By Harshada David Wagner
The passing away of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi symbolises the end of the mass guru and the mass technique
On February 5, 2008, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi left his physical body, and with his departure a cacophony of voices arose discussing his life and work. As a contemporary meditation teacher, I feel inspired to add my voice to the din. With all due respect and compassion for Maharishi’s devotees, I can’t help but feel that this death is a symbolic and positive one for all of us who have ventured into the practice of meditation. The image of Maharishi’s body, in his 90s, finally resting in peace serves as a metaphor: the mass guru is dead. The mass technique is dead.
At the time of Maharishi’s upsurge into the mainstream, the world was a smaller place. India was far away and the ideas of the East were exotic and represented a massive departure from the occidental world-view that dominated the West at that time. It was time for a movement; movements were moving things. The women’s movement promoted the rights of women, the civil rights movement promoted the rights of American Blacks, then there was the Gay rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement. Perhaps Western society was so static that movements were significant. It made a splash when we stepped out into the street with painted signs and hundreds of friends and bullhorns. Movements shook things up.
At a time when hippies were dropping acid and trying to open themselves en masse, when women were shaving their heads and men were growing long ponytails, yoga was the perfect next thing. It was natural. Suddenly there were faces and voices that represented the next evolutionary step for the throngs of young idealists: “Go inside. The answers are within us. If we change our minds, we change our world.” The faces were adorned with long beards and their bodies were robed and fragrant. Maharishi and others were there for us, living representatives of the ancient-and-authentic, the exotic departure. The next movement.
The gurus of the ’60s and ’70s offered a breath of fresh philosophical air: “Transcendence and happiness are your birthrights. Give up the guilt of your parent’s religion, chant and be happy! Give up the shallow material life and look inside yourself.” People gathered around these masters’ methods and practised together and created communes, ashrams and meditation centres. They dressed alike and chanted on the streets and passed out literature and attracted other mass faces, celebrities and politicians to their causes.
At first there were only a few but very soon there were enough to create a kind of marketplace. There was a degree of natural competition. The different paths up the mountain needed stricter definitions and clearer distinctions from each other. These distinctions provided the skeletons for their movements. They provided unshakable core group identities which hundreds and thousands could all adhere to and belong. In some cases exclusivity was demanded of followers. In some ashrams students were threatened indirectly (and sometimes directly) with spiritual failure if they strayed from the flock. Maybe this was due to the Christian influence brought in by the Western followers. By the time the ’80s came around, ancient terms like transcendental, ashtanga, and vipassana had become trademarked exclusive brands. Communes became compounds and ashrams became headquarters. Some groups like Maharishi’s created huge international organisations with research institutes and PR departments and massive product lines.
However, the effectiveness of the guru’s methods also suffered as their missions grew. Many of the movements gradually painted themselves into untenable corners. As their ranks grew and it became impossible for the higher ranked masters or gurus to spend direct time with disciples, they simplified and codified and reduced their techniques into ‘pack-able’ products. They proclaimed to the world at large, “This technique is all you need. All yoga postures can be mastered if you apply these five principles. Follow this meditation for 20 minutes a day and you will become happy and free”.
In business this works. In the franchise world or in military culture, this kind of standardisation is essential. And truly, this work is hugely commendable. Just look at the reach of yoga practice in the US. This month, Oprah Winfrey has named Eckhart Tolle’s brilliant book, A New Earth, as her book club’s book-of-the-month. Maharishi’s method of meditation is taught in schools all over the world. Over 20 million Americans practice yoga every week. The movements have left their marks.
However, now they’re perhaps done for.
Times are different now. The world is so much smaller than it was in the ’60s. People are exposed to so many voices and have a tremendous amount of information at their disposal. Movements have less power. Everyone is part of some movement or the other now. Earlier the movements stood out because the mainstream was standing still. Nowadays the mainstream is moving. It makes more of a statement to stand still. For today’s seeker, it may be more of a courageous move to resist joining a movement than to join one.
What is left out of the mass appeal guru’s work or the mass technique is perhaps the most essential promise of the East’s message: enlightenment. All of these techniques, everything from the Hare Krishna mantra to the meditation techniques of the rishis, to the yoga postures, were initially developed as stepping stones along the path to moksha or liberation. When the gurus first landed in the West, few were setting out to create empires. They were carrying an ancient torch: a message about freedom. They were sharing their wealth of knowledge and the techniques that initiated them into the path towards their own enlightenment. Some even came with the power to awaken seeker’s dormant spiritual energy. Just by touching them they could give their students a taste of the Divine. But whether they were teaching a technique or giving shaktipat, they were offering an initiation.
Initiation means the beginning. Initiation is something that can happen to a group. A thousand people can be initiated into a technique. A million people can initiate a movement towards freedom. But every one of the million people will reach the goal by themselves when they are ready. Hundreds of people can come to witness a wedding ceremony, but only the bride and groom will be married. Sadhana is an inherently individual process.
In the beginning, we need to conform. We need someone else’s technique, something that is tried and true. At the end it becomes different. If you read the accounts of the masters’ enlightenment, they are all very individual. None say that their conformity to a technique or adherence to a dogma led to their freedom. And yet, that’s what they leave behind when they go: their image, their technique, their philosophy. That’s all they can leave behind.
The days of cookie-cutter meditation techniques is coming to an end. More and more, today’s seekers are empowered to find their own way. If they do have a guide, hopefully they can be fortunate enough to find one that they can befriend and make into a teacher who can know them and see them and recommend a path just for them.
For the millions of us who were initiated by the rishis – whichever rishi – it’s now up to us to become the rishis. It’s now up to us to stop enshrining them and stop enshrining their techniques. It’s high time we took the initiation fire they ignited in us and stoked it to completion. We may have to do this alone. For sure we have to leave the safe confines of the temple and wander into the wilderness. We need to explore for ourselves what is inside us. The masters’ teachings are there to guide us, but they cannot hold our hand the whole way. We have to take what they have given us and make it our own. Our bodies are different, our minds are different, our samskaras, our latent impressions are different and so shall be our paths. One technique, one asana practice, one philosophy will do to shape our buttocks or make us a little happier or give us somewhere to go on Sundays, but it won’t give us enlightenment. That no one can give.
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