Students at Maharishi Vedic University engage in transcendental meditation.
In a large, airy classroom in rural Prey Veng, a lesson at the Maharishi Vedic
University (MVU) is coming to an end.
But instead of rushing to the football field to release the day's tension, students
at this university partake in a very different method of stress release: transcendental
The university is one of a handful of free higher education institutes in Cambodia,
but you are unlikely to find many of the subjects studied at MVU on the curriculum
at Royal University of Phnom Penh. Meditation, Sanskrit, yogic flying, and the cryptically-named
'science of creative intelligence' all feature in the students' education.
MVU administrator Stuart Vernon says the school, established in 1991 by the Australian
Aid for Cambodia Fund (AACF) and the Ministry of Education Youth and Sports (MoEYS),
offers a unique form of education dedicated to improving the students' minds.
"We are here to provide higher education to the poor rural youth of Cambodia
... through education to develop their brains," says Vernon. "The philosophy
of the Maharishi is to add something that is missing from the current system - that
is developing the individual and developing the receptivity of the students so they
will want to learn."
The university is based around the principles of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a spiritual
guru who in the 1960s revived a traditional form of knowledge from India and created
an international movement around it. The key philosophy is the development of society
through mass meditation.
His teachings came to international attention when the Beatles made a pilgrimage
to India in search of enlightenment. Since then, the movement has gone from strength
There are now more than six million TM practitioners worldwide. The movement has
its own currency, king, head of state, and a cabinet of 40 members under the auspices
of the Global Country of World Peace.
And Cambodia has not been overlooked. At the university campus, students are more
then happy to demonstrate one of the stranger sides of the movement: yogic flying.
Pre Leak, an MVU student from Takeo, watches a friend cross his legs, launch himself
half a foot into the air, before coming back to earth with a resounding crash.
"It's like doing exercise," says Leak. "We just jump up and down on
But for AACF, an Australian arm of the Maharishi movement, the university in Prey
Veng is simply one step on the way to their greater goals of eradicating poverty
and bringing about world peace.
"The goal of the Global Country of World Peace is to remove poverty and create
economic prosperity," says Vernon.
The MVU literature certainly makes some tall claims about TM and yogic flying, including
increased intelligence and reversal of the aging process.
And the assertions don't stop there. Among many of its triumphs for humanity, scientific
studies credit the movement with reducing conflict in the Middle East. Watchers of
world news might find that claim somewhat overdone given the events of the past year.
So what's next on the agenda?
World peace of course. In 1983, a group of 7,000 yogic flyers assembled in Iowa to
achieve that goal. According to the literature, the results speak for themselves.
"During the assembly, a content analysis of articles reporting international
conflict showed a significant shift towards greater positivity and reduced conflict
compared to before the assembly," the literature states. "Now permanent
world peace can become a reality beginning in our generation through the Maharishi
Vernon says that one of the goals of the movement is to have 40,000 people performing
yogic flying continuously in India for ever, thus bringing continual peace to the
But despite these seemingly miraculous achievements, yogic flying and the pursuit
of world peace has not helped the university dodge its fair share of controversy
since it opened.
In 1994 students rioted in protest at what they said was the more dubious side of
the curriculum. They claimed the advertising was misleading and the university was
The unrest died down after talks with the university and MoEYS, but in 1997 the
university faced another setback. The holistic med-ical training center was shut
down by the Ministry of Health (MoH).
"The MoH never supported the faculty," says Vernon. "They would
not allow our students to go and work in hospitals. The students didn't see what
they were going to get out of it. The faculty closed down in 1997 and never reopened."
The dispute over the medical faculty is not the only time AACF has come into conflict
with the government. In October this year MoEYS ordered the closure of a private
school that had been set up in Kampong Thom.
The education ministry says permission was not granted for the school in Kampong
Thom, despite the fact that MVU already had private branches in Prey Veng town and
"I think they tried to expand too fast [and] their management and financial
structure are not yet strong enough," said MoEYS secretary of state Pok Than.
Vernon says political disputes were at the root of the request, and insists the school
continues to hold classes, despite instructions from the ministry to cease until
the approval was granted.
Former MVU teacher Brendan Boucher believes the university has other inherent
"The primary objective is to teach the principles of Maharishi first and education
second," says Boucher. "AACF ... recruits management positions from the
movement who lack the knowledge and experience."
He also feels the involvement of the TM movement deters financial support.
"What I'd love to see is a reduction in the role of the AACF, and an increase
in the direct role of international organizations and educational institutions to
improve the curriculum and improve capacity," says Boucher.
A yogic-flying MVU student.
The management of the university is not his only worry. As a practicing Christian,
he was concerned that the MVU's philosophy would clash with his own religious beliefs.
"I could see there were religious connotations. There are iconic pictures of
the Yogi and he is referred to as 'His Holiness'. You undertake a ceremony that appears
very ritualistic," says Boucher. "There appeared to be a number of deities
from different religions. I would call it covert Hinduism."
Internationally the movement has run into disputes over its classification. Courts
in Germany and the US ruled that the movement is a religion, but followers claim
Vernon refutes allegations that the movement or the initiation ceremony are in any
way ritualistic or religious.
"Maharishi promotes the religion of every country," says Vernon. "It
strengthens the local language and tradition ... The teachers do perform a service
of gratitude to the tradition, but it is similar to martial arts."
One member of staff at MVU agreed and drew a different comparison, saying the initiation
ceremony was "no different from a Masonic lodge". But even some students
feel there are strong ties to Hinduism.
"I think it is similar to a religion, a religion from India," says Pre
Leak. "But I don't know what religion it is."
Despite the controversies, Boucher and others say the university does offer opportunities
to students who may otherwise be overlooked.
"The university does a tremendous amount of good," says Boucher. "It
provides students who are predominantly from a rural background [with the] opportunity
to get an education that is equal to, or better than, all the other universities
Lack of access to facilities is one of the key reasons for the small number of students
who attend higher education. There are few public universities, and the majority
are in Phnom Penh.
MVU is one of only two public universities in rural areas. There is widespread agreement,
even among its detractors, that the university, which specializes in agriculture,
management and marketing, provides good job prospects for students from rural Cambodia.
"Based on the studies and my own experience they seem to have a very good attitude.
They have proven that through their studies," says MoEYS's Pok Than. "The
meditation per se is not really bad, as long as it does not shorten the core curriculum."
The general consensus among both critics and supporters of the university is that
TM is not harmful to the students, and has many positive side effects.
"TM makes me feel good and releases my stress," says Leak. "When our
brain is in order and we are quiet in our feeling, we don't want to hit anyone."
Fellow student Chhouk Samnang agrees.
"TM can help decrease corruption, because when people do TM they are very pure
and don't want to bring harm to anybody," he says.
And it is clear that the stranger side of the curriculum is taken with a pinch of
salt. All the students agree meditation helps them relax, but many question the benefits
of Sanskrit lessons and yogic flying.
"Some students don't like it because they would like the time to study and not
waste their time," says Samnang, adding that the Sanskrit lessons were unnecessary.
"Most companies do not use Sanskrit. It is not important because Sanskrit is
not an international language."
The one aspect of the Maharishi movement that attracts the most derision is yogic
flying. Followers claim that with intense meditation the body leaves the ground and
hovers. Serious practitioners possess the ability to travel great distances through
Vernon is an enthusiastic believer in this miraculous feat, which the students study
in their second year at the university.
"The body starts to lift off the ground. It is very enjoyable and there is a
lot of bliss," he says. "How high you can go depends on the power of the
thought [and the] impulses from deep down inside. You could get up to a couple of
But when pressed on the precise physics of yogic flying, Vernon eventually concedes
that people practicing TM simply hop around. "There is no case of anyone actually
flying," he admits. "You just hop up and back down again."