The Quiet Beatle and Hinduism
George Harrison (1943–2001) met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s, and the meeting would have a lasting influence on his daily practices. For all intents and purposes, the Beatles' foray into TM and Eastern philosophy began because of George Harrison's curiosity about Eastern thought.
On August 29, 1966, The Beatles performed their last concert in Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It had been an unpleasant show, and each member of the group knew that public performances were now behind them. Two weeks later, George and his wife Pattie were on their way to India, declaring they were in search of spiritual peace.
“I believe much more in the religions of India than in anything I have learned from Christianity,” Harrison said to a BBC correspondent in India. “The difference over here is that their religion is every second and every minute of their lives — and it is them, how they act, how they conduct themselves, and how they think.” Once in India, the couple stayed with Indian musician and long-time friend Ravi Shankar on a houseboat on a lake in Kashmir overlooking the Himalayas.
Ravi Shankar was a kindred spirit to the younger George and added several books to George's spiritual library, including Raja-Yoga, by Swami Vive-kananda. George imbibed the Swami's central message — that all persons possess innate and eternal perfection. “You are that which you seek,” Vive-kananda wrote. “There is nothing to do but realize it.”
But one notion held a particular attraction for George. “What right has a man to say that he has a soul if he does not feel it, or that there is a God if he does not see Him? If there is a God, we must see Him … otherwise it is better not to believe.” This was bold material; it implied that there is far more truth in being a vocal atheist than in being a docile hypocrite. As it turned out, the desire to “see” God came out in several of George's songs, including a hit single “My Sweet Lord,” with its refrain, “I really want to see you Lord, but it takes so long my Lord….”
Yoga was Harrison's means to seeing and knowing God. The word “yoga,” he learned, meant “to link,” suggestive of the English words “yoke” or “union.” Yoga involved psychophysical exercises, but its goal was to link the soul with the Supreme Soul, or God. For someone such as George, who had enjoyed inestimable material success and formed many attachments to worldly goods, it was easier said than done.
Vivekananda taught that true yoga did not depend on being Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or theist; the benefits of yoga are available to every human being through daily practice. Simply try not to eat before morning yoga, practice mornings and evenings, and control the sex drive.
Several personal traits are required to be successful at yoga. For one, to know God, you must practice yama or self-restraint. This all-embracing virtue included no killing and, by extension, a vegetarian diet; no lying; and no stealing or taking more than is needed. These could be added to cleanliness, austerity, and dependence on God. Without these fundamentals, a yogi could not achieve his ends.
From the houseboat, George could see the clouds sitting over the Himalayas. Just twenty-three, he was already looking back on his life as a guitarist in the most successful rock-and-roll band in history. As he boarded the plane after the concert in San Francisco, he had said to his band mates, “Well, that's it. I'm finished. I'm not a Beatle anymore.” The group would record together in studios for several more years, but as far as live performances were concerned, he was right. Their gig at Candlestick was their last live performance. He had had enough.
Two incidents before the final concert had set George in the direction of spirituality. The first happened at a dinner party for the Beatles and their wives thrown by George's dentist. He had spiked their coffee with LSD, and the hallucinogenic effects of the drug took hold as George drove the group home. Though George drove at a crawl of 18 miles per hour, John Lennon said the LSD made it seem like a thousand. “It was terrifying, but it was fantastic,” John recalled of his first experiment with the hallucinogenic. “It was like living a thousand years in ten minutes,” George said of his experiences with lysergic acid diethylamide. He also said it was like “an astronaut in a spaceship looking back on Earth.”
But that was just a preamble to what he said to Rolling Stone magazine. “Up until LSD I never realized that there was anything beyond this everyday state of consciousness…. The first time I took it, it just blew everything away. I had such an overwhelming feeling of well-being, that there was a God, and I could see him in every blade of grass. It was like gaining hundreds of years of experience in twelve hours.” It was as if, he said, all his sensory apparatus had been previously shut off — as if he had never tasted or smelled or heard anything before. “From that moment on, I wanted to have that depth and clarity of perception.”
In 1964, Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor who dispensed hallucinogenic drugs to students, wrote of the quasi-religious effects of the drugs in his book The Psychedelic Experience. “Such [psychedelic] experiences can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously … They have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc.”
Not unlike other drugs, LSD altered brain chemistry, in itself not an intrinsically spiritual process. Still, in the 1960s hallucinogens were praised as a means to enlightenment, receiving no more ringing endorsement than that given by the philosopher Aldous Huxley, who wrote The Doors of Perception.“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended directly and unconditionally by Mind at Large — this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual,” Huxley wrote.
Ultimately, George stopped using LSD as a means to heighten perception because he found out that other habitual users of the drug were every bit as “stupid as they were before.” “You can take it as many times as you like,” he told a reporter several years after, “but you get to a point that you can't get any farther unless you stop taking it.”
A second chance event caused George, and ultimately the Beatles, to drink in Indian music and philosophy. He noticed a sitar on the set of the Beatles' movie Help! and was intrigued by the look and sound of it. George diddled away on the instrument on the universally appealing song “Norwegian Wood,” which made for a very different sound. He met Ravi Shankar and got lessons on the instrument.
By early 1967, when it came to putting together their eighth album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,George was weary of the studio work — the album had already been four months in the works, but then Lennon and McCartney asked him to contribute a song. Harrison came up with “Within You Without You,” a five-minute-plus tour of Indian music and philosophy. It included a sargam(style of Indian music) melody; a tambura, or unfretted lute drone; and rhythmic tablas, or small hand drum.His lyrics ruminated about the illusion of separateness and differences that divide us. Peace will only come when we come to see that we are one — for life and spirit are everywhere, within us and without. The album was released in June 1967, and had many musicologists falling over themselves trying to find new verbiage to praise it. One music critic, William Mann, hailed it as more genuinely creative than anything else in pop music. Others went further, saying it was the greatest song of all time.
The diffident twenty-four-year-old had laid down the gauntlet; he produced the only song on the album on which only one Beatle performed. Juan Mascaro, a professor of Sanskrit teaching at Cambridge University, heard George's Indian track and wrote to say, “It is a moving song and may it move the souls of millions. And there is more to come; as you are only beginning on the great journey.”
A footnote to George's discovery of the philosophy and music of India was a trip to San Francisco. It was the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, a supposed land of ideal peace, unsurpassed love and goodwill, flowered hair, and the home office for LSD consciousness. After returning from Greece, George and Patti flew to San Francisco to sample the capital of love. He dressed to fit in — psychedelic pants, tassled moccasins, even heart-shaped sunglasses, but he had no sooner arrived than he became appalled at what he discovered. Hippies lay sprawled out on benches, garbage all around them on the streets. Under the guise of practicing peace and love, the kids begged for coins. “Horrible, spotty, dropout kids on drugs,” George called them.
The depth of George's spiritual insight and commitment to Indian philosophy was evident on his album All Things Must Pass, the first triple album by a single artist in rock history, released after the Beatles broke up in April 1970. In the song “All Things Must Pass,” George sings: All things must pass/All things must pass away/All things must pass/None of Life's strivings can last/So, I must be on my way/And face another day.
Harrison's upbringing in postwar working-class Liverpool had taught him the value of work. The hippies were hypocrites, he told a magazine reporter. “I don't mind anyone dropping out of anything, but it's the imposition on someone else I don't like. I've just realized that it doesn't matter what you are as long as you work. In fact, if you drop out, you put yourself further away from the goal of life than if you were to keep working.” Indian philosophy was worth the effort; the drug scene was not.
As his car pulled away from the curb in Haight-Ashbury, George took a photo of Paramahansa Yogananda from his pocket and held it up for the hippies to see. “This is it,” he told his friends in the car. “This is where it is.” Following his visit, he became more serious about meditation.
On the flight home on a private jet, George sat behind the pilot. Just after takeoff, the plane stalled, shook, and went into a dive. George could see the lights in the cockpit flashing “Unsafe.” “Well, that's it,” he thought and started chanting, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,” which means, “Praise Krishna,” and “Om, Christ, Om.” Former Beatles press agent Derek Taylor, who sat next to George, followed suit, chanting “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” The plane pulled out of its stall and landed safely in Monterrey. The group recovered from their fright by heading to the nearest beach.