The Beatles with Maharishi Yogi in India, 1967

In 1967, the British pop sensation known as The Beatles were on top of the world. They were one of the most popular and successful bands in the history of music and released critically and publicly acclaimed albums that reflected their changing style and attitudes. One of the biggest influences on the group was their trip to India in 1968 to meet with the leader of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The group met Maharishi Yogi in 1967 during a TM seminar in Wales. This meeting was cut short due to the untimely death of The Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Throughout the remainder of 1967, group members George Harrison and John Lennon promoted TM and the teachings of Maharishi Yogi. Hoping to find spiritual guidance, The Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India in early 1968, with Harrison and Lennon arriving first with their families, followed by other members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The visit ended in controversy, with The Beatles denouncing Maharishi Yogi and his teachings. Some ultimately blamed this visit on the eventual breakup of the band, but it was also one of the most productive songwriting periods in their career, with the band writing nearly every track for the infamous White Album.

Despite the group’s denouncement of the spiritual guru, Maharishi Yogi continued to promote the teachings of TM across the world for decades following his famous involvement with The Beatles. By the 1990s, he expanded the TM movement to include well-over 100,000 followers from around the globe.  His then $2 billion corporate empire included international land holdings, hotels, publishing houses, medical clinics, construction firms, a political party (Natural Law Party), plans for spiritual theme parks, and more. Hoping to increase his influence and teachings further, Maharishi Yogi opened teaching centers in Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United States, with traveling seminars in the Soviet Union and other nations. In the U.S., he founded TM Universities in California, Iowa, and Washington D.C. It was in this time of massive growth and expansion of the TM movement that the Maharishi set his sights on Chanute Air Force Base.

When it was determined that Chanute would close, Maharishi Yogi went to work to purchase the site as a new TM University in the Midwest. The Rantoul community scrambled to find something to inhabit the closing base and replace the approximate 12,000 jobs Chanute supported. Unfortunately for Maharishi Yogi, his TM University campus was not viewed as a viable replacement for the base. City Mayor Katy Podagrasi and other civic leaders pushed back on the proposal, claiming the transcendentalist campus would be a self-contained operation and not provide an economic replacement for Chanute. Mayor Podagrasi referred to the Maharishi’s plan as, “maddening, totally maddening.” She feared that the arrival of transcendentalists in Rantoul would force residents to move, including the town’s many military retirees. She also claimed incoming followers of Maharishi Yogi would not be productive members of the community. She lamented that they would not have time to coach Little League or join the Rotary Club with the chanting of their mantras. 

Maharishi University in Fairfield, IowaAnother major fear was that the proposed Maharishi University would be a nationally accredited educational institution, like the nearby transcendentalist campus in Fairfield, Iowa. With this accreditation, they would not have to pay property taxes on the site, something civic leaders thought the city needed and would come from any traditional commercial or business industry if they were to purchase Chanute. They also feared the proposed campus community would not stimulate the local economy through shopping and other services that support the community through sales tax. At the time, the instructors at the Iowa campus only made $50 a week, and the university itself made few, if any, new hires from outside the TM community.

In response to the pushback, Robert Oates from Maharishi International argued that Maharishi University could be precisely what the Rantoul community needed to replace Chanute. According to Oates, the installation of the university in Fairfield, IA brought thousands of TM suburbanites from across the country to live and work in the community outside of the University. These newcomers built new homes, opened new businesses, and stimulated the economy through increases in sales tax revenues. He also touted the social and moral impact the TM community could have on Rantoul. Oates claimed, “we’re not in sandals and robes and long hair, we’re clean-cut, well-dress…If the people of Rantoul understood the effects a large meditating community has had on Fairfield, they would think this is the single best thing that could possibly happen to them.” 

Sadly, the Maharishi’s plan never came to fruition. Anti-guru petitioners papered the community with negative propaganda about TM followers. Local officials also prepared a report, documenting the shortfalls of the Maharishi’s plan. An owner of a local grocery store summed up the opinion of many Rantoul residents from the time. “The community can benefit in no way whatsoever. The more we learn about them, the more we feel that they’re not the type of neighbors we really need.” 

Following Maharishi Yogi’s failed proposal, the city of Rantoul was unable to secure any buyers for the site. The only areas of the base that remained in operation following closure were buildings related to the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum. With the closure of the museum in 2015, the site now sits abandoned, with aging real estate placards dotting the once lively landscape of Chanute Air Force Base.

- Tom Kuipers
  Archives Assistant

(1) Goering, Laurie. “Rantoul Uneasy at the Idea of Guru as a Neighbor” Chicago Tribune, (July 5, 1992).
(2) “Maharishi Bids for Base.” Reuters, (July 5, 1992).
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