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The Beatles and the Music that Brought Meditation West

Remembering the revolutionary sound that helped popularize Transcendental Meditation

The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In October 1966, 18-year-old Prudence Farrow Bruns was kneeling at the foot of the Apparition Grotto in Lourdes, France, praying for a miracle. She desperately wanted to study Transcendental Meditation (TM) with her guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India, but students at his TM teacher training were required to be at least 24 years old. When her older sister, actress Mia Farrow, was invited to the Maharishi’s ashram a year later, the younger Farrow was desperate to join her. “It was my dream!” she recalls.

As fate would have it, Prudence got her miracle, and in January 1968, she traveled with her sister Mia to the small Himalayan town where her guru made camp when he was not traveling around the United States and Europe lecturing about elevated consciousness and the joys of inner happiness. There were more than 60 people staying at his ashram at the time, including the Beatles, Scottish pop star Donovan, and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love—all seeking enlightenment from a shaggy-haired pacifist whose battle cry was that with just 20 minutes of TM a day, practitioners could achieve “pure bliss consciousness” and live from a place of love rather than in the prison of their minds.

But it wasn’t all peace and love at the compound. The Beatles famously left after two months amid rumors of sexual misconduct by the Maharishi (no suits were ever filed and some of the attendees later denied that anything inappropriate had taken place) but not before they penned 48 songs, including the White Album’s “Dear Prudence,” a nod to the young Farrow’s reclusive dedication to her meditation practice while at the ashram.

See also #TimesUp: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Yoga Community

Even without the endorsement of his star pupils, the Maharishi and the TM movement were catching fire in the West. TM was a welcome contrast against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s. The Vietnam War was taking hundreds of lives per week. A spate of high-profile assassinations and violent protests rocked the evening news, and the specter of war with the Soviet Union and nuclear annihilation frightened the nation as the world watched. Mantra meditation and the Maharishi’s message of love and world peace became the it theme in popular culture. Life magazine dubbed 1968 “The Year of the Guru,” featuring the Maharishi and his famous disciples in a colorful eight-page spread. By the mid-1970s, TM had an estimated 600,000 practitioners and was gaining up to 40,000 more per month.

“One of the things that the Maharishi started having us do was meditating in these large groups to put peace out into the collective consciousness,” says Farrow, who at 72 has only recently retired from teaching TM after more than 51 years. “From my perspective, today’s yoga practitioners are my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You’re the future of this revolution in consciousness in the West. It started with us, but you will carry it on.”

In the famed words of American psychologist and writer Timothy Leary, “Turn on, tune in, drop out” as we travel back to the 20th-century music and counterculture that spawned a quest for self-inquiry and brought Eastern spiritual practices West—setting the stage for the contemporary New Age movement we have today.

See also The Timeline and History of Yoga in America

PLAYLIST

From Ravi Shankar to the Beatles and beyond, we've collected the songs that inspired a spiritual revolution. 

 

MUSIC + TM TIMELINE

Classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin

JANUARY 1952

Classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin tours India

American-born Yehudi Menuhin, considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, was invited by the Indian government to play a series of concerts. There, he was introduced to celebrated sitar player Ravi Shankar and guru B.K.S. Iyengar by then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Menuhin became a champion of Indian classical music, recording the Grammy Award-winning album West Meets East with Shankar and performing with Hindustani classical musician Ali Akbar Khan. He became a lifelong yoga practitioner, even inviting Iyengar to join him on a European tour in 1954 so he could learn directly from the master. The two would remain friends until Menuhin’s death in 1999, and Menuhin eventually wrote the foreword for Iyengar’s bestselling book Light on Yoga, which is still in print today and has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide.

Classical sarod player Ali Akbar Khan

APRIL 1955

Indian Classical Music Hits America

Classical sarod player Ali Akbar Khan traveled to America for the first time for a series of concerts for the Living Arts of India Festival at MoMA in New York. One of the concert recordings became Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas—the first Indian classical recording released in the United States. (Akbar Khan also became the first Indian musician to appear on US television that same year.) The concert received rave reviews from the New Yorker and the New York Times. Its success set the stage for Ravi Shankar’s first US tour, on which he played to small but intrigued audiences. Shankar would eventually connect with producer Richard Bock of World Pacific Records and release 12 albums over the next decade.

See also 5 Spiritual Musicians to Follow

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

1959

The Maharishi Begins His First World Tour

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known as the “The Giggling Guru” due to his penchant for spontaneous laughter, visited the US, Europe, and Asia to teach Westerners about Transcendental Meditation, a type of mantra meditation he learned from his guru Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. Calling 1959 “The Year of Global Awakening,” Maharishi gave lectures on his technique in community centers, private homes, and churches, catching the interest of Hollywood A-listers such as Shirley MacLaine and Clint Eastwood and socialites like tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke, who called TM “life-changing.” Maharishi completed 13 world tours by 1971.

The Beatles

1965–1966

The Beatles get spiritual

By the mid-’60s the Beatles had begun experimenting with psychedelics and integrating their experiences into their music. George Harrison described dropping acid for the first time in 1965 and experiencing visions of yogis in the Himalayas in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World. “I’d never thought about them for the rest of my life, but suddenly [they were] in the back of my consciousness,” Harrison said. In 1965, the group was also introduced to Shankar’s music while hanging out with David Crosby of the Byrds (and later Crosby, Stills & Nash) in Los Angeles. Harrison met Shankar a year later while touring England and began taking sitar lessons from him. Shankar simultaneously nurtured Harrison’s interest in Hindu tradition and spirituality. “Ravi and the sitar were kind of like an excuse trying to find this spiritual connection,” Harrison said in an interview with the BBC World Service radio network. Harrison and his then-wife, model Pattie Boyd, visited Shankar in India in 1966. Taking an interest in Harrison’s spiritual journey, Shankar and his brother Rajendra gave him certain books, including Parahamsa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, which Shankar claimed in a 2008 interview “was where [Harrison’s] interest in Vedic culture and Indian-ness began.”

See also The Effortless, Calming Magic of Mantra and Music, According to Science

The Beatles meet the Maharishi

1967

The Beatles meet the Maharishi

Harrison and the rest of the Beatles traded LSD and other mind-altering substances for meditation. Pattie Boyd discovered TM in a newspaper ad, and the rest is history. When the Maharishi visited London later that year to give a lecture at the Hilton hotel, Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and their wives attended. The group was so entranced that they dropped everything to leave the following day for a 10-day spiritual conference led by the Maharishi in Bangor, Wales to learn TM for themselves. In a press conference, they famously swore off drugs.

Rishikesh, India

February 1968

The Beatles travel to the Maharishi’s Ashram in India

Together with their wives, the Beatles headed to Rishikesh, India to study TM with a slew of other celebrities, including Hollywood film stars and pop and folk musicians. Rishikesh had earned the moniker “the Birthplace of Yoga” thanks to its hundreds of ashrams and temples and the flocks of seekers who sought to learn meditation and yoga at its source and bathe in the holy Ganges River that flows through the city. The Maharishi’s ashram, built with funds donated by American heiress Doris Duke, was built on a cliff above the Ganges, surrounded by jungle. Despite the Maharishi’s recommendations to meditate for at least eight hours each day, music was everywhere at the ashram. Without other outside distractions, the Beatles were even more productive than usual, reportedly writing dozens of songs during their time in India, most of which appeared on the White Album.

See also The Science Behind Finding Your Mantra and How to Practice It Daily

The Beatles

November 22, 1968

The Beatles’ White Album is Released

The second track on the seminal double album, “Dear Prudence,” had been written at the Maharishi’s ashram and paid homage to Farrow’s day-and-night devotion to her meditation practice. In a 1980 interview, John Lennon recounted the story behind the song: “[Prudence] had been locked in for three weeks and was trying to reach God quicker than anybody else.” Farrow recalls that Lennon recognized her singular dedication to expanding consciousness: “I was like George, dedicating my life to this thing that most people couldn’t even feel or know existed, she says. “There’s a certain purity to that. It’s a beautiful song. For me, it’s the only song [on the White Album] that truly captures the flavor of Rishikesh, India.”

George Harrison in India

August 1969

Harrison’s Version of the Hare Krishna Mantra charts in the UK

After experiencing kirtan in India in 1966 while visiting the city of Vrindavan with Shankar, Harrison fell in love with chanting, in particular the Hare Krishna Mantra, which he later credited with protecting him when his plane was struck by lightning during an electrical storm on the way to New York to organize the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. Harrison met Hare Krishna Shyamasundar Das by chance at Apple Records in February 1968, and the pair became friends. Harrison was compelled to help the Society for Krishna Consciousness set up a temple and establish an organization in London. The two collaborated on 1971’s The Radha Krsna Temple album, of which “The Hare Krishna Mantra” was a hit 1969 single. For the track, Harrison joined in kirtan and played harmonium with devotees—the Sanskrit chant ultimately peaked at number 12 on the UK charts, introducing scores of Beatles fans to this revered mantra.

See also The Harmonium for Beginners

1970

The Beatles break up

After a final recording session for Abbey Road in August 1969, the Beatles quietly went their separate ways, although news of the split wasn’t publicized until McCartney announced it in a press release promoting his first solo album, McCartney. In the early ’70s, Harrison embarked on a solo career that showcased his spirituality and mysticism, beginning with his triple album All Things Must Pass, which featured the hit single “My Sweet Lord” (and included the Hare Krishna Mantra). The album topped the US Billboard 200 Chart for seven weeks, ultimately selling more than 1 million copies.

Ravi Shankar

August 1, 1971

Concert for Bangladesh

Harrison and Shankar led two concerts at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to raise money for refugees following the Bangladesh Liberation War, which caused massive civilian casualties. Other headliners for the concert included Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and Ali Akbar Khan. The concert, a subsequent live triple album, and a film ultimately raised $12 million, and the recording earned a Grammy for Album of the Year. Bob Geldof would later credit the Concert for Bangladesh as his inspiration for Live Aid, which raised $127 million for African famine relief in 1984.

See also A Beginner's Guide to Meditation

Anoushka Menon

October 20, 1998

Ravi Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka, releases her first album

After beginning to perform sitar with her father in her early teens, Anoushka Shankar (page 104) released her first album, Anoushka, at age 17, continuing her dad’s legacy of popularizing Indian classical music in the West. Recalling her father’s devotion to music, Anoushka Shankar says, “I grew up with someone who was deeply, deeply immersed in Indian music and in Hindu philosophy . . . he was a person who went deeply into one truth. He used to tell a story about what his guru said: ‘If you learn one thing, you’ll learn everything. And if you learn everything, you might not learn anything.’ That’s the thing about my dad, he was curious about the world. But, he was deeply focused and rooted in something—there was a real dedication to the practice of music as something spiritual.”

George Harrison

November 29, 2001

George Harrison dies

After a five-year battle with throat, lung, and brain cancer, Harrison passed away at age 58. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were scattered at the convergence of the three holiest rivers in the Hindu tradition: the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati.

See also Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

Royal Albert Hall

November 29, 2002

The Concert for George is held at the Royal Albert Hall in London

Harrison’s son, Dhani Harrison, and Anoushka Shankar performed on sitar. Other featured artists included Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and all of the surviving members of Monty Python (Harrison was a producer on the comedy troupe’s 1979 film The Life of Brian, among others).

David Lynch

2005

The David Lynch Foundation is formed

Started by American film director David Lynch, a TM practitioner since 1973, the foundation teaches TM to both children and adults and has provided scholarships to nearly 150,000 schoolchildren in the United States and South America. With a goal of raising $7 billion to spread TM, the foundation has hosted more than a dozen star-studded events featuring performances from devotees such as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Katy Perry, Sting, Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow, Jerry Seinfeld, and Moby.

See also Mantra Meditation

Ravi Shankar

2020

Centennial of Ravi Shankar Kicks off

To honor the legend’s 100th birthday (April 7), a series of concerts featuring Shankar’s daughters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, Dhani Harrison, classical composer Philip Glass, and many of Shankar’s disciples will be held in London, New York City, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Delhi. (At press time, no cancellations had been reported.)

GURU INFLUENCERS

From Viniyoga creator, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, to the founder of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Swami Prabhupada, it seems like there was a gold rush of gurus from India to the West in the 20th century. Some of these Hindu monks were more influential than others, though, thanks to celebrity support and unprecedented media publicity—even though many, including some of those mentioned below, later faced allegations of sexual abuse.

It started with Swami Vivikenanda, the man credited with bringing yoga to the West. Born in Calcutta in 1863, he laid the groundwork for Eastern spirituality in the United States when he traveled to Chicago in 1893 to introduce Hinduism to the Parliament of World’s Religions. After he founded the Vedanta Society in New York in 1894, thought leaders and celebrities such as philosopher and psychologist William James, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and inventor Nikola Tesla became fans. These centers, established in major cities throughout the United States, would spawn more influential devotees, such as writers Aldous Huxley, J.D. Salinger, and Joseph Campbell.

See also Find Your Meditation Style With These 7 Practices

Scan the cover of the iconic Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and you’ll find no fewer than four Indian gurus. Surprisingly, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is absent. In his place, there’s the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, Parahamsa Yogananda, and three other gurus in his lineage. George Harrison was given the book by Ravi Shankar when he was visiting India in 1966, and it transformed his life. The same was said by Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple. Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920, and multiple locations subsequently sprouted up in California, attracting a dedicated celebrity fan base with followers like Henry Ford and Elvis Presley.

But nobody can match the influence of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the father of Transcendental Meditation. Along with being “The Beatles’ Guru,” Maharishi dominated Western media, appearing on the cover of Time and Post magazines and on two hour-long episodes of the popular Merv Griffin Show. He also sold out arenas such as Madison Square Garden and the Royal Albert Hall in London for his lectures. Here, we look at some of the culture’s most prominent spiritual leaders and their celebrity devotees.

Guru Swami Vivikenanda

Guru Swami Vivikenanda

Sarah Bernhardt

Considered by many to be the greatest stage actress who’s ever lived, Bernhardt hosted influential salons in the United States and Europe at which Vivikenanda was a frequent guest.

Nikola Tesla

The famed inventor credited the guru with helping him integrate Vedantic principles of energy into his own groundbreaking research on electricity.

J.D. Salinger

Despite going into seclusion in the late ’60s, the world-famous author of The Catcher in the Rye regularly visited the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York City.

Guru Parahamsa Yogananda

See also Find Your Everyday Enlightenment By Using The Science Of Meditation

Guru Parahamsa Yogananda

George Harrison

Upon seeing Yogananda on the cover of Autobiography of a Yogi for the first time, he said, “I just looked at the cover, and he just zapped me with his eyes…it just gave meaning to life.” Harrison kept a stack of copies of the book in his house and would give one out to every visitor.

Elvis Presley

Presley’s hairdresser Larry Gellar introduced him to the teachings of Yogananda in 1964, and the singer developed a close personal relationship with Yogananda’s successor, Sri Daya Mata, whom he affectionately referred to as “Ma.”

Steve Jobs

The cofounder of Apple was so deeply transformed by Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi that he reread the book every year and asked that a copy be given to everyone who attended his funeral. 

Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

David Lynch

In 2001, the director spent $1 million to study with Maharishi in the Netherlands for a month and then began working on plans for the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace upon return to the US. 

Oprah Winfrey

The former talk show host and media mogul was so devoted to her TM practice that her entire company has been known to meditate twice a day, at 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Howard Stern

The radio personality has been meditating every day since his mother took him to a Transcendental Meditation center at 18. He interviewed Maharishi on his show twice in 2008.

See also Learn to Listen to Your Emotions with Meditation



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