Learning and earning the Maharishi way

He chuckled for the Beatles. Now, he's laughing all the way to the bank. Peter Popham in New Delhi on the yogi's controversial new institute
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The Independent Online
LAST Sunday, two ministers in the Indian government helped to inaugurate their nation's newest Institute of Technology. Two details made the event notable: first, the institute is part of the worldwide educational empire of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who blessed the project via a satellite link from his headquarters in Holland; second, the building bearing the plaque unveiled by one of the ministers is alleged to have been built illegally, on land which is the subject of a dispute with the local authority.

The Maharishi's new institute is in Maharishi Nagar - Maharishi Town - on the edge of a new town called Noida, some 20kms from Delhi. To get there, you crawl your way out of the capital through smog, past shanty towns that huddle on the bank of the Yamuna, and into the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. The arable land stretching across the featureless plain is broken by randomly dotted, half-finished concrete housing, wooden shacks and straw huts for storing grain. Bullocks stagger past, hauling carts piled high with dried cowpats. You turn off the main road and bump down a dirt track, past naked children and peasants hacking at the soil, to the guarded gates of the Maharishi's 500-acre eductional kingdom.

The institute appears as an apparition upon the bedraggled plain. Put up in a hurry some 15 years ago, its heart is a vast architectural mandala of five-storey high, sulphur-yellow cement buildings, centred on a circular study block and radiating out through banks of encircling dormitories.

Tired lawns and empty flowerbeds separate the blocks, punctuated by trees and garish pink, waterless fountains. Here, the new Maharishi Institute of Technology will open its doors to students before the end of the year, alongside the Maharishi Institute of Management, a music university, a university for the study of the Vedas (the Indian wisdom at the root of the Maharishi's teaching) and a primary and secondary school. In all, there are believed to be some 7,000 students on the integrated campus.

Elsewhere in Noida are to be found a Maharishi factory, making traditional Ayurvedic medicine for export; a shop selling homespun, Gandhi-style cotton clothing, and a gem and diamond business.

Though due to open shortly, the Maharishi Institute of Technology - or MIT - can offer, as yet, no publicity literature. However, the Maharishi Institute of Management - MIM - was set up here in 1995, and its brochure gives an idea of the sort of education on offer in Maharishi Town.

Despite its Indian founder and setting, in most essentials this is an American school. It was established in collaboration with the Maharishi's American arm, the Maharishi University of Management (MUM), in Fairfield, Iowa.

As the president of that school, Dr Bevan Morris, explains in the preface to its brochure, MUM "is collaborating fully with MIM in India to ensure that the most advanced knowledge and methods of modern American management are available to Indian students."

It's an illuminating example of how bridging East and West has enabled the Maharishi to prosper: first by bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) to the West, then, 30 years later, bringing American management education back home to India. But the Maharishi's core teaching of meditation is not peripheral to the school: all teachers and students are expected to put in 20 minutes of TM morning and evening. But its philosophy goes deeper than that.

As Professor MM Mehta, director of MIM, explained: "TM is the basis of education here. It improves values, creativity and broad comprehension. Think of it like this: instead of being a torch powered by a battery, you are hooked up to the main power generating centre, to the universal consciousness. So fatigue hardly ever sets in. Look at the Maharishi."

That's easy to do, as the master's portrait is on the wall above Prof Mehta's head: he's a little balder than when he captivated the Beatles in 1967, the beard is a little fuller and more snowy, the eyes considerably more dreamy, but otherwise he appears little changed. "He's 83 or 84, but his laughter is childlike, and his face shows innocence, sweetness and power. People who take up the practice start getting this way, too."

The meditation is more than just a way to make a business career less stressful. The Maharishi is nothing if not ambitious. In 1988, according to his CV, he "formulated the Master Plan to Create Heaven on Earth for the reconstruction of the whole world, inner and outer", and in 1993 he "inaugurated Global Administration through Natural Law" - in case you missed it. Courses at MIM, as at his other colleges, centre on "Unified Field Charts" which purport to "map" each discipline from its source in the "Unified Field of Natural Law" to its application in society. In this way, Eastern philosophy and the knowledge of the West are happily and profitably fused.

However, allegations of unethical methods persist - that the 500 acreson which Maharishi Town stands were acquired by the Maharishi in defiance of the Noida civil authorities, who had earmarked the land for municipal development, and that the campus buildings were erected without planning permission. Professor Mehta was unable to completely refute the allegations. "I would seriously doubt whether someone of the stature of the Maharishi would do this," he said.

"The Maharishi is a rishi - a seer, a saint, respected the world over. He's created Maharishi Nagar so that this part of the country can benefit from these institutions. Ethics is the first foundation of the whole thing."