They arrived for their group portrait yesterday at 2 p.m. sharp -- more than 5,500 experts in the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field, converging on the Mall from every direction.

By 2:10 they were standing in neat rows, men on one side, women on the other, the Capitol rising behind, all smiling agreeably toward a camera stand high atop a hydraulic scissor lift.

By 2:25 the shutters were clicking away. By 2:45 it was over -- the largest posed group shot in Washington history.

Talk about your global upsurge of coherence and harmony!

"They're amazingly well behaved," said a tourist from Seattle. "Very patient. Very polite."

The World Assembly on Vedic Science has been hard at work this week, trying to turn the D.C. Convention Center into a little piece of utopia.

The participants have come from far and wide to meditate, levitate and superradiate until July 18, hoping thereby to ease international tensions, impede the spread of infectious disease, improve the stock market, increase the number of patent applications, reduce the number of traffic fatalities and generally promote positive developments all over the place.

"The time is closing fast when the media will not report anything negative in world events," predicts His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Founder of the Science of Creative Intelligence and the Technology of the Unified Field, Founder of Maharishi International University, Founder of Maharishi Academy of Vedic Science and Founder of the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment.

He is also discoverer and champion of "The Maharishi Effect," by which the square root of one percent of the world's population -- that is, 7,000 transcendental meditators under the same roof -- can bring about "the spontaneous blossoming of all the beautiful, evolutionary qualities of the unified field on every level of individual and national life."

The Effect, say its partisans, wielding bar graphs and pie charts, has been borne out scientifically by scores of controlled experiments and statistical studies -- most recently a year and a half ago at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. There, more than 7,000 meditators gathered for three weeks under the university's Golden Dome and managed, according to one chart, to double the "vitality and positivity of heads of state," among other accomplishments.

The assembly in Washington is about 1,500 short of the carefully calculated margin, but that shouldn't be a problem.

"Because the conference is being held in the capital of the country," says Maharishi, "the quality of the 5,000 or 6,000 in the capital will match with 7,000 in a cornfield in Iowa." He giggles. "It is a very great country, the most powerful country, and we expect the effects will be almost the same as before."

Although the man of the moment is not physically attending his world assembly -- just "connecting with" it telephonically from an ashram outside New Delhi -- the Maharishi Effect is everywhere in evidence.

"There's just so much joy in the room, it makes me laugh and laugh and laugh," says magician Doug Henning, who is attending the assembly between gigs. "You just feel so great, you feel so happy. It's even more intense than happiness. I would call it bliss."

Henning, who began meditating 12 years ago, says he is currently putting three students through Maharishi International University (to the total tune of $18,000 a year) so that they can become "professional creators of coherence."

"I'm sure this is the only way to create world peace," he says.

Another meditator, 5-year-old Sarah Averbach, has been attending with her parents and nanny. "It gets you to enlightenment," she explains.

An advanced form of meditation, known informally as the flying program, leads to "the ability to levitate," says Michael Dillbeck, a psychology professor at MIU. "The body begins to lift off the ground and then returns to the ground. It goes about a foot off the ground, and hops maybe two or three feet of distance."

"You're sitting there and all of a sudden your body jumps in an involuntary motion," says Veronica Butler, a 1976 graduate of Howard University Medical School who now practices traditional medicine at MIU. "For me it's like a knee jerk."

Says Dan Baleu, who sells advertising for Sunset magazine in Detroit, "I have hopped -- which is a preparation for hovering. The best description I can give is that it's like floating on bubbles of bliss."

But it is against policy to let outsiders see or photograph the phenomenon.

"To take a photo of the outer byproduct of this inner development would be very misleading," says Mark Haviland, the movement's Washington press spokesman. "We prefer not to do it."

Neil Patterson, governor general of the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment for North America, estimates that there are more than 10,000 teachers of transcendental meditation worldwide and more than 3 million practitioners. In the United States, he says, 40,000 people learn the basic technique annually, at $400 a crack.

The movement owns much property throughout the world -- including its Washington headquarters, an erstwhile downtown hotel purchased three years ago for $8 million -- and Maharishi has two jet aircraft always at his disposal.

The inaugural news conference at the headquarters is held in a big room dominated by an empty white divan flanked by a massive brass "invincibility bell" and an illuminated globe. Many slim young men in dark suits oversee the proceedings. The press, having passed through a bank of metal detectors, occupies row upon row of golden overstuffed wing chairs.

"Jai gur dev," says Maharishi in the traditional holy man's greeting, his voice piped in the from the ceiling. There follows a soothing shower of words:

"And now, with the technology of the unified field and the knowledge of all the laws of nature, world consciousness stands purified and is constantly being purified . . . Life on Earth will be more and more according to natural law, more and more positive, less and less negative . . . so we are on a very sound footing today for creating an ideal society and ideal civilization . . . "

What about the problems of India? asks a reporter from India Abroad.

"The problems of India come from outside. Rest assured that the problems of India originate somewhere else."

Do you mean India is contaminated by the West?

"That's what I meant. If India is in the East, then the only thing left is the West."

What will utopia look like?

"Growth will be a balanced growth. Everything is going to be better and better as the light of knowledge grows with the purity of world consciouness."

Is Maharishi taking credit for the absence of world war?

"That's what I meant -- exactly that . . . the basis of coordination between mind and body, and the coordination of laws of nature and all the laws governing mind and body . . . the thousands of students, hundreds of schools, in group meditation, this has a pacifying effect.

"The absence of real global conflict must be due to this, so we feel a little more relaxed. We don't see any world conflict coming on."

The great hall of the convention center is festooned with banners proclaiming "The Year of Unified Field Based Education," draped with golden curtains, and filled with loyal followers. On the podium is Michael Tompkins, minister of information and inspiration of the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment.

"There has been a very distinct softening of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union," he says, his image projected onto a giant screen. " . . . from the Mideast, the vast majority of Palestinians favor talks with Israel . . . El Salvador has started talking with Honduras . . . the food crisis has ended in eight African nations . . . the world stock index is up 16 percent -- and that's just after the first day of our superradiant sessions."

The experts in the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field radiate with wave after wave of applause.