Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – cultist, guru or con-artist?

Perhaps all three, in some measure.

In quoting an open letter on anti GM technology co-ordinated by Steven Druker I ended up being called an anti-science troll:

Good God. Steve Druker is the executive vice president of the Maharishi Institute. The Maharishi Institute is of course an Indian mystic cult movement that teaches yogic flying. Clearly you are an anti-science troll and not worth bothering with.

Clearly I should have Googled Druker and the appellation Executive Director, Alliance for Bio-Integrity should perhaps have triggered alarm bells. But then association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi would not have caused great concern, because I had a mental impression of him that goes back decades.

Time for a bit of investigation and reflection.

Until Sunday I was not aware that Mahesh (to leave off the honorifics) was into yogic flying and the Natural Law Party. Probably about 35 years ago I knew people who had taken the Transcendental Meditation (TM) course and found it personally helpful. There was no brainwashing or ideological lode. There was no cultic aspect in the sense of being members of a group. You paid your money, took the course and walked away.

Later my wife and I attended yoga classes with the Yoga Education Centre, as it then was, in Brisbane. It was hatha yoga, concerned with physical well-being, but it involved several meditation techniques, but not TM. These helped us relax, become poised, centred, and able to deal more effectively with the personal, social and work environment. I think it made both of us easier to live with. There was no readily identifiable ideological content.

One exercise, for example, was called “quietening the mind”. You sat still with eyes closed and as thoughts appeared you saw them out the door. Effectively you emptied your mind. Difficult to do, because the mind is very restless.

In another, called “listening to sounds”, you simply listened to sounds in the ambient environment but did not name them, identify them, associate them with a source or think about them in any way.

We found that the positive effects took some months to appear. I formed the opinion that Mahesh had found one technique that gave early results, as the Western market tends to demand, but was perhaps less valuable in the long run. I can’t be sure because I have not done the course.

One effect of meditation practice was to clear away emotional clutter and make the functioning of calm reason more efficacious.

Our own yogic practice fell apart when we had a child, just on 28 years ago, and we’ve been somewhat off-balance ever since. Later as part of my heart surgery recovery I took an 8-week course on yoga run by the head nurse of the then psychiatric ward of the Wesley Hospital. I looked around for yoga classes, found amazing differences in the styles of yoga offered, but found none that attracted me.

More recently I’ve posted on the concept of emotional style. After 30 years of patient research Richard Davidson has charted the emotional life of the brain and what happens when we meditate. There is no reference to Transcendental Meditation in the index. And that reflects what I think of TM as I know it – of minor importance and basically harmless, does some good in some instances. According to reports, such research as exists is said to be of poor quality but tends not to show significant health benefits.

Incidentally Davidson talks about the massive prejudice there is against terms like “yoga” and “meditation”. He had to use other labels to get research funding.

The Wikipedia article on Mahesh says:

In the late 1970s, he started the TM-Sidhi programme that claimed to offer practitioners the ability to levitate and to create world peace.

With that step he clearly becomes ideological.

I can’t find much on TM-Sidhi, but the Wikipedia article on levitation says this:

The Transcendental Meditation movement claims that practitioners of the TM-Sidhi program of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi achieve what they call “Yogic Flying”. They say that there are three stages of Yogic Flying – hopping, floating, and flying – and that they have so far achieved just the first stage. Transcendental meditation groups have held annual “Yogic Flying Contests” to see who could hop the farthest or the fastest. Proponents say the hopping occurs spontaneously with no effort while skeptics say there is no levitation and they are using their thighs to bounce in the lotus position.

At best, self-deluded, but in any case ridiculous.

Then in 1992 Mahesh founded the Natural Law Party. It seems he always had an ambition to change the world to operate on principles of ancient Vedic science. In order to do his he chose to become direct and political. It’s a free country but I suspect the politics is going nowhere.

So far, however, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the movement is anti-democratic. The term “cult” is problematic, so you take you pick. It’s a derogatory term which in this case has some warrant.

In my memory banks I have traces of Mahesh having a poor attitude to women. FWIW this was confirmed at the beginning of this YouTube which is very negative about his life and work and carries a Christian message at the end.

One thing is for sure, he made mountains of money.

26 thoughts on “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – cultist, guru or con-artist?”

  1. I have no problem with yoga and meditation, Brian. My problem is with the totally irrational and absolutely baseless fear of a scientific technique, namely GM, that will be crucial in helping feed the 10 billion or so people who’ll populate spaceship earth by the end of the century. I’m also fed up with the childish and baseless demonisation of agribusiness companies like Monsanto.

    A century ago the left was energetically pro-science. It was thought that scientific development was a prerequisite for the transformation from capitalism to a more humane and fairer society. But today, nonsense like organic farming, anti-fluoride and even anti-vaccination seem to be all the rage. Next time I hear someone say permaculture, I’m going to scream 😉

    The left needs to double back a few mile then get back on the science path. It is the only path that will get us where we need to go.

  2. Karen: The core of science is the scientific method. Under the scientific method you can disprove but you can’t prove. What this means is that, if you want to say that GM is safe all you can really say is something like: “So far no tests on GM product X have found this product to cause any health problems for Y.”
    Sure, confidence in the safety of GM will increase as the range of tests done by independent investigators increase but you will never reach the point where you are 100% sure and will need to do a risks/benefits analysis.
    When I hear suggestions that GM is being done to boost the sales of a particular weedicide or prevent farmers using the grain they produce as seeds for future products I become a bit concerned about the credibility of the check and balance evaluations.

  3. True. But if we insist on checking new GM food products for safety why aren’t we doing it for cultivars derived from mutagenesis and traditional breeding?

  4. Because traditional methods of plant adaption are what is occuring in nature and the risks are of a natural kind. Gene splicing on the other hand MAY inadvertently produce unnatural proteins which have toxic effects.

    This animation shows how protein production works.

    I can imagine that if in the gene manipulation process some of the source code is damaged then a food might contain undetected protein or enzymes with unintended functionality. No doubt the scientists attempt to be absolutely definitive in their work, but how rigorous is that scrutiny, particularly where ambition and cost pressures are applied?

    If a new seed is derived from natural cross cultivation then I am prepared to take that risk, but where genetic tampering has taken place I am not going to blindly accept those outcomes as being “safe” simply because a marketing organisation says that this is scientific progress and it must therefore be good.

    Does Monsanto and others release their full genetic code with explanation of the changes made to new seeds for full scientific scrutiny?

  5. Karen, one of the things that frustrates me about the GM controversy is that there seems no way there can be agreement on the basic facts. Some say gene splicing is substantially different, some say not. As a non-scientist I need someone I trust with the necessary detachment and communication skills.

    Still looking.

    That being said, I’d have a high degree of confidence in any GM foods approved by the EU. I’m worried that the current trade negotiations will weaken the scrutiny.

    For me personally, GM foods don’t impinge, other than in the case of soy milk, where I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    The prospect of using GM to cope with global warming, however, brings a whole new dimension.

    The cost of testing with animal and human studies is a huge factor, Pharmaceutical companies claim it costs hundreds of millions to bring a new drug to the market. I can understand that the FDA would seek to avoid this with GM or the whole industry would be unviable.

    I’d still like an answer to my question put on the other thread:

    Central for me is the issue of testing and regulation. Simpson says the FDA “have a regulatory process and do NOT say that all GE is generally recognized as safe”. On what basis do they make a decision?

  6. Brian:

    “As a non-scientist I need someone I trust with the necessary detachment and communication skills.”

    With all due respect, that is precisely want you don’t need. This is the “science hero” approach to understanding science and there is nothing rational or profitable in such an approach. What we should be looking for is consilience and consensus, both of which already exist with regards to GM.

  7. BilB and Brian

    GMOs occur in nature. For example, you have hundreds of bacteria genes in your body thanks to gene transfers. Dr David Tribe is up to part 215 in his natural GMO series on his blog.

    Remember that every single food plant you eat is saturated with mutagens, carcinogens and so on. 99.9% of the pesticides you eat occur naturally within the plant itself and about 40% of these are toxic. The new GM techniques alter 1-4 genes, whereas traditional techniques natural breeding and mutagenesis alter thousands of genes. So-called natural breeding has thrown up some dangerous cultivars, including the Lenape potato and celery with excessive levels of psoralen.

    The Simpson comment:

    “have a regulatory process and do NOT say that all GE is generally recognized as safe”

    We can never be certain that any new cultivar, no matter how it is produced, will be safe, so the qualifier “generally” applies equally to all. But this shouldn’t be cause for fear and hysteria; even going to the toilet can kill people, with the strain impacting on blood pressure and heart rate. What matters is the degree of risk, which appears to be very small.

  8. To take @ 8 first, and yet taking a gene from a foreign organism seems like jerking the system around. I keep reading in the New Scientist that characteristics come from a number of genes and the interaction of expressed proteins. Hope I’ve got that right!

    In any case the process seems to many of the public ‘unnatural’. Against that, this from your Lenape potato link makes sense:

    In fact, from Gould’s perspective, there’s actually a lot more risk and uncertainty with conventional breeding, than there is with genetic modification. That’s because, with GM, you’re mucking about with a single gene. There are a lot more genes in play with conventional breeding, and a lot more ways that surprising genetic interactions could come back to haunt you. “You try breeding potatoes for pest resistance, but you’re bringing in a whole chromosome from a wild potato,” he said. “We’ve found interactions between the wild genomes and the cultivated genomes that actually led to potentially poisonous chemicals in the potato.”

    So the Lenape spud happened back in the 1960s and was out and about for quite a while before the problem was picked up. My guess is that conventional breeders were more careful thereafter. But how?

    In one commentary there was a complaint that GM testing lacked multi-generational animal studies. My guess is that both conventional and GM breeders feed their stuff to rats and mice to see whether anything untoward happens. Whatever the testing regime, presumably the FDA have a panel look it over. It’s a bit like getting mining companies to commission their own environmental impact studies.

    In the case of food, however, there is a fair incentive to do no harm. We can take some comfort from that.

  9. Karen, concerning your @ 7, I’m not taking a ‘science hero’ approach. I don’t have the time or inclination to become proficient in plant genetics and biology. So I need someone I can trust to explain it to me.

    I trust my cardiologist, so if he prescribes statins I’ll take them no matter what I see on TV. If he wants a certain level and profile in my cholesterol I’ll do what it takes to comply.

    Not just any cardiologist will do. I’ve changed specialists in other areas.

    We’re not talking about how science is done. It’s more about how it is communicated effectively.

  10. Towards the end of the EU paper (large pdf) there is an interesting discussion on a survey of public attitudes towards GM. In the case of food it raises the point that there is no perceived benefit for the consumer. The perceived benefit is to the producer of food.

    The point is made that public acceptability might increase if there were obvious benefits for consumers.

    An exception it doesn’t mention is ‘golden rice’, which has more vitamin A and could diminish the incidence of child blindness in developing countries.

    It also seems clear that public trust in regulatory regimes took a bigger hit in the EU than in the US in the case of mad cow disease.

  11. When I had a shower last night I thought my comment @ 10 was perhaps not the best I’d ever written. The simple fact is that we frequently have to decide which experts we trust.

    My cardio has been with me coming up 15 years, and he’s a gem, as is my GP.

    Part of the key is that there is engagement, but detachment at the same time. Emotion is not in control and shaping facts to suit an agenda.

  12. Karen’s case falls apart from the beginning claiming that 10 billion people will populate this planet. This statement is patently anti-science as science has found that people are already using 1.5 planetary ecosystem resources with a population of 7 billion and we have been drawing down our ecological capital for 30 years or so. That’s where the forests, the topsoil, the glaciers, the groundwater, the wetlands, the ecological river flows, the oceanic fish and the oceanic health have gone.
    This is all based on scientific evidence. We are headed for ecological collapse even without increased population and consumption.
    GM is never going to save us. When funded by the for profit sector it is merely a power grubbing, market share grubbing, money grubbing exercise by greedites for whom scientists are merely tools and ‘feeding the hungry’ is propaganda.

  13. Salient Green:

    “Karen’s case falls apart from the beginning claiming that 10 billion people will populate this planet. This statement is patently anti-science as science … ”

    You need to get out more. The 10 billion figure is the UN mid-range projection for 2100.

    “GM is never going to save us.”

    It already is saving us:

    On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

    Is your computer made by an organic socialist worker’s collective or is it made by “power grubbing, market share grubbing, money grubbing … greedites” ie a big multinational corporation? What about car? Your smartphone? etc….

  14. Also note that last week Brazil approved the planting of a GM eucalyptus that absorbs 20% more yield than the equivalent conventional variety. This is exactly the type of technology we should be pursuing to store more carbon.

    There is no scientific consensus ” that people are already using 1.5 planetary ecosystem resources”. This is green fearmongering. Please be truthful.

  15. Using the current population growth trajectory the UN is right. However, that trajectory must change to avoid major ecosystem crashes and will change if nothing is done to curb the population and consumption growth which will cause major ecosystem collapses.
    Casting doubts on my truthfulness does your case nothing but harm. That information was compiled by much smarter and more educated people than myself, namely, the Global Footprint Network which you would do well to research, or to take your own advice and “get out more”.
    After you’ve done that and if you still refuse to accept the science, perhaps you could put forward a figure of just how much of Earth’s ecosystem resources we are using, with reference to the depleted ecosystem services I referenced earlier and including desertification.
    Perhaps you could estimate how much of the Amazon rainforest will be saved by the GM Eucalyptus, or how much more will be destroyed to plant GM Eucalyptus for profit.
    Your quote regarding GM crop results is not “saving us”, it is just increasing profitability while population and consumption continue to rise. Those results have also been achieved via conventional breeding techniques but over a longer period. A longer period gives more time to evaluate new strains for adverse aspects.

  16. Salient Green:

    A longer period gives more time to evaluate new strains for adverse aspects.

    This statement is truthless. You know perfectly well that there is no safety evaluation mandated by any food standards regulatory body in major western nations nor voluntary protocols for doing so. This is precisely why we’ve had cultivars like the Lenape potato and of course celery cultivars with high levels of psoralen:

    Moreover, celery cultivars produced using conventional breeding methods—intended to enhance insect-resistance and aesthetic appeal to consumers through increased production of psoralen—have been associated with cases of dermatitis among grocery workers, as well as further cases of photosensitivity among farm workers handling these plants (Ames and Gold, 1999).

    Undoubtedly you are also aware that a couple thousand food plant cultivars that have been on the shelves for decades have been genetically modified by mutagenesis without ill-effect, including most pasta wheat species.

    Obviously it is up to the Brazilian government to ensure the GM Eucalyptus is not planted on destroyed Amazon rainforest.

    I have absolutely no interest in what a small group of cause-pushers called the Global Footprint Network has to say. What I am interested in is scientific consensus and consilience. When and if the major science academies come out and say we’re heading for extinction because we’ve exceeded carrying capacity, I’ll climb on board the bandwagon.

  17. John, I think Karen is looking for consilience, or multiple lines of evidence leading to the same conclusion. It’s not a bad concept. I’m not entirely convinced yet that it exists, as she claims, for the safety of GM foods, it may do, but she’s looking for that with the claims about the carrying capacity of planet earth.

  18. That being said, there is a huge space between an adequate carrying capacity and “heading for extinction’ that we’d want to avoid.

  19. Looking for consilience could be a good thing if it were with an open mind. Karen clearly has made up her mind on GM and is only looking for consilience to support her ideology. Her closed mind is evidenced in her refusal to go anywhere near the Global Footprint Network. In fact, Karen’s entire MO is a doppelganger of Jennifer Marohasy in all her perversions of reality. Jennifer and her orcs were experts in glib dismissal and disregard of empirical evidence while being precision cherry pickers of poorly supported assertion.

  20. Salient Green

    On other threads I’ve linked to the statements by the peak science bodies like the AAAS that support my claims about GM.

    You’re the one behaving like Jennifer Marohasy, because like her, you ignore the preponderance of scientific opinion and listen only to small outfits flogging outlier opinions that support your prejudices. Marohasy listens to the IPA and CIS whereas you, apparently, are having a fling with the Global Footprint Network.

    I take overpopulation seriously. Fortunately birthrates fall dramatically and often to below replacement level when economies develop. We will need good planning and technology to allow us to accommodate 10 billion people by 2100 but you’ve already decided that technology is naughty because it involves corporations who (shock, horror) make profits.

    Are you aware that the Earth is getting greener?

    While the news coming out of forests is often dominated by deforestation and habitat loss, research published today in Nature Climate Change shows that the world has actually got greener over the past decade.

    Despite ongoing deforestation in South America and Southeast Asia, we found that the decline in these regions has been offset by recovering forests outside the tropics, and new growth in the drier savannas and shrublands of Africa and Australia.

  21. Just wanna say this is a brilliant debate, I’m enjoying it thoroughly.
    Thanks Brian for the venue and thanks also to the other debaters.

  22. Are you aware that the Earth is getting greener?

    Thanks for the link. I might do a post. Leave the champagne, though, the numbers don’t excite me.

  23. Karen, you revived the AAAS statement.

    One of the reasons I did this post was to try to clarify how damaging Steven Druker’s connection with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was. It seems inconclusive.

    Certainly I can’t agree with the principles behind the Natural Law Party in so far as the ‘natural’ is equated with the ‘good’.

    Yoga flying, or bouncing around on an air mattress in the lotus position is just silly. However, if anyone promulgates photos of levitation they are having a lend of us and are not to be trusted on anything.

    It’s not clear that Druker is personally involved in yoga flying.

    In any case I’ve said that the open letter has a life apart from Druker. The reason I think he may not have written it personally is that it doesn’t mention his hobby horses as identified by Terry Simpson’s review.

    The statement contains quotes and references which need to be considered in their own right. Cited, for example, are the WHO, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada, the British Medical Association (albeit 2004) and David Schubert, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. These items need to be addressed seriously in their own right.

    You say the risks are small. I’d like to hear that from the likes of the Royal Society of Canada and the British Medical Association et al.

  24. This infographic tells the story quiet well.

    According to Grist author Nate Johnson, it is mutagenesis that is most likely to throw up cultivars with negative traits, yet even then the chances are very small with no problem noted in the 3,000 cultivars so far produced.

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