“We were there four months—or George and I were. We lost thirteen pounds and (barely) looked a day older,” John Lennon told a BBC reporter while promoting the Beatles’ new business venture, Apple Records, of The Fab Four’s 1968 visit to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “I don’t know what level he’s on, but we had a nice holiday in India and came back rested-to-play businessmen.”
“He’s on the level,” Paul McCartney, ever the diplomat, chimed in.
Fifty-two years ago, in the spring of 1968, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India, to study with Maharishi, after meeting the ambassador of Transcendental Meditation in the summer of 1967. It’s an oft-discussed but little understood period in the band’s history, and came at a time when the Beatles were both at the top of the mountain creatively and culturally, but had also just come out of the rockiest period they’d ever experienced since exploding into the world’s collective consciousness earlier that decade.
While Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the singles “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need Is Love”—also part of the first global satellite broadcast—had broken sales records around the world and ushered in a massive change to the pop-music landscape, the Beatles’ television film Magical Mystery Tour had been met with derision, and their manager, Brian Epstein, had died of a drug overdose at the shockingly young age of 32.
“I knew that we were in trouble then,” John Lennon said, reflecting on the period to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner in 1970. “I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music. I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.’”
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And so, at the urging of George Harrison, already a disciple of sitar master Ravi Shankar and seeking a spiritual path beyond the doses of LSD he was popping—and Lennon was reportedly taking daily—the Beatles were off to India.
“We had all the material things, fame and all that, but there was still something needed, you see,” Harrison told the Saturday Evening Post at the time. “It can’t be one hundred percent without the inner life, can it?”
“They had everything they could ever want, but they’d realized that wasn’t the answer to anything,” recalls Jenny Boyd, a model at the time, and the sister of Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s then-wife, who traveled with the entourage as part of their pilgrimage to India. “It was all very exciting because I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, this is what I want. I want to be able to have something that feels meaningful.’ Everyone else was quite excited, too.”
Still, Boyd had her concerns about Maharishi.
“When we’d gone to study with him the previous summer—when Brian died—I remember walking in the lecture hall and there were the four Beatles up there on the stage with him,” Boyd says. “It seemed a little bit like they were the goose that had laid the golden egg. So I was never sure about Maharishi. If someone calls themselves a holy man, you want to feel some connection, but I didn’t feel any connection.”
The visit to Rishikesh is the subject of a new film, Meeting The Beatles In India, from director Paul Saltzman, which opens via the Gathr online platform on Sept. 9. Saltzman, who through a series of what can only be viewed as synchronistic events, ended up the only outsider at Maharishi’s compound during the Beatles’ stay there.
“I ended up there because I was heartbroken,” Saltzman, who at 24 was a successful Canadian TV actor at the time, remembers. Seeking enlightenment, he’d joined a documentary film crew as its soundman, before ending up at the gates of Maharishi’s ashram after receiving a Dear John letter from his then-girlfriend. Initially denied entry on account of the famous guests in attendance, Saltzman persisted, sleeping in an Army tent on the outskirts of the ashram. “I was looking for a way to ease the pain. I didn’t know and didn’t care that the Beatles were there.”
Eventually allowed in and taught meditation, though still relegated to the Army tent, Saltzman was also quickly accepted into the group of people studying with Maharishi, which just so happened to include John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Saltzman was soon at ease enough to ask each of the Beatles if they minded if he took some photos. They obliged, and Saltzman’s photos chronicling his time at the ashram by the banks of the Ganges—which were packed away and forgotten for many years—are remarkable; as intimate and relaxed as any of the Beatles, some of the most photographed people in the world, then or now.
“My daughter had become a Beatles’ fan and asked me to find them,” Saltzman recalls. “It was the beginning of a journey that ended in the making of this film.”
“You’d get a knock on the door, early, and there’d be ‘Mango man,’ as we called him, with a lovely glass of fresh mango juice,” Boyd, who appears in Meeting The Beatles In India, recalls of her nearly three months in Rishikesh. “Then I’d hook up with Pattie and walk down to the breakfast table, then head back to my bungalow to meditate. After that, we’d go up on the roof and listen to John and Paul and George playing, and then have henna put on our hands, or learn how to put on a sari, or sometimes Pattie and I would go down to the Ganges and just sort of dip our toes in there. Once Pattie and I went across the Ganges in a little boat and went to look at the village of Rishikesh. So we’d do little things like that, and it just became a way of life. But mainly there was a lot of meditation. And we’d have our meetings with Maharishi, sitting outside. By that time I wasn’t hung up by not being sure about him, because the meditation was amazing and I’d proved it to myself how amazing it made me feel.”
“I would see them doing those things, and I would just be hanging out at a table by the cliff,” recalls Saltzman, who was at the ashram for eight days, and says the broken heart he was nursing was lifted the first time he meditated. “I’d do some meditation, I would read, I would write, I would meditate some more. And I was in heaven that I wasn’t in agony anymore.”
Of course it wasn’t all meditation and vegetarian meals for the most famous men on the planet.
“Apparently, there was a lot of experimentation with drugs and Maharishi was not happy about that,” Deepak Chopra, a close friend of George Harrison’s, recalls the former Beatle telling him of his time studying with Maharishi. “George did admit that there was a lot of drugs and that it was not appropriate for the ashram atmosphere. But they were also very creative, and they wrote lots of songs whilst they were there.”