Turn on, tune in and make the world a better place. Yes, the Maharishi, master of meditation and guru to the peace and love generation, is back, and he's taken to the airwaves with his own university. Nicki Household meets a few of the freshers
On December 3 - the day of the full moon - a new and somewhat unusual open university quietly began broadcasting to the world. Its inaugural transmission, delivered by satellite, was a welcoming address by its octogenarian founder and inspiration, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, high priest of transcendental meditation and, more famously, one-time guru to the Beatles.
The Maharishi Open University, he explained in a kindly fashion from behind his long white beard, would provide "a consciousness-based education designed to develop the full potential of the human brain and create heaven on earth for the whole family". He repeated this many times in a variety of ways (which made the address quite long) and assured viewers it was all very simple.
The Maharishi organisation itself is far from simple. As well as Mentmore Towers, its imposing UK headquarters in Buckinghamshire, it has palatial properties in Holland, Switzerland, Australia, India, Thailand, Canada and the United States. It also has five campus universities - in the US, Holland, India, Russia and Australia - and several schools and colleges, including the Maharishi School in Skelmersdale, Lancashire.
An enquiry about the nature and purpose of the Maharishi Open University opens a floodgate of jargon-laden explanations of "total knowledge", "natural law", "the unified field" and "consciousness-based education" (all basic tenets of the Maharishi's teachings), but yields little hard information about the content and structure of the courses.
No syllabus or course material is forthcoming, apart from a video of the Maharishi's welcoming address and a staged "interview" between the university's president, Professor Tony Nader (who also runs other Maharishi universities) and Dr Bevan Morris, president of the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa.
But comparing the MOU with other academic institutions is pointless, and perhaps unfair, as it is not a university at all, despite its use of academic terminology. It is simply a satellite television channel, broadcasting the Maharishi's ideas.
These, in a nutshell, are that the underlying intelligence of the universe (or "unified field") is physiologically present in every brain. When we tap into it through transcendental meditation, we activate the parts of our brain that conventional education has atrophied, thus becoming more effective, more creative, more complete. If everyone did it, the Maharishi claims, the world would see war, crime and misery replaced by "bliss and perfection in individual and national life".
While Maharishi universities in some countries do, apparently, offer accredited degree courses in science and the arts, the MOU here offers only a part-time foundation course (four hours a week for six months) leading to the "Certificate of Total Knowledge". It costs pound;210, plus pound;600 for the necessary dish and receiver. But if you live near a transcendental meditation (TM) study centre, you can save on hardware by watching the evening and weekend broadcasts there. No qualifications are required and there are no exams or assessments. But everyone is expected to learn transcendental meditation before or during the course.
The programmes are broadcast from Holland, and taught by an "esteemed international faculty", which seems to consist mainly of the Maharishi himself. Later courses will lead to degrees in Vedic (sacred) health management, Vedic architecture, Vedic agriculture, Maharishi Jyotish (the Vedic science of prediction) and business management, public administration and supreme political science, all based on Vedic principles.
Vedic architecture, for example, involves creating buildings that are in harmony with the cosmos; Vedic agriculture is farming in accordance with "natural law".
But taking, say, the architecture or agriculture course will not lead you to become a qualified architect or farmer for, as the organisation's Bevan Morris (who addressed a UNESCO world conference on higher education last October) puts it: "We are not offering technical courses, but equipping people to become consultants to these professions. The values they will learn are crucial to creating pure, nourishing food or designing cities that will promote happiness and good health."
Almost everyone who has enrolled (500 so far in Britain, 10,000 worldwide) already has a strong commitment to TM. "I'm keen to hear the Maharishi's latest views and find out about the application of his ideas to a wider range of subjects," explains a 39-year-old NHS manager from Surrey, who has been meditating for 10 years. She plans to do an MOU business management course after the "total knowledge" certificate. "It is quite different from the kind of distance-learning that deals with facts," she comments, "because it is based on enlightenment. It helps you make sense of things holistically and go about your life with increased ease and effectiveness." As her husband, a local authority director of education, is also a devotee, they have invested in a satellite dish.
She is adamant the Maharishi has turned her life around. "My 20s were chaotic, but now I havean exceptionally happy life, full of order and pleasure." Because of the nature of his job, her husband is careful to keep his belief in TM personal (he has been practising it for 24 years) but he too, she says, is convinced he owes his effectiveness and lack of stress to his familiarity with the "unified field of natural law".
Retired teacher Julie Rossiter, now a counsellor and psychotherapist in Oxfordshire, has taken a conventional Open University degree in psychology but believes the Maharishi University will give her deeper insight into human nature. "Modern education is fragmented so we don't use our full potential," she says, echoing the MOU's most frequently voiced reason for its own existence. "The purpose of the university is to help people bring mind, body and spirit together. Normal education equips you from the outside in, but this enriches you from the inside out."
Whether she enrols for subsequent courses will depend on the current one. "I am not an uncritical person," she says. "I shall judge it for myself."
The MOU has no tutors or tutorials, but students who attend TM centres benefit from the support of a co-ordinator. "The centres are lively places and people can do many things besides watch television," insists Bevan Morris. "They can have discussions, make posters, write essays and e-mail their electronic buddies."
Colin Carter, a postman from near Horsham, Surrey, has been attending monthly meditation meetings at a Brighton TM centre for a year, and watches the MOU there. "There's a nice social element," he says, "lectures, dinners, meditation sessions and so on. So I probably won't buy a dish unless I have to."
Having left school at 16 with two O-levels, Mr Carter, now 40, is certain the MOU will do more for his creativity and career prospects than gaining further academic qualifications. "I'm an artist, and would like to write. I know the course will help me achieve my goals because it gives you values to bring to whatever you do."
His faith is echoed by Northamptonshire prep school master Russell France, who has practised TM for the recommended 20 minutes night and morning, for 20 years. "When you meditate, you experience the deepest levels of the mind, which is where all things are connected," he explains. "It is a very fulfilling experience and I have enrolled to get more of the same."
Mr France would dearly like to see TM accepted by conventional educators and applied in schools. "It is a natural and spontaneous activity that is quite delightful to do. It has made me better at judging situations and knowing what is right for individual children. TM is good for children, too, because it improves their behaviour and concentration. They don't have to try to behave better - it just happens.' For enquiries about the Maharishi Open University or the UK Maharishi Foundation, tel: 01296 661715