Yesterday, the clerk at the thrift store in Wayne, Nebraska was testing an old boom box stereo unit to make sure the thing worked before putting it up for sale. He placed “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” into the cassette player. Evidently the tape had been cued up to play the second side because “Within You Without You” came out of the boom box speakers. It was as if a time machine instantly whisked me back to 1967.
That year, I was a high school sophomore and an avid Beatles fanatic. I owned every Beatles album released in the US. When “Sgt. Pepper’s” was released, I was the first kid in school to get a copy. The first playing of the record on my stereo was a watershed moment. I understood that the album was radically different than any previous rock or pop recording ever released. In other words, it blew me away. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Side two, cut one absolutely intrigued me. “Within You, Without You” had zero Western cultural influence. It was created by George Harrison with the collaboration of top-notch Indian musicians. Pure India flowed through the stereo speakers with the sounds of Sitar, Sarnangi, Jal tarnang, Tabla, and Tanpura. Harrison’s voice intoned the lyrics in a chant-like style.
It was definitely side two, cut one that planted the seed in my mind that would soon grow into a personal fascination with all things India. This affinity remains strong within me today. Anecdotal remarks on the Web remind me that this paradigm shift was a major cultural “earthquake” across the West. It was a phenomenon that took hold and helped fuel the budding New Age spiritual movement. The phenomenon also influenced other major sectors of mainstream culture as well.
The Beatles going to India could have been perceived as just one more pop culture obsession. However, a closer look reveals something much deeper. The focus was on Rishikesh, India and the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The four, fabulously famous musicians had gone on a spiritual retreat and became advocates for something called “Transcendental Meditation”.
What was this spiritual gift from a nation that had only declared its independence from Britain two decades prior? Why would these four incredibly famous, wealthy stars immerse themselves into Eastern spiritual culture?
Indian influence was increasingly sprinkled into Beatles music. There was “Love You To”, with Sitar, Tabla, Tanpura, Indian chant like vocalizations by George Harrison. There are bits of Tanpura mixed into “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
From the Revolver album is “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It features sitar-like guitar stylings and a Tanpura drone throughout the track. A quick violin phrase that sounds Carnatic also pops into the song.
Many popular and rock music fans don’t remember that much of the “White Album’s” two records were written or dreamed up in Maharishi’s ashram. In fact, “Sexy Sadie” aludes to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In it John Lennon sings of his disappointment with the guru after the scandal brought about by accusations of the Maharishi’s misconduct with a female disciple.
In Lennon’s single release “India, India” the singer pleads with India for spiritual wisdom and enlightenment, but goes on to lament that we won’t receive it there because his heart is in England and he must go where his heart is.
Then there is George Harrison, the band member most enamored by Indian culture. The most obvious example is “My Sweet Lord” from the solo multi record album “All Things Must Pass”. On that very famous track, Harrison expresses his devotion to the God Krishna. In the “Guru Brahma” chorus he repeatedly chants “Hare Krishna”. Of course, there is “Within You, Without You” from “Sgt. Pepper’s”, as mentioned above.
A less noticed song is the flip side of the Beatles’ single “Lady Madonna”. The B-side is “The Inner Light”. The words are an interpretation of a verse from the Tao Te Ching, which was recommended to Harrison by a Sanskrit scholar. The song was not included in the “Wonderwall Music” album but it was recorded along with the other music that was recorded in Bombay (Mumbai).
I cannot think of any other popular music shift that so greatly influenced modern Western thought, spirituality, and culture than what emerged from the Beatles’ retreat to India.
The Blue Jay of Happiness shares a verse from “Inner Light” by George Harrison.
“Without going out of your door,
You can know all things on Earth
without looking out of your window,
you can know the ways of heaven.”