Rose petals rained down from a helicopter on tens of thousands of mourners at the lavish funeral today of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the 91-year-old Indian guru who inspired the Beatles and introduced transcendental meditation to the West.
The elderly mystic’s embalmed body was laid on an enormous pyre of sandalwood on a hilltop in the grounds of his ashram, overlooking the “sangam” — what is said to be the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers with the mythical river Saraswati.
Preparations for the rites began early, as volunteers plastered sticky cow dung — sacred to Hindus — on the funeral platform, and decorated it with marigold flowers and hundreds of yellow and saffron flags.
Maharishi’s body, which had lain in state, was daubed with ghee, or clarified butter, and saffron vermilion.
His relatives lit the pyre, as mourners from the global religious order he founded clashed cymbals, pounded drums and chanted Vedic hymns. A police guard added to the cacophony with a gun salute.
The 35 newly anointed leaders, or “rajas”, of the order wiped away tears as they watched, dressed in gold crowns and flowing cream robes. Many mourners meditated as the flames engulfed the body, and the chanting crescendoed to a peak.
A marbled tomb is to be built on Maharishi’s ashes after the ceremony.
“Now we have a greater responsibility, but we will always receive direction and purpose from Maharishi,” said John Konhaus, one of the new rajas.
“The emphasis is now on continuing Maharishi’s tradition. We have to build invincible towers of knowledge and wisdom as taught by the Maharishi.”
An iconic figure in the West, Maharishi was nonetheless virtually unknown to his fellow countrymen.
He introduced the ancient Hindu practice of mind control, which he called transcendental meditation or TM, to the West, where it has gained more than five million practitioners.
He also championed “yogic flying”, said to be the ultimate level of transcendence, in which practitioners try to summon a surge of energy to physically lift themselves off the ground.
His meditation techniques became famous after the Beatles visited his ashram in 1968. An eclectic mix of celebrity visitors followed, including David Lynch the film director, the actress Mia Farrow and Mike Love of the Beach Boys.
He was criticised by some for lacking seriousness and for enjoying a lavish lifestyle. Sceptics mocked his notion that group meditation could harness the power of the universe to end conflict and cure world hunger. He died last week at his retreat in the Netherlands.
“In life he revolutionised the lives of millions of people,” said Lynch, who attended the cremation and was visibly moved.
Voice quivering, he continued: “In his passing away he is bringing the West and the East together as well. In 20, 50, 500 years there will be millions of people who will know and understand what the Maharishi has done.”
Adhiraj Rajaram, the order’s new leader, issued a royal proclamation yesterday that a school teaching TM and yogic flying would be built in each of 48 countries to continue Maharishi’s movement. The proclamation was read out by a spokesman as Rajaram does not speak in public, preferring to lead by silence.
By coincidence, the funeral coincided with an annual pilgrimage of worshippers to the area, where Hindu mythology asserts that gods and demons spilled nectar during a heavenly war.
Millions of Hindu faithful bathe at the site every year, in the belief it will wash away their sins and liberate them from the cycle of birth and death.
The funeral took place against a backdrop of priests making offerings, worshippers washing themselves with soap on ritual bathing platforms, laundrymen thwacking clothes against slabs of slate in the river and curious tourists taking photographs.