Emmisary of India’s Spiritual Culture
The people of India have a tremendous spiritual strength, which I don’t think is found elsewhere. The spirit of the people, the beauty, the goodness—that’s what I’ve been trying to learn about.
—George Harrison, 1966
From 1966, when he first heard an album of Ravi Shankar playing ragas, to his death from cancer thirty-five years later at age fifty-eight, George Harrison was a lover of India and an advocate of India’s Vedic (devotional) culture.
As a fellow student of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder-acharya (teacher-by-example) of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, it always astonished me to see how this world-renowned artist distanced himself from stardom to better cultivate his inner self. How many celebrities have ever done that? His dedication meant even more since he wasn’t just any celebrity. He was a Beatle. In the 1960s, my generation viewed the Beatles not just as the most successful pop group in history but as Western sadhus, wise souls in tune with deeper secrets of the universe. George first visited India in 1966, and within a few years he became a dedicated mantra chanter, vegetarian, and spokesperson for bhakti or devotional practices. If these disciplines were okay with him, a generation of young people around the globe was inclined to at least give it a try.
In those days, the impression most Americans had of Hinduism derived from books distorted by British missionary prejudice. By publicly declaring his commitment to yoga, meditation, karma, dharma, reincarnation, and other concepts identified with India, George helped reverse nearly three hundred years of anti-Hindu ignorance and bias. Even most impressive was the depth of his commitment, for which he was prepared to risk his career and his credibility. On one occasion in 1970, when George visited the Radha Krishna Temple in London where I was studying, he told us that his worldly success, first as a Beatle and then in his phenomenal solo career, proved to him there was some greater magic out there. Success, he said, had given him the freedom and the courage to seek it out. That freedom, he said, was a privilege given to him after millions of births and deaths in the material world and he felt a responsibility to engage what God had given him wisely, for the benefit of others.
“If I don’t use this opportunity,” he told us, “then I’ve wasted my life, haven’t I?”
As a boy, George had been an indifferent student, but once he discovered spiritual India he was rarely without a book in his hands. Among his favorites were Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s Science of Self-Realization. What these books revealed about Indic spiritual wisdom amazed him. Unlike institutional religions that barely tolerate one another, here was a worldview that encompassed everyone and everything. All living beings are eternal souls, part and parcel of God, the texts declared. Our job is to manifest that divinity. This, the Hindu tradition said, is sanatana-dharma, the eternal religion, which dwells in all beings. “Through Hinduism I feel a better person,” he told a reporter. “I just get happier and happier.”
The other Beatles, John, Paul, and Ringo, were his closest friends, and in 1968 he induced them to join him and his then wife, model Patty Boyd, on a retreat to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh. The group arrived in Delhi at three o’clock one morning in February 1968, and by noon their hired cars were weaving down Rishikesh’s dusty streets crowded with cows and bullock carts. They got out and climbed a path leading to a bluff above the river’s eastern bank. Before them, stone huts and wooden bungalows mushroomed out from groves of teak and guava trees. Looking out over the bluff, the group traced the Ganges River flowing from a source high in the mountains.
The Beatles’ days in Rishikesh consisted of a casual breakfast, morning meditation classes until lunch, leisure time in the afternoons, and sometimes as many as three more hours of meditation in the evenings. George and his friends found their creative energies heightened in the peaceful atmosphere of the retreat: in Rishikesh, the Beatles composed more than forty songs. Many were recorded on the White Album, and others would appear on their final LP Abbey Road. Still, George encouraged his friends to make best use of their time in India, not by writing songs but by practicing yoga and meditation. This is a land of yogis and saints, he reminded them, and people hundreds of years old. “There’s one somewhere around,” he said, “who was born before Christ—and is still living now” and then went looking, climbing paths that snaked high into the mountains.
George’s commitment to communing with these mystic beings impressed the other Beatles. “The way George is going,” John said with admiration, “he’ll be flying a magic carpet by the time he’s forty.”
On return to London, George met Krishna devotees who had come to open a temple. George identified with the young Americans, people his own age who had rejected materialism for higher ground. In their company, George began to chant the Hare Krishna mantra daily and to read the Bhagavad-gita.
George held India’s sacred texts in high regard, but his realizations were experiential rather than academic. In his post Beatles songs, he only occasionally referred to philosophical terms and preferred writing simple, sing-along lyrics. In “Living In The Material World” (1973), for instance, his declared “Senses never gratified/Only swelling like a tide/That could drown me in the material world.” The lines offer a terse rendering of several verses from Gita chapter two, which describe “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops…then anger…then delusion…then bewilderment of memory…then loss of intelligence…[after which] one falls down again into the material pool.”
Inspired by the Gita’s injunction that the divine energy animating all life has no material name, George referred to himself as a “spirit soul” rather than a Hindu. Perhaps it was because of this deep respect for God’s universality that he never took formal initiation into any one tradition. “The guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) relationship is an exceptionally powerful one,” he wrote in Ravi Shankar’s autobiography Raga Mala. “In order to gain the benefits of the received wisdom of the ages, the student must yield completely to the demands of the guru in a submission of the ego [and] must accept without question what he is taught.” If he’d learned anything as a Beatle it was to question authority, and pledging himself exclusively to one teacher, it seems, was a step he never felt prepared to take.
Still, George appreciated those who had sincerely dedicated themselves to God, and as often as his busy life allowed, he spent time with his fellow chanters. On several occasions, after a day of recording, he invited us to his home in Friar Park north of London. We’d arrive at Henley-on-Thames, a quiet town thirty-six miles west of London, and George and Patty would greet us at the gates of their sprawling property with a wave and a smile. When devotees visited, George flew an Om flag from the tower of his gothic manor.
Signs of George’s devotion to yoga and meditation filled his home. Incense sweetened the air. A small altar sat on the mantle of the fireplace. Pictures of favorite teachers and paintings of deities from India’s scriptures decorated the walls: Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune; elephant-headed Ganesh; Krishna playing with his friends in the cowherd village of Vrindavan. George found Indian theology exciting and sensual, filled with meditative music, tasty food, fabulous stories of eternal worlds, and all the satisfactions a newcomer to the spiritual journey could ever hope to find.
But George’s spiritual journey was not an easy one. His wife Patty left him, in large measure because his commitment to God grew stronger than his commitment to their partnership. Fans derided him for taking his faith onstage and exhorting them to “Chant Krishna! Jesus! Buddha!” when it was rock and roll they wanted. The press was occasionally cruel in its judgment of his post Beatles music. And for a while, some bad habits from his rocker days—in particular alcohol and drugs—returned to haunt him.
Salvation from the material world can come in many forms. For George, struggling with depression after the Dark Horse debacle, it came in the form of Olivia Arias, a fellow yoga practitioner who nursed him back to health and later became his loving wife. It came in the form of their son, Dhani, a gentle, talented boy who in time became George’s closest friend.
In later years, George retreated from his pop celebrity into the life of a humble gardener. He took great pleasure in tilling the earth, in planting jasmine bushes, in freeing a magnolia tree from wild brambles, and bringing his neglected Friar Park grounds back to a state of beauty. In India, he had seen people worshiping nature. The Gita calls the earth God’s “Universal Form.” Trees are the hairs on that divine form, mountains and hills are its bones, clouds form the head, and rivers are the blood flowing through its veins. Gardening from that vantage point takes on holy dimensions, a caressing of God’s body.
Gardening, caring for his family, and meditating became the focus of his life. “The best thing anyone can give to humanity is God consciousness,” he told Mukunda Goswami, a devotee friend, in 1986. “But first you have to concentrate on your own spiritual advancement. So in a sense, we have to become selfish to become selfless.”
In April 1996, he began work on an album of traditional Indian songs and mantras with Ravi Shankar. The album was released in 1997. George considered Chants Of India one of his most important works, as it allowed listeners to “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, and listen to something that has its roots in the transcendental…beyond intellect. If you let yourself be free…it can have a positive effect.”
George never stopped making music or trying to put a spiritual message out into the world. But these callings seemed less urgent to him in his later years than they had as a young man. He once described himself as someone who had climbed to the top of the material world, then looked over to find that there was much more on the other side. There, on the other side of the material mountain, was the call of his eternal self and his relationship with the Divine. As he approach death, with his missionary years behind him, that vision became all that mattered. “Now I understand about ninety-year-old people who feel like teenagers,” he said less than a year before his death. “The soul in the body is there at birth and there at death. The only change is the bodily condition.”
George’s life started in music and ended in music. In Los Angeles, surrounded by family and friends and the chanting of God’s holy names, his soul left its body on November 29—only a few weeks after the tragedy of 9/11. For those of us who had been inspired by his example, it was impossible to avoid seeing these two events in macabre orbit around one another: the terrible consequences of turning away from the light, and the miracles that can come when we put the light of spirit at the center of our lives.
In August 1966, a reporter had asked George to describe his personal goal. “To do as well as I can do,” he replied, “whatever I attempt, and someday to die with a peaceful mind.” He was twenty-three years old when he set that goal for himself. He never gave it up.
“You know, I read a letter from him to his mother that he wrote when he was twenty-four,” his son Dhani said. “He was on tour or someplace when he wrote it. And it basically says, ‘I want to be self-realized. I want to find God. I’m not interested in material things, this world, fame—I’m going for the real goal. And I hope you don’t worry about me, mum.’ And he wrote that when he was twenty-four! And that was basically the philosophy that he had up until the day he died. He was just going for it right from an early age—the big goal.”