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Maharishi and the Beatles: What Really Happened

The New York Times Comments on "The Man Who Saved the Beatles" —in response to the passing of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (February 5, 2008)

(Thanks to author Tom Ball for allowing me to post this from EzineArticles)

The Beatles discovered Maharishi in 1968, while Maharishi was on a lecture tour in England. They learned his Transcendental Meditation technique and over the following months spent a few weeks personally studying with him in Rishikesh, India. Much has been made in the news media and blogosphere of the Beatle's association with Maharishi and the rise of popularity that followed for Maharishi and his form of meditation. Yet many people believe that Maharishi had a greater effect on the Beatles than they had on him and his worldwide Transcendental Meditation Movement.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died on February 5, 2008, almost 40 years after the Beatles left Rishikesh. John Lennon would never again see Maharishi in person, but would phone him years later to apologize for his youthful mishap of publicly accusing Maharishi of improprieties—accusations that had nothing to do with Maharishi, but, seemingly, everything to do with John’s personal temperament at the time. George Harrison would continue to have contact with Maharishi through the worldwide TM Movement, and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr would maintain their connection with meditation and eventually re-establish association with Maharishi’s organization.

On Maharishi’s passing, the New York Times published a “reassessment” of the Beatles interaction with Maharishi. It’s good to see, after all these years, the press finally getting it right.

The “India experience”—the Beatles' time with Maharishi and their practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique—opened a floodgate of creativity for the band—“and got them out of what threatened to be a creative rut,” said the Times article.

Describing their time with Maharishi as the most productive period in the Beatles’ lives, the article says:

"That may seem an odd assertion, given that the group had only recently released 'Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.' But part of the point of that album was to overcome the inertia imposed by the stress of being the Beatles by posing as someone else: the Sgt. Pepper band. And although it includes some of the Beatles’ most extraordinary music ('A Day in the Life,' for starters), it had been a struggle to fill it. Lennon, after all, had based one song on the text of a circus poster ('Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite') and another on a Corn Flakes commercial ('Good Morning, Good Morning'), simply, he later said, as a way of fulfilling his quota. But after Rishikesh, the group found itself with more new songs than it knew what to do with."

Beatles connoisseurs, audiophiles and music writers typically hold the White Album as the Beatles' masterpiece, but not that many fans have made the connection with the Beatles' India experience and the influence that "turning within" had on renewing their creative and lyrical power.

The process of meditation, as taught by Maharishi, is an effortless way of accessing "the infinite field of energy, creativity and intelligence that resides within everyone," as Maharishi has explained. Now, 40 years after the Beatles demonstrated the rejuvenating, creativity-enlivening effect of 'transcending,' hundreds of scientific research studies have further verified the many ways in which the practice can stimulate creativity and intelligence and benefit various aspects of life.

But most media attention concerning the Beatles experience in India has dwelt on the sensational episode surrounding John Lennon's abrupt departure from Maharishi's ashram.

What really happened?

Most press accounts claimed that the Beatles left because they were disappointed with Maharishi. The Beatles themselves each told varying stories about why they left. A recent Times of India article quotes George Harrison as saying that Maharishi asked the Beatles to leave because of their drug use at his Transcendental Meditation Academy. But Maharishi refrained from ever publicly shaming the Beatles.

There's no question that John's experience turned sour. Lennon wrote—in the original lyrics of the White Album song "Sexy Sadie"—“Maharishi, what have you done? You made a fool of everyone.” The claims of Maharishi's misbehavior, however overblown in the press, turned out to be baseless.

In the years since Lennon’s death, in 1980, Harrison and McCartney publicly commented on the accusations against Maharishi. McCartney has noted that the rumors of impropriety were raised by Alexis Mardas, who, says The Times, was "a supposed inventor and charlatan who had become a Beatles insider." “Magic Alex,” as he was known, apparently had agendas of his own (which included wanting to be known as "the Beatles' guru"), and according to many sources Mardas flat out fabricated the story. During the 1990s both Harrison and McCartney, convinced of Maharishi’s innocence, reconciled with their meditation teacher and offered apologies. Cynthia Lennon believed that Mardas invented the story to undermine Maharishi's influence on the Beatles. Harrison, years later, commented, "Now, historically, there's the story that something went on that shouldn't have—but nothing did... There were some flaky people around back then and we were four of them."

McCartney, in his biography, says that he did not believe the allegations and likewise attributes them to Mardas. In a statement released on Maharishi's passing, McCartney said: "I was asked for my thoughts on the passing of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and I can only say that whilst I am deeply saddened by his passing, my memories of him will only be joyful ones. He was a great man who worked tirelessly for the people of the world and the cause of unity. I will never forget the dedication that he wrote inside a book he once gave me, which read, 'radiate bliss consciousness,' and that to me says it all. I will miss him but will always think of him with a smile."

Ringo, who was said to be the Beatle least "into" meditation, commented on his experience with Maharishi in his book "Postcards from the Boys," stating that he still meditates with the mantra Maharishi gave him and that his time in Rishikesh was "one of the best experiences of his life." In February 2008, Ringo said of Maharishi, "One of the wisest men I met in my life was the Maharishi. I always was impressed by his joy and I truly believe he knows where he is going."

Who influenced whom?

Were the Beatles responsible for Maharishi's great fame and success as a meditation teacher, or were Maharishi's achievements the results of his own abilities as a teacher—and due to the real, positive effects of TM practice in people's lives? After 50 years of the Transcendental Meditation program being taught to millions of people around the world, with more than 600 scientific studies verifying its benefits—studies conducted at Harvard Medical School, UCLA, Stanford, Yale and over 230 other institutions—it is unlikely that the success of the Transcendental Meditation program has been due merely to a rock band. The National Institutes of Health has funded over $25 million for scientists to further research the effects of the TM technique on brain function and cardiovascular health. This research funding has nothing to do with rock and roll. Or does it?

It's true that the Beatles involvement brought much attention to Maharishi and to meditation in general. Although meditation has been around for thousands of years, and is still rising in recognition as a means to reduce stress, improve health and promote self-development, many people did learn the Transcendental Meditation technique when they first heard about the practice through publicity surrounding the Beatles. But one problem with claiming that "Beatles publicity" led to Maharishi's success as some people have claimed, is that this publicity was mostly negative—having more to do with Lennon's short-lived criticism of Maharishi than with the benefits of meditation.

It seems obvious after all these years that Maharishi and his Transcendental Meditation practice were not "made" by the Beatles. But the Beatles are still bringing people to meditation: Paul and Ringo played a benefit concert to promote the Transcendental Meditation program in schools—at Radio City Music Hall, April 4, 2009—along with their meditating friends Sheryl Crow, Donovan, Ben Harper, Moby, Jim James, Paul Horn, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern and others.

Yoko Ono was also there—in the audience. If Lennon were alive were alive today, she noted, he probably would have reconciled with Maharishi. She told Rolling Stone magazine: "John would have been the first one now, if he had been here, to recognize and acknowledge what Maharishi has done for the world and appreciate it."

"Sexy Sadie"

Donovan remarks in his autobiographical documentary, "The Journey of Donovan," that John's writing of the song was about the Beatles and who they were at the time, and not at about Maharishi.

As a 40-year meditator and lover of Beatles music, I share with you my personal take on "Sexy Sadie": If Maharishi can be said to have "made a fool of everyone," as the ill-conceived song goes, it could only truly be because, compared to his immense, practical wisdom of higher stages of human development, the rest of us human beings can indeed look like a bunch of fools—especially considering mankind's history of blunders.

Paul, George and Ringo—with their varying degrees of appreciation for Maharishi—insisted that John change the chorus and title of the song. George suggested "Sexy Sadie." Perhaps in his heart John knew the truth and that's why he acquiesced. Of course there were many other, more positive Beatles songs inspired by Maharishi—such as "Across the Universe," which John considered the best lyrics of his career.

"Angels on earth"

Maharishi himself never harbored any ill will towards the Beatles. The Times of India article about Harrison's trip to visit Maharishi in the Netherlands in 1991 added another facet to the story. Maharishi had heard that according to "Beatles lore," when the band made their first appearance on American TV, on the Ed Sullivan show, there was said to have been no crime in the US for that one hour. "When I heard this," Maharishi said to Harrison during this visit, "I knew the Beatles were angels on earth. It doesn't matter what John said or did, I could never be upset with angels." On hearing that, George broke down and wept.
Maharishi expounded for over 50 years on the nature of life from the perspective of a great Vedic sage. Often referred to as “the Einstein of consciousness,” he established the life-transforming benefits of meditation on the empirical grounds of science and opened the doors of higher states of consciousness to the scientific age.

He opened the Beatles' minds and heart to a much greater reality than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And their lives were changed forever.

From the archive:

Guru takes Beatles to higher plane in Bangor

August 27, 1967: Hunter Davies accompanies the pop

group to a yoga retreat in search of enlightenment

from The Sunday Times, London

THE Beatles have given up drugs. This is not just because they talked yesterday for two hours in a first-class compartment between Euston and Bangor to a small Indian gentleman, or even because this morning the same gentleman went on to initiate them into the techniques of transcendental meditation. Giving up drugs was already happening to them. Now they are sure.

When Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon admitted they had taken drugs it received worldwide publicity. It is hoped that their being off them will be equally publicised. It will be interesting to see if the millions whom they are supposed to influence — that’s when they’re doing anything which the older generation considers bad — will be affected by their doing good.

It could be the end of the hippies. After all, from San Francisco to Tottenham Court Road, by their beads, bangles and acid, the Beatles have been the heroes of all hippies. Is the next teenage cult going to be a positive one for good living? Are the drop-out, freak-out negative days over? It’s ironic that all the acres of heavy print, from leader writers, medics and lawyers, about the wrongs of drug taking didn’t do the slightest bit of good. The Beatles’ reasons for giving up drugs are simply spiritual. They are looking for spiritual fulfilment.

“It was an experience we went through,” says Paul, “and now it’s over we don’t need it any more. We think we’re finding other ways of getting there.”

The Indian gentleman is called the Maharishi. More than 300 of his British followers are gathered this weekend at the University College of North Wales for five days of meditation. Their meditations were rather shattered when out of the blue the four Beatles, plus Mick Jagger, arrived pursued by hundreds of fans, police and press.

The decision was sudden. It happened only yesterday morning. The Beatles had gone to a public lecture given by the Maharishi the night before. He invited them on his meditation course in Bangor. But their interest in Indian religion is not sudden. It’s been happening for the past year. They already have some knowledge of yoga philosophy and have been reading and taking instruction for the past six months, looking for one good wise man to explain everything.

It was planned to be a secret private weekend when we got to Euston for the 3.05 yesterday. But it wasn’t. There was such chaos that Cynthia Lennon was left behind, caught in the crowds and held back by a policeman who thought she was a fan. It didn’t look as if Ringo would make it either. His wife Maureen was due out today with a new baby. “I rang her,” said Ringo. “But she said I had to go. I hadn’t to miss this.”

“Cyn and I were thinking of going to Libya,” said John, “till this came up. Libya or Bangor? Well there was no choice was there.” Pattie Boyd, Mrs George Harrison, was clutching a bag of apples and Marianne Faithfull, Jagger’s girlfriend, clutched a carrier bag. George lit some joss sticks and John asked if the Maharishi would turn out to be another version of what they already knew: “You know, like some are on EMI and some Decca, but it’s really still records.”

George, who is the most knowledgeable, said he didn’t think so. He felt this was going to be it. He has been the leader in studying Indian religion since he took up the sitar. He’s been studying and searching for a long time. He went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco to see the hippies, but was disappointed. Last week he went to Cornwall and climbed a mountain with a yogi but nothing happened.

They were ushered into the Maharishi’s compartment where he sat cross-legged on a white sheet laid out on a seat by one of his followers. This is his final world tour before he retires to India. Bangor was pandemonium. But amid all the thousands of shrieking teenagers there were huddles of genteel middle-aged ladies clutching flowers waiting to welcome the Maharishi.

At the college his 300 followers, members of his International Meditation Society, were of the same genteel officer-class background, all clutching flowers. It was surprising to realise that while teenage flower power had all the publicity there are many ordinary adults similarly looking for spiritual guidance.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died in 2008. Hunter Davies, 74, is the author of an authorised biography of the Beatles. He still writes for The Sunday Times