Aug 20, 2017

The Beatles' tryst with India

Nandini Gosine-Mayrhoo
The Hindu
AUGUST 20, 2017

These events in August 1967, fifty years ago, made a mark on western culture

In August 1967, a wildly popular rock band called the Beatles attended a lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the London Hilton on Park Lane. They were given front row seats and invited to meet the Maharishi in his hotel suite after the lecture.

During their private meeting, the Maharishi invited the Beatles to be his guests at a training retreat in Wales. It was there that the band members, who were already exploring ways to expand their consciousness (including through the use of drugs), were initiated into the basics of Transcendental Meditation.

Some months later, in February 1968, the Beatles travelled to the Maharishi’s training centre in India. Their spiritual training there led to their single most creative period — with them reportedly penning 48 songs in less than seven weeks. The Maharishi, who had intended that fateful lecture at the London Hilton to be his last public lecture in the West, was by this time being publicised as “the Beatles’ Guru”.

Transformational touch

That eclectic mixture of Hindu mysticism and iconic music exposed the Western public to Hindu philosophy in an exciting new way. The world’s ears were tuned to the Beatles, and with the band embracing all things Indian, Western hearts were being transformed by that mystical land’s ancient wisdom.

The Maharishi was of course not the first guru to bring Hindu wisdom to the West. Swami Vivekananda, the first Hindu monk to travel to the West, spoke at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 in Chicago where he introduced yoga to an attentive crowd. However, the interest he piqued was chiefly academic, and it would be some time yet before yoga became more generally popular. Swami Vivekananda established the first Vedanta Society in New York in 1894.

Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in the U.S. in 1920, and was the first master of yoga to live and teach in the West, for over 30 years. He is known as the Father of Yoga in the West.

To the mainstream

But it was the Beatles’ association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the time of flower power and the hippie movement in the 1960s, with their lyrics of love and world peace, which brought the Hindu philosophies of meditation and yoga mainstream. This occurred even as another Hindu monk, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was teaching U.S. audiences the principles of Bhakti Yoga through his ISKCON movement.

The Beatles were first introduced to Eastern philosophy in 1965 when they met Swami Vishnu-Devananda in the Bahamas, during the filming of “Help!” The Swami presented them with copies of his work, The Illustrated Book of Yoga. George Harrison appeared to take the most interest and began studying yoga and Eastern religion. In 1966, Harrison travelled to India to study the sitar under Ravi Shankar, during which time he also studied the works of Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda. With his growing interest in Eastern philosophy, he was instrumental in getting the Beatles to the Maharishi’s lecture in London in August 1967. It is said that Harrison was a spiritual mentor to millions. His interest in Hinduism’s wisdom teachings was life-long, and when he died his ashes were, fittingly, scattered in the Ganga.

When the Beatles travelled to the Maharishi’s ashram in India, it was big news. The world was gripped by ‘Beatlemania’, and what the Beatles did the world did. Just as fans copied their hairstyles and dalliance with psychedelic substances and pot, when the Beatles showed an interest in yoga the world paid attention.

The Beatles helped make words such as mantra and guru familiar to westerners, and their interest fuelled a desire to learn about Eastern philosophy. That interest continues to grow. In 2016, Forbes reported on the growing popularity of yoga in the U.S. and an increasing number of celebrities attest to practising Transcendental Meditation.

But it is for their song lyrics that the Beatles are most admired and the influence of Hindu wisdom on those lyrics cannot be ignored. Their ‘White Album’ contained several classics written during their time with the Maharishi, heavily influenced by the Maharishi’s teachings and the Beatles’ experience with Transcendental Meditation. These include ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Dear Prudence’, and ‘Blackbird’. George Harrison is quoted as saying, “All the experiences that happened in India was... embodied in that album…”.

Enduring message

The Beatles were together for ten years from 1960. Although Beatlemania may explain why even many years later they remain a household name, perhaps to a large extent their music endures for its messages of love and understanding.

Yoga has been handed down to humanity through the mists of time and while it is an accepted path to spirituality in the East, its growing popularity in the West across various faiths is somewhat a conundrum.

Perhaps the Beatles’ interlude with Hindu philosophy was no accident but rather a beautiful kismet that combined western popular music with spirituality.

It is perhaps the unique manner that combination speaks to us which explains why Beatlemania and Hinduism’s wisdom teachings continue to garner Western interest for a long time.

nandini1863@gmail.com

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-beatles-tryst-with-india/article19525314.ece

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