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Doug Henning and the Giggling Guru

Notes of a Fringe-Watcher

Martin Gardner

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19.3, May / June 1995

Because magic is my main hobby I feel a keener regret than most people over the way in which the Hindu cult of Transcendental Meditation (TM) has taken over the life of one of the best of modern magicians. In the 1970s, Doug James Henning’s Magic Show ran on Broadway for more than four years. Henning followed with marvelous NBC-television spectaculars, Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe bookings, and numerous talk-show appearances.

Then something happened to Doug on his way to a magic shop. He discovered TM and became a pal of its founder, His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “The moment I saw him,” Doug has often said, “I knew that he knew the truth of life.” In a few years Henning became TM’s most famous convert since Mia Farrow and the Beatles.


First, some words about TM. Based on ancient Veda teachings that Maharishi learned from a Himalayan holy man, it stresses a form of meditation linked to the recitation of a Sanskrit word called a mantra. The technique is said to relieve stress, slow aging, and promote what TMers call “pure bliss.” Moreover, TM instructors promise to teach you, after you fork over thousands of dollars for advanced courses, a variety of awesome supernormal powers known as sidhis. They include the ability to become invisible, to see hidden things, to walk through walls, and to fly through the air like Peter Pan and Wendy. Doug’s conjuring was fake magic. TM teaches real magic.

Vedic flying has been the most publicized of the sidhis. Photographs distributed by TM officials show devotees in a lotus position and seemingly floating in midair. The photos are misleading. No TMer has yet demonstrated levitation to an outsider. The best they can show is the ability to flex one’s legs while in a lotus position on a springy mattress and hop upward a short distance. The phony photos were snapped when the supposed floater was at the top of a bounce. One cynic said he never believed the woman in a picture was actually levitating, that instead she was being held up by an invisible TMer!

The flying sidhi has four stages. First, a twitching of limbs. Second, the hop. Third, hovering. Fourth, actual flying. Only the first and second stages have been shown to skeptics, although devout TMers firmly believe that there are Vedic flyers in India and that Maharishi can take off whenever he likes even though no one has ever seen or videotaped him in flight.

“When you reach your full potential,” Henning told a reporter, “and you think ‘I want to levitate,’ you can levitate.” And in a lecture: “You can disappear at a high state of consciousness because your body just stops reflecting light.”

Amazingly, TMers are greatly entranced by lotus hopping. Last October a demonstration was held at the University of Toronto. Three Vedic “flyers” giggled while they bounced on their bums for five minutes, looking (said one observer) like legless frogs. I was told by Charles Reynolds, who for many years designed Doug’s stage illusions, that during one of Henning’s TV rehearsals he periodically halted all activity so those present could meditate and send him powerful vibes while he tried vainly to float. He actually believed he might be able to demonstrate levitation on his forthcoming show!

Several disenchanted TMers have sued the organization for failing to teach them powers that were promised. In 1987, for instance, Robert Kropinski, a former TM instructor, asked for $9 million because he was never able to fly. He also charged that TM had caused him “headaches, anxiety, impulses toward violence, hallucinations, confusion, loss of memory, screaming fits, lack of focus, paranoia, and social withdrawal.” A Philadelphia jury awarded him $138,000.

Giggling seems endemic among TMers something similar to the “holy laughter” currently popular in Pentecostal churches. The tiny, whitebearded, beflowered Maharishi giggled constantly during two appearances on the Merv Griffin show. Physicists tend to break into unholy laughter when they hear about Vedic flying.

Since he started TM, the giggling guru has raked in an estimated $3 billion from his millions of gullible followers. He now controls a vast empire that includes a conglomeration of Heaven on Earth Hotels around the world, a consulting corporation, numerous trading companies, medical clinics, and other firms here and there.

Maharishi Ayur-Veda Products International (MAPI) sells a raft of herbs, teas, oils, incense, and natural food substances said to cure diseases and reverse aging. Admirers of the best-selling books on “quantum healing” by Boston’s Deepak Chopra may be surprised to know that he is a TM booster with close ties to MAPI, president ofa Maharishi Vedic University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and owner of an Ayur-Vedic clinic in Boston. In 1989 His Holiness awarded Chopra the title of “Lord of Immortality of Heaven and Earth.”

Maharishi Research universities are all over the globe. There is one in Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, others in Fairfield, Iowa (the movement’s U.S. headquarters), in Buckinghamshire, England, in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and in VIodrop, Netherlands. Vlodrop is the movement’s world headquarters, where Maharishi now lives. The colleges seem to spring up and die like mushrooms.

The word “research” in the names of these universities refers to investigations of what is called Vedic science. It is said to combine the subjective approach of the East with the objective approach of Western science and to usher in what the Maharishi calls the “full sunshine of the dawning of the age of Enlightenment.” According to His Holiness, the universe is permeated by a “field of consciousness” underlying the laws of quantum mechanics. The Maharishi, who once studied physics, is keen on the latest results in particle theory.

Expensive double-spread ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Toronto Globe and Mail, Time, Newsweek, and who knows where else, periodically promote the Maharishi’s unified field theory. Physicist John S. Hagelin is the movement’s top quantum-mechanics maven. He has predicted that Maharishi’s influence on history “will be far greater than that of Einstein or Gandhi.” Hagelin and other scientists at TM universities have written hundreds of technical papers, most of them published by TM university presses, although a few have sneaked into mainstream science and medical journals unaware of the authors’ TM affiliation.

In his paper “Is Consciousness the Unified Field?” Hagelin (who has a Harvard doctorate in physics) conjectures that the sidhis operate by upsetting “the balance of statistical averaging in quantum-mechanical laws:

Indeed, the phenomenon of levitation, with its implied control over the local curvature of space-time geometry, would appear to require the ability to hinction coherently at the scale of quantum gravity, which is the assumed scale of super-unification and the proposed domain of pure consciousness. In this way some of the sidhis, if demonstrated under laboratory conditions, would provide striking evidence for the proposed identity between pure consciousness and the unified field.

TMers have no doubts about the “Maharishi effect.” This refers to incredible changes produced by mass meditations. The movement claims that their efforts helped bring down the Berlin wall, resolve the Gulf War, cause stock-market rises, collapse the Soviet Union, decrease traffic accidents, and cut the crime rate in Washington, D.C., and other cities. Such wonders are supported, of course, by highly dubious statistics.

A few years ago, longing for political influence, His Holiness founded the Natural Law Party (NLP) in countries that include England and Canada. Henning is senior vice-president of the Canadian party. In 1992 he was the NLP candidate in England’s general election, representing a residential section of Lancashire. He finished last among four candidates. In a 1994 Canadian election he was the party’s candidate from Rosedale, where he and Debbie, his wife, live. Of 55,928 votes cast, he received 839. Physicist Hagelin was a candidate of the NLP for U.S. president in 1992. The patty claimed it had 40 candidates running for Congress. The Canadian NLP platform maintains that once the party takes over the government, Canada’s crime, unemployment, and deficit will disappear like the elephant that Doug vanished so many times on stage.

I found the elephant simile in Don Gillmor’s “Like Magic,” a lively article in Toronto Life (April 1994), to which this column is heavily indebted. Gillmor quotes Henning as saying, in reference to his party’s promises: “We never see the stars going into debt and having to borrow light from the sun. We don’t see robins having criminal tendencies and stealing from each other.”


Although pushing 50, Henning still looks like a youth, small, slim, with long dark hair, droopy mustache, a mild, soft- spoken manner, and bucktooth grin. Born in Winnipeg, and a graduare of McMaster University, he began his magic career working parties and nightclubs around Canada. Such skilled magicians as Dai Vernon and Tony Slydini gave him lessons. Henning met the Marharishi in 1975, and for the next ten years he studied TM while still performing on stage. By 1986, convinced that his life mission was to promote TM, he gave up show business and sold his illusions to David Copperfield and other top stage performers.

For the past decade Henning’s obsession has been to build a mammoth theme park he calls Veda Land. Plans to locate the park in India, then in Orlando, Florida, adjacent to Disney World, went down the tube. In 1987, with funds from Maharishi, Doug decided to build Veda Land in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Why there? Because, Henning told Gillmor, the falls are “the greatest natural wonder on Earth. . . . Our purpose is to create wonder for nature.

Unusual rides and exhibits will dramatize Veda Land’s central theme - the mystery and beauty of nature. There will be a convention center, a university, and a Tower of Peace, where world leaders can meet to settle disputes. A Magic Flying Carpet will carry 120 passengers onto a rose petal, plunge into its molecular and atomic structure, then finally come to rest in the flower’s “pure consciousness.” A Corridor of Time will display the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the far distant day when Shiva will dance the universe into oblivion. A preventive-medicine center will sell herbal remedies. Hotels will serve vegetarian and health meals, and there will be a Heaven on Earth housing project.

“Heaven on Earth” is Maharishi’s favorite phrase for the world utopia that TM will eventually bring about. As he stirringly put it in the Maharishi Jnternational Universits News (Winter 1988), there will be “all good everywhere and nongood nowhere.”

In keeping with the Hindu belief that allis maya, or illusion, Veda Land will abound with magical special effects designed by Roy Field, who once worked on the Superman movies. A large building will appear to float 15 feet above an artificial pond. Doug won’t reveal how this great illusion will be accomplished, although presumably not by real magic. On the opening day a helicopter is expected to move a gigantic hoop over the levitated building the way Doug used to pass a hoop over floating ladies.

Asked if Veda Land will resemble Jim Bakker’s fallen Christian theme park, Heritage USA, Doug replied: “It’s more like, Wow! Isn”t enlightenment great!”

TM recruits are given a mantra so secret that they are forbidden to disclose it to anyone, not even a spouse. The mantra is to be repeated silently while they meditate for 20 minutes each morning and late afternoon or evening. In the 1970s they were assured that their mantra was carefully selected from thousands to fit their personality. A skeptical investigator was puzzled when he joined the movement in three cities under three different names and was always given the same mantra. It turned out that there were just 16 mantras. The one given was determined solely by a person’s age. Today’s mantras may be different, but in 1977 if you were 26 to 29 your mantra was shivim. If over 60 it was shama, And so on.

Magicians who perform what the trade calls mental acts were quick to take advantage of the secret list of Sanskrit words before their linkage with ages became widely known. They would ask TMers in the audience to state their birthdate, then pretend to divine their secret mantra by ESP!

In 1994 the cost of a basic TM course jumped from $400 to $1,000. Officials insist that for decades the price has been too low to meet expens- es. Besides, they argue, the new price will winnow out dabblers.

Does mantra meditation relieve stress more effectively than praying or just sitting quietly with closed eyes? In 1976, a study of this was made at the University of Michigan and reported in Science News (June 19). A group of trained TMers were compared with a control group of subjects unfamiliar with TM. The TM group meditated for a half-hour while the control group merely closed their eyes and relaxed. Blood samples were taken and measurements made of chemicals indicating stress. The researchers concluded that TM meditation failed to induce a metabolic state distinguishable from one achieved by just sitting quietly and possibly dozing.

Similar studies have shown that focusing on a Hindu mantra is no more effective in calming the mind than focusing on any other word, such as peace, one, or banana. Psychologist David Holmes, at the University of Kansas, could find no physiological difference between meditation and relaxing for 20 minutes in a reclining chair.

For a while, Henning threatened to take Veda Land away from Niagara Falls unless the city fathers refused to allow a gambling casino to open in town. Gambling, said Doug, always brings a plague of hookers. When the city refused to bar gambling, Doug changed his mind. After all, could not Veda Land’s Vedic flyers counter the evils of betting and prostitution by their sidhi powers? “Darkness,” declared Doug, “cannot show itself in the face of light.”

Will Veda Land and its floating building ever get off the ground? It’s possible, but my crystal ball tells me it is no more than a fantasy in Doug Henning’s field of consciousness.

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner is author of more than seventy books, most recently The Jinn from Hyperspace and When You Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish, and Other Speculations About This and That.