Rishikesh, India

Within You Without You by The Beatles

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The city of Rishikesh, in Northern India, has a vibrant history. Located at the foothills of the Himalayas, it's often referred to as the "Gateway" to the mountains. Most people hadn't heard of it until George Harrison – the quiet one – led the rest of the Beatles to the city for a long retreat under the guidance and tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his fourteen-acre compound. Built in 1963 to accommodate several dozen people, the bungalows of the International Academy of Meditation were designed to suit Western habits, equipped with heaters, running water, and English-style furniture.

The title Maharishi simply means "enlightened spiritual one" and Mahesh earned it for the development of what he called Transcendental Deep Meditation. His new movement based solely around this technique swept India and the world by storm in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A fad that swelled similarly to present-day Scientology, this meditation attracted the likes of celebrities on every continent, from dozens of countries.

A statue of Shiva in Rishikesh<br>Photo: ganapathi_brahm, PixabayA statue of Shiva in Rishikesh
Photo: ganapathi_brahm, Pixabay
Mahesh became the spiritual advisor to the Beatles when he met with them in London and invited them to study with him. They followed him back to India in February 1968 – a trip originally slated for October '67, but delayed due to the filming schedule of Magical Mystery Tour – to devote themselves fully to his instruction. A New York Times article declared Mahesh the "Man Who Saved the Beatles" and attributed his techniques to weaning them off of their heavy LSD use.

Never before, nor since, has any musical artist achieved the success and recognition of the Beatles. The band reinvented the recording industry and created the rock album as its own art form. How could they have done this? Ticket and record sales between 1964 and 1967 bought and paid for Abbey Road Studios – their own private recording space. Without the burden of paying rent just to record their music, the Beatles earned the luxury of time, which led to massive amounts of experimentation with both their writing as well as the production of their music. Masterpieces such as Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, and Abbey Road wouldn't have been possible without all their free time. However, idle hands are the devil's playground, and like the rest of us, the Beatles found themselves often distracted and struggled to focus on their work.

Following the unprecedented success of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles hit the wall with writer's block. In fact, the block started earlier as they struggled to fill Pepper. John found nominal inspiration from posters and television commercials simply to make his quota. "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" – the first two cuts of the Pepper studio sessions – were omitted from the final release due to the record label's insistence they be released as a double-sided 45 rpm. Lennon didn't want to cheat the fans who already owned them by including them on the album. It was this scenario that allowed Harrison to get his Eastern-influenced song a spot.

Harrison's fascination with Eastern philosophy and Indian culture grew through his wife at the time, model Patti Boyd, and he began to incorporate sitars and other elements in his writing. While it is true that "Within You Without You" was completed prior to the Beatles' encounter with the Maharishi, the song epitomizes that Beatles era and particularly that of Harrison, as it launched him into an entirely new direction.

"I was continually playing Indian [sitar exercises] called Sargam," Harrison said during a portion of his Anthology interview, "which are the bases of the different Ragas. That's why around this time I couldn't help writing tunes like this, which were based on unusual scales." "Within You Without You" wouldn't be the Beatles' first foray into Indian music. Revolver featured two: "Love You To" (also by Harrison) and "Tomorrow Never Knows" (Lennon). The band also continued to utilize the sitar as an alternative to the overused guitar in many of their songs. Additionally, some of their lyrics even mirrored the Maharishi and his philosophy.

A little more than a month into the retreat, the Beatles and Mahesh had a falling out. It has been speculated the reason for the sudden and angry departure had been at the request of the Maharishi due to their continued alcohol and drug use. Some have claimed the guru's sexual indiscretions were to blame; Lennon himself commented about the excessive amounts of celebrity and money the Maharishi had - more than any spiritual man should, at any rate. Whatever the reason, Lennon returned to England and never saw Mahesh again. "We believe in medication, but not the Maharishi and his scene," he later said on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Obviously, the time the Beatles spent in Rishikesh had a dramatic and profound influence on their personality and their music. It's been said that their trip to India may have been "the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness," and it's easy to see why. McCartney composed "Mother Nature's Son" after one of the Maharishi's lectures. "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" was inspired by a group of monkeys mating in the middle of the main street through the city. Finally, the song "Sexy Sadie" – originally titled "Maharishi" – tells the story of Lennon's disillusionment with the man he fully respected, but never quite grew in awe of. "Sexy Sadie [Ma-ha-ri-shi], what have you done? You've made a fool of everyone."

Harrison and Boyd, after leaving Rishikesh, didn't follow the rest of the Beatles home right away. Instead, they traveled around India, even spending some time with Ravi Shankar – who must have been a big fan of "Within You Without You" already, since he and Harrison remained close friends until George's death in 2001.

Justin Novelli
October 11, 2016
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