The Beatles in Rishikesh – Me Too
In 1968 the Beatles came to Rishikesh in India to live in an ashram, learn meditation and get enlightened by their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the “giggling guru”. He was the inventor of a Meditation technique, which was and is incredibly popular with Westerners. Maharishi was also an excellent business-man and when he died in 2008, he left billions of dollars and millions of followers behind. He was criticised by many, including the Beatles themselves and his fellow gurus for being too focused on money and for not sharing his wisdom purely for the sake of doing good.
The Beatles were smitten by this man who taught them meditation at a time when their lives were hectic, somewhat crazy and the drugs had started to be a problem for them. Maharishi promised world peace and yogic flying through his meditation technique. As we know, neither has been achieved so far, yet the Beatles were ready, even desperate to believe him.
Mind you, it seems the Beatles had a thing for believing the unbelievable. There was this guy they called Magic Alex, the “Greek Wizard”. The Beatles believed him to deliver the most incredible futuristic inventions. It would appear that this Alex guy had promised them a new type of paint that could make anything invisible, or a car that would change colour when you flicked a switch. He was also working on some wallpaper speakers, which would actually be a part of the wallpaper. The Beatles loved it and told him many times “if you could do that, we’d like one”. They invested a great deal of money in Magic Alex and even commissioned him to create an “artificial sun” which would light up the night-time sky. When the time came for Alex to produce his artificial sun, he claimed that there was not a strong enough energy supply to power it. Never mind.
When it comes to the yogi though, the Beatles were not the only ones to believe. He had many famous people amongst his millions of followers. Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, the Beach Boys and even Vidal Sassoon are said to have studied with the Maharishi. Some of them met their guru outside of India, but the Beatles went for the all-inclusive enlightenment tour to the holy “Valley of the Saints” in Rishikesh, where Maharishi’s ashram was situated.
I have been to Rishikesh in India myself, and I did stay in an ashram. I only lasted for a day though. The rooms were bare, which I could deal with. Yet the atmosphere felt more like that of a prison than a place of spirituality. Silence was imposed for most of the day and even during the speaking hours, people would only whisper. No one ever laughed or made a joke. There was an air of repression everywhere around. Meal times and curfew were strict and ridiculously early. Who wants to eat dinner at 6pm and be locked up in their cells by nine? Smoking was of course prohibited, so was alcohol and meat. Food consisted mainly of light-coloured dhal with dark-coloured dhal and was served on a large metal tray. After each meal, I was required to rinse the tray and take it back to my bedroom. At five thirty in the morning, a bell would ring and the prisoners, sorry spiritualists, came out of their rooms rubbing their sleepy eyes whilst carrying their metal trays to the kitchen for another fill of dhal.
The Beatles had it much better than that. Although ashrams are meant to be simple – you could call it primitive – the one that the Beatles visited was of a different standard. Theirs was designed with Westerners in mind – rich Westerners. It was described as luxurious, but also as seedy. Even in 1968, their rooms had electric heaters, running water, toilets, and European-style furniture. Their meals were cooked by an English chef. They even had an Indian tailor on the premises. He was responsible for creating those Indian-inspired multi-colored spangly outfits that the Beatles, and everyone else after them, wore from then on. The routine at their ashram was relaxed and they spent most of their time playing and composing music, that is when they were not attending group meditation meetings and private lessons with their guru. What fun did they have! It was Ringo Starr, who called their ashram a Butlins Holiday Camp.
Nowadays Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world. The yogi and his Beatles certainly helped in bringing this city, which was once only a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas, to the attention of the Western World. For Hindus, however, Rishikesh has always been a place of the highest religious importance. According to legend, Lord Rama came here to do penance for killing Ravana, a demon king and his younger brother Lakshmana is said to have crossed the river Ganges at exactly the point where the famous ‘Lakshman Jhula’ bridge stands today. Hindus still come to Rishikesh for worship, but the majority of visitors now are Westerners looking for enlightenment, a yoga holiday or just to have a look at what it’s all about.
When I came to Rishikesh, I was deeply disappointed. I blame the guide books, which made it sound as if there was peacefulness to be found, a calm environment that is conducive to meditation, the sound of chimes echoing through the valley at sunset. I believe that this is what it once was, a quiet little village by the river, with monks and spiritualists wandering the narrow streets in search of true happiness and enlightenment. I wonder if it was like that when the Beatles were there. It certainly is not like that now.
The modern-day town of Rishikesh is a big, bustling, noisy and pretty dirty city that spreads out over several miles. After forty years of international tourism, there are now masses of guest-houses, hotels, yoga centers and ashrams. Money has been made and reinvested in building more guest houses, ashrams, tacky shops and mainstream restaurants. They still don’t serve any alcohol within the radius of 25 kilometers, as I was told, but apart from that, there is nothing that you can’t get over here. It is impossible to get away from the deafening sound of motor-bikes beeping their horns constantly and without any obvious reason, intermingled with the engine sound of large trucks going up and down the hills to deliver building materials for yet more guest houses, ashrams… you know, the lot.
Meditation and Rishikesh now seems a strange combination, as it is impossible to find a quiet spot in this bustling metropolis. I did not find peace, or enlightenment, or even just a decent yoga class. On day two I left the town in a hurry. Much similar to the Beatles, who stayed a little longer but all left before their scheduled departure dates. Ringo and Paul left after two weeks because they didn’t like food – I don’t blame them. Harrison and Lennon stayed a bit longer and had a good time, but after a few weeks they had a major falling out with the Maharishi.
By now, the Maharishi’s business sense was perceived as greed and calculation. John in particular started to criticise the Maharishi’s money and fame orientated behaviour. When on top of that the rumour spread that the supposedly celibate guru had tried it on with the ladies of the group, the last remaining Beatles turned their back on Rishikesh, the ashram and the yogi. The Maharishi later claimed that it had been his wish to see the group go 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 had been looking for something to stabilize them, to help them come off LSD and to reignite their creativity. Indeed the period in Rishikesh was one of the Beatles’ most creative and in just a few weeks, they composed nearly 48 songs, many of which appeared on their White Album. John Lennon got his revenge by creating a song, with the accusing, angry lyrics “What have you done? You made a fool of everyone.” He called the song Maharishi, but later changed the title.
I was glad to have come to such an important place in religion and modern history. Frankly though: Rishikesh, India did not do it for me.