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."
In the mid-1960s eastern religion had already begun to infiltrate the culture in small ways. The Beats had long been fascinated with Eastern mysticism. Americans were being exposed to Buddhism as a result of the Vietnam War.
There was the human potential movement, psychedelics, other Yogis, and even the influence of Peace Corps volunteers returning from the Third World. It was just at this point that Harrison embraced Indian spirituality.Sam Keen, a best-selling author on spiritual matters, believes the ground was particularly ripe because young people had become disillusioned with "plain vanilla Protestantism" and its emphasis on beliefs instead of practices. For instance, charismatic Pentecostal worship--with its emphasis on emotional, physically wrenching worship--became more popular. "The time had come when we wanted practical religion instead of creedal world view and dogma," says Keen.
Even yoga, so popular today, probably would not have taken off without the influence of the Beatles. "The Beatles opened the door for yoga to be accepted in a worldwide way," says Lilias Folan, an internationally known yoga teacher and author.
In 1968, Harrison and the Beatles went to India for an extended period of learning with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was not spiritually uplifting. The holy man had a helicopter, surreptitiously ate chicken, and supposedly exhibited a worldly interest in some of the female members of the party. Ringo bailed first, turned off not by the spiritual challenge, but the spicy food.
John became disillusioned and angrily informed the Maharishi that they planned to leave prematurely. When the Maharishi asked why, John replied, "You're the cosmic one. You ought to know." He soon wrote a song initially called "Maharishi" (later changed to "Sexy Sadie") with the words: "Sexy Sadie what have you done. You made a fool of everyone."
But George never lost interest, and, indeed, when the Beatles broke up, he was liberated to become even more religiously explicit. In the 70s, his general interest in Eastern religions focused on the Hare Krishna movement. In 1977, he donated a mansion to them and spoke out in behalf of the notion that repeating the Krishna chant could bring one closer to God.
Several songs in his first solo album, All Things Must Pass, have lyrics that could easily be mistaken for hard-core Christian rock, with the small caveat that the "Lord" in this case was meant to be Krishna not Jesus.
My sweet Lord, I really want to see you
I really want to be with you
I really want to see you Lord
But it takes so long my Lord
--My Sweet Lord
In "Awaiting On Your All," he spelled out his more universal conception of God:
You don't need no church house,
And you don't need no temple
And you don't need no rosary beads
Or them books to read
To know that you have fallen
If you open up your heart
Then you will know what I mean
We've been kept down so long
Someone's thinking that we're all green
By chanting the names of the Lord
And you'll be free
The Lord is awaiting
On you all to awaken and see
Around that time, Ravi Shankar began to tell Harrison about a tragedy unfolding in Bangladesh, a province of Pakistan. The combination of a hurricane and internal civil war was causing the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis.
Harrison did something that had never been done before: He pulled together a lineup of rock superstars for a concert, the proceeds of which were supposed to go to victims of tragedy. It's significant that his cause was not particularly trendy--like, say, opposition to the Vietnam War--but rather focused on a problem that most people never knew existed. At first other musicians were reluctant.
"When I did the Bangladesh concert," Harrison said later, "I spent a couple of months day and night on the phone trying to trick people into doing it and making a commitment. Nowadays, it's such an accepted part of life that every so often you give something back to charity."
Indeed, the Live Aid and Farm Aid concerts and the "We Are the World" album--which together have raised tens of millions of dollars for charitable causes--can trace their lineage to the concert for Bangladesh. "It was the inspiration and the model for all of the major rock benefits," says David Bender, co-author of "Stand and Be Counted," a history of the movement.
Harrison may have even had an effect, ironically, on the growth of Christian rock. For one thing, he made it okay to be overtly religious in rock music. Perhaps more important, he prompted evangelical Christians to seek an alternative. "Everyone was listening to that kind of music and saying "Let's get our groups going," recalls Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton. "I remember people in campus Christian groups, campus ministries, Intervarsity, saying that we want to have our own alternatives."
He remains a hero among even some younger Christian rockers. "The first record I remember hearing was "Rubber Soul," and basically that's why I do what I do," says Stephen Mason, lead guitarist with the band Jars of Clay. Mason feels a kinship, he says, with Harrison's "struggle to figure how it's going to satisfy that longing that we have inside."
Following the murder of John Lennon, Harrison became even more private, more focused on gardening. According to his friend Deepak Chopra, he still meditated several hours a day. "About four years ago I spent a week with him in Hawaii completely in silence where we would practice almost four hours of meditation, and even recently he would practice two to three hours of meditation in the mornings and another half an hour in the evenings and the rest of the time he was either writing, working in his studio, or gardening."
Interestingly, Chopra said Harrison was very interested in Christianity as well, especially more "Eastern" interpretations like the Gnostic Gospels and the Gospel according to Thomas. "When he signed a letter he would always put an Eastern symbol and also put a cross. He very much had a relationship with Christ as well," Chopra notes.
A testament to how deeply ingrained these notions were came on Dec. 30, 1999 when he was stabbed repeatedly by his an intruder. In order to try to scare or sedate him, Harrison shouted, "Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna!"
Clearly Harrison's spiritual impact was not always specific and direct. There has not been a huge boom in the number of Hare Krishna followers in the last twenty years. When dealing with sweeping cultural trends, it's hard to know what was inevitable and what was determined by a human action.
But it is clear that George Harrison's impact can now be seen as far greater than believed during Beatlemania. Musically, it was the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney that most altered pop music. Surveys by fan magazines during Beatlemania pronounced him the least popular of the Beatles. Yet history will show that in terms of his spiritual impact, Harrison is the one who helped transform the American landscape.