In 1966, The Beatles, rock n roll’s first truly global superstars, gave up live performance, disgusted with the incessant heaven-shredding shriek of tens of thousands of teenaged fans at every venue. In 1967, with global fame and unimaginable fortune their new normal, the four lads were ready to find solace and slow life down a bit. They attended a lecture by an Indian spiritual teacher named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and were taken by his message of transcendental meditation. In the late winter of 1968, the Fab Four left manic London and landed in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganga, hoping to find some peace.
For John Lennon and George Harrison (always the most spiritually inclined of the group), Rishikesh and Maharishi’s ashram held the potential to be career-ending stops. Paul McCartney, ever practical-minded, was less sure he wanted to give up music and pop stardom for an illusive mystical prize. “I’ll give it a month,” he told himself. If it didn’t work out, he’d return to England.
As for Ringo Starr, the little drummer boy, his mindset is revealed by his luggage: two suitcases full of Heinz baked beans. Spiritual food might be ok for John and George but by gum, he was notgoing to tempt fate with all that “impossible food”!
At the ashram in Rishkesh they joined a cohort of other odds and sods seeking asylum from the Europe and America. Among them were the Scottish hippie minstrel Donovan, the model Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence. Whatever may have been going through each individual Beatle’s head, they kept writing songs. Many would appear on the White Album and Abbey Road and like Ob Bla Di and Back in the USSR, had nothing to do with India. But several other India-era songs did speak volumes of their (less than beatific) time in the Himalayas.
Mother Nature’s Son
Though Paul McCartney only stayed for a month (unconvinced that he was not going to find The Message, he did start to put together some tunes, which later blossomed into hits. Early in the stay, inspired by the natural beauty of the mountains as well as the teaching of Maharishi, he wrote Mother Nature’s Son. This demo version, from the Anthology collection exudes the optimism and early joy of being part of a spiritual retreat.
It wasn’t long however, before events started to go awry. Though the inexperienced devotees had come to India with the vague expectation that meditation would somehow be the key to something “more”, the hirsute Maharishi had counseled them against excessive spiritual practice. Guruji and others in the ashram began to express concern when Mia Farrow’s younger sister, Prudence, seemed unable to emerge from her deep unresponsive states of reverie. George was volunteered to coax her out of the stupor. Lennon documented the process.
Dear Prudence/open up your eyes
Dear Prudence/see the sunny skies
The wind is low/the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence/won’t you open up your eyes?
I’m So Tired
Drug free for the first time in years John Lennon found himself not so much at peace but tortured by insomnia. Meditation was happening but peace was not following. Millions of thoughts shouted at him, including ones about Yoko Ono who was waiting for him back in the West even as Cynthia, his wife, was by his side. Exhausted Lennon’s frustration is on full display in this song that made it on to the White Album.
I’m so tired/ I haven’t slept a wink
I’m so tired/my mind is on the blink
You’d say I’m putting you on
But its no joke/it doing me harm
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
In a 1960s version of the Facebook pictures of remorseless white hunters posing with the elephant they’ve just bagged, the Beatles were taken aback by one of their fellow seekers nicknamed Jungle Jim. After some meditation he would disappear into the jungles around the ashram with his rifles in search of a trophy tiger or two. Whether he was successful or not is not recorded but Lennon (once again) turns this incongruous event into humorous but biting commentary.
He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun
In case of accidents he always took his mum
He’s the all American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son
Hey Buffalo Bill/What did you kill?
After a month, the illusions of Maharishi’s spiritual staturewas in shreds. For days there had been rumors that he was feeling up, even trying to rape Mia Farrow. Confronted with the death of the dream and the exposure of their hero as nothing but a priapic old man, John, Paul and George confronted the giggling guru. (Ringo by this time was long gone back home, nursing an upset tummy). According to Lennon, “he [Maharishi] gave me a look like, ‘I’ll kill you, bastard.’ He gave me such a look, and I knew then when he looked at me, because I’d called his bluff.”
As they roared away from Rishikesh in a taxi headed for Palam Airport in Delhi, John sang the first line of the song, “Maharishi, what have you done?” Harrison objected and substituted Sexy Sadie instead. In such a way, another Beatles classic was born.
Sexy Sadie/what have you done?
You made a fool of everyone
Sexy Sadie/you broke the rules
You laid it down for all to see
Across the Universe
With a couple of years and thousands of miles between themselves and Rishikesh, the Beatles did manage to recover some positive spiritual vibes from their dalliance with the Yogi. Harrison, of course, went on to compose a swag of tunes based either on Indian classical music or the teachings of Vedanta. Paul and Ringo, it seems, were glad to have the country and experience behind them. Lennon, however, was not untouched. With a chorus learned from Maharishi, Across the Universe is a beautiful late-Beatles song. “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written,” confessed Lennon. “In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin’ it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.”
Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass/they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow/waves of joy are drifting through my open mind
Possessing and caressing me
Jai Guru Deva Om
Corrections and clarifications: The headline of this piece has been changed to reflect the correct year in which the Beatles came to India.