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The Beatles in Rishikesh – Me Too
In 1968, the Beatles lived in an ashram in Rishikesh, India, where they studied meditation and sought enlightenment from guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or “The Laughing Guru.” He was the inventor of meditation techniques and was very popular among Westerners. The Maharishi was also a very good businessman and when he died in 2008, he left billions of dollars and millions of followers. He was criticized by the Beatles and other teachers for being too focused on money and not sharing his wisdom for good.
The Beatles were fascinated by this man who taught them meditation at a time when their lives were very busy, somewhat crazy, and drugs were becoming a problem for them. Maharishi promised that world peace and yoga would fly through his meditation techniques. As far as we know, neither has been achieved so far, but the Beatles were willing to believe him.
Apparently the Beatles liked to believe in the unbelievable. There was a guy they called Magic Alex, who they called “The Greek Wizard”. The Beatles believed that he produced some of the most brilliant futuristic works. Apparently this Alex guy promised them a new type of paint that could turn anything invisible, or a machine that changed color at the flick of a switch. He also worked on the wallpaper speakers as part of the wallpaper. The Beatles loved it and told him many times, “If you can do it, we want to do it.” They invested heavily in Magic Alex and commissioned him to create an “artificial sun” that would light up the night sky. Alex claims that when it comes time to manufacture his artificial sun, there is no power source strong enough to power it. Forget it.
The Beatles weren’t the only believers when it came to yoga. Among his millions of followers were many famous people. Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, the Beach Boys and even Vidal Sassoon are said to have studied with the Maharishi. Some of them met their gurus outside of India, but the Beatles went on an all-inclusive journey of enlightenment to the sacred “Valley of the Saints” in Rishikesh, home of the Maharishi’s ashram.
I myself went to Rishikesh, India and stayed in an ashram. However, I only lasted one day. The rooms were bare so I could deal with that. However, the atmosphere felt more like a prison than a place of spirituality. Silence was imposed for most of the day, and people would only whisper during speeches. No one laughed or joked. There was an atmosphere of repression everywhere. Meal times and curfews were strict and ridiculously early. Who wants to eat dinner at 6pm and be locked in their room by 9pm? Smoking, of course, was forbidden, as was alcohol and meat. The food consisted mainly of light and dark colored dal and was served on a large metal tray. After every meal, I was required to rinse the tray and carry it to the bedroom. At five-thirty in the morning, the bell rang, and the prisoners came out of their rooms, said goodbye to the spirits, rubbed their sleepy eyes, and brought iron trays to the kitchen to be refilled in the kitchen.
The Beatles were much better than that. Although ashrams are supposed to be simple – you could call them primitive – the one visited by the Beatles was of a different standard. They were created with the Westerners in mind, the Western rich. It is described as luxurious, but also grainy. Even in 1968, their rooms had electric heaters, clean water, toilets, and European-style furniture. Their food was prepared by an English chef. They even had an Indian tailor in their apartment. He was responsible for the many colorful Indian-inspired outfits worn by the Beatles and everyone since then. Their daily routine at the ashram was quiet, and they spent most of their time playing and composing music, meaning they did not attend group meditation sessions or private lessons with their guru. What fun they had! It was Ringo Starr who named their ashram the Butlins retreat.
Rishikesh is now known as the yoga capital of the world. Yogis and his Beatles certainly helped bring this town, once a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas, to the attention of the Western world. For Hindus, however, Rishikesh has always been the most important religious site. According to legend, Lord Rama came here to do penance for killing the demon king Ravana and his brother Lakshmana and crossed the Ganges at the very spot of today’s famous Lakshman Jhula Bridge. Hindus still come to Rishikesh for pilgrimage, but now the majority of visitors are Westerners seeking enlightenment, a yoga retreat, or whatever.
I was disappointed when I arrived in Rishikesh. I blame the guide for the peaceful, meditative setting and the sound of the bells ringing through the valley at sunset. I believe it was a quiet little riverside village with monks and religious figures wandering the narrow streets in search of true happiness and enlightenment. I wonder if that was the case with the Beatles. Certainly not now.
The modern city of Rishikesh is a large, crowded, noisy and quite dirty city spread over several miles. After forty years of international tourism, there are now numerous hotels, guesthouses, yoga centers and ashrams. Money was made and reinvested to build more guesthouses, ashrams, tacky shops and casual restaurants. As I was told, they don’t serve alcohol within a 25km radius, but other than that, there’s nothing you can’t reach here. You can’t get away from the deafening sound of motorbikes constantly honking their horns for no apparent reason, mixed with the engine noise of big trucks going up and down the mountain to deliver building materials to yet more guesthouses and ashrams. .. you know, a lot.
Meditation and Rishikesh now seem like a strange combination as it is impossible to find a quiet place in this bustling city. I couldn’t find peace, enlightenment, or even just a decent yoga class. On the second day, I hurried out of town. Very much like the Beatles, who stayed a little longer but all left before their scheduled departure time. Ringo and Paul quit after two weeks because they didn’t like the food – I don’t blame them. Harrison and Lennon stayed a little longer and had a good time, but after a few weeks they fell out with the Maharishi.
By now, Maharishi’s business sense was perceived as greedy and calculating. In particular, John began to criticize the Maharishi’s behavior toward money and fame. Plus, the last remaining Beatles turned their backs on Rishikesh, the ashrams, and the yogis when rumors spread that the unmarried guru had tried it on with the band’s ladies. The Maharishi later claimed that he wanted to leave the group because he had caught them using drugs, which was against the ashram’s rules.
1968 went down in history as The Beatles’ Indian Summer. They were looking for something to stabilize them, get them off the LSD, and get them creative. In fact, the Rishikesh period was one of the Beatles’ most creative, and in just a few weeks they composed around 48 songs, most of which appeared on their White Album. John Lennon retaliated by writing a song with an angry, accusatory lyric: “What have you done? You’ve made a fool of everybody.” He named the song Maharishi, but later changed the name.
I was happy to come to such an important place in religion and modern history. Honestly: Rishikesh, India just didn’t do it for me.
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