When George Harrison learned he had terminal cancer in 2001, he naturally sought a cure. "George is fighting to the end," a London paper quoted a family friend as saying in the last week of his life. But Harrison was not "clinging to life" at any cost. He had requested a treatment that would limit his need for mind-impairing painkillers, so that he could maintain alertness, be aware of his dying, and stay mindful of God. He wanted to die in a state of "God consciousness" and attain "God realization" in his dying.
While receiving treatment in New York, he was visited by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, come to say farewell. McCartney was moved by how Harrison held his hand as they spoke, consolingly stroking his palm. Harrison's oncologist noted how, though it was Harrison who was dying, he had ministered to his grief-stricken friends, aware of how sad their vision of death was. But death was something different for him. "Death," he said, "is just where your suit falls off and now you're in your other suit." As he had put it in another song: "Living in the material world/I hope to get out of this place/by the Lord Sri Krishna's Grace."
His final retreat was to a secret location in Los Angeles. Two long-time associates from the Krishna Consciousness movement, Shyamasundar Das and Mukunda Goswami, flew in to assist him in his dying. He was joined also by Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka, who played their sitars. With incense and candles burning and his favorite pictures of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama by his bedside, Harrison chanted and prayed with the devotees, his wife Olivia, and his son Dhani to the very end. It was how Harrison had long hoped to leave this world. His wife said that "the profound beauty of the moment of George's passing-of his awakening from this dream-was no surprise to those of us who knew how he longed to be with God. In that pursuit, he was relentless." To his final moment, Harrison had realized the Art of Dying.
The Krishna devotees then prepared the body: garlands of orange-colored flowers were placed around his neck; a tilaka,
a clay marking on the forehead, was applied; leaves from a holy tree were placed in his mouth; his body was blessed with holy water; and oils were applied to aid in cremation. Hours before the public heard of the "Rick Icon's" death, his family had already departed by plane with his ashes, now flowing in the Ganges.
When the news was released of Harrison's death on November 29, 2001, it seemed hardly possible. Harrison was just 58. He had been treated for throat cancer in 1998. He had only recently survived the attack of a deranged person who, in December of 1999, broke into his estate and stabbed him repeatedly as Harrison tried to talk the man into submission. Grabbing the knife-blade with his bare hands had not spared him wounds to the chest that collapsed a lung. His life was saved that evening only by the brave actions of his wife Olivia, who immobilized the attacker with a lamp.
Less than two years later, Harrison was dead of "natural causes"-smoking-related lung cancer that had metastasized to the brainAre Harrison's last years of hardship unthinkable and tragic? Or were these not just the various odd calamities that befall what Harrison himself called "this impermanent body, a bag of bones and flesh." Was a Beatle lost? Was Harrison a Beatle, a musician, a mortal human being? Well, yes, but he would surely qualify his answer. As he himself said, our physical self is only "mistaken for our true self, and we have accepted this temporary condition to be final"-and it is only by thinking in that misled way that death and dying seem to be the ultimate calamity. As one of Harrison's doctors at Staten Island University Hospital puts it, "George is very different from many people in that he didn't have fear of death. He felt that life and death were part of the same process." And that is no small achievement.
Harrison's spiritual quest, which brought him into a deeper understanding of life, death, and the true end of human beings, began to take shape in 1965 when on the set of the Beatles' film Help!
he came across a sitar, a classical instrument of North India till then rarely heard in the West. Harrison took a keen interest in the instrument and taught himself to play rudimentarily, introducing the sitar to popular culture in John Lennon's "Norwegian Wood." Recognizing his need for instruction, Harrison traveled to India in the fall of 1966 to study under virtuoso Ravi Shankar.
The playing of the sitar, like Indian classical music generally, is intimately interwoven with spiritual life, and Shankar became his first spiritual guide. In his 1979 autobiography, I, Me Mine,