Daily Mail 6.4.18
When the Beatles set off for India in February 1968, they left behind a degree of bemusement and even ridicule among many of their fans. Why on earth were the four most famous young men in the world going off to an ashram in the Himalayas to study something called ‘transcendental meditation’? And what kind of game was their guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, playing? Back then ‘meditation’ was something that only holy people did, definitely not members of rock bands.
Had the Beatles discovered something new and exciting, that, as John Lennon joked, would make him ‘cosmic’? Or were they gullible to the point of foolishness, being taken in by a modern marketing campaign for an ancient Indian form of spiritualism?
Over the half century since the group’s sojourn in the Himalayas, the questions have never quite gone away, so fans, both old and new, are going to be intrigued by the release of a new documentary, ‘The Beatles In India’, later this year.
Most documentaries about the Beatles are now made by filmmakers who never knew then, but, not only did Paul Saltzman, the Canadian Emmy winning director and producer of the ‘Beatles In India’, know them, he was, as a young student of meditation, at the ashram in Rishikesh when the Beatles arrived there. He had, therefore, a ringside seat during the weeks of one of the most surprising episodes in the entire Beatles’ story.
For the Beatles, the whole Indian affair had begun a couple of years earlier when George Harrison had bought a sitar and become friendly with musician Ravi Shankar. An interest, not only in Indian culture, but also in Hinduism, had soon followed
Then, during the ‘Summer of Love’, in 1967, when the Beatles released the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and sang ‘All You Need Is Love’, a little man with long flowing hair and a beard and wearing a white gown gave a lecture at the Hilton Hotel in London.
He was the Maharishi, and, encouraged by new devotees Beatle George and his wife Pattie, John and Cynthia Lennon and Paul McCartney and his actress girlfriend Jane Asher, were there to hear him.
Before attending, John Lennon’s attitude had been: ‘Why would I want to go and listen to some little fakir from India?’ But, after hearing the Maharishi’s pitch for what sounded to him like ‘meditation lite’, that is, a way of rising above the pressures of the world, without too much self-denial, John was intrigued. He was never keen on self-denial of any kind.
The following weekend the Beatles had joined the Maharishi for a weekend seminar on meditation in Bangor, North Wales, only for the instruction to be cut short when the Beatles learned that their manager, Brian Epstein, had been found dead in London.
What they really needed was a full course in transcendentalism to get its full benefits, the Maharishi told them. So, six months later, the Beatles led the way to their guru’s ashram in Rishikesh, two hundred miles north of New Delhi, quickly followed by pop star Donovan, Beach Boy Mike Love, and Mia Farrow and her younger sister Prudence.
None of the pilgrims had any idea of what to expect, but Rishikesh was a pleasant surprise. Built on gentle hills that sloped down to the Ganges, while it may have been Third World India outside the walls of the Maharishi’s estate, it was never less than comfortable inside.
With Rishikesh having been famous for centuries among Hindus as a holy place of contemplation, the mood among the hundred or so other visitors who were already there was friendly but quiet. And with journalists and photographers locked out, and with no phones and newspapers allowed, it was, as the Maharishi had promised, the ideal place for the Beatles to relax and reflect.
Eating was mainly in a canteen, where, if the guests weren’t careful an impudent monkey might swing down and steal a Beatle’s dinner. After which there would be communal questions and answer sessions in the evening, where the guests would sit in rows, everyone now garlanded with chains of orange blossom around their necks, with the women wearing saris.
Other than the public meetings, or private discussions with the Maharishi, the rest of the time was free, which proved ideal for John and Paul to work on new songs.
Not that there weren’t internal pressures occasionally. One of the first songs that John wrote was ‘Dear Prudence’, after he and George were sent to try to get Mia Farrow’s sister to come out of her hut. ‘She seemed so go slightly balmy from meditating too long,’ John would later say. ‘She was trying to reach God quicker than anybody else. That was the competition there …who was going to get cosmic first.’
Each member of the Beatles and their party probably had a different reason for being in Rishikesh. While John was, at first, convinced that the Maharishi must have some out-of-body secret, which he wanted to learn, Paul was simply curious enough to give meditation a try. For straight-talking Ringo and his wife, Maureen, it was just a pleasant holiday with friends in a beautiful place, with a mantra and some pleasant chanting thrown in.
Usually John was the leader in any new craze, but in matters spiritual, George Harrison, the youngest member of the group, was the pioneer. ‘The way George is going, he’ll be flying on a magic carpet by the time he’s forty’, John would laugh.
For Cynthia Lennon it wasn’t a joke. As alcohol and drugs were banned in the ashram, she hoped their stay in Rishikesh might wean her husband off the things that she believed were destroying her marriage. She as to be disappointed.
The bucolic surroundings might have kept John away from temptation, but they didn’t prove to be the romantic setting that she’d hoped would refresh her marriage. On arrival, she and John had been given a bungalow with a large double bed, but soon John had become increasingly aloof towards her.
‘He would get up early every morning and leave our room,’ she would later write in her autobiography. ‘He spoke to me very little, and after a week or two he announced that he wanted to move into a separate room to give himself more space.’ It would help him meditate, he said. From then on, he virtually ignored her. She was hurt and upset.
What she didn’t know was that letters were arriving several times a week from Yoko Ono to be collected in the ashram post office by John. That was why he’d been getting up and going out so early in the morning. John and Yoko had not, at that time, begun a relationship, but the letters were turning into a form of long-distance flirting and courting – behind Cynthia’s back
The value of the Maharishi’s lessons in meditating would, for John, ultimately be minimal, but the time in Rishikesh was invaluable to both him and Paul as songwriters. Paul would come home with, among others, ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Back In the USSR’, ‘I Will’ and ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, while John’s songs included ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ and ‘Yer Blues’.
Then there was ‘I’m So Tired’ with the line ‘and curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get’ for introducing tobacco to England in the late sixteenth century. ‘I always liked that. They should have used it for an anti-smoking campaign,’ he would tell me. He tried for most of his adult life, but he could never give up cigarettes.
Rishikesh might not have been the spiritual retreat that the Beatles had imagined, but the experience was worth it, ‘if only,’ John would say, ‘for the songs that came out of it. But it could have been the desert or Ben Nevis… It was nice and secure, with everyone always smiling.’
Ringo and Maureen were the first to leave, setting off home after just ten days, missing the children, they said, and not liking the food or the flies. The ashram was, Ringo told me on arriving home, ‘just like Butlins’, the holiday camp where he used to play with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. That was probably a bit of an exaggeration.
Paul and Jane left after a month, after which the serenity of the camp began to fall apart, mainly due to a rumour that swept the guests that the Maharishi had made a pass at an American girl – believed wrongly at the time to have been Prudence Farrow.
No evidence was ever offered to corroborate the story. But that didn’t matter. In the overheated and slightly hysterical fever of a closed community, evidence wasn’t necessary.
Cynthia Lennon would later say that John had told her that he’d already become disenchanted with the Maharishi before the rumour started. For a spiritual man, the yogi was, he’d decided, too interested in money, fame and celebrities for a holy man – all the charges that had been jokily levelled at the yogi in the newspapers before he Beatles had gone to India.
The possibility that he might be both a good, spiritual man and commercially minded at one and the same time, doesn’t appear to have been entertained.
George was torn. ‘But,’ said John, ‘when George started thinking the rumour might be true, I thought, “well, if George is doubting him there must be something in it.”’ So, he decided to come home, and, as usual, in Beatle matters, it became a case of follow-my-leader.
‘Why are you going?’ the Maharishi asked, when the party went to tell him they were leaving.
‘If you’re so cosmic you’ll know why,’ John snapped back.
With that, amid some irrational paranoia that the Maharishi might take steps to prevent them from getting out of the ashram, the Beatles’ Indian adventure came to an abrupt and unpleasant end, taxis taking the Lennons and Harrisons back to New Delhi.
Not that John could quite leave it at that. Angry and believing that he had been misled he sought revenge on the Maharishi in song by writing about him. ‘Maharishi, what have you done, You made a fool of everyone,’ the lines began, until George, who had been most upset by the leaving, managed to convince him to disguise the subject of his attack.
So, out went the Maharishi and in came Sexy Sadie:‘Sexy Sadie, oh yes, you’ll get yours yet.’ It was spiteful stuff.
Whether anything untoward did happen to the unknown American girl, no-one ever found out, which leads to the suspicion that it probably didn’t. George would always feel bad about the way the Maharishi was treated by the Beatles, and later he would be reconciled with the yogi and the transcendental movement. He would meditate for the rest of his life.
But the nearest John ever came to an apology was an admission some years after the event that, ‘We made a mistake there… We were waiting for a guru, and along he came…’
So, were the Beatles conned when they went to India? Not really. The Maharishi’s organisation might have been cute in spotting the commercial benefits which would accrue to it, should its name become linked with that of the Beatles, but it was hardly the yogi’s fault if too much had been expected of him.
He was simply preaching a peaceful tradition by using modern methods to attract followers outside India. If anyone made fool of them, the Beatles did it to themselves.
The Maharishi died, aged, 90, in 2008.
It will be interesting to see what opinion Paul Salzman reaches in his film The Beatles In India.