Maharishi Mahesh Yogi | Biography & Teachings

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Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1917-2008) was an Indian guru who reached millions of practitioners globally through his branded style of Transcendental Meditation.  Renowned for his tutorage of celebrities, he was also a writer and successful entrepreneur who changed the face of meditation.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • The life of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
  • His contribution to counterculture and his celebrity students
  • His teachings
  • Transcendental Meditation

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced the West to Transcendental Meditation which is still widely practiced today. Despite his popularity and transformative teachings, many believed him to be a charlatan so let’s take a look at the life behind the man.

a wall art mural dedicated to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Early Life

Born Mahesh Prasad Varma in Jabalpur, India, he was part of the Kayastha caste.  Although this knowledge is widely known there is some speculation regarding the date of his birth (1917) and his given name, which has also been recounted as Mahesh Srivastava.  There is little information about his very early life and what is available is sketchy at best.

Adult Life

He graduated from the University of Allahabad with a degree in physics in 1942. While studying he began learning Sanskrit and meditation with the man who would become his primary teacher Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, more commonly known as Guru Dev. 

On Guru Dev’s death 1952, he indicated that Maharishi Manesh Yogi follow the path of yoga and disseminate the teachings of meditation to a wider audience.  Maharishi spent two years secluded after the death of his guru devoting all of his time to practice and contemplation before he undertook a tour of India.  Notably, during his travels, he would lecture in English as a way to reach the “learned classes.”

Maharishi founded the International Meditation Society in 1959.  With the first centers in London and San Francisco, he later established headquarters in Switzerland which was relocated to Amsterdam after a tax fraud scandal.

In 1962 he took his teachings beyond the boundaries of India to Australia, Europe, and America, and subsequently opened a center for the Spiritual Regeneration Movement in England.  

He ceased the majority of public appearances in 1991 after collapsing from kidney and pancreas failure and became somewhat of a recluse until his death.

photo portrait of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Marishi Mahesh Yogi And Politics

Maharishi founded the Natural Law Party (NLP) in 1992, which had supporters in 42 countries and was part of his “plan for peace.” Like some of his other endeavors, many believed it was a funnel for Transcendental Meditation recruitment.

One of his primary students Deepak Chopra, clashed with Maharishi and was accused of trying to “compete” with Maharishi as his own success grew.  Chopra left the movement in 1994.

Maharishi more than dipped his toe into politics and talked openly about happiness and peace.

He founded the Global Country of World Peace (GCWP) in 2000 as a way “to create global world peace by unifying all nations in happiness, prosperity, invincibility and perfect health, while supporting the rich diversity of our world family.”  In retaliation to Tony Blair’s support of the Iraq War, all Transcendental Meditation training was suspended in Britain during his leadership.

He died in the Netherlands in 2008 but was cremated in India with his funeral at the Allahabad ashram.

Very much part of the revival of yoga happening in India during the 20th century, he was also an essential character in the emergence of counterculture and interest in yoga in the West in the later part of the 20th century.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi being interviewed by Shepard Sherbell and Brian Jones
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi being interviewed by Shepard Sherbell and Brian Jones

Counterculture and The Beatles

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was an influx in counterculture and subsequently, yoga and meditation.  When Maharishi visited the UK, opposing the mainstream and the “Summer of Love” was in full swing.

Certain celebrities were drawn to Maharishi and his teachings.  He taught The Beach Boys, David Lynch, and most notably, The Beatles.  Known as their “spiritual advisor” and said to have influenced The White Album, Maharishi’s short time with the Beatles greatly affected his popularity and their spiritual practice.

After witnessing Maharishi’s lecture in London, the Beatles sought out an audience with him. Sparking the beginning of their journey into meditation, they ventured to Bangor, where Maharishi invited them to take their first Transcendental Meditation course.  Later in 1968, they attended Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh for almost three months.

It is said that Transcendental Meditation was a pathway to sobriety for John Lennon, but the press was not as captivated with Maharishi.  The media viewed him as a charlatan and were keen to portray him as someone using celebrities just for the publicity and wealth attached. Eventually, things soured between Maharishi and the Beatles, but overall, he benefited from the coverage he received from teaching them.

a photo of Michael Cooper, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Shepard Sherbell, Brian Jones
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Michael Cooper, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Shepard Sherbell, Brian Jones

His teaching

Learned from Guru Dev his practice and teaching were rooted in Advaita Vedanta. He branded the approach as Transcendental Meditation which could be considered a form of neo-Vedanta or even neo-Hinduism packaged for the West. 

The ideology of Vedanta is rooted in the unchanging constant beneath the constant changing, but Maharishi became increasingly interested in the “development of human potential.”

Was there any yoga?  While Maharishi’s teachings were fundamentally just about meditation, he did recommend that asanas be performed, but as with many styles of yoga in the early 21st century, asana was not the focus but a primary tool.

Maharishi’s primary aims were:

  • To bring meditation to a mainstream audience. Open to householders everywhere and not just renunciates in India, his method was designed for enlightenment in the everyday.
  • To illuminate the teachings of Vedanta as not just a spiritual path but as a science. He was interested in not just the subjective effects of meditation but in looking at the physiological and neurological responses through a scientific lens.
  • To prioritize happiness.

He believed that practicing meditation in solitude was a way to create inner peace, while mass gatherings in meditation could contribute to outer or world peace. He believed Transcendental Meditation had the power to change the world.

Unlike some yoga teachings, such as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Maharishi did not create an ethical code for living or a systematic hierarchy toward samadhi.  The goal was simply to raise consciousness.

a photo of maharishi mahesh yogi

Transcendental Meditation

In a rare TV interview with Larry King in 2002, Maharishi said, “Transcendental Meditation is something that can be defined as a means to do what one wants to do in a better way, a right way, for maximum results.”  In a nutshell, Transcendental Meditation is a method of moving into higher states of consciousness often associated with “mysticism.”

He established Transcendental Meditation centers around the world during the 1970s and founded a university in Fairfield, Iowa.

How popular is Transcendental Meditation?

It is said that 40,000 teachers have taught more than five million people the Transcendental Meditation technique, and one of Maharishi’s long-term students, David lynch, initiated a fundraising project to build a TM center for 8000 meditators.

How do you become initiated into Transcendental Meditation?

Described as “very simple, natural, and effortless,” this meditation technique sounds appealing! It includes no manipulation of thoughts, ethical guidelines, or lifestyle rules. Transcendental Meditation is not a religion or a philosophy.  Anyone can become a student of Transcendental Meditation.

Over four consecutive days, students are taught the technique.  Day one is a one-to-one session with the teacher, who provides a personalized mantra.  The mantra is a word or sound that has no meaning but is viewed as a positive word or sound which forms the basis of the meditation.

maharishi mahesh yogi ashram
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram

How do you practice Transcendental Meditation?

It’s actually pretty simple.  Once you have completed the initial training and received your mantra, you set aside two twenty-minute slots each day and sit down to meditate.  The routine is the important bit and commitment to practice is non-negotiable, but it doesn’t require you to do anything more than sit twice a day comfortably.

Why practice Transcendental Meditation?

CALM – Noted for its calming effects, this meditation technique is said to down-regulate the nervous system and stress response, resulting in better sleep, immunity, and eating habits. 

QUICK – It’s quick to master!  Studies have shown that the neurological maps of long-term and new practitioners show the same brainwave response.

SETTLE – It allows the active, thinking, busy mind to settle into the calm beneath.  The technique compares this to the choppy waves of an ocean residing over the continually calm ocean bed below.

BRAIN –  Studies have reported that up to a 30% reduction of cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in regular meditators can be seen and that all parts of the brain come together to work efficiently in a coherent way.

How is Transcendental Meditation different from other meditation styles?

Maybe you’ve tried meditating before and have encountered styles that require you to fix your attention or focus on your breath.  In Transcendental Meditation, there is no focused or fixed point of attention, yet it is not concentration or simply observation.

Automatic Self Transcending is the higher state of consciousness that uncovers the true self or our untouched nature.  Dropping beneath the layers of our busy conditioned mind is the practice of Transcendental Meditation. 


Maharishi Mahesh Yogi wrote more than twenty books on Transcendental Meditation and Vedanta.  From commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita to his “Conversations with Maharishi” series, he leaves a wealth of information and knowledge behind.  His most well-known works include The Science of Living and the Art of Being and 30 Years Around the World.

Key Takeaways

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teachings changed the face of meditation in the West immeasurably.  Transcendental Meditation continues to be a popular style of meditation endorsed by today’s celebrities. You’ll find Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Aniston, Gabrielle Bernstein, Tom Hanks, Russell Brand, and Tim Ferris advocating the brand.

In 2008 the organization revealed their assists at roughly $300 million.  While there is some skepticism around Maharishi’s fixation on wealth and material goods, he did contribute to charitable organizations and, more overtly, changed people’s lives through the meditation technique he left behind.

“When you practice Transcendental Meditation, you are given a key to the deepest level of life.” – David Lynch.

Want to find out more?

If you’re interested in discovering more about the gurus who transformed yoga and meditation in the West, check out Swami Sivananda and Paramahansa Yogananda.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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