Beatles in India: 1968 Visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram
By 1968, despite, or maybe because of, their huge popularity and success, the Beatles found themselves spiritually exhausted. “We’d been the Beatles, which was marvelous,” Paul McCartney later recalled in The Beatles Anthology. “We’d tried for it not to go to our heads and we were doing quite well – we weren’t getting too spaced out or big-headed – but I think generally there was a feeling of: ‘Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich – but what it’s all for?’”
The group tried to find the answer through the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement. Their association with the guru resulted in a visit to the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India, in February 1968, which became a major media event. Not only did the Beatles go to India for a spiritual reawakening through meditation, but the trip proved to be one of their most creative periods – they wrote reportedly 48 songs, with most of them ending up on the White Album, released later that year. The band’s planned three-month stay at the ashram was cut short, however, following sexual misconduct allegations against the Maharishi. “We made a mistake there,” Lennon later said, as quoted in The Beatles Anthology. “We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene. … We thought he was something other than he was.”
Despite it ending on a sour note, the Beatles’ visit made a tremendous impact and not just on the White Album. “The relationship between the Beatles and the Maharishi brought about an enormous interest in the West in Indian clothing, meditation, yoga and the playing of the sitar,” wrote Paul Oliver in his book Hinduism and the 1960s. “Although the Beatles had apparently left Rishikesh with varying degrees of negative feelings towards the Maharishi, in later life they tended to feel more benign towards him, and to say publicly what a positive effect he had on their lives.”
February 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of that historic India trip, which is being commemorated with an upcoming exhibit at the Beatles Story museum in the Fab Four’s hometown of Liverpool; and due out February 13th is The Beatles in India, a new book by photographer Paul Saltzman, who was at the ashram with the Beatles. In honor of that milestone, here are 16 things you might not know about the trip – from what life was like at the ashram to the stories behind some of the songs they wrote in India, and what led to the band’s to split from the Maharishi.
1. It began with a newspaper ad for meditation classes
In February 1967, George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, who was searching for spirituality in her life, came across an advertisement in a newspaper for Transcendental Meditation classes. Immediately she signed up to be a part of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement. Boyd later told her husband about what she did and he became interested as well. In August of that same year, the Harrisons, along with the other members of the Beatles, attended a lecture that the Maharishi was giving in London. “Maharishi was every bit as impressive as I thought he would be, and we were spellbound,” Boyd recalled in her 2007 memoir Wonderful Tonight. That same group, accompanied by Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, later attended a 10-day conference of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement being held in Bangor, Wales. During their time at the conference, the Beatles announced they were giving up drugs. “It was an experience we went through,” McCartney said, as quoted in Philip Norman’s Beatles book Shout! “Now it’s over and we don’t need it any more.” Their stay at the conference, however, was cut short upon news of Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s unexpected death. It was then that Maharishi invited the Beatles to stay at his ashram in Rishikesh, where he held a course for people who want to become Transcendental Meditation instructors.
2. Donovan, Mia Farrow and Mike Love were just three of the Beatles’ fellow noteworthy guests at the ashram.
The members of the Beatles and their significant others arrived in India in February 1968 – first George Harrison and John Lennon, and then later Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. In addition to the Beatles, singer Donovan, actress Mia Farrow and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, there were other Westerners staying at the ashram during this period. Among the notable ones were Paul Horn, an American jazz flautist whom The New York Times later described as a founding father of New Age music; Prudence and John Farrow, siblings of Mia Farrow; Nancy Cooke de Herrera, an American socialite who was an early Western proponent of Transcendental Meditation; Tim Simcox, an American actor who appeared in many TV series such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke (Cynthia Lennon recalled in her 2005 book John that John Lennon accused her of having an affair with Simcox); model Jenny Boyd, the sister of Pattie Boyd and the future wife of drummer Mick Fleetwood; Lewis Lapham, the only journalist allowed at the retreat while on assignment for The Saturday Evening Post; Mal Evans, the Beatles’ longtime roadie and personal assistant going back to the group’s early days at the Cavern Club; Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas, a Greek inventor and an employee of Apple Corps; and photographer Saltzman. “The weeks the Beatles spent at the ashram,” Saltzman later wrote, “were a uniquely calm and creative oasis for them: meditation, vegetarian food and the gentle beauty of the foothills of the Himalayas. There were no fans, no press, no rushing around with busy schedules, and in this freedom, in this single capsule of time, they created more great music than in any similar period in their illustrious careers. “
3. Life at the ashram was like summer camp.
Funded by a $100,000 donation from American heiress Doris Duke, the Maharishi’s ashram was built in 1963, covering 14 acres of forest. The property, said Saltzman, consisted of six long bungalows each containing five or six double rooms, along with flower beds of red hibiscus blossoms, and several vegetable gardens. In addition to the Maharishi’s own bungalow, there was a post office, a lecture theater and a swimming pool. Nancy Cooke de Herrera supervised the preparation of the Beatles’ quarters prior to their arrival. “The Beatles never realized what had been done when they walked into their rooms,” she later said. “They had mattresses on their beds. We had curtains put up, we had mirrors. We even had toilet fixtures that worked.” Cynthia Lennon recalled her room at the ashram with John as having a four-poster bed, an electric fire, and some chairs.
In The Beatles Anthology, McCartney compared the experience of being at the Rishikesh retreat to a summer camp. “You would get up in the morning and go down to a communal breakfast,” he said. “Food was vegetarian … and I think we probably had cornflakes for breakfast. After breakfast, you would go back to your chalet, meditate for a little while, have a bit of lunch and then there might be a talk or a little musical event. Basically it was just eating, sleeping and meditating – with the occasional little lecture from Maharishi thrown in.” Mike Love remembered in his memoir Good Vibrations that the surrounding animal life made its way into the ashram: “Spiders, stray dogs, and even an occasional tiger roamed the grounds. The night sounds were a shrill chorus of wildlife – peacocks, crows, and parrots. The wails and cackles may have unnerved some, but I felt at peace.”
At the end of the day, the musicians would play music together, according to Donovan. “Songwriting came easy,” he wrote in The Autobiography of Donovan. “Paul Mac never had a guitar out of his hand. He let us all get a few songs in though, and you can hear the results on the records that followed, the Beatles’ White Album, and my own The Hurdy Gurdy Man.”
4. The Maharishi had some unique quirks.
The Maharishi turned out to be more business- and media-savvy than his followers might have initially guessed. According to The Love You Make, a book by former Beatles associate Peter Brown, prior to the Beatles’ India trip, the Maharishi was negotiating with lawyers for ABC about a TV special that would include an appearance by the band. Despite Brown warning the Maharishi that this arrangement was not possible, the Maharishi continued to tell ABC’s attorneys that he could still make the deal happen. Finally, Brown, accompanied by Harrison and McCartney, visisted the Maharishi in Sweden and told him to not use the Beatles for his own business purposes – to which the Maharishi nodded and giggled. “He’s not a modern man,” Harrison said, as quoted in Brown’s book, on the plane ride back. “He just doesn’t understand these things.”
In his book With the Beatles, Lewis Lapham recounted the time when the Maharishi organized a group photo of his students, including the Beatles. “He cast himself as the director on a movie set,” Lapham wrote of the Maharishi. In preparation for the photo shoot, the Maharishi oversaw the construction of a tier of bleachers as well as the seating arrangements. He reportedly told the photographer, “Before you snap, you must shout 1, 2, 3 … any snap and you must shout.” The Maharishi then told his pupils, “Now come on everybody, cosmic smiles … and all into the lens.”
Lapham also wrote that the Maharishi apparently loved helicopters and recalled the guru gazing at a chopper “like a child looking at an enormous complicated toy.” McCartney remembered the Maharishi using a one to take him to New Delhi one day. There was room for one more person in the helicopter to ride with the Maharishi, and Lennon took up the invitation. “I asked [John] later, ‘Why were you so keen to get up with the Maharishi?’” McCartney said in The Beatles Anthology. ” ‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘I thought he might slip me in the Answer.’ That’s very John!” McCartney also recalled a conversation with the Maharishi when the latter asked about what car to purchase. “We said, ‘Well, a Merc, Maharishi. Mercedes, very good car’ – ‘Practical? Long running? Good works?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘Well, we should get a Mercedes, then.’”
5. George and John were really into meditating …
Of all the Beatles at the ashram, Harrison and Lennon were the most committed to the discipline of meditation. “I was in a room for five days meditating,” said Lennon in The Beatles Anthology. “I wrote hundreds of songs. I couldn’t sleep and I was hallucinating like crazy, having dreams where you could smell. I’d do a few hours and they you’d trip off, three- or four-hour stretches. It was just a way of getting there, and you could go on amazing trips.” Cynthia Lennon said in Bob Spitz’s book The Beatles that for John, nothing else mattered when it came to mediation, adding “John and George were [finally] in their element [at the ashram]. They threw themselves totally into the Maharishi’s teachings, were happy, relaxed and above all found a piece of mind that had been denied them for so long.”
Harrison felt that both the meditation and the Maharishi made an impact in his life. “The meditation buzz is incredible,” he told Paul Saltzman. “I get higher than I ever did with drugs. It’s simple … and it’s my way of connecting with God.” And Harrison was very serious about the band’s purpose at the ashram. “He was quite strict,” McCartney later said of Harrison in The Beatles Anthology. “I remember talking about the next album and he would say, ‘We’re not here to talk to about music – we’re here to meditate.’ Oh yeah, all right Georgie Boy. Calm down. Sense of humor needed here, you know. In fact, I loved it there.”
6. … while Ringo had a tougher time.
Ringo Starr later recalled his India experience as fun and exciting, but at the time he had difficulties adjusting to the food and the surroundings. Because he was allergic, he brought cans of Heinz baked beans with him for the trip. The Beatles drummer also remembered food preparers at the ashram offering him eggs, which were not allowed. “Then I saw them burying the shells,” Starr said in The Beatles Anthology. “That was the first of several incidents that made me think that it was not what I thought it would be.” Other issues for him and his wife Maureen included being pestered by insects: “You’d have to fight off the scorpions and tarantulas in a bath,” he said. “Then you’d get out of the bath, get dry and get out of the room because all the insects came back in.” Also homesick for their children, the Starrs decided to leave after 10 days, later followed by McCartney and his girlfriend Jane Asher a few weeks later. “Paul simply wasn’t getting it,” Peter Brown wrote in The Love You Make. “The mock seriousness of the Maharishi and the tediousness of the meditation were too much like school for him.”
7. The Fab Four dug their Indian attire.
In his reporting from the ashram, Lewis Lapham wrote: “Like the other Beatles, Harrison delighted in the costumes – embroidered overblouses, fanciful brass pendants, cotton pajama trousers broadly striped in bright colors, robes for all occasions. They looked like gypsies, their angular faces framed in long dark hair.”
“If you go to India you can’t wear Western clothes,” Harrison said in The Beatles Anthology. “That’s one of the best bits about India – having these cool clothes: big baggy shirts and pajama trousers. They also have tight trousers that look like drainpipes.” Added Starr: “We did a lot of shopping. We all had Indian clothes made because they could do it right there: huge silly pants with very tight legs and a big body that you’d tie up tight, Nehru collars. We got right into it.”
8. The Beatles were pitched a Lord of the Rings movie.
Long before director Peter Jackson delivered the Lord of the Rings trilogy on screen, the Beatles once contemplated making a movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic work. According to Philip Norman’s 2016 biography of Paul McCartney, Denis O’Dell, the head of Apple Films, arrived at the ashram to discuss The Lord of the Rings as the next Beatles movie project. Due to the enormous length of the book series, O’Dell assigned a volume from the trilogy to each of the Beatles to read: The Fellowship of the Ring to Lennon, The Two Towers to McCartney and The Return of the King to Harrison. In his book The Beatles in India, Paul Saltzman wrote that the short list of possible directors included Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lean. In a 2014 interview with Deadline, Jackson confirmed the story of the Beatles’ initial involvement in the project based on a conversation he had with McCartney: “John Lennon was going to play Gollum. Paul was going to play Frodo. George Harrison was going to play Gandalf, and Ringo Starr was going to play Sam. Paul was very gracious; he said, ‘It was a good job we never made ours because then you wouldn’t have made yours and it was great to see yours.’ I said, ‘It’s the songs I feel badly about; you guys would have banged out a few good tunes for this.’”
9. India couldn’t save John’s first marriage.
Prior to the trip to Rishikesh, the marriage between John Lennon and his wife Cynthia was strained, exacerbated by the presence of Yoko Ono in Lennon’s life. In her 2005 book John, Cynthia explains that she initially viewed the India visit as a second honeymoon and a chance to reconnect with her husband. But it didn’t turn out that way. “John was becoming increasingly cold and aloof toward me,” she wrote. “He would get up early and leave our room. He spoke to me very little, and after a week or two he announced that he wanted to move into a separate room to give himself more space. From then on, he virtually ignored me, both in private and in public.” She later learned that every morning, her husband would visit the post office to check if Ono had sent him a letter. In 1970. John Lennon revealed to Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner that he was also going to bring Ono on the trip,”but I lost me nerve because I was going to take me wife and Yoko and I didn’t know how to work it [laugh]. So, I didn’t do it. I didn’t quite do it.”
10. There was a real-life Bungalow Bill.
An incident involving the killing of a tiger during the Beatles’ stay in India inspired Lennon to write the “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” which later appeared on the White Album. According to The Complete Beatles Songs by Steve Turner, American college graduate Richard A. Cooke III visited his mother Nancy Cooke de Herrera at the ashram; the two traveled by elephant on a tiger hunt in Naintal. When a tiger came upon them, Richard shot and killed it. Feeling guilty about what he had done, Richard and with his mother spoke with the Maharishi about the incident, with John and Paul sitting in on the conversation. “Maharishi looked pretty aghast that his followers could actually go out and do something like this,” Richard later remembered. Added Nancy: “Then John asked, ‘Don’t you call that slightly-life destructive?’ I said, ‘Well John, it was either the tiger or us. The tiger was jumping right where we were.’” Some lines from the song reference Richard and Nancy, such as “He went out tiger hunting with his his elephant and gun/In case of accidents he always took his mom,” and “If looks could kill, it would have been us instead of him.” Richard – who admitted the the lyric describing Bungalow Bill as “the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” was a close assessment of himself – later became a photographer for National Geographic.
11. Donovan’s guitar playing influenced the Beatles’ songwriting in India.
Scottish singer Donovan was already a star by the time he arrived at Rishikesh. More than just a friend of the Beatles, Donovan was also a musical influence on them while they were at the ashram. In his 2005 autobiography, Donovan recalled showing Lennon his fingerpicking style on the guitar. “My new pupil went to it with a will,” he wrote, “and he learned the arcane knowledge in two days. … In this way John began to write in a whole new way, composing ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Julia’ in no time flat.” Donovan also claimed that Harrison’s White Album songwriting grew out of what the two were playing together in India. “He said he really had a Chet Atkins picking style,” Donovan recalled in 2016. “But what George was fascinated with was these descending chord patterns that I was playing and out of it came the most heartrending song I’ve ever heard him write, but also that anybody had written: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’” (While in India, Donovan wrote his own song, “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which included a verse provided by Harrison.)
12. Prudence Farrow, subject of “Dear Prudence,” wasn’t that impressed by the Beatles’ presence.
The younger sister of actress Mia Farrow, Prudence Farrow was the inspiration behind the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” The often-told story is that Prudence spent long amounts of time alone in her room meditating, which had Lennon and Harrison concerned about her well-being. (“She was trying to find God quicker than anyone else,” Lennon once said. “That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first.”) Prudence didn’t get caught up in the hype surrounding the Beatles’ presence at the ashram and was more focused on the meditation course. “I had been around famous people, but it had not been so interesting,” she told Rolling Stone in 2015. “The Beatles being there – I can honestly say – did not mean anything to me. But those two people that I met, John and George, I really liked them, and they were very much up my alley.” Now a Transcendental Meditation teacher, Prudence considers “Dear Prudence” to be a song that epitomized what the Sixties represented. “I feel that it does capture that essence of the course,” she said, “that slightly exotic part of being in India where we went through that silence and meditation.”
13. Mike Love put the “Russia” into “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
The Maharishi had taught Beach Boys singer Mike Love meditation in Paris after his band played a benefit show there for UNICEF – an experience that had an transformative effect on him. According to his memoir Good Vibrations, Love was invited to Rishikesh and upon arrival discovered that Paul McCartney was staying in the room next door. As Love recalled, McCartney was playing his acoustic guitar at the breakfast table one morning. The song he was working on, which happened to be influenced by the Beach Boys, would become “Back in the U.S.S.R.” “I thought he was on to something,” Love wrote. He told the Beatle: ” ‘You know what you ought to do. In the bridge part, talk about the girls around Russia. The Moscow chicks, the Ukraine girls, and all that’ … If it worked for ‘California Girls,’ why not for the USSR?” In a 1984 Playboy interview, McCartney explained the story behind the song: “I wrote that as a kind of Beach Boys parody. And ‘Back in the USA” was a Chuck Berry song, so it kinda took off from there. I just liked the idea of Georgia girls and talking about places like the Ukraine as if they were California, you know? It was also hands across the water, which I’m still conscious of. ‘Cuz they like us out there, even though the bosses in the Kremlin may not. The kids do. And that to me is very important for the future of the race.”
14. Some tracks written in India didn’t make it onto Beatles albums.
While a majority of the songs written during the Beatles’s stay in India were recorded for the White Album and Abbey Road, several other compositions from the period later ended up on the members’ solo albums. One of the notable ones was Lennon’s “Child of Nature,” which was later reworked as “Jealous Guy” for 1971’s Imagine; McCartney’s “Junk” and “Teddy Boy” were recorded for his 1970 solo debut McCartney. A couple Harrison songs from India appeared on his on solo records, including “Not Guilty,” which the Beatles first recorded in August 1968 but which Harrison revisited for his self-titled 1979 solo album; and “Circles,” which ended up on 1982’s Gone Troppo. Harrison also wrote “Sour Milk Sea,” which was recorded by Jackie Lomax for the Beatles’ Apple Records. “It’s based on Vishvasara Tantra, from Tantric art,” Harrison once said of the track. ” ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’ It’s a picture, and the picture is called Sour Milk Sea – Kalladadi Samudra in Sanskrit. I used ‘Sour Milk Sea’ as the idea of – if you’re in the shit, don’t go around moaning about it: Do something about it.” The Beatles also recorded another composition from India, the experimental “What’s the New Mary Jane?,” which later appeared on Anthology 3. Another song, “Spiritual Regeneration,” was recorded in India and has remained unreleased.
“The pressure of being the Beatles had driven a wedge between them individually and that had all percolated in the months leading up to their visit to Rishikesh,” Bob Spitz, a Beatles biographer, told The New York Times. “Once they got there, and they unburdened themselves from all of that, they reconnected with their songwriting and their creativity. It just flowed forth.”
15. The accusations about the Maharishi remain a mystery.
Fifty years after the Beatles’ visit to India, there has never been an official and definitive account of the allegations surrounding the Maharishi that prompted Harrison and Lennon to leave the ashram. Reportedly, the Maharishi was accused of sexual misconduct toward a female follower – and that the propagator of those allegations was Alex “Magic Alex” Mardas. (In a statement to The New York Times, Mardas, who died in 2017, remembered looking through the window of the Maharishi’s villa one night and seeing the guru hugging a teacher, a scene that, as he wrote, left him, Harrison and Lennon upset). Of the fallout, Lennon was the most vocal critic of the Maharishi; it prompted him to write the song “Sexy Sadie,” which was originally titled “Maharishi.”
“I said, ‘We’re leaving,’” Lennon recalled telling the Maharishi, as later told in The Beatles Anthology. ” ‘Why?’ ‘Well, if you’re so cosmic you’ll know why.’ And I just kept saying, ‘You ought to know.’ And he gave me a look like ‘I’ll kill you, you bastard.’” Cynthia Lennon recalled in John that Lennon expressed his disenchantment about the Maharishi to her – that the yogi was too preoccupied with “public recognition, celebrities, and money.”
No lawsuits were reportedly filed against the Maharishi over the misconduct accusations. Over time, some of the participants have doubted that the Maharishi did something inappropriate, and Harrison and McCartney had extended apologies to the yogi sometime in the 1990s; Harrison later said in The Beatles Anthology that the rumor was basically jealousy about the Maharishi: “This whole piece of bullshit was invented. … There were a lot of flakes there; the whole place was full of flaky people. Some of them were us.” Harrison’s first wife Pattie Boyd later wrote in her memoir that the alleged incident may have provided an excuse for Lennon to leave the ashram to be with Yoko Ono. Another doubter of the rumors was Mike Love, who wrote in Good Vibrations: “Maharishi eagerly wanted the Beatles and the Beach Boys to help him spread the word about his movement. He was also surrounded by females devotees his entire life. Yet the only time he was ever accused of misconduct was when the Beatles were right there with him? Please.” Since the schism, the Maharishi continued to promote the Transcendental Meditation movement; he also declined to talk about the Beatles late in life, according to The New York Times. He died in 2008 in his nineties.
16. The ashram is now a tourist spot.
Sometime in the 1970s, the ashram in Rishikesh was abandoned and left to decay for more than three decades; a number of the buildings were destroyed while others remained. In 2003, the local forestry department took over the site, and 12 years later, the ashram was reopened as a tourist attraction. Previously, the walls of the ashram were painted on as part of an art project before authorities shut it down in 2012. “It was obvious to me that people wanted to claim this space and commemorate the legends that walked these grounds,” street artist Pan Trinity Das, who worked on the walls, told CNN. “Almost everyone who enters the space is dumbfounded that such a historical and spectacular site was falling into ruin.”
In addition to future renovations, there are also plans to develop a Beatles museum at the ashram, depending if the land could be taken from the forest department, said Meenakshi Sundaram, a tourist official, who added: “If that happens, we can attract more foreign tourists to Rishikesh.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published February 2018.