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TM centre faces opposition in Kansas

By Arthur J Pais in New York
June 09, 2006 16:46 IST
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The farming town of Smith Center in Kansas, which calls itself the Heart of the Nation, Still Beating Fast, can certainly do with extra cash flow.

One of the poorer towns in America, this mostly meat and potato town with an almost all-white population, has a household income of $15,000.

Though it attracts a few thousand tourists, it certainly does not seek controversial publicity. But it has been getting plenty of that with a group of pastors led by a Lutheran, John Hubbard, opposing (in vain, some could say) the construction of over a dozen peace palaces for Transcendental Meditation.

Hubbard has accused the movement of lying, hiding its Hindu roots, and said doing so is a violation of good neighbourly policy.

The TM leaders involved in various projects connected to TM and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi believe that the spiritual complex would eventually cost over $100 million.

The construction of some 20, two-story peace palaces within the next year could cost about $30 million. They also sound hopeful that hundreds of jobs would be created on a long-term basis, and the work on the projects will be carried out without any legal hassles.

Unlike in many towns where the opponents of a Hindu temple or a mosque have used zoning laws to prevent them opening, Smith Center seems to have no such devices.

The opponents also do not like the idea of TM practitioners and men and women, allied to the peace movement started by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, wanting to set up their World Capital of Peace there.

But many of Smith Center's farming citizens and pastors would tell you that this is not a racial issue. For, except for the Maharishi, the only people who have been there on TM missions are whites, and they are mostly American.

Many of the struggling farmers could also be a bit envious that suddenly (at least to their eyes) a group of outsiders have turned up to buy 1,100 acres of land for organic farming and peace palaces.

But more than anything else, the Rev Hubbard would say it is the question of transparency.

Hubbard, who led an opposing effort soon after the March 28 bhoomi pooja for the peace complex and published a letter in a local newspaper questioning TM movement, does not believe it is not religious.

He does not buy the argument that people of any faith can practice TM and still remain in their original faith. TM is like yoga, he says, and asserts like many Christians across America, especially those who oppose its practice in public schools, that its umbilical code connects it to Hinduism.

The fact that many eminent Americans ranging from the internationally renowned baby-doc Benjamin Spock (author of the phenomenally influential and successful book, Baby and Child Care) and the fiercely independent Hollywood director David Lynch (Lost Highway) have praised TM won't impress the citizens of Smith Center.

Lynch announced last year a $7 billion effort to teach TM across American schools, especially in the inner city schools where drug consumption and violence are rampant.

Lynch, who too grew up in Midwest America, believes that raising money for the project would be easier than raising finance for his own films. The estimated six million TM practitioners -- including Lynch, his partner and three children -- will chip in, and the $7 billion will go towards forming 'peace-creating super groups of 8,000 meditators each' across the globe, he says.

None of this seem to impress the Smith Center people.

The heart of the controversy in the town centres on the question whether the TM advocates and the leaders of the several projects that would be coming up soon in the town can speak in plain language, Hubbard and fellow objectors say.

In their letter, the pastors announced: "They (the Maharishi people) are welcome, but they must understand we are competing for the eternal souls of people."

For TM followers or people of other faiths, even liberal Christians, this would certainly sound like bigotry.

"But I hope all this will pass soon," says Kent Boyum, the group's director of government affairs, adding, "the protests are surely a product of misunderstanding as to who we are, what we are and what we really want to do."

He says Smith Center was chosen as a location for the new projects because it is the geographic centre of contiguous US states.

To a certain extent, he can understand the mistrust. "We have no history in Kansas," he adds. On the other hand, people who are opposing the TM centre in their midst should look at Maharishi institutions in Fairfield, Iowa, and how the TM people have lived harmoniously with their neighbours over the last 25 years.

They also point out to Maharishi University of Management that replaced a bankrupt college and slowly became a respected university in Iowa.

Boyum believes that people across Kansas have shown "enormous" interest in TM and its quieting influence on the mind, and time would bring the protestors on the side of TM. "We will be able to live with each other," he says.

But he also acknowledges that while many TM leaders, including himself, have spoken to many people in the town who have an open mind about the project, they have yet to meet with Hubbard.

Hubbard told reporters last weekend: "The thing that bothers us is what we perceive to be their blatant dishonesty about who they are."

To say TM is not religion is "baloney", he thundered. "The bottom line is, dishonest neighbours aren't good neighbours."

Boyum says a TM meditator called Laurie Edwards had sought to meet with a dozen women in Smith Center over two months ago to discuss TM and allay any misgivings they had.

Suddenly, Edwards heard that over 100 people including the pastors wanted to meet her and she felt uncomfortable, fearing there was some hostility in the air.

The meeting did not take place, but she individually visited several churches after the Sunday service and tried to engage people in discussions, according to Boyum.

Boyum says the town's mayor Randy Archer has been very understanding. Last week Archer acknowledged that the group's move has caused a lot of tension, especially among the older people, but he wasn't really alarmed.

Nevertheless, he understands the anxiety around him. "They came in and, boom, here we are," he was quoted in the media this week.

"People thought they were sneaking in. But you just can't sneak in when you have been planning this for over a year and visiting the town quite often," Boyum says.

Boyum wishes the opponents could travel to the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield and the surrounding Maharishi community and see how over a period of three decades, the TM people have been well connected with their rural neighbours.

He adds that amidst the mild tension accruing from the protests, he and fellow meditators were glad to hear from a former Fairfield resident, who is an Episcopalian minister, asking her neighbours in Smith Center not to devalue their own faith.

The Rev Sharon Patton of the First Christian Church had recalled last week how some people in Iowa were worried when the Maharishi's people bought a bankrupt college and turned it into one of the better known schools in the region.

In the past two and half decades since the school became fully operational, any fears people had about the TM group turning arrogant like the Acharya Rajneesh followers in Oregon and turning the movement into a cult have firmly disappeared.

"Those who are secure in their faith aren't worried about these people coming," she was quoted as saying in the local media. "We are going through the same thing as the folks in Fairfield and that passed. In time, it will die out," she added.

And that is the hope of Boyum and his peers.

"TM is meant to bring down tension and create a better world, that is organic and interconnected," he says. "Naturally, we do not want any conflict. And I feel most people in the town do not want a conflict, either," he adds.

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Arthur J Pais in New York