By August 1967, The Beatles had completed their countercultural transformation from mop-top teenyboppers to legitimate boundary-pushing artistes. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band pushed rock music into the realm of high art. Marijuana had entered the picture, influencing their 1965 album Rubber Soul, as had LSD, which informed their 1966 record Revolver. However, the group members – specifically John Lennon and George Harrison – began seeking ways to higher consciousness that didn’t involve drugs.
Harrison had been enthralled with Indian culture ever since discovering a sitar played by a makeshift group of musicians on the set of their film Help!. Harrison’s lessons under sitar master Ravi Shankar acted as a bridge to a wider involvement of Indian religion and philosophy. Harrison and his wife, Patti Boyd, visited India in 1966, and upon their return, the duo began attending meetings at the Spiritual Regeneration Movement’s outpost in London, an organisation that introduced a new technique called Transcendental Meditation.
Before embracing the technique, Harrison explored one more possibility for enlightenment. He had heard of the Haight-Asbury scene in San Francisco that was populated with poets, performers, filmmakers, and bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. From there, he felt compelled to visit the area during early August 1967, the famed Summer of Love. What he found was less than impressive: there were intellectuals and boundary-pushers, but also drug addicts, dropouts, Hell’s Angels, and a wide array of homeless individuals. The scene and its inhabitants gave Harrison a new perspective on the use, and misuse, of LSD, and he decided to quit taking the drug.
Upon his return to England, Harrison shared his impressions with Lennon, and the two decided to attend a lecture given by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, at the London Hilton on August 24. The Maharishi was known to two close contacts in The Beatles circle of friends, sculptor David Wynne and electronic inventor ‘Magic Alex’ Mardas. Although they were less convinced, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr agreed to give the movement a shot as well, partially out of genuine interest in enlightenment and partly in the spirit of group cohesion.
Starr ended up not going to the lecture because of the birth of his son Jason. The Beatles were in the front row when the Maharishi announced his intention to retire, subsequently inviting the crowd to a ten-day retreat in Bangor, Wales, that was seen as his final stop before permanently returning to India. Despite his initial misgivings, McCartney wound up being convinced of TM’s power, telling David Lynch four decades later: “It was great. We all went into a room one by one, while Maharishi was there.” McCartney was given a mantra, and he has practised TM ever since. “The whole meditation experience was very good and I still use the mantra. I find it soothing,” he commented.
Each member of The Beatles, now with Ringo in tow, took a train down to the retreat in Bangor, with their wives and friends, including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, and Harrison’s sister in law Jenny Boyd, coming along as well. The trip itself was notable for the band’s renouncement of illicit drugs (Lennon would descend into heroin addiction during The White Album sessions in 1968, and McCartney’s marijuana use would continue for the next four decades) and their dedication to the Maharishi’s teachings. Their participation in the retreat was cut short by tragedy: their manager, Brian Epstein, had died on August 27, at the age of 32.
With Epstein leaving a gap in the band’s organisation, McCartney assumed nominal managerial duties and insisted the group hold off visiting the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh to continue deals within their various Apple companies, including the recording and filming of Magical Mystery Tour. The band decided to set aside time in early 1968 to visit the ashram, and from late February until early April, the members trekked down to India to fully embrace the Maharishi’s teachings.
The Beatles’ time in India was short. Although the group were inspired by the setting and lectures to write a large number of new songs that would eventually find their way onto The White Album and various other releases, the band grew disillusioned with the dedication required. Starr left after only ten days, while McCartney never fully committed to the program and left once business concerns needed attending to. Harrison was fully dedicated to the Maharishi’s teachings, while Lennon saw it as the best available path to spiritual enlightenment. However, the two abruptly left when a rumour began to spread, accusing the Maharishi of inappropriate contact with some of the participants.
The effects that the Maharishi and TM have had on The Beatles varied. Lennon largely renounced the practice and took a greater interest in peace advocacy. Harrison felt regret for the way the band severed their ties with the Maharishi, and upon his conversion to Hinduism, he incorporated many of the teachings and philosophies into his own belief system. Both McCartney and Starr, despite their dislike of the formalities involved in the Maharishi’s program, continue to practice and advocate Transcendental Meditation to this day—and it all started in the ballroom of a swanky London hotel.