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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 24, 2017

Students inquire about pandits during forum

Want to know what motivated violent outburst
By DIANE VANCE | Mar 14, 2014
Courtesy of: JOHN REVOLINSKI This is an aerial view of the pandit campus in Maharishi Vedic City. A pandit is a student of traditional Indian law, rituals and philosophy. About 250 pandits, mostly from India, live at the pandit campus where they meditate and perform Vedic ceremonies with the aim of making the world more peaceful. On Thursday, students and faculty of Maharishi University of Management (a separate entity from the pandit campus) had a chance to ask questions about the pandits and the incident Tuesday morning in which a group of pandits attacked Jefferson County Sheriff Gregg Morton in his patrol vehicle. Morton was not harmed during the altercation.

MAHARISHI VEDIC CITY — Tuesday morning’s events involving pandits in Maharishi Vedic City and the Jefferson County Sheriff constituted a perfect storm that was not anticipated, said John Revolinski, an administrator of the pandit campus.

Revolinski and Bill Goldstein, spokesman of The Global Country of World Peace that runs the pandit campus, held a question and answer session for the Maharishi University of Management community at 3:15 p.m. Thursday at the dining hall.

The meeting was called to address questions about a large group of pandits that surrounded Sheriff Gregg Morton’s law enforcement county vehicle, rocking it, trying to break off side mirrors and threw rocks that broke a rear window while he was in the vehicle.

Morton called for law enforcement backup and several agencies responded while more pandits pushed down an entrance gate on their campus and walked onto 170th Street. Law enforcement stayed on the scene for a few hours, without further incident.

About 20 people, students, professors and staff, came and went during the 80-minute session.

One audience member, who lives on the M.U.M. campus, said he was shocked to learn about the incident and wanted to know who stands accountable.

“If the pandits are here specifically for peace, and this happens — where the county sheriff was at risk of injury — why should I continue to [financially] support the pandit program”” he asked.

Revolinski said he takes responsibility.

“I didn’t call the sheriff, but other administrators who have been here longer than I have, recommended the sheriff be called as a preventive measure,” said Revolinski. “The sheriff was called one other time, more than a couple years ago. It was before I became an administrator with the pandits, so I don’t know the exact time.

“The sheriff wasn’t called to protect us; we did not feel in danger,” he said. “It was a preventive measure that worked before as a deterrent. The presence of law enforcement the one other time had been successful.”


Timeline snag

The perfect storm came about when Tuesday’s schedule went awry.

“The administration had decided one of the pandit leaders had to be removed and sent back to India,” said Revolinski. “It was decided to pick him up at 6 a.m. [Tuesday] so it could be done before a lot of people were up and out. However, we couldn’t locate him until 6:30 a.m.”

Revolinski said seven staff members were there, including him. The pandit, Vidya Shankar Mishra, was to get into a van and be driven to Chicago.

“I had to leave the group and get his passport out of the office,” said Revolinski. “As I returned, he [Mishra] was being whisked into the van and it began driving away. I had to jump in a car and follow to hand-off the passport. We met up down by the Raj and I handed over the passport to the van.”

He noted 30 to 50 fellow pandits gathered at the compound’s front gate as the van with the leader left.

“I never felt threatened,” said Revolinski.

Revolinski said he saw law enforcement vehicles massing and he drove back to the pandit compound.

“I wasn’t there when the stone-throwing happened, but I was told about it and I didn’t realize the seriousness until the sheriff explained what he’d experienced,” said Revolinski.


One incident in seven years

Goldstein, who was not present either when the stone-throwing occurred, but came to the pandit campus on the northwest edge of Vedic City later Tuesday morning, said in the seven years of having the program here, there had never been such an incident.

A pandit (pronounced pundit) is a scholar of traditional Indian law, rituals and philosophy. Pandits begin training in India as small boys sent to an ashram (a place of study) learning Sanskrit and Vedic scripture. They spend much of their day meditating and reciting Sanskrit sounds. They believe their meditations and Sanskrit recitations contribute to a more peaceful world. All of the pandits are men and most of them in Maharishi Vedic City are between the ages of 20 and 40.

“The pandits were upset that one of their leaders was leaving,” said Goldstein. “We’ve had more than 2,600 pandits here throughout the seven years. They have been very well behaved. They are here on a peace project. We had one unfortunate day.”

One M.U.M. student said no one has heard from the pandits.

“It would be interesting to hear their side,” she said. “Why did it seem reasonable to them to take such action?”

Goldstein said currently there are 250 pandits in the compound. It was a minority of the group, estimated to be 40 or 50 pandits that milled out of the compound Tuesday and engaged in throwing rocks.

“Actually, it was more like 30,” said Revolinski.

“Well, it was a minority,” said Goldstein. “We have been meeting with individual groups to find out what happened. We’re not talking about why. We want to take action. We did not arbitrarily make the decision to remove this one leader. It was a decision not made lightly. But it is private.”


Pandits have a brotherhood

Revolinski said among the pandits is a cultural feeling of brotherhood.

“Some of these guys have been together for decades,” he said. “Their group behavior might not be as shocking for them as it was for us.

“We knew removing one of their leaders was not a popular move,” said Revolinski. “Groups can get a group dynamic going and their group dynamic got out of control.”

Revolinski said life is moving on, and he has witnessed hugs and happiness among the pandits, but most are embarrassed about the incident.

“They are not dwelling on it,” said Revolinski. “They got their way.”

Administrators decided Tuesday morning to return Mishra, the pandit leader on his way to the airport, to the pandit campus for the time being.

Goldstein said the pandits have rules and while the ideal is to create maximum harmony, they also have to understand they are accountable for their actions.

“How or why or what consequences … we are working through that right now,” said Goldstein. “We are looking at what to do.”


Why did it happen?

M.U.M. student Luke Hillis said he would like to know why the pandits did what they did.

“They didn’t get to say goodbye to their leader and felt righteous indignation,” said Revolinski. “Law enforcement was there.”

M.U.M. professor Evan Finkelstein asked how administrators react to requests from pandits.

“Is the way the administration interacts with the pandits making the pandits happy?” he asked. “Are they happy how requests are handled?”

Revolinski said he didn’t know if the pandits’ actions Tuesday were the result of built up frustrations.

“The amount of money hasn’t changed over the years, but inflation in India has risen, so yes, there might be frustrations, but not with the food,” said Revolinski.

“They have a store on the pandit campus and each one gets so many credits to spend,” he said. “They can buy shoes, or a belt or a bag of chips.”

Goldstein said the pandits know before coming to Iowa what the program set up is like.

“The facilities here are quite nice, better than in India,” he said.

Finkelstein asked if the pandits throwing rocks have a sense of the negativity about how the public views the situation.

“They were horrified the media was there,” said Revolinski.

He said he wanted to post the newspaper accounts of the incident in the pandits’ area, to show them community reaction, but others talked him out of it.

“Can we help them understand how their behavior is looked at?” Finkelstein said. “It would be responsible for us to help with a reaction in terms of apologizing to the police and in terms of paying for damages.”

“Let’s not get too patronizing lecturing pandits about their lives,” said Goldstein. “They have given their entire lives to this program and made great sacrifices to be pandits.

“Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi, founder of the university] appreciated pandits and was gentle, treating them as precious. This type of non-verbal behavior may not be as serious in their culture,” said Goldstein.

Another audience member said for pandits to express dissatisfaction by rock throwing provides indicates a lack of transparency in the administration.

Goldstein said the program has layers of administration.

“The pandits have their own administrators, then there’s what we call the Western administrators [such as Revolinski and others] and the ultimate authority is the Indian administrators,” said Goldstein. “The pandits even call the top pandit in India.

“Transparency is one of the issues, one of the causes of having to send back the pandit leader [Mishra],” said Goldstein. “We have to feel all levels of administration are transparent and trusted.

“While we may think of all the pandits here as Indian, and they are; it’s a very diverse country and this group is made up of men from all different parts of India, speaking different languages,” said Goldstein.


Limited freedom

M.U. M. student David George said the administrators must have been anxious there would be some unrest or else the sheriff would not have been called to stand by.

“The feeling many students have is the pandit campus is like a prison,” said George. “Can you explain why they have limited freedom?”

Maharishi’s instructions were to not westernize pandits, said Revolinski.

“It is like their own world out there,” he said. “They have their own cultural festivals. They should feel like they are in their own ashrams in India.

“They do like taking rides and we try to provide a few outings and create a supportive atmosphere.”

He pointed out that about half the pandits at any given time are on a second tour of living in Vedic City.

“Why would they sign up to return if they didn’t like it?” he said.

“Would many like to interact with people more? Of course, they are human. But we do that to preserve their culture and not Americanize them.”

“Freedom to do what?” asked Goldstein. “They can leave anytime and we’ll send them back to India. They are not forced to stay.

“We have hundreds to a thousand here sometimes. How do we logistically take them all for an outing? We can’t let just one or three have the privilege. It’s better for their safety to not roam the countryside. They are not here as tourists.

“They come here to be in Vedic performances,” said Goldstein. “We provide everything they need on site. Everything they need is available to them on their campus. If they have a legitimate need to go to town, they are allowed.

“But no, they can’t just walk to Walmart. They can walk around inside their campus; it’s about a square mile. If they were allowed to go everywhere, the distractions would no doubt interfere with their study and reading.”

Goldstein said each and every pandit signs a contract in India before traveling to Iowa. The contract specifies the rate of pay, $250 per month, with $150 sent back to their families in India, and the daily program.

The Transcendental Meditation global community believes that more people meditating at the same time and place have more influence than if people meditate separately.

The pandits meditate during the day at the same times as others gather in the golden domes at M.U.M. to meditate, to have a bigger impact of creating peace and harmony, first in each individual and spreading out into the community.

“Out of all the massive coherence, how does this [Tuesday’s rock throwing] happen?” an audience member said, rephrasing the question on many lips Thursday. “I don’t really expect an answer, but it’s a quandary I have.”

Revolinski said the bigger the group of pandits, the better coherence.

“We’re at the smallest group size now since 2007,” he said. “We’re under 300 pandits. When the group is larger, there is more bliss, more wholeness.”

M.U.M. alumni director Anna Maria Cornell asked if more meetings such as the one Thursday could be held, because she knew of some people who wanted to attend and couldn’t.

Goldstein said it could be arranged.

“We’re still only a few days past the incident,” he said. “We are still figuring out what happened and what to do.”

Revolinski said the financial costs of repairing the sheriff’s county vehicle would be handled by the pandit administration organization.

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