Feb 21, 2018

The First Encounter Between Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and The Beatles

February 20, 2018

An excerpt from Ajoy Bose’s Across the Universe: The Beatles in India that traces the path The Beatles took to India and their stay at the Himalayan ashram in 1968.

A group photo of The Beatles and their partners with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh in 1968. Credit and copyright: Paul Saltzman

As the heiress grew closer to the Maharishi, she rented a house near where he stayed. Nancy moved in with her so that they could continue with their joint meditation sessions. Some months later, the Maharishi and the rest of his American followers were overjoyed by a contribution to their Spiritual Regeneration Movement of a whopping 1,00,000 dollars from a Doris Duke owned charitable trust. It was the highest donation the Maharishi had received so far, fulfilling a cherished dream a new ashram at Rishikesh, including a grand bungalow for his personal use.

The only problem was that the news leaked, although Doris had insisted her donation be kept a secret. On a subsequent visit to India, she was pestered for similar largesse by other Indian monks known to her. In a fit of pique, the angry heiress cut off all contact with her guru and Nancy, refusing to have anything more to do with his movement. Nancy later recalled how the Maharishi would go on urging her to somehow get Doris back into the fold but her efforts were to no avail. She, however, had impressed the monk with her contacts in high society and moved closer and closer to him. A few years later, the Maharishi would choose Nancy to look after the Beatles and other international celebrities when they came to his Rishikesh ashram.

By the time the Maharishi met the Beatles in August 1967, he had already been in the West for nearly a decade. He had by then made a shrewd assessment of the Western audience and knew how to pitch his message for them. So far he had mostly dealt with Americans, including some socialites in the tinsel world of Hollywood, and had little experience with rock stars, particularly of the British variety. But the Indian monk knew the right chords to strike. By all accounts, he was an instant hit with George, John and Paul when they first encountered him at his public lecture in the ballroom of London’s Hilton hotel which had been turned into the Maharishi’s headquarters.

Ajoy Bose
Across the Universe: The Beatles in India
Penguin Random House, 2018

According to Brown, the Beatles, immediately after arrival at the Hilton, were shown to the front row of the ballroom packed with over 1000 people:

The Maharishi turned out to be a tiny, brown-skinned man with a squeaky, sing-song voice, who wore flowing white cotton robes . . . He spoke to the Beatles of Jesus, of Buddha, of God; of eternal happiness and peace; of the inner self and of sublime consciousness; about reaching a state of nirvana all without the use of messy and illegal drugs. His sales pitch, in short, was that Transcendental Meditation, when practiced twice a day, would make you a better, happier person at whatever it is you do.

Brown observed in his book later that although the Maharishi may have been only scratching the surface of the complex spiritual message of Hinduism, he was right on target for the Beatles. He compared the brand of instant relief and salvation that the Indian guru offered them to a psychic Band-Aid. He recalled the Beatles being quite overwhelmed as the Maharishi went into a deep, trance-like state for ten minutes right there in front of them:

A holy man who could give you a magic word to chant; a mystical trance that sent you into a psychic dreamland. John in particular was swept away by his emotion. He had found it! He had found the key, the answer, what he had been looking for! The Next Big Thing.

After the lecture, the Maharishi, sensing the impact he had made on the Fab Four, invited them to his hotel suite for a one-and-a-half-hour private audience. According to Brown, he told the Beatles, ‘You have created a magic air through your names. You have got to use that magic influence. Yours is a tremendous responsibility.’ When John left the Maharishi’s suite that night, all he could say to reporters was, ‘I’m still in a daze.’

It was not just George and John who were excited about the Maharishi but Paul as well. Many years later, he told his friend Miles:

‘We’d seen him years before on a Granada TV current-affairs programme. There he was, just a giggling little swami who was going around the world to promote peace. So when he came around again and somebody said there was a meeting, we all went, “Oh, that’s that giggly little guy. We’ve seen him. He’s great.” We wanted to try and expand spiritually, or at least find some sort of format for all the various things we were interested in: Indian music, Allen Ginsberg, poetry, mantras, mandalas, tantra, all the stuff we’d seen. It made us in a mood to inquire.’

Paul was quite gaga, particularly with the Maharishi’s spiritual imagery after the Beatles finished their lengthy private chat. Apparently, the monk had presented his philosophy to the Beatles using the analogy of a flower, with its roots in the earth, a stem and a beautiful head. He told them to think of themselves as the head of the flower, the visible manifestation of creation. He told them that the sap flowing through the stem was the source of the flower’s energy and explained how water and nutrients in the soil are drawn up to make the flower head from a reservoir of goodness in the earth.

Also readThe Beatles and Me: In the Maharishi’s Ashram, 50 Years AgoWhen the Beatles Came to Rishikesh to Relax, Meditate and Write Some Classic Songs

The Maharishi also told them, ‘You have created a magic wand in your name. Wave it so it will move in the proper direction. Join me tomorrow at one of my schools of meditation in Bangor, North Wales. We will make room for you somewhere on the train.’ At which point John, whose sense of humour had not deserted him even in his daze, quipped, ‘There’s always the luggage rack.’ The Himalayan monk giggled his head off. The boys all spontaneously agreed to go to Bangor.

Ringo missed out on the excitement because he was at the bedside of his wife, in hospital for the birth of their second son. He found a flurry of phone messages from his bandmates waiting for him when he got back home. ‘I got back that night and there were all these phone messages on my answer phone, saying, “Going to Bangor, you’ve gotta come. This guy is incredible!”’

All four set out the following day, not by limousine with an entourage and bodyguards but alone, for the first time as the Beatles, on a public train from Euston Station. The busy railway station in London was even more jam-packed on a Friday afternoon, the beginning of a long British bank holiday weekend, and when the news spread that the Beatles were travelling by train, there was complete mayhem. The boys and their wives and girlfriends jostled through the shrieking crowds, managing to reach the train several minutes after it was supposed to leave. In his exuberance over the Maharishi, John had left behind Cynthia, who sobbed on the platform as she watched the train steam away with her husband on board. She would later be driven to Bangor by Aspinall.

Along with them on the train was Rolling Stones star Mick Jagger and his girlfriend, the English singer and songwriter Marianne Faithfull. In those days, Mick and John, who were good personal friends despite being the two biggest rival rock stars, needed to constantly check what each was doing out of mutual admiration as well as competition. So the Rolling Stones lead singer had tagged along for the ride and the Beatles were fine with it. But the Beatles as well as Mick and his girl were quite overwhelmed at this unusual train ride. Hunter Davies, who had been authorized to write their biography, travelled with them on the train and wrote a graphic account.

Davies pointed out that the decision to go had been sudden and although Epstein knew about it, he wasn’t involved in any way. Even the ever-present Evans and Aspinall hadn’t been brought along. For five years they’d never gone anywhere without Epstein or someone looking after them. The biographer quoted John as saying, ‘It’s like going somewhere without your trousers on!’

Ajoy Bose. Credit: Penguin

According to Davies, they sat tight in their seats for several hours, scared to go to the lavatory in case they got mobbed. They had no idea what had happened to their luggage. No one seemed to have any money. They wondered what the Maharishi would tell them. John said perhaps he might just turn out to be another version of what they already knew, but on a different label. ‘You know, like some are EMI and some Decca, but it’s still really records.’

But George, according to Davies, said he didn’t think so, and was sure this was going to be it. Mick sat very quiet and serious. John said he hoped it would save him having to go on working as a Beatle, if the Maharishi told him to go off and sit in a cave in India for the rest of his life. ‘But he won’t, I bet. He’ll just say go away and write “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.’

The Beatles eventually went into the Maharishi’s compartment. He laughed a great deal as he chatted with them. He said that Transcendental Meditation, which he would indoctrinate them into at Bangor, was simply a method of quickly and easily reaching a spiritual state. His meditations, once learnt, had to be practised for only half an hour every morning. That would be enough for the day. He said it was like a bank. You didn’t need to carry money around with you if you had a bank, you just had to pop in now and again to get what you wanted.

‘What if you’re greedy,’ said John, ‘and have another half hour’s meditation after lunch, then slip in another half hour after tea?’

Everybody laughed. The Maharishi nearly bumped his head against the ceiling this time.

There was a huge crowd waiting for them when they reached the Bangor station. Ringo recalled, ‘We got off the train [platform 3] and, of course, the press got us leaving London and wired Bangor. So, there’s like five thousand kids there, and [the Maharishi] got off the train thinking, “Wow! I must be really getting big in Bangor!” He really thought it was for him. He was so naive. When he realised that suddenly we could attract these crowds, his aim in life was to get the whole world meditating. So, he thought, “I can use them.”’

With the decision for the Beatles to come to Bangor made virtually overnight, the Maharishi had no time to make special arrangements for their stay. So at night they slept in college dormitories like the other 300 ordinary members enrolled for the special Transcendental Meditation course. ‘For the Beatles this only increased the sense of adventure, and a warm wave of camaraderie from the old times washed over them,’ wrote Brown.

Of the four, Paul had the most vivid recollections of the trip and their first initiation by the Maharishi:

‘The actual ceremony in Bangor when we got given the mantra was nice. You had to wait outside his room as he did people one by one, and then you got to go into the inner sanctum, just a room they’d put a lot of flowers in and a few drapes around, and lit a few joss sticks. You had to take some cut flowers to Maharishi as some sort of offering. It was all flowers with Maharishi, but flowers were the symbol of the period anyway so it was very easy. So you got your flowers, you took your shoes off and went into a darkened room where Maharishi was. It was quite exciting. It reminded me of Gypsy Rose Lee’s tent in Blackpool “Come inside!” Santa’s grotto or something.’

Paul went on to give details of the mantra ceremony:

‘Maharishi explained what he was going to do, he said, “I’ll just do a few little bits and pieces . . .” however he put it, of this and that, little incantations for himself, then he said, “I will just lean towards you and I’ll just whisper, very quietly, your mantra.” He gives you your mantra and he’s only going to say it once and you repeat it once, just to check you’ve got it, and he says, “Yes, that’s it.” And he said, “The idea is that you don’t mention that to anyone ever again, because if you speak it, it will besmirch it to some degree; if you never speak it, then it’s always something very special.’”

The large media contingent that had converged on Bangor for what seemed to be the big story of the weekend the Beatles jazzing off with an Indian guru to a spiritual retreat in Wales wasn’t sure in the beginning whether this was a publicity stunt by the band or some serious new development. But they had to sit up and take notice after the Beatles held a press conference there with a startling announcement: They were giving up drugs. John, George and Paul explained that it was impossible to achieve spiritual harmony with foreign substances in one’s system, and since they wanted to give the Maharishi a fair shake, they were giving it all up. ‘John seemed as sincere as the rest. And for a few days, at least, he kept his resolve,’ wrote Brown tongue in his cheek.

The news was huge. Nobody really knew of George’s decision to quit hard drugs after his traumatic visit to Haight-Ashbury earlier in the month. Nor was John’s mental stress from increasingly bad acid trips and the sheer physical strain of his daily dose of drug cocktails public knowledge. In fact, Paul’s recent confession that he too took LSD, and the band’s earlier public demand for the legalization of marijuana had given the impression that the Beatles were deeply embedded in the drug culture of the mid 1960s. After all, it was just a few months ago that they had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, hailed as the signature album of psychedelic rock.

But before the full import of the sudden repudiation of drugs by the Beatles could sink in, something even more dramatic happened. The Beatles had just finished a late lunch and were strolling around the green campus at Bangor mulling over their new mantras from the Maharishi, when they got a phone call from Brown, second in command to their manager Epstein: ‘I’ve got bad news,’ I told Paul. ‘Brian is dead. They found him at Chapel Street just a little while ago. The press is on to it, so you’d all better get back to London.’

Excerpted, from Across the Universe: The Beatles in India by Ajoy Bose.


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