A Generation of Gurus

  • Everything changed in the shock wave of the '60s, from the music and the clothes to the cultural icons. Eastern religions were in; the words mantra and ashram entered our vocabulary, and gurus emerged to offer us paths to enlightenment. A Hindu swami calling himself Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation to the West and collected celebrity followers; and a fired Ivy League psychology professor named Richard Alpert went to India and became Ram Dass, servant of God. Three decades later, they are both back in the news.

    THE CEO OF TM When the Beatles huddled with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967, he was already exporting Transcendental Meditation to a waiting world. By 1975 his U.S. organization had 370 centers, and 30,000 people a month were signing on to learn his 40-min. technique for finding bliss. This was no holy hermit: that same year he was on the cover of TIME.

    Believed to be in his mid-80s today, he has his headquarters in a complex around a former monastery near the village of Vlodrop, Holland, and presides over a network of schools and universities, ayurvedic health products and "cosmic software." Worldwide, his 4 million devotees see and hear the familiar bearded figure uttering gnomic wisdom on his 24-hour TV channel (e.g., "The goddess of learning lives in your head" and "If you don't believe me, get an operation and check").

    One of his loftier projects is coming under fire in Brazil, where the Maharishi Global Development Fund proposes to construct the first of 1,000 buildings planned for the planet's largest cities. This one, in Sao Paulo, is a four-sided, pyramid-shaped structure with Hindu carvings that will surpass the 1,483-ft.-tall Petronas Towers in Malaysia to become the world's tallest skyscraper. Opponents say Sao Paulo, virtually bankrupt as it is, would have to shoulder enormous infrastructure costs, and environmentalists claim the site is dangerously near a floodplain that is awash in the rainy season.

    Back in Holland, the Maharishi has been in a prolonged legal battle with the Dutch government over a plan to tear down the brick-and-stone monastery, a national landmark, and replace it with a building that has an entrance facing east, like his residence. "We think it's better to renovate than tear down," says Gos Saes, a spokesman for Vlodrop's mayor. A court decision is expected in May, and if the Maharishi loses, many followers will decamp to other centers in the U.S. or Switzerland. He says he will stay, however, because, says one disciple, he considers his living quarters "ideal."

    A JOURNEY INTO ILLNESS At 69, the once peripatetic Ram Dass gets around these days by wheelchair or, as he calls it, his swan boat. While working on a manuscript about aging in 1997, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He remains partially paralyzed and has aphasia. When he was able to resume writing, the experience had enriched his understanding, and, as he writes in his new book, Still Here, "it gave me an encounter with a kind of physical suffering that often accompanies aging." Had it happened when he was young, he says, he would have been thrown into turmoil. "I can accept more now because I have a model of reality."

    Experimenting in psychedelic-drug studies with Timothy Leary in 1963 cost the young teacher his position at Harvard and started him off on a spiritual road on which he is still traveling. He found a different kind of high in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he met up with a guru known as the Maharaji. Out of that encounter came both the name Ram Dass and Be Here Now, his 1970s million-selling guide to higher consciousness. Published this month, Still Here speaks to a generation less concerned with turning on, tuning in and dropping out than with fearing the effects of growing older. "In this society," he maintains, "aging is more in the closet than dying."

    His Ram Dass Library continues to sell tapes of his teachings, and he laughs about a couple in their 70s who told him recently, "You go to bed with us every night." Since the stroke, his external world has shrunk. He travels in the U.S. to lecture, but the annual trips he once made to India are out of the question, at least for now. From his home in Marin County, Calif., he says, "I can see out to mountains, and the bay, water, trees and birds." Words and sentences come slowly, and he seems to dwell comfortably in a universe of long silences. Still, asked if the '60s had been the best time of his life, he replies with conviction, "No. This is my best time."