The Beatles And The Maharishi: Failed Spiritual Quest 'Saved' The Fab Four

Culture | March 14, 2019

The Beatles and their wives at the Rishikesh in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, March 1968. Seated in front of the Maharishi are Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pattie Boyd. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There’s a handful of people who were able to shape the sound of The Beatles and one of them was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - the founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. The Maharishi, like The Beatles, came from humble beginnings. He was born Mahesh Prasad Varma in the Central Provinces of India and went on to study physics before throwing himself into a life of meditation as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Beatles, Mia Farrow, Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Mick Jagger, and other celebrities searching for meaning or answers were drawn to TM.

The Yogi traveled for over a decade before The Beatles came to him looking for a spiritual leader after they fell into the doldrums of success. So how did a spiritual guru play such a large part in the musical process of the most influential rock band in history? The songs that ended up as the "White Album," their self-titled follow-up to Sgt. Pepper, were conceived in India, while they were studying the teachings of the Maharishi and some Beatles, more than others, were talking about staying there permanently. 

Before He Met The Beatles The Maharishi Was Already A Rock Star

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After receiving a degree in physics the Maharishi, then known simply as Mahesh, took a job as a secretary for Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. Saraswati taught meditation and helped his followers go within themselves, Manesh soon became Saraswati’s most trusted pupil, and when the guru passed away he told Mahesh to travel the world to teach TM to new people.

In 1955 Mahesh changed his name to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and toured India teaching devotees about Transcendental Meditation, and in 1959 he left the country for the first time to go on tour. It’s during this time that Maharishi appeared on the British TV show People and Places. Even if it took a few more years for The Beatles to make a pilgrimage to the guru they knew he was out there. 

Pattie Boyd Introduced George Harrison To the Teachings Of The Yogi

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Following The Beatles’ final tour in 1966 the band began experimenting with drugs, different kinds of instruments, and new philosophies. George Harrison and his wife, Pattie Boyd, traveled to India in the late ‘60s where Harrison planned to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar. While there, Boyd found herself in meetings held by the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, a group that used the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s meditation techniques.

In her biography, Boyd says that she was impressed with what she learned from the group, and that she passed the information along to Harrison. At the time, “the quiet Beatle” was thinking about his relationship with mind altering drugs. He’d been using LSD frequently and wondered if it did anything for him. After a trip to the Haight-Asbury in 1967 he grew disillusioned with the hippie drug culture; following his return to England he and John Lennon both decided to stop using LSD and started looking inward to find something new. 

The Beatles Attend Their First Transcendental Meditation Seminar

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The first time The Beatles came into contact with the Maharishi was at a 1967 lecture at the London Hilton on Park Lane. John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney brought their respective significant others and sat right up front for the Yogi’s presentation. Afterwards they went back to his hotel suite where they sat with their new guru and agreed to accompany him on a trip to Wales for a 10 day training retreat.

This is the first time the Maharishi exercised any control over The Beatles. It’s believed that the band was set to enter the recording studio the following day, and rather than record they spent the next week and a half learning TM in Wales. While it’s clear that the Yogi wasn’t being malicious, it’s impossible not to wonder about what would have come out of that recording session.

In Anthology, Harrison wrote about the lecture and his desire for a Mantra:

On August 24, all of us except Ringo attended the lecture, given by Maharishi at the Hilton Hotel. I got the tickets. I was actually after a mantra. I had got to the point where I thought I would like to meditate. I'd read about it and I knew I needed a mantra – a password to get through into the other world. And, as we always seemed to do everything together, John and Paul came with me.

The Beatles Spent 10 Days With The Maharishi In Wales

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While people usually think of The Beatles going to far off locations like India in search of spiritual guidance, the biggest turning point for the group came on a trip to Wales. A day after meeting the Maharishi the group boarded a train and traveled to Bangor, Wales to learn from their new guru and the press followed.

The group only spent a couple of days in Wales. They arrived on a Friday and left that Sunday when they received word that their manager, Brian Epstein, had passed away. Historians believe that up until this point The Beatles were a solid unit, but following the death of Epstein and their introduction to meditation they began to drift away from each other. 

Even though this was an early breaking point for the band, they each took classes with the Maharishi to learn how to meditate. In the book Many Years From Now Paul McCartney recalls:

It was a bit funny going to those camps because it was like going back to school. Just the nature of it meant staying in a classroom and we'd been used to our nice comfortable homes or hotels so to be staying in an old school on a camp bed was a little bit disconcerting. Then trying to learn to meditate. It's not that easy, you don't just pick it up like that, it's an effort and you've got to be involved, so it was like going back to school. And of course the food was all canteen food. But we were interested enough to learn the system, which we did.

The Beatles weren’t the only group to travel to Wales with the Maharishi. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger came along for the ride, and he felt so inspired by the guru’s teachings that he phoned up Keith Richards and Brian Jones to get the two to join him. 

The Magical Mystery Tour Almost Didn’t Happen Thanks To The Maharishi

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After the death of manager Brian Epstein the band was looking whereever they could for a guiding light. Epstein had always been the guy who helped them navigate a crisis, but without him they were unsure about whom to follow -- for a few years the Maharishi filled that role.

In late 1967, the band was deeply into transcendental meditation, with Lennon and Harrison even going on television to talk about how much they loved it. The band wanted to travel to India at the same time to study with the Maharishi, but Paul McCartney suggested that they wait until after they finished working on the Magical Mystery Tour before taking any time off. It’s clear that the band was a little lost at this point and looking for something to hold onto. If McCartney wasn’t such a hard working guy then Magical Mystery Tour may have been pushed back a year, or it might have just been scrapped altogether. 

The Beatles Brought Their Entourage To India

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When The Beatles went to Rishikesh, India to learn from the Maharishi they didn’t do it as pilgrims in search for knowledge, they went as The Beatles. The members arrived in India in multiple parties and brought along their wives, their road manager, the head of the Apple Films department and, of course, the media.

The lads from Liverpool showed up in the middle of the Maharishi’s course, disrupting the tranquil nature of the proceedings. While Lennon and Harrison were all in on the Maharishi’s teachings, McCartney wasn’t completely sold. In the book Many Years From Now the bass playing Beatle says that he was happy to see what he business in India was all about, but he wasn’t about to throw his life away to mediate. He said:

John and George were going to Rishikesh with the idea that this might be some huge spiritual lift-off and they might never come back if Maharishi told them some really amazing thing. Well, being a little bit pragmatic, I thought in my own mind, I'll give it a month, then if I really really like it, I'll come back and organize to go out there for good, but I won't go on this 'I may never come back' thing, I won't burn my bridges. That's very me, to not want to do that. I just see it as being practical, and I think it is.

While In India, The Beatles Studied With A Lot Of Their Famous Friends

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At the Maharishi’s ashram The Beatles studied with about 60 other people from around the world, but they weren’t the only stars in the bunch. According to Pattie Boyd, while there the group rubbed elbows with singer-songwriter Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and Mia Farrow. The band had worked with Donovan prior to their time in the ashram, but it must have been a gas to hear the group chatting with Mike Love. After all, The Beach Boys and The Beatles were perceived as rival groups by the media.

Boyd Later wrote of the experience:

We had known Donovan for some years. He and the Beatles had recorded together, and he'd contributed to the Yellow Submarine album [sic]. He had fallen in love with Jenny [Boyd] – for whom he wrote Jennifer Juniper. Mike Love, lead singer of the Beach Boys, also turned up, as did the actress Mia Farrow, with her brother Johnny and sister Prudence.

The Maharishi Didn’t Give John Lennon What He Was Looking For

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As the group studied with the Maharishi, George Harrison and John Lennon were the most seriously devoted to the teachings of transcendental meditation. However, a solo trip with the Maharishi showed Lennon that he may never get the answers he was seeking. Paul McCartney said that one day Lennon jumped into a helicopter with their guru to have some one on one time, but on his return he was slightly down.

McCartney said:

So later I asked John, 'Why were you so keen? You really wanted to get in that helicopter.' 'Yeah,' he said, 'I thought he might slip me the answer!' Which is very revealing about John. I suppose everyone is always looking for the Holy Grail. I think John thought he might find it. I think it shows an innocence really, a naivety. It's quite touching really.

No one knows what the Maharishi said to Lennon, but it wasn’t the Earth shattering spiritual advice that he was hoping to receive. 

The Ashram Was A Major Source Of Inspiration For The Beatles

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Because they showed up late to the ashram, the Maharishi gave each member of The Beatles some one-on-one time to better help them get into the groove. Their meditation classes were intensive and they could last for hours. Inspired by their time in the ashram the band wrote the entirety of their self-titled “White Album,” and even a few tracks for Abbey Road.

The Maharishi even had Lennon and Harrison write the song “Dear Prudence” for Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, who took it upon herself to meditate for hours on end against the Maharishi’s wishes. Thanks, Prudence.

The Beatles Broke With The Maharishi After Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct

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It only took a month for The Beatles to become disenchanted with the Maharishi. According to Pattie Boyd, bassist Paul McCartney returned to England with Ringo in tow to look after Apple, the band’s label. Following McCartney’s exit, Lennon and Harrison heard whispers about the Maharishi’s sexual advances towards Mia Farrow and some of the other women in their group.

Lennon and Harrison discussed their options and decided to confront their former guru, this turned into a tense standoff between the remaining two Beatles and the Maharishi’s crew.

Lennon said:

We went to see Maharishi, the whole gang of us the next day charged down to his hut, his very rich-looking bungalow in the mountains. And I was the spokesman – as usual, when the dirty work came, I actually had to be leader, whatever the scene was, when it came to the nitty gritty I had to do the speaking. And I said, 'We're leaving.'

'Why?' Hee-hee, all that sh*t. And I said, 'Well if you're so cosmic, you'll know why. He was always intimating, and there were all his right hand men intimating that he did miracles. He said, 'I don't know why, you must tell me.' And I just kept saying, 'You know why' – and he gave me a look like, 'I'll kill you, bastard.' He gave me such a look, and I knew then when he looked at me, because I'd called his bluff. And I was a bit rough to him.

After that the band took off immediately, and in the cab on the ride back to the airport Lennon wrote most of what became “Sexy Sadie,” however the original lyrics were “Maharishi, what have you done?” 

One interpretation of the Maharishi episode is that it saved the Beatles by recharging their creativity -- but key to that interpretation is that the Beatles, all four of them, even the ones who were most into the TM trip, rejected the Maharishi and scurried back to London. After their adventure in India, the Beatles regrouped and got down to the business of making the White Album. The band was never really the same again; Epstein's absence and festering creative differences made for a lot of tension and strife in the recording of the White Album and sequels Abbey Road and Let It Be

But at least those albums happened.

Tags: George Harrison | John Lennon | Maharishi Mahesh Yogi | Mia Farrow | Mike Love | Pattie Boyd | Paul McCartney | Ringo Starr | The Beatles | Transcendental Meditation | What Did He Do?...

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.