When the Beatles turned to India

Bikas Bhagat

The Beatles revolutionized the sound, style and attitude of popular music with distinct flamboyance. From what began as the Beatlemania fad, every single member of the band - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison grew up to be perceived as the representatives, even the embodiments of ideals associated with the cultural transformation of their age.

Reaching heights of fame, which no other musical band of the time could have ever fathomed, the Beatles ventured towards spiritualism and turned to India as they feared being engulfed in the evils of materialistic notoriety.

Predominantly, the Beatles had a way of transforming the trajectory of music and pop culture and it was because of this that they decided to travel to India in 1968 to study transcendental meditation under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom they had met in London previously.

Having shortly stopped touring, post their worldwide fame and wealth, each individual Beatle was attempting to explore their inner selves, their souls and their place in the universe. Their India experience was most unique.

Their stay in Rishikesh was a creative outpouring that culminated in an astounding collection of songs, including the beloved titles such as ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.

Ironically, the voyage did not really prove as purifying and transforming the way Beatles had expected. Just like other things in life, there were some good aspects to the Maharishi’s training and methods and there were the other instances which they perceived as appalling.

After several weeks at the Maharishi’s ashram in India alongwith other celebrities of the time (Donovan, Mia Farrow, to name a few), it was rumoured that the Beatles began to feel that Maharishi’s organization was taking advantage of their name, fame and wealth.

The Beatles, John Lennon in particular, began to expect that the Maharishi may have had an eye for the ladies of the entourage. Based on alleged remarks coming from a Beatle intimate, Lennon confronted the Maharishi on the subject and believed that his suspicions were confirmed. He went on to write a satirical song on him which went: Sexy Sadie, what have you done/you made a fool of everyone. However, the stories of illicit affairs of Maharishi at the ashram were refuted by renowned spiritual guru and a common friend of Beatles stating that the Maharishi simply lost his temper when he learned they were doing drugs.

Nevertheless, each individual Beatle took something with them from their India experience and each continued to meditate thereafter. Lennon especially broadened his spiritual horizons and found real peace of mind with the techniques he learned from Maharishi.

Among the four, George Harrison had a growing interest in Hinduism and eastern meditation techniques, as elucidated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He grew fascinated with Lord Krishna and became an important instrument in spreading the Hare Krishna movement in the West. His various tributes to Krishna are still sung across the world.
Throughout the 90s he fought a battle with lung cancer, one that would eventually take his life in November of 2001. This gentle soul, one who was forever advocating love and spirituality, was cremated. His ashes are rumoured to having been flown in the holy river Ganges in India.

Interestingly, much of the music on the Beatles ‘White Album’ is compositions that were conceived while in India with Maharishi. John Lennon confirmed his affection and attraction to artist Yoko Ono while there and, in fact on the plane trip home, told his wife Cynthia of his intentions.

The one Indian instrument which fascinated the Beatles was the Sitar. Though each individual Beatle is identified with the original instruments which they played while touring the world – John with rhythm guitar, Paul with bass guitar, George with lead guitar and Ringo, of course on drums; in reality, each one of them were multi-instrumentalists.

George attempted to master the Indian sitar, bringing a completely new sound (hear ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Inner Light’) to rock & roll. He made Pt. Ravi Shankar his guru and learnt the instrument under him. While practicing Sitar, George finally inferred that the instrument required years of disciplined training and meditational devotion to master it. So he finally decided to abandon it, but not Indian music itself.

The Beatles music changed along with the times and in fact may have set the pace for those changes. The decision to stop touring and dedicating themselves to composing and doing studio recordings was perhaps the biggest thing that affected their sound. Music historians approve of their Indian stint as highly stimulating as in the 1968 trip the Beatles wrote 48 songs in fewer than eight weeks in India.

Beatles discovered India as an inspiration…and in turn the West rediscovered the spiritual guru in India.

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