Jan 23, 2014

Tax raids put a spoke in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ambitious plans

David Devadas
India Today
November 19, 2013

Followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi celebrated the end of the International Year of Peace, declared by him a year earlier, on January 12. The year, however, was anything but peaceful for the jet age yogi. Ambitious plans to build the world's biggest - and best - theme park did not get off the ground owing to a variety of problems.

The troubled year was capped by income tax raids on his establishments in and around Delhi and at Jabalpur, from where the yogi hails. Though officials were cagey, investigations reveal that they seized cash, jewellery, shares and fixed deposit receipts worth more than Rs 50 lakh. Foreign currency alone was worth something near Rs 2 lakh. Seized documents also indicate investments running into crores of rupees and that expenses supposedly incurred by trusts run by relatives and other followers of the yogi were not actually made.

If the last cut of the year was the deepest, the earlier ones were no less painful. Controversy broke over the ashram's efforts at promoting ayurveda when a 14 - year - old student, Lav Kumar Chaubey, died on June 21 after a gastric problem was treated by ayurvedic doctors. Earlier, low - paid teachers of Sanskrit and Vedic ritual at the school in Maharishinagar near Delhi formed a union and demanded better pay and working conditions.

The school was closed for three months and its 2,000 students sent home or to another ashram in Rishikesh. The yogi himself moved, for some time, out of his luxurious kutir at the ashram to the Mahila Dhyan Vidyapeeth at Golf Links, New Delhi's posh colony.

Though ashram officials insist that all these moves were normal, there is a definite air of caution among them. The ashram outside the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (NOIDA) near Delhi is surrounded by 10-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire. Security is strict at the iron gates.

Possibly the biggest among the ashram's many headaches is the land on which it stands, it happens to be right in the green belt earmarked as an agricultural border around the burgeoning NOIDA. The green belt is a crucial element of this showpiece of modern urban development, designed to house five lakh people and numerous industrial units by the year 2000.

Various trusts and followers of the yogi began to acquire land in this fertile belt near the junction of the Yamuna and Hindon rivers in the late '70s until they had hundreds of acres. In 1983, government authorities woke up to the construction of the sprawling ashram and sought to stop it.

Local government notices were repeatedly met with assurances that construction would stop. However, after a series of such notices and reassurances, the Government sought to acquire the land. Ashram authorities countered with a request for exemption from the land use laws and moved petitions in the Allahabad and Lucknow benches of the high court. Pending judgement, the Government order was stayed.

The question mark over this land has put the brakes on the pet project of the ashram, Vedaland. While most theme parks such as Disneyland are entertainment, pure and simple, this one is to combine "enlightenment", knowledge and entertainment.

Doug Hennning, a Canadian magician who is here to create this phantasmagoria, is optimistic about the project. "They're all very excited about it," he says of government agencies, adding: "We hope to get approval any day now." Other ashram officials say they will definitely go ahead with the Rs 220 - crore project. If not in NOIDA, it will be elsewhere, but within 30 km of Delhi.

After all, tourism is what it's all about. With entry tickets priced at Rs 5, they hope to draw anything between 7,000 and 15,000 visitors daily. Foreigners are expected to spend about Rs 250 per head on various attractions at the park, while the somewhat poorer "Delhi market" is expected to cough up about Rs 80 per head.

On offer across 200 acres of the park will be a host of breathtaking simulations of Hindu motifs. The entrance will be through Mount Kailas after which the starry - eyed can take the Gem Ride and see the rubies and emeralds embedded in caves. On the way up the mountain, visitors will ascend through the seven states of consciousness.

"Then your little boat comes down this rainbow, mist and light, down the mountain," says Henning. "And that simulates the descent of heaven on earth, because Maharishi says once you've become enlightened, you come down to earth and you spread enlightenment all around."

Indeed, the whole show is about enlightenment. Asserts Henning: "Maharishi is telling us what it's like in these higher states of consciousness and we create a room using high technology." For instance, in the God consciousness room, he says, the visitor's nervous system will be so refined that he will have celestial perception, and will be able to see the devas and the gods.

To create all this, "we'll have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of the best computographics", says the Canadian. "They can generate 3-D figures that look real," he adds.

The money for all this "is not a problem", ashram officials affirmed just a few days before the income tax raid. But whether the raids and other problems created by ashram staff and local government agencies will stall the project is a question that is yet to be answered.