He was the Sixth Beatle, a spiritual force with the potential to create world peace and end famine.
Or he was an avaricious old man with a penchant for young girls who ruined the greatest pop group in history…
It rather depends on your point of view, but one thing is certain about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who died this week aged somewhere between 91 and 97 – he was one of the richest religious leaders in history.
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The ‘giggling guru’ – so called because of his high-pitched laugh – lived in an opulent 200-room mansion, with helicopters and dozens of cars at his disposal, and was worth an estimated £2billion.
He was the head of a movement with five million followers worldwide, all seeking a higher consciousness through transcendental meditation.
But while the Maharishi promised world peace, and cynics laughed at his wacky teachings and yogic flying, sinister stories of sex, debauchery, and even murder cast dark shadows over his life.
All but one of the Beatles cut their ties with their apparently celibate guru after it emerged he’d made a pass at Mia Farrow. The Maharishi’s people, on the other hand, insist they simply fell out when he discovered the band were using LSD.
Later another British disciple, Linda Pearce claimed the Maharishi had seduced her when he was in his 60s.
“He was a brilliant manipulator,” said Mrs Pearce. “I just couldn’t see that he was a dirty old man. We made love regularly. At one stage I even thought I was pregnant by him. And I don’t think I was the only girl. There was a lot of talk that he’d tried to rape Mia Farrow.”
And there was worse scandal to come. In 1987, when the Maharishi was living in a highsecurity complex on the outskirts of Delhi, India, the Telegraph newspaper of Calcutta alleged five boys had died after being used as guinea pigs in the ashram’s “medical institute” searching for cures for cancer, heart ailments and Aids. Nothing was ever proved.
At the same time the fabulously wealthy guru’s employees went on strike to increase their ?10-a-month wages. The Maharishi simply moved into a five-star hotel in New Delhi until it was over.
Mahesh Prasad Varma (or Mahesh Srivastava, depending on your source) was born in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, sometime between 1911 and 1918.
The son of a government tax inspector, he initially studied physics but then trained with a Vedic spiritual mentor, undertaking two years of silence in the Himalayas where he developed his ideas on transcendental meditation.
The movement the Maharishi leaves behind, after his death at his luxurious retreat in Vlodrop in the Netherlands, has been called the world’s richest cult. Yet when he began his first world tour as a spiritual leader in Burma in 1958, the Maharishi was praised for his austerity.
One commentator wrote: “He asks for nothing. His worldly possessions can be carried in one hand.”
Meeting the Beatles a decade later changed all that. The band had been encouraged to attend a lecture by George Harrison’s wife Patti, and were impressed enough by what they heard to accompany him to a weekend retreat in to North Wales.
Along with Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, they took the train to Bangor – where the Maharishi assumed the mob of screaming fans were there for him.
Only a day into the retreat the news broke that the Beatles influential manager Brian Epstein had died from a suspected drugs overdose.
Rather than let them grieve for their friend and first mentor, the Maharishi told them their tears would cause “vibrations” which could trap Epstein’s spiriton this spiritual plane rather than let it travel to the next. And he instructed them to be joyful and laugh.
Months later all four Beatles, their partners and 60s stars Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence headed off for a three-month retreat to the Maharishi’s centre on the banks of the Ganges.
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Funded by a tithe of one week’s wages from each of its students, the bank balance of the ashram received a massive boost from the world’s biggest pop stars.
They expected to find spiritual enlightenment, but what they actually found was what Ringo called “a bit like Butlins.” He and his then wife Maureen left after a fortnight, desperate for “egg and chips.” Paul McCartney and his girlfriend Jane Asher quit too.
Then came the stories of the Maharishi’s attempt to have sex with Mia Farrow. John Lennon said later: “There was a hullabaloo about him trying to rape Mia and a few other women. The whole gang charged down to his hut and I said: ‘We’re leaving!’ He asked why and I said: ‘If you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.’ The Maharishi gave me a look that said: ‘I’ll kill you, you bastard!'”
But none of this dented the Maharishi’s growing global popularity. Travelling the world in a pink aeroplane, his fame and his movement grew and he featured on the front cover of Time magazine in 1975. His transcendental meditation technique involved silently repeating a Sanskrit mantra for 20 minutes twice a day. And since scientific studies have now concluded it has some real health benefits, it is never short of new adherents
And at £1,300 per person for a standard introduction course, it’s easy to see where the Maharishi’s cash came from. But there were times when the guru’s ego got the better of him… He once told an audience in New York that if just one per cent of the world’s population adopted his teaching it would “neutralise the power of war for thousands of years”.
Consequently, he claimed credit for peacein the Lebanon and Mozambique, and forreducing crime in Washington and Merseyside.
And after the terrorist outrages of September 11, 2001 the Maharishi claimed ifany government gave him a billion dollars hecould end terrorism and create peace.
His claims were ridiculed – as were his 40,000 yogic fliers who, as the Natural Law Party, promised that levitating while in the Lotus position would bring peace and enlightenment. In the end it brought just 0.4 per cent of thevotes in the election.
Last month the guru, who lately communicated through a videolink, announced his retirement. His spokesman Bob Roth says: “He’d done what he set out to do.”
Apart from world peace.