It was "lousy" and "delicious"– a "mistake" and a "uniquely calm and creative oasis". For The Beatles, the world's most famous, successful and influential pop group, it was the beginning of the end.
At the end of April 1968, 50 years ago, George Harrison landed in England after 10 weeks studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, northern India. With the Vietnam War escalating and student protests threatening to break out across the US and Europe, the Fab Four withdrew from the fray to study transcendental meditation.
The Beatles were changed by it, for good and bad, and so too was the world, albeit in quieter, smaller ways. The group's sojourn in the Himalayas was a pivotal moment in the relations between Eastern and Western hemispheres and laid a blueprint for the modern mass-media event.
What happened at the ashram?
What exactly happened at the Maharishi's ashram has been a topic of conjecture and controversy for half a century. Many eyewitnesses maintain it was a period of much-needed harmony. Personal rifts were healed, not just within the band, but with long-suffering wives. Cynthia Lennon would later write of her desire to "rediscover lost closeness" with her husband, John. Other students included folk singer Donovan, actress Mia Farrow and The Beach Boys' Mike Love.
It was a time of artistic productivity: many of the songs on the classic White Album, released in November that year, were written in India.
"There were no fans, no press, no rushing around with busy schedules," wrote photographer Paul Saltzman of life at the ashram. "And in this freedom[…] they created more great music than in any similar period in their illustrious careers."
Nevertheless, the Fab Four's return to England told its own story. Each Beatle arrived alone and in pursuit of distinct goals. Drummer Ringo Starr departed after only two weeks, complaining of everything from the food to the accommodation: "A kind of spiritual Butlin's," he said, comparing the ashram to Britain's cut-price holiday camps. Paul McCartney lasted almost a month, but in March was unable to resist the call of the band's new business, Apple Corps.
Only Lennon and Harrison made it into April. By that stage, the "calm and creative oasis" had been destroyed by ugly rumours concerning the Maharishi's sexual misdemeanours and financial greed. Lennon left as quickly as a fleet of broken-down taxis would allow. Harrison followed, but loitered with Ravi Shankar in Madras, unwilling to return to material concerns and unable to let go of India.
What's it all for?
Not one Beatle remained until the planned departure date of April 25. This fractured homecoming foreshadowed bickering, arguments and separations to come, and contrasted sharply with the idealistic first intentions. These were nothing less than to find the meaning of life – "the answer" as Lennon put it – or at least the meaning in life as a Beatle. "We'd been The Beatles, which was marvellous," McCartney later said. "But there was a feeling of: 'It's great to be famous, it's great to be rich – but what's it all for?'"
No Beatle asked this question more loudly than Harrison, the first to tire of Beatlemania. In 1967, Harrison's wife Patti spotted an advert for the Maharishi's "Spiritual Regeneration Movement".
How did it begin?
Soon The Fab Four were all attending lectures and travelling (with Mick Jagger in tow) to Bangor, North Wales, for more immersive study.
This inner soul-searching reflected a series of external crises. The death in August 1967 of the band's manager Brian Epstein, which the group learnt of while in Wales, ushered in a period of melancholic uncertainty, whose first expression was the much-derided Magical Mystery Tour film and record.
The rudimentary regime of the ashram promised clarity and spiritual refreshment. "Basically it was just eating, sleeping and meditating – with the occasional little lecture from Maharishi thrown in," McCartney recalled. It was too rudimentary for Starr. He hated the constant flies. "For people travelling in the realm of pure consciousness, flies no longer matter very much," the Maharishi advised. "Yes, but that doesn't zap the flies, does it?" Starr replied.
All four Beatles would speak glowingly about meditation
, and the refuge from the pressures and temptations of swinging London
did have unmistakably positive creative effects.
"Songwriting came easy," Donovan wrote in his autobiography. By the time Lennon, McCartney and Harrison reconvened in May 1968 to demo songs written in India, they had almost 30 to draw from. Lennon was particularly inspired, composing 14 to McCartney's seven. Even Starr finished one: Don't Pass Me By, which he had allegedly been working on since 1963.
Many of the songs documented life on the ashram, whose low-tech atmosphere demanded the use of acoustic guitars. Lennon and McCartney learnt fingerpicking techniques from Donovan that can be heard on White Album masterpieces like Julia and Dear Prudence. The latter song was named after Farrow's sister, who was said to have meditated so intensely that she refused to venture from her hut.
The unsettling finale of The Beatles stay inspired an early version of Lennon's Sexy Sadie, originally entitled Maharishi: "Maharishi, what have you done? You made a fool of everyone." The answer is contained in murky rumours that the Maharishi had made unwanted advances on one of The Beatles' group. Both McCartney and Harrison would later dispute the accusations; in 1968, the furore prompted the final Beatles to leave on April 12. When the Maharishi asked why, Lennon spat back: "If you're so cosmic, you'll know why."
If The Beatles were disillusioned by this fall from grace, their disenchantment proved complex.
At the initial recording sessions in May, Lennon would sing the Maharishi-inspired Child of Nature with genuine conviction.
It was Lennon who seems most altered by the retreat. Shortly after Harrison’s return, he had called a band meeting to announce he was Jesus – though whether this was a sign of religious devotion or deluded egomania is hard to say. On the plane journey back from India, he confessed his many infidelities to Cynthia. In London, he began his relationship with Yoko Ono; the rest, as they say,
The other band members seemed largely unchanged. McCartney, and to a lesser degree Starr, treated India as merely another interesting Beatles jaunt. Harrison, already a true believer in transcendental meditation, remained one despite the Maharishi's alleged transgressions.
As a collective, The Beatles were never so close again. By the time they began recording the songs written in Rishikesh, they were working almost as distinct, self-centred solo artists.
How did it end?
Each had a studio to themselves at Abbey Road, in part to complete the vast backlog of songs, but also through growing suspicion and isolation. "The Beatles' Rishikesh experience cleared their heads and regenerated their energies," Ian MacDonald wrote in his Beatles study Revolution in the Head. "Unfortunately, once back in the familiarity of London, they soon returned to their old regime."
This haphazard arrangement occasionally struck gold: furious with McCartney's Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Lennon bashed out a ska piano introduction and transformed the song. More often, the mood was fractious. Ironically, the breaking point seems to have been McCartney's bucolic Mother Nature's Son: Starr walked out two days later.
The Beatles’ genius always negotiated a precarious balance between craft and spontaneity, art and commerce, rivalry and collaboration.
India was the final flare of this as a positive unifying force. After their retreat – from the economic, material and political demands of the western world – the Beatles began to disintegrate. It was, as Lennon recalled grimly, a “slow death”.