George Harrison embraced Hinduism in 1969 after a meeting with Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the international Hare Krishna movement. He recalled that the impact of the meeting was similar to a door opening in his sub-conscious. Once he stepped through, everything changed. Referring to himself thereafter as "Closet Krishna", Harrison continued to visit India regularly throughout his life and never lost faith in the simple message of love of Lord Krishna.
After his spiritual awakening, Harrison’s music took on a strong spiritual aspect. Often combining elements of American religious music, such as gospel choirs, with Sanskrit lyrics and Indian instruments, the songs he wrote in the 1970s are among the more beautiful and melodic expressions of spiritual longing in all of popular music.
While his first solo album,1970’s All Things Must Pass, is perhaps the most "spiritual" of his many records, yielding classic cuts such as What is Life and My Sweet Lord, Harrison’s India/Hindu oeuvre is far richer than that one album. This week we take a look at several other lesser-known compositions that every Harrison fan should be familiar with.
Harrison and his three Fab friends would have passed through what is now the capital of Uttarakhand enroute to Mussoorie from Rishikesh sometime in late 1967/early 1968.
[I was a student in Mussoorie at the time and recall older students gushing breathlessly for days that ‘The Beatles were in the bazaar’. Rumour had it that they even ventured up to Landour where Woodstock School was located.]
Though a lovely provincial town in those days, Dehra Dun was hardly the most impressive or spiritual of cities. So it is somewhat odd that Harrison would compose a song to the place. As you listen to this ditty – and it is nothing more that that – you can’t help but feel that it was the ease with which the town’s name could be rhymed that inspired the song.
One intriguing line however, "See them move along the road in search of life divine/beggars in a goldmine" suggests a scene of pilgrims in Rishikesh or Haridwar. The song was recorded back in London in 1969.
Hare Krishna Maha Mantra
In the same year he made Dehra Dun, and The Beatles were recording Abbey Road, Harrison was juggling a personal side project. Through his connections with Swami Prabhupada, Harrison met several other Hare Krishna devotees including one Mukanda Gosawmi (aka Michael Grant), a former jazz musician turned bhakta. Harrison took a liking to Goswami and assisted the group in establishing the Radha Krishna temple in London.
Given both men’s musical backgrounds they also worked together on an album of Krishna bhajans. Harrison produced and performed and Goswami arranged. This track probably ranks as one of the least likely pop songs ever to become a hit. But in 1969/70 the Radha Krishna temple’s group of singers toured Europe and this song registered on the pop charts of several countries, including #12 in the UK. The group even performed on the ultra-cool pop music show, Top of the Pops! Harrison’s support to the temple and the album is recognized as being instrumental in giving International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKON a solid presence in the country.
Govinda Jaya Jaya
Another, more up-beat, track from the Radha Krishna Temple album on which Harrison plays harmonium. During this period he had stopped playing the sitar and wouldn’t return to it for three years. But he kept his interest in Hinduism and Indian culture alive in other ways. Harrison recalled years later how he and John Lennon, sang bhajans constantly while on a sailing holiday in the Greek islands, we “couldn’t stop, because as soon as you stop, it was like the lights went out.” Asked to define bhajan, he answered, it is “mystical energy encased in a sound structure.”
Seems about the perfect summation.
Give Me Love
This is no rarity. Indeed, it is one of the most beautiful, loved and overtly spiritual of all of Harrison’s songs. Written and recorded in 1971-72 when with Ravi Shankar he was intensely involved in promoting the cause of Bangladeshi refugees, Harrison pleads for love, peace and hope to help him cope with life’s heavy burdens.
Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
heart and soul
Harrison called this song a personal prayer to the Lord.
The End of the Line (with the Travelling Wilburys)
The inclusion of this track might seem wildly out of place in a playlist of George Harrison spirituals. But let me plead the case. As a fan I have always been struck with the positive energy and joy that Harrison communicates in his spiritual songs. They are always light and put forward simple messages of kindness and love. The melodies are inevitably sweet and the guitar playing exciting. This late 80s number from the genius supergroup The Travelling Wilburys captures all of that incredible (and blissful) lightness of Being beautifully, from Harrison’s signature guitar intro to the relaxed camaraderie, to the optimistic lyrics.
Well its all right remember to live and let live
Well its all right the best you can do is forgive
From his final album, released after his passing in 2001, Brainwashed, is proof that Harrison’s spiritual quest remained active right to the end. While lyrically somewhat clunky [They brainwashed my great uncle/brainwashed cousin Bob/They even go my grandma/when she was working for the mob] the message remains simple and unambiguous – God is the wisdom, love and bliss we all need and seek. The piece ends with a gentle bhajan coda, which more than makes up for the rather unimaginative preceding portion and sums up the tender and humane spirit of one of pop music’s true greats.