On this day in 1968, George Harrison and John Lennon, along with their wives, flew to Rishikesh, India, to study transcendental meditation (TM) with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr would join them later. The trip would end on a sour note (more on that later), but the group’s time there fueled a newfound creativity that would result in their epic 1968 self-titled album, commonly referred to as The White Album.
The band’s association with the Maharishi began in 1967. Harrison’s then-wife, Pattie Boyd, was seeking more spirituality in her life, and, responding to a newspaper ad, signed up for classes in TM. Husband George would later attend classes with her. In August of that year, the Harrisons, along with the rest of the group, attended a Maharishi lecture in London. In Boyd’s words (from her 2007 memoir Wonderful Tonight), they were “spellbound”. The entire group would later attend a 10 day conference in Bangor, Wales, hosted by the Maharishi (the band’s trip to Wales was cut short by the news that their manager, Brian Epstein, had died unexpectedly). The Maharishi then invited the group to his ashram in Rishikesh, where he held a course for people interested in becoming instructors of TM.
The ashram, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, turned out to be the perfect antidote to the group’s world-weariness. But for the people already in attendance at the compound, the appearance of the most famous rock group in the world was an unwelcome distraction. Among those in attendance were actress Mia Farrow and her siblings John and Prudence.
Mia was at the ashram to heal from her break-up with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra, who insisted Mia give up her acting career, served her divorce papers – without warning – while she was completing work on the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby. Farrow’s sister Prudence, however, was there to become a TM instructor. Though only 19 years old at the time, Prudence had already been practicing TM for a few years. She took her studies with the Maharishi seriously, and devoted all her time to them. While The Beatles and their entourage spent their evenings playing music on their guitars and sitars, Prudence would go back to her room for more meditation. Prudence’s fierce dedication to her studies – to the detriment of just about everything else – inspired John Lennon to write “Dear Prudence”, a highlight of The White Album and one of my personal favorite songs.
Mia’s experience at the ashram would also inspire a White Album song, albeit a much darker one. On April 12, after about eight weeks in Rishikesh, Harrison and Lennon abruptly departed, leaving the Maharishi mystified by their change of heart. When he asked them why they were leaving, Lennon supposedly said, “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.” Accounts vary, but legend has it that Lennon and Harrison were informed of the Maharishi’s inappropriate behavior with two of his female students. One of those students was Mia. The Maharishi denied the allegations, of course, and it’s unclear exactly what happened. Some accounts say he made “unwelcome sexual advances”; others use the word “grope”. Farrow, for her part, has stated that the Maharishi put his arms around her, making her uncomfortable, but he may not have intended the embrace to be sexual. Either way, the allegations were deeply upsetting to Lennon, and he was spurred to write the lyrics “Maharishi/What have you done?/You made a fool of everyone”. Harrison implored Lennon not to name check the Yogi, and “Maharishi” was changed to “Sexy Sadie”.
Regardless of the way the trip ended, there is no doubt that the Beatles’ time at the ashram produced a creative spark in the band members. Though the band was coming off the success of the critical and commercial smash Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they found themselves out of sync, burdened by their fortune and fame. Their dedication to the principles of TM weren’t the only influence on the White Album, though; they also picked up some new techniques from their friend and musical mentor Donovan. Donovan taught John Lennon a finger-picking technique he’d been perfecting; Lennon would use this technique on “Sexy Sadie” as well as “Julia”, another White Album standout. Additionally, Donovan taught George Harrison some descending chord progressions he’d been working on; Harrison would incorporate these chord progressions into one of the White Album’s best songs, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. (Those same chord progressions would make an appearance in Donovan’s own “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, also written at the ashram)
The White Album is far from perfect. Some of the songs that made it on the album are head-scratchingly bizarre, and the less said about “Revolution 9”, the better. But for every “Rocky Raccoon”, there’s a “Blackbird”; for every “Wild Honey Pie”, an “I Will”. And the group’s time in Rishikesh profoundly influenced this flawed masterpiece.