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Decades before John Travolta plugged for Scientology, the Beatles spent some time in the company of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, practicing the art of Transcendental Meditation. But they were soon disenchanted when they found that their swami was a mere human with human weaknesses (especially when they found he was having an "alleged" affair with one of his female companions at the time, and not practicing celibacy), and they returned home to make some harsh statements, and write songs trashing the guru. (The song "Sexy Sadie" is especially directed at him!)
Despite what the Fab Four had to say about Maharishi, however, the Transendental Meditation movement ("TM") has grown into one of the most popular New Age movements around, claiming thousands of followers worldwide, and having a bevy of celebrities in its ranks ranging from the late Ferdinand Marcos to movie director David Lynch. In fact, Lynch began promoting TM more publicly in the summer of 2005 – possibly jumping on the bandwagon of Tom Cruise and Madonna.
The most highly publicized and well-known aspect of TM is the claim that meditation allows believers to "fly" or at least hover. Have you seen any of those bits in the movies, on TV, and in cartoons showing a person sitting in a lotus position, chanting, and mysteriously floating in mid-air? (Think of the character of Shirley the Loon on Tiny Toon Adventures!) That all stems from TM. The really silly part comes when these guys try to provide "photographic" proof of real-life levitation, using obviously doctored photos and even sheer denial of reality. ( "Yes, he's floating in this picture! It's not him bouncing on a trampoline - honest!" )
TM works best when it puts more emphasis on the actual "meditation," and worst when it tries to pass itself off as a "science." That's when the skeptics pounce on TM, gleefully trashing its more ridiculous claims and stating that you can get most, if not all, of the results of TM just by relaxing naturally and not having to pay for the group's materials and training sessions. Meditation itself is one of those grey areas of science (like acupuncture) that can't be actually proven, yet millions of people worldwide extol its benefits and note that even if it doesn't make you fly, it still makes you feel good.
TM has made its political aspirations known, though these are often set back by its religious claims. That pesky ol' "separation of church and state" tradition has made it difficult for the group to make major inroads in American politics, but that hasn't stopped them from promoting TM as a useful "alternative" method of bringing discipline to schoolkids in the classroom. They scored a major PR coup in 2001 when they successfully had an entire town in Iowa incorporated as the first official TM city in the United States: Maharishi Vedic City.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself went on to a higher plane of existence in February of 2008, but TM continues to survive and thrive because he didn't exert a dictatorial chokehold on the organization, in the manner of some other cult leaders. (The New York Times obituary on Maharishi from February 6, 2008 explains his title: "In Hindi, 'maha' means great, and 'rishi' means seer. 'Maharishi' is a title traditionally bestowed on Brahmins. Critics of the yogi say he presented himself with the name, which he was ineligible for because he was from a lower caste.")
Trancenet is the official anti-TM Web page, and it provides a lot of useful information about many New Age groups and other cults as well.