Traveling can change a man profoundly. It is a way to learn new things about yourself in terms of your efficacy, strength, values & expectations. It teaches you to stay humble and open-minded. It proves to be great for problem solving, as psychologists point that viewing things and problems from a distance is beneficiary to us. All travels, big and small, work this way, boosting your mental health, expanding your horizons and sometimes changing your entire life. And that is on thing the Beatles, Steve Jobs and one former SS Officer have in common. They have all travelled and returned changed and with new outlooks on life and destiny.
When it comes to travels that redefine your whole life, the journeys to India seem to have a special appeal to most. The people of west civilisation seem to perceive the eastern philosophies as the remedy and very often decide to embark on an Indian adventure seeking answers, peace and the definition of their own self. One may view it as a fad, a pretentious attempt to justify weaknesses, but there are numerous cases that seem to prove that India changes everything. And by India I do not necessarily mean the geographical borders – it is more of a broader concept that includes eastern Buddhism.
One of the most popularised examples of such life changing journeys are those of The Beatles, Steve Jobs and Heinrich Harrer. Three different journeys that took place in different times have marked the lives of those travelers immensely. They’ve changed the way John Lennon thought about music and his mission, the way Steve Jobs saw leadership and innovation and the way Heinrich Harrer viewed his place on earth. There might be a subtle connection and traces of inspiration between the Beatles’ journey and that of Steve Jobs, but all in all, the three journeys are completely separate events that somehow had a similar outcome – the profound change.
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So how does India, Tibet and Buddhism change a traveler? Buddhism is not a magic pill, pure comfort, a balm: to benefit from the Buddhist way of life, you have to be willing to work at both understanding what the Buddha taught, and spending some time every day in meditation, and applying what you learn to every moment of your life. If you can do this, you’ll find this path is, as the Buddha said, “Good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good at the end.”
The Beatles, LSD and Enlightment
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Is it possible that the Beatles – one of the most influential bands in history of music – hold their secret to stardome in India? Those Liverpool lads spent time there in the sixties with the Maharishi. Through experimentation with LSD and tape loops, Buddhism and Hinduism, the Beatles stumbled upon the open-minded attitude needed to fully appreciate the enigma that India is. The enigma that changed them profoundly. Over the centuries Buddhism influenced and was influenced by nature religions like Taoism and Shintō, and its introduction to the West came partly by the work of spiritual nature writers like Thoreau and Gary Snyder. But it was in the Age of Aquarius that spread across the world in the form of the 60’s alternative hippie counter-culture, when poets, artists, actors, writers and musicians interested in a voyage of inner peace through Buddhist philosophy and meditative practices started discovering India on their own. Zen meditation, too, first embraced by the Beat poets in the 1950’s flourished across first world nations as a healthy alternative to LSD-induced enlightenment. In the true spirit of those amazing and sometimes commercially mythologised times, The Beatles went to discover India and Buddhism for themselves.
West Goes East
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In the mid-1960s, after using drugs in an effort to expand their consciousness the Beatles became interested in Eastern influences and made a short visit to India in 1966. In February 1968, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Amidst widespread media attention, along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968, and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers including musicians Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. The visit proved to be not only to be spiritually enriching, but musically, as well. During the Indian adventure, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison wrote many songs and Ringo Starr wrote his first.
John and Maharishi
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John was “evangelical in his enthusiasm for Maharishi.” At that time, Lennon said thanks to his meditation: “I’m a better person and I wasn’t bad before”. The Maharishi had arranged a simple lifestyle for his famous guests which included stone cottages and vegetarian meals taken outdoors in a communal setting. The days were devoted to meditating and attending lectures by the Maharishi, who spoke from a flower-bedecked platform in an auditorium. Maharishi also gave private lessons to the individual Beatles, nominally due to their late arrival. The tranquil environment provided by the Maharishi – complete with meditation, relaxation, and away from the media throng – helped the band to relax. They might have almost found the inner peace. Harrison said “We’re The Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But, it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?” This quote may be perceived as the pretentious attempt of those rich and spoiled but somehow it points to the fact that the most famous men in the world simply felt incredibly well hosted by Maharishi.
Like the 60 other students at the ashram, the Beatles adopted native dress and the ashram had a tailor on the premises to make clothes for the students.They shopped in Rishikesh and the women bought saris not only for themselves but to be made into men’s shirts and jackets in the loudest colours, which affected Western fashions when they were worn back home. Which proves that India’s influences were even far more than spiritual.
The Sitar and Guitar
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During their visit to Rishikesh Donovan – another famous artist influenced heavily by Maharishi – taught Lennon a guitar finger-picking technique that he passed later on to Harrison. The technique was subsequently implemented by Lennon on the Beatles’ songs “Julia” and “Dear Prudence”. In a musical sense, the stay at the ashram turned out to be one of the group’s most creative periods, as Lennon remembered: “[…] the songs were coming out. For creating it was great. It was just pouring out!” Prudence Farrow remembered John Lennon once saying, “Whenever I meditate, there’s a big brass band in me head”. Lennon also stated that “Although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day, I was writing the most miserable songs on earth” Later however, he considered them “some of his very best.” Both Lennon and McCartney often spent time composing rather than meditating, and even Starr wrote a song, “Don’t Pass Me By”, which was his first solo composition. Harrison, however complained that more time should be spent on meditating, saying, “We’re not here to talk about music. We’re here to meditate”. While Lennon “was evangelical in his enthusiasm for the Maharishi”, his wife Cynthia was a little more sceptical. She loved being in India and had hoped she and Lennon would rediscover the lost closeness but to her disappointment Lennon became “increasingly cold and aloof.” In fact after spending some time in Rishikesh, Lennon asked to sleep in a separate room, saying he could only meditate when he was alone. The truth was he was already seeking another muse – everyday he would walk to the local post office every morning to check for Yoko Ono’s almost daily telegrams such as the one saying: “Look up at the sky and when you see a cloud think of me”.
As idyllic as the stay may have seemed the darker clouds were casting the clear blue sky of zen company. The tensions between Maharishi and Lenon and other group members became difficult to bear. In fact on the night of 11 April, Lennon, Harrison and Mardas sat up late discussing their views of the Maharishi and decided to leave the next morning. They packed hurriedly, while Mardas went to Dehradun to find taxis. The group decided it was Lennon who was going to speak to the Maharishi. When asked why they were leaving, Lennon replied rather ironically “If you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why”. Paul Mason, a biographer of the Maharishi, later interpreted Lennon’s statement as a challenge to the Maharishi’s claim of cosmic consciousness. Later on Lennon said that his mind was made up when the Maharishi gave him a murderous look in response. According to Cynthia Lennon, when the group walked past the Maharishi reportedly said, “Wait, talk to me”. After leaving the ashram, the taxis kept breaking down, leading the Beatles to wonder if the Maharishi had placed a curse on them. The car that the Lennons were in suffered a flat tyre and the driver left them, apparently to find a replacement tyre, but did not return for hours. After it grew dark the Lennons hitchhiked a ride to Delhi and took the first available flight back to London, during which John drunkenly recounted a litany of his numerous infidelities to Cynthia. Unlike the Lennons, the Harrisons were not ready to go home, so they travelled to other Indian cities and spent time with Ravi Shankar.
The departure and split with the Maharishi was well-publicised. In Delhi, Lennon and Harrison told the reporters that they had urgent business in London and they did not want to appear in the Maharishi’s film. Back in the UK the band members said that they were disillusioned by the Maharishi’s desire for financial gain. McCartney called it a “public mistake” and Lennon said on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, “We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene”, and, “We made a mistake. He’s human like the rest of us”. According to a 2006 statement by Chopra, the Beatles and their entourage “were doing drugs, taking LSD, at Maharishi’s ashram, and he lost his temper with them. He asked them to leave, and they did in a huff”. The only person form the company to finish the full programme was Prudence Farrow who stayed full three months and became a TM teacher, along with 40 other students. The trip to India was the last time all four Beatles travelled abroad together. Some also see it as the beginning of the new era – the era of the spiritual and truly deep relationship and musical alliance of Lennon and Yoko Ono.
What’s the buzz?
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Philip Goldberg, in his book American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, wrote that the Beatles’ trip to Rishikesh, “may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness”. As much as some may view it as an overstatement there is some tuth in this statement. Despite their temporary rejection of the Maharishi, they generated wider interest in Transcendental Meditation, which encouraged the study of Eastern spirituality in Western popular culture. The “public falling out” between the Beatles and Maharishi was widely reported but there has been “little mention” of “the continued positive relationship Maharishi maintained” with McCartney and Harrison. Chopra credits Harrison with spreading TM and other Eastern spiritual practices to America almost single-handedly.Following the band’s involvement, the concept of meditation spread into nearly every corner of Western society.
In 2011, a 1967 letter surfaced in which Lennon wrote to a fan saying the Beatles “were lucky to have met” the Maharishi. A 2011 article in The Telegraph reported Harrison as saying: “Maharishi only ever did good for us, and although I have not been with him physically, I never left him”. Harrison apologised for the way he and Lennon had treated the Maharishi and in 1992 gave a benefit concert for the Maharishi-associated Natural Law Party. In 2009, McCartney and Starr performed at a benefit concert for the David Lynch Foundation, which raises funds for the teaching of Transcendental Meditation to at-risk students.
Beatles were geniuses – in a true form they transcended cultures, broke musical barriers and continued to rediscover the art of composing, singing and touching millions both in their time and later on. Lennon entered the path of peace activist and engaged spoke person whose deep spiritually determined views root in this first trip to India. They were inspired and they continue to inspire as soon after, in 1973 another to be genius followed their steps… But that’s the story for Part 2 of our India adventure. Look out for it in the days to come.