A Tale of Two Georges: Part 1
Hindu Themes in Western Popular Culture
Part One: George Harrison
Introduction: Who Are the Two Georges?
The basic premise of this two-part series is that a variety of Hindu themes have come to permeate Western culture and consciousness over the course of the last fifty years. As many readers may know, Philip Goldberg has chronicled this phenomenon in his groundbreaking work, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation–How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.
In these two short articles, I have focused on two figures who were instrumental in the process of transmitting Hindu ideas and assumptions into the Western world in the latter half of the twentieth century. My reasons for focusing on these figures in particular are also twofold. First, these two figures have been involved in two of the most powerfully transformative cultural phenomena that the Western world has seen, certainly in the course of my lifetime: namely, the Beatles and the Star Wars franchise. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these two phenomena in recent and contemporary Western culture. Secondly, these two cultural phenomena are of particular interest to me because of the impact they have had on my own life and consciousness. Only a handful of other pop culture phenomena–Star Trek, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the lyrics of Bob Dylan, and the original role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, spring quickly to mind–have had the kind of influence on my own life and thinking that has been exerted by the Beatles and Star Wars. I truly do not believe I would be the person I am today without these two influences in my life.
The ‘two Georges’ to whom I am referring are, of course, George Harrison (of the Beatles) and George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars universe.
Another reason for focusing on these two figures is the fact that they represent two very different ways in which Hindu ideas and practices have come to infuse the western world: one which is very conscious and deliberate, and one which is more unconsciously evocative of Hinduism than it is directly and clearly inspired by it. Harrison–though I have yet to find a citation in which he used this terminology to describe himself–was the quintessential western Hindu: devout, yet eclectic, and willing to go against the dominant trends of his society in order to affirm his allegiance to the spiritual traditions of India. Lucas has, to my knowledge, no specifically Hindu affiliations; but it is known that he was inspired to craft the Star Wars films, in part, by his interactions with Joseph Campbell, a scholar and popularizer of comparative religion and mythology who did have a close connection with Hinduism. Campbell had strong ties to the Vedanta Society, and even assisted Swami Nikhilananda, of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, with his translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The thought of Sri Ramakrishna pervades Campbell’s work to such an extent that Pravrajika Vrajaprana observes that, “no reader of Joseph Campbell can escape Sri Ramakrishna.” The Hindu influence on Harrison is crystal clear and obvious: Hare Krishna, Hare Rama. “The Lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see.” “All that matters to me is to touch your lotus feet.” In the case of Lucas, it is subtle, and must be teased out of a close viewing (or better yet, multiple viewings) of his films: the teachings of Yoda; the theme of detachment that runs throughout the tragic story of the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.
George Harrison: The Paradigmatic Western Hindu
I call George Harrison the paradigmatic Western Hindu because, apart from those aspects of his story which stem from his being a member of the most successful rock band in history, his journey in many ways mirrors those of numerous spiritual seekers who have found themselves drawn to a Hindu, Hindu-infused, or Hindu-inspired way of life. The pattern of the Western seeker drawn to Hinduism, at least as I have observed and experienced it firsthand, is that of, first, experiencing a sense of deep disenchantment with the conceptual and spiritual resources of Western society. This disenchantment can arise, as it did in my case, from a personal tragedy (the loss of my father when I was twelve years old), or from a realization of the emptiness of many of the goals and aspirations that Western society values. This was certainly the case for Harrison, who rose to the pinnacle of fame and fortune through the success of the Beatles, only to find that he was no happier or more fulfilled than he was in his youth–and in some ways, much less happy. Secondly, not having been raised in a Hindu tradition, the Western seeker is typically eclectic, sampling a variety of spiritual traditions before settling upon the one that ‘works’–and even then, often continuing to draw upon varied spiritual resources, given that many Hindu traditions that have come to the West typically do not disallow eclecticism or pluralism, and often actively promote it. Finally, the Western seeker who settles into a Hindu tradition becomes dedicated to it for life, and is not a mere dabbler. It is often the case that born Hindus are suspicious of Western seekers because many are, quite frankly, dabbling, or passing through a “phase” before finally returning to a more conventionally Western way of living and thinking. This is, of course, the notorious “U turn” to which some contemporary Hindu thinkers refer. The serious Western Hindu, though, makes no such “U turn,” though it may certainly be the case over the course of a person’s lifetime that that person might experience the occasional lapse into older patterns of thought and behavior, or reach a compromise that some may accept as compatible with a Hindu way of life while others may not. This will all vary with the individual in question. Adding to the complexity of this issue is also the fact that many Westerners who are drawn to Hinduism are simultaneously repelled by an excessive emphasis on labels, and may not even use the term ‘Hindu’ to describe themselves or their practice, even while all of it is clearly derived from traditions that scholars (and Hindus) would typically identify as such.
Harrison’s life story can quite readily be seen to fit the pattern just described. First, his awakening to a Hindu spiritual path was precipitated by the existential crisis brought on by the fame of the Beatles, and catalyzed by his experiences with the drug LSD.
Secondly, Harrison drew from a variety of Hindu traditions and teachers before finally settling on a particular one (the Gaudiya Vaishnava-based tradition of ISKCON–the International Society for Krishna Conscious, more popularly known as the Hare Krishnas). But he was neither exclusive or rigidly orthodox in his ISKCON adherence. This is illustrated by the fact that he wore only two rows of tulsi beads, rather than the traditional three of a full ISKCON initiate. It was explained to me by a friend from this tradition that, by wearing two rows of beads, Harrison was indicating his allegiance, but also “keeping his options open.”
Finally, while continuing to be eclectic and open-minded, Harrison maintained his affiliation to the end of his life, chanting the name of Krishna on his deathbed, surrounded by friends from the tradition who maintained a constant vigil and ensured that a spiritual atmosphere was preserved. His wife, Olivia Harrison, famously noted, near the close of Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary on his life and journey, Living in the Material World, that, at the moment of his passage from his body, Harrison “lit up the room.” “George was at peace and ready. There was a great light in the room when he passed.”
The Beatles’ rapid rise to enormous fame and fortune was, of course, their collective dream come true. They had, for years, aspired to become “the toppermost of the poppermost,” in the words of John Lennon, playing long hours in the clubs of Hamburg, Germany and their native Liverpool.
By 1965, however–just two years after the rise of ‘Beatlemania’ in Britain, and its transmission in the following year to the US and around the world–the group had become jaded and exhausted. It is truly remarkable that Lennon, the ostensible leader of this incredibly successful band, was not writing songs about how wonderful fame and fortune were, but rather penning pieces with titles like “I’m a Loser” and “Help!”–the latter of which is, quite frankly, a cry for help from someone whose independent, carefree existence has slipped away.
During this year, Harrison’s interest in India–specifically, in Indian music–had been aroused while the band were filming their second movie–also titled Help! after the song which formed a key part of its soundtrack. Help! is, ironically, a parody of Hinduism. The plot, such as it is, involves the band fleeing for their lives from a group of Kali worshipers who are intent on sacrificing the wearer of a sacred ring. The ring has become stuck on Ringo’s finger, and international hijinks ensue as the cult members chase the Beatles not only throughout England, but also to exotic locales such as the Austrian Alps and the beaches of the Bahamas. A mad scientist, consulted by the band in the hope that he can help remove the ring, is also chasing them. He has concluded that, “With a ring like that I could–dare I say it–rule the world!” The soundtrack includes sitar music, the sound of which immediately caught Harrison’s attention. He would later say of Indian music that it “made more sense” to him than anything else he had ever heard.
While filming the scenes set in the Bahamas, the Beatles were met by Swami Vishnu Devananda Saraswati, who gave each member of the group a copy of his Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. The Swami Vishnu’s ashram–the Swami Sivananda Ashram, named after Swami Vishnu’s guru–is located in the Bahamas, on Paradise Island, not far from where the Beatles were filming. This book was Harrison’s first direct exposure to Hindu thought and practice.
Later that same year, Harrison and Lennon were at a small, private party at which they were given LSD by their host. Frightened when told by their host what he had done, the two Beatles left the party with their wives and went to a club, and then later returned to Harrison’s home. As it does for many who try it, this drug elicited a deeply spiritual experience in Harrison. “I had such an overwhelming feeling of well-being, that there was a God, and I could see him in every blade of grass,” he said. “It was like gaining hundreds of years of experience in twelve hours.”
Combined with his interest in Indian music, this dramatic experience drew Harrison toward the spiritual path. He would soon set aside drug use in favor of a more natural and sustainable route to spiritual experience, through meditation. In addition to studying the sitar directly under the able guidance of the maestro, Ravi Shankar (whose music was also popularized by his association with Harrison), Harrison began to study Hindu philosophy. On a visit to India, after the Beatles’ last tour of America in 1966, he stayed in a houseboat in Kashmir, taking with him two books: Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga and Paramahamsa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. Influences from both of these Hindu masters can be discerned in Harrison’s interviews and song lyrics for the rest of his life.
Yogananda, in particular, held a special fascination for Harrison during this period. Yogananda and the organization which he established–the Self-Realization Fellowship–have been, for many Westerners, especially for those with a strong Christian background, relatively easy ‘gateways’ to Hindu thought and practice, given the prominent role that Jesus plays in Yogananda’s thought. In the teaching of Yogananda, as in many other modern Hindu movements, Jesus is seen as an avatar and a great, enlightened teacher. Yogananda even encourages devotion to Jesus as a spiritual path. When the Beatles were in the process of designing the cover for their 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club–widely viewed as a masterpiece–they settled upon the idea of depicting the faces of figures who had influenced them. The figures include actors and fellow musical artists, such as Bob Dylan, but also major literary figures and philosophers–such as Edgar Allan Poe and Carl Gustav Jung. Beyond the figures on whom the entire group agreed, each member was allowed to select four figures of special interest to himself. Harrison chose Yogananda, Yogananda’s guru (Sri Yukteswar Giri), Yogananda’s guru’s guru (Lahiri Mahasaya), and Babaji, the figure to whom Yogananda ultimately traced his lineage: an ancient yet youthful-appearing Himalayan sage who is believed by many to still be alive.
Vivekananda’s influence can be seen in Harrison’s eclecticism and in comments about the spiritual path that he would continue to make until his death. In a recorded conversation with the founder of ISKCON, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, which included John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Harrison, Harrison seems to differ with Prabhupada on the exclusive spiritual efficacy of the Hare Krishna mantra, emphasizing pluralism and that the intent behind a mantra is a decisive factor in determining its efficacy–ideas found in Vivekananda’s teaching. A series of home movies made by Harrison during his trips to India, and included in Scorsese’s documentary, also shows Harrison visiting the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar, the residence of Vivekananda’s renowned guru, Sri Ramakrishna.
In late 1967, the Beatles began their association with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement. This well-documented association culminated with a trip to Rishikesh, India, in 1968, to the Maharishi’s ashram, where the Beatles continued their studies of meditation. Each would become, in succession, disillusioned with the experience to one degree or another. Ringo Starr left the ashram first, citing stomach complaints and issues with the food at the ashram. Then Paul McCartney returned. Lennon and Harrison stayed on the longest, until Lennon became disillusioned upon hearing rumors of misconduct by the Maharishi and feeling dissatisfied at the Maharishi’s response after confronting him about it. (In complete fairness to the Maharishi, all Lennon apparently told the Maharishi was that they were leaving. When asked by the Maharishi why they were leaving, Lennon apparently believed the Maharishi should already know, due to his psychic powers. In a later recorded conversation, during the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions, when the story is recounted, Yoko Ono tells Lennon of the Maharishi: “You expected too much from him.”)
It is not clear that Harrison himself ever felt disillusioned with the Maharishi, though he departed Rishikesh with Lennon to return to England and begin recording songs for the album The Beatles (more widely known as the ‘White Album,’ because of its simple white cover). That Harrison was not disillusioned by meditation or Hindu spirituality as such is clearly evidenced by the fact that, the following year, he entered into a much closer and more enduring association with ISKCON. His support for this tradition was so strong that, when the group was having difficulty finding land to build a temple in London, Harrison happily and freely donated one of his own houses to them for this purpose.
Harrison’s devotion to Krishna endured long beyond his initial association with ISKCON, lasting to the very end of his earthly life, on November 29th, 2001. References to this devotion specifically and to Hindu philosophy more broadly (including the pluralism of the Vivekananda tradition) are present in his song lyrics, starting during the time of the Beatles themselves, and culminating with the prayer to Lord Shiva at the end of his last album, Brainwashed, which he knew would only be released posthumously, as he was fighting cancer while he recorded it. The most famous reference to Krishna in Harrison’s work is, of course, in his first major hit song after the Beatles’ breakup: 1970’s “My Sweet Lord.” In the chorus of this celebrated song, Harrison popularized the Hare Krishna mantra and brought a Hindu tradition closer to the Western mainstream.
In the life and music of George Harrison–both as a member of the Beatles, but even more so during his solo career–served to infuse Hindu thought and practice into Western culture. Such a famous and celebrated member of Western society had not so openly embraced Hindu ideas since the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. George Harrison was far from being alone, as a member of the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s, in this embrace. But few, if any, other representative of this culture had his cultural power and enduring impact.