How different would the world be today if George Harrison, the introspective Beatle, hadn't chanced to pick up a sitar during the filming of "Help!" and start plinking away at it?
Well, maybe not all that different. But it might have made a difference in the life of Janet Hoffman, who was a college sophomore in 1968 and, while visiting a friend at Berkeley, got dragged to a course in Transcendental Meditation. Harrison's chance encounter with a musical instrument led him to India, at the head of a parade of musicians, journalists, jaded housewives and adventurous college kids seeking to immerse themselves in the timeless, but incredibly fashionable, wisdom of the East.
That included Transcendental Meditation, taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who as the Beatles' chosen guru automatically became the most celebrated Indian religious figure since Gandhi. As for Hoffman, seeking nothing more than a new experience, she found herself transported to a state of well-being that transcended the mundane pleasures of "a car or a boyfriend or better grades." The experience, she says now with a laugh, was "very '60s."
And the boomers wrought another, subtler shift on American religion, turning it from a preoccupation with salvation in the next life to fulfillment in this one. Transcendental Meditation's benefits are immediate, if not always easy to describe. "It gave me immediate experience of the unboundedness of my own nature," Hoffman testifies. But its pitch is increasingly utilitarian. The movement that most Americans still associate with bead-draped hippies now boasts on its Web site about its power to lower blood pressure, and runs an institution in Iowa called the Maharishi University of Management, offering business degrees along with programs in "Maharishi Vedic Science."