Devotees dip in the Ganges as the ashes of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi are prepared for immersion in the holy waters, from Richard Beymer’s film The Passing of a Saint.
Somewhere between an exodus and an odyssey, Richard Beymer’s film The Passing of a Saint is a heartfelt tribute to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who passed away on February 5, 2008. The film chronicles a determined dash across the globe from Iowa to India. As much elevated flight of fancy as personal crusade, the film is all the more stunning for its guerilla-style approach in documenting the closing chapter of one of the world’s leading spiritual figures.
The movie, clocking in at a little over one hour, is shot in extreme first-person. Beymer’s emails about travel arrangements to Bobby Roth ferret out details as they emerge and provide a narrative device that heightens the tensions and intimacy of the quest. It’s a private journal being written right before your eyes, providing both a bird’s-eye view of India and a kaleidoscopic in-your-face tromp through its ungodly transportation trenches. Plane? Train? Taxi? Boat? Rickshaw? Bus? Picture Homer’s Odysseus with a hand-held camera, or better yet, Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s Ulysses.
While it’s hard not to appreciate the Herculean efforts it took to make the film—scenes wending through throngs of mourners, with Beymer often walking backwards with the camera, or jumping from boat to boat on the Ganges—talking about the filmmaker’s perspective misses the essence of the film. Namely, the unsentimental, yet utterly poignant tribute to the final rites of passage of a highly revered world figure known simply as “Maharishi” to countless souls across generations and continents. Against the backdrop of loss, Beymer’s natural, hands-on cinéma vérité alchemizes the event into an existential meditation on the ephemeral nature of life. And therein lies the power.
At one point, Maharishi’s own words are heard in voiceover from a lecture discussing what happens to the soul at the time of death. The question is about someone in cosmic consciousness, a state he has described as awareness permanently anchored to transcendental consciousness, or being.
Maharishi: “Nothing happens new at the time of death, only that the individual ceases to be located by others. What does it matter? When the body goes, he doesn’t go. . . .” Beymer juxtaposes these words over images of Maharishi’s funeral procession, the cremation pyre, the chanting, the fire being lit.
The film is a revealing look at Vedic final rituals in India. For those who knew Maharishi or whose lives have been shaped by his legacy, the film is a moving experience of closure, insight, and elevation.
Though Maharishi’s passing wasn’t completely out of the blue due to his advanced age, I, like many others, felt the reality set in as I watched the funeral rites on webstream. I flashed on a news conference the Beatles held in Bangor, North Wales, when their manager, Brian Epstein, passed away in 1967. They were with Maharishi at the time.
Question: “I understand that this afternoon Maharishi conferred with you all. Could I ask you what advice he offered you?”
John: “He told us . . . uhh . . not to get overwhelmed by grief. And whatever thoughts we have of Brian to keep them happy, because any thoughts we have of him will travel to him wherever he is. . . .”
George: “There’s no real such thing as death anyway. I mean, it’s death on a physical level, but life goes on everywhere . . . and you just keep going, really. . . .” (From Beatles Ultimate Experience: Lennon & Harrison Interview: Bangor, August 27, 1967.)
The Passing of a Saint achieves a delicious blend of unsentimental reverence and front-row realism. Beymer includes footage he shot of Maharishi on the Merv Griffin Show circa mid-’70s when TM was growing in popularity. Maharishi, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine around this time, flashes his thousand-watt smile beneath television lights, clad in a white dhoti, carrying a sea of flowers in his arms. When his ashes are poured into the Ganges near Varanasi, a profusion of flowers drops into the water in honor of the ceremonious passing.
The film has an incredible forward motion but is saturated in silence. Both a Zen koan and a Rumi poem, it is shot and edited by someone with an insider’s sure footing and a discerning eye.
In 1964 in Mississippi, Beymer produced an award-winning documentary on the civil rights movement. A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer appeared at the Whitney Museum in New York. In many ways, it’s shot in the same style—lots of silence, a wonderful interweaving of music and images, use of ambient sound and flowing sequences, letting the story tell itself.
The Passing of a Saint ends with a voiceover of Maharishi’s high-octane laugh. In a few short words, the saint sums up life: “It’s a merry-go-round.” Fade to white.
Special Screenings in March
The Passing of a Saint will be shown at ICON Gallery in Fairfield on Friday and Saturday nights beginning March 12, 2010.
For tickets, go to www.icon-art.org.
About the filmmaker: Richard Beymer was born in Avoca, Iowa. He moved to Hollywood as a boy with his family. He has been shooting films his whole life. He currently resides in Fairfield, where he paints, sculpts, and writes. His “unauthorized” autobiography is Imposter: Whatever Happened to Richard Beymer? subtitled: Who Am I When Not Being Who I Think I Am?
James Moore is general manager of KRUU-LP 100.1 FM, Fairfield’s solar-powered, grassroots community radio station.
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