A drive by followers of an Indian guru to spread his teachings here and take over a large, financially strapped university has alarmed Roman Catholic leaders, educators, students and some government officials.
President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, however, have welcomed the followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and have been proclaimed "founding father" and "founding mother" of his "age of enlightenment."
Since July, at least 1,200 mostly western followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the former guru to the Beatles, have descended on the Philippines to promote their "Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field," a quasi-religious doctrine supposedly based on physics and transcendental meditation that they claim will lead to an "age of enlightenment" and "perfect civilization."
Known for their generally tolerant attitudes toward foreigners, most Filipinos at first seemed to pay little attention, while others tended to dismiss the visitors as crackpots.
Then, to the surprise and puzzlement of many here, Marcos last month publicly embraced what he called "the scientifically tested and proven technology of the unified field" in a meeting with 600 Maharishi followers at his Malacanang presidential palace. Moreover, he accepted as a "great honor" their appointment of him as "founding father of the age of enlightenment in the Philippines."
The Maharishi group also declared the president's wife the "founding mother of the age of enlightenment" and said she would be "the founding light and perpetual inspiration for all mankind."
In full-page newspaper advertisements on Marcos' birthday, Sept. 11, the group called on all Filipinos and the rest of the world to "adore" Marcos in his role as founding father and said that henceforth "the Philippines will be hailed as the spiritual center of the world and President Marcos as the spiritual leader in the family of nations."
In the meeting with Maharishi followers at the presidential palace, Marcos said the movement's "world-renowned scientists" from 47 countries "do us great credit by choosing to come to the Philippines." He concluded the ceremony by ringing the group's "Maharishi bell of invincibility" and expressing his "heartfelt appreciation to his holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi."
Another shock for citizens of this predominantly Roman Catholic country came two weeks later when the Age of Enlightenment Foundation of the Philippines, a local affiliate of the Maharishi Education Foundation operating in Europe and the United States, bought a controlling interest in the privately run University of the East, the country's largest university with an enrollment of 47,000 students.
The Maharishi group took over Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, about 10 years ago and renamed it the Maharishi International University.
An American spokesman for the Maharishi group said that "no change in curriculum" was planned. But reams of press statements from the group and a barrage of advertisements in local newspapers made it clear that big changes were in the offing.
One statement hailed "an opportunity for us to create a new generation of enlightened individuals," and said the school's new owners would "introduce the Maharishi Unified Field Based Integrated System of Education to upgrade knowledge in every area of university life."
The statement also explained that "it is the supersymmetric binding force of the gluons which upholds in unity the divergent values of force fields (bosons) and matter fields (kfermions) and maintains the coexistence of all opposite values in nature and presents the unified field as the field of all possibilities."
Lest there be any confusion, the Maharishi followers also published paid newspaper advertisements claiming that the unified field "technology," practiced for 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day, can improve health, athletic ability and business performance, "create a problem-free life," and even "reverse" the biological aging process.
One ad invited all students in the Philippines to "participate in a new program to avert typhoons and other natural disasters by structuring an invincible armor for the nation through alliance with natural law."
The claims were not restricted to natural phenomena. In fact, leaders of the Maharishi group, when asked in recent news conferences to explain their presence here, indicated that they had come to solve the country's political, economic and other problems.
One statement even claimed credit on behalf of the group's presence here for the peaceful outcome of a huge opposition demonstration Aug. 21, the first anniversary of the assassination of Benigno Aquino, the political archrival of President Marcos. However, the group made no mention of two demonstrations that ended in violence since then, or a series of typhoons, an earthquake and volcanic eruptions that have claimed more than 2,000 lives.
At first, reaction to the group was muted. One group of Philippine scientists charged that the Maharishi technology was "a cheap attempt to promote transcendental meditation," a profitable enterprise in many western countries.
Since the purchase of controlling shares in the University of the East on Sept. 28 for an amount that has not yet been officially disclosed, however, the criticism has grown harsher.
Cardinal Jaime Sin, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, told a management group this week that the heart of the matter is "a problem called cult, which is very dangerous." In fact, the issue is believed to be one of the factors involved in the currently strained relations between Sin and Marcos.
In a news conference yesterday devoted mainly to answering charges from Marcos Friday that the cardinal was encouraging violent demonstrations, Sin said he had called a meeting for Oct. 22 of university presidents, theologians, teachers, politicians, professionals and other citizens to discuss the issue and come out with a "unified position."
Meanwhile, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission and the Ministry of Education have begun to look into the legality of the purchase, which involved funds entirely from abroad, according to officials of the Age of Enlightenment Foundation of the Philippines.
In addition, a progovernment member of parliament, Helena Benitez, called for an investigation by the legislature and denounced what she said were plans by the Maharishi group to buy into at least eight Philippine schools.
Many students at the University of the East also have shown alarm at the takeover, and some of them have started seeking to transfer to other schools, according to local newspapers. More radical students have painted slogans on university walls charging that the purchase was part of a plot by the "U.S.-Marcos dictatorship." Thousands reportedly plan to boycott classes and demonstrate this week.
The president of the university's student government, Mercedes Ferrer, has called the foreigners' presence "direct intervention" intended to quash the growing militancy of antigovernment students.
Spokesmen for the Maharishi group deny any political interference but are hard pressed to explain their relationship with Marcos.
In the Sept. 13 meeting with the group, Marcos said he had always had "a very strong interest in enlightenment and intelligence, rationality, logic, plus the mysticism that goes with the exercise of this power in relation to the human mind."
According to Marcos' authorized biography, he became interested in yoga as a teen-ager and practiced it to relieve the pain of torture when he was captured while fighting the Japanese in World War II.
More recently, local newspapers have reported visits by Marcos earlier this year to a renowned faith healer, Jun Labo, in the northern city of Baguio. Labo was included in the government party's ticket for legislative elections last May, but he lost.
Whatever the Maharishi followers' intentions, it is clear that they are not lacking for money.
In addition to their university purchase and their advertising blitz, they have leased a 340-room hotel, the Mirador, and taken rooms in a number of others, including the five-star Manila Hotel. There, according to management, they have booked 70 rooms for six months, including the presidential suite and penthouse, which together cost nearly $3,000 a night.
Maharishi followers -- clean-cut men dressed in old-fashioned business suits and women in granny dresses and flat shoes -- have become a common sight at the University of the East and several major hotels. Said member of parliament Benitez, "It's like an invasion from Mars."