Friday, February 16, 2018

Rishikesh - 50 Years Ago Today

The Beatles, after Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and "Strawberry Fields," traveled to Rishikesh, India for Transcendental Meditation training at the Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They'd first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967. In The Beatles' Anthology, Paul said, "We'd been into drugs; the next step is, you've got to try and find a meaning then." George Harrison replied, "There's this thing called a mantra. Through the mantra you can follow a technique that helps you to transcend, that is, to go beyond the waking, sleeping, dreaming state." "They are the ideal of energy and intelligence in the younger generation," the Maharishi said. He invited The Beatles to his Ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas.  

It was on this day in 1968 when, along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and a bevy of reporters, the Beatles arrived in India and joined a group of 60 training to be TM teachers including Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. While there, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison wrote a myriad of songs and Ringo Starr finished writing his first. Eighteen of these songs were recorded for The Beatles (the "White Album"), and two appeared later on Abbey Road. One song in particular was written about Prudence Farrow, who was so focused on learning Transcendental Meditation that she secluded herself in her room for long periods of time.  Lennon, worried she was depressed, wrote the song “Dear Prudence,” inviting her to “come out to play.” 

Located in the holy "Valley of the Saints," the International Academy of Meditation stood across the River Ganges from Rishikesh, the "Yoga capital of the world." While there, the Beatles announced at a press conference that they were giving up drugs (apparently referring to psychedelics, not marijuana), and like the other students at the Ashram, they adopted native dress (the ashram had a tailor on the premises). Vegetarian meals were eaten in a "communal" dining area, where food was less vulnerable to monkeys and crows. Menu items included chickpeas and cumin seeds, whole wheat dough baked over a fire, spiced eggplant and potatoes picked locally, yet for breakfast the menu was cornflakes, toast and coffee.

The Lennon's room contained a "four-poster bed, a dressing table, a couple of chairs and an electric fire." Lennon played guitar while his wife drew pictures and wrote poetry between their long meditation sessions. Meanwhile, he walked to the local post office every morning to check for Yoko's daily telegrams such as one saying: "Look up at the sky and when you see a cloud think of me." 

One evening, when the moon was full, the Maharishi arranged for everyone to cruise on the Ganges aboard a barge. The trip started with the chanting of Vedas by two pandits, but soon the musicians brought out their instruments. Picture yourself on that boat in the Ganges chanting and singing with Paul and John, with Mike Love and Donovan and Mia and Prudence… Nothing is real.

Both McCartney and Starr cut their stay short, while the others hung out for close to two months. The harmonious vibes of the trip, however, would soon come to an end when allegations arose about the more earthly interests of the Maharishi for the females in attendance, as well as questions surrounding the Maharishi using the Beatles' name to advance his own agenda. Upon his return to London, a reporter asked Lennon if the Maharishi was “on the level.” Lennon quipped, "I don’t know what level he's on, but we had a nice holiday in India and came back rested." Lennon nonetheless would write "Sexy Sadie" about the Marharishi’s exploits.

Today the Ashram lies in ruins, the Marharishi having died in 2008.