Mystic who inspired the Beatles: the town that lost its guru

The death of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, champion of transcendental meditation, has robbed the world of one of its most appealing figures. But in one small town in Lancashire they are feeling his loss particularly keenly. Mark Hughes reports

The houses on Rowan Lane look much like those on every other street in the Lancashire new town of Skelmersdale. In Willow Walk, Hazel Lane and Maytree Walk it is a similar story: red-brick two-up, two-downs with modest family cars in the driveways. But in between them lies something very different – a community centre with a big golden dome.

For the residents of these houses all follow the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This housing estate, unlikely as it may seem in such an unremarkable part of the North-west, is Britain's only Maharishi community. At its heart is the gathering place.

About 100 followers, who subscribe to twice-daily transcendental meditation (TM) sessions as a way to make the world a better place, live in the four-street community, which was set up 1980. Hundreds more come here to meditate. Yesterday, as the rest of Skelmersdale and the wider world went about its business, residents in these streets – along with about 300 others in the town, 160,000 in the UK and 4 million worldwide – mourned the death of their leader.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru whose teachings on meditation are the way for his followers in Skelmersdale and millions like them around the world, died at home in the Dutch town of Vlodrop on Tuesday. He was 91.

His TM movement, which he introduced to the West in 1957, is credited for making meditation popular in Britain. Celebrity endorsements from the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys in the late Sixties served only to help his cause.

The story of the Maharishi, who was born in Jabalpur, India, remains shrouded in mystery. He always refused to talk about his early life or confirm his age or birth date. He championed various human development techniques, including TM, but was originally dismissed as a hippie mystic. Over the decades, however, millions have gone on to embrace his methods.

Despite scepticism, hundreds of scientific studies have analysed his methods. The US National Institute of Health invested $24m in studying the effects of TM.

An estimated 200,000 Britons practise TM. Few devotees, however, are as dedicated as those in Woodley Park, Skelmersdale. The community was founded in 1980 by a small band of followers who decided the effects of TM would be better felt if a whole group was doing it together, rather than one or two people meditating alone. Over the years, the group has flourished. Apart from their houses, Woodley Park's TM followers have a community centre, a health centre – the Maharishi Ayurveda Health Centre, the Maharishi Golden Dome meditation area, and even Maharishi School.

This hub of the British TM movement appears to be thriving, but it wasn't always so. Back in 2005, the Maharishi declared Britain a "scorpion nation" and banned the teaching of TM in this country. He was angry about Britain's influence on the wider world and in particular its involvement in Iraq. Happily, at least for followers in Skelmersdale, the ban was lifted last August – at about the same time that Tony Blair left office. Even the Maharishi's most ardent followers are not entirely convinced it was just a coincidence.

But, just as the community is starting to spread the Yogi's word of again, does his death threaten to put an end to it all? "Not at all," says David Hughes, one of the community's founders. "As you would expect, people here were very sad when we heard the news. We were upset in the same way that we would be upset if anyone that means a lot to us was to die. But, at the same time, it was encouraging that the Maharishi was able to die with what he felt was his life's work complete. He has taught us all we need to know about TM and now we can carry on his teachings."

The teachings Mr Hughes speaks of are transcendental meditation and the more advanced "yogic flying". Both are said to be states of meditation where the body is relaxed, but the stimulation of the heart and brain is heightened. It sounds a good way to blow off steam but, Mr Hughes explains, the Maharishi's flock sees it as a lot more than that. "We believe that, if everyone practised TM, the world would be a better place," he says. "Not only spiritually, but we think that TM, if practised by a large number of people, would help bring down crime rates and improve health throughout the nation. It is something we believe that governments in this country and across the world should use."

He claims to have proof of TM's profound effects on societies. In 1993, he was part of a group of 4,000 people who travelled to Washington DC to meditate. They predicted that if 4,000 people practised TM in the US capital, the city would become a better place. "And it worked," he says. "Before we went, everyone said we were crazy. They said it couldn't be done, but the statistics showed that we lowered the crime rate during our spell in the city by 20 per cent. That is too high a figure to call a coincidence. It was definitely the effect of TM."

It is certainly a bold claim. And it will no doubt bring mocking sniggers from sceptics of the Maharishi's teachings – of which there are many.

It has been labelled a cult and the Maharishi himself was even accused of fraud. Although learning TM is said to be very simple, it is also very expensive. It costs nearly £1,300 to take part in the seven-step programme and it will set you back another £2,000 if you want to learn yogic flying – a process which involves jumping cross-legged around a huge collection of mattresses and is said to heighten brain activity.

Mr Hughes says he has heard all this before and has an answer for the critics. "People have called us a cult and accused us of being weird but that isn't the case at all," he adds. "What I would say to them is come along and see us for yourself.

"This is nothing to do with religion. It is nothing to do with lifestyle. People in the community lead perfectly normal lives and are free to follow any religion they want. The only thing they do differently is that they practise TM twice a day. Yes, we charge to teach the process of TM but that is because we have to because the Government will not make it available to everyone. It is the same as any organisation which teaches anything – there is always a charge. I don't even think it is a particularly high charge.

"We take £1,280 as a one-off payment and you can use TM for the rest of your life. Some organisations will ask for a percentage of your salary every year. That's not what we do. It is frustrating to come up against scepticism like this sometimes because we have these great techniques that are not as widely used as they should be. I don't believe that the money has anything to do with it, it is the perception: people think we believe in this weird thing and don't want to get involved."

Those who have got involved have immersed themselves in it. Not only have nearly 400 people moved from homes across the country to live in the Maharishi Mecca of Skelmersdale, but many of them have enrolled their children in the Maharishi School.

The school, run by its headteacher, Derek Cassells, has 100 pupils aged between four and 16. Their timetable includes the same curriculum of maths, English and science as in other schools. The only exception is the meditation sessions the children take part in twice a day.

"The benefits of having TM in a school are here for all to see," Mr Cassells says. "Not only are our exam results excellent, but we believe that we are equipping our children with something extra that they can use for the rest of their lives – harmony, energy and balance in their life."

Certainly, a walk along the tiny school's corridors feels the same as in most other schools – but there is one eerie difference. The place is deadly silent, without any of the usual classroom boisterousness you find in other establishments. The reason is, predictably, TM. "It has a definite effect on the pupils' behaviour," says Mr Cassells. "TM makes children calmer and mentally cooler and the same goes for the teacher. It makes for a much better learning environment."

But doesn't being separated from their peers and marked out as different at such a young age put a strain on pupil's relationships with children from other schools? "You are bound to find some people who will think it strange that the children come here, but the students do make friends quite easily outside of school," Mr Cassells says. "We have had feedback which suggests that, when they leave here and go to sixth-form college, they integrate better than children for other schools. Again, we think that is down to TM making the children more balanced individuals."

The phrase "mind control" featured in many news articles announcing the Maharishi's death but, when I put it to Mr Hughes, he dismisses the notion. "We are not controlling anyone," he insists. "Everyone who is here is here out of choice and they don't have to do anything they don't want to. Even when they meditate is up to them. The Maharishi's last words were 'Live long the world in peace, happiness, prosperity and freedom from suffering'. I think that perfectly sums up how we should all live and that is what we are trying to do here. There is nothing sinister about it. I just think it is a shame that more people don't want to get involved.

"People on the outside may see us as an exclusive or closed community but that is not the way we want to be seen. We would rather not be exclusive. Our goal would be to have a Maharishi community like this in every town."

Other spiritual leaders...

Osho

His full name was Rajneesh Chandra Mohan Jain, but Osho was most commonly known as 'the sex guru'. Unlike many spiritual leaders, he held chastity and poverty in low regard, choosing instead to sleep with a record number of women and drive a different Rolls Royce each day.

Sathya Sai Baba

With his trademark afro and luminous orange robes, south Indian guru, Sai Baba has never shied away from attention. He claims to be able to perform miracles, and various devotees have claimed to see him materialise fruits, herbs and even gems out of thin air. But his reputation as a serious spiritual leader has been somewhat undermined by reports alleging he has sexually abused young boys.

Amma

Dubbed the 'Hugging Saint', Mata Amritanandamayi, is believed to have dished out more than 26 million hugs to devoted followers. Her embraces, known as 'darshan' are supposed to instil a feeling of selflessness, and have earned her a slew of celebrity followers, including Sting and Nicole Kidman.

Sri Chimnoy

In the 1960s Chimnoy's followers were so devout that they brought their guru across from India to New York. His work took off in the following decades, as his campaign for inner peace and world harmony was given a major global platform. He died in October 2007.

Meher Baba

The Hindi guru Baba was most famous for his remarkable vow of silence. From July 10 1925, until his death in 1969 he did not utter a word; instead, he communicated using an alphabet board. His followers, which included Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton, called themselves 'Baba lovers'. Even now, his remaining disciples still observe 'Silence day' on July 10 each year.

Emily Dugan

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