The Beatles’ dalliance with their guru may not have been long-lasting, but the time they spent in India did produce more than an album’s worth of songs. Susan Shumsky, author of “Maharishi & Me: Seeking Enlightenment with the Beatles’ Guru,” was a follower of the Maharishi’s for 22 years, and served on his personal staff for seven years. Here, she looks back at the Fabs’ time with the Maharishi …
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008) was the mentor of megastars like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Deepak Chopra, Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, George Lucas, Tom Hanks, Howard Stern, Jerry Seinfeld and more. This extraordinary spiritual master first stepped onto America’s shores in 1959. Dubbed by the press “The Giggling Guru,” within 10 years Maharishi made “meditation,” “mantra,” and “yoga” household words. His brush with celebrities put him into the spotlight. But, his true legacy is his gift of Transcendental Meditation (aka TM).
George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd began practicing TM in February 1967. Feeling more alert and energetic, she believed it changed her life. So, three of The Beatles, with their significant others, attended Maharishi’s lecture at the Park Lane Hilton on Aug. 24, 1967. Ringo, at hospital with wife Maureen, who’d recently given birth, missed the lecture.
After the lecture the Beatles met Maharishi backstage. They expressed that they’d been seeking a highly spiritual experience, which drugs didn’t deliver. The guru invited them to a retreat in North Wales, starting the next day, Aug. 25. Attendees included The Beatles, Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Boyd, Jenny Boyd, Jane Asher, so-called inventor Alexis Mardas, Mick Jagger, and his girlfriend, singer Marianne Faithfull.
Three hundred course participants shared bunk beds in dorms at University College in Bangor, Wales, and ate canteen food. There, The Beatles learned TM. Since drug abstinence was prerequisite to starting the practice, the musicians stopped using drugs — for the first five minutes, anyway.
Sold on TM, The Beatles indicated they would set up a London meditation academy. They expressed enthusiasm about TM (and defended it to skeptics) in multiple interviews, including on “The Frost Report”. John suggested to his fellow Beatles a world tour to turn on millions of people to TM. His song “Across the Universe,” an anthem to TM, included the appellation Jai Guru Deva (“hail to the divine guru”).
Once The Beatles became public advocates, Maharishi found himself all over the press, on magazine covers, and a recurring guest on “The Tonight Show.” Despite Johnny Carson’s derisive treatment of Maharishi, the shows resulted in thousands of eager students queuing to learn TM.
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In February, 1968, the shock waves hitting Rishikesh, India, reverberated around the world. When Mia Farrow, The Beatles, Donovan, and other celebrities attended a meditation course with Maharishi, the planet paused for a moment, then changed orbit.
Though struggling to keep his sparsely constructed ashram solvent, Maharishi provided his famous guests double beds with mosquito netting, sit-down toilets, and bathtubs.
The Beatles received private lessons on Maharishi’s bungalow roof or inside his meeting room. John and George embraced the teachings enthusiastically.
Ringo Starr’s allergies and peritonitis caused problems with ashram food. He brought one suitcase stuffed with Heinz beans. Terrified of insects, his wife Maureen demanded “Ritchie” kill them all and remove the carcasses. A single fly held Maureen hostage until Ringo returned hours later.
Eggs and meat were (still are) banned in Rishikesh, but Mal Evans (Beatles road manager) smuggled in contraband eggs. When the staff was caught burying eggshells, Ringo asked, “Can’t God see that, too?” He and Maureen returned home after two weeks.
When “Wonderwall“ film director Joe Massot smuggled in hashish, John Lennon didn’t hesitate to partake as they played Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay” 20 times. John asked Joe to keep it secret from George.
Ravindra Damodara Swami, one of Maharishi’s brahmacharyas (monk disciples), noted in his diary that Maharishi said The Beatles had too much brain in the way, except for Ringo, who followed his heart and feelings. He declared George was the most spiritually advanced and this was his last life, but John had many more lives to go, and his weakness for women might ruin him.”
Two weeks into their stay, John moved into separate quarters from his wife Cynthia, where he waited with excited anticipation for secret telegrams and letters from Yoko Ono. Though Cynthia hoped for a second honeymoon in Rishikesh, John ignored her virtually the entire time.
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Students gradually increased their meditation time and discussed experiences daily with Maharishi. After a few weeks, he told them to meditate in their rooms all day. John and George stayed inside for weeks, meditating eight hours daily.
The Beatles and wives competed over length of meditation. Debates raged about who was “getting it,” who wasn’t, and “who was going to get cosmic first.” Paul McCartney said the Beatles hoped for answers for personal and world peace. However, their towering expectations included the secret of life, astral magic, supernormal powers and global peace —all in one month.
John Lennon believed there was some secret to get — then he could just go home. He suspected Maharishi’s disciples knew the secret but were holding out. When industrialist K.S. Cambata loaned Maharishi a helicopter, John volunteered to ride with the guru in the helicopter. He figured Maharishi might slip him “the answer.”
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The musicians (The Beatles, Donovan, Paul Horn and Mike Love) made music in the ashram — noisy music. Students who came for deep meditation became resentful. George started a daily mini rock festival on the lecture hall roof for 20-somethings, who envisioned a TM hippie revolution, without course fee, puja ceremony, or drug ban. The group pleaded their case to Maharishi, who responded with typical evasive giggles.
George converted a hut overlooking the Ganges into a music room, lined with carpets, cushions, and Indian musical instruments. He extended an open invitation for anyone to listen or learn to play. Maharishi hired a sitar teacher to instruct George and Donovan.
Away from the pressures of fans and fame, The Beatles’ creativity blossomed. Beatles fans, music critics, and audiophiles laud the album “The Beatles” (aka the White Album), consisting mostly of songs written in Rishikesh, as a masterpiece.
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Maharishi offered The Beatles’ company, Apple Corps Ltd., exclusive rights to produce a movie about TM and Guru Dev. … But he’d made the same promise to someone else.
In August 1967, Charlie Lutes, president of Maharishi’s Spiritual Regeneration Movement (SRM) gave meditator Alan Waite permission to film Maharishi and The Beatles in Rishikesh. David Charnay of Four Star Productions of Hollywood contracted those rights.
On March 20, 1968, Neil Aspinall (manager, Apple Corps) and Denis O’Dell (associate producer of “A Hard Day’s Night”) arrived in Rishikesh to negotiate the Apple Corps film deal. Aspinall intended to thwart the project, since The Beatles were under contract with United Artists. O’Dell planned to convince The Beatles to make “The Lord of the Rings.” Watching this little bearded man in robes haggling about his 2 1/2 percent, Aspinall was perplexed that Maharishi knew more about making deals than himself!
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On March 26, Neil Aspinall, Paul McCartney, and Jane Asher left for London. Not long afterward, the two remaining Beatles, John and George, cabled Aspinall to return to Rishikesh with a film crew and start shooting the Apple Corps film.
Despite obvious conflicts of interest, Maharishi paid no mind and declared everyone could “work together for the glory of Guru Dev” (Maharishi’s guru). Though Maharishi was warned contracts didn’t quite work that way, he seemed undaunted.
Charlie Lutes arrived on April 4 with a Four Star Productions lawyer and a signed contract —granting exclusive rights to film Maharishi for the next five years!
On April 9, the Four Star movie crew arrived overnight. At dawn, in The Beatles’ courtyard, the bed-headed, bleary-eyed, half-asleep John Lennon opened his door to a cameramen and director yelling “Action.”
Now, The Beatles were expected to be two-bit players in the Four Star film. John and George avoided the lecture hall, installed with lights and cameras. They refused to leave their rooms.
With this back-alley deal exposed, John and George suspected Maharishi’s motive all along was exploiting them for publicity. But, their disenchantment over the film contract was just the first rumble in a coming volcanic eruption. More heinous powers churned in the molten crucible below.
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Johan Alexis Mardas, dubbed by John “my new guru ‘Magic Alex,’” seemed to have surgically attached himself to John’s hip. Cynthia, alarmed at his Svengali-like influence over her husband, declared Alexis “made her skin crawl.”
Alexis’ imaginary inventions included a force-field to keep fans away, and paint that made objects invisible. But his most improbable device, the size of a trash can lid, would power a radio station, broadcast Maharishi’s message worldwide, plus supply electricity to the entire region.
Reality check: Alexis was a TV repairman.
Alexis arrived in Rishikesh near the end of March. No one ever saw him meditating — quite the opposite. Alexis told Charlie Lutes his real intention was to get The Beatles away from Maharishi.
Alexis described the ashram students as “second-rate American actresses … mentally ill old ladies, and a bunch of lost, pretty girls.” Yet, he had no compunction about practicing the “Kama Sutra” with one — a shorthaired blond schoolteacher from Brooklyn, Rosalyn Bonas.
Through the thin walls, Mike Dolan, Rosalyn’s next-door neighbor, overheard Alexis and Rosalyn nightly in flagrante delicto. Whiffs of a distinct herb wafted from her room, and bottles of fermented brews came and went. Brahmacharya Rhaghvendra informed Mike that Rosalyn would be expelled from the ashram.
Alexis and Rosalyn started spreading rumors that Maharishi had made sexual advances toward Rosalyn. Alexis claimed he hid in the undergrowth and spied Maharishi in his bungalow trying to hug Rosalyn (both fully clothed).
Whether Alexis actually saw the purported “hug” is immaterial. What is real — Rosalyn reported to Alexis, Cynthia, Pattie and Tom Simcox (a Hollywood actor) that Maharishi made a pass at her. Her accusation exacerbated John and George’s disillusionment about Maharishi’s exploitation of them — a wound still fresh.
Hypersensitive and suggestible after two months of constant meditation, the two Beatles and their wives stayed up all night debating the allegation. Alexis warned that the evil Maharishi might hex them with black magic and said they should leave immediately. Finally, George and John started to believe the rumor.
Early morning April 10, Alan Waite and Paul Horn were with Maharishi in his bungalow. When John and George showed up, Maharishi took them into his bedroom. Twenty minutes later, the Beatles announced they were leaving. No one knew what happened during that meeting other than John, George and Maharishi. Alexis claimed he was in the room, but he wasn’t.
John Lennon returned to his bungalow, ripped up his poster of Maharishi, and tossed it, face down, onto the cement floor. Alexis scrambled to find taxis to speed the group to the airport, before anyone changed their mind. As the taxis were loading, the shaken, weeping wives pleaded with John and George to reconsider.
Alexis got what he wanted — his Beatles back, and a job at Apple Corps. And Rosalyn left the ashram one day after she became disillusioned with her guru.
However, in September 1991, in Maharishi’s presence in Vlodrop, Holland, George Harrison revealed to Deepak Chopra the real story. Here’s what Deepak reported to The Times of India on Feb. 15, 2006:
“The Beatles, along with their entourage, were doing drugs, taking LSD, at Maharishi’s ashram, and he lost his temper with them. He asked them to leave, and they did in a huff.” Deepak said Maharishi never encountered anything like that before, and he strongly opposed it.
George told Deepak that, when he revealed this story, he felt a huge karmic weight had lifted, because he didn’t want to lie.
— Susan Shumsky