arrive in Rishikesh we stared asking for Maharishi, but no one seemed to know a thing. Blank looks and, oh by-the-way, would I be interested in buying this flower lei or that sting of beads. “They are very powerful, young Sahib.” I resisted the trinkets and persisted in trying to find Maharishi. Finally, a boy of 12 or so said he knew where Maharishi was and would take us to him.
First we needed to cross the Ganges. There was a ferry for the pilgrims. It was a relatively old wooden boat, like an overgrown row boat, with and entirely incongruous, clean and new Johnson 60 horse power motor. The boat was full, to say the least. It was so full – maybe 50 pilgrims – that even the slightest rocking of the boat could have made us take on water. As soon as the boat moved, the others aboard chanted something in unison. I always imagined it to be something like, ”Oh, Ganesha, we have come this far – don’t let us sink.” I shared the sentiment. But despite all that, there was a lot of boat rocking. This part of the Ganges – near its headwaters – is wonderfully clean a clear. It is also populated by the world’s most fortunate trout. It seems that there is an absolute prohibition on fishing for these holy trout. Far from wanting to eat the fish, pilgrims feel it is an act of godliness to feed them. One of the concessions on the mercantile side of the Ganges sold sugar crystals, each crystal about the size of a lentil with a pinch of crystals wrapped in a carefully folded small envelope made from old news paper. Every pilgrim – except my father and me – was carrying sugar. About half way to the other side many leaned over the gunnels and sprinkled the crystals into the water. Huge, fat trout emerged by the dozen and leapt – as best they could – to consume the treats. One of my fellow passengers –seeing that I had no sugar – gave me a few crystals and I happily threw them into the Ganges to watch the fish feast. The pilgrims looked pleased to be doing god’s will. I was please we didn’t sink. We were all pleased.
Once on the other side, our 12 year old guide lead us along the rocky banks of the Ganges for about mile and then up a hill to a guarded fence. There we pleaded our case, “We are from Berkeley and we would like to have and audience with Maharishi.” We were admitted but the 12 year old who had been our guide was turned away. We were escorted to a brand new single story house built in some indescribable style, looking a bit like a small 1950’s style California tract home with a flat roof, except this house had a covered porch all the way around with thin-ish columns vaguely reminiscent of Greek columns yet with a character uniquely theirs. Surrounding the flat roof was an ornate railing with – if memory serves – some modest amount of gilding. The roof obviously was intended as an outdoor activities space. Our escort from the fence went inside and a houseboy emerged with him. The house boy in broken English said that he was sorry but “Maharishi resting today.” I appealed by expanding my story I told the gate attendant. “My father is a professor of physics for the University of California at Berkeley and I am a student at that university. I practice TM and we have come to see Maharishi at the suggestion of Dr. Matts Roos.” The houseboy disappeared inside again and came out smiling, “Yes, Maharishi expecting you coming for several days now. Come.” And he gestured me in. My father waited outside and I was admitted to an open room with wooden floors, a few cushions thrown about. At the front of the room – if a more or less square room has a front – was a low couch with end tables covered in flowers. Above the couch was a portrait of Maharishi’s teacher, Guru Dev. I sat on one of the cushions on the floor waiting when a handsome, very tall and pleasingly plump man dressed in white silk robes entered. I had seen many pictures of Maharishi and I thought of him as a diminutive man, a correct thought. But I really didn’t know if maybe the pictures had been misleading and that this really was the Maharishi. So I carefully guarded my speech so as to suggest neither that this was Maharishi nor that it wasn’t.
“Good afternoon he said, we are glad you could come. What would you like to discuss? “ He had a deep voice and spoke with a gentle Indian accent with educated British overtones.
“Well,” I said, “I would like to check my meditation,” a term of art in the TM pedagogy meaning to take the opportunity for a trained teacher to assure that a new practitioner’s meditation is smooth, easy and satisfactory. “I would also like to discuss spreading meditation in the United States, especially in the student community. I think the time is right.”
“That is good,” said the white robed character. “I will check your meditation first.” So he asked me a few questions about my practice and gave me a bit of instruction on how properly to begin and end meditation. We the opened and closed our eyes a few times, longer each interval to demonstrate the ease with which thoughts arise in the mind. We then meditated together for a few minutes. My very nice meditation was interrupted when I heard him stand up with someone else entering the room.
I cracked my eyes, this time to catch my first glimpse of the most important Indian saint to come to the West, perhaps ever. The small
, beaming white robed man before me was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi soon to bring to the West the first clear, well articulated, and beautifully taught meditation practice which was tried and enjoyed by millions. More than that, Maharishi transformed meditation from an obscure and foreign practice to a household word, and opened the door for spiritual leaders everywhere to rediscover authentic meditative practices in their own religions and to reintroduce those authentic practices back into their respective everyday liturgies. There is no doubt that Maharishi, through vision and inspiration, did much to make the world a better and even a safer place.
“You have come from Berkeley?” Really this was much more of a statement than a question. “Where your father is?” Maharishi asked.
“Just outside,” I said.
“You should ask him to come in, but do you have some private questions?”
“Yes, I want to make sure I have the right mantra.” I repeated it and Maharishi confirmed that it was just fine. So I got up and asked my Dad to come in. Maharishi looked very please and became quite animated on seeing him.
“Mmm, very good, very good” he said, lingering on each syllable of ‘very good.’ Maharishi’s voice was high and melodic. With every inflection, you could feel yourself drawn ever closer. At the time, his full, long beard was pure black except for a small triangular, well pronounced goatee in the middle which was pure white. The effect was so striking that I was sure that it was some kind of ritual coloring, not simply the very graceful beginnings of a white beard. That thought was put to rest when in the next few years the rest of his beard – and later hair – turned to pure white. “Do you enjoy?” he asked my Dad.
“Why, yes,” my father answered.
“And what is new in your physics studies?” Maharishi asked.
“We are searching for new sub-atomic, high energy particles,” my father answered.
“Mmm. Smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest. That is the nature of the consciousness. You will search and search and then there will be consciousness at the finest level, infinite bliss consciousness. You have found it yet?” Then Maharishi broke into peals of laughter, uproarious, unconstrained, joyous laughter. You could feel you heart and spirit lifted by the sound and tenor of his amazing joy.
“Well, infinite bliss is your province, Maharishi. I am just an experimentalist looking for very small particles.” For some reason, this seemed to tickle Maharishi and he again broke into peals of unconstrained laughter.
“Very good,” Maharishi continued. “Your son is doing well. He will continue his studies in physics? He said looking furtively at my dad.
“Well, Maharishi, that is up to him. I think he is interested in psychology at the moment.” That was correct. I had been given a founding subscription to Psychology Today for a Bar Mitzvah gift and had been a reader ever since. It seemed like a good field – a practice to make peoples’ lives happier. And after all, other than adequate sustenance and shelter, happiness seemed to me to be the most important contribution to the good life. In one way or another, I still believe this to be absolutely true.
Maharishi shook his head and said, “The psychologists just stir up the mud at the bottom of the pond. They contribute to suffering, not joy. No, physics is much better.” Interestingly, my desire to study psychology just ended there. But I never did go into physics.
Then Maharishi asked that I leave the room so that he could spend some time with my father. Even from outside that room, standing in garden of Maharishi’s new house, I could hear the peals of laughter from both Maharishi and my father carrying into the rarefied air of that holy city, traveling out over the Ganges fifty feet below and out into the jungle above us – up to the Himalayas themselves. Without a doubt, that laughter still echoes in subtitle form to this day. Finally, the word came for me to reenter the room. My father still chuckling went back out to the garden and Maharishi said, “Come,” and gestured that I come right to where he was sitting. I knelt in front of him and bowed. He put his hand on top of my head. I had no idea what to expect, no forgone notion of what would happen. Yet, as I felt his hand touch me, I could feel Maharishi’s warmth. Then, a second or two later, I felt that warmth grow and flow downward to my heart and to the rest of my body. All thoughts departed and I was left basking in a kind of divine flow, total joy, silence and completeness. I have since had physical contact with many spiritual masters, some of whom “specialize” in this kind of hands on energy transfer and others who transfer energy through eye gazing or remotely just through thought. I have visited on auspicious days holy spots throughout the world and witnessed ceremonies intended to bring about such divine flow. I again have felt that sense of connectedness that Maharishi so generously imparted, but never again like that first time, never in magnitude nor in authenticity and certainly never again with such innocence. That was it. Maharishi was the real deal.