How the Beatles in India Changed America

Though their trip to visit Maharishi was short, the Beatles helped bring Eastern religion to the West

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with members of the Beatles and other famous followers. Credit: Smashing Pumpkins Detail Reunion Tour (Jon) (GL-photo IN) https://edit.wennermedia.com/content/article/516780

On a February morning in 1967, George Harrison's wife, Pattie Boyd, sat at her kitchen table and lamented to a girlfriend how she longed for something spiritual in her life. With that, the legendary party girl ripped a tiny newspaper advertisement for Transcendental Meditation classes out of the paper and, in that instant, began a ripple that would affect generations of young people across the world. A year later, the Beatles would go to India. Out of that trip came not just the band's epic White Album and Donovan's "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," but a seismic shift in the popular understanding of Eastern spirituality, meditation and music. It also was the beginning of a strange relationship between the Beatles and the meditation movement that they inadvertently popularized. Not to mention the rise of an Indian guru who shaped my own life.

In August 1967, Boyd talked her husband into joining her at the Hilton Hotel in London to see Maharishi speak. She had learned his trademarked Transcendental Meditation that spring and had fallen in love with her daily mantra-based practice. In the end, all the Beatles joined them. Maharishi cut an enticing anti-establishment figure at a moment when the Beatles were questioning their reality – the then-47-year-old Indian man had long hair that flowed mane-like into his greying beard. He wore only a simple white robe and flip-flops. As he lectured at colleges and universities around the United States and Europe, young people became enamored with his simple notion of using meditation to elevate your consciousness. He would answer even the angstiest questions on the meaning of life or world events with an infectious giggle and the reassurance that life was simple and blissful.

Maharishi supposedly didn't know who the Beatles were when he met them, but he knew they were very famous – he was nothing if not media savvy (as described in Kurt Vonnegut's essay, "Yes, We Have No Nirvanas") – so he invited them all to a ten-day summer conference in Bangor, a small coastal city in Wales. It was there that the four men became devotees. The plan emerged to spend a few months in early 1968 at Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh. They all felt – to different degrees – a hunger to transform themselves. Maharishi was adamantly opposed to drugs and drinking and, Boyd wrote in her memoir, they were all on steady diet of weed and acid, stumbling daily through a mind-boggling hysterical swarm of paparazzi and fans.

But the hard living was in the rearview mirror when the Beatles flew to India in February of 1968, with a phalanx of reporters in tow. They went to Rishikesh, a small town at the foothills of the Himalayas. The plan was to stay for a few months – it was a course to make them teachers of Transcendental Meditation, although it didn't seem anyone in the Beatles crew actually wanted to teach, they just wanted that time with Maharishi.

Life there was idyllic and simple, by most accounts – the Beatles slept in sparsely furnished rooms, and were awakened by peacocks. They meditated for much of the day, and listened to Maharishi lecture about reincarnation and consciousness. There were about 60 people at the ashram, including Donovan and his manager; the Beach Boys' Mike Love; and Mia Farrow, with her brother Johnny and sister Prudence. ("Dear Prudence," written by Lennon, was supposedly a song they sang to Mia's sister, who wouldn't stop meditating, and wouldn't come out of her room.)

How and why they left their guru is the stuff of differing legends, and I've heard a dozen versions of what happened. I would say that the truth lies in the music that came out of that time – somewhere between "Sexy Sadie" and "Across the Universe" – part transcendent cosmic consciousness and part total betrayal and loss of faith. Whatever actually occurred, they decamped after two months in a bit of a huff, leaving Maharishi and his meditation movement behind.

But Maharishi already had the photographic evidence and journalistic accounts of the Beatles' devotion. The band moved on, but Maharishi's star continued to rise, and TM became increasingly entrenched in popular culture. Life magazine proclaimed 1968 "The Year of the Guru," and featured Maharishi on the cover with groovy, hallucinogenic spirals framing his face.

By the mid-1970s, the Movement estimated that it had 600,000 practitioners, with celebrities such as actress Shirley MacLaine and football star Joe Namath continuing to promote Maharishi's techniques and vision. TM how-to books were a staple on the best-seller list, and at the time, the Movement estimated that an average of 40,000 people a month were learning the meditation practice. He bought two Heidelberg presses and began printing elaborate pamphlets and books and mission statements. He sent them out to world leaders and set up hundreds of certified centers throughout the United States, Europe and India. Later the media would describe TM as "the McDonald's of the meditation business."

I was born close to a decade after the Beatles left their Indian retreat and their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but that trip entirely shaped my world – my parents would never have met, fallen in love nor moved to a remote town in Iowa to the meditation community where I was raised.

In the fall of 1968, my mom was a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. After reading an article in the Saturday Evening Post, my mom – raised in a Roman-Catholic family where gloom and sin loomed ever-present – fell in love with Transcendental Meditation. So in the early 1980s, when Maharishi asked his devotees to move to rural Fairfield, Iowa, to help build his global headquarters, well, my mom thought that was a great idea.

Growing up in Fairfield in the 1980s and 1990s, the Beatles were an awkward part of our founding history. At the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment – where I was a student until I was 14 years old – John, Paul, George and Ringo were sort of like estranged uncles whose stories were left to the shadows. There were celebrities who practiced meditation and who sometimes visited our school, smiling warmly as they watched us meditate or embark on our "consciousness-based education." But while I have strange memories of Mike Love singing in our tiny school library, no Beatle ever came to visit.

While the Beatles went through their own unraveling, tragedy and emergence as solo artists, the Transcendental Meditation community was winding itself into a tighter internal facing realm, entirely devoted to Maharishi and his global plans. Maharishi's picture hung on the walls of our home and in in my school. We would always place the first slice of birthday cake beneath his picture, and sing a funny little song about achieving higher and higher levels of consciousness as we did.

At the time, TM became a forgotten byproduct of the hippie era, except for our little bubble in Iowa. There we followed Maharishi's directives on how to eat, how to sleep, how to dress, how to be. As time went by and I grew up, it felt more and more restrictive and alienating. I began to think it was all as simple as the Sexy Sadie lyric, "Oh look what you've done, you've made a fool of everyone." My teen angst and Lennon's cosmic comedown dovetailed perfectly.

The binary tumult of that moment with the Beatles seemed to shadow Maharishi until his death. People treated him either like a god or a pariah. Popular narratives seemed stuck on this idea of a guru-disciple relationship, where Maharishi was either an enlightened sage who would transform your consciousness or as a media-savy opportunist who was after everyone's money. There didn't seem to be a middle option.

However, in the 2000s as Maharishi grew older and less present, something unlikely happened. TM returned to popular culture, thanks to the evangelical efforts of David Lynch, a longtime meditator who in 2002 attended something called the Enlightenment Course with Maharishi in Europe. After that, Lynch traveled around the country, talking to large groups about a simple technique that could make you happier, calmer, and more productive. Suddenly Rupert Murdoch and Katy Perry were tweeting about how much they loved it, but there was little to no mention of the guru. In 2009, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr performed for the David Lynch foundation, raising money to help children learn TM, along with Mike Love and Donovan. Onstage, they reminisced about the time and the music they made and said they loved meditation. All it seemed had been forgotten or forgiven, and together they sang "Cosmically Conscious." Maharishi was not mentioned.

Claire Hoffman is a journalist and author of Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.