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To make matters more difficult for the ashram administration, Bhati and an ayurvedic physician, Dr Govind Sharma, formerly employed at the ashram, charged that some of the boys were also subjected to sexual abuse by the teachers. They produced a boy by the name of Bhagat Singh, a former ashram inmate, who now works at an electrician's shop in Dadri, to give testimony in this regard. The boy, who hails from Nayagaon. near Secunderabad tehsil, while recounting his stay at the Veda Vigyan Vidya Peeth, confirms that the reports of sexual abuse are indeed true. Homosexuality, in any case, is a common boarding school phenomenon. But he denies that the children were ever subjected to research of any kind. In his version of events, a boy by the name of Kush Kumar Chaubey had died after falling ill. There is some confusion over whether his name was Kush or Lav, as there were two brothers at the ashram by these two names, of whom one had died. He also says that living conditions in the ashram were poor.

Ashram officials in turn dismiss the reports as a fabrication of "anti-social" elements and union members with "vested interests". In their account of things, the ashram was closed simply because that particular academic session had ended and not in order to hush up a scandal.

"There are 1500 boys here right now. And 2500 are coming from Orissa on January 7," says Mahapatra, repudiating the report that as many as 10,000 boys have been recruited to date, of which 8000 have fled. He also denied that the teachers had been forced to recruit a fixed quota of students each as these reports alleged, adding that this was entirely voluntary and not compulsive. He himself takes care of the recruitment to a large extent. "I'm directly involved. I travelled about 6000 km in the last one or two months in Orissa and about 2000 boys are ready to come now." The villages are notified about the programme and the boys join voluntarily on the promise of free education, food and lodging, which is more than they can hope to get at home.

And the boys are indeed there, in large numbers, contradicting the reports of mass evacuation. To be allowed entry in to the ashram is a privilege. Photographing the interior more so, as this is never permitted. The four gates are guarded. The ashram administrators are keen to counter these reports. It is probably the excessive security and secrecy that has conjured up images of a concentration camp inside for the outsider.

The truth seems very different. The boys, clad in simple but clean clothes, are immersed in their evening prayers or sandhya, as it is called. Once this is over, they move in file, chanting Sanskrit hymns, to the prayer hall for meditation. Their age, on an average, is reported to be between 10 and 16 years. Three of the four boys interviewed are old students, Gitaram Satpaty, 16, from Orissa, has been there for six years, Chandrakant Chaubey, 16, from MP, for five years and Kartik Chandrapaty, also from Orissa, for four years. Arun Karnvedi, 12, from UP, has spent a year at the vidya peeth. They will claim that life in the ashram is fairly blissful, with ample and good food. It is certainly preferable to confronting an uncertain future at home, even though they have to follow a somewhat rigorous daily routine.

They wake op at 5 am. and after their morning ablutions and prayers, meditate for a while. Breakfast. is followed by classes. Between 11.30 and noon, they do sandhya and then break for lunch. Classes are resumed, from 1 to 4 pm. followed by an hour of games. Till dinner time, they resume sandhya and meditation. After dinner, there is a reading from the Puranas and by 9.30 pm, they retire for the night. Says Mahapatra, who is directly in charge of the boys. "We want them to be pandits and not trade unionists or politicians."

Queried about the reports of the deaths, one of the students, Kartik Chandrapaty, admits that a boy had died after falling ill. He had been sent to Delhi for treatment, but that could not save him. Again, there is some confusion over whether his name was Lav or Kush.

Mahapatra points out that more deaths occur in a hospital every day. He finds the allegations of homosexuality equally preposterous and motivated. "We want the boys to grow up in a satvic (holy) atmosphere," he says. According to him, Rs 3 lakhs [$26,000 US] is spent every month on the boys' upkeep, and as a doctor he ensures that they get a nutritious, balanced diet. The boys, on the completion of the full 12-year course, will become qualified pandits who can choose either to remain at the ashram or leave.

If the boys are indeed as comfortably placed as they appear to be and spontaneous in their testimony, to whom would he attribute the reports in circulation? "Vested interests" and "trade unionism", says Mahapatra. Brahmachari Nandkishore is of the oinion that some multinational pharmaceutical firms that fear the potential popularity of ayurveda, have been circulating these reports of deaths under research, in order to discredit the traditional system of medicine.

Such speculation aside, the fact remains that the Maharishi's activities in India have increasingly become suspect. It is the element of subterfuge in the functioning of his world government that has made him an easy target for his detractors. With his vast undisclosed assets and growing area of influence, he is bound to come under surveillance. Whether he will manage to surmount his difficulties and stay on as the self-proclaimed messiah of `world peace and the age of enlightenment', now in its fourteenth year, is debatable.

But the yogi is a survivor.

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Creation has two sides: intelligence, which is the cause of everything, and the manifestations of intelligence, which are the physical and psychological features of the everyday world. Because Transcendental Meditation directly approaches intelligence, rather than the manifestations of intelligence, it solves problems by introducing harmony and well-being at the most basic level, and not by dealing with problems themselves. That's why it is so effective.

Consider this example: The gardener supplies water to the root of a tree. That water, that nourishment, then reaches all parts of the tree - leaves, branches, flowers, fruit - through the sap. We can think of the sap as analogous to intelligence and the green leaves or yellow flowers as analogous to the manifestations of the intelligence. The leaves and flowers are the intelligence of the sap, after it has been transformed. So intelligence - like the leaves and flowers of a tree - appears as the many different forms of manifest life. Those manifestations include every aspect of existence, from the material and physiological, through the psychological, intellectual, and spiritual. All of those features of life come from transformations of intelligence. In meditation, we directly meet this essential intelligence. Therefore, we have the possibility of nourishing all of its other levels, and thus all levels of manifestation, in a way that is harmoniously related to the whole universe.

How is Transcendental Meditation different from the various other forms of meditation?

Maharishi: The basic difference is that Transcendental Meditation, in addition to its simplicity, concerns itself only with the mind. Other systems often involve some additional aspects with which the mind is associated, such as breathing or physical exercises. They can be a little complicated because they deal with so many things. But with Transcendental Meditation there is no possibility of any interference. So we say this is the all-simple program, enabling the conscious mind to fathom the whole range of its existence.

Transcendental Meditation ranges from active mind - or performing mind - to quiet mind - or resting mind. In this resting mind, one has purity and simplicity, uninvolved with anything other than the mind, uninvolved with any other practice. In Transcendental Meditation, because we deal only with the mind, we nourish all expressions of intelligence.

The mind meditates, gains Transcendental Consciousness and brings about transformation in different fields of manifestation. All fields of life, which are the expression of intelligence, are nourished or transformed and made better through experiencing Transcendental Consciousness.

The mind, of course, is always concerned with other aspects, such as the physiology of the body, the environment, and the whole universe for that matter. But since Transcendental Meditation deals only with the performance of the mind, from its active states to its settled state, it remains unconcerned with those other aspects, though it deals with them all, because intelligence deals with them all. -- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, unknown interview, copyright presumablyheld by Maharishi Vedic University, The Maharishi Foundation, or another group within the TM family.

Cults come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Categories of cults that are recruiting successfully today include:

Eastern meditation: characterized by belief in God-consciousness, becoming one with God. The leader usually distorts and Eastern-based philosophy or religion. Members sometimes learn to disregard worldly possessions and may take on an ascetic lifestyle. Techniques used: meditation, repeated mantras, altered states of consciousness, trance states.

Religious: marked by belief in salvation, afterlife, sometimes combined with an apocalyptic view. The leader reinterprets the Scriptures and often claims to be a prophet if not the messiah. Often the group is strict, sometimes using physical punishments such as paddling and birching, especially on children. Members are encouraged to spend a great deal of time proselytizing. (Note: included here are Bible-based neo-Christian and other religious cults, many considered syncretic since they combine beliefs and practices). Techniques used: speaking in tongues, chanting, praying, isolation, lengthy study sessions, many hours spent evangelizing, "struggle" (or criticism) and confession sessions.

Political, racist, terrorist: fueled by belief in changing society, revolution, overthrowing the "enemy" or getting rid of evil forces. The leader professes to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Often the group is armed and meets in secret with coded language, handshakes, and other ritualized practices. Members consider themselves an elite cadre ready to go to battle. Techniques used: paramilitary training, reporting on one another, guilt, fear, struggle sessions, instilled paranoia, long hours of indoctrination. -- Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Lalich and Tobias, Hunter House, 1993.