The Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India in February 1968 to take part in a meditation course at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat. George and Pattie Harrison, her sister Jenny, and John and Cynthia Lennon arrived on 16 February; Paul McCartney, Jane Asher, Ringo Starr and his wife Maureen followed three days later. Their fellow pupils included Donovan, Mike Love, Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence.
Each year, Maharishi had a course for Westerners who wanted to become Transcendental Meditation instructors. Although I wasn’t going to become an instructor, I wanted to go and have a heavy dose of meditation.
John came, and Paul came after him, and then Richard [Starkey] followed with fifteen Sherpas carrying Heinz baked beans.
Rishikesh is an incredible place, situated where the Ganges flows out of the Himalayas into the plains between the mountains and Delhi. There is quite a heavy flow of water coming out of the Himalayas, and we had to cross the river by a big swing suspension bridge.
Maharishi’s place was perched up on a hill overlooking the town and the river. It was comprised of about eight or ten acres. There was a kitchen with some outdoor seating and tables where we would all have our breakfast together. Nearby there was a large covered area with a platform where he’d give lectures.
Starr was the first to leave, claiming that the food at the camp was unsuitable for his allergies. McCartney left shortly afterwards, having only intended to stay for a fixed period.
One day Maharishi needed to get to New Delhi and back for something, so someone suggested a helicopter. When it arrived we all trooped down, a bouncing line of devotees, coming down a narrow dusty track to the Ganges, singing, being delightful. Very like the Hare Krishnas, marvellous, chatting away. We got down to the Ganges, the helicopter landed and then they asked, ‘Does anyone want a quick go before Maharishi takes off?’ John jumped up. ‘Yea, yea, yeah, yeah!’ John got there first, and there was only room for one.
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.
Lennon and Harrison returned after a loss of faith in Maharishi. A story swept the camp that he had made a pass at one of the women; in later years it was said to have been Mia Farrow, but McCartney and Harrison have since denied this. It was later claimed that the story was concocted by Magic Alex, Lennon’s friend, who felt his influence among The Beatles had been waning since they took up with Maharishi.
There was a big hullabaloo about him trying to rape Mia Farrow or trying to get off with Mia Farrow and a few other women, things like that. And we went down to him and we’d stayed up all night discussing, was it true or not true. And when George started thinking it might be true, I thought, ‘Well it must be true, ’cause if George is doubting it, there must be something in it.’ So 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 leading. And I said, ‘We’re leaving.’
‘Why?’ Hee-hee, all that shit. 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.
Lennon Remembers, Jann Wenner
On the car journey from Rishikesh to Delhi, Lennon began writing a song which would later appear on the White Album.
We drove for hours. John had a song he had started to write which he was singing: ‘Maharishi, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘You can’t say that, it’s ridiculous.’ I came up with the title of ‘Sexy Sadie’ and John changed ‘Maharishi’ to ‘Sexy Sadie’.
Although their Indian sojourn ended on a sour note, each of The Beatles found it an artistically fruitful time. They returned to England with many of the songs which were subsequently recorded for the White Album. Among them was ‘Dear Prudence’, written about Mia Farrow’s sister who preferred to stay indoors in Rishikesh and meditate for long stretches.
I wrote quite a few songs in Rishikesh and John came up with some creative stuff. George actually once got quite annoyed and told me off because I was trying to think of the next album. He said, ‘We’re not fucking here to do the next album, we’re here to meditate!’ It was like, ‘Oh, excuse me for breathing!’ You know. George was quite strict about that, George can still be a little that way, and it’s like, ‘Oh come on, George, you don’t have a monopoly on thought in this area. I’m allowd to have my own views on the matter.
Despite the harshness of Lennon’s words about Maharishi, McCartney and Harrison, in particular, remained believers in the power of meditation. The group’s involvement, too, did much for the worldwide promotion of Transcendental Meditation, which flourished in the years that followed.
A week before the British elections of 1992, the ones where the Maharishi’s Natural Law Party took double-page ads in all the papers, George asked me to stand as the Natural Law Party member of parliament for Liverpool. Just one week before the last general election. George rang me giggling from LA. He said, ‘I’ve been up all night and you may think this is a bit silly, but Maharishi would like you, me and Ringo to stand as members of parliament for Liverpool.’ He said, ‘We’ll win.’ I said ‘Yeeeessss!’ He said, ‘It’ll be great.’ I said, ‘Why, what’ll we do?’ He said, ‘Well, we’ll introduce meditation for everyone.’
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died on 5 February 2008 in Vlodrop, Netherlands, at the age of 91. On the same day, ‘Across The Universe’ – with its chorus of “Jai Guru Deva om”, words taught to The Beatles by Maharishi – was broadcast in space to celebrate the song’s 40th anniversary, the 45th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and 50 years of NASA.
I was asked for my thoughts on the passing yesterday of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and I can only say that whilst I am deeply saddened by his passing, my memories of him will only be joyful ones. He was a great man who worked tirelessly for the people of the world and the cause of unity. I will never forget the dedication that he wrote inside a book he once gave me, which read: ‘radiate, bliss, consciousness’ and that to me says it all. I will miss him but will always think of him with a smile.