Above the Lake: The transcendental meditation-quantum physics connection
In 1922, the Muir Central College in Allahabad, in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was converted into a science center. On the advice of Albert Einstein and the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, a well-known Indian theoretical physicist named Megnhad Saha was named the first professor. When he left in 1940, the job was offered to Erwin Schrödinger. He accepted but the onset of the war prevented his going to India; Schrödinger ended up in Ireland.
The university is now an active research center in many disciplines of physics. If you look on its website you will find a list of famous alumni in a variety of fields. For example, the late Harish Chandra, a very distinguished mathematician who finished his career at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was a physics major there and so was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who died Feb. 5, 2008. He was thought to be in his 90s.
In 1939, after his graduation, the maharishi became a disciple of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, who gave him the name Bal Brahmachayra Mahesh. Not being a Brahmin, the maharishi could not succeed his master after the latter’s death in 1953. So he struck out on his own, teaching transcendental meditation to various comers, including, notably, the Beatles.
In 1975, the maharishi founded the eponymous Maharishi European Research University in what had been an elegant resort hotel in Weggis, above Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. There was, I have been informed, a large circular dome bearing inscriptions like “Center of World Government.” There was a minister of Health and Immortality. He installed as his chief scientist a physicist named Lawrence Domash. Domash was persuaded that there were important connections between quantum mechanics and transcendental meditation. The maharishi must have agreed because in 1979 he presided over a conference on the subject that was attended by, among others, my friend, the late John Bell, who was known in the physics community as having the clearest ideas of anyone on the foundations of the theory.
In 1984, in a series of interviews, Bell described the occasion. To put things in context: Before my interviews with Bell, the Dalai Lama had visited CERN, where Bell was employed, and Bell was part of a delegation that had had lunch with him and a dozen or so other Tibetan monks. Bell recalled that the Dalai Lama seemed to have no interest in the quantum theory. One of the things he asked, however, was that if particles are points, how can they add up to the macroscopic objects we are familiar with? This, in fact, requires the quantum theory to understand.
The setting with the maharishi, Bell told me, was quite different. He sat on a kind of throne, dressed in a white robe and surrounded by 30 or so acolytes also dressed in white robes. Most of them, Bell recalled, were quite attractive women. “They looked sweet,” he remarked.
Bell gave his lecture in which he said, more or less, that there was no connection discernible to him between the quantum theory and transcendental meditation. Domash attempted to argue that the state you got into during transcendental meditation was similar to the ground state of a superconductor, which Bell thought was nonsense. From time to time the maharishi made pronouncements, to general adulation from acolytes.
Abner Shimony, another distinguished quantum theorist who was there, told me that one of the maharishi’s comments was that if “n” people do transcendental meditation then the strength is of the order of the square of “n,” which he thought, mistakenly, had something to do with superconductors. You were apparently not allowed to pose direct questions, so Bell was somewhat startled when the maharishi said that through transcendental meditation he could create rain, starting with the creation of a small cloud. This could not be demonstrated to the group, however, as there were skeptics among them. Likewise, self-levitation, which the maharishi was then studying, was not demonstrable at the moment.
But “the meals,” Bell recalled, “were very good. They were vegetarian.”