In this excerpt from “In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea” Danny Goldberg takes us back to the Summer of Love.
He explores the connection shared by The Beatles and George Harrison to two of the most influential Gurus of the era, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and A.C. Bhaktivedanta. Be sure to listen to more great stories from “In Search of the Lost Chord” over at the Mindrolling Podcast.
Order “In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea” by clicking HERE
In 1967, the growing presence of non-Western spiritual and esoteric traditions were part of the air that animated the hippie idea. On the mass media screen, no one was bigger than the Beatles. George Harrison’s fascination with Eastern spirituality was as much a part of The Beatles’ image in the last few years together as a group as their haircuts had been when they had first burst upon the stage. I became a vegetarian at the end of the sixties and when people ask me why I still sheepishly say that it’s because I read that Harrison said he was one.
The internationally known master of the sitar Ravi Shankar was a key catalyst in George Harrison’s interest in Hindu paths. Harrison had first played the ancient instrument on Norwegian Wood and took sitar lessons from Shankar. “Ravi was one person who impressed me. I mean Elvis impressed me but you couldn’t ask Elvis what was going on in the universe. “ Harrison also found that several books about Hindu practices, including Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of A Yogi and Swami Vivekananda’s Raja-Yoga were consistent with his LSD experiences. George and Patti Harrison spent six weeks in India in 1966.
Harrison was only allowed one song as a writer and singer on most Beatles albums and on Sargent Pepper’s the Harrison track was Within You Without You. It is the longest on the album and the only recording that didn’t include other Beatles. Within You Without You has three-time changes, a tanpura drone, tablas, an atonal melody that Shankar had taught him, and the trippiest lyrics on the Beatles trippiest album. It fades out with the sound of The Beatles laughing as an antidote to the solemnity of the song.
Sometime in the summer of 1967, George Harrison’s wife Patti attended a lecture by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. She was sufficiently impressed that all four Beatles attended a talk by the Maharishi on August 24th at the London Hilton on Park Lane.He was then sixty-nine years old and had announced his intention to retire, so this was supposedly the Maharishi’s last public appearance in the West.
He was born Mahesh Prasad Varma and studied with several renowned spiritual teachers in his native India. The Maharishi had introduced the concept of Transcendental Mediation(TM) in 1955. By the mid-sixties, he had been on British TV several times and because of his tendency to laugh was sometimes called “the giggling guru.”
The Beatles were given front row seats and were invited to meet the Maharishi in his hotel suite after the lecture.He had a long gray beard and wore a garland of marigolds around his neck. Harrison noticed a faint scent of sandalwood.
The Maharishi gave a mantra to students with the instruction to repeat it in sittings twice a day,”just a sound to help follow the thoughts which pass before you like a movie” The master told them that if even one percent of humanity meditated, it would dissipate dark clouds of war for thousands of years.
(I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true but it’s definitely the kind of grandiose claim that reinforces skepticism in the minds of rationalists).
He invited the band to be his guests at a training retreat in Wales and the next day the Beatles, their wives, and Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful took the train from London’s Euston Station to Banger, Wales. Mobs of fans and press photographers were at both stations. This one moment literally transformed the term “meditation” a term previously limited to small zendos and yoga centers into a household word overnight.
The Beatles had to leave after only a single day of the planned ten-day course because of the shocking news that their manager Brian Epstein had died at the age of thirty-two from an overdose of sleeping pills. This tragedy triggered another wave of enormous media attention and the Beatles public equanimity seemed to validate the value of meditation. George Harrison and John Lennon appeared twice on David Frost’s TV show in the fall of 1967 to talk about their involvement with TM. (John said that thanks to his meditation, “I’m a better person and I wasn’t bad before.”)
They made arrangements to spend more time with The Maharishi at his teaching center located near Rishikesh in the “Valley of the Saints” at the foothills of the Himalayas in India. In what would be the last time the four Beatles traveled together they, along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters arrived there in February 1968 to join a group of sixty people training to be TM instructors including Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and actress Mia Farrow.
While in India, The Beatles wrote most of the songs that would be recorded on The White Album including Lennon’s Dear Prudence for Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence. McCartney also wrote The Fool On The Hill a tribute to the Maharishi which would appear on the Magical Mystery Tour album.
Ringo and his wife left after a ten-day stay; McCartney left after one month and Lennon and Harrison stayed about six weeks, and then left abruptly following rumors of inappropriate behavior towards two young women by the Maharishi. John was outraged asking George “Where is his renunciation”. Where is his freedom from ego and senses?”
In an interview on The Tonight Show, Lennon said that it had been a mistake to believe in the Maharishi. “There is no guru. You have to believe in yourself. You’ve got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It’s all down to you mate.”
Harrison later apologized for the way he and Lennon had turned on the Maharishi, and in 1992 gave a benefit concert for the Maharishi-associated Indian Natural Law Party. In 2009, McCartney and Starr performed at a benefit concert for the David Lynch Foundation, which raises funds for the teaching of Transcendental Meditation to at-risk students.
The Maharishi met the Grateful Dead in Hollywood in Nov 1967 while they were recording their second album Anthem of the Sun He personally gave mantra to members of the band but the others in the Dead’s entourage got them from assistants which didn’t go down well in The Dead’s egalitarian culture.
The so-called Hare Krishna movement was the other spiritual path that George Harrison would publicly associate with.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta a seventy-year-old native of Calcutta, arrived virtually penniless in New York in 1965.He believed that his destiny was to bring awareness of Krishna, an incarnation of God to the West. Within the Hindu tradition, his approach is generally referred to as “Bhakti” which means the path of love and devotion. (The Maharishi’s TM revolved around the use of mantra to detach the mind from random thoughts and emotions a practice which is also at the core of many Buddhist paths, using the mind to conquer the mind.) Bhakti Yoga centers on the heart. The two practices do not inherently contradict each other but they are quite different despite the fact that they both have roots in Hindu traditions.
Bhaktivedanta believed in the cosmic power of what he called the “maha-mantra (maha meaning “great”) “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare, Hare. Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare”. Krishna and Rama are believed by Hindus to be incarnations of God. Hare represents the female energy of the universe. Bhaktivedanta had and conveyed faith in the repetition of these holy names.
Within a few months, with the help of some Indian acquaintances, he was able to rent a small storefront at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 1st Street. He retained an awning that read Matchless Gifts put there by the previous tenants.
Howard Smith of the Village Voice was the first to write about Bhaktivedanta. He initially attracted a couple of dozen students to whom he gave classes on the Bhagavad Gita the ancient Hindu text that tells the story of Krishna and his disciple Arjuna. Bhaktivedanta also led the group in chanting every Sunday at Tompkins Square Park. Allen Ginsberg soon took to joining in. This got the attention of the New York Times who quoted the beatnik poet as saying that the Hare Krishna chant “brings a state of ecstasy.”
Bhaktivedanta’s devotees took to calling him Prabhupada, which means, “Master.” A picture of him leading chants in the park graced the cover of EVO in November 1966 with the headline “Save Earth, Hare Krishna Hare Krishna.” The article inside said “This new brand of holy man, with all deference to Dr. Leary, has come forth with a brand of Consciousness Expansion” that’s sweeter than acid, cheaper than pot” Bhaktivedanta was quoted as sayings “we are not hippies, we are happies.”
Not long afterward, Ginsberg sang the Hare Krishna chant as a guest on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. The musical Hair included the chant in its finale. A small indie label recorded the master and devotees chanting.The record was advertised in various underground papers using Ginsberg’s ecstasy quote.
To further expand his work, Bhaktivedanta created the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which opened a temple in Haight-Asbury in January 1967. Ginsberg greeted Bhaktivedanta at the San Francisco airport and served as a master of ceremonies at a benefit for ISKCON at The Avalon Ballroom. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead performed at the event, which was emceed by Ginsberg. The Krishna people got along well in the Haight community, even with the Diggers who were impressed by the free vegetarian meals ISKCON offered to visitors.
Bhaktivedanta had strict rules for formal devotees but was tolerant of less austere supporters. ISKCON prescribed meat, extra-marital sex, alcohol, marijuana, psychedelics, tobacco, coffee, and tea. However, Ginsberg told the crowd at the benefit that the Hare Krishna mantra was very good way to come down from a bad acid trip H admitted that he was sticking with cigarettes “but if it would help matters I’ll chant Hare Krishna every night before going to bed for the rest of my life.” As Bhaktivedanta walked out of the Avalon past undulating braless hippie women he quipped to a devotee “this is no place for a brahmachari” (a Hindu term for celibate).
In the summer of 1967, the Beatles went to Greece to decompress after Sargent Pepper’s came out and George brought the recording of Hare Krishna. One day George and John went out on a boat and played ukuleles and banjos and chanted for six hours “We felt exalted. It was a very happy time for us.” George recalled.
By 1969 Harrison had met Bhaktivedanta and invited several devotees to live in his home. He re-recorded the Hare Krishna chant and the combination of modern recording and the magic of the Beatles made it an actual hit in Europe. He made plans to produce some new chants for the Beatles’ label Apple Records with a chorus of devotees that included one of my High School classmates, Josh Greene.
Greene had gone to the University of Wisconsin where he joined the staff of the campus newspaper The Daily Cardinal at a time when anti-war protests on campus were growing in intensity. Although he was against he war he was turned off by the protest leaders and transferred to the NYU Sorbonne in Paris.
Greene had an interest in yoga and was captivated on when he heard the new version of Hare Krishna in a disco. The DJ invited him to meet Bhaktivedanta in London just as new Harrison produced sessions were scheduled to begin. He had played the organ for a college band and thus was invited to the session where the Radha Krishna Temple album was recorded. Although it was an album of devotional chants it got attention from young rock fans like me because it was released on Apple Records. Greene sang and played on the “single” Govinda and shortly thereafter he dropped out of college to live with the devotees at Harrison’s house.
In his book Here Comes The Sun Greene describes a conversation in which John and George confronted Prabhupada to try to figure out how broad-minded he was. Was he saying that his translation of the Bhagavad Gita was the only one that was “right?” And why did exclusively focus on the name and form of Krishna? What about Shiva? Ganesha? Jesus? Bhaktivedanta acknowledged the divinity of other beings but said that he believed Krishna was unique. George diffused the tension. “I believe there was a misunderstanding. We thought you were saying your translation was the authority and that others were not. But we didn’t have any misunderstanding about the identity of Krishna.”
Greene explains, “This was a gesture of accommodation of all concerned. The alternative was for George unconscionable. Throughout history, how much suffering had fanatics caused by believing they had an exclusive handle on truth? Not that he saw Prabhupada in such terms. But claiming only one way to God could never be George’s way.”