The Beatles made an indelible mark on the music scene. Their passion for Eastern philosophies and Hindustani music was more subtle, but ultimately ground breaking for the Western world.
Spiritual counselor, teacher and ordained interfaith minister, Phillip Goldberg, in his book, “American Veda,” delves into the history of the ancient Vedic scriptures as they resurfaced among hippies, pop icons and influencers in the U.S. The subtitle of his book is appropriately named, “How Indian Spirituality Changed the World.”
Goldberg opens our eyes to what most of us never noticed. Namely that the Beatles, and George Harrison in particular, were emissaries for yoga, Hindustani music and spirituality.
According to Goldberg, the eastern based spirituality surfaced in the early ‘60s on the heels of discontent. The first “grown up” Beatles song, he says, was not a love song, but a song with a message. “Nowhere Man” popped into John Lennon’s head as he was lying down.
“He’s as blind as he can be. Just sees what he wants to see. Knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”
The Beatles first brush with Indian spirituality actually came on the set of the movie, “Help,” in the Bahamas. The 20-year-old superstars met Swami Vishnudevananda who brought Sivananda ashrams and yoga centers to the West. Today the ashram in Nassau is one of more than 60 Sivananda centers for yogic studies worldwide.
Not long after their chance encounter with Vishnudevananda, they heard a sitar in an Indian restaurant in London. George was hooked. He dabbled with the sitar on “Norwegian Wood,” and in 1966 studied with Ravi Shankar to master the long necked string instrument. According to Goldberg, that immersion was “world changing” for George and pop culture.
Shankar expressed, “It is strange to see popular musicians with sitars. I was confused at first. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think. It was peculiar.”
George was a serious student. Not only about the music, but about spirituality. “There was nothing actually giving me a buzz,” he said. “And that’s when I met Ravi and it led me to such depths.”
George Harrison was introduced to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda by Ravi Shankar. Eventually, he became a Krishna devotee spending time with Srila Prabhupada, the founder of The International Society For Krishna Consciousness. “Here Comes the Sun,” on the “Abbey Road” album, was based on the Beatles’ spiritual awakenings and George’s relationship with Srila Prabhupada.
“He was a perfect example of everything he preached,” George said about Prabhupada. “One day I just realized it. This man is amazing. Prabhupada definitely affected the world in an absolute way.”
In 1969, the “Hare Krishna Maha Mantra,” produced by George Harrison and featuring the London Radha Krsna Temple, reached the number 12 position in the UK singles chart. He collaborated with the temple for other songs, and recorded many Sanskrit traditional devotional songs with Ravi Shankar as well, even though they were not major commercial successes. One, however, was a block buster. “My Sweet Lord,” which intersperses “Hare Krishna” and “Hallelujah” in the chorus, was on the Top 40 charts for 51 weeks. It reached number one status in the UK in 1971, and again in 2002 when it was re-released.
“I always felt at home with Krishna,” said George. “You see it was already a part of me. I think it’s something that’s been with me from my previous birth. I’d rather be one of the devotees of God than one of the straight, so-called sane or normal people who just don’t understand that man is a spiritual being, that he has a soul.”
Other songs were greatly influenced by their time in India, if not immediately apparent. The entire “White Album,” for example, was written while they were at an ashram in Rishikesh, northern India. Jo Jo in “Get Back” was an American at the ashram. “Dear Prudence” was written about Mia Farrow’s sister who was so entrenched in her meditation in India that she rarely left the room. Even “Sexy Sadie,” some say, was written about Mia Farrow in India.
“I Me Mine,” featured on the “Let it Be” movie not surprisingly, is about the ego,” George said in his autobiography of the same name. It actually is based on text in the Bhagavad Gita 2:71-72. “They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of “I,” “me,” and “mine” to be united with the Lord.”
Ultimately, the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” of India, its music and spirituality became main stream as they were featured on the front page of newspapers and magazines worldwide, and young people everywhere wanted to emulate their heroes. There was no way to “Get Back” as an entire generation seemed to “Imagine” “Give Me Love and Peace on Earth.”