The Beatles in India

The Fab Four's 1968 trip to study
with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Fifty years ago, the four Beatles and their partners flew to India to learn about meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Their journey was both physical and spiritual.

They experienced the space and smell of the sandalwood incense, and the vibrant colours of the compound where they wrote their songs. In the lodges of John Lennon’s No. 9 bungalow, The White Album is crafted from the Beatles time in India.

George Harrison’s former wife Pattie Boyd and her sister Jenny accompanied the Beatles on their trip. Jenny Boyd, a model like her sister, was a close friend of folk musician, Donovan.

Jenny said: “Donovan played this lovely song for me, “Jennifer Juniper”. At first I thought it was really pretty and nice and then I realized it was how he was feeling about me. I was so sorry that I couldn’t reciprocate his feelings, but he was a wonderful friend.”

The mid-Sixties had been a spiritual journey for many young westerners. Jenny had experienced the adventurous young adults who were congregating in San Francisco. Harrison and Pattie decided to visit her there and experience the culture. Once back in England, Pattie attended a talk by Maharishi in London and told Harrison about him. The Beatles went to see Maharishi in north Wales, and he invited them to Rishikesh.

“It was going so well in Bangor,” says Pattie, “until we heard that [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein had died. He had been their friend and their mentor. I had never seen people in such shock, and Maharishi knew that they had to grieve properly. It was lucky that they were with him as he was very solid, very wise, and the perfect guide. He told them to come to India where it would be very calm and they could sort out what they wanted to do.”

The Beatles time in India was private as they lived in Maharishi’s ashram with no reporters on site. Maharishi was hosting a course for sixty transcendental meditation teachers as well as guiding the Beatles and their party.

The only outsider was a Canadian filmmaker, Paul Saltzman, who had been working in India. “I got a letter from my girlfriend Trisha saying that she had moved in with someone else,” he says. ”I was heartbroken and somebody said I should try meditation for the heartbreak. That is what led me to the ashram. I didn’t know that the Beatles were there.

I did a 30-minute meditation and it was an absolute miracle. The knife in my heart was gone. The screaming I could hear in my head was gone. What replaced it was this state of bliss. I had done drugs in the Sixties and I had been seeking this state of bliss. I thought that if Trisha is happier with him, then I am happy for her.”

Jenny agrees. “I was incredibly happy in India. I was naturally shy and if you smoke pot and are shy, it makes you even more introverted. I wasn’t doing that anymore and I felt much more relaxed and much more open to everything that was going on. I wasn’t looking for a guru so I never felt that Maharishi was the one, but I knew that meditating was exactly what I had been looking for.”

Saltzman took the most enduring image of the Maharishi and his guests. “Maharishi had hired a photographer from down in the village. Everybody got dressed up and the garlands arrived. Maharishi directed where everyone should be and everyone on the course got an 8x10, black-and-white print to take away.

(Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (centre) with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Mia Farrow, Donovan and others at the guru's academy in Rishikesh, India)

I wasn’t part of the set-up as I wasn’t on the course, but the picture cried out for colour photography and I took those pictures. Harrison and Pattie had a camera, Ringo Starr had a camera and Mal Evans the roadie had a camera so they wanted me to take them. I had four cameras around my neck, my Pentax and their very expensive Nikons.”

In normal circumstances, Ringo Starr was the most easy-going Beatle but he was uncomfortable in Rishikesh. He and his wife Maureen returned home after a few weeks. The food had been too spicy for his delicate stomach but he had known that and brought supplies of Heinz baked beans.

Jenny says the reason for his departure is much simpler. “Ringo wasn’t on a spiritual search; he was quite happy as he was. He and Maureen had just had a second son and they had left their children in England. They missed them and being in India was too much of a strain for them.”

Paul McCartney had stated that had they had found what they were looking for, they might not have returned home. “No, no, that’s nonsense” says Pattie, “They would have returned. They were Western guys.”

They wrote their songs on acoustic guitars and they wanted to work them out in a recording studio with electric instruments. They needed the tools of the west and they had plans to start Apple and to find a new manager.”

Neither of those worked out well, but they weren’t to know that. But then neither did the Indian experience with John Lennon accusing Maharishi of sexual harassment and writing “Sexy Sadie” with its key line “You made a fool of everyone”.

Among the songs written in Rishikesh was “Dear Prudence”, which Lennon dedicated to another of their party, the sister of Mia Farrow, Prudence. “Every day we did meditation and we would go to lectures and eat together, but if somebody was having a long meditation, they wouldn’t be disturbed,” says Pattie.

“Food would be left outside their door. We noticed that Prudence’s door had two plates of food outside, so she had missed two meals and we were getting worried about her. She had been depressed and John wrote that beautiful song for her, ‘Dear Prudence’. She was in a deep place and couldn’t come out of it and John was saying, ‘Come out and play’.”

After years of disrepair, the ashram itself has opened as a tourist attraction, but for some the memories of Rishikesh remain with them every day.

“Life comes and goes and when I get tense, I try and remember ‘Breathe, Paul, come back into your own core, come back into your own inner self,’” says Saltzman, “I still meditate, and meditation and prayer are both keys to an inner domain. They are keys to the soul, which is a connection to whatever divine presence there is in the universe.”