Unlikely Lightworkers from Liverpool – by Philip Goldberg

The Beatles were more than musical masters—they were spiritual pioneers.

In February 1968 the Beatles went to India for an extended stay with their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness.”

That’s how I opened my book, American Veda. When it was published, in 2010, I braced myself for blowback. Nothing happened. Not a single angry email. No one accused me of demeaning Jesus. No one tried to convince me I was mistaken. Instead, I received dozens of messages from people whose lives had been transformed by the Beatles’ India sojourn.

In fact, over time, millions of lives were affected by that event. It was as though the earth tilted on its axis, allowing India’s ancient wisdom to flow more easily to the West. The media, always in pursuit of the Fab Four, descended on the quiet, holy town of Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills. Photographers and reporters, banned from the ashram grounds, tried everything from bribery to perching in trees with the monkeys to get something to publish. As a direct result of the nonstop coverage, formerly esoteric precepts and practices quickly went mainstream.

But let’s back up a few years to get a better grasp on why this happened.

The lads from Liverpool started out as a ragtag band playing local clubs and in time became bigger than Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra had been when female fans screamed and wept at the sight of them. Mass media had become truly massive since those previous crazes, and there were four Beatles to go around, each one photogenic and lovable in his own way. As for their music, the beats were danceable, the harmonies infectious, and the lyrics told simple tales of youthful love and heartache.

Then they grew up.

Like most young people, especially in times of war and social unrest, they started to wonder who they were and what life was all about. They were also sensitive enough to be disturbed by the suffering and emptiness (not the Buddhist kind) among those who had done everything society said would make them happy. By the mid-’60s, the band’s music had become more sophisticated and their lyrics deeper and more meaningful. Listen, for instance, to the trenchant observations about life in the modern world in “Nowhere Man” and “Eleanor Rigby” (“all the lonely people”).

This kind of maturation became an on-ramp to the spiritual path for the Beatles and many of their contemporaries.

Harrison Led the Way

It started with George Harrison. Musically, he was always in the shadow of the songwriting superstars John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and on the cuteness scale he lagged behind Ringo Starr. But spiritually, he was a trailblazer. When he heard a sitar for the first time during the filming of the 1965 movie Help!, he became intoxicated by the sound and purchased an instrument. That led to the famous opening bars of “Norwegian Wood,” which introduced the sitar to much of the world, eventually giving rise to a genre known as raga rock.

Harrison then enlisted the renowned sitar master, Ravi Shankar, as his mentor. Not only did Shankar become a superstar, bringing Indian music to major venues like Woodstock, but the mentorship brought Harrison to India for an extended visit, during which his spiritual life took a Hindu/yogic turn that would largely define the rest of his life—and his music.

Consider “Within You Without You” on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. I think of it as the first rock ‘n’ roll Upanishad, as it teems with nondual insights (“When you’ve seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.”) The album, with Paramahansa Yogananda and his guru lineage on the cover (Harrison’s choice), was released on June 1, 1967, just in time for the Summer of Love. But while psychedelic drugs had offered Harrison and his mates a glimpse of the transcendent, the East now beckoned with safer and more dependable methods, including meditation.

The opportunity arose back in London, when his wife Pattie took him, McCartney, and Lennon to see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi speak in a hotel ballroom. The diminutive guru had been circling the globe for about a decade, teaching his Transcendental Meditation (TM) mainly to metaphysically inclined adults, many of whom were engaged with New Thought. Then the technique caught on among college students and the budding counterculture, and on August 24, 1967, the London Hilton was packed with youngsters. Afterward, the rock stars were ushered backstage.

Within days, all four Beatles plus Mick Jagger, along with their wives and girlfriends, hopped a train to Wales to learn the Maharishi’s form of mantra meditation. The practice took hold, and the lads—Harrison and Lennon especially—became public advocates, describing how meditation changed them for the better.

To some degree, the new awareness was reflected in their music. Listen, for instance, to “The Inner Light,” the lyrics to which Harrison took from the TaoTe Ching, or McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill,” about a guru-like hermit who perceives things the rest of us do not, or “Across the Universe,” Lennon’s paean to the meditative experience with the refrain Jai Guru Deva (glory to the divine teacher).

Meditation Has a Moment

Flocks of young people emulated their idols by learning TM or finding their way to other gurus and Eastern disciplines. And the media couldn’t get enough of the story: Teens were rejecting drugs in favor of introspective practices that had formerly been of interest only to ascetics, eccentrics, and other weirdos. When 1968 rolled in, Look magazine ran a cover story titled “Non-Drug Turn-On Hits Campus” and Life declared it the “Year of the Guru.” Then, in early February, a fresh wave of media madness greeted the Beatles’ arrival in India along with Mia Farrow, the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, and folk rocker Donovan.

It would have been easy to dismiss the frenzy as just another pop culture craze. But this was different: four fun-loving youngsters, wealthy beyond imagining, who could go anywhere and do anything, hunkered down in an austere, vegetarian, non-air-conditioned compound on the River Ganges to spend hours with their eyes closed. Thoughtful reporters and social commentators asked why. What was the appeal of this meditation thing? What could impoverished India offer celebrities who seemed to have everything a human being could want? Questions like those turned what might have been a brief media burst into a watershed moment in history.

Before long, scientists became curious about whether meditation was producing something more than auto-suggestion or a placebo effect. They began to investigate and discovered measurable, quantifiable physiological effects. An explosion of research followed, and within a few years, hundreds of articles had appeared in scientific journals with implications for healthcare, psychology, and neuroscience. As a result, it wasn’t only acid-head hippies who meditated; it was also their valium-popping parents. And now, of course, physicians and therapists routinely recommend meditation, mindfulness, and yoga postures for wellness purposes.

And when they weren’t meditating or attending discourses, the lads composed more than twenty new songs, most of which ended up on what came to be called The White Album. Oddly, none of the lyrics were explicitly spiritual. Some songs, like “Dear Prudence,” “Get Back,” and “Bungalow Bill,” were about people at the ashram, and “Sexy Sadie” was about Maharishi himself. Lennon penned it in anger after he and Harrison left in a huff because of rumors of guru misbehavior.

But, as immortal as the musical output was, the truly game-changing result of their India sojourn was an enduring spiritual revolution. It accelerated an East-to-West transmission that had been slowly changing the way we understand religion and engage the spiritual impulse ever since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists. The constantly growing cohort known as “spiritual but not religious” would not have been possible without the contemplative methods we imported from Asia.

A Legacy in Lyrics

The Beatles broke up about two years after their India experience. During that time, they gave us some spectacular songs, at least two of which, “Let It Be” and “Here Comes the Sun,” have spiritual overtones that have made them standards in the pop music hymnal. As a solo performer, Lennon gave us “Instant Karma”—an unforgiving rant that planted the concept of karma in the public mind—and “Imagine,” perhaps the era’s most beloved spiritual anthem.

But Harrison carried the spiritual torch highest. For the rest of his life, he took seriously his role as a proponent of Indian wisdom. He produced The Radha Krishna Temple, an album of Sanskrit chants by Hare Krishna musicians that crashed the pop charts, as well as Chants of India, traditional sacred songs rendered by Ravi Shankar. And his own lyrics could easily be edited into a concise synopsis of Hinduism. Check out the devotional “My Sweet Lord” (“I really want to see you…”); “Beware of Darkness,” with its warnings about worldly attachments; “Give Me Love,” which evokes the eternal longing of the seeker; “Awaiting on You All,” in which he advises us to chant the names of God; “The Art of Dying,” in which he makes the case for reincarnation; and “Brainwashed,” the title song of his final album, in which he calls God “the lover that we miss,” quotes the Yoga Sutras (“The soul does not love, it is love itself”), and closes with an invocation to the deities Shiva and Parvati.

The Beatles’ place in musical and cultural history will no doubt be commemorated forever. In the long run, however, their role as unlikely spiritual pioneers might have an even bigger impact.


This article was written by MidBodySpirit.fm podcast host Philip Goldberg. You can see Philip’s Bio and listen to his podcast “Spirit Matters” on our site here.  Also, please visit philipgoldberg.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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