George Harrison--long thought of as the third most talented and the fourth most popular Beatle--was the most spiritually significant entertainer we've known.
The evidence can be seen in every health club in America that offers yoga, every athlete who meditates before the game, everyone who shops at a holistic health food store, and every rock star who gives a benefit concert. It was George Harrison and the Beatles who popularized Eastern spirituality and later crafted a different role for the American rock star. He took Indian religious practices from being counter-culture weird to pop-culture cool.
"It would not have happened" without Harrison, says Deepak Chopra, the Indian doctor who himself popularized so many Eastern concepts. "Overnight they made the world aware of Indian spirituality."
How did George Harrison--"the quiet one"--end up having such a colossal impact on the American spiritual landscape?
Harrison was baptized a Catholic and attended mass with his mother. But at an early age, he seemed to grow restless with the faith. "[Although] I almost became Catholic when I was eleven or twelve, I couldn't relate to Christ being the only son of God," he once said.
His first spiritual awakenings, he would later report, came through the drug LSD. "Up until LSD, I never realized that there was anything beyond this state of consciousness. First time I took it, it just blew everything away. I had such an overwhelming feeling of well-being, that there was a God and I could see Him in every blade of grass."
This was the beginning, he said, of a broader spiritual exploration. In June of 1966, when, at the home of British actor Peter Sellers, Harrison met an accomplished Indian sitar player, Ravi Shankar. Harrison had been fooling around with a sitar on the set of the movie "Help!"; but soon after meeting Shankar, his interest in India expanded from music to the search for enlightenment. He took sitar lessons and studied yoga so he could have the proper posture to play the instrument.
In the summer, he visited India. "I went over there partly to try to learn the music, but also to absorb much of the actual country. I'd always heard stories about these masters living in the Himalayas who were hundreds of years old, levitating yogis and saints who could be buried underground for weeks and stay alive. Now I wanted to see it all for myself. I'll tell you one thing for sure, once you get to the point where you're actually doing things for truth's sake, then nobody can ever touch you again, because you're harmonizing with a greater power."
For Harrison, it came at a time when he'd become frustrated with life as a Beatle. The insanity of Beatlemania was getting to him, as was his musically secondary role to Lennon and McCartney. His mastery of Indian music became one way of providing a distinctive ingredient to the Beatles music.
Around that time, Harrison's wife, Pattyi Boyd, introduced him to the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, practictioner of something called "Transcendental Meditation." Harrison dragged the other Beatles to hear him speak and immediately they were smitten. The next day they attended a longer session with the Maharishi. Beatles' biographer Philip Norman sardonically described the scene:
"Amid the small audience of the faithful, four Beatles garbed as flower power aristocrats listened while a little Asian gentleman, wearing robes and a gray-tipped beard, described in his high-pitched voice, interspersed with many mirthful cachinnations, an existence both more inviting and more convenient than mere hippydom. The 'inner peace' which the Maharishi promised, and which seemed so alluring to pleasure-exhausted multimillionaires--not to mention the "sublime consciousness" so attractive to inveterate novelty seekers--could be obtained even within their perilously small span of concentration. To be spiritually regenerated, they were told, they need meditate for only half an hour each day."
Soon, John and George were on the David Frost show to describe how meditation gave them more "energy." The Beatles did for Eastern spirituality what they had already for long hair and drug use. They made it fashionable.
"It was a big moment," says Diana Eck, professor of religion at Harvard and an expert on Hinduism. "I went to India in '65 and there were a few early-time hippies in Benares, but not many. Within 3 or 4 years the axis had turned. The place was crawling with people interested in Indian philosophy."