Exactly 50 years ago, a young reporter got a once in lifetime chance to sneak into Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh and meet The Beatles.
Exactly 50 years ago this February, I stepped onto Lakshman Jhula at Rishikesh to cross the Ganga, walked a stretch along the river bed, until a path climbed up to a flat ground swarming with photographers, reporters and pundits. I remember Bernard Nossiter of the Washington Post, a globally known economist, playing with his Sherlock Holmes pipe, nose up and disdainfully pointing to the row of khadi-clad sadhus blocking his access past the wicket gate into Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram – Chaurasi Kutiya (84 huts) – where the singing sensation the Beatles had arrived the previous night. Nossiter was embarrassed that he should have been asked by his office to dismount his intellectual high horse and “write colour pieces about the Beatles”.
The gate, manned by sadhus as bouncers, stood between the world’s biggest assembly of journalists and the scoop of the century, or so it seemed to me, a starry eyed reporter in his 20s. “Beatles seek salvation in a Hindu hermitage”; that was the headline sub-editors dreamed to write. Crossing that gate was, that day, the stuff of nail-biting suspense. How I floated in and even managed to have my photographer, Raghu Rai (a dear friend since) to be escorted in by one of the “bouncers” is a story worth telling. Oh, the gnashing of teeth, the banging of fists on the wicket gate by the world media in full fury against our having been unfairly allowed in. This gave us no malicious joy but a sense of elation which comes with ones first scoop, in Evelyn Waugh’s framework.
It all began with Don Eickert, the Canadian devotee of a swami in the Kumaon Hills who, to keep body and soul together, had taken up a job of a sub-editor at the Indian Express. One day, he handed me a single column clip from a newspaper – ‘Beatles to learn transcendental meditation at the Maharishi’s ashram at Rishikesh’, it said.
No sooner had Don departed, than the remarkable Urdu poet Niaz Haider (his resemblance to Karl Marx was uncanny), walked in, somewhat unsteady on his feet, to report that a “guru” appeared to have set up camp at Modern School, not far from the Statesman office on Barakhamba Road. It turned out that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was holding a weeklong training camp to initiate new meditation enthusiasts. It was a godsend. I was familiar with the theories of publicity credited to the late Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ earliest manager: keep the media at an arm’s length to get better publicity. The only way to beat the Epstein system was to become an insider. The strategy would have two benefits. I would be initiated into the arcane world of TM (transcendental meditation) and I would acquire a legitimate right to enter the Rishikesh Ashram when the Beatles arrived.
At Modern School, a sadhu draped in white, one shoulder exposed, escorted me past his colleagues in similar attire, to a settee where Maharishi sat on a deerskin. He leaned sideways for an extended conversation in whispers. He liked my credentials: the Statesman was a great paper (it truly was those days) and a journalist, initiated into TM would, for that reason, easily mingle with others in the ashram. Passage into Chaurasi Kutiya was guaranteed by the rapport one had struck with the Sadhus in Modern school. They were to look after ashram’s management during the Beatles sojourn. In fact, they were in the management team Suresh Babu, ashram manager and close relative of Maharishi, was to head. Suresh Babu had been instructed by Maharishi to allot me a hut not far from the entrance.
The role I really played as an improvised media adviser for Maharishi was a self-serving one. I maintained a continuous monopoly on the story by keeping the Ashram out of bounds for the entire press corps. The scoops were only for The Statesman. The paper’s ace photographer, Raghu Rai was the only other journalist allowed in. His deputy, Raghu Singh, sometimes stayed on to cater to the demands of Desmond Doig, editor of Junior Statesman, a cult youth magazine in the ’60s and ’70s. The JS published enough photographs and stories from the Ashram for a runaway best seller. But during the subsequent period of The Statesman’s decay, files of the JS cannot be accessed for reasons known.
Images that have remained with me at this distance in time are more in the nature of anecdotes. For instance Ringo Starr’s early disenchantment. “It’s like a Butlin holiday camp” he announced and left. Butlin were inexpensive holiday arrangers in England.
The way Jane Asher leaned over Paul McCartney across the settee in Suresh Babu’s office was not the stuff of high passion. And yet it left Suresh Babu in a state of acute culture shock. When I visited him later, he would be blabbering to himself, “kya kya karte hain, kya kya karte hain” (look what all they do!).
Smoking was not permitted but Mia Farrow, a chain smoker, had somehow persuaded Suresh Babu to let her smoke in his cottage. A picture of her smoking caused her to chase the photographer, screaming “bastard”.
Mia Farrow’s younger sister, Prudence Farrow came across to me as someone in a state of neurosis. Her incredible claims that she was in a state of transcendental trance for one full day was a story Maharishi sought to give great credence to because it tended to restore some of the credibility that may have been lost by Ringo’s abrupt departure. Maharishi probably tried to enter her hut to gauge her spiritual journey. This visit gave rise to unlikely stories about his making a pass at her, though legend claims it was Mia that he made a pass at. He had too much at stake to be thus tempted.
The most earnest of all his high profile disciples was George Harrison who made extensive use of the circular glass domed gazebo with a view of the Ganga, either taking lessons in sitar from a young tutor who claimed to have learnt the instrument from Ravi Shankar or meditating under Maharishi’s supervision.
It was in this gazebo that a famous Beatles number, Norwegian Wood, first took shape in my presence.
Evenings were elaborate jamborees, a sort of mixture of music and Maharishi’s lectures. The more unintelligible his lectures, the greater his tendency to intersperse them with extended bouts of giggling. This invited the leader of the Beach Boys’, Mike Love’s memorable description of the Maharishi as “the giggling Guru”.
The less said about the lectures the better. A sample passage:
“Meaning, meaning, meaning” he would close his eyes, weaving air with his finger. “Meaning is search for meaning which leads to hollows, hollows, where alone you delve into the interstellar spaces of the soul trapped in your body searching for meaning, meaning.”
Let me reserve comment because Donovan, the Scottish songwriter presumably wrote the following song for all ashramites:
“When the sun is tucked away in bed;
You worry about the life you’ve led;
There’s only one thing to do;
Let the Maharishi lead you.”
Only when Donovan put away his guitar, would the congregation raise their hands and hum:
“Ma ha rishi, Ma ha rishi”. A Sadhu would put out the lights. One by one, the meditators would troop out, leaving St. Augustine’s words echoing in the chambers of my mind:
“Credo, quia absurdum est”.
I believe in it because it is absurd.