In February of 1968 The Beatles followed through on a promise they had made to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to study advanced Transcendental Meditation technique at his ashram in Rishikesh, India. They had first met the Maharishi in August of 1967 during an ill-fated weekend retreat in Wales which was cut short by news of the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Between September and January The Beatles publicly championed Transcendental Meditation, but due to prior commitments were not able to fulfill their promise to learn more. In February of 1968 that changed.
After recording “Lady Madonna,” “The Inner Light” and “Across The Universe” in January all four Beatles, led by George Harrison, agreed to travel to India to participate in an advanced TM course. What they found (largely due to the publicity they themselves were giving TM) was a star-studded group of students including Mia Farrow, Mike Love and Donovan. And legend has it that what they also found was that the Maharishi was not quite the man they thought he was.
Ringo left after a few weeks, blaming the food and homesickness. Paul left in March citing prior engagements in London. George and John were determined to stick it out to the end, but after a few months the seeds of discord were sewn. Rumors surfaced that the Maharishi had made passes at Mia Farrow and other female students. John went so far as to confront the Maharishi about this and he was said to have answered “I’m only human.” Then, and possibly most troubling to The Beatles, it became obvious that the Maharishi was actively trying to cash in on The Beatles fame and wealth. He reportedly asked The Beatles to tithe one week’s wages (each) to his foundation (only John refused). Then he asked The Beatles to deposit 25% of their earnings on their next album into his bank account. And finally he had signed a deal with a production company without their permission to film either a movie or a TV special centered around The Beatles and their participation in his program. On April 12 George and John left abruptly.
But as he was leaving John wrote a song called “Maharishi” as the ultimate tell-off to the man they felt betrayed them. The song tells of someone who “came along to turn on everyone” but who also “broke the rules” and “made a fool of everyone.” In order to prevent any legal recourse from the holy man John changed the name in the lyrics to “Sexy Sadie.” It is the perfect song for anyone whom you feel has let you down or is bound for a karmic refinancing.
As a postscript to the Maharishi story it must be said that Ringo, George and Paul made their peace with the Maharishi in the 1990’s and it is not known whether or not the rumors of his romantic dalliances were even true. George apologized for his and John’s behavior at the ashram, saying that they were very young. The Maharishi for his part said that he was not upset with them. He died in 2008 at the age of 91.
That three-month period in India may have been one of the most important periods in the history of The Beatles. Socially it helped to promote eastern spirituality within the youth culture of the time in a profound way. After India The Beatles began to go their separate ways outside of the studio and it was during his time in India that John’s true feelings for Yoko Ono came to the surface. But what The Beatles got out of the trip was The White Album. The bulk of the songs on the album were written while in India and The Beatles have said that it may have been their most creative period. Jai Guru Deva indeed.