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,
Harrison called Shankar "probably the person who has influenced my life the most." At their first meeting, Shankar was surprised by both the seriousness of the young man's religious quest (the Hindu tradition, Harrison would later say, "unlocked this enormous big door in the back of my consciousness") and his love for Indian music. Shankar thought he "would have become a great sitar player if only he could have given some time," but the demands of Beatledom ruled. The spiritual quest, however, was another matter. "Everything else can wait," Harrison often said, "but the search for God cannot wait."
And so he began a study of ancient Hinduism that influenced his work almost immediately. From 1966 onward Harrison's songs became a kind of chronicle of his ever-deepening spiritual journey. "Within You Without You," his contribution to the landmark 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
was deeply imbued with Eastern philosophy. With music that was thoroughly Indian, the song addressed all those who thought that meaningful social change could be easily effected without a deeper inner transformation. Neither a protest song nor a finger-pointing sermon, it addresses the human condition and the delusional manner in which we are all prone to live: "We were talking about the space between us all/And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion." Living as if we are all individual selves, isolated and distinct-living lives in a competitive opposition to one another-people can "gain the world and lose their soul."
In 1968, Harrison again turned the world's attention to India when, at his behest, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh for an extended stay at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's meditation center. Transcendental Meditation is based on the Hindu practice of focusing the mind on a sacred word or phrase and repeating this word silently, relentlessly drawing the straying mind back to the word. The Maharishi offered the West a secularized, stripped-down version of Hindu mantra meditation, promising his practitioners the well-established benefits of inner calm, heightened awareness, and increased mental capacity without a theological commitment.
By the time of the Beatles' White Album,
however, Harrison had fully converted to theism, as he recounts in "Long, Long, Long." Not "about" spirituality, the song addresses God directly, articulating an archetypal conversion experience that pervades the mystic literature of East and West. Against haunting and atmospheric music, Harrison expresses his joy at finding the Lord. "How can I ever misplace you/How I want you/Oh I love you/You know that I need you." To all appearances, it is the first pop song ever written as a long song to God. And the discovery Harrison sings of was, in Vedanta terms, the
discovery-the great achievement that would transform everything, both life and death.
In the 18 songs on Harrison's 1970 tour-de-force, All Things Must Pass,
released just six months after the breakup of the Beatles, a whole theology is present that is deeply informed by Harrison's study of Hinduism. The album's famous single, "My Sweet Lord," is a simple and beautiful prayer of praise and longing. Against the cultural backdrop of the entrenched anti-religious sentiment of his generation, Harrison addresses a prayer to God: "I really want to see you.be with you.know you.and to show you.that it won't take long." Here he tells his Lord that he wants to attain God realization in the here and now. In one verse he laments, "but it takes so long," and in another wishes to assure God that the sincerity of his prayers and meditation will surely speed this union.
What also won't take long is the transit through this life-but where the album's title track, "All Things Must Pass," suggests the transience of all material things, here the positive side of that transience is shown. Life is a fleeting opportunity in which, if only we seize our chance, we can very soon be reunited with the Beloved.
The song's "Hare Krishna" response (alternated with the Christian "alleluia") did much to introduce to the West the maha-mantra
or great mantra that was embraced by the newly founded International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Vaisnavism or Vishnu worship. The primary goal of Vaisnavism is videha mukti
or the liberation that is attainable only after death, when the individual self realizes union with God, becoming a part of Vishnu's body yet maintaining its pure individuality. The secondary goal, tributary to the first, is to attain God realization here in the material world, while the soul is still embodied, which is achieved loving and serving Vishnu, and by meditating on him in his various incarnations.
In the "Art of Dying," Harrison reminds us that death is life's greatest opportunity. There comes a time when each of us must leave this material world, and no amount of prayer and science can keep us here-but what we truly are
does not cease to be. The Bhagavad-Gita
teaches that "Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be." If we have lived well and die in a state of grace or God consciousness, then we can attain moksha,
liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Harrison's song concludes, "There'll come a time when most of us return here/Brought back by our desire to be/A perfect entity/Living through a million years of crying/Until you've realized the Art of Dying."