The mantra mystery

by John Wijngaards in The Tablet, 30 June 1984, pp. 619-620; also Annual Bulletin of the Catholic Centre, Madras June 1983 – July 1984, pp. 13-17; and in Word and Worship vol 18, July 1985, pp. 241-246.

Alone among the new sects, TM-Transcendental Meditation-has acquired respectability. Its popularity was assured when the Beatles were converted to it, and daily meditation with the aid of your mantra remains an acceptable fashion to which some Christians give cautious support. Below, a priest who has studied the movement supplies some necessary clarification.

Transcendental Meditation is now practised by millions in the West. It has found adherents among scientists, politicians, even clergymen. It has been called the waking dream of glorious emptiness; the con trick of one and the cop-out of many; the gateway to a new Age of Enlightenment. In recent years TM’s world organisation has begun to advertise its promise of vast economic and political reforms through a simple meditation technique. Should we welcome this as a tonic for a world so badly in need of prayer? What to make of the almost unlimited efficacy ascribed to the TM mantra? How to disentangle reality from vision in what is obviously a mixture of dreams and facts”.

The facts take us back to Allahabad in India where J. N. Srivastava was born in 1918 as the son of a respected lawyer. Having obtained a physics degree at the local university in 1940 he worked in a munitions factory until in 1950 he became secretary to Swami Brahmanand Saraswati of Jyotirmath. When the swami died four years later, the future world leader spent some years as a monk on the banks of the Narweda in the Himalayas, calling himself “Mahesh Brahmachari”. Meeting some people from the West, including the Beatles, he discovered western spiritual needs. In 1958 he came to Britain, but soon he transferred the seat of his activities to the United States. Known now as “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi”, he worked out, in record time. how to present a traditional yoga meditation technique in a form acceptable to the West.

The form of meditation advocated by Maharishi comes to this. Every initiate receives a secret word which, it is claimed, responds to the person’s special requirement. The initiate is taught to repeat this “mantra” first aloud. then more softly, eventually internally without producing any sound. One does not concentrate on the mantra. By the sheer repetition of the inner sound, the mind gets de-focussed so that a new form of consciousness sets in. A sense of unreality or super-reality emerges, an awareness of “being” without conscious thought. The ultimate aim is to touch the deepest levels of awareness where, it is claimed, thoughts, feelings and relationships are healed. TM meditation twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes, is judged to be sufficient to realign one’s personality and contribute to the wholeness of the entire world. It makes prayer simple and attractive.

Indeed. As a step in meditation, the mantra technique can be helpful. Some well-known Christian authors on prayer, such as Basil Pennington, have therefore given it cautious support. The best study, to my knowledge , of the phenomena produced by this kind of meditation was published by Arthur Deikman in C.T.Tart’s Altered States of Consciousness (John Wiley, 1969). He showed that through certain methods the psychological structures that organise, limit, select and interpret our perceptions can be “de-automatised”. For a short while our mind is then pushed back from conscious, abstract thought to primitive forms of perception. This brings on unusual sensations, a feeling of wholeness with the rest of creation, an unbelievable sense of reality and ineffability. It produces what he calls ‘trans-sensate phenomena”, that is, the experience of perceiving without feelings and without precise concepts. It is this kind of experience which makes TM practitioners assert so strongly that TM does work. But so do LSD and other hypnagogic methods, as Deikman tells us. Which raises the question why the personalised mantra is claimed to be so indispensable.

For in TM the mantra is everything, the one irreplaceable spiritual tool to unlock the recesses of mind. Every single person receives his or her own mantra, imposed by an official TM guru, to be guarded as a secret never to be revealed to others. The imposition of the mantra is surrounded by cryptic rites: incense, the murmuring of Sanskrit incantations, worship with fruits and flowers to the garlanded image of Swami Guru Dev. But the anxious initiate is reassured. TM has nothing to do with any specific religion. The initiation ceremony follows strict rules, it is stated, but this is to ensure that the tradition is handed on correctly. In other words, the message is: by joining us you are not buying the Hindu religion in whose ambience the technique arose. True, if Hinduism is defined in terms of bathing in the Ganges or offering coconuts to Shiva. But what about Hindu convictions and superstitions? The religious belief underlying the mantras is vital to Maharishi. For him the mantras work only on account of their inherent religious power.

Maharishi’s dreams

Although TM has tried to keep the mantras secret, many lapsed instructors have revealed that the following 16 are usually given: eng – em – enga – ema – aeag- aem – aenga – aema – shiring- shirim – hiring- hirim – kiring – kirim – shyam – shyama. Each of these mantras is given to a particular .age group. For instance, those between 26 and 30 years are given shiring. (So much for the claim of a personalised mantra!) On inspection these mantras turn out to be “seed-mantras”, magical invocations of the main Hindu gods. The first eight mantras are variations of ‘Aim”, the invocation of Sarasvati, wife of Brahma and Goddess of all creative arts. “Hirim” calls on Shiva, “Shirim” on the Goddess Lakshmi and “Kirim”on Kalika.

To understand the force of this, one should enter Hindu philosophy. The origins of the universe are thought to be linked to sounds. The more basic the sound, the greater its religious and magical power. “Seed-mantes” are considered extremely powerful because in themselves they express and make present the original divinities at the root of existence. As D. S. Sarma puts it: “A mantra is not a mere formula or a magic spell or a prayer; it is an embodiment in sound of a particular deity. It is the deity itself. And so, when a mantra is repeated a hundred times. or a thousand times, or even more, and the worshipper makes an effort to identity himself with the worshipped, the power of the deity comes to his help.” In one of his earliest publications, when he was not yet so conscious of western opposition to such ideas Maharishi himself expressed it in this way: “We do something here according to Vedic rites: particular, specific chanting to produce an effect in some other world, to draw the attention of those higher beings or gods living there. The entire knowledge of the mantras or hymns of the Vedas is devoted to man’s connection, to man’s communication with the higher beings in different strata of creation” (Meditations, p. 17).

This inner connection between the mantra and its cosmic power also explains why Maharishi attaches such value to the initiation ceremony. Again, the attempts to keep the text and rites secret have failed. The Sanskrit prayer with the commentary and instructions of Maharishi are available in print. It is clear from these that the instructor, before imparting the mantra, is made to express allegiance to the Hindu divinities and the Hindu teachers of the past. Before they are accepted as such, instructors are made to swear an oath by which they promise to observe these rites faithfully: “I undertake the responsibility of representing the holy tradition in all its purity as it has been given to me by Maharishi.” Although initiates are not told the full import of the initiation rites, they are not admitted if they do not partake at least materially by presenting flowers and having the prayer said over them. For Maharishi the initiation puja is a sacramental, essential to its religious success.

Why then the denial of religious implications? I believe this to be part of a well-thought-out strategy, entirely consistent with Maharishi’s religious and philosophical convictions. Since the mantras have power on their own, the initiates do not need to believe in them. Modern man is secular and certainly opposed to Hindu ideas, so he must be drawn in in spite of such prejudices.

A reform of politics and economics is what Maharisishi is dreaming of. And this reveals another deceptive feature of TM: how a `simple meditation technique” can suddenly be transformed into a world organisation. With the substantial fees collected from initiates all over the world, Maharishi has established a network spanning various continents. On 12 January 1976, he set up his World Government of Creative Intelligence with three world capitals – New York, Salzburg and Rishikesh-and 1,500 national capitals. Wentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire houses some of the World Governors of the Age of Enlightenment.

It is difficult from the available sources to assess Maharishi’s dreams accurately. On the one hand, there seems to be the genuine hope that a deeper, inner spiritual awareness will change political authorities from within. On the other hand, who is to know whether at some future date Maharishi might call on his organisation to step in and take control in more physical terms? In 1975 he said: ‘There has not been and there will not be a place for the unfit. The fit will lead and if the unfit are not coming along there is no place tor them.’

By this time, I am sure, some Christian TM teachers will be ready to explode. TM does not demand a change of religion, they will say. Surely Christians can learn from methods ot prayer developed in other religious traditions? A Christian meditator does not need to follow the Maharishi in all his dreams and schemes. This line of defence is expounded at length in a collection of essays edited by Fr Adrian Smith in TM: An Aid to Christian Growth (Mayhew McCrimmon 1983). I am not impressed by its arguments; on the contrary, I am worried that unwary seekers be misguided.

The Christian way

I said earlier that the use of a mantra could be helpful as a first step in the process of meditation. I am convinced that for this purpose the selection of any suitable invocatory prayer will do. This is also the considered opinion of people who have been instructors in TM and have stepped out of the organisation on account of its lack of openness and sincerity. Maureen Jones-Ryan, who is one of them, explains in detail how to compose one’s own mantra from soft vowels and consonants (Meditation Without Frills, Schenkman 1976). Christians might prefer some invocation of Christ which is easy to say and has religious connotations.

Helping a person to find the right mantra and guiding him or her in its use is according to ancient yoga tradition. But TM’s practice of surrounding it with secrecy and of demanding a fee for performing the service, is not. That alone, apart from all the other reasons given above, should make us hesitate to put ourselves at the mercy of TM’s organisation. I appreciate that Christian instructors will be anxious to share with others their good experiences with the mantra, but why should they submit themselves to the unnecessary superstitions and practices imposed? Why not take the Maharishi’s claim on its face value: if the mantra has no religious implications, why not free the mantra from its secret, superstitious ties?

Anyway, as Christian meditators will realise, mantra meditation by itself cannot lead us into the fullness of Christian prayer. For Maharishi, final realisation lies in submersion, in obtaining bliss consciousness in the Absolute. Christians believe that the fullest revelation of God appeared in Christ, who disclosed that God is love. Stranger still, they are convinced that Christ, their supreme Master, showed his love not by withdrawing to higher status of consciousness, but by working as a carpenter and dying on the cross. An all-round Christian prayer is therefore made of different stuff, even if it ascends to mystical heights.