Living in the Spiritual World

George Harrison: Living in the Material World on HBO

I watched Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It’s excellent, as was the filmmaker’s previous documentary on Bob Dylan. Naturally it tells the story of the Beatles rise to fame, their phenomenal success and impact, breakup, and George Harrison’s solo career. The film shows that Harrison was perhaps the first of the Fab Four to question living in the material world. Long before he had even heard of the Maharishi, in 1965 George wrote to his mum,

I know that this isn’t it. I knew I was going to be famous, but now I know I can reach the real top of what man can achieve, which is self-realization.”

I was one of the 74 million Americans who tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 to see The Beatles for the first time. From the moment the show started, you knew this was not going to be your average Ed Sullivan variety program. You could feel the electricity all the way from New York City to where I was at, in Wichita, Kansas. Ed introduced the Beatles, they began to play, and nothing was ever the same again.

For me, it was like stepping out of a black and white world and into a Technicolor one.  After that first appearance, everything was different: the way we talked, walked, styled our hair, and dressed. It may sound superficial, but it was really as profound as change can possibly be. It changed how we thought, too.

Rishikesh, 1968 (l-r): Jenny Boyd, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, Donovan, Mia Farrow, George Harrison, the Maharishi, the Beach Boys' Mike Love, John Lennon & Pattie Boyd

The Beatles had a second significant impact on the world. In the fall of 1968, either Life Magazine or the Saturday Evening Post (I don’t remember which) ran a multi-page spread on the Beatles in India hanging out with that groovy guru, the Maharishi, with some great color photographs. It looked really cool.

Before you knew it, Eastern spirituality was all over the place. Love beads and Nehru jackets were in style. Every other song had a sitar in it, and every other band seemed to have a new religion and a guru. I don’t remember them all, just that The Rascals found the swami Satchinanda and for The Who, it was Meher Baba.

I am not too proud to admit that I was a dedicated follower of fashion. I set out then to find a new religion for myself. I had only one criteria: no God. I figured that if I wanted a religion with a god in it, I could just keep the one I had. Naturally, the first god-less thing I found was Buddhism, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Beatles were to abandon the Maharishi while in India (after he allegedly hit on Mia Farrow), just as eventually most of our rock gods abandoned their gurus and returned to more secular music. George Harrison, however, pretty much stayed on the path provided by Eastern spirituality for the rest of his life, which is certainly reflected in his post-Beatles music.

Martin Scorsese says,

George was making spiritually awake music. We all heard and felt it, and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives.”

The narration that moves George Harrison: Living in the Material World along is provided by friends and family, as well as letters the late singer wrote home; the film covers the Hamburg days quiet extensively, as well as other facets of Harrison’s life, including his relationship with Eric Clapton, and of course, the Beatles’ breakup. Scorsese, who made the film with the backing of George’s widow, Olivia, was given access to the singer’s own collection of photographs, films, recordings and documents, and he makes good use of them.

George Harrison’s interest in the sitar and Indian music opened him to new ways of thinking based on ancient spiritual traditions. He wasn’t the only influential person of that time keen to explore Eastern spirituality, but I think a case can be made that his influence, with his bandmates, was considerably greater.

These days, I tend to get sentimental when I think about The Beatles. For a time in our lives they were like angels, they were magical, and we, my generation, were magical too. The world was a brilliant tapestry we were trying to unravel and all its violence and darkness could not dim the brightness of our youthful hope and aspiration.

I don’t know if it is natural or silly, or both, to be nostalgic for your youth. I don’t really care. I like to feel sentimental from time to time. Makes me feel good.


3 thoughts on “Living in the Spiritual World

  1. Flasin’ back on the 60’s now!
    You are fortunate to have found a path and stuck to it. I have tried them all and nothing stuck. I’m recycling for about the 10th time now. You know what they say about someone trying the same thing over and over seeking a different result………………

  2. Howdie. Enjoying your site. Some good stuff. Thanks.

    Scorsese himself is a meditator:

    Just wanted to mention, the Beatles didn’t forever abandon Maharishi or his meditation, and it appears Maharishi didn’t really hit on Mia Farrow. That was the sensationalist gossip that swept the news media of the 60s, but since then even the mainstream press has revisited the story and a different, probably more fact-based narrative has emerged, which I’ve summarized here: Maharishi and the Beatles: What Really Happened

    I like Phil Goldstein’s statement from “American Veda”: the Beatles trip to India was “the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness.” Perhaps that’s overstating the importance of the Beatles’ impact in the long run, but time will tell…

    Again, thanks.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and glad you’re enjoying the site. I read your article. I haven’t brushed up on my Beatles history for a while. All I know, or remember, is that it was John who once said “Sexy Sadie” was about the Maharishi. I don’t recall the source of the story about Farrow, but I erred in saying it involved Mia, it was actually her sister who was also there in Rishikesh. I think I might have read about it in the 1968 Life Magazine spread about the Beatles in India.

      It does seem that something happened between the Beatles and the Maharishi. There’s a famous clip from 1968 of McCartney talking about how they were disillusioned, “We made a mistake. He’s human. We thought at first that he wasn’t.” I think that’s a fairly accurate recreation of the quote.

      Anyway, I am sure there is much more to the whole affair, as you article seems to indicate.

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