Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; founded Transcendental Meditation movement

Amsterdam, Netherlands - Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement, who taught the Beatles to meditate, made "mantra" a household word in the 1970s and built a multimillion-dollar empire on a promise of inner harmony and world peace, died Tuesday in Vlodrop, the Netherlands. He was believed to have been 91.

Bob Roth, a spokesman for the Transcendental Meditation organization, said the Maharishi died peacefully of natural causes at his private residence in Vlodrop, a village about 120 miles south of Amsterdam where he moved his headquarters in 1990.

John Hegelin, the director of the TM organization in the United States, told The Times on Tuesday that the Maharishi had a transformative effect on Western society.

"He brought meditation to the West. He encouraged scientific research on it and made meditation mainstream," said Hegelin, who is among 300 world leaders of the movement who have been meeting in Vlodrop since last month.

In Fairfield, Iowa, a town of 9,700 where the Maharishi University of Management is located and where close to 3,000 residents practice TM daily, Mayor Ed Malloy credited the guru with changing "the perception that meditation was something that someone did to renounce the world. He said that meditation could be added to an active lifestyle and enhance all elements of life."

Meditation, Malloy said Tuesday, "is taken for granted now, but back in the late 1950s and early '60s, he was the one who turned that perception around."

Known as the "giggling guru" for his high-pitched laugh, the Maharishi headed the TM organization for 50 years until Jan. 11, when he issued a farewell message. His devotees around the world were stirred by his announcement and believed that he was preparing for his death. TM officials said he was retiring to concentrate on silence and studying the ancient Indian texts that had inspired his spiritual teachings.

The diminutive Indian philosopher, who brought his brand of Eastern mysticism to the West in the late 1950s, had attained a cult-like following by the end of the 1960s, when his message of peace resonated with a counterculture in bloom. His most famous followers were the Beatles, who spent a month at his ashram in India in 1968 and wrote some of their more popular songs there.

By the mid-1970s, TM had an estimated 600,000 practitioners, including actresses Shirley MacLaine and Mia Farrow; football star Joe Namath and pop singer Donovan. TM how-to books rose on bestseller lists, close behind the decade's iconic blockbuster, "The Joy of Sex."

Before long, the Maharishi had established a political party, a gold-domed university in Fairfield and a network of several hundred TM centers around the country.

"Transcendental Meditation is the McDonald's of the meditation business," bestselling author Adam Smith once wrote of the movement, which claims more than 5 million practitioners in 130 countries.

The guru's message was appealing in its simplicity: A person could reduce stress and attain happiness by meditating 20 minutes twice a day on a secret Sanskrit word, or mantra.

If sufficient numbers of meditators achieved inner peace, the Maharishi said, they could radiate bliss to the world, which would reduce crime and end wars.

"The philosophy of life is this: Life is not a struggle, not a tension . . . . Life is bliss. It is eternal wisdom, eternal existence," the Maharishi once said.

Beginning in the 1970s, a number of scientific studies were conducted that showed beneficial physiological effects to TM, including reducing hypertension.

In later years, the Maharishi claimed that advanced practitioners of Transcendental Meditation could defy the laws of physics and fly through the air like Peter Pan -- a feat that would require not only dedication but at least $275 a week for a four-to-eight-week course. Such claims brought a wave of skeptical news stories that portrayed the Indian mystic as the P.T. Barnum of the New Age.

Whether huckster or holy man, the Maharishi intrigued Americans, thousands of whom were introduced to his ideas in 1975 by talk-show host and meditation enthusiast Merv Griffin, who had the guru on his program. Transcendental Meditation was by then a full-blown craze -- "the turn-on of the '70s," a Time magazine cover story proclaimed, and less risky than drug-induced highs. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut, whose wife and daughter were TM followers, wrote in an Esquire magazine article a few years earlier, the TM route to rapture meant "the fuzz can't bust you."

The influential guru was born Mahesh Prasad Varma, the son of a local tax official in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Various accounts give the year of his birth as 1911, 1917 or 1918; when he became the Maharishi, he was not inclined to clear up the mystery, saying that age was unimportant.

According to his official biography, he studied physics at Allahabad University and earned a degree in 1942. While in college, he became a student of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, a major leader of the Hindus who was called Guru Dev, or "divine teacher." After graduating from college, he trained under Brahmananda until the guru died in 1953.

Following Guru Dev's death, the Maharishi retreated into the Himalayas for a two-year period of meditation. When he emerged in 1955, he devoted himself to popularizing his master's form of meditation, which was derived from Advaita Vedanta, a branch of Hindu philosophy.