In 1968, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement, invited The Beatles to visit his ashram in Rishikesh, India. The group had already heard the guru speak at an event in London and left mesmerized. So, they welcomed the three-month retreat.
When The Beatles arrived, they ate, meditated, slept, and occasionally listened to Maharishi speak, day after day. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney didn’t dive deep into their mediations like George Harrison and John Lennon, who experienced strange things.
The Beatles wrote tons of songs while in India
Going to India was one of The Beatles’ smartest decisions. It proved to be a blessing after years of non-stop touring in the chaotic Beatlemania. It provided a quiet reprieve and gave the group the chance to write tons of songs. They wrote 48 tunes, most of which ended up on The White Album later that year.
Life on the camp wasn’t too eventful, so when The Beatles weren’t meditating or trying to meditate, they wrote as much as possible.
“The weeks the Beatles spent at the ashram,” photographer Paul Saltzman, who attended the retreat too, later wrote (per Rolling Stone), “were a uniquely calm and creative oasis for them: meditation, vegetarian food and the gentle beauty of the foothills of the Himalayas.
“There were no fans, no press, no rushing around with busy schedules, and in this freedom, in this single capsule of time, they created more great music than in any similar period in their illustrious careers.”
“Songwriting came easy,” Donovan wrote in The Autobiography of Donovan. “Paul Mac never had a guitar out of his hand. He let us all get a few songs in though, and you can hear the results on the records that followed, the Beatles’ White Album, and my own The Hurdy Gurdy Man.”
The Beatles and the other celebrities who came to the retreat weren’t exactly living like monks in little huts with virtually no luxuries. A woman named Nancy Cooke de Herrera supervised the preparation of the Beatles’ quarters before they arrived. They added beds, curtains, mirrors, and toilet fixtures. John’s bedroom even had a four-poster bed and a fireplace.
It’s a good thing John’s room was well equipped.
The Beatles meditated heavily in India, but John Lennon took it a bit far
George and John were the most dedicated in their meditation while at the ashram. Although, John might have taken it too far.
In The Beatles Anthology, John said, “I was in a room for five days meditating. I wrote hundreds of songs. I couldn’t sleep and I was hallucinating like crazy, having dreams where you could smell. I’d do a few hours and you’d trip off, three- or four-hour stretches. It was just a way of getting there, and you could go on amazing trips.”
In Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, John’s first wife, Cynthia Lennon, said that John cared a lot about mediation. She added, “John and George were [finally] in their element [at the ashram]. They threw themselves totally into the Maharishi’s teachings, were happy, relaxed and above all found a piece of mind that had been denied them for so long.”
George said meditation was his way of connecting with God, although he found other ways later. He didn’t even want to talk about the next Beatles record.
However much George and John loved the retreat, they left unexpectedly. “Magic” Alex Mardas spread a rumor that Maharishi had acted inappropriately with females in the camp. John was so upset and felt the guru had tried to fool them. He confronted him, wrote a song about it (“Sexy Sadie”), and took George and Cynthia back to England.
Ringo Starr had trouble
The Beatles’ drummer said he had a great time in India, but he didn’t meditate as much as John. He didn’t adjust well to the food either.
“Because he was allergic, he brought cans of Heinz baked beans with him for the trip,” Rolling Stone wrote. “The Beatles drummer also remembered food preparers at the ashram offering him eggs, which were not allowed.
“Then I saw them burying the shells,” Ringo said in The Beatles Anthology. “That was the first of several incidents that made me think that it was not what I thought it would be.”
Ringo and his wife, Maureen, also didn’t appreciate the area’s insects. “You’d have to fight off the scorpions and tarantulas in a bath,” he said. “Then you’d get out of the bath, get dry and get out of the room because all the insects came back in.”
The Starrs decided to leave after 10 days because they missed their children. Paul followed with his girlfriend Jane Asher a few weeks later. “Paul simply wasn’t getting it,” Peter Brown wrote in The Love You Make. “The mock seriousness of the Maharishi and the tediousness of the meditation were too much like school for him.”
With the accusations against Maharishi, George and John soon followed. However, all of The Beatles reflected positively on their stay in India. It gave them a memorable experience and they learned about meditation and new cultures. Plus, it gave them a burst of creativity and helped reinvigorate them as a band.