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Maharishi Inc. The bearded popularizer of transcendental meditation has earthly holdings that will blow your mind. His corporate empire includes land holdings, hotels, publishing houses and plans fro spiritual theme parks.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here's the deal:

Some 2,400 masters of transcendental meditation fly into Baltimore, check into a hotel at the harbor and start to meditate, each morning and evening.

Within weeks, muggers begin to lose the urge to mug. Months pass, and robbers forswear robbery. A year or two, and drug dealers are staying off the corners. Within five years, crime has been -- not reduced. Eliminated.

"With its cities free from crime," say newspaper advertisements for the American City Project, placed over the last four months in 60 urban centers, "the United States will radiate a powerful positive, harmonious, and nourishing influence for the whole world."

This is the laudable result of the Maharishi Effect, named for its inventor: His Holiness, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, popularizer of TM, once-upon-a-time guru to the great, brilliant seer or shameless charlatan, depending on whom you ask.

Here he is now, his lilting, authentic-guru falsetto coming via speakerphone from Vlodrop, Netherlands. He is giving interviews promote his crime scheme.

How's it work, Maharishi?

"When people are involved in crime," he explains, "they are reacting to a stressed atmosphere. When the mind loses its stress, that affects the atmosphere. . . . In one, two, three weeks, no more, the criminals will think of not using their guns. Their thinking will be more positive. They will not know why."

If you've ever heard of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, you may vaguely remember him as the Indian holy man who turned the Beatles from LSD to a more spiritual variety of tripping in 1968. You may know he brought transcendental meditation from his native India to a spellbound West and watched it flourish alongside the baby boom. You may even have glimpsed Maharishi's other grand plans over the years, his white-bearded visage gazing from a college-campus poster or a fine-print ad in Time.

And you may have thought of him as a harmless eccentric, a slightly dotty old man, a little too ethereal for this mercenary world.

If so, you might be surprised to learn that Maharishi today presides over a corporate empire Indian sources have estimated to be worth more than $2 billion, a sort of Wal-Mart of the spirit, encompassing extensive land holdings in India, hotels in Europe, and publishing houses in the United States.

There's the Maharishi Heaven on Earth Development Company, selling schemes for suburbs built in harmony with natural law. There are Maharishi Ayur-Veda medical clinics, curing with herbs and diagnosing disease by taking the patient's pulse. There are plans for Maharishi Veda Land spiritual theme parks in Orlando, Fla., Niagara Falls, India and Japan.

There are Maharishi universities on three continents. There is Maharishi's Natural Law Party, which fielded candidates in the British and U.S. elections last year. There is Maharishi everything, it seems, right down to the Maharishi Jyotish astrology service and the Maharishi Yagya Hindu-good-luck-ceremonies-for-rent.

True, while the movement is prosperous, in some of its ventures there may be less than meets the eye. Some "universities" are rumored to consist of a hotel suite. A Heaven on Earth executive says development has been stalled by the recession. The theme parks consist, so far, of land purchases and press conferences. Natural Law Party candidates drew far less than 1 percent of the vote.

But whatever the substance, the image is getting meticulous attention. Maharishi's empire is served by an eager public relations operation, the Age of Enlightenment News Service, ready to beam Maharishi's pronouncements by satellite from his palatial headquarters in the Netherlands or Fed-Ex videocassettes of His Holiness explaining Maharishi's Science of Creative Intelligence.

"Maharishi's got so many major projects, it's unbelievable," says Craig Berg, an affable PR man in Fairfield, Iowa, the unlikely home of Maharishi International University and U.S. Capital of the Age of Enlightenment. "I don't know how he remembers them all."

'Like a mental shower'

Mr. Berg, 43, who grew up in Baltimore, is one of thousands of devotees who serve Maharishi's projects around the globe for room, board and a small monthly stipend. Many dress in the coat-and-tie style he advises to change TM's counterculture reputation: "Throw your blue jeans into the ocean," he once told them.

To many of the tens of thousands of Americans who still actively practice TM, it remains a useful tool for stress-reduction. "It's extremely clarifying to my awareness," says Kevin P. Condon, 48, an Ellicott City investment manager who has meditated for 25 years. "It's like a mental shower. I like it."

But for some former devotees who have left the TM movement, Maharishi is the leader of a cult that literally entrances its subjects, bombards them with propaganda and cripples their ability to think critically. Caught up in TM as teen-agers in the '70s, they now view their involvement as a prolonged bout of self-hypnosis.

"For me, the age of enlightenment turned into the age of embarrassment," says Roger Foster, 35, a Silver Spring computer programmer who spent more than a decade serving Maharishi before an anti-cult book changed his mind in 1988. "I can't believe what I used to believe."

In retrospect, he sees a sinister side, recalling times when devotees had their mail screened and were monitored by a "Vigilance Committee." Before qualifying as an advanced meditator, a "Governor of the Age of Enlightenment," he was asked: "Have you ever strayed from the movement, even in your thinking?"

Diane Hendel, a 36-year-old nursing student, spent 18 years in the movement before getting out in 1989. She is a leader of TM-EX, a group of former meditators, and has sued the movement for fraud.

She tells of paying a small fortune for secret mantras and miracle cures; of overhearing a down-to-earth Maharishi in India talking profit margins with the Philippines head of TM; of selling commodities by phone for the TM-dominated Fairfield franchise of International Trading Group, Ltd., later closed in a major fraud case.

"We were told it was people's karma if they lost their money with us," says Ms. Hendel, of Arlington, Va.

Mr. Berg dismisses TM-EX as a "microscopic" group of "troubled people. It seems their mission in life is to be unhappy." Maharishi's mission is just the opposite, he says.

Indeed, vanquishing crime from U.S. cities is only a piece of "Maharishi's Master Plan to Create Heaven on Earth." It should be well within the reach of a man who, at various times, has claimed he can teach others to fly, to walk through walls, to become invisible; who can reverse the aging process, eliminate hunger, foretell the future, end all war.

Tell Maharishi that some people in Baltimore scoff at his crime-fighting plan, and over the transatlantic phone line comes a confident laugh.

"I can expect such attitudes from the crime-ridden atmosphere," he says. "This is a simple and good thing."

Simple and good, but not inexpensive. Maharishi wants $88 million a year from the city or private benefactors -- $36,000 in salary and expenses for each of the 2,400 meditators whose vibes would clear crime from metro Baltimore, quite possibly from Washington and Philadelphia as well. (This is not an exact science.)

He would need this money on a continuing basis. "When the lamp is turned off," he explains, "the darkness returns."

Sure, Maharishi, but it still sounds like a lot of cash.

Another chuckle.

5) "I never think about money," he says.

Can't talk about his dad

Various sources report Maharishi's father as a teacher, a tax inspector and a forest ranger; his birth date as 1917 and 1918; his real name as J. N. Srivastava and Mashed Prasad Varma.

He doesn't mind the mystery. "Being a monk, I'm not allowed to speak about myself," he says.

What seems certain is that he completed a physics degree at Allahabad University in India and then spent some years studying the Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures, with a renowned holy man known as Guru Dev. In the 1950s, he rechristened himself Maharishi (great seer) Mahesh (a family name) Yogi (master of yoga) and began eyeing the untapped Western spiritual market.

Maharishi's stroke of genius was to take the basic meditative technique common to many traditions, give it the catchy, copyrighted title "Transcendental Meditation," add a -- of secrecy and razzle-dazzle -- and put a price tag on it. The introductory TM course originally cost about $100; now it's $400. Enthusiasts pay hundreds more for "advanced" courses, some of which amount to a ceremony to pass on a new mantra, a sound the meditator concentrates on.

Though the Beatles quickly lost interest, the publicity that attended celebrity gave TM the push it needed. Meditation courses swept U.S. college campuses. Millions in course fees poured in to TM's national headquarters.

In 1975, Harvard psychologist Herbert Benson documented the physiological effects of meditation in a best-selling book, "The Relaxation Response." He found evidence to support many meditators' reports that they felt better, slept more soundly and thought more clearly as a result of a 20-minute, twice-a-day meditation routine.

But Dr. Benson also confirmed that there was no magic to TM. Meditation worked fine without TM's lectures on Maharishi's Vedic science, secret Sanskrit mantras or fruit-and-flower initiation ceremonies.

The aging of the '60s generation gradually cut the number of new TM recruits. Maharishi responded, like any good marketing man, with new concepts: courses in advanced "TM-Sidhi" meditation and "yogic flying," which looks to outsiders like vigorous hopping. (The PR photographs use a fast shutter speed to freeze yogic flyers in mid-hop, leaving the impression they are floating cross-legged a few inches above the ground.)

He promised world peace and took credit for the end of the Cold War. Now, as Americans turn their attention inward, he is offering to make their cities safe. Meanwhile, his products have proliferated.

In October 1991, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, having unwittingly printed an uncritical account of Ayur-Veda healing, came back with a long article attacking the TM movement for "a widespread pattern of misinformation, deception, and manipulation of lay and scientific news media." The movement fired back with a libel lawsuit, which is still in court.

Maharishi's boosters say he has no personal wealth and dedicates his waking hours to the betterment of mankind. His critics say he lives like a potentate, traveling in a Mercedes, helicopter or jet and residing in a mammoth former monastery in the Dutch countryside.

A Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary shows a brick complex that might adequately house a royal family. Curiously, though the many advanced meditators on the site presumably put out plenty of crime-fighting vibes, the perimeter is patrolled by security men with dogs.

It's lonely at the top

It can be a lonely business arguing the power of meditation against war and crime. But believers wield a hefty weapon -- five fat research volumes published by Maharishi International University Press.

Of more than 400 studies, some 40 purport to confirm the Maharishi Effect. As it happens, nearly all were carried out by meditators.

One is John L. Davies, a University of Maryland psychologist, who emphasizes his TM research is not university-sponsored. But he says his findings fully justify paying meditators to attack Baltimore crime.

What about Fairfield, Iowa? It's a rural center of fewer than 10,000 residents with hundreds of meditators gathering morning and evening in huge golden domes. If meditation can eliminate ** crime from Baltimore, surely crime must be long gone from Fairfield?

Dr. Davies demurs.

"The introduction of the meditators [since 1974] has caused some upheaval in the fabric of the town's life," Dr. Davies says. "In the process, you get some mixed feelings, and that can result in some crime."

Wouldn't you just know it? Mixed feelings are blocking the power of meditation. Fairfield police chief Randy Cooksey sounds like he's answered this question before.

"Crime here is about the same as any small town in rural America," says Chief Cooksey. Last year, he says, produced 9,501 calls to the police, including four rapes, one robbery, 31 aggravated assaults, 84 burglaries, 461 thefts. . . .

But are the meditators at least driving crime down?

"I'd say there's been a steady increase," Chief Cooksey said. "I think, based on my statistics in Fairfield, I can show they have no impact on crime here."

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