The Maharishi Wants Everybody to Levitate for Peace, but Some Iowans Are Hopping Mad

updated 02/06/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1984 01:00AM

The evening "program" at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa was no ordinary collegiate event. In a new shed big enough to house a brace of Boeing 747s, some 2,000 people sat cross-legged on a sea of sheet-covered mattresses, smiling beatifically, their eyes shut in serene contemplation of their mantras. A rainbow-colored portrait of a Hindu guru loomed above them on a golden-carpeted stage garlanded with flowers. Yellow streamers and a huge banner heralded "Taste of Utopia," a spectacular peace convention dreamed up by adherents of the Transcendental Meditation movement.

Even today, a month after the conference turned this quiet rural community into a bustling Mecca for levitators and meditators, many residents are still on edge. They are worried that the recent waves of pilgrims will want to make Fairfield their permanent home. If that happens, they say, good-bye fair Fairfield.

The whole conflict had its origins last December, when TM mentor Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—whose celeb followers once included the Beatles—blitzed the media around the globe with paid ads calling upon his legions to descend upon Fairfield to help ease world tensions through mass meditation. Local builders worked furiously to construct two vast dormitories while the Maharishi's officials brought in 200 mobile homes to shelter the pilgrims. By Dec. 17 more than 5,000 of them—many woefully unprepared for the sub-zero temperatures that endured for a whole week—had arrived from as far away as Australia. Joining the 2,000 faithful already in residence, they raised fears in town that the meditators were on the verge of wrecking the stability of the Fairfield community.

Although about 4,000 packed up following the bliss-out, the most unsettling sign of permanence remains the forest of trailers, which city council sources say MIU officials had promised to remove after the December conference. "The townspeople are saying, 'Get those suckers out of there,' " says Charles Barnett, 52, a Chamber of Commerce leader and town spokesman. Many think the compound is a first step in doubling the meditating community overnight—and university officials don't dispute it, saying that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi will make Fairfield his home or decide to be here far more often. MIU spokesman Richard Schneider says, "And we expect an additional six or seven thousand meditators living here within three years."

Fairfield had maintained a stable, if uneasy, relationship with the permanent MIU population ever since 1974, when followers of the Maharishi bought bankrupt Parsons College on the north end of town and turned it into a meditation center. The movement now includes about 700 full-time students and 1,300 TM followers who moved to Fairfield to be near the harmonious vibrations emanating from the university.

But the harmony never extended to normal town-gown relations. The meditators' eccentric behavior and philosophy made Fairfield's citizens almost long for the good old days of boozy fraternity parties. "They're spacey, they're not coherent," says Don Hall, a sporting-goods salesman who, like many townies, views the 'tators—as many have taken to calling them—as a secretive cult. Attitudes toward the 'tators only worsened after armed guards were stationed at university entrances to protect the Maharishi during his visit. Moreover, many Fairfielders are dubious about the Maharishi's vaunted asceticism: One observes that Fairfield workers were ordered to knock down and rebuild the guru's campus garage because it had been constructed five feet shorter than the length of his stretch limousine.

The garage is one of the more mundane buildings on a campus dominated by two gold domes to which the faithful flock twice a day for two hours of meditation and what they call "hopping"—a sudden feeling of weightlessness during which, meditators claim, they lift off above the ground. (The group prohibits outsiders from such sessions, claiming that the presence of skeptics distracts the levitators.) In the vegetarian dining hall a bulletin board announces a meditation canoe trip in Minnesota and advises "Sidhis"—advanced-stage meditators capable of levitation—to bring along their own "flying foam" to cushion the impact of their returning to earth.

Lest the visitor feel that he is being handed a dish of mystical mumbo jumbo, he can pay a visit to the university's science wing. Here, "brain-wave experiments" and "cellular research" purport to document the Maharishi's claim that his devotees lose two years of biological age for every year that they meditate.

Also on display are elaborate graphs tracing Middle East tensions, traffic deaths on Iowa highways and the national crime rate, all designed to support the guru's "super-radiance effect"—his theory that peace, harmony and the Dow Jones industrial average rise in direct proportion to the number of people meditating at any one time. According to the guru, mass meditation performed simultaneously by a number of people equaling the square root of one percent of a country's population will bring the rest of the citizenry innumerable concrete benefits. In fact, meditators claim that the Taste of Utopia's 7,000 pilgrims—equal roughly to the square root of one percent of the world's population—had positive effects as far away as Beirut, even though traffic remained hopelessly snarled by the visitors, and parking violations abounded on the streets of Fairfield.

Needless to say, the bizarre beliefs have had repercussions among the religious community of Fairfield. One group of nine local ministers called for a protest fast at the start of the Utopia conference, accusing MIU leaders of lowering a "veil of deception" over the true Hindu content of the movement. Other, more moderate religious leaders, such as the Rev. William Sullivan of Fairfield's St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, have limited themselves to expressing bemused tolerance. "Transcendental Meditation gives stability and meaning to people who would otherwise be floundering," says Father Sullivan, who displays in his office a "Maharishi Award" for service to Fairfield. "But would I want one of my relatives to become a meditator? Of course not."

Similarly unprotesting are store owners who have profited from the meditators' conspicuous consumerism and workers who have found employment at firms run by Fairfield's TM practitioners. The Utopia conference created hundreds of short-term jobs for people who had been left unemployed by Iowa's lingering recession. "They've helped us stay out of the doldrums," says one real estate broker, who estimates that 75 percent of his deals last year were made with meditators or with townspeople looking for new homes after selling theirs to the newcomers.

Yet the broker, like most locals, views the business boom as a mixed blessing. "The biggest concern here is that MIU affiliates have bought up 3,500 acres of idle farmland within a five-mile radius of Fairfield, and they're planning to develop it," he says warily. "It looks like 25,000 to 30,000 people are going to come in."

Still, as he puts it, "we complain with our mouths full." Take Don Hall's Star Sport & Trophy Shop, for example. Don has decided to go with the transcendental flow. In addition to his standard collection of Adidas and Nike sportswear, he is offering a new line of T-shirts: a long-sleeved model emblazoned in gold with a single word—Utopia.

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