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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A heightened and enlightened education

A heightened and enlightened education

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

meditation (TM).

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

to 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

a blanket."

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

Effect."

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

world.

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

'anti-science'.

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

Kampong Cham.

"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

problems.

"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

otherwise.

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

in Cambodia."

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

the air.

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

feet."

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."

 

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