February and March 1968 marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles legendary visit to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi. Paul Saltzman who took famous photos of The Beatles during their trip has just released a new edition of his book, The Beatles in India.
Saltzman is also planning to direct a new documentary called The Beatles in India to be released in Fall 2018.
Spiritual Quest: What the Beatles Discovered in India
“You can have everything in life. Like we’re the Beatles, aren’t we? We can have anything that money can buy. And all the fame we could dream of. And then what? It isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside.”– George Harrison
It was supposed to be the turnkey to a higher level of consciousness but the Beatles trip to India in February 1968 was the catalyst of many things to come. As things later unfolded, what was supposed to be a relaxing three-month vacation from reality severed the marriage of John and Cynthia Lennon, sparked the birth of John and Yoko Ono’s burgeoning relationship, and revealed an Indian guru was nothing more than a fraud. Those troubled times arguably engendered the most productive burst of creativity in the Beatles’ careers, spawning the White Album as well as portions of their next two albums: Abbey Road and Let It Be.
It was also the Beatles last vacation together as a group. History would show that their ill-fated trip to India was the beginning of the end for the Fab Four.
A GENUINE INDIAN GURU
Though Beatle lore has it that George Harrison was the first of the Beatles to become hip to transcendental meditation, it was actually his first wife, Pattie (Boyd) Harrison who first piqued his interest in the subject. She attended a lecture on meditation at Caxton Hall in London and subsequently brought a friend with her to the Maharishi’s meditation center in Belgravia.
Having reached the peak of fame and fortune in their careers, the Beatles, for some time, as a whole and as individuals, had been looking for the meaning of life; a spiritual quest for answers. They looked for answers in songs, flower power, psychedelic drugs and now, Eastern philosophies.
The Harrisons made a special trip to San Francisco to check out the hippy scene in Haight Ashbury during the summer of love in 1967. What George Harrison saw was not love or answers to life. In fact, the trip left him deeply disturbed.
“The people in Haight Ashbury got really fucked up It made me realize, ‘This is not it.’ And that’s when I really went for meditation,” Harrison recalled in The Beatles Anthology.
The Maharishi was an interesting character indeed. The small man with the nervous giggle and long hair had a degree in physics and studied Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures under spiritual leader Swami Guru Dev.
The Maharishi’s teachings were polished, Westernized versions of Vedic knowledge. By the late 1950s, he took his message abroad, opening his first meditation center in Britain in 1959. Eight years later in 1967, he had opened 250 centers in more than 50 countries. An expert in garnering publicity, the Maharishi knew that television was a crucial way to get his message across.
A friend told Harrison that the Maharishi would be making an appearance on August 24, 1967, at the Hilton Hotel in London. Harrison purchased tickets for the other Beatles, save for Ringo, who couldn’t attend because his wife, Maureen, was in the hospital awaiting the birth of their son Jason.
Harrison, Lennon and McCartney were all in attendance at the lecture. After the lecture, the three Beatles had a 90-minute private audience with the Maharishi, who invited them the next day to a 10-day seminar on mediation in Bangor, North Wales.
On August 25, the Beatles took a train to Bangor, Wales, where they were greeted by a throng of screaming fans and the ever-present media. The Beatles used the occasion to announce they had given up drugs and had taken up Transcendental Mediation. It was a major coup for the Maharishi, who had been looking for years to find a medium to get his message across – and he was not shy about his intentions.
‘I can train them as practical philosophers of the present century, something very great and of use to the world,” Maharishi told reporters. “I see the possibility of a great future for them.”
Two days later, Brian Epstein, the Beatles ever faithful manager, died of an accidental overdose in his London flat. Epstein had been planning to join the four lads the next day in Bangor.
Fortunately the Maharishi was on hand to help the Beatles with the grieving process which helped to solidify their relationship with him as someone with all the answers.
“We all feel it, but these talks on transcendental meditation have helped us to stand up to it [Brian’s death] so much better,” Lennon told reporters. “He [the Maharishi] told us not to get overwhelmed by grief and whatever thoughts we have to Brian to keep them happy because any thought we have of him, they will travel to him wherever he is.”
Almost a month later, Lennon and Harrison appeared with the Maharishi on The Frost Programme on ITV, with host David Frost. The group had officially given the Maharishi the “thumbs up,” which created a publicity frenzy and he gained thousands of new followers. His face graced the cover of Life, Newsweek, Time, Look, Esquire and the New York Times. He became a cause celebre and was a guest on The Tonight Show and sold out Madison Square Garden.
The Beatles also announced plans they would spend three months beginning in February 1968 to take a teachers course in transcendental meditation with the Maharishi at his Academy in Rishikesh, India.
The Maharishi was only too happy to use the Beatles’ good name to promote himself. In November 1967, he released his own album and promoted himself as “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles Spiritual teacher.”
“We want to learn the meditation thing properly so we can propagate it and sell the whole idea to everyone,” Lennon told biographer Ray Coleman. “This is how we plan to use our power now– they’ve always called us leaders of youth and we believe this is a good way to give a lead.”
Lennon also told Coleman the ultimate plan was for the Beatles to set up a meditation academy back in London.
On February 16, 1968, George Harrison and his wife Pattie, accompanied by John and Cynthia Lennon, were the first to arrive in Rishikesh. They were followed by Paul McCartney and Jane Asher and Ringo and his wife, Maureen, three days later on Feburary 19. After their 24-hour flight which crossed five time zones, they were greeted by a swarming media of world press.
The Maharishi’s ashram sat on a small plateau among the hills. The fenced-in compound (using real barbed-wire) consisted of six single-story, concrete, barracks-style structures that slept 10 people each. A staff of 40 people included a construction crew, a printing works, cooks and cleaning staff and a full-time masseuse.
Bedrooms were simply furnished, with a bedstead and bedding, a chair and a table, shelving with a mirror. While indoor plumping was not an option, the ashram did provide hot water, which was heated up in disused oil drums by servants.
The ashram also had a kitchen and dining area where everyone ate community meals together. Breakfast was usually followed by a period of meditation. Lunch and dinner were usually soup and a healthy variety of vegetables and Northern Indian foods such as rice, dhal, curds, puris and salads.
When meals were finished, they met at a lecture hall at 3:30 and 8:30 pm for 90-minute lectures, with students describing their meditation experiences and the Maharishi responding to the faithful followers questions.
The Maharishi suggested to his followers while in Rishikesh, they should meditate for 12 hours a day, exchange worldly smiles and greet each other with the Sanscrit salutation, “Jai Guru dev.” These were words that Lennon used in his song “Across the Universe.”
The Rishikesh experience provided the Beatles with their first collective escape from their demanding recording schedules and constant fan bombardment. Other high profile followers at Maharishi’s camp at that time included Beach Boy Mike Love, Singer Donovan Leitch and actress Mia Farrow and her sister, Prudence.
In his book, The Beatles in Rishikesh, Paul Saltzman, a fellow student of meditation, remembers how approachable the Fab Four were in this easygoing environment.
While walking through the ashram one day, Saltzman unexpectedly walks up to John, Paul, George, Ringo, Cynthia, Maureen and Mal Evans, who were seated at a long table by the edge of a cliff that overlooked the Ganges River.
“May I join you?” asked the unabashed 23-year-old Saltzman.
“Sure mate,” answered Lennon.
That was the start of a two-week private audience Salzaman had with the Beatles.
As no professional photographers were permitted at the ashram, very few good images of the band exist from that time period. The Beatles, however, had no problem with Saltzman freely snapping pictures. His 75 pictures of previously unpublished photos documenting this unique time in India is the basis for his book, The Beatles in Rishikesh, which was originally published in 2000 and reissued in February 2018.
After meeting the Beatles, Saltzman befriended Mal Evans. During his time spent with the Beatles, he observed that “George seemed the most serious about meditation, followed by John. Paul seemed less serious, but he’d had several profound experiences, he said, enjoying the time he dropped away from busy, worldly thoughts. Ringo was the least interested.”
He also observed the Beatles with their partners: “As a couple, George and Pattie were self-contained and quiet. They seemed very much in love… Ringo and Maureen had just had their second child together and seemed so comfortable, like an old married couple.” He also noticed that Paul and Jane were openly affectionate with each other, while John and Cynthia were distant and cool.
During the breaks from meditation, Saltzman got to listen in on John and Paul informally rehearsing new, unfinished songs such s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and was treated to an impromptu sitar concert by George.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY GEORGE
On February 25, 1968, George Harrison spent his 25th birthday party with his wife, his bandmates and people in the ashram. While eating a specially prepared cake, partygoers were entertained by a plethora of local performers, including a man attired in a turban and Indian costume.
A few weeks later, on March 15, an Italian television crew was allowed to record a bit of history in the making when they were invited to the camp for Mike Love’s birthday celebration.
While India was supposed to be a time of rest and relaxation, it was an anxious time for John Lennon. After a week in the ashram, Cynthia noticed John began getting jittery and nervous.
“The first week in India he was fine, but after that, he cut me off from himself,” Cynthia told biographer Ray Coleman. “We’d always done things together. He went so deeply within himself through meditation that he separated himself from everything.”
What Cynthia didn’t realize at the time was that her husband was receiving provocative cards and letters from Yoko Ono. He received mantras from her such as: “BREATHE” or “HIT A WALL” or “KEEP LAUGHING FOR A WEEK.”
“These crazy letters kept coming, driving me mad,” Lennon confessed in a Rolling Stone interview. “But it was great, too.”
To relieve the pressure, the first song he wrote in India was “I Want You,” which later appeared on Abbey Road. When his loneliness turned to despondency, he wrote the lyrics, “Yes I’m lonely, wanna die.” The song would become “Yer Blues” on the White Album.
DISILLUSIONMENT IN THE ASHRAM
Ringo and Maureen left just after two weeks. Starr had spent long periods of time in the hospital with peritonitis as a child and found the curries and spices too much for his sensitive stomach, while the insects were waging war on Maureen’s phobias. Both of them also missed their kids.
The trip was productive for Paul McCartney, who wrote 15 songs while in India, but he too was getting irked with the Maharishi. He noticed the Indian guru would only laugh if he didn’t know the answer to something.
“The Maharishi doesn’t know much about world affairs and we’ve been telling him about Vietnam and what’s happening over there, so he’d understand why some of the young men won’t fight,” McCartney told Saltzman. “The Maharishi just laughs when he can’t answer a question, and it just alienates people. He really must learn to say ‘I don’t know’ when he does not. He’ll be more respected for it.”
McCartney didn’t last much longer. He and Jane Asher left a few weeks later on March 26, only having stayed a little more than a month.
“If it had turned out to be something we really had to go back for, I would have gone back,” McCartney said in The Beatles Anthology. “But at the end of my month, I was quite happy to leave.”
In her book, What Falls Away, Mia Farrow describes the Maharishi as a man who singled her out every day for a private talk in his bungalow. In her opinion, the Maharishi also singled out those who could do something for him such as a self-important, middle-aged American woman who arrive at the ashram with a mountain of luggage. This pushy woman insisted on a brand-new bungalow next to the Maharishi’s. The American heiress came in tow with her son, a young man named Bill.
One day when the heiress was bored, she went out tiger hunting with her son, unaware that her self-important presence had inspired John Lennon to write, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.”
Farrow also noticed that the Maharishi’s directive of 12 hours of meditation a day made it also a competition between the campers who could go the longest period of time without a break in meditation. The ashram record, it was said, was 42 hours.
The Maharishi even set up a buddy system to look out for one another. Lennon and Harrison were assigned to look out for Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister.
For a few days, Prudence got caught up in her meditation and wouldn’t come out of her bungalow. Lennon, who took his buddy watching duties seriously, became concerned for her well-being one day and brought his guitar with him. He began seranading the younger Farrow sister outside her window.
“Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play, Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day…”
While Lennon tried to coax Prudence out of her room, the Maharishi coaxed Mia Farrow into his private cave.
“Now we will meditate in my cave,” the Maharishi told Farrow a month into her visit.
Farrow writes in her book: “I followed him down wooden steps into a dark, humid little cellar room that smelled of sandalwood. It was my first time in his cave: there was a small shrine with flowers and a picture of Guru Dev, Maharishi’s dead teacher, and a carpet on which we settled ourselves in the lotus position to meditate. After 20 minutes we were getting to our feet, still facing each other, but as I’m usually a little disoriented after meditation, I was blinking at his beard when suddenly I became aware of two surprisingly male, hairy arms going around me. I panicked, and shot up the stairs, apologizing all the way. I flew out into the open air, and ran as fast as I could to Prudy’s room, where she was meditating of course.”
Farrow then flung her clothes and other assorted belongings into her shoulder-bag, and without a plan, dashed out of the guarded gates into the Indian night where she ended up in a cockroach-infested hotel in the slums of Calcutta.
THE LAST STRAW
Farrow’s disappearance soon led to speculation that the holy man had “earthly” desires. On April 11, 1968, an all-night discussion ensued, spurred on by Magic Alex and a fellow female meditator.
It was only when Harrison appeared to have serious doubts, did it give Lennon the courage to confront the Maharishi the next morning. Lennon, with fellow meditators in tow, charged toward the Maharishi’s bungalow.
“I was the spokesman and, as usual, when the dirty work came, I had to be the leader – wherever the scene was, when it came to the nitty-gritty,” Lennon recalled in the 1971 Rolling Stone interview “Lennon Remembers.”
When Lennon announced he and the rest of the meditators were leaving, the Maharishi was dumbfounded and asked Lennon why.
“Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why,” the acid-tongued Lennon said.
“I don’t know why,” the Maharishi said.”You must tell me.”
“You ought to know,” Lennon repeated several times.
The look in Maharishi’s eyes, according to Lennon, gave him away and the Beatle was able to call his bluff.
“He gave me a look like, ‘I’ll kill you, you bastard.'”
It was then that Lennon decided it was time to leave. It was two weeks short of their three-month graduation date from the course.
It was subsequently discovered that Linda Pearce, one of the Maharishi’s most devout followers, reveled that she was seduced by him when she first went to India as a 22-year-old virgin. She also stated there were others.
While Lennon and gang were waiting for the taxis to pick them up at the ashram, he was inspired by the events that just took place. He began writing the lyrics to his next song, “Maharishi, what have you done? You’ve made a fool of everyone…” The song, originally titled, “Maharishi,” was later changed to “Sexy Sadie” by request of Harrison to protect the Maharishi’s reputation.
As the taxis arrived and everyone was loading their luggage, the Maharishi was standing at the gates of the ashram under an aide’s umbrella as they filed past him without a word.
“Wait,” the Maharishi cried. “Talk to me.”
“I wanted to cry. It was so sad,” Cynthia Lennon wrote in her autobigoraphy, A Twist of Lennon. “The Maharishi was sitting alone in a small shelter made of wood with a dried grass roof. He looked very biblical and isolated in his faith.”
The cars that came to pick up the Lennons and Harrisons were old and decrepit. One of the cars developed a flat tire, and when it was discovered there wasn’t a spare, it left John and Cynthia baking in the Rishikesh sun for three hours while George and Patti Harrison continued on. Lennon was convinced that Maharishi had put a curse on him.
Tucked safely inside a New Dehli hotel, Lennon and Harrison went back and forth with each other, wondering what they should tell the media.
“Should we tell the world the Beatles made a mistake?” Lennon asked Harrison.
The media caught up with Lennon and Harrison upon their arrival from India, and all had the same burning question: Was the Maharishi on the level?
“I don’t know what level he’s on,” Lennon quipped.
Harrison, not wanting to embarrass the Maharishi, chimed in, “He’s on the level.”
“But we had a nice holiday in India and came back rested to play businessmen,” Lennon concluded.
However, the Beatles did leave behind their rose-colored glasses back in the ashram with the Maharishi and came away with more than 40 songs – almost all of the songs for the White Album.
Soon after the India trip, John eventually left Cynthia for Yoko, and four months later, McCartney and Asher called it quits.
Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all later claimed they used meditation in their daily life.
“I always thought I learned what I wanted to learn there,” McCartney told Barry Miles in Many Years From Now. “I took it as a skill like riding a bike.”
Even Lennon looked back fondly at his experience in India.
“I’ve got no regrets at all, ’cause it was a groove and I had some great experiences meditating eight hours a day – some amazing things, some amazing trips – it was great,” Lennon said.
“Personally, I think the Maharishi is a man with a fine method of meditation, though not one he invented and not the best method for me,” said Paul Saltzman 32 years later. “I believe he was too fixated on packaging and selling it and made some false claims which were unnecessary and disrespectful of his followers. But he and his organization made a vast fortune in the ’60s, and I imagine, since then.”
The Maharishi passed away in 2008 at the age of 90.
(If you are not on our mailing list, go here to subscribe.
Note: this newsletter is different from following our blog posts)