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What went wrong between the Beatles and the Maharishi?

One stray remark seems to me to sum up the romance between the West and Indian music/spirituality that began in the hippy-dippy Sixties.

In 1971, after the Pakistan army unleashed a reign of terror on the Bengalis of East Pakistan, Ravi Shankar went to see his friend George Harrison. He was horrified by the genocide, Shankar told Harrison. Could the rock world do something to help?


Harrison agreed at once, wrote ‘Bangladesh’ whose success in the charts helped raise public awareness about the massacres in East Pakistan.


   More significantly, Harrison also agreed to organise a benefit concert, the proceeds of which would go to help the people of East Pakistan/Bangladesh. The line-up included Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and an unbilled Bob Dylan, making his first live appearance in years.


   Harrison asked Ravi Shankar to open the show with a short set of Indian classical music. Shankar agreed because he thought that his performance would keep the sub-continental focus alive and stop the gig from becoming just another rock concert.


   When Shankar appeared on stage, he was greeted with rapturous applause and after he tuned up, there was even more frenzied applause from the audience which believed he had finished the first number of his set.


   It was at that stage that Shankar made the remark that summed up the whole hippy-meets-sitar equation. “If you have enjoyed the tuning-up so much”, he told the crowd, “I hope you will enjoy the performance even more.” Then, he began his actual set.


   Many years later, I asked Ravi Shankar about that remark. Was he just being literal? Or was there an edge to it? Was he being a little ironic about an American audience that could not tell the difference between tuning up and the actual recital?


   The remark, he conceded, had not been a throwaway line.  He had begun to get a little tired of Westerners who thought Indian music was so cool but understood nothing about it.


   Shankar’s weariness sums up the whole Sixties love affair between the rock world and India. We forget now that there was a time when Ravi Shankar was the most famous Indian in America. The sitar was so hip that George Harrison played it on Norwegian Wood and Brian Jones added a sitar part to The Rolling Stones’s Paint It Black. The symbol ‘Om’ began to appear on tee-shirts, Shankar played at Woodstock and the festival was opened by the now largely forgotten Swami Satchidananda. (“America has become a whole”, he announced; or perhaps he meant “hole”: I was never sure.)


"Contrary to the promise of eternal love held out by the hippie dream, in the end, as Paul McCartney sang, the love you take is only equal to the love you make."

   The creators of this love affair between the rock world and India were, as Ajoy Bose points out in this fascinating and extensively researched book, the Beatles. George Harrison was the first Beatle to fall in love with the subcontinent, seeking out Ravi Shankar to learn to play the sitar and falling under the spell of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.


   But contrary to legend, George was not the only Beatle to be seduced by Hindu philosophy. John Lennon wrote Across the Universe with its chorus of “Jai Gurudev Om” in 1968 though The Beatles did not release their version till two years later. And when the group came to India to spend time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (a period covered in great detail in this book), John was just as much into the giggling swami as George. (Ringo left early because his stomach could not take the spicy food and Paul, till the end, believed only in Paul.)


   There isn’t that much Indian music on The Beatles albums except for George’s contributions and even they have not stood the test of time. Sergeant Pepper was meant to be a concept album where one track flowed directly into the next but even so, it is odd that George’s dirge-like sitar-heavy Within You Without You is followed by the sound of the rest of the group laughing.


   Of George’s other Indian songs, Blue Jay Way and The Inner Light are almost forgotten now and the one time I interviewed him (way back in 1976, not long after the band broke up) Harrison claimed that he had to fight to get Indian music into Beatle albums because Paul was bitterly opposed to it.


   George got his revenge after the Beatles split when his solo hit “My Sweet Lord” with its ‘Hare Krishna’ chorus topped the charts around the world. (The impact was slightly diminished when a US court ruled that George had plagiarised the Chiffons song It’s So Fine to write My Sweet Lord. It was the ‘Doo-lang-doo-lang” chorus of the original that was replaced by the “Hare Krishnas”.)


   So was the Beatles’ flirtation with India just a phase? I imagine it was. There was no long term meaningful engagement (except in the case of George) and by the end, the Beatles were even denouncing the Maharishi who they once admired so much.


   What went wrong between the Beatles and the Maharishi? Bose offers the best account I have read, examining three theories. The first is the version John Lennon gave. In his telling the Maharishi came on to the actress Mia Farrow and turned out to be a charlatan so the Beatles left. According to John, when they went to tell the Maharishi that they were leaving, he was startled and asked why. John replied (in some accounts) “Well, if you are so cosmic, you should know.”


   Bose is right to be sceptical of this version and suggests that Mia Farrow’s claims about being molested had been made much before and that Farrow herself had stopped advancing them by the time the Beatles left. Bose inclines to a second view: that John was manipulated by Magic Alex, a Beatles hanger-on, who resented the influence the Maharishi had on the band.


   And there is a third version. Deepak Chopra has claimed on several occasions (including in an interview to me) that many years later he took George to the Maharishi for a reconciliation. Apparently George wept and apologised for the bad things that the Beatles had said about the Maharishi. In this version the Maharishi had caught the Beatles smuggling drugs into the ashram and a showdown ensued. That led to their angry exit.


   Who knows what the truth is? But, if like me, you do care then you must read this book. It is a meticulously detailed account of a flirtation that went wrong.


   And it reminds us that, contrary to the promise of eternal love held out by the hippie dream, in the end, as Paul McCartney sang, the love you take is only equal to the love you make.



Posted On: 03 Mar 2018 10:30 AM
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