As an icon of the seismic cultural shift that was the 1960s, George Harrison had a lot to say about religion and spirituality. Indeed, the influence of his interest in yogic practices and Eastern spiritual philosophies even made its way into The Beatles‘ music and, by extension, popular culture.
Harrison discovered Eastern religion through his love of classical Indian music, a passion which was sparked by David Crosby and, later, by Roger McGuinn, who introduced him to the work of Ravi Shankar, the renowned sitar player who would go on to become Harrison’s mentor.
As he became a more confident player, he started adding sitar lines to The Beatles’ recordings, such as that of their 1965 hit ‘Norweigian Wood’. That same year, Harrison decided to travel once again to India, where he was set to continue his studies with Shankar. Indian society couldn’t have felt more different from the fire-and-brimstone catholicism that Harrison and his bandmate Paul McCartney had been bought up on in their native Liverpool. “The difference over here is that their religion is every second and every minute of their lives,” Harrison said of India. He clearly felt a connection to the spiritual heritage of the nation, but the same cannot be said of Christianity.
“And to go on to religion, I think religion falls flat on its face. All this ‘love thy neighbour’, but none of them are doing it,” Harrison once said during a particularly inflammatory interview. “How can anybody get themselves into the position of being Pope and accept all the glory and the money and the Mercedes-Benz and that? I could never be Pope until I’d sold my rich gates and my posh hat. I couldn’t sit there with all that money on me and believe I was religious.”
For Harrison, it was the hypocrisy of institutionalised religion, and more specifically the church, that really angered him. “That’s something I want you to get down in my article,” he told the interviewer. “Why can’t we bring all this out in the open? Why is there all this stuff about blasphemy? If Christianity’s as good as they say it is, it should stand up to a bit of discussion.”
Interestingly, however, Harrison obviously internalised some of the fundamental ideas that underpin western religion. In a separate interview, he made his distaste for teachers and other authority figures very clear, arguing: “Babies when they are born, are pure,” he said. “Gradually they get more impure with all the rubbish being pumped into them by society and television and that; till gradually they’re dying off, full of everything.”
Harrison’s idea that people are born innocent and are gradually made impure by society sounds a lot like the distinctly Christian concept of sin to me. But, for Harrison, it was not the devil drawing people into temptation, but mass culture – a culture he was an essential part of. It is these contradictions that make Harrison such an interesting and complex character, and which perhaps explain the consistent reappraisal of his own spirituality. It was as though he was always looking for something, searching for some sense of meaning in an increasingly materialistic and unfeeling world.