On the Road to Rishikesh (and Beyond)

50 years ago, this month, The Beatles traveled to northern India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.  They were joined by their wives and girlfriends, along with a number of friends and associates, including Mike Love (Beach Boys), Donovan, and Mia Farrow.

This was a seminal event in the 1960s because it helped put eastern spirituality on the world map, big time.  All the sudden Indian fashion was in vogue (especially Nehru jackets), you started hearing a lot of Eastern flavored songs some featuring the sitar, and it seemed like every rock band now had their own guru (The Who had Meher Baba, The Rascals followed Swami Satchidanada, etc.).

I was a 16-year-old high schooler living in New Orleans.  One day the postman delivered the latest edition of Life Magazine and it had a 10-page layout of color photos of the Beatles and everyone taken at the Mararishi’s ashram.  It looked really cool.  Whether something was cool or not was the barometer by which I judged just about everything.  And still do to some extent.

After seeing these photos, I decided almost immediately that I had to find a new religion and philosophy.  I suspect the Beatles to Indiae had a similar effect on many others of my generation.  George Harrison’s exploration of Indian philosophy and his promotion of Indian music and the sitar (through Ravi Shankar) had already opened the door.  The Beatles stay in Rishikesh pushed it wide open.  This one event was critical in popularizing Indian culture and meditation around the world.

If you don’t already know, then you should understand that The Beatles impact was not only musical, it was also social.

The philosophy I became most interest in was Buddhism, thanks also to the Beat Generation writers who were heavily into Zen.  My high school library didn’t have any books on Buddhism, but it did have a book of quotes by Mahatma Gandhi and that was the first book on Eastern spirituality I read.

Evidently, Ringo didn’t stay at the ashram for long, only 10 days.  Paul stayed for about a month, while George and John stayed 6 weeks.

For the Fab Four, the India trip was also about music.  Many of the songs on the “White Album” were written there, including one called “Sexy Sadie.”  In this song, John satirically expresses the group’s disillusionment with the Maharishi (who claimed to be celibate) after he hit on Mia Farrow.  (“Sexy Sadie, what have you done/You made a fool of everyone.”)  Now that the Maharishi had revealed himself to be a phony, the Beatles had no use for him.  According to Rolling Stone magazine when the Maharishi asked John Lennon why he was leaving the ashram, he said, “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.”

That didn’t end everyone’s interest in Eastern spiritually.  Its influence permeated many of John and Paul’s songs afterwards.  George continued to study the sitar and he found the teacher A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, under whose guidance began a practice of japa-yoga.  Donovan and went on to study with other Indian teachers and eventually developed an interest in Buddhism.  Only Mike Love stuck with the Maharishi, embracing TM to this very day.

As for me, I embraced Buddhism and eventually became the world-famous guru, Lama Dharma Rama Ding Dong.

To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of this event, here are some photos (click on them for a larger view).  I don’t know if any of them are from that Life article (I wished I’d kept it), but one or two could be.  I don’t recall the individual photos in the layout very well.  Following the pics are videos of two unreleased Beatles-era John Lennon songs, “The Happy Rishikesh Song” and “Child Of Nature (On the Road to Rishikesh),” the melody Lennon later used for “Jealous Guy”.  This video has lyrics and film from the India trip.

Mike Love in the back with white hat, Mia Farrow next the Maharishi, Donovan in yellow (mellow), John, George, Paul, girlfriends, wives.


John, after accidentally dropping his pick into his guitars, tries to shake it out. Happens to me all the time.

Jammin’ with Donovan
Viewing the photo in this size, it looks like they’re using cell phones!
Entrance to the Maharishi’s ashram today.


Tambourines and Hurdy Gurdies

Donovan and Dylan

Yesterday was the birthday of a singer and songwriter named Donovan Leitch. He turned 64.  In September of 1965 he had a hit with a song called Universal Soldier. He was one of those people who sang about peace and love.

The first concert I ever attended was Donovan at the Loyola Field House in New Orleans. He played solo with just an acoustic guitar. I can still remember how his beautiful voice seemed to float in the air like incense.

Some considered Donovan to be a lightweight, a would-be Dylan, a copy-cat. I gave him more credit than that. He could be rather syrupy at times, and he didn’t have the hard edge that Dylan had.  Even so, to my mind, Sunshine Superman was one of the best albums of that period and I think it helped pave the way for the prog-rock to come.

Donovan was also responsible for turning me onto Eastern philosophy. Partially responsible, along with the Beatles. I think it was in the summer or fall of ’67 that Life magazine ran a big spread of the Beatles and Donovan and the Beach Boys going to India to hang out with the Maharishi. A lot of great color pictures. Everyone looked very cool. I thought Eastern spirituality was very cool, and so did many others. All of the sudden my favorite rock artists started turning out music that was Eastern flavored and they all had their own gurus.  The Rascals got into Swami Satchidananda and Integral Yoga and for the Who it was Meher Baba. I can’t remember the others.

The Beatles disassociated themselves with the Maharishi, after he allegedly hit on Mia Farrow in Rishikesh, which inspired John Lennon’s song on the “White Album” called Sexy Sadie. Donovan became involved with some other guru whose name escapes me now. I think Mike Love was the only one who stuck with Maharishi and TM.

At first, I was merely aping my heroes. I wanted to be cool, too. However, there was something more going on. I wanted to find my own religion. Technically, I already had one. I was a Christian, a Presbyterian to be specific. But at that time I lived in New Orleans and I was disgusted by the way the men in the church I went to acted so pious in the pews on Sunday mornings and then told “coon” jokes outside when the service was over. It made me feel uncomfortable about Christianity. I blamed the religion instead of the men, even as Dylan famously put it, they were not to blame, only pawns in some game. I came to understand that prejudice, as we used to call it, was a form of brainwashing handled down from generation to generation.

In any event, Christianity no longer spoke to me, if indeed it ever did.

The first book of Eastern philosophy I read was a book of quotes by Gandhi.  It’s wonderful to discover something at an early age that stays with you for the rest of your life. That book set the ideal of non-violence in my mind and it has never left.

Indirectly, Bob Dylan opened the door to Buddhism; it was through him that I found the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac-the Dharma Bums.

Buddhism made sense to me, although I didn’t understand it very well.  There weren’t a lot of books available on Buddhism then, and the one’s that were around, I found confusing. I didn’t understand Buddhism but it felt right.

The rest is . . . well, a long story, and it’s not what I wanted to write about in this post. I hate to admit this, especially since you have read this far, but I don’t really have any point to make here. I just wanted to say something about Bob Dylan.

Bob also has a birthday this month, on the 24th. He’ll be 69. Wayfaring to the Endless Further with the rest of us, he’s been on the “Never Ending Tour” since 1988 and I’ve seen between 20 and 25 of those shows. I can’t say that I have cared for much of Bob’s stuff since Time Out of Mind, but I hope he keeps on keeping on like a bird . . .

Now in Bob Dylan fan circles right now there is a big hullabaloo over these recent comments by Joni Mitchell,Bob is not authentic at all: He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

She’s right, he is a plagiarist. Always has been. However, that is also part of the folk tradition and the great poetry he’s written by far outshines any individual lines he might have stole. I long for a bit more creativity from Bob these days, but I also imagine it’s tough being the greatest living songwriter and having to come up with new material, which some will invariably  compare to past work.

One thing that has amazed me in the last twenty years or so is how young people are drawn to Bob. I once sat next to this nineteen year old kid at a Dylan concert at the Greek Theater (I was in my forties then) and he was raved enthusiastically about his admiration for Bob like he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. What was it that fired a guy his age up about an old man like Dylan? If you are a Bob fan, you know the answer to that. If you’re not, then it doesn’t matter.

I would like to introduce you to a young man who is also a Bob fan and every Friday on his blog it’s Bob Dylan Friday! He is obviously a guy with excellent taste in music. His name is RT and he just wrote a literary essay on Mr. Dylan, so check it out. The blog is called sometimes rhymes.

Well, that’s all I wanted to say. I know it was “too much of nothing,” but that’s the breaks. Just wanted to tip my hat to Donovan and Dylan. Their music has enriched my life and pointed me in many wonderful directions. Happy birthday to both.

Here’s a YouTube link to Donovan’s song based on the Heart Sutra: Nirvana.

And here’s a YouTube link to me doing a Bob Dylan song (Yeah, I know, I misspelled the song title).