In the southeast corner of Iowa, near the small town of Fairfield, lies the state’s newest utopian community. Here, followers of an Indian guru have built their own city, following ancient traditions with modern twists. 3,000-year-old Sanskrit texts guide everything from meditation to architecture, but solar panels are visible around almost every corner and an accredited university runs its film school out of the city. And all of this has developed in the last 70 years.
Transcending: The TM Movement
The story of Fairfield’s utopian community begins in the 1950s, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008) began teaching Transcendental Meditation (TM) in India. Not long after, he brought the technique to the West and it spread rapidly, driven by famous proponents like the Beatles. Well-known practitioners today include filmmaker David Lynch (of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks), television personality Oprah Winfrey, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and actor Russell Brand. The basic technique involves silent meditation on a mantra for 15-20 minutes a day and is widely practiced around the world. However, this simple introduction to the movement hides a complex history and belief system.
TM and its various associated disciplines, which range from agriculture to architecture, claim to be drawn from Vedas, Sanskrit texts that are also among the oldest scriptures in Hinduism. These texts, in turn, were “cognized” from “the Ved, the infinite creative intelligence of natural law.” TM is believed to bring the meditator in closer touch with this intelligence, and the Maharishi would go on to develop more advanced techniques purported to increase this effect. The most famous of these is Yogic Flying, a part of the TM-Sidhi technique, which typically takes the form of a short hopping movement which is performed after meditating.
According to the Maharishi’s teachings, a gathering of meditators of a number equal to the square root of one percent of a given population – a city, a country, the world – practicing TM-Sidhi together can create a “Maharishi Effect,” which can improve the entire population’s quality of life. This effect is described as “coherence in world consciousness” and has a variety of benefits, including increased luck and decreased crime rates.
Jon Lipman AIA, director of Maharishi Vastu services in the United States, lives on the outskirts of Fairfield. He notes that many outside the movement might see the more devoted followers of the charismatic Maharishi as cult-like. His perspective is different: “We are not a religion… we have beliefs.” The movement, he adds, accepts all religious beliefs and followers fall on a spectrum from fervently committed to the Maharishi’s teachings to merely casually involved in meditation. The Maharishi himself was said to encourage self-sufficiency, occasionally giving his closest acolytes contradictory orders in the hopes they would chose their own path.
TM Comes to Fairfield
Before the 1970s, Fairfield was a relatively traditional community. Its biggest claims to fame were as the site of the first Iowa State Fair and home to Parsons College, a private liberal arts school. After years of trouble with accreditation and money, the college closed under bankruptcy in 1973 after nearly a century of existence. At the same time, the rising TM movement was seeking space for a college of its own.
The Maharishi had started a college program based on “universal natural law” in rented space in Santa Barbara and hoped to continue with permanent facilities. Despite the very different cultures of Santa Barbara and small-town Iowa, Parsons physically fit the bill, and the movement bought the campus outright. This would become Maharishi International University (MIU), known as the Maharishi University of Management from 1995-2019, an accredited institution with a variety of majors where faculty, staff, and students practice Transcendental Meditation and frame every course through the “Science of Creative Intelligence.”
In the following years, as Lipman describes it, the development of the TM-Sidhi program and prospects for the enhanced Maharishi Effect led the Maharishi to gather followers in Fairfield. He hoped to build a large enough group (approximately 7,000 meditators at the time) to activate the Maharishi Effect for the world or at least (with about 1,500 meditators) for the United States. Fairfield’s existing community of practitioners, both in the university and drawn by its influence, made it the ideal place.
Around Christmas 1983, a large group gathered in the university’s two Golden Domes, which serve as meditation spaces, one for men and one for women. The TM movement claims that this gathering reduced world conflict and boosted the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
At the same event, the Maharishi announced details of a new Ayurvedic health system, an alternative medicine with roots in ancient Indian tradition, and proposed clinics around the world. He asked visitors to stay in Fairfield, and the community grew. All these people would soon need somewhere to live that could support their beliefs.
Meditations on Urban Design
In 1988, the Maharishi founded a development corporation to enact his “Master Plan to Create Heaven on Earth.” Meeting this literally lofty goal would require reconstructing the entire world in accordance with Vedic principles. Goals included “farming all the unfarmed land,” “eradication of poverty,” self-sufficiency in every country, and achieving “ideal education through Maharishi’s Vedic Science.”
One of the first steps is to create “ideal towns, villages, and cities” that unify the inner (i.e. meditation) and outer life of residents. This total reconstruction starts with “Cities of Immortals” built at the edges of existing urban areas. The lengthy list of elements that comprise a City of Immortals includes low density (a maximum of one home per acre), generous green space and fresh air, non-polluting (i.e. electric) vehicles, community organic farming, in-home telecommunications, and crime prevention (through both the Maharishi Effect and high-tech security systems). Some of these ideals – electric vehicles, universal telecommunications, and community farming – seemed almost absurd at the time, but have since become popular with urban planners and the general public. Other elements, like the extremely low density of development, go against modern sustainability requirements.
The master plan hinged on people moving from central cities to these suburban Cities of Immortals, so that the inner cities themselves could be rebuilt according to the Maharishi’s designs. As efforts to build 50 of these cities across the U.S. and Canada began with much press attention but little actual success, the Maharishi developed a system of architecture to be used in them.
Maharishi Vastu: Face East for Your Health
Over several decades, the Maharishi worked with practitioners of six ancient “Vastu” architectural lineages to create one cohesive system based in the Vedic texts. This system, Maharishi Vastu Architecture (MVA), is founded in the same natural law as other TM disciplines. Designs are grounded in the sun’s influence, Earth’s rotation, and patterns found in nature. These influences are not unlike the practice of feng shui, although MVA is a much more consistent and complete description of how architecture influences life.
Lipman, who manages MVA in the United States, says the system promotes “good health, happiness, family harmony, and growth to enlightenment,” based on “deep principles that describe how buildings affect human health.” At a basic level, these doctrines describe the influence of sunlight, floor plans, proportions, materials, and site – all common concerns in the way buildings influence health.
MVA, however, takes it a step further by claiming a definitive understanding of these elements and their effects. Lipman says that while these methods were not discovered by Western scientific tradition, “science could, eventually, uncode them.”
MVA isn’t an architectural style per se but more a series of guidelines and elements that can be applied to any style. The Prairie School of architecture pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright heavily inspires Lipman’s home, for example.
An MVA core element is the direction a building faces, with east being ideal to greet the rising sun. Rooms and uses are aligned according to the influence of the sun and other effects (cooking areas, for example, are typically found in the southeast), although each piece has multiple options which allow for flexibility. MVA formulas calculate particular proportions, and symmetry and siting are key. Buildings should incorporate natural materials and many use solar energy. Efforts are taken to limit “harmful influences” in or near the house, such as radio frequencies and internal combustion engines.
A handful of specific architectural features are present in any MVA building. These include a central brahmasthan, or silent space, which aims to connect the home to the universe’s larger structure. Vedic cities and towns also have brahmasthans, which are intended to reflect central spaces in nature’s strucure, such as the black hole at a galaxy’s core or an atom’s nucleus. MVA building’s frequently have at least one kalash roof ornament, a level plinth foundation, and a rectangular fence or wall that marks and extends the building’s boundary of influence.
An institute at MIU directed by Lipman certifies MVA buildings in the United States, and while he says it isn’t the “Vastu police,” the company does provide free consultations to new owners and anyone planning to make additions or changes to their MVA homes.
The movement’s goal to rebuild the world’s cities according to the Vastu system gives Lipman pause. “I was a part of the preservation community,” he says, and while this work has given him a great appreciation for the legacy of cities and buildings, he can now look at many historic buildings and list negative influences in them. He ultimately believes that working with MVA is his “highest priority for society.”
Maharishi Vedic City
As the Maharishi worked on these new disciplines, meditators bought land north of Fairfield. The Maharishi encouraged this, and eventually the community pieced together enough property to comprise a small city. Originally planned as the Maharishi Center for Health and World Peace, and later as the Mandala Project, this area would be chartered as Vedic City in 2001, and later as Maharishi Vedic City. It is the first municipality chartered in Iowa in almost 20 years. Vedic City law follows the “Constitution of the Universe,” include allows the sale of only organically grown food and requiring all structures to meet MVA specifications.
The city was laid out as 10 circles surrounding a large inner circle, based on the Maharishi’s representation of the 10 verses of the first Veda. (He would later adjust this to eight outer circles, too late to revise Vedic City’s plan) Each outer circle or “Mandala” would be its own community, with silent activities such as meditation occurring in the central circle. The Mandalas would each have an Ayurvedic spa, but generally developers would design them as they saw fit.
Today, only four out of the 10 Mandalas are developed to varying degrees. Only two of these opened spas, and only one remains open: The Raj, which was also the city’s first building and remains the main visitor center. Its Mandala also includes a number of large residential villas and an office building.
Mandala 1, the easternmost community, is home to a New Urbanist development, a suburban style that emphasizes sustainability, street life, and community connections. New Urbanism also promotes high-density and mixed use, elements lacking in this development. It’s also made somewhat strange by the fact that all the houses, and their porches, face east into the back of the next row of homes. This reveals some of the unusual planning issues at work in Vedic City, both in the fact that east-facing buildings cannot, by definition, face each other, and a grid of such buildings does not fit neatly into a circular plan. This Mandala is also home to a Vedic Observatory, filled with special instruments to measure and locate various celestial bodies. Merely observing these instruments is meant to have a positive effect on the viewer.
Maharishi International University operates most of Mandala 2, just south of the first. It’s home to the College of Vedic Medicine and the David Lynch Film School. Other features include a Raam bank, to distribute the currency of the Global Country of World Peace, a non-profit headquartered in a building called The Mansion at the city’s center (the featured image on this post). Another notable landmark in this Mandala is a large, unfinished concrete foundation, which was intended as the headquarters of a telecom company before they pulled the plug mid-construction. Lipman notes that the structure’s future has become the subject of recurring discussions in the community.
Finally, Mandala 6 is home to the Rukmapura Park Hotel, as well as houses, apartments, and fourplexes, all set in a nature-focused environment.
At the city’s edge, outside the Mandala plan, is another development, filled with barrack-like structures, which Lipman describes as “architecturally insignificant.” This was formerly home to pandits, a group from India whose families were believed to have cognized portions of the ancient Vedic texts and who passed this knowledge down the generations. Described as a “permanent force of peace-keeping experts,” they were brought from India and paid $200 a month to meditate and practice ancient recitations, with $150 of that sent back to their families. The program that brought the pandits here has ended, and the property is under redevelopment into less-costly housing for meditators and others who want to join the community.
Conflict and What Comes Next
The Maharishi’s followers in and around Fairfield have not gone unnoticed by their neighbors. When a farmer planned to build a hog-feeding operation near Vedic City in 2007, the community did everything in its power to stop it, including threatening to deploy eminent domain and take the farmer’s land. He was eventually forced to drop the enterprise, citing the movement’s “bottomless pockets.”
The pandits living in MVC gained media attention in March 2014 after a group of them “shook, vandalized and threw rocks at a sheriff’s truck” when one of their number was to be returned to India with little notice to the rest. A Des Moines Register opinion piece by Rekha Basu later that month painted a grim picture of the pandits’ living conditions, and the program declined in the following years.
In the late 2010s, residents took on a bigger opponent, battling the local utility to keep radio-emitting smart meters away from their homes. The community essentially won the fight and regulators required the utility to allow analog meters for a small fee. However, solar panels still required smart meters and some residents have felt it necessary to turn off their arrays to avoid what they believe is a harmful influence.
These conflicts are complex and result from clashes between the belief and value systems found among residents in Fairfield and the surrounding area. How citizens will resolve these disparities remains to be seen, much like everything surrounding the modern Transcendental Meditation movement. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s death in 2008 sent ripples through the community, leaving followers (and employees) such as Lipman asking, “what do we do?”
Although the Maharishi named a successor, neuroscientist Tony Nader (whose title is the First Sovereign Ruler of the Global Country of World Peace), the community no longer has its charismatic founding leader and some floundering is to be expected.
Work continues on Vedic City, with a new master plan proposed in 2012, and Lipman believes the community around Fairfield will continue to grow with both meditators and those drawn to the eco-friendly, spiritually rich culture. The “creative, free-thinking, open to all possibilities bunch of people” he describes certainly has some appeal. As for why this place is exceptional, all Lipman could tell me was that “Maharishi identified that there is something very special here.”
Sources and Further Reading
- Official Maharishi Vedic City Website
- Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa by Joseph Weber (Book, 2014)
- Maharishi Cities of Immortals, published by the Maharishi Heaven on Earth Development Corporation (Pamphlet, 1989)
- “Inside the fight between my small Iowa hometown and a $12 billion utility over smart meters and the radiation that some residents call ‘poison'” by Benji Jones at Business Insider (2020)
- “Maharishi Vedic City: Inside the compound with Rekha Basu” by Rekha Basu at the Des Moines Register (2014)
Special thanks to Jon Lipman, Director of Maharishi Vastu Services in the United States for an interview on June 27th, 2020 and his help throughout the creation of this article.