50 years ago, this month, The Beatles traveled to northern India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. They were joined by their wives and girlfriends, along with a number of friends and associates, including Mike Love (Beach Boys), Donovan, and Mia Farrow.
This was a seminal event in the 1960s because it helped put eastern spirituality on the world map, big time. All the sudden Indian fashion was in vogue (especially Nehru jackets), you started hearing a lot of Eastern flavored songs some featuring the sitar, and it seemed like every rock band now had their own guru (The Who had Meher Baba, The Rascals followed Swami Satchidanada, etc.).
I was a 16-year-old high schooler living in New Orleans. One day the postman delivered the latest edition of Life Magazine and it had a 10-page layout of color photos of the Beatles and everyone taken at the Mararishi’s ashram. It looked really cool. Whether something was cool or not was the barometer by which I judged just about everything. And still do to some extent.
After seeing these photos, I decided almost immediately that I had to find a new religion and philosophy. I suspect the Beatles to Indiae had a similar effect on many others of my generation. George Harrison’s exploration of Indian philosophy and his promotion of Indian music and the sitar (through Ravi Shankar) had already opened the door. The Beatles stay in Rishikesh pushed it wide open. This one event was critical in popularizing Indian culture and meditation around the world.
If you don’t already know, then you should understand that The Beatles impact was not only musical, it was also social.
The philosophy I became most interest in was Buddhism, thanks also to the Beat Generation writers who were heavily into Zen. My high school library didn’t have any books on Buddhism, but it did have a book of quotes by Mahatma Gandhi and that was the first book on Eastern spirituality I read.
Evidently, Ringo didn’t stay at the ashram for long, only 10 days. Paul stayed for about a month, while George and John stayed 6 weeks.
For the Fab Four, the India trip was also about music. Many of the songs on the “White Album” were written there, including one called “Sexy Sadie.” In this song, John satirically expresses the group’s disillusionment with the Maharishi (who claimed to be celibate) after he hit on Mia Farrow. (“Sexy Sadie, what have you done/You made a fool of everyone.”) Now that the Maharishi had revealed himself to be a phony, the Beatles had no use for him. According to Rolling Stone magazine when the Maharishi asked John Lennon why he was leaving the ashram, he said, “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.”
That didn’t end everyone’s interest in Eastern spiritually. Its influence permeated many of John and Paul’s songs afterwards. George continued to study the sitar and he found the teacher A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, under whose guidance began a practice of japa-yoga. Donovan and went on to study with other Indian teachers and eventually developed an interest in Buddhism. Only Mike Love stuck with the Maharishi, embracing TM to this very day.
As for me, I embraced Buddhism and eventually became the world-famous guru, Lama Dharma Rama Ding Dong.
To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of this event, here are some photos (click on them for a larger view). I don’t know if any of them are from that Life article (I wished I’d kept it), but one or two could be. I don’t recall the individual photos in the layout very well. Following the pics are videos of two unreleased Beatles-era John Lennon songs, “The Happy Rishikesh Song” and “Child Of Nature (On the Road to Rishikesh),” the melody Lennon later used for “Jealous Guy”. This video has lyrics and film from the India trip.