Dead or Meditating?

A court has been called to rule on whether a wealthy guru is dead or in a transcendental meditative state.
Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan/YouTube

One of the wealthiest spiritual leaders in India has either been dead or in a transcendental meditative state since January. The Telegraph's Dean Nelson reports from New Delhi that a court has now been asked to settle the matter. 

Ashutosh Maharaj is presently in a commercial freezer in his ashram, guarded by elders within the multinational sect (or, self-described "socio-spiritual-cultural, not-for profit organization") that he created. His followers insist that Maharaj is in a state of transcendent bliss called samadhi, a central tenet of traditional yoga in which a yogi becomes one with the universe. Upon moving all of your prana (currents of energy) up your spine and into your head, according to the seminal yoga manual Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a yogi can become "as if dead."

This would seem to be at odds with the assessment of a team of local physicians who examined Maharaj in February. After performing an ECG that showed no heartbeats, noting that he had no respiratory movements, and seeing that his pupils were fixed and dilated, the physicians declared him "clinically dead."

The sect's website states, "His Holiness Shri Ashutosh Maharaj Ji has been in a deep meditative state (samadhi) since January 29, 2014." Though, a representative from the sect did say on February 3, "About 4:00 PM yesterday, some changes were noticed in his skin (it became greenish). The body was then shifted to a freezer," which may or may not be part of the traditional protocol for transcendent bliss.

The guru's son and wife corroborate that he died of a heart attack in January, and that his followers are keeping his body in order to retain control of his financial empire, including the ten billion rupee ($170 million) estate where the corpse resides.

Because Maharaj had (has) not (yet) named a successor, his wealth is to be deposited in a charitable trust (at the time of his death). Some say this is not in the interest of the elders, who "turned greedy," with an eye to usurping his property.

Maharaj's family has filed a court application for further investigation and release of the body for last rites and cremation. Police initially agreed with the physicians that Maharaj was dead, and the Punjab High Court corroborated in April that Maharaj died a natural death, but Nelson reports that local government officials say as a spiritual matter, the guru's followers cannot be forced to believe that he is dead.

Before yoga's modern incarnations predicated themselves on Lululemon and deep breathing before brunch, yoga was rife with claims that it could confer immortality. In his book The Science of Yoga, William Broad has a thorough history of miraculous practitioners. For centuries, Indian literature portrayed yogis as able to walk through walls, become invisible, survive live burials, and make their hearts stop. Claude Wade, a British eyewitness to one yogi's exhumation, wrote that it would be "presumptuous to deny to the Hindus the possible discovery or attainment of art which has hitherto escaped the researches of European science."

Yogis who made these claims did so, according to historian William Pinch at Wesleyan University, to enhance their reputations on the battlefield. "There was a clear tactical advantage," Pinch says in the book, "to having your enemy believe you were immortal."

In 1935, French cardiologist Therese Brosse studied one legendary yogi, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who claimed he could stop his heart. Brosse hooked up a single ECG lead and radial artery pulse monitor, and observed decreases in magnitude to what he reported to be "approximately zero" for several seconds before returning to normal. 

Skeptical of the finding, American electrophysiologists traveled to India in 1961 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation to study yogis who claimed to be able to stop their hearts. They found four, including Krishnamacharya. After initially deferring, saying he was too old, Krishnamacharya eventually agreed to participate. The results of the study, published in the medical journal Circulation, say that while listening with a stethoscope, the sounds of his heartbeat "either disappeared briefly or were obscured by sounds from muscle action," and his pulse "weakened or disappeared briefly." But the electrocardiogram showed that his heart was still beating.

Krishnamacharya's cardiac and respiratory activity at rest (a) and during the attempted heart-stopping (b)
(Wenger et al, Circulation, 1961)

As Broad tells it, between that study and another where an eminent yogi agreed to be sealed in an air-tight box in a laboratory only to come out gasping for air after a few hours, the era of miraculous, mystical yogic ambitions quickly morphed into one of health and fitness. "Yoga had gone from an ancient obsession with transcendence of the body," Broad writes, "to a modern crusade for a new kind of physicality."

Since then, credible studies from major medical schools have found that yoga can mitigate the physical effects of stress. (Unless you're like me, and you find yoga deeply stressful.) One recent study by Dr. Debbie Cohen at the University of Pennsylvania found that people who practiced yoga for six months successfully reduced their blood pressures. Since almost a third of Americans have high blood pressure, a major contributor to heart disease and strokes, yoga could at times lengthen lives. Some legitimacy has come of the miraculous, even if Maharaj doesn't pull through.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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