In the 1970s, reeling from the impact of the Vietnam War ending in its precipitous withdrawal, the US armed forces went through a period of deep malaise and low morale. In 1975, the Congressional Church Commission revealed many of the abuses committed in the ambit of various secret programmes conducted within the national security and intelligence complex, under the cryptic names of MK-Ultra, MK-Delta, Artichoke, Midnight Climax and Monarch, among others, which employed illegal drugs, hypnosis, electro-shock, sensory deprivation, viral pathogens, chemical and radioactive agents and techniques tantamount to torture for experimenting on human subjects with goals ranging from the ability to “break” enemy combatants or infect entire populations and eco-systems to the potential for creating super-soldiers, super-spies, mentally controlled, pre-programmed assassins and Manchurian candidates. One Dr Gilbert Jensen at Camp Peary was reputed to have trained a number of “zombified professional killers” for various special forces.

Such programmes had been conducted since the first years of the Cold War, under the inspiration of similar experiments carried in Europe under the Third Reich and in the Soviet Union.

The US military-industrial complex, guided by the ideas of men such as Allen Dulles, Nelson Rockefeller, Frank Wisner Sr, Edward Hunter and Richard Helms and spurred by the RAND Corporation’s 1949 Janis Report on the importance of mind control for national security, believed in the necessity to beat the USSR at the game of psychic warfare and it supported the research into psychotropics, neuro-electronics and consciousness carried out by pioneering scientists such as Gaefksy, Delgado, Ewan Cameron, George Estabrooks, Seymour Fischer, Andrija Puharich, Ross Adey, John Lilly and Timothy Leary, all attached to major academic institutions.

Many of those investigations were funded and monitored by the military and intelligence organisations whose interest in, what might be called the occult, stemmed from an American tradition harking back to Washington Irving, Edgar Poe, the Transcendentalists, Walter Russell and visionary writers such as Lovecraft and Charles Fort. Official curiosity was sharpened by the work done at the first “New Age” private institutes, notably the Institute for Integral Studies, founded by Stanford Professor Spiegelberg, a teacher of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy, Arthur Young’s Foundation for the Study of Consciousness, spun off from the study group created within the Bell Helicopters Corporation by German General Dornberger, (Von Braun’s mentor), William Irwin Thompson’s Lindisfarne Association (Thompson had spent some time at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry), the Monroe Institute in Virginia and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

The founders of those organisations had all been exposed to Swami Yogananda’s, C.F. Jung’s, Bateson’s, Aldous Huxley’s and Joseph Campbell’s writings, to Buddhist and Taoist teachings and meditation techniques and a few had been to India to study spiritual lore. John Lilly, a student of Patanjali and of I.K. Taimni’s books, sought to achieve communications with dolphins and “ultra-terrestrial” beings with the aid of LSD and psilocybin, a hallucinogen extracted from “magic mushrooms” and he founded with a few of his colleagues the Order of the Dolphin to that end. Timothy Leary worked for years with Richard Alpert, who later became known as Ram Dass, in his experiments on LSD sponsored by the CIA with similar objectives.

By then, it was widely acknowledged in certain high level scientific circles that reality as commonly perceived is only a tiny sliver of the infinitely complex multiverse that reveals itself to expanded consciousness, freed by meditation or by specific drugs which release DMT (dimethyl tryptamine) in the brain.

In her 1981 book, The Aquarian Conspiracy, Marilyn Ferguson depicts the ideological context of that widespread movement.

In New York state, Andrija Puharich’s Round Table Foundation, also involved in psychotropic research, was notably influenced since 1952 by Maharishi Vinod, a visiting Indian sage and medium from Bombay, whose alleged supernatural channelling powers had a big impact, as they seeded a long-lived group of investigators and were reflected in the creation of the Star Trek series by a member of the Puharich group, Gene Roddenberry in 1966.  Puharich, who had begun his work at the Edgewood Military Laboratory with funding from the OSS, allegedly at the behest of Commerce Secretary and former Vice-President Henry Wallace, well known for his theosophical interests, built an ESP enhancing machine that was classified by the government. In the early 1970s, he invited the Israeli medium Uri Geller to the US and submitted him to a battery of tests, in cooperation with Professors Hal Puthof and Russell Targ, who headed the Stanford Research Institute’s centre of parapsychology.

It was also at SRI that Wolf and Pinneo designed an EEG based mind reading machine. Later on, Targ and Puthoff created Delphi Associates to continue work in the “physics of consciousness” with funding from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). They were convinced of the reality of Geller’s paranormal abilities, along with many other eminent scientists including the NASA astronaut Dr Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man on the moon, who went on to set up the Institute of Noetic Sciences with Willis Harman.

Puharich, an admirer of his illustrious countryman and predecessor Nikola Tesla was an initiator of the Stargate Project, which sought to break out of space-time limitations to achieve inter-communication with beings in other worlds and dimensions. On a parallel track, Robert Monroe at his Institute patented the Hemi-Sync technology to facilitate Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) described as “Gateway Voyages” and the attainment of higher states of consciousness known as Focus Levels, rising all the way to the merger with cosmic wholeness described as Levels 42 to 44, or expanding “I-There Clusters”.

Another influential node since the late 1940s was George van Tassel’s Giant Rock retreat centre in the California desert, where thousands of people, including staff from the four branches of the armed forces travelled for yearly conferences that dealt with esoteric wisdom from other planets and the future of mankind.

A number of military officers grew keenly interested in the eastern spiritual techniques and in the possibility of developing higher psychic and physical powers for use in warfare. However some of them, responding to the non-violent call of the Beat Generation, after attending government funded seminars and courses at Arthur Young’s Foundation, Monroe, Esalen and other such centres, concluded that a new type of society had to be created in which violence could be almost banished or at least reduced to a minimum. They came up with the theory of “peaceful” warfare that would draw upon the spiritual and psychedelic techniques of the shamans, sages and yogis of native American and Eastern civilisations to bring about lasting resolution of conflicts. The engine behind that low key revolution in military affairs was INSCOM, the army’s Intelligence and Security Command, which supported the proposals of officers such as Colonel Jim Channon when in 1979 he established the “First Earth Battalion” at Fort Knox and became its leader. Inspired by the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita and the Bushido Zen code of Japan, he intended to build special forces, dedicated to the welfare of the planet and its inhabitants, made of psychics and wizards endowed with exceptional mental powers and physical abilities, proficient at yoga and mantra recitation, with the motto “uniform without uniformity, structure without status, unity powered by diversity” as defined in the Manual he wrote. It was, in others words, to be a kind of eco-mystical peace corps in line with an old American liberal dream.

At about the same time, his fellow officer Colonel Frank Burns recruited and trained a Delta Team of psychics at Fort Leavenworth, which was the basis for the INSCOM Center Lane Project or ICLP. Famous military remote viewers such as Ingo Swann and Major Ed Dames operated in that framework and some of them still do.

In 1981, General Albert Stubblebine, hitherto head of the Electronics Research and Development Command (ERADCOM) became the commanding officer of INSCOM. In the year when Admiral Bobby Ray Inman moved from being director of the DIA to the helm of the NSA. Like Inman, Stubblebine supported the exploration of psychic warfare that was later to be ironically evoked in the John Ronson’s 2004 film The Men Who Stared at Goats with George Clooney in the lead role. He pursued the Grill Flame remote viewing programme, started in 1977 under the code name Gondola Wish.

Stubblebine believed in the genuineness of Geller’s magical faculties and freely talked about bending spoons, remote viewing, invisibility, telekinesis and walking through walls. He sponsored the Stargate remote viewing and future gazing project at the NSA’s Fort Mead headquarters.

The interaction between “New Age” private institutions dedicated to the exploration of the frontiers of science and spirituality and certain sections of the military went on for several years and it was only after Ronald Reagan took over the White House that the intellectual climate began to change under the influence of a revived Christian ideology, which frowned at “satanic” practices and Eastern paganism, although Reagan himself was keenly interested in the supernatural. General J.A. Wickham, the new Chief of the Army Staff forced Stubblebine out of INSCOM in 1984, after the latter offered to perform a spoon bending demonstration at a public function. However, Stubblebine evinced his professional relevance by becoming a consultant to various advanced military research organisations, including the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM), reputed for its classified discoveries in the areas of remote sensing, radio-electronics and holographic imaging. By 1985, the National Research Council, a conservative body allied with the Rationalist Association of America went to war against paranormal experiments, claiming that they were unscientific, wasteful and ludicrous. The ICLP had to be formally terminated although it was in fact continued under a different designation (SUNSTREAK) as a Special Access Project (SAP) for Limited Dissemination (LIMDIS) run by the Defence Intelligence Agency’s DT 5. That fact shows that it was regarded as a valuable operation to be protected from outside interference and exposure.

In 1978, Puharich, after receiving various anonymous threats, had seen his laboratory mysteriously destroyed by arson and, fearing for his life, moved to Mexico. Years later on his return to the US, he refused new CIA sponsorship offers and dedicated himself to privately sponsored research on bio-electromagnetics.

The hawks in the GOP government realised that spiritual initiation was a dangerous potion for military personnel who might lose the attitude of blind obedience and even the will to fight after imbibing “cosmic” notions transcending narrow material power concerns. In retrospect, the ambiguous vision of an “Earth Battalion” dedicated to ecological and human welfare and committed to building “paradise on earth” was incompatible with the hegemonic agenda of Cold War mindsets and it contradicted the guidelines of a nuclear-armed force dedicated to defeating an enemy defined as the “Evil Empire”. It also stood squarely against a positivist worldview wedded to classical western scientific theories.

Yet it remains that commanders of the mightiest military machine on Earth worked (and still secretly do) to harness the power of consciousness according to ancient Indic disciplines in their quest for redemption from a heavy and haunting past.

Should India’s government research institutions, hopefully unencumbered by the same religious and ideological prejudices, pick up the thread of the country’s own traditional knowledge?

Come Carpentier de Gourdon is convenor of the International Board of World Affairs, The Journal of International Issues, and the author of various books. He has lectured in several universities in India and in other countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas.