The Beatles with their guru, Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi. Photo from the Pop History Dig
What happened between Hard Days Night and Magical Mystery Tour? How could the Beatles’ iconic sound change so drastically? I have listened to each album chronologically and recognize a clear discrepancy just before the band’s unfortunate breakup. Before I travel to the U.K in a few short weeks and admire Beatles artifacts, I wanted to answer this question.
From “Twist and Shout” and “Paperback Writer” to “Jai Guru Deva” and “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream,” — the Beatles’ spiritual journey was broadcast across record players nationwide. The Beatles didn’t start the hippie movement, but they shaped it. The youth of the late 1960s, favoring protest and hallucinogens, strongly opposed the older, ardently conservative generation they succeeded. The Beatles were very influential with their “mop top” haircuts and live music performances, but perhaps their most influential trend was sparking an interest in Eastern religions such as Hinduism. There are three aspects of Hinduism the Beatles incorporated into their music, and subsequently into Western culture: Hindu inspired Transcendental Meditation, the Indian sitar, and the Hare Krishna movement.
While Paul McCartney and John Lennon usually took the spotlight on stage, George Harrison certainly took the lead in the band’s quest to explore Transcendental Meditation. It began in 1967, when the Beatles had a spiritual encounter at a lecture where they met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a famous Transcendental Meditation teacher (Kozinn, 2008). Maharishi became the Beatles’ guru. In Hinduism, gurus are similar to spiritual mentors, as they are enlightened and considered as God in human form (Jayaram). Gurus take responsibility for their disciples’ spiritual lives. This could be classified into the social and institutional dimension of Hinduism because it concerns religious specialist roles. Harrison purchased the tickets to this lecture because he was in search of a mantra— a sound or utterance that is considered sacred and has spiritual influence (2017). This is similar to the way a Christian sings hymns and praises to God. Harrison saw this as his key into the “otherworld.” Before 1967, no one knew what a mantra was. The 2008 election season was full of political candidates’ “mantras,” and many people now use the term on a daily basis.
The Beatles backstage after Mahareshi’s Transcendental Meditation lecure. Photo by The New York Times.
In an effort to reach an even higher level of consciousness, some Western philosophers in the late 1950s experimented with drugs. In The Doors of Perception, English writer Aldous Huxley put drugs in the same category as yoga, both of which he used for spiritual growth (Goldberg, 2013, p. 96). America in 1966 was clouded in smoke and lost in a search for inner peace. The Beatles were open with their drug use. After experimenting with marijuana and LSD, McCartney said the band tried to “find meaning in it all” (Swanson, 2016).
Ravi Shankar, the Indian musician who taught Harrison how to play the sitar, condemned the use of drugs, saying it was better to have clear senses free of pollutants (Goldberg, 2013, p. 150). Harrison was the one who moved the needle on the spiritual compass as the Beatles retreated to India to learn Transcendental Meditation. Harrison said, “The people of India have tremendous spiritual strength, which I don’t think is found elsewhere. The spirit of the people, the beauty, the goodness — that’s what I’ve been trying to learn about” (Bebergal, 2014). The Beatles replaced LSD with meditation. Westerners were yearning for ways to reach another level of consciousness without drugs, and when they heard the Beatles found it, they never looked back. McCartney told a reporter, “The only reason people take drugs is because they hear so much about experiences that can expand the mind. By meditating, this expansion can be done without drugs and their ill effects” (Bebergal, 2014). This was bold coming from a rock band in 1967, especially one that admitted to using LSD months before.
Spiritual practices would never be the same for America. The media suddenly began reporting on the sophisticated East as Americans grew more intrigued with buzzwords like “mindfulness,” “enlightened,” or “karma.” Other ideas included vegetarianism, yoga, and Indian clothing. In the U.S., these Indian ideas from the Beatles were quickly adopted among Westerners. Perhaps the youth of the 1960s didn’t see this spiritual goodness exemplified in their homes, and the tumult of the political and cultural climate left them searching for answers. The appeal of Hinduism was that the answers were within oneself. They rejected the nuclear ideals of their government and welcomed peace, one of the most important aspects of Hinduism. The spread of Hinduism in America was the product of many forces; it was a time of mass-communication and more convenient travel, societal turbulence, and nuclear angst (Goldberg, 2013, p. 8). The door was open for the Beatles to create a path between the East and the West, and they came back to America with answers for their fans. America, too, was searching for her mantra.
In India, Harrison studied the Indian spiritual practices diligently, captivated by a worldview that encompasses everyone and everything. Harrison said, “Through Hinduism I feel like a better person. I just get happier and happier” (Greene). Harrison was attracted to the transcendence Hinduism seemed to offer, as it was not founded as a religion, but more of a way of life. In fact, Hinduism has no single founder, unlike Christianity or Islam. Hinduism is sometimes referred to as a religious culture rather than a religion. There is no constant set of beliefs, and the name “Hinduism” simply means “the religion of India” (Corduan, 2012, p. 9). With the media hanging on every word of the Fab Four, the youth paid attention to every word, and a wide set of Eastern religious practices was readily adopted.
A large reason for the success of widespread meditation was the science behind it, but the science is also when meditation started getting more criticism. Maharishi had a physics background and a big reason for his disapproval among Hindus was the profit he made from Transcendental Meditation. He opened Maharishi International University in the summer of 1973, and it’s now Maharishi University of Management and acts as an Indian spiritual legacy. Physicians and psychotherapists recommended meditation to lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety, and that is when many celebrities took notice (Goldberg, 2013, p. 165).
Mahareshi Mahesh International University is still here today, now known as Maharishi University of Management.
Meditation was among one of the most attractive ideals of Eastern culture. Thousands joined Hindu-inspired meditation movements (Goldberg, 2013, p. 8). Religious scholar Lola Williamson said the movement represented somewhat of a new religion (Goldberg, 2013, p. 8). This new perspective challenged the way of thinking in America. After Transcendental Meditation received its Beatles endorsement, the media gave it lots of attention and everyone wanted to know more. One of Maharishi’s key messages was that meditators do not have to give up anything or change their way of life. Lennon said, “You can make it with meditation if you’re a Christian, a Mohammedan, or a Jew. You just add meditation to whatever you’ve got” (Greene). These statements aggravated Hindu purists because they thought it watered down the tradition.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi opened meditation centers in Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. He described the practice as “tapping into the inner source of thought, a reservoir of unlimited energy, intelligence, power, peace, and bliss deep within the mind” (Forem, 2012, p. 2). Maharishi’s words were music to young American ears, not just a pop star trend that would soon pass; the idea that peace came from the individual was transcendent. Maharishi took his practice further, saying the power of meditation goes beyond the individual, and when people meditate, a deep inner peace they experience is like a “warm air” surrounding them with harmony and positivity (Forem, 2012, p. 2). Perhaps this message from the unconventional leader gave the young Americans hope that world peace could actually be a reality. Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation, simply put, is the idea that individuals who are at peace within themselves create a peaceful world. What was once a small and intimate idea took off when the Beatles took interest, causing tens of thousands to form lines outside Transcendental Meditation centers (Forem 2012, p. 4). The American youth grew fascinated with all things Indian. There was a boom of self-help books, widespread vegetarianism, and adoption of yoga practices.
Photo by TM-Africa
In addition to Transcendental Meditation, the sitar was another Indian spiritual tool that the Beatles westernized. The first time Harrison heard the peculiar sitar he said,
“I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me. The only way I could describe it was: my intellect didn’t know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it. It just called on me” (2017).
The sitar has been incorporated into various yoga practices to reach a state of full self-realization, helping subside thoughts and inspire peace for the present moment. Hindus use yoga as a path for spiritual development. It was the Indian sitar music that originally drew Harrison to take lessons from Ravi Sankar, sometimes referred to as “Master” among Indian musicians (2017). The sound inspired Harrison so much that he emerged himself in the culture, learning about meditation, rituals, and mantras. As the lead guitarist for the Beatles, he had heavy involvement in crafting the band’s sound.
Ravi Shankar teaching George Harrison the sitar. Photo by Beatle Me Do.
The sitar in Western culture was unmatched in itself. No musician had ever used it in pop music. It was a very important instrument that shaped Indian spirituality, as music has a prominent role in Indian rituals.
Hearing a sitar pluck was really what began the spiritual journey for the entire country. It was a turning point in Harrison’s spiritual life, and his enthusiasm was enough to get the other three on board. Even though McCartney and Ringo Starr cut their stay in India short, Harrison stayed behind, enamored with the culture and driven to practice meditation and perfect the Indian sitar. Harrison practiced the sitar in his most ideal setting — at the foot of the Himalayas. There, he spent hours reading Indian teachings and practicing the sitar to supplement his meditation practice.
In the midst of the Fab Four’s international vision quest, life in the States was tumultuous. The anti-war protests, women’s equality campaign, rebellious music, and drug use swept the youth of the nation. The defiant teens of the 60s and 70s were looking for something significantly different from their parents. The Beatles’ drug use and rock-and-roll music played a significant role in the culture at the time. Nonconformity was desirable, and they voiced those ideals through music. Lennon said, “The youth of today are really looking for some answers — for proper answers the established church can’t give them, their parents can’t give them, material things can’t give them” (Kozinn, 2008).
Florida State University students marching in protest. Photo by UConn Today.
Harrison wrote many of the songs on the albums that molded hippie culture. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band illuminated a theme of spirituality, and Magical Mystery Tour was almost otherworldly. Both albums were wildly popular; 51 million copies of Sgt. Pepper were sold, topping the charts for 27 weeks (Guy, 2015). On the album, Harrison wrote the lyrics, “When you’ve seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.” The lyrics are deeply rooted in Hindu ideals. Hindus believe the path to enlightenment is in one’s own inner being (Goel).
Harrison’s lyrics emulated this Hindu sense of oneness. Perhaps this idea of unity is what the American youth were looking for. They used protests to bring peace, and took drugs to break down barriers. They appreciated human life and opposed war and conflict. This is a fundamental idea of Hinduism; where there is diversity, there can be unity, and there is unity in all created beings (Goel).
After the initial trip to India, Harrison still was not completely fulfilled. He kept searching for more, and that was how he got involved in what is known as the Hare Krishna movement. Even after the Beatles’ unfortunate breakup, Harrison had a great solo success with his album All Things Must Pass emerging as the country’s top-selling album for seven weeks straight and his single, “My Sweet Lord,” topped the charts for two months. After one of the verses on this number one hit, Harrison chants the words, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama.” This chant was known as the mahamantra, and the “Sweet Lord” in his chorus was Krishna. This special mantra is used to praise Krishna. Americans were chanting the mahamantra all over the country whether they knew its meaning or not.
Krishna comes from Vishnu, one of the main Hindu Bhakti deities. Those that follow Vishnu find salvation in his incarnations, called avatars (Corduan, 2012, p. 284). Vishnu descends to reestablish dharma, or righteousness. Krishna, “the lover,” is one of the most well-known avatars. He had a prominent presence in Bengali. Krishna is known to be both wise and given to unrestrained sexual pleasures with milkmaids (Corduan, 2012, p. 287). There is an interesting parallel between Harrison’s chosen deity, Krishna, and his guru, Maharishi. Similar to Krishna, Maharishi was also known for his wisdom and promiscuity with women.
The Vishnu avatar, Krishna is George’s chosen deity. Photo from The Indian Mythology.
The Krishna following led to the creation of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, most often referred to as the Hare Krishna movement. ISKCON is a Hindu-based religious movement spearheaded by Bhaktiveedanta Swami and dedicated to worshipping Krishna (2017). The movement was founded by Caitanya, who taught salvation was found in total submission to Krishna. Most Vishnu devotees saw Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu, but ISKCON followers believed Krishna was the supreme deity, calling him the “full” descent of the deity, and the lord of peace, grace, and mercy (Narayanan, 2003, p.137). Harrison likely chose to chant “Hare Krishna” because chanting the mantra is one of ISKCON’s five essential teachings. Followers believed salvation came by chanting the mantra a thousand times a day, accompanied by daily singing and dancing (Corduan, 2012, p. 287).
ISKCON received much attention because of Harrison’s interest and immense financial support. He was very dedicated and convicted in the Krishna movement. Despite being reluctant to commit to a religious message so boldly, he felt compelled to sing its praises. “I was sticking my neck out on the chopping block because now I would have to live up to something,” Harrison explained in I, Me, Mine, “but at the same time I thought ‘Nobody’s saying it; I wish somebody else was doing it.'” (Harrison, Harrison, & Taylor, 2017, p. 176). Perhaps he believed in salvation and wanted to use his music to bring people to salvation, which many Hindus teach is available through permanent Krishna-consciousness. In an interview with the Associated Press in response to manager Brian Epstein’s death, Harrison said, “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” (Bebergal, 2014). Harrison was referring to reincarnation, the Hindu concept of the afterlife. According to Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Hindus conquered fear of death in their belief that they would remain in the world and be united with those they love again (2004, p. 153).
Harrison helped spread the chant around the world like wildfire. The phrase made its way into restaurants, bars, movies, and even other rock stars’ lyrics. It was not uncommon to see young men and women in America dressed in traditional Indian religious clothes and chanting mantras and divine names (Bryant , 2004, p. 14).
Apple Records released the single, “Hare Krishna Movement” in 1969, along with “Govinda” and other Sanskrit mantras. Harrison helped Krishna musicians record and tour all over Europe. Harrison praised Krishna in many of his later songs and even incorporated the mahamantra in other Beatles tunes, such as “I am the Walrus.” His 1973 “Living in the Material World” has a line referencing “Lord Sri Krishna’s grace.”
Driven by his pursuit of spirituality, Harrison never stopped sifting through the noise, searching for transcendent answers in a materialistic world. Unlike many of his time, he swore off using the hallucinogen LSD, saying, “Meditation and chanting became alternate paths toward consciousness shifting and getting in greater touch with the soul” (2017). Part of staying true in obedience to Krishna is abstaining from meat, caffeine, sweets, and sexual activity for pleasure. At the peak of ISKCON popularity, it was not uncommon to see followers dressed in robes with their heads shaved. These strict adherents, however, dwindled away and became more liberal in their practice. Michael Gressett, an American scholar specializing in Hare Krishna, called this the cult-to-church movement. This happens when a cult transitions to a church, where a cult is a religious movement with tension in its environment, and a church is considered a form of a cult that accommodates to society (Goldberg, 2013, p. 181). The exotic ISKCON established thousands of followers and temples worldwide.
The founder’s death marked the beginning of the decline of the radical Krishna movement, and three years later the leaders were accused of child molestation and kidnapping. The faith quickly became more of a private expression and less temple-centered. Goldberg said, “The guy with the shaved head who tried to sell you a book in the airport might now be your insurance agent” (Goldberg, 2013, p. 181). Upon making the slow transition to the mainstream, Hare Krishnas likely generated more interest in vegetarianism and reincarnation than any other spiritual group.
The Beatles had fame, fortune, talent, family, and friends, yet they felt incomplete and went searching for peace of mind and happiness. They first looked for it in drugs and then sought more answers with meditation. Unfortunately, the meditation practices didn’t resolve the band’s tension, and they broke up shortly after returning from India. Hindu inspired Transcendental Meditation, the Indian sitar, and the Hare Krishna movement played a vital role in shaping Western culture. Yoga, meditation, self-help books, Eastern music, and vegetarianism are all products of the integration of Indian spiritual practices that live on today.
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