The Beatles' Spiritual Retreat In Rishikesh & Their Fallout With A Godman [Book Excerpt]

The Beatles' Spiritual Retreat In Rishikesh & Their Fallout With A Godman [Book Excerpt]

[The Beatles’ tryst with India started in perhaps the most stereotypical fashion for anyone in the Western Hemisphere in the ‘60s--a quest for a spiritual sojourn of sorts. The Fab Four arrived at Rishikesh with their wives and girlfriends, each of them bereft with troubles they hoped transcendental meditation might cure. The following excerpt from Philip Norman’s Beatles biography ‘Shout’  has been procured with permission from its publisher Pan Macmillan, and gives us a comprehensive account of the events at Rishikesh. Not to mention the experience that would change the Beatles music and perhaps, even the world in an unpredictable fashion, forever.]

In February, in the midst of Apple’s blossoming, John and George, with Cynthia and Patti, flew to India to begin their much postponed religious studies under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The advance party also included Patti’s sister, Jennie. Paul and Jane followed soon afterwards, with Ringo, Maureen and a consignment of baked beans which Ringo had brought as insurance against the curry-eating weeks ahead.

The ashram to which their guru beamingly welcomed them was not devoid of worldly comforts. Situated in verdant foothills above the Ganges at Rishikesh, it was a settlement of stone bungalows, with English hotel furniture, telephones and running water. A high perimeter fence and padlocked gate kept out sightseers, beggars, sadhus, wandering cows and the clamour of everyday worship at the ghats, or Holy bathing places, along the river bank. The Maharishi himself occupied an elaborate residence equipped with a launching pad for his private helicopter.

The first meeting between Maharishi and Beatles at Wales. Image Source: On Select

Apart from the Beatles, an impressive netful of personalities had been trawled to sit at the Maharishi’s feet. They included Mike Love of the Beach Boys; Donovan, the English folk singer, and his manager, ‘Gipsy Dave’; and the film actress Mia Farrow. All put off their pop hippy finery, the girls to dress in saris, the boys in kurta tonics, loose trousers and sandals. At Mike Love’s example, both John and George started to grow beards. John even experimented with a turban, though he could not resist the temptation to pull Quasimondo faces when wearing it.

The Maharishi took pains to ensure that ashram life would not be too stringent for his star disciples. The chalets were comfortable – like Butlin’s, Ringo said – and the food, though vegetarian, was ample; there were frequent excursions and parties. The Lennons were presented with Indian clothes and toys for their son, Julian, and George’s 25th birthday was celebrated by a seven-pound cake. Obliging houseboys would even smuggle the odd bottle of forbidden wine into the Beatles’ quarters.

Even so, the schedule of fasting, chanting and mass prayer quickly proved too much for Ringo Starr. He left Rishikesh with Maureen after only 10 days, complaining that his delicate stomach couldn’t take the highly spiced food and that he missed his son.

The others showed every sign of sticking out the course for its full three-month duration. Fleet Street journalists who had infiltrated the stockade reported seeing this or that Beetle seated contentedly at a prayer meeting, feeding the monkeys that inhabited the trellises or aimlessly strumming a guitar. It emerged that they were holding a contest among themselves to see who could keep up non-stop meditation the longest. Paul led the field with four hours, followed by John and George with three-and-a-half each. They were also using the unwonted peace and immobility to write songs for their next album.

Paul and John writing songs at Rishikesh Image Source: Taringa

At regular intervals, Neil Aspinall would fly out from London to report the latest progress in setting up Apple, and the position of ‘Lady Madonna’, the single they had left for release in their absence. Neil was also making arrangements for Apple Films to finance a production in which the Maharishi himself would star. “We had a meeting about it in his bungalow,” Neil says. “Suddenly, this little guy in a robe who’s meant to be a Holy Man starts talking about his two-and-a-half per cent. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘he knows more about making deals than I do. He’s really into scoring, the Maharishi.’“
Paul, who filmed most of his and Jane’s nine-week stay, remembered their Rishikesh experience as being very like school, with the teachers delivering long, boring sermons and the pupils nudging each other and trying not to giggle. As he told John later, “We thought we were submerging our personalities, but really we weren’t being very truthful then. There’s a long shot of you walking beside the Maharishi, saying, ‘Tell me, O Master,’ and it just isn’t you.”

It was in the ninth week, after Paul and Jane had decided to leave, that John himself began showing signs of restlessness. “John thought there was some sort of secret the Maharishi had to give you, and then you could just go home,” Neil Aspinall says. “He started to think the Maharishi was holding out on him. ‘Maybe if I go up with him in the helicopter,’ John said, ‘he may slip me the answer on me own.’”

By the eleventh week, despite trips above the Ganges in the Maharishi’s helicopter, the answer still had not come. Furthermore, it began to be whispered that the Maharishi was not so divine a being as he had seemed. There was also a rumour that his interest in Mia Farrow might not be spiritual only. Even George, the guru’s most impassioned disciple, seemed to be having second thought. So, to Cynthia’s dismay, John decided they were going home.

He led the way into the Maharishi’s quarters and announced his decision, characteristically mincing no words. The guru, for all his quick-wittedness, seems to have had no idea that the lights had changed. When he asked “Why?” John would only say, “You are the cosmic one. You ought to know.” At this, he said later, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Great Soul, gave him a look like, ‘I’ll kill you, you bastard.’

John, in fact, was convinced for a long time afterwards that the Maharishi would wreck some sort of Transcendental vengeance. He told Cyn’ it was already starting when, on their way back to Delhi, their taxi broke down, and they both stood panic-stricken, trying to thumb a lift as the Indian dusk with its thousands of staring eyes closed in around them.

The Maharishi, his teachings and flowers and Transcendental gurglings were dismissed as last month’s groupie or yesterday’s Mr Fish shirt. ‘We made a mistake,’ Paul said. ‘We thought at first that he wasn’t.’ Into another airport microphone, George concurred; ‘We’ve finished with him.’ The Holy Man was left in his mountain fastness to cogitate upon a mystery as profound as any offered by Heaven or Earth. Had the Beatles, or had the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, been taken for the bigger ride?

[This excerpt from ‘Shout’ is taken with the permission of Pan Macmillan.]

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