- Be Scofield is a prominent cult reporter and author of Hunting Lucifer: One Reporter's Search for Cults and Demons.
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George Harrison's own fascination with India and Eastern spirituality began when he played with a sitar on the set of the movie Help! in 1965. Curiously, the film was about a sinister Eastern cult. A female fan sends Ringo Star a ring but the ring is needed by the cult to sacrifice victims to Kali. The movie sees cult members chasing Ringo and the Beatles to try and retrieve the ring.
The discovery of the sitar soon led Harrison to musician Ravi Shankar. He first met Shankar in London in June 1965 and learned the basics from him. He then traveled to Bombay with his then-wife Pattie Boyd in 1966 and spent six weeks studying with the Indian music legend. Harrison also practiced yoga and studied Vedic philosophy. Shankar gave him Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda and Raja Yoga by Vivekananda. The trip was pivotal in Harrison's spiritual growth. "I had read enough to comprehend how to see God,” he said.
Harrison signed Shankar to Dark Horse releasing his 1974 album Family & Friends. The record was itself an eclectic mix of East and West; with Billy Preston, Ringo Star and others performing alongside Indian musicians. Harrison played guitar on the album under the name Hari Georgeson.
Musician Shawn Phillips began playing sitar in 1963 after Ravi Shankar taught him the basics in Canada. Phillips taught sitar to Harrison before Shankar did. He lived with Donovan in London and wrote the music for Season of the Witch, but wasn’t given credit. He also played sitar on the 1966 Sunshine Superman album by Donovan. Phillips also gave guitar lessons to Joni Mitchell, toured with Yes and collaborated with Eric Clapton. “I spent three weeks with George,” Phillips said in a 2015 interview. “I would set up a meeting, when I was busy and I ‘d go over to his house, we had dinner and would sit down and play some songs and I was sitting down and teaching him about the instrument.”
The sitar would figure prominently in several of Harrison's songs. The Beatles track "Norwegian Wood" was their first to use the sitar in 1965, and "Love To You" was released in 1966. The sitar was also used in the Beatle's track "Within You Without You," which was one of John Lenon's favorite songs by Harrison. The Beatle’s experimentation with the sitar led to a cultural flourishing of the instrument in rock music.
IN FEBRUARY, 1965 WHILE FILMING Help! in the Bahamas a Swami dressed in orange robes, approached them. “A little yogi runs over to us,” John Lennon said. “We didn’t know what they were in those days, and this little Indian guy gives us a book each, signed to us, on yoga.”
The book was The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda. He was the founder of the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas and globally and an expert in Hatha yoga. Iconic artist Peter Max painted Vishnudevananda’s private plane tye-die colors and put a peace emblem on it.
For Harrison the chance meeting was just another piece of his flowering spiritual puzzle. But the guru who introduced the Beatles to yoga had secrets.
The first episode of a 2021 podcast series called Guru: Living a Lie focused on Julie Salter who said Vishnudevananda groomed and sexually abused her for years.
“I was Swami Vishnu-devananda’s personal assistant/secretary for the last 11 plus years of his life,” Salter wrote in 2019. “I was groomed for the role, after a few years as staff in far away locations. Night after night of broken and very little sleep, few regular meals, being scolded daily etc., lines were crossed: Swami Vishnu-devananda began to use/abuse me sexually, for a period of over 3 years. All was extremely confusing; he presented and was known publicly as a celibate monk.”
She went on to say the abuse was widespread. “Swami Vishnu-Devananda was covertly sexually active, apparently with multiple young women devotees, up until 1987,” Salter wrote. “There were several people who left the Sivananda organization deeply wounded, with substantial long lasting consequences to this day.”
The podcast, created by a former Sivananda yoga practitioner, found that sexual abuse was rampant within the organization even after the gurus death.
Harrison of course didn’t know about the abuse in 1965 when Vishnudevananda handed him and his bandmates his book. And Harrison died in 2001 long before the abuse revelations came out.
Rather, Harrison was merely enthralled with the East; the sounds, the ideas and the possibilities. “I’d give up everything if I could be a monk who walks from one side of India to another,” he once said to artist Peter Max. “It all came from that crazy movie,” Lennon said. “All of the Indian involvement came out of the film Help!”
Harrison was later intrigued to discover that there was a Sivananda ashram across the street from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s center where he and the Beatles would soon be visiting. He’d soon discover that this guru also had secrets.
GEORGE HARRISON'S WIFE AT THE time, Pattie Boyd, saw an ad for Transcendental Meditation in February of 1967 in London. Soon she became initiated into TM, attending meetings regularly. Later, in August of 1967 George, John, and Paul attended a Maharishi lecture in London. They chatted backstage and Maharishi told them to learn TM. Two days later they were in North Wales getting initiated by Maharishi.
A month later in September Maharishi appeared on the Tonight Show for the first time. It’d be one of many appearances on talk shows, magazine covers and programs that helped launch the guru to international celebrity status. Soon rock stars like Mick Jagger, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Beach Boys and Donovan would all be practicing Transcendental Meditation.
John Lennon wrote the song Across the Universe shortly after learning to meditate. It was inspired by his meeting Maharishi and Lennon included a phrase he commonly used, “Jai guru deva om.” Lennon even discussed the lyrics with Maharishi who asked him to change “Nothing’s gonna change my world” to “Meditation will change your world.” Lennon refused, however. The track was recorded on February 8th just days before the infamous Beatles trip to India in 1968.
Lennon and Harrison reported remarkable experiences in the weeks they spent at Maharishi’s ashram.
“I was in a room for five days meditating,” Lennon said. “I wrote hundreds of songs. I couldn’t sleep and I was hallucinating like crazy, having dreams where you could smell. I’d do a few hours and then you’d trip off, three- or four-hour stretches. It was just a way of getting there, and you could go on amazing trips.” Harrison echoed his experience. “The meditation buzz is incredible,” he said. “I get higher than I ever did with drugs. It’s simple … and it’s my way of connecting with God.”
“John and George were [finally] in their element [at the ashram]," said Lennon's wife Cynthia. "They threw themselves totally into the Maharishi’s teachings, were happy, relaxed, and above all found a piece of mind that had been denied them for so long.”
Ringo not so much. He left India after just nine days. His wife hated the bugs and his food allergies made the trip unpleasant. Paul left three weeks later. But Lennon and Harrison stayed and thoroughly enjoyed the two months they spent there writing songs and playing the sitar. The group wrote most of the songs that’d appear on The White Album while there. Songs that sent wannabe rock star Charles Manson down a conspiracy rabbit hole. Lennon said his time in India was one of the happiest of his life.
Things went awry, however, when fellow travelers Rosalyn Bonas and Mia Farrow alleged sexual misconduct by Maharishi. Farrow was vague about what happened, saying he made a pass at her. But years later Farrow claimed she was sexually groped by the guru. Rosalyn said he made inappropriate sexual advances and tried to have sex with her. The incidents caused John and George to cut their 3-month planned stay short.
“We believe in meditation but not Maharishi and his scene,” John Lennon said on the Tonight Show in May 1968, just a month after they left. “We made a mistake there,” he said on another show earlier that day. Lennon also referenced the scandal in a Rolling Stone interview in 1970. “There was a big hullabaloo about him trying to rape Mia Farrow or somebody and trying to get off with a few women.”
In what’s thought of as one of the first “diss” tracks, John Lennon wrote a song called Sexy Sadie while in India. Originally called Maharishi, and then changed, the track eviscerated the guru. “Sexy Sadie, you'll get yours yet,” the lyrics say. “However big you think you are…Sexy Sadie, ooh, what have you done…you broke the rules.” The original version was even more harsh. "Maharishi, you little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Oh, you cunt." Lennon later commented on the track. “That was inspired by Maharishi,” he said. “I wrote it when we had our bags packed and were leaving. It was the last piece I wrote before I left India…I was leaving the Maharishi with a bad taste.”
According to Susan Shumsky, author of The Inner Light: How India Influenced the Beatles, Maharishi’s sexual advances towards women had a long history.
She reports that Linda William Smith told her Maharishi took her virginity. “I was a virgin and knew nothing about sex,” she said. “He said he loved me and that I was the only one. ‘You make my life so good,’ he told me. When I asked about his celibacy he said, ‘There are exceptions to every rule.’ He was a brilliant manipulator. I just couldn’t see that he was a dirty old man. We made love regularly. I don’t think I was the only girl.” Shumsky said that their sexual relationship began in 1969 at a TM training in Rishikesh.
Another woman named Judith Bourque also told Shumsky she was in a sexual relationship with Maharishi the ‘celibate monk’ for two years. She traveled with Maharishi as a member of his inner circle. “He told me not to tell anyone,” Bourque said.
Shumsky also spoke with several skin-boys, the guys who gave keys to Maharishi’s room to the women. They also confirmed his sexual liaisons.
Yet the official TM organization position is that Maharishi has been celibate for life.
“The man has ruined thousands and thousands of lives,” said longterm member Diane Hindel in a news program. “The effect that he had on my life is horribly immeasurable. He’s an evil man. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t care how he’s affecting people’s lives. He wants their money and he wants power.” She equates her time with Maharishi as being brainwashed for years. “I am one of thousands of bright young people who was scammed by one of the greatest con artists of our generation.”
Hindel expresses what many came to realize about Maharishi and the Beatles: he was exploiting them for money and power.
As things faded with Maharishi, Harrison would soon find another guru to satisfy his spiritual hunger.
GEORGE HARRISON WAS CHANTING ALONG with the LP album Krishna Consciousness soon after it came out in 1966. It was recorded by Srila Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna movement, known as ISKCON. Prabhupada used a harmonium lent to him by beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The poet had been chanting with the Hare Krishna’s in New York and would play harmonium with the group. The Beatles heard Krishna Consciousness and ordered 100 copies. “I remember singing it [the Hare Krishna mantra]. just for days, John and I, with ukulele banjos, sailing through the Greek islands–Hare Krishna,” Harrison said. “Like six hours we sang, because you couldn’t stop once you got going. You just couldn’t stop. It was like as soon as you stop, it was like the lights went out.”
Shyamasundar Das aka Sam Speerstra had been sent to London from America by Prabhupada to set up an ISKCON branch. Shyamasundar targeted the Beatles hoping they’d record their Hare Krishna mantra. After several attempts to get their attention failed Shyamasundar finally got invited to a party at Apple Records in December 1968. George Harrison recognized him thanks to his shaved head and robes. "Where have you been?” Harrison said. “I’ve been trying to meet the Hare Krishna people for the last couple of years." Harrison then invited him over the next day.
Shayamasundar met the other Beatles, and Harrison, filled with spiritual wonder, asked questions. He suggested the Hare Krishna’s record an album on Apple Records. Soon a dozen devotees were in EMI studios in Abbey Road. Paul and Linda McCartney were operating the recording console and George played organ and harmonium. The album was a hit throughout Europe selling 70,000 copies on the first day alone.
ISKCON had only began a few years earlier in 1965 when Prabhupada arrived in New York penniless. Thanks to association with Ginsberg and the growing fascination in the West with the East the movement slowly grew.
At first the group in London often went hungry and had few possessions. They lived in an unheated warehouse with no hot water and used newspapers as furniture. But things were changing fast. Harrison invited Shyamasundar and Malati Devi to live with him at Kifauns, where they’d often chant kirtan together. Later, in September 1969 he and the Beatles met Prabhupada for the first time. Prabhupada and 18 of his close disciples moved into John Lennon’s new Tittenhurst Park home. They agreed to spend a month helping to restore the estate. Prabhupada also gave regular lectures from a hall on the property they dubbed the “temple.”
A recording of the first meeting that John, George, and Yoko had with Prabhupada on September 14th, 1969 reveals the spiritually curious musicians asking their new guru questions about God and yogic philosophy.
Harrison then co-signed a lease for the groups temple in 1969. In 1973 he bought the Hare Krishna’s a large home which became their new spiritual headquarters called Bhaktivedanta Manor. Harrison then funded the publication of a book for the Hare Krishna’s. Prabhupada called Harrison their “archangel.” Harrison would later record a song about his guru called “The Lord Loves the One.”
When Harrison died of cancer in 2000 two prominent Hare Krishna devotees: Shyamasundar Das and Mukunda Goswami were by his side. Harrison chanted “Hare Krishna” with his last few breaths, telling his family it helped him “see god.” His wife spread his ashes in the sacred Ganges river where Harrison had bathed just three weeks prior.
In his book Chant and Be Happy, Prabhupada claims that Bob Dylan went to the L.A. Hare Krishna Temple frequently and chanted. And in a dialogue between Mukunda Goswami and Harrison, Goswami said Dylan went to temples in Chicago and Denver as well. Harrison, who was close with Dylan confirmed his involvement: “That’s right. He said he enjoyed the chanting and being with them.”
There’s also a story of Dylan riding across country with two Krishna devotees in his blue van. “We talked about Krishna and Shrila Prabhupada, and stopped in at the Temple in Chicago to get Dylan some japa beads,” one of the devotees writes.
George Harrison’s first solo song was “My Sweet Lord” which he wrote soon after a meeting with Prabhupada. The devotional track, filled with references to see and know God, became a number one hit.
Shyamasundar recalls how the phrase Hare Krishna made it into “My Sweet Lord.” “I was up on a ladder scraping paint,” he recalls. “This car pulls up and out came Billy Preston, and Klaus Foreman and George running into the house with guitars. They were in the middle of something. They continued playing ‘Hallelejiah, my sweet lord.” I was up on the ladder and after the Hallelejiah chorus I yelled ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna’ and it somehow entered the song after that. Suddenly the whole world learned about Krishna.”
IN 1971 THE FOLK SINGER Donovan narrated a documentary called Aliens from Spaceship Earth. The “aliens” were master spiritual teachers. It profiles a handful of gurus: Maharaj-ji, Baba Muktananda, Hare Krishnas, Sai Baba, Yogi Bhajan, Satchidananda, Maharishi, Father Yod, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet. These “aliens” would prove to be a failed aspect of the new aquarian age as they would all later be exposed for sexual abuse or as cult leaders. But at the time they were hailed as brining a new revolution in consciousness.
Donovan was with the Beatles in Rishikesh in India in 1968 and had been practicing TM before the trip. He also taught them a special finger picking guitar style that’d show evidently on The White Album. He was first initiated into TM by Maharishi in 1967 and promoted the teaching with songs on his double album Gift From a Flower to a Garden released in 1967 on EMI. The back cover of the album contains a photo of Donovan with Maharishi.
“I actually went deeper into my roots in India: my blues roots, my folk roots, Celtic chants, and the Beatles seemed to follow me, because we were playing every day at one point,” Donovan said. “So I discovered the spiritual sound of my Celtic past. The Hurdy Gurdy Man chant I wrote was really my first solid Celtic rock song. Through going east I was trying to find my Celtic past. But surely, there’s a spiritual path that is the Celtic path. And, sure enough, there is. India centered me,” he said. “It was what I needed. I needed to center really deep. It reaffirmed that there is a transcendental world and that it is the most important influence on my life.”
Also on the India trip was Mike Love of the Beach Boys. They had included Maharishi in their tour in 1968 to an abysmal response, costing the band several hundred thousand dollars. They were forced to cancel the tour.
In the documentary, Donovan highlights the case of Madonna Slavin, a young Hare Krishna woman who was kidnapped by associates of cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick. The film paints her in a sympathetic light, suggesting that many in the West are threatened by Eastern teachings.
It was not uncommon for Hare Krishna devotees to be kidnapped by cult deprogrammers in the 1970s. Known for their aggressive recruitment and insular practices they were thought to be a cult by many. They claim their sect follows a strict lineage directly to God.
Donovan, Harrison, Lennon and Love were just a few of the prominent musicians who explored gurus and spiritual awakening in the 1960s and 70s. In the end they realized that these masters were more human than they thought. And perhaps these rock musicians were more human than we thought; capable of being exploited in the name of self-realization.
-> READ PART 3: JIM KWESKIN AND MEL LYMAN'S CULT
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