The year was 1968, and The Beatles found themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Having just released their eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a year prior, the Fab Four needed a different type of inspiration.
When George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, introduced the band to Transcendental Meditation, a ripple was created that would affect young people all around the world. Not only did The Beatles help bring Eastern meditation to the West, but this experience also helped the band create some of their best music to date.
From a Lord of the Rings movie pitch to stories behind their White Album, here’s the real story about The Beatles’ infamous trip to India.
It all started on a cold February morning in 1967. George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, sat at a table with one of her girlfriends discussing how she yearned for something more spiritual in her life. Pattie and George had just spent six weeks in India following The Beatles’ final concert tour in America. It was during this trip that Pattie fell in love with the Eastern way of living.
But now that she was back in England, she felt disconnected from herself and those around her. During this conversation, the two friends noticed an advertisement for Transcendental Meditation (TM) classes, a relatively new silent meditation technique. And with that, the legendary party girl ripped out the newspaper ad.
Later that spring, Pattie began attending TM classes in London. She immediately fell in love with the silent meditation technique, and, like many people who have positive results with TM, Pattie wanted to share her experience with the people she loved. So when she heard that TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was going to be speaking at the Hilton Hotel in London later that summer, she knew that she had to convince George to come with her.
In the end, all four members of the group joined her. This was at a time when The Beatles began questioning their reality. They needed something to ground them and a daily mantra meditation practice seemed like the perfect idea.
By now, The Beatles had already separated themselves from the mop-top look and sound that had skyrocketed the band to stardom. May 1967 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a defining moment in ‘60s pop culture. Not only did the album later win four Grammy awards in 1968, including Album of the Year, it was also the face of the counterculture at the time.
With songs like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Within You Without You, the band dabbled with a more experimental sound. But now, with the album completed, The Beatles were looking for more inspiration, and Maharishi was their guy. The Indian guru, who was an appealing antiestablishment figure at the time, soon became the band’s white horse.
The then 47-year-old was, by all means, the perfect antiestablishment figure. Maharishi had long, mane-like hair, and a flowing grey beard. He dressed in a simple, white robe and flip flops while he traveled to different universities around the United States and Europe. He ignited a movement among young people and the counterculture with his simple belief: you can raise your consciousness just by meditating.
When university students asked Maharishi “fearful” questions about the meaning of life or his take on current events, the guru would start to giggle. He would then reassure the students that life with blissful and simple. Maharishi believed that these outward questions overcomplicated life. Students needed to look inwards. Like many people at the time, The Beatles hopped on the bandwagon.
Even though The Beatles were at the peak of their fame, Maharishi claimed not to know who they were. Regardless, he invited the band to a 10-day summer conference in Bangor, a small city on the coast of Wales. It was during that trip that John, Paul, George, and Ringo became devotees.
Maharishi taught the band that people were not born to suffer and will not suffer if they practice TM. The Indian guru explained that if you practice this mantra-based silent meditation twice a week, you can open your consciousness and transcend your mind. Maharishi was also openly against drinking and drugs since these acts alter a person’s state of consciousness. The guru believed that meditation, and meditation alone, was enough.
Maharishi’s new-age beliefs were a stark contrast to how The Beatles lived their lives. Most of the band’s music from their most recent album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was the result of multiple psychedelic trips. As Boyd wrote in her 2007 memoir Wonderful Tonight, the band had turned to drugs and alcohol as an escape from the swarming paparazzi and fans.
This begs the question: Were The Beatles actually capable of quitting mind-altering substances? Did turning inwards through silent-meditation actually provide people with relief? Well, like with many TM followers, this 10-day seminar completely changed the way the band viewed life and their own struggles. During the seminar, the band held a press conference where they denounced the use of drugs.
During this press conference, The Beatles shocked fans around the world. Was this the end of the band’s experimental sound? Assuring the band’s fans, Paul went on to explain that the band was not going to give up exploring their minds’; they just found a new way of doing so.
“You cannot keep on taking drugs forever. You get to the stage where you are taking fifteen aspirins a day, without having a headache,” the singer-songwriter said. “We were looking for something more natural. This is it. It was an experience we went through. Now it’s over and we don’t need it anymore. We think we’re finding other ways of getting there.”
Pattie Boyd later wrote in her memoir that “Maharishi was every bit as impressive as I thought he would be, and we were spellbound.” However, while The Beatles (who were also accompanied by Rolling Stone frontman Mick Jagger and his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull) were at the conference in Wales, they received devastating news.
Their long-time manager Brian Epstein had died overnight from an accidental overdose. The band was devastated and abruptly left the conference. It was then that Maharishi invited The Beatles to his ashram in India, which was located in the northern city of Rishikesh. The guru believed this was the perfect time for the band to learn how to become TM instructors.
While most of the band was on board with this idea, Paul disagreed. According to Rolling Stone magazine, Paul believed that the band should be focusing on their careers, especially after the death of their manager and not meditating in the mountains of India. However, he was overruled.
All four of The Beatles arrived in Rishikesh in February 1968, along with their girlfriends, wives, assistants, and several reporters. There, they joined a group of 60 people training to become TM teachers, which included Scottish singer Donovan, Mike Love from the Beach Boys, and model Mia Farrow. Although The Beatles didn’t want to become teachers, the band planned to stay at the ashram for a few months in order to spend more time with Maharishi.
Life at the ashram was idyllic. The Beatles slept in partially furnished rooms and according to Rolling Stone magazine, they were awakened every day by the sound of peacocks. The property covered over 14 acres of forest, and the ashram’s six bungalows were surrounded by red hibiscus flowers and vegetable gardens. There was also a lecture hall, post office, and swimming pool on the property.
The Beatles, along with the 60 other teachers-in-training, meditated most of the day and spent their free time listening to Maharishi lecture about consciousness and reincarnation. Fun fact: Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, who was also at the ashram, was the inspiration for The Beatles’ song Dear Prudence. According to Rolling Stone magazine, the band would sing this song to her because she was always in her room meditating and wouldn’t come out.
In a 1980 interview with David Sheff, John said that there was a sort of unspoken competition at the ashram in Rishikesh, to see “who was going to get cosmic first.” Prudence took her time at the ashram seriously and was focused on her meditation practice. While many people would have been star-struck in the presence of the mega-famous Beatles, Prudence didn’t pay them much attention.
In a 2015 Rolling Stone article, Prudence, who is now a TM teacher, says that she wasn’t interested in The Beatles’ fame. She took that trip to really focus and work on herself. That said, Prudence did have a nice relationship with John and George, as they too were very dedicated to their silent meditation practice.
While life at the ashram was like a summer camp for all of its attendees, The Beatles experienced far better accommodations. American socialite Nancy Cooke de Herrera, who was in charge of The Beatles accommodations, later said in a YouTube video that the band members’ rooms were revamped before their arrival.
“The Beatles never realized what had been done when they walked into their rooms,” Nancy said. “They had mattresses on their beds. We had curtains put up, we had mirrors. We even had toilet fixtures that worked.” Nancy, who shared a room with John, said that her room was a step up from what she was used to. It had a four-poster bed, chairs, and even an electric fireplace.
In the documentary The Beatles Anthology, Paul detailed the band’s typical day at the Rishikesh ashram. “You would get up in the morning and go down to a communal breakfast,” he recalled. “The food was vegetarian and I think we probably had cornflakes for breakfast. After breakfast, you would go back to your chalet, meditate for a little while, have a bit of lunch, and then there might be a talk or a little musical event.”
“Basically, it was just eating, sleeping and meditating.” The Beach Boy’s Mike Love also recalled the trip to India as serene in his 2016 memoir, Good Vibrations. He explained that spiders, stray dogs, and even tigers occasionally roamed the property, with parrots and peacocks “wailing and crackling” at night.
At night, all of the musicians would gather together and play. According to Scottish singer Donovan’s 2005 autobiography, the peaceful atmosphere made songwriting easy for everyone. “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.”
Canadian film director Paul Saltzman was also present for part of The Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh. He recalls the band working on the White Album and vividly remembers John, Paul, and Ringo sitting on the steps of their bungalow singing “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on” over and over again.
Saltzman says that the band was working on the melody, speeding it up and slowing it down. “I noticed that, under Paul’s sandal, there was a little piece of yellow paper, with the same words written on it,” Saltzman told reporters in The Telegraph in 2018. “It was new. They hadn’t memorized the words yet. Paul looked at me and said: “That’s all there is so far – we don’t have any lyrics yet.”
John, who was the most dedicated to meditation out of the band’s members, said that he wrote hundreds of songs while at the ashram. In The Beatles Anthology, John said that his meditation practice helped him reach a new level of consciousness, which boosted his songwriting skills.
It wasn’t just The Beatles’ meditation practice that helped their songwriting skills. This was the first time that the band was able to just be themselves. There were no screaming fans, pestering paparazzi, or even fancy hotels with a stocked minibar. It was just the band and their friends meditating at the ashram.
Author Ajoy Bose wrote in his 2018 book Across the Universe that in India the band was able to just talk, think, and write. The band looked to their surroundings for inspiration and between 30 and 48 songs came out of this short trip. Fun Fact: Paul wrote the song Why Don’t We Do It in the Road after seeing two monkeys, ahem… going at it in the street.
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill was also inspired by an incident that involved the killing of a tiger at the ashram. According to Steve Turner, the author of The Complete Beatles Songs, Nancy Cooke de Herrera’s son, Richard A. Cook III, visited his mother at the ashram. After his arrival, Richard and his mother went on a tiger hunt (while riding elephants) and ended up killing a tiger.
The mother and son felt guilty about the killing so they confessed to Maharishi, while Paul and John listened on. To no one’s surprise, the guru was appalled that two of his followers could actually do something like this. This incident ended up inspiring a few lines from the song, including “He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun/In case of accidents he always took his mom.”
Many Beatles fans know that Back in the U.S.S.R. incorporated elements of Chuck Berry’s Back in the U.S.A. and the Beach Boy’s California Girls. But what you may not know is that Paul wrote the song while Mike Love was staying in the room next door. Scottish singer Donovan later said that the song was one of those “funny little ditties” that Paul would play on his guitar while walking around the ashram.
And then one morning, Mike walked up to Paul during breakfast and offered advice. “You know what you ought to do. In the bridge part, talk about the girls around Russia,” Mike wrote in his memoir Good Vibrations. “The Moscow chicks, the Ukraine girls, and all that. If it worked for ‘California Girls,’ why not for the USSR?”
Many people don’t know this, but long before director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy appeared on the silver screen, The Beatles thought about making their own version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. According to Phillip Norman’s biography of Paul McCartney, the head of Apple Films arrived at the ashram to pitch The Lord of the Rings as the band’s next project.
Since the trilogy was so long, the books were divided up among the band members. John took The Fellowship of the Ring, Paul read The Two Towers, and George was assigned The Return of the King. Peter Jackson later confirmed this story in a 2014 interview with Deadline. “John Lennon was going to play Gollum. Paul was going to play Frodo. George Harrison was going to play Gandalf, and Ringo Starr was going to play Sam,” Peter recalled.
While The Beatles seemed to be having a great time transcending their consciousness, one band member had a harder time adjusting to life in India: Ringo Starr. The drummer later recalled that the trip was not what he expected it to be. He lived off of several cans of Heinz baked beans that he had brought with him in his suitcase.
Ringo also had a difficult time with the number of insects that seemed to follow him wherever he went. “You’d have to fight off the scorpions and tarantulas in a bath,” Ringo said in The Beatles Anthology. “Then you’d get out of the bath, get dry and get out of the room because all the insects came back in.”
When Ringo complained to Maharishi about the unfavorable conditions, the Indian guru told him to dive deeper into his meditation practice. At this point, Ringo and his wife Maureen had enough. Not only did they have problems with the food and the insect infestation, but they also missed their children terribly. So, after only spending ten days at the ashram, Ringo and Maureen decided to pack up and head back home.
Following their departure, reporters around the world wondered the same thing: Was Ringo no longer interested in TM? While there were speculations that he wasn’t, Ringo was reluctant to give reporters that impression. After touching down in the UK, he told reporters that he still meditates daily and that if everyone tried it, the world would be a better place.
A few weeks after the Starrs returned to the UK, Paul and his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, also decided to leave the ashram. Paul had to go back to supervise the band’s multimedia company, Apple Corps, while Jane had previous acting commitments.
While this was the official reason given for the couple’s departure, one of Maharishi’s aides, said that Jane actually didn’t have an interest in meditation and that she just wanted to go visit the Taj Mahal. Paul later said in The Beatles Anthology that it was always his intention to go to India for just one month. The singer also added that if he wasn’t sincere about his meditation practice, the rest of his bandmates would have been upset with him.
While many people speculated that tensions were high between the Fab Four, director Paul Saltzman said that he didn’t feel any tension among the musicians. “With the four Beatles, there was no hint of discord. They were very close. They were like brothers,” Saltzman said in an interview with The Telegraph.
“They were a tight circle, and even their wives and Jane, though close, were one circle out. They were a tight group, the four of them. I realized they were like family.” Saltzman also said that the band members and their significant others were very close and in sync. Well, everyone that is except for one couple: John and Cynthia Lennon.
John and Cynthia Lennon’s marriage was already strained before the trip, mainly because of Yoko Ono’s presence in John’s life. In her book, John, Cynthia writes that she saw this trip to India as an opportunity to save their marriage. However, that’s not how it turned out.
“John was becoming increasingly cold and aloof toward me,” she said. “He would get up early and leave our room. He spoke to me very little, and after a week or two he announced that he wanted to move into a separate room to give himself more space.” Cynthia later learned that John woke up early every day to check the post office for a letter from Ono.
The Beatles’ trip to Rishikesh came to an abrupt end on April 12, 1968, when the remaining members of the band left the ashram. While there are several stories and theories about what exactly happened, they all share the same theme: Maharishi was acting inappropriately with his female students. Some say it was Mia Farrow; others say it was her sister Prudence and another American student.
Regardless of who it was exactly, John and George caught wind of the incident, and they were furious. According to the book Lennon Remembers, John said that he and George stayed up all night discussing what they had heard and questioning if they believed it. They quickly came to the decision that they did and marched down to Maharishi’s bungalow to confront the guru.
John was convinced that Maharishi, who claimed to be celibate, had a sexual encounter with one of his female students. “I said, ‘We’re leaving,’” John later recalled in The Beatles Anthology. “‘Why?’ ‘Well, if you’re so cosmic you’ll know why.’ And I just kept saying, ‘You ought to know.’”
Cynthia later wrote in her book, John, that her then-husband had become disillusioned with Maharishi because of his obsession with “public recognition, celebrities, and money.” John, George, and the rest of the gang went back to their rooms and packed up their things. While waiting for their taxis to New Delhi, John wrote his last song in India, Sexy Sadie, which was originally titled Maharishi.
According to The New York Times, no lawsuits were filed against Maharishi, and, over time, many of the participants doubted that Maharishi had acted inappropriately. George later said in The Beatles Anthology that he believed the entire story was made up: “This whole piece of bullshit was invented. … There were a lot of flakes there; the whole place was full of flaky people. Some of them were us.”
Pattie Boyd, George’s wife, later wrote in her memoir that she believed the incident was a perfect excuse for John to leave India to be back with Yoko Ono. The Beach Boy’s Mike Love also had his doubts. He later wrote in his memoir that Maharishi “was also surrounded by females devotes his entire life. Yet the only time he was ever accused of misconduct was when the Beatles were right there with him? Please.”
The Beatles’ fall out with Maharishi was all over the news. Everyone wanted to know what exactly happened between John, Mia, and Maharishi, but the band only gave vague details of the incident. After reuniting in the UK, The Beatles announced that they were disenchanted with Maharishi and his seeming obsession with money.
In an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, John expressed his disappointment with the meditation guru. He said, “We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene” and “We made a mistake. He’s human like the rest of us.” In a different interview, Paul added, “[Maharishi is] a nice fellow. We’re just not going out with him anymore.”
While The Beatles wanted nothing to do with Maharishi, the guru wanted nothing to do with the band. According to Susan Shumsky, an author and TM devotee, John and Yoko Ono traveled to India towards the end of 1969. John reportedly sent Maharishi a telegram hoping to meet up, but when his secretary handed him the telegram, he repeatedly said, “I do not know a John Lennon.”
Despite or maybe even because of the accusations, the meditation guru became an even bigger icon in pop culture. Life magazine declared 1968 “The Year of the Guru” and featured Maharishi’s face on the cover. By the mid-‘70s, the TM movement had an estimated 600,000 devotees, including actress Shirley MacLaine.
Because The Beatles had given up touring, this trip to India was the last time the band ever traveled together as a group. Some say that this trip was the tipping point for the band, who infamously broke up almost exactly two years later. Author Nicholas Schaffner later wrote that the band returned to the UK as “three very different personalities who seldom saw eye-to-eye anymore.”
Tensions were high while recording their White Album, which included many songs from their time in India. Ringo temporarily left the band, and Yoko Ono’s constant presence during recording sessions irritated the rest of the members. However, despite the band’s difficulties and their rejection of Maharishi, we can thank The Beatles’ trip to India for some awesome music and introducing us to Transcendental Meditation.