Last fall the Natural Law Party accomplished the impressive feat of qualifying for California's 1996 ballot by registering more than 89,000 voters as party members.
But it is unclear how much, if anything, many of the tens of thousands of voters who registered as members of the Natural Law Party knew about the extent of the group's links to Transcendental Meditation or to its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
In registering voters for a party, California law does not require canvassers to disclose anything about the party or its backers.
And leaders of the Natural Law Party deny that their effort is formally connected with the Transcendental Meditation movement.
``There is no connection organizationally or financially between organizations that teach TM and the Natural Law Party,'' the party's presidential candidate, John Hagelin, told a reporter at a recent press conference, at which he appeared with many of the party's 90 or so California candidates via conference call.
But there are a wealth of at least informal ties.
The Natural Law Party was founded in 1992 on the campus of Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, and is still based in that town.
Hagelin is a particle physicist and longtime TM leader who is on a leave of absence from his teaching post at the Iowa school.
And virtually all of the dozens of candidates for Congress and the state Legislature in California that the party is fielding are practitioners of Transcendental Meditation.
``The party is very closely linked with the TM movement,'' said John Knapp, who was part of the movement for 20 years before quitting in 1990. ``Almost everyone high up in the party is a TM-er.''
Hagelin said he does not know how many of the party's candidates in California are TM practitioners. But when a reporter asked the eight candidates gathered in San Francisco if they were involved in the movement, all raised their hands.
Later, a party spokeswoman said three or four of the candidates in the state are not involved with Transcendental Meditation.
Bob Roth, a spokesman at the Natural Law Party headquarters in Iowa, said it has been no secret that the party is connected with the TM movement. ``There has been extensive coverage about TM and the party. It's no secret this is the TM party.''
Hagelin added in an interview yesterday, ``TM is a key platform plank. But we've worked really hard to ensure there's no organizational crossover. I make sure of that.''
The Transcendental Meditation movement was founded in 1955 by the Maharishi, a Hindu guru from India. Practitioners say their philosophy can teach devotees a state of deep rest that can produce powerful positive effects on individuals and society.
Although the idea of teaching meditation as a relaxation or stress-management technique might seem innocuous, the Maharishi has gone much further over the years in his claims about what TM can do.
TM has claimed that advanced practitioners can levitate. But video of the practice actually shows that they are bouncing up and down off mats while sitting cross- legged.
``I was a levitator,'' said Knapp, who now lives in Sonoma, where he has started Trancenet, a World Wide Web site critical of TM.
``But actually you jump up and down on your butt,'' said Knapp, who said the practice has left him with arthritis in his knees and lower-back problems.
The Maharishi has also claimed that advanced practitioners can develop powers of invisibility, mind-reading, perfect health and immortality.
The party's platform uses TM- based ideas to advocate solutions for improving people's health, fighting crime, cleaning up the environment, balancing the budget and a flat tax.
It also favors things like sustainable agriculture and the use of renewable energy sources.
For example, the party advocates using TM-related ideas as a method of improving people's physical health, thereby reducing spending on Medicare and Medicaid without reducing people's benefits or requiring them to pay more.
``The Natural Law Party transcends government as a bank. . . . It shifts the focus from disease to health,'' Hagelin said at the press conference.
The Maharishi and Hagelin have both claimed that a small number of advanced meditators forming a ``coherence-creating group'' in one spot can have amazing effects on others. For instance, the movement gathered a few thousand ``Yogic flyers'' in Washington, D.C., in June and July 1993 and claimed that as a result of their activity, the local crime rate plummeted.
Those outside the movement failed to see any such cause-and-effect relationship.
PEACE PLAN FOR BALKANS
Hagelin has recently suggested that NATO use 2,000 TM experts in Bosnia to create another ``coherence-creating group'' that would produce waves of peace among the Balkan nation's contending factions.
``My estimation is that this would be enough to take some of the edge off ethnic and religious conflicts in Bosnia,'' Hagelin said.
He also contended that in seven experiments over many years, mass numbers of TM practitioners who convened in the Middle East produced noticeable decreases in the level of violence between Israel and its neighbors. ``It was a fairly dramatic piece of research,'' he said.
TM CALLED A CULT
Critics call the movement a cult whose teachings can have harmful mental and physical effects on followers. The effects of TM have drawn warnings from the German government and the Cult Awareness Network, among others.
In 1980, the West German government's Institute for Youth and Society produced a report calling TM a ``psychogroup'' and saying that the majority of people who went through TM experienced psychological or physical disorders.
TM tried to block the report, but in 1989 Germany's highest court finally ordered it released.
The Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network tracks the group and distributes a book highly critical of it.
The formation of the U.S. party, one of about 40 similar parties in countries around the world, followed a directive from the Maharishi in the early 1990s that his followers get involved in politics.
Hagelin was also the party's presidential candidate in 1992, when the campaign got on the ballot in 32 states, raised $4 million, ran 128 candidates across the country and collected 37,137 votes. This time, it hopes to get on the ballot in all 50 states.
QUESTION OF MATCHING FUNDS
Hagelin spoke optimistically of raising $25 million for the 1996 campaign, thereby collecting an estimated $15 million in federal matching funds.
But that might not be possible if the party is formally associated with the TM movement.
Courts have ruled that TM is a religion, and under U.S. tax law, religions are not allowed to directly participate in political campaigns, at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.
``The real issue is that by getting matching funds, the Natural Law Party is using American taxpayers' money to fund TM,'' said Knapp.
For their part, TM advocates still publicly maintain that TM is neither a philosophy nor a religion, but just a way to teach people to reduce stress.
Among the party's Bay Area candidates is J. Martin Sproul, who is seeking a state Assembly seat in Contra Costa County. Sproul, the grandson of Robert Gordon Sproul, the late president of the University of California, said at the Hagelin press conference that even though he is a TM follower, he exercises ``independent, critical thought.''
``I tremendously admire Maharishi as a great teacher,'' said Sproul. ``But I also admire other men and women as great leaders.''
Another candidate, Robert Wells, who is running for Congress on the Peninsula, was one of the hundreds of party volunteers who collected signatures for getting the party on the ballot. He was asked if he told people up-front about TM. ``I approached people based on the platform,'' he said.
``When people asked specific questions about the party, I told them about TM,'' he added.