August 24, 1998 12:00 PM

It was 30 years ago today (give or take), Maharishi taught the band to pray (well, meditate). And not long after the Beatles embraced a shaggy-bearded guru touting something called Transcendental Meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi saw his visibility wane.

But not, it seems, his influence. Alive and well in a sprawling former monastery in Vlodrop, the Netherlands, Maharishi, now 80, continues to oversee his ever-expanding organization—a worldwide conglomerate of real estate holdings, schools and clinics worth a reported $3.5 billion. “What strikes you is his energy and vitality,” says Martin Smeets, a former mayor of Vlodrop and an occasional visitor to the 90-acre compound from which Maharishi seldom strays. “You get the impression he’s still at the forefront of all these global activities.”

Those activities include roughly 1,000 Transcendental Meditation centers in more than 100 countries, a chain of hotels, a health food distribution network and a veritable library of instructional books and videotapes. Maharishi and magician Doug Henning have even spent years trying to launch a $1.5 billion theme park in Ontario, Canada, called Veda Land (Veda is Sanskrit for knowledge) that they say will feature a levitating restaurant and a journey through a giant flower. “They have so many businesses and properties, the movement is basically a corporate religion,” says Dutch journalist Caroline Verhees, who was nevertheless impressed after meeting Maharishi. “Even from a distance, you could feel the charisma of this man sitting cross-legged and chanting.”

The son of a schoolteacher from Jabalpur, India, Maharishi studied physics before ascending the Himalayas to apprentice under renowned yogi Guru Dev for 13 years. In 1959 he arrived in the United States, preaching the wonders of a stress-relieving, consciousness-raising technique he had refined. His message took hold, and Maharishi was soon a hit on the worldwide lecture circuit. “He introduced meditation to the West and made it mainstream,” says Deepak Chopra, the bestselling author who was Maharishi’s top assistant for nine years (John Gray, of Men Are from Mars fame, was also an assistant). “Yet he never took anything too seriously. We called him the Giggling Guru.”

But the Beatles were dead serious when they renounced drugs in 1967 after spending a weekend with him in Wales. A year later, the Fab Four flew to Rishikesh, India, to study with Maharishi, but they quickly became disillusioned. “We made a mistake,” Paul McCartney said. “We thought there was more to him than there was. He’s human. We thought at first that he wasn’t.” Still, Maharishi saw his teachings attract millions of practitioners before he retreated to New Delhi in the late ’70s.

In 1990, Maharishi moved to the Netherlands, drawn, says TM executive Wim van den Berg, by “the tolerant nature of its people.” Guests to his compound are whisked about in electric cars, though only a few gain access to his opulent palace. “Every inch of the corridors and rooms is filled with fresh-cut flowers,” says Wayne Thomson, who as mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont., met with Maharishi about Veda Land.

Attended by dozens of aides, Maharishi—who according to TM officials has no wife or children—spends up to 20 hours a day meditating and taking part in philosophical discussions broadcast around the world. In January, disciples gathered in Vlodrop for his 80th birthday, and a month later Maharishi held a ceremony at which a TM loyalist was awarded his weight in gold. “His followers were spellbound,” says journalist Verhees. “It was like being in the presence of God.” A well-heeled god. Says Dutch writer Sante Brun, who has interviewed Maharishi: “The things he preaches end up making an awful lot of money.”

Alex Tresniowski

Isabel Conway in Vlodrop, Leslie Berestein in La Jolla, Calif., and Barbara Sandler in Niagara Falls

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