Born in central India, the one-time spiritual guru to the Beatles is credited with introducing the West to Transcendental Meditation. He died last Tuesday at his home in the Netherlands. NEWSWEEK's Sharon Begley offers her thoughts on the Maharishi's contribution to science.
What Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave the Beatles is the stuff of pop-music legend. During their otherwise disastrous stay in his ashram overlooking the Ganges River in northern India in the spring of 1968, the Beatles minus Ringo (he bailed after a week, saying he couldn't stomach the food) experienced a creative surge unlike any they'd ever had before—much of which ended up on the "White Album." The other legacy the Maharishi gave the West is more controversial. In 1971, he founded Maharishi International University (now the Maharishi University of Management) in Iowa, which has become the center for studies of Transcendental Meditation.
Almost immediately, scientists there began researching the effects of TM on subjects, ranging from job satisfaction to blood pressure: one study found TM reduced hypertension in older African-American men; another, that it could moderate the harm of strenuous physical exercise on the immune system and that it reduced anxiety.
But many scientists were not fully convinced of those findings, particularly because the studies often compared people who meditated with people who didn't. If meditators have lower levels of stress than nonmeditators, they wondered, maybe it was because only already-mellow people choose to meditate and stick with it? Or the placebo effect might explain the claimed benefits of TM: if you expect an intervention to help you, it often does. So perhaps it's the belief that TM will do wonderful things that produces benefits, not the actual meditation.
Whichever way you sway, the Maharishi deserves credit for introducing the study of meditation to biology. Hospitals from Stanford to Duke have instituted meditation programs to help patients cope with chronic pain and other ailments. Scientists unaffiliated with the movement have been emboldened to study the effects of other forms of meditation on diseases from depression to psoriasis, with impressive results. Whatever you think of the "White Album," give the Maharishi credit for helping launch what's become a legitimate new field of neuroscience.