Despite the adulation and enthusiasm of the growing band of Beatles fans in India, their trip to Rishikesh was not without its controversies. There were many people in the country who were openly hostile to both Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi] and the arrival of the rock band and other celebrities from the West in his ashram. In the Lok Sabha, the elected Lower House of the Indian Parliament, the Opposition went up in arms alleging that the yogi was in cahoots with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that many of his guests from abroad were actually foreign spies. The charge was led by communist members of Parliament who formed a sizeable block in the Opposition benches and were supported by the socialists who too felt that something fishy was happening in Rishikesh.
‘Rishikesh, the Hotbed of Espionage,’ the front-page headline of the Free Press Journal newspaper had screamed the next morning. ‘Rishikesh has become the hotbed of espionage thronged by the Beatles yearning for Nirvana and intelligence agents nibbling at India’s security, Left Communist member K. Anirudhan complained in the Lok Sabha today,’ read the dramatic first paragraph of the report.
The veteran parliamentarian belonging to the Marxist Communist Party had painted an alarming picture in his lengthy supplementary question in the House. ‘The Beatles and hippies have set up their own colony in Rishikesh. And a foreign secret service boss is sitting at the feet of the yogi and living in the inner camp of the ashram ostensibly seeking nirvana,’ he had shrieked as his leftist and socialist colleagues on the Opposition benches thumped their tables.
Anirudhan had also expressed outrage at the luxurious quarters of the Beatles inside the ashram. ‘The huts built there are extremely comfortable. In fact, in one place palaces have been constructed,’ revealed the MP. He had also been very critical of the local Uttar Pradesh government gifting land to the Maharishi for an airstrip under pressure from powerful central leaders, and alleged that a special aircraft had been arranged for him by a suspicious foreign association.
Clearly, for a section of Indian MPs, the Beatles and their high-flying guru had touched the wrong chord.
The Himalayan valley of Rishikesh was located in the state of Uttar Pradesh which, when the Beatles arrived at the Maharishi’s ashram in mid February 1968, was under the political rule of a coalition government that had the socialists as one of its partners. With the socialists espousing the cause of the local landless peasants who were upset with the guru for trying to grab land to construct an airstrip to ferry his famous and wealthy disciples, the local authorities gave the Maharishi and his foreign guests a hard time.
In fact, United News of India (UNI), one of the country’s leading news agencies, quoted local police sources to pinpoint a suspected CIA agent called Russell Dean Brines in the ashram. ‘According to police sources Mr. Brines carried an accreditation card signed by Mr. Rowley, allegedly chief of the U.S. Secret Service. The card said that Mr. Brines was correspondent of the Continental Press Incorporated and covered the White House. A local police officer who for obvious reasons prefers to remain anonymous told UNI that Mr. Brines’ link with the secret service (presumably CIA) had not been contradicted by the American Embassy so far. Ordinarily the embassy quickly denies such reports appearing in the Press,’ said the UNI report.
A flustered Maharishi hurriedly summoned the media after newspaper reports connected his ashram with the CIA. He did admit that an American called Russell Dean Brines had come to his ashram one day in early March a few weeks after the Beatles had arrived. The UNI report added, ‘The Maharishi said Mr. Brines was introduced to the ashram staff as an author and journalist from the United States by his Indian companion. “I did not grant him a personal interview but saw him in the audience. I did not even talk to him,” he said.’
The Maharishi complained to correspondents at the ashram that it was not his job to take care of spies; it was the duty of the government and the immigration authorities to stop them from entering India. ‘Why do they allow spies? I do not investigate the profession or antecedents of the men who come here for meditation. As far as I am concerned all are welcome. But there is no spy at the ashram as far as I know,’ he asserted.
Ridiculing the Marxist MP’s charge in Parliament that he was harbouring foreign spies, the Maharishi retorted, ‘But I thought the Marxists were pro-Peking.’ It was a reference to the treason charges against members of the left-wing party during the Sino-Indian war a few years ago for their pronounced tilt towards the Chinese communist regime.
While the band was quite bemused by the controversy, Paul was the only Beatle to react to charges of a foreign spy racket at the ashram. ‘Do you really think England is coming back to take over India and we have to spy for it?’ he had asked journalists.
Despite the media hype and the furore in Parliament over allegations of a CIA spy ring at the Maharishi’s ashram, no concrete evidence ever turned up to prove the charges. But ironically, some years later, a top Soviet spy, Yuri Bezmenov, after defecting to the West, revealed that the KGB had sent him to the ashram after the Beatles and other Western celebrities had visited it to find out about the kind of people who went there to learn Transcendental Meditation. He still had a faded black-and-white photograph of himself posing with the Maharishi.
‘The KGB was even curious about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a great spiritual leader, or maybe a great charlatan and crook, depending on from which side you are looking at him. Beatles were trained at his ashram in India how to meditate; Mia Farrow and other useful idiots from Hollywood visited his school and they returned to United States absolutely zonked out of their minds with marijuana, hashish, and crazy ideas of meditation.... Obviously KGB was very fascinated with such a beautiful school, such a brainwashing center for stupid Americans,’ Bezmenov told author Edward Griffin in an interview in 1985 on his work for the Soviet spy network.
There was also considerable resentment and anger towards the Maharishi among rival gurus and yogis in the many ashrams and yoga centres that thrived in the Valley of Saints. Most of them were jealous of the storm of national and international publicity around the Maharishi’s ashram with the arrival of the Beatles. Rishikesh was rife with speculation that he was making a vast fortune from the foreign celebrities who had become his disciples and there was worry among local holy men that they would soon be marginalized in their own region, where many of them had been running ashrams and yoga centres for decades.
With tensions mounting in the area, police protection around the ashram was increased fourfold, newspapers reported. There were strict instructions from [Internal Security Minister Vidya Charan] Shukla that the Maharishi and his foreign disciples had to be protected at all costs from both left-wing activists and rival holy men.
Ironically, as wire services across the world buzzed with the news of the Beatles and Mia Farrow in the Maharishi’s ashram, it provoked an angry outburst from the Los Angeles-based guru Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati who had been the first Indian holy man to approach the Fab Four while they were shooting their film Help! in the Bahamas three years ago. Clearly peeved at the ease with which the Maharishi, despite appearing on the scene later, had appropriated the world’s most famous rock stars, the swami lashed out at his rival for administering what he described as ‘watered-down yoga’. ‘He tells young people that it is easy to find inner peace. That you can drink, smoke and eat anything you want and need only meditate just fifteen minutes a day. This is not correct,’ he complained. He also had a problem with the Maharishi’s scraggly beard. ‘It is only to attract attention,’ declared the clean-shaven swami.
The conflict between tradition and modernity over the Beatles in India spilled over into the world of Hindustani classical music as well as religious beliefs.
Even as the Beatles fan club grew in leaps and bounds in India, old-world purists of Hindustani classical music were disappointed that sitar maestro Ravi Shankar had associated himself with a rock band, while conservative Hindus were upset with the Maharishi for allegedly demeaning the concept of sacred mantras and meditation to make a fast buck off foreign celebrities.
The hype and publicity around the Beatles’ trip to India coincided with a concerted attack on Ravi Shankar. It reflected an interesting tussle between self-appointed guardians of Indian cultural traditions and what were perceived as modern and global influences brought by Shankar to the classical musical ethos. By the time the Beatles arrived in India, the legendary sitarist was believed to be spending more time abroad than in his country and the tremendous response he received from foreign audiences was seen as an indication of him selling out to the West.
In his autobiography, some years later, Ravi Shankar himself lamented this questioning of his loyalty to Indian classical traditions:
At the same time as being feted in the West, I was also experiencing the effects of false propaganda formed in India. I was in the news all the time, but along with much praise there was also condemnation of me for having become a ‘hippy’ or even a member of the Beatles and for being sacrilegious toward our music: ‘commercializing,’ ‘Americanising,’ and ‘ jazzifying’ it, not playing ‘pure music’ for Westerners.
Interviews with India’s most well-known musician during that period reflect his deep sense of hurt at being lampooned for losing his head over the Beatles and Western audiences. In an interview with V. Patanjali of the Times of India, Ravi Shankar said he was upset with a fellow musician who had recently remarked that what was being presented in the West in the name of the sitar was but a satire of it. ‘There should be some professional ethics!’ the sitarist lamented. He also asserted, ‘Allow me to repeat that I have a strong enough sense of responsibility never to degrade our music.’
In the same interview Ravi Shankar strongly denied that he was trying to change the fundamental character of Hindustani classical music, conceding that he did modify it but ‘only in the presentation of our music’. He said, ‘People in the West as you know attend recitals not exceeding a few hours. I must therefore present our music in small doses. In fact I took my cue from the Carnatic concert tradition in which select items of a very classical nature are rendered in the beginning. There is no question of my modernizing Indian music. I am satisfied with the results. Listeners in New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles and many other cities are not accustomed to sitting through recitals lasting over four hours and in places ask me to play even less.’
Asserting that he was teaching George ‘as an individual and not a Beatle’, Ravi Shankar said that his love for the sitar had led to the ‘big sitar explosion’ and ‘overnight I was the hero of the teenagers’. Asked why he spent so much time abroad, Ravi Shankar replied, ‘I am responsible to my teacher Ustad Allauddin Khan, to my gharana, and to Indian music. I cannot allow the Hippies to strum the sitar as if it were a guitar. Having been instrumental in creating the sitar craze I consider it is up to me to see that our traditions are respected. And I think I am succeeding in the task.’
Excerpted with permission from Across the Universe: The Beatles in India, Ajoy Bose, Penguin Random House.