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On This Day In Music… February 15, 1968: John Lennon and George Harrison Fly to India to Study With the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

The Beatles' introduction to Transcendental Meditation would result in the most creatively fertile period of their career.

the beatles with the maharishi mahesh yogi
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The Beatles with the Maharishi Yogi - he would lead their search for 'spiritual regeneration'.

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On February 15, 1968, John and Cynthia Lennon, along with George Harrison and Pattie Boyd, boarded a plane to India. A few days later they were joined by Paul McCartney and girlfriend Jane Asher and Ringo and Maureen Starr – and thus began arguably the most creatively fertile period of the Beatles’ career.

In a little under two months at the Transcendental Meditation training course at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, the band would write a reported 48 songs, 19 of which appeared on their ninth studio LP, The White Album, released later that year, with others turning up on 1969’s Abbey Road. Their brief stay in Rishikesh would also popularize Eastern spiritualism to a generation of turned-on kids in the West and arguably define the direction that the hippy counterculture would take over the following years.

But if it began in a mellow haze of optimism and idealism, like so many of the other blissful ambitions of the 60s, it ended with bitterness and recrimination.

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The band’s introduction to Transcendental Meditation came courtesy of Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, who had signed up for classes in early 1967 after seeing a newspaper advertisement. In August of that year, the Beatles attended a lecture given by the Maharishi in London and later joined a “Spiritual Regeneration Movement” conference in north Wales. For the four lads who had rocketed from unknowns to the most famous men in the world in just five hectic years, the idea of “spiritual regeneration” was hugely appealing.

“We’d been the Beatles, which was marvelous,” McCartney later recalled in The Beatles Anthology. “We’d tried for it not to go to our heads and we were doing quite well – we weren’t getting too spaced out or big-headed – but I think generally there was a feeling of: ‘Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich – but what it’s all for?’”

And so, on February 15 1968, Lennon and Harrison flew to the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, with McCartney and Starr arriving a few days later. There they joined a group of 60 others training in Transcendental Meditation – including fellow musicians Donovan and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, and actress Mia Farrow.

the beatles
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The Beatles' dizzying rise to fame had left the band members wondering: 'what's it all for?'

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Days at the ashram were defined by what Lennon later described as a “search for the cosmic”. Time was spent meditating, listening to the teachings of the Maharishi, and playing music; and if the cosmic remained tantalizingly out of reach, something of it certainly came through in the band’s creative output.

“I was in a room for five days meditating,” said Lennon in The Beatles Anthology. “I wrote hundreds of songs. I couldn’t sleep and I was hallucinating like crazy, having dreams where you could smell... It was just a way of getting there, and you could go on amazing trips.”

Not everyone was so enlightened. Ringo Starr was less happy with the ascetic lifestyle – and reportedly even brought cans of Heinz baked beans with him to eat rather than the vegetarian fare on offer.

He also didn’t like the local wildlife, saying in The Beatles Anthology: “You’d have to fight off the scorpions and tarantulas in a bath. Then you’d get out of the bath, get dry and get out of the room because all the insects came back in.”

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george harrison air india flight
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George Harrison first introduced the other Beatles to Transcendental Meditation.

Just 10 days after arriving, Ringo and Maureen quit, with the drummer later comparing the experience to a “Butlins holiday camp”. A few weeks later a similarly skeptical McCartney and Jane Asher also departed. “Paul simply wasn’t getting it,” Beatles’ associate Peter Brown wrote in his book The Love You Make. “The mock seriousness of the Maharishi and the tediousness of the meditation were too much like school for him.”

Finally, on April 12, Lennon and Harrison also left, following accusations that the Maharishi was abusing his position to take advantage of some of the female students, as well as attempting to cash in on the Beatles’ fame.

“I said, ‘We’re leaving,’” Lennon is reported as saying in The Beatles Anthology. ”‘Why?’ ‘Well, if you’re so cosmic you’ll know why.’ And I just kept saying, ‘You ought to know.’ And he gave me a look like ‘I’ll kill you, you ba**ard.’

“We made a mistake there. We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene… We thought he was something other than he was.”

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the maharishi mahesh yogi
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'We thought he was something other than he was' - the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

No legal complaints were ever made against the Maharishi, and the band later toned down their accusations, with Harrison commenting: “There were a lot of flakes there; the whole place was full of flaky people. Some of them were us.”

Nevertheless, the Beatles’ brief stay in Rishikesh remains an extraordinary period in their history – and the legacy of the music they created while there continues to resonate today.

“The weeks the Beatles spent at the ashram,” wrote photographer Paul Saltzman in his book The Beatles in India, “were a uniquely calm and creative oasis for them... There were no fans, no press, no rushing around with busy schedules, and in this freedom, in this single capsule of time, they created more great music than in any similar period in their illustrious careers.”


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